By Joel Ryan, Crosswalk.com
Most people are probably familiar with the story of David and Goliath—even if they’ve never opened a Bible or stepped foot inside of a church.
A shepherd boy, armed with nothing but courage, faith, and a sling, slays a fearsome giant with a single stone. It is the ultimate (and perhaps original) underdog story.
But David’s victory over Goliath was more than just a one-hit wonder and win for the little guy. It was a public confirmation of God’s anointing on David’s life (1 Samuel 16) and a testament of David’s unflappable faith.
David would go on to become a national hero, respected military commander, king of Israel, and man after God’s own heart; and his story is well-documented throughout Scripture.
Goliath’s story, like his life, ended that day.
But who was this Philistine giant whose name has become synonymous with size, strength, and defeat? What do we actually know about the champion from Gath?
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Who Were the Philistines?
Anyone who has read the early books of the Old Testament knows of the Philistines. With their advanced iron weapons, innovative technology, and aggressive military tactics, the Philistines invaded, harassed, or otherwise oppressed the children of Israel for most of their early history.
In fact, the Philistines were prominent players in the stories of Samson, Samuel, Saul, and David.
The Bible and archeological evidence both tell us that the Philistines were originally a seafaring people who had migrated from somewhere in the Aegean Sea (possibly near modern day Crete; Jeremiah 47:4) to the Mediterranean coast of Canaan around the 12th century B.C.
Around the 13th century B.C., they began to move inland, expanding their civilization into the Judean countryside by taking over Gaza, Ashkelon, Ashdod, Ekron, and Gath (Joshua 13:3). That last city might sound familiar as it was said to be home of Goliath, the giant we read about in 1 Samuel 17.
In fact, only a few years ago, archeologists digging near Tell es-Safi in modern-day Israel unearthed what they believe to be the ruins of Gath, offering further insight into the cultural history and practices of the Philistines.
That city, when united with the other Philistine tribes, would have been an ideal staging point for Philistine incursions into the Judean countryside. As expected, these campaigns were often met with resistance from Israel’s armies, led by the judges and later kings.
It was one of these campaigns that brought Saul and David into conflict with the Philistines and their champion. So where did this conflict occur?
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Where Was the Battle between David and Goliath Fought?
From the biblical text, we learn that the Philistines had “gathered their armies for battle” against the armies of Israel in the Valley of Elah (1 Samuel 17:1) around 1025 to 1024 B.C. This would fit the geographical invasion path used during most Philistine incursions.
The Valley of Elah, cut between the western edge of the Judah low hills, is located about nineteen miles southwest of present-day Jerusalem and about seventeen miles west of Bethlehem, where David lived (1 Samuel 16).
As the Israelites and Philistines squared off for battle, the armies of Israel camped on the northern edge of the valley while the Philistines camped on the southern side (1 Samuel 17:1).
There a man named Goliath emerged to taunt the armies of Israel and challenge them to send their best warrior into the valley to fight (1 Samuel 17:8-10). The Bible tells us that this went on for forty days with no Israelite daring to step forward to face the fearsome giant (1 Samuel 17:16). That is, until David arrived on an errand from his father and sized up Goliath for himself. Let’s take a closer look at Goliath’s stature...
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How Tall Was Goliath Really?
Make no mistake. Goliath would have been an imposing figure. But there is some debate about the actual height of the Philistine giant, which is to be expected given various translations and interpretations on how to properly convert ancient units of measurement.
Bible translations using the Masoretic Text list Goliath at “six cubits and a span.” (1 Samuel 17:4) How tall is that exactly? There is some uncertainty surrounding the exact length of an ancient cubit, but the general consensus among scholars is that a cubit was roughly the length of a human forearm. Obviously, that isn’t exact unit of measurement given variance in human forearms, and there is some disagreement on whether a cubit was measured from elbow to wrist or all the way to the end of the fingertips.
Taking into consideration both theories, a cubit could be anywhere from 18 to 21 inches, which would make Goliath anywhere from 9 to 11 feet tall.
To put that in perspective, Shaquille O’Neal is listed at 7’1”, Andre the Giant was 7’4”, and the tallest man recorded in the Guinness Book of World Records, Robert Wadlow, was measured at 8’11”.
If a cubit really was 18 to 21 inches, Goliath would have been one of the tallest men in history.
It’s important to note, however, that not all accounts list Goliath at six cubits and a span. For example, the writings of the historian Josephus, along with New English Translation, which draws from the early Greek translations of the Hebrew text (the Septuagint) describe Goliath as “four cubits and a span” or roughly 6’7’’.
Needless to say, by any standard Goliath would have been an intimidating presence who would have physically dwarfed the average Jewish foot soldier, including King Saul, who was himself “taller than any of the people from his shoulders upward.” (1 Samuel 10:23) So what ‘people’ did Goliath have as ancestors?
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Was Goliath One of the Anakim?
Biblically, some evidence also points to Goliath being a descendent from the Anakim, a race of giant warriors living in Canaan during the time of Joshua (Deuteronomy 2:10-21).
When the twelve spies of Israel returned from scouting the Promised Land, they reported that “a people great and tall” were already living in the land. Seized with fear, they believed these giants to be the sons of the Anakim (Deuteronomy 9:2). It was this fear in the presence of literal giants that caused the Israelites to cower and tremble. Sound familiar?
Because the Israelites focused on the giants in front of them instead of the promises and proven power of God, they missed out on the Promised Land and wander the desert for forty years as a result.
Joshua and Caleb, who had put their faith in God, not unlike David, would later lead Israel against the Anakim and drive them from the Promised Land. However, a small remnant of the Anakim was said to have taken refuge in the cities of Gaza, Ashdod, and Gath (Joshua 11:22).
This leads us to believe that Goliath may not have been of pure Philistine blood, but rather that he was a descendent of the Anakim and a resident of Gath when the Philistines invaded Canaan. Given his impressive physique, he would have been an ideal mercenary for the Philistine army. Many are also curious if Goliath had any condition that contributed to his physical size.
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Could Goliath Have Suffered from Gigantism or Acromegaly?
In Malcolm Gladwell’s book, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, the renowned author compares the biblical text to modern medicine to try and understand and even explain Goliath’s unnatural height.
Clearly, a lot of what Gladwell and other doctors have hypothesized is speculation, but there is enough evidence from the biblical text to suggest that Goliath could have suffered from an actual medical condition known as gigantism or even its counterpart acromegaly, which can manifest in adults even after they’ve reached maturity.
In both rare instances, an individual can grow to an incredible height due to an excessive production of growth hormone (GH) which causes abnormal skeletal and tissue growth. Most forms of gigantism are identified and treated at an early age. In the ancient world, however, this would not have been the case.
Excessive production of GH is often the result of swelling in the pituitary gland, and in some cases, a benign tumor can press on the pituitary, secreting excessive amounts of GH.
The most obvious symptoms of gigantism and acromegaly include a larger than normal body structure as well as the enlargement of the organs, muscles, hands, feet, and forehead.
Excessive sweating, thicker skin, and a protrusion of the jawbone are also common.
And Dr. Ian Chapman writes in the Merck Manual that some patients with acromegaly experience a “cartilaginous proliferation of the larynx (which) leads to a deep, husky voice.” This may explain why Goliath was able to physically and verbally intimidate the armies of Israel, as his voice carried across the valley (1 Samuel 17:8).
Long-standing acromegaly can also produce “barrel chest”, which Dr. Eric J. Olson of the Mayo Clinic describes as, “a rounded, bulging chest that resembles the shape of a barrel.” This could also explain why Goliath had such a large suit of armor, which the biblical text says weighed “five thousand shekels of bronze” (1 Samuel 17:5). In today’s terms, that could be anywhere from 90 to 140 pounds. Matthew Henry points out in his commentary, however, that the term “shekel” could also have been used to indicate the cost of Goliath’s armor that would have been customized to suit his unusually large frame.
Needless to say, Goliath’s defensive armor and weaponry were larger, heavier, and more expensive than most and would have required a man of substantial size and strength to wield.
Unfortunately, when left untreated, most patients with acromegaly or gigantism have reduced life expectancies and will often deal with extreme arthritis, heart conditions, dizziness, headaches, fatigue, decreased mental function, and even blurred vision if the tumor on the pituitary glands presses on the optic nerves.
Some, including Malcolm Gladwell, believe that this could explain several of Goliath’s shortcomings hinted at in the biblical text and why he laughed when David came at him with “sticks” (1 Samuel 17:43) when the text says that David walked into the valley with a single shepherd’s staff (1 Samuel 17:40)
If Goliath did have acromegaly and experienced mental, mobility, vision issues (unknown to the Israelites), he would only be effective in close range, hand to hand combat. So, did his size help or hinder?
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Who Really had the Advantage? David or Goliath?
From a distance, anyone would have been awestruck and intimidated by Goliath. Even at close range, most soldiers wouldn’t have fared too well against the size, strength, and weaponry of the Philistine champion, who was born and bred for hand to hand combat.
David, however, had no intention of fighting Goliath hand to hand or even on his terms.
Armed with a long-range weapon, he decided to level the playing field and play to his agility, accuracy, and speed, not Goliath’s strength. David had even rejected the heavy armor of King Saul for being too cumbersome (1 Samuel 17:38-40). He needed to be fast, and a sling was the way to go.
As a shepherd, David would have had experience using this simple but effective weapon (1 Samuel 17:34-37).
In fact, in ancient warfare, slingers could deliver lethal strikes with remarkable accuracy from long range. One National Geographic article suggests that an ancient slinger could hit a target with the equivalent striking power of a .44 caliber magnum bullet. Accordingly, a single stone was all it took to fell the foul giant.
The world looked at Goliath and saw undefeated.
The world looked at David and saw underdog.
Armed with the right weapons, perspective, and God’s anointing, David saw opportunity, proving through his life and public victory that, “God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7)
Win for the little guy? Maybe. A win for the God of Israel? Most definitely.
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