You may have noticed that when you read 1 Samuel 17:4 the text said that Goliath was close to ten feet tall but there was a footnote that stated that not all manuscripts read this way. Below is a break down of the various texts. They all read either six cubits and one span or four cubits and one span. A cubit is the length of a person’s forearm from the elbow to the tip of the middle finger (i.e. 18″) and a span is the length between the tip of the thumb and the tip of the little finger when the hand is fully extended (i.e. 9″).
Hebrew Bible: 9’9” (6 cubits + 1 span)
Greek Old Testament: 6’9” (4c + 1s) [Not all Greek manuscripts however]
Dead Sea Scrolls (4QSam): 6’9” (4c+1s)
Josephus (Ant. 6.171): 6’9” (4c+1s)
All English Bibles read 9-10 feet tall except the New English Translation (NET) which reads “close to seven feet tall.” Clearly the majority of translations have chosen to follow the Hebrew text. The UBS Handbook on 1 Samuel references the UBS Hebrew Old Testament Text Project and concludes that because the HOTTP fails to mention this problem the Hebrew text should be followed! (352). I am awestruck by this statement. I do however agree with the authors’ conclusion that “The height of Goliath will need to be expressed in an understandable form in the receptor language. But it need not be expressed in precise terms.”
So why would these other manuscripts/translations differ from the Hebrew text? There are two possibilities usually voiced by commentators. First the original text said Goliath was ten feet tall but later scribes thought this too unbelievable so they downsized him to a more plausible but still incredible 6’9″. We must remember that in the ancient world someone reaching five feet would be considered of fair stature. The second possibility is that Goliath started out as about seven feet tall and as in any “fish story” he grew in stature with each retelling. Most translations agree with the Hebrew text and therefore with the first explanation. This seems more likely to me as well because the Septuagint and Josephus are much later than the period from which the Hebrew text originated. The DSS may reflect a different early Hebrew text or it may reflect the consensus of its generation.
Another consideration is the weight of Goliath’s armour. The footnote in the NET states that commentators have placed it at anywhere from 126 lbs (57kg) to 200 lbs (100 kg). It seems clear that only a man of considerable size and strength could have worn such armour and managed to wield such large weapons in battle. Let’s hope that the NET revisits this issue or offers more compelling reasons for presenting a different text than all other English translations.
I have occasionally been chided for being too obtuse so let me say it plainly for those who are still unclear: Goliath was six cubits and one span tall. 🙂 Goliath was soon zero cubits tall because he was defeated on account of David’s faith in God’s deliverance.