Is the story of Goliath unreliable?

Last night I was challenged with a great question. The person pointed out that in the Bible, Goliath is described as over nine and a half feet tall. But this would be taller than any known person. And second, at that height, he would have been too tall to be a fierce fighter.

As I researched this objection today, I found that Malcolm Gladwell talks about this in his book David and Goliath. He writes:

What many medical experts now believe, in fact, is that Goliath had a serious medical condition. He looks and sounds like someone suffering from what is called acromegaly—a disease caused by a benign tumor of the pituitary gland. The tumor causes an overproduction of human growth hormone, which would explain Goliath’s extraordinary size. (The tallest person in history, Robert Wadlow, suffered from acromegaly. At his death, he was eight foot eleven inches, and apparently still growing.)

And furthermore, one of the common side effects of acromegaly is vision problems. Pituitary tumors can grow to the point where they compress the nerves leading to the eyes, with the result that people with acromegaly often suffer from severely restricted sight and diplopia, or double vision. Why was Goliath led onto the valley floor by an attendant? Because the attendant was his visual guide. Why does he move so slowly? Because the world around him is a blur. Why does it take him so long to understand that David has changed the rules? Because he doesn’t see David until David is up close.

What the Israelites saw, from high on the ridge, was an intimidating giant. In reality, the very thing that gave the giant his size was also the source of his greatest weakness. There is an important lesson in that for battles with all kinds of giants. The powerful and the strong are not always what they seem. (David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, p. 14-16)

Malcolm Gladwell tells a great story. In any case, last night, I had to confess that I didn’t have an answer for my new friend. It was a great question that had me stumped.

So I kept digging to look for answers and I found an interesting examination of Goliath’s height by Richard Mansfield. He narrates:

I happened to notice a footnote in the HCSB to Goliath’s height that read, “DSS, LXX read four cubits and a span ”—(DSS: א֯רבע[ א]מות וזרת and LXX: τεσσάρων πήχεων καὶ σπιθαμῆς). I found this very interesting because the lesser four cubits and a span would be a little over 6 and a half feet tall.

For context, DSS = Dead Sea Scrolls and LXX = Septuagint. In other words, the earlier manuscripts say Goliath was six and a half feet tall, but by the time the Masoretic text was recorded, Goliath’s height has increased quite a bit!

So Gladwell’s analysis of Goliath’s height is based on a textual problem. The earliest and best manuscripts record Goliath being at a very tall height, especially for that time period, of 6 and a half feet. But this height is within reason and Goliath would, in fact, be a very fearsome warrior.

Upon reflection, it appears to me that Gladwell’s illustration is quite powerful but actually not based on the best research into the story of David and Goliath. And second, there are no reasons, at least in regards to Goliath’s height, to think that the story of Goliath is unhistorical.

Two thoughts come to mind. First, if you don’t know the answer to a question, it’s okay to say so and then go look into it later. Second, I’m curious if anyone else has some good insights into this apologetics challenge and how they might respond to it!

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If you are asking for a nuke, I don’t have one. However, if you are looking for a reasonable response, you might consider that Goliath was not the only “giant” in the biblical record. If the OT or the LXX are to be believed, then during David’s reign, Israel faced at least 5 “giants,” 2 Sam 21:22.
Consider these verses that describe people/people-groups referred to as giants. First, the Anakim, Gen 6:1-4; Num 13:22–33; Josh 15:13–14; the original Transjordan inhabitance Deut 2:10-11; Deut 2:20; the Amorites; Amos 2:9-10 ( I believe this is Yahweh speaking); the Rephaim. Then, Deut 2:11, 20–22; 3:11–13; Josh 12:4; 13:13, note the 13-foot-long-iron bed of King Og.
If you consider the Apocrypha, we have 3000 cubit tall giants, Enoch 7:2. Don’t forget the weight of Goliath’s armor, 125 + lbs, not including his shield or helmet, spear, and a weaver’s beam with a 15.375 lb tip.
Last, consider this from the Faith Life Bible:

six cubits and a span : The Hebrew Bible, the Septuagint (the ancient Greek translation of the OT), and the Dead Sea Scrolls vary with regard to Goliath’s height. The Hebrew Bible states that he was six cubits and a span—roughly nine and a half feet tall (or perhaps a few inches more). This would make him about half a foot taller than the world’s tallest man in medical history (8 feet, 11 inches). The latter two sources, however, describe him as four cubits and a span—roughly six and a half feet tall. It is possible that the number “six” in the Hebrew text (“six cubits and a span”) could have been inadvertently introduced when the scribe’s eye saw “six” a few lines below in v. 7.

The following excerpt will likely only mitigate the issue depending on your bias but it will not put the question to bed. :grinning:

The point of the passage, however, is not to ascertain Goliath’s exact height but to note his size and skill compared to David. The young, inexperienced David is victorious over the Philistine champion because Yahweh assisted him (see vv. 37, 46–47). Although Goliath appears invincible, God’s declaration in 16:7 indicates that height is insignificant.

Barry, J. D., Mangum, D., Brown, D. R., Heiser, M. S., Custis, M., Ritzema, E., Whitehead, M. M., Grigoni, M. R., & Bomar, D. (2012, 2016). Faithlife Study Bible (1 Sa 17:4). Lexham Press.

My thoughts.