How Tall Was Goliath — Really?

I learned in church as a child that Goliath was about 10 feet tall. I was impressed!

According to the King James Version (KJV), based on the Hebrew Masoretic Text, Goliath was “six cubits and a span” (1 Sam. 17:4).

Cubit” comes from Latin meaning “elbow.” A cubit is the length from the tip of the elbow to the tip if the middle finger.  This averages 18 inches, or 1.5 feet.

A “span” is measured from the tip of the little finger to the tip of the thumb with the hand fully extended.  This averages 9 inches.

So, Goliath was 9’ 9” tall (6 cubits X 1.5 feet = 9 feet, plus 9”), or about 10 feet tall.

As I got older, I began to doubt the credibility of Goliath’s height in the KJV.

After all, the tallest verified person who ever lived was 8’11”. (Robert Wadlow, whose height was the result of “pituitary gigantism.”)

The oldest Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, the Septuagint, puts Goliath’s height at “four cubits and a span,” not “six cubits.”  That would make him 6’9”, about 7 feet tall.  That is more believable.

Further, a very ancient Hebrew manuscript found at Qumran near the Dead Sea Scrolls puts Goliath at “4 cubits and a span.” This is the oldest Hebrew manuscript of 1 Samuel 17:4. It is older than the Masoretic Text.  

Scholars attribute the disparity between “6 cubits and a span” and “4 cubits and a span” to “scribal errors.”  Apparently, some bored scribe thought that 6’9” wasn’t gigantic enough, and so he made Goliath 9’9”.  Measurements of Goliath’s armor, spear, and shield also appear to have been exaggerated by scribes in order to make David’s victory even more impressive.  

In David’s era, 6’9” was “gigantic.” Evidence from tombs and texts puts the average height of the men between 5’0” and 5’3”.

Several Bible translations have now shrunk Goliath to a more realistic 6’9”.

  • The New English Translation (NET) of 1 Samuel 17:4 now reads, “Then a champion came out from the camp of the Philistines.  His name was Goliath; he was from Gath.  He was  close to seven feet tall.” 
  • Brenton Septuagint Translation: “And there went for a mighty man out of the army of the Philistines, Goliath, by name, our of Gath, his height was four cubits and a span.”
  • International Standard Version: “A champion named Goliath from Gath cam out from the Philistine Camp.  He was four cubits and a span tall.”
  • Literal Standard Version: “… his height is six cubits and a span [[or four cubits and a span]].
  • The authoritative New Revised Standard Version: “And there came out from the camp of the Philistines a champion names Goliath, or Gath, who height was four cubits and a span.”   

A seven-foot Goliath is pretty cool, but, of course, a ten-foot Goliath is even cooler.

(See: J. Daniel Hays, “Reconsidering the Height of Goliath,” Journal of Evangelical Theological Society, Dec 2005; Bruce Bower, “The biblical warrior Goliath may not have been so giant after all,” ScienceNews, Nov 23, 2020; “Cubit,” “Span” Wikipedia; “Cubit,” “Span” mirriam-webster.com; “Robert Wadlow,” Wikipedia)

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