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David and Goliath by Caravaggio

Goliath (Hebrew, "exile" or "passage" or "revolution") was the Philistine single-combat champion who fell before the young future king David of Israel.

Origin and Description

The Bible says that Goliath came from the city of Gath, one of a handful of Philistine city-states.

He stood "six cubits and a span." A cubit is the length of a man's arm (generally measured as 18 inches), and a span is the widest extent that a man can spread the palm and fingers of his hand (generally measured as 1/2 of a cubit, or 9 inches). Therefore, "six cubits and a span" make about nine and 3/4 US Customary feet, or 3 meters.

Further clues to his tremendous size and strength come from the catalog of his armor that the Bible offers. He wore a coat of mail that weighed 5000 brass shekels and carried a spear whose head weighed 600 iron shekels and whose shaft "was like a weaver's beam." He even had his own shield bearer, normally a perquisite of kings and captains.[1]

In addition II_Samuel 21:18-22 (KJV) mentions that there were other giants in Gath, possibly related to Goliath (likely why David picked up five stones, figuring that he might have to face more than just Goliath).

Death in Battle

The Bible [2] describes in detail the one event for which any historical record survives. Goliath joined the combined Philistine army at Succoth, in either 1063 BC (Ussher) or 1018 BC (Thiele). The armies of King Saul camped at Elah, on the far side of a valley. Thus each army commanded a mountain on each side of this valley.

Neither side wanted to take the initiative and bring the other to battle. So, presumably on the orders of the high king of the Philistines, Goliath walked into the valley and challenged the Israelites to "single combat"[3].

Goliath probably placed as much faith in his own tremendous size as in the Philistine pantheon. In any event, he waited for forty days for a champion to emerge. But at the sight of the slender, red-cheeked youth who appeared before him—one who, furthermore, wore no armor at all!--he evidently did not know whether to howl with laughter or with rage.
Am I a dog, that thou comest to me with staves?[4]
This was in reference to the sight of this young lad carrying a shepherd's staff and a small leather satchel slung over one shoulder, and with no other weapons. The sight was probably deeply insulting. That Goliath meant to return insult for insult is evident because, in Goliath's day, dogs were strays, scavengers, and far less friendly to mankind than they are today.

Goliath responded by cursing the lad in the name of his gods and threatening to feed him to the birds and the beasts. Young David's rejoinder was simple: that while Goliath relied on his weapons, David relied on his God, and God would win the day. Furthermore, David promised not only to kill Goliath and cut off his head, but to cause the entire Philistine army to be fed to the birds and the beasts.

The combat between the two men was short. Goliath rushed forward to attack, and David reached into his bag, took out a stone, and slung it. The stone struck Goliath directly between the eyes and killed him instantly. David then cut off Goliath's head—again, after Goliath was already dead.

The Philistines immediately broke and ran. David stripped the dead Goliath of his armor and treasured it for years thereafter.[5]

Extra-biblical evidence

No one claims to have found the bones of Goliath. But one of the key counterclaims against Goliath's story is that the name Goliath is not of Semitic origin—nor of Hamitic, either—so that it was not a true Hebrew or Philistine name.[6] But the discovery, in November 2005, of a pottery fragment in Tell es-Safi in central Israel now casts doubt on that counterclaim. The fragment dates, conventionally, to 950 BC, and thus could have been from either the United Kingdom under Solomon or the Southern Kingdom under King Abijam or Asa (or perhaps some time frame in-between, or even earlier). It bears an inscription that appears to be a "Semitized" version of an Indo-European name that sounds remarkably like "Goliath."[7][8][9]

Given its dating, it is regarded as the oldest Philistine artifact yet found. More to the point, while it might not have belonged to this Goliath, or have been made to honor him, it does show that the name Goliath was in use in the Philistine population of Gath at a period close to the traditional date of David's battle with the giant.

Modern speculations on Goliath and the combat

Medical speculation

Robert P. Wadlow of Alton, Illinois, who, at 8' 11.1" tall, was just 6 inches shorter than the Biblical height of Goliath. The man standing next to him is his father.

Goliath was almost certainly a giant. The question arises as to how he came to be one. Did he suffer from a medical condition? Some modern doctors have suggested that he probably had a pituitary adenoma that over-produced the human growth hormone during his adolescent years. This would indeed produce the condition of giantism. Many such "pituitary giants" are known to medical science, and they generally have all their organs and bones, all in proper proportion to one another. The tallest man on record was Robert Pershing Wadlow (1918-1940) of Alton, Illinois. (See image at right.) Wadlow, who was still growing at his death from a foot infection, stood 8 feet and 11.1 inches tall and was otherwise healthy and even entertained as an occasional basketball player with local high school players.[10] Had he been as muscular as he was tall, he would no doubt have been strong enough to carry Goliath's armor, even armor as heavy as the Bible describes.

These same doctors even speculate that the pituitary tumor grew to impinge upon the optic chiasm and cut off the signals that pass from each eye to the opposing occipital lobe, which is the center for visual processing. Thus Goliath would have suffered bitemporal hemianopsia, which produces "tunnel vision," and thus David would have been better able to approach him close enough to deliver a killing blow with his slingshot.[11]

But such speculation ignores three key facts. One is the utility of the ancient slingshot; indeed the Book of Judges speaks of a cadre of slingers who each could reliably hit a target no broader than a human hair.[12] Though that verse does not say from how far away the slingers could accomplish this feat, one must remember that the combat between David and Goliath was at very close range, with the two combatants never more than five or six cubits apart from one another. In all likelihood, David could have defeated a three-meter-tall man having full possession of his visual faculties—and equally likely, the Philistines would not have invested such effort to train and equip a man, no matter how tall he stood, if he had, in effect, two blind sides.

Another fact is the nature of pituitary adenoma and the consequences of the continued secretion of growth hormone after the epiphyseal plates of bones have fully formed. A patient so afflicted has outsized fingers and toes, a condition called acromegaly. The Bible does not describe the anatomical anomalies associated with acromegaly in Goliath.

The third is that the Bible clearly says that a hereditary race of giants still existed after the Great Flood.[13] The Bible even tells us that the original spies, including Caleb and Joshua, saw "sons of Anak," clearly described as giants, in Canaan.[14] Goliath is far more likely to have come from such stock.

Single Combat

Goliath proposed single combat as a settlement of a battle that would otherwise have been difficult for either side to fight and win. In the era in which Goliath lived, fought, and died, single combat was in essence a trial of one nation's gods against another. Whoever won the combat would demonstrate the favor of the gods for his side against the other side.

Thus single combat, in this context, is yet another method by which a general sought to "divine" the outcome of battle in advance. In a similar vein, the Roman army, centuries later, developed the custom of consulting the auspex (plural, auspices, whence "auspicious"), a specialized augur who observed the vigor (or lack thereof) with which two chickens, suddenly released from their cage, would eat two honey cakes placed before them. Single combat also appears in medieval times in the ritual of trial by combat, in which one accused of a crime would defend his innocence (or get someone else to defend it) by physical combat against the king's chosen champion.[15]

At least one modern television producer has engaged in totally vain speculation according to which Joab, Saul's ranking general, sought to disable the Philistines' chariots and then mount a major offensive with the entire army, and saw David's brash proposal to accept Goliath's challenge as a welcome diversion. The Bible gives absolutely no warrant for this, and again, such speculation completely ignores the faith that ancient generals in that era placed in single combat per se.

In modern culture

The famously cynical political scientist Nicolo Machiavelli once said that the best way to fight is with weapons that we know and understand, and not with weapons that others use, however efficacious they might appear. Machiavelli credits the "lesson" of David and Goliath with giving him this insight.[16]

Today, "Goliath" is a common name for a very large machine or other artifact — However the German Goliath tank of World War II was a tiny, unmanned remote-controlled vehicle. The phrase "David against Goliath" is a proverbial description for a contest (mainly in sports) in which one opponent is a huge underdog to the other, but manages to win nonetheless (an example is Maryland-Baltimore County, a #16 seed in the 2018 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament, defeating overall #1 seed Virginia, the first time a #16 had defeated a #1 in the men's tournament).

Goliath has been celebrated as an "action hero" in Italian cinema, and in this regard continues to illustrate the Biblical statement that certain giant-sized men, called Nephilim, were "the mighty men that were of old, men of renown."[17] On a similar note, the main protagonist of the Disney cartoon series Gargoyles, at least the closest he had to an actual name, was named after the Biblical figure. Ironically, the main antagonist, Xanatos, shared the same first name as the one who defeated Goliath.


  1. I_Samuel 17:4-7 (KJV)
  2. I_Samuel 17:1-58 (KJV)
  3. In single combat, each side selects one man -- usually its top warrior -- and the two fight to the death, whereby the losing side agrees to be subservient to the winning side.
  4. I_Samuel 17:43 (KJV)
  5. The Goliath Account in Flavius Josephus, The Antiquities of the Jews
  6. Maeir, Aren. "Comment on the News Item in Biblical Archaeology Review on the Goliath Inscription." The Tell es-Safi/Gath Excavations Official (and Unofficial) Weblog, February 16, 2006. Retrieved June 27, 2007.
  7. Goliath's name found in Israeli archaeological dig, The New Zealand Herald, 15 November 2005
  8. David and Goliath: truth or legend?, United Press International, Jerusalem, 10 November 2005
  9. Scientists find 'Goliath' inscribed on pottery Associated Press, 10 November 2005 (through MSNBC)
  10. Authors unknown. The World's Tallest Man. Retrieved May 29, 2007.
  11. Berginer, Vladimir M. Neurological Aspects of the David-Goliath Battle: Restriction in the Giant's Visual Field. IMAJ 2000;2:725-727 (requires a PDF reader or plug-in)
  12. Judges 20:16 (KJV)
  13. Genesis 6:3 (KJV)
  14. Numbers 13:22-33 (KJV)
  15. Wolfe, Tom. The Right Stuff, reprint ed. Bantam Books, 2001. ISBN 0553381350. Contains a brief passage discussing single combat in the ancient context, as a metaphor for the high esteem in which the United States and its people held the first seven astronauts.
  16. Machiavelli, Nicolo. "Concerning Auxiliaries, Mixed Soldiery, and One's Own." The Prince. 1513. Retrieved May 29, 2007 from the The Medieval Sourcebook at Fordham University.
  17. Genesis 6:1-4 (NASB)

See also