How Tall Was Goliath?
Was Goliath “four cubits and a span” or “six cubits and a span?” And what exactly is a cubit?
1 Samuel 17:4: “And there came out from the camp of the Philistines a champion named Goliath, of Gath, whose height was six cubits and a span.”
All right. First, let’s get a figure for Goliath’s height, according to the Bible. I cite several commentaries, on this passage (my italics), and other reference sources:
- Benson Commentary: “At least nine feet nine inches.”
- Barnes’ Notes on the Bible: “If the cubit, the length from the elbow to the tip of the middle finger, is about 1-1/2 feet; and the span, the distance from the thumb to the middle or little finger, when stretched apart to the full length, be half a cubit, six cubits and a span would equal about nine feet nine inches.”
- Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges: “The most probable estimate is about ten feet three inches.”
- Pulpit Commentary: “In our measure his height was eight feet five and one-third inches; for the cubit is sixteen inches, and the span (really the hand-breadth) is five and one-third inches.”
- Keil and Delitzsch Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament: “His height was six cubits and a span (6 1/4 cubits), ... about nine feet two inches Parisian measure ...”
- McClintock and Strong Biblical Cyclopedia (“Goliath”): His height was “six cubits and a span,” which, taking the cubit at 21 inches, would make him 10 1/2 feet high.
- Clarke’s Commentary: “Nine feet nine inches is the most reasonable.”
Considerable variation (between 8 feet 5 inches and 10 feet 6 inches) exists in the commentaries, because the biblical cubit is not sufficiently exact to prevent it. As we see above, ancient historians (however accurate they are deemed to be in such natters) note several people as tall or taller than Goliath. The most famous tall person in our time was Robert Wadlow (1918-1940), who was 8 feet, 11.1 inches at his death.
Wikipedia interestingly states about Wadlow: “Even by the time of his death, there was no indication that his growth had ended.” It provides a chart, showing that he had grown every single year of his life. From age 15 to 22, he had grown up to 5 inches each year. His last year of growth was more than any year since he was 15, which raises the question, “How tall could he have grown?”
Taking the average of his growth from 15-22 we arrive at 2.26 inches a year. Ten more years at that average rate is 22.6 more inches of growth, leading to a projected height at age 32 of 10 feet 9.7 inches, which is taller than the highest estimate of the seven sources given above.
John Rogan (1868-1905) was 8 feet 6 inches tall. Wikipedia (“List of tallest people”) has 18 listed men besides Wadlow and Rogan over eight feet tall.
But wait! It’s still not certain that Goliath was in the above range of height, based on textual evidences of many sorts. J. Daniel Hays, professor of Old Testament at Ouachita Baptist University, did an exhaustive study entitled, “Reconsidering the Height of Goliath” (Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society). Anyone seriously interested in the topic should read the whole thing, but here are his basic reasons for why he believes Goliath was 6 feet 9 inches:
“The Masoretic Text (MT), that is, the ‘received’ Hebrew text upon which most of our English OT translations are based, states in 1 Samuel 17:4 that the height of Goliath is ‘six cubits and a span.’ A cubit is approximately 18 inches, and a span is about 9 inches. Thus, in the MT Goliath is 9’9” tall. Most of our English translations follow this reading.
“On the other hand, in the major Septuagint (LXX) manuscripts Goliath’s height is given as “four cubits and a span,” which puts him at the much shorter height of 6’9”. For much of the modern era, the LXX manuscripts were viewed as secondary witnesses to the OT text when compared to the MT. However, the discovery of the DSS [Dead Sea Scrolls] changed that situation, because in several cases the older Hebrew texts found at Qumran supported the readings of the LXX over against the MT. ... only one large substantial manuscript of 1-2 Samuel was discovered, referred to as 4QSama. ... 1 Sam 17:3-6 is clear, and in this manuscript, by far our oldest Hebrew manuscript of this text, Goliath is listed as four cubits and a span, around 6’9”…”
Professor Jeff Chadwick of Brigham Young University’s Jerusalem Center of Archaeology and Near Eastern Studies, studied the exact measurements of the ancient Israeli cubit:
“Since 2013, Chadwick has conducted research on the ancient measurements known as the cubit and the span as part of an extensive project on ancient measurements in general. Visiting dozens of archaeological sites in Israel, and measuring hundreds of different architectural features in their excavated remains, Chadwick has identified the length of the ancient cubit as 54 centimeters [1.77 feet], and the length of the ancient span as 22 centimeters [0.72 feet].”
He accepts the reading of four cubits and a span. Using the measurements for the cubit and span that he has determined in seven years of intensive on-the-spot research, that comes out to 7 feet 8 inches.
So, in conclusion, we see that there is rigorously argued textual and archaeological evidence leading to a height for Goliath of between 6 feet 9 inches and 7 feet 8 inches — completely attainable heights, as we know from recent very tall human beings. I accept these conclusions, based on the overall evidence of the matter. We’re not talking about more than 10 feet tall, but rather, a human being who was well within the range of what we know to be entirely possible.