Saturday, June 04, 2016

The Stature of Goliath

Slide from Qumran and the Text of the Hebrew Bible lecture by Ronald S. Hendel in The Scrolls, Scripture and Interpretation (DVD, Biblical Archaeological Society, 2009)
~click to enlarge~

Regarding the height of the Philistine giant Goliath, 1 Samuel 17:4 says “his height was six cubits and a span.” This computes to about 2.9 meters or 9 feet 5.75 inches. This is how the Mesoretic Text reads. And if this was how all texts read, then we would be done. However, the NET Bible footnote here accurately states that:
Some Greek [LXX] witnesses, Josephus, and a manuscript of 1 Samuel from Qumran [the Dead Sea Scroll 4QSama] read “four cubits and a span” here, that is, about six feet, nine inches (cf. NAB “six and a half feet”).
How could this be? Which is the more accurate reading for Goliath’s herculean height?

Interestingly, there is a conceivable way that “four cubits” could have been altered into “six cubits” by a scribe who lapsed in his scribal acumen here, but not the other way around. Simply put, in verse 7 the words “six hundred” appears describing the weight of his spearhead. Now, in Hebrew “hundred” is similar to “cubits.” So it is possible that as the scribe was copying verse 4, that when he came to Goliath’s height, his eyes inadvertently saw the “hundred” of verse 7 and mistook it for “cubits” in verse 4, and copied the six along with it.

If this sounds too farfetched, I don’t blame you—and if this was a sole case of scribal mishandling, then I would probably be inclined to dismiss this explanation. However, consider two related examples: the first being the Nahash of the same book in 1 Samuel 11:1. Here it introduces Nahash like the reader is already familiar with him and how terrible he is. But the same Dead Sea Scroll 4QSama and also Josephus include a proper introduction to Nahash together with his terrible deed that frames 11:1 in better context. It is also essential to note that both the “prelude” and 11:1 begin with Nahash. So what happened? Apparently the scribe saw the Nahash of the “prelude” and then accidentally skipped down to the Nahash of our verse 1, and then continued, inadvertently omitting the “prelude.” (This mistake is called “homoeoarcton,” when two lines begin with similar words and the text in between is unintentionally omitted.)

The second related example is in 2 Chronicles 3:4, where the Mesoretic Text says the height of the Temple’s porch was “120.” However, as pointed out in the NWT-Reference Bible footnote, an LXX witness and the Syriac have “20 cubits.” What happened with the height? The footnote continues:
By a transposition of the letters of the Heb. word for “a hundred” it would read “cubits,” to produce the expression “twenty cubits.”
Here we see the same mechanism for the alleged scribal mistake for “hundred” and “cubit” above for Goliath’s height! That is, the scribe’s eye jumping from the similar word in verse 4 to verse 7.

Hopefully this explanation will give one greater insight when reading about Goliath’s height. We may just need to stand on the shoulders of scholarly giants to discern the stature of Goliath.

For more information on this and how a shorter Goliath may still harmonize with the account, see Reconsidering The Height Of Goliath by J. Daniel Hays in JETS 48/4 (December 2005) 701-14 found online here:

See also:
David Versus Goliath—Did It Really Happen? This article, and the NWT-Reference Bible, follow the Mesoretic Text reading without addressing the LXX and 4QSama reading as corroborated by Josephus. Otherwise this is a nice article.