There are certain stories and passages from the Bible that are true fan favorites: the Garden of Eden story, the Ten Commandments, and the Nativity are all stories that steal the show. Among these is the story of David and Goliath, in which a young shepherd beats a giant Philistine and forces the Philistines to retreat. This family outsider story has inspired generations of readers, filmmakers, and cultural critics. However, new archaeological research suggests that Goliath may not really have been a giant after all.
In the Bible, the setting for the iconic duel is Ela Valley, a shallow valley about 16 miles southwest of Jerusalem. According to 1 Samuel, the Israelites were camping there, facing the Philistines in a dead end. Twice a day for 40 days, Goliath, the Philistine champion, left the encampment to challenge the Israelites to send a representative to engage in individual combat. The winner would determine the outcome of the war.
The natural candidate was Saul, who was not only the biggest member of the group, but also their king. Saul was somewhat cowardly and refused to accept the challenge, and David volunteered to fight Goliath instead. Refusing to accept Saul’s reluctant armor offer, David stepped out onto the battlefield armed only with his shepherd’s staff, a slingshot, and a few stones he had taken from a stream. Proclaiming that the outcome of the battle is of God, David threw a pebble at Goliath’s forehead, and the giant fell dead to the ground. David beheaded his body and the Philistines fled. The battle is won and David is set to become Israel’s most famous king.
What makes the story so compelling, as Malcolm Gladwell argued, is the contrast between the two fighters. David is still a boy and Goliath is a real giant. A text by 1 Samuel found among the Dead Sea Scrolls (the oldest physical manuscripts in the Bible) gives its height as “four cubits and a span” (generally estimated to be 2.38 meters or 7 feet 10 inches). This measure is supported by the Greek translation of the Bible, known as the Septuagint, and the writings of a first-century Jewish historian named Josephus. The Masoretic text, the authoritative Hebrew version of the Bible, says “six cubits and a staff,” but most scholars believe this version to be later. Interestingly, Goliath is the only person whose height is recorded in the Hebrew Bible.
In a recent presentation at the annual meeting (this year, online) of the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR), Jeffrey Chadwick, professor of archeology and Near Eastern studies at the Jerusalem Center at Brigham Young University , argued that there is symbolic significance to Goliath. size. Chadwick studies metrics and, in particular, how to deduce exactly how long ancient measurements are in their modern equivalents.
The question of exactly how long a “span” lasted is somewhat disputed in modern research. The problem is not solved by the fact that there were probably small regional variations. Chadwick’s study of ancient structures and recurring measurement patterns leads him to conclude that the length of a cubit was 1.77 feet while a span was 0.72 feet.
More importantly, during his recent involvement in excavations at Tell es-Safi (Gath) in Israel, a Philistine-controlled city that the Bible calls Goliath’s hometown, Chadwick noticed something of interest. The 10th century BC fortification wall in the northern part of the lower town was precisely four cubits and one span (2.38 meters or 7 feet 10 inches) wide. At every point on the 131-foot stretch that Chadwick and his team searched, they found this same measurement.
Chadwick hypothesizes that the tradition relating to the height of Goliath may relate to the width of the city walls of Gath and, therefore, serve more as a symbol of Philistine strength and military might than an actual description. of the height of their champion. As the writers of this story did not actually have access to Goliath’s corpse (especially after David desecrated it and brought its head back to Jerusalem), it is likely that the height attributed to it in the Bible has another meaning. Chadwick suggests that the author of 1 Samuel may “have metaphorically described the champion as being comparable to the size and strength of the city wall of the Philistine capital.”
None of this proves or disproves the historical veracity of the story of David and Goliath. The existence of King David and, if he did exist, the extent of his authority and the character of his reign are points of great controversy among biblical scholars and archaeologists. But if Chadwick is right, the legend of the Philistine giant has grown even murkier.