Clash of the Manuscripts: Goliath & the Hebrew Text of the Old Testament

Michael S. Heiser

Goliath may have been killed three thousand years ago, but he’s still an imposing obstacle—this time to Bible scholars. But how can a story so easily followed by children be a conundrum for scholars? It happens all the time when you study Hebrew manuscripts.

The story of David and Goliath (1 Sam 17) presents a number of thorny problems to textual critics, scholars who specialize in studying manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible to determine the precise reading of the original text. Let’s look at two examples.

How Tall Was Goliath?

First Samuel 17:4 notes that Goliath’s height was measured at “six cubits and one span,” about nine feet, six inches. That measurement comes from one Hebrew manuscript tradition, known as the Masoretic text, a text that was fixed around 100 AD by the Jewish community in Israel. We know from the Dead Sea Scrolls that there were other editions of the Hebrew Bible. One of those was the Hebrew text from which the Septuagint, the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament,1 was translated. The Septuagint at times disagrees with the Masoretic text. The Septuagint has the height of Goliath at four cubits and one span, or about six feet, six inches. The only Hebrew text of 1 Sam 17:4 found among the Dead Sea Scrolls also reads “four,” and the Jewish historian Josephus describes Goliath as, “a man of vast bulk, for he was of four cubits and a span in tallness.2”

The textual evidence is clearly on the side of the shorter Goliath, but that has no real importance for interpretation. Archaeologists have long noted that male human skeletal remains from the biblical period have an average height of slightly less than five and a half feet, so even the shorter Goliath was quite a bit taller than most people the Israelites had ever seen.3 The relatively diminutive stature of Israelites also helps us understand the comment in 1 Sam 9:2, that “from his shoulders upward [Saul] was taller than any of the people.” Saul should have been the one fighting Goliath, not David, and so the story makes clear who had God in his corner. Saul had been rejected as king; David was now Israel’s champion.

A Man of Vast Bulk: Goliath's Height

Who Killed Goliath?

The second example is much trickier. Second Samuel 21:19 records the violent death of Goliath but appears to flatly contradict the account in 1 Sam 17, where David slays the giant:

Elhanan the son of Jaare-oregim, the Bethlehemite, struck down Goliath the Gittite, the shaft of whose spear was like a weaver’s beam.
Unless David and Elhanan are the same person,4 we have a pretty clear problem that needs resolution.

The key to unraveling the statement that Elhanan killed Goliath is found in 1 Chr 20:5, which is a parallel passage to 2 Sam 21:19:

Elhanan the son of Jair struck down Lahmi the brother of Goliath the Gittite, the shaft of whose spear was like a weaver’s beam.

This verse allows us to say that Elhanan killed Goliath’s brother, not the more famous warrior defeated by David. That might erase the tension between 1 Sam 17 and 2 Sam 21:19, but now we have a contradiction between 1 Chr 20:5 and 2 Sam 21:19! Fortunately, there’s a way out of this mess, but it’s complicated. Get ready for some scribal detective work—pay close attention to the colors.

The word in brown (ʾoregim), colored three times, is exactly the same. It means “weaver,” but in the first line of 2 Sam 21:19 it is awkwardly placed after the name “Jaare.” The only way to make sense of this was to make the word part of the proper name, and so we have “Jaare-Oregim” in our verse. This raises suspicions for those who work in the Hebrew text since our word in brown is never used in conjunction with a proper name anywhere else in the Bible—it is always a common noun. Further in 2 Sam 21:19 the brown word appears twice­—this also doesn’t happen anywhere else in the Bible.

Taking these oddities together suggests very strongly that somewhere along the chain of copying the text of 1 Sam 17 one scribe made a mistake in 2 Sam 21:19 that caused a subsequent scribe some trouble. Most likely, we have a situation where a scribe knew he had a defective text and tried to improvise the best way he could. Explaining why this is the best approach to our problem requires reconstructing the scene of the crime. Our first step is determining if our brown word was indeed mistakenly repeated. We can test that idea by removing it to see what we get.

When we remove the word, the verses are nearly identical in form and meaning. This is a solid lead that some scribe in the past encountered a manuscript with the extra brown word and had to somehow deal with it. We’ll put the brown word back in a moment to explain the other errors in the manuscript so we can reach a complete solution.

Our next step is to notice that the red letters in the text are identical but are not translated the same way. This is because of the small word highlighted in blue that follows the red-lettered word.

In 2 Sam 21:19 the word consists of two letters and is untranslated because its sole job is to mark the direct object of the sentence.5 In 1 Chr 20:5 this word consists of three letters and means “brother of.” The first two letters of both words (תא / חא) look nearly identical. This is an important clue.

At this point, we have the raw materials to reconstruct what happened. If we assume that the scribe working on the manuscript of 2 Sam 21:19 had the wrong two-letter combination in his manuscript (תא instead of חא, the result of an error by an earlier scribe), the preceding words would make no sense. Here’s what I believe our unfortunate scribe was looking at (putting our suspicious brown word back in to illustrate his defective manuscript).

Translated literally, the scribe would be reading, “And Elhanan son of Jaare-Oregim killed Lahmi Goliath the Gittite.” The word that makes the sentence incoherent is Lahmi, the word colored in red. The scribe would know that this word could mean “my bread” if it was a common noun, but this would be gibberish (“And Elhanan son of Jaare-Oregim killed my bread Goliath the Gittite”). He also would have known that “Lahmi” never occurred anywhere else in his Bible as a proper name or another name for Goliath. By itself, then, Lahmi didn’t even make sense as a proper name (though it would if he had been reading “brother of” instead of the direct object marker). Our scribe’s solution was to remove some letters and substitute others (colored in green).

The result of these changes is “the Bethlehemite,” which makes the sentence comprehensible (“And Elhanan, son of Jaare-Oregim the Bethlehemite, killed Goliath the Gittite”). But while this makes perfect grammatical sense, the scribe’s clever attempt at dealing with his defective manuscript was what produced our problem, the contradiction with David’s slaying of Goliath!

The solution to the contradiction between 2 Sam 21:19 and 1 Chr 20:5 is recognizing that 2 Sam 21:19 is a defective reading since it is the result of a scribe’s sincere effort to cope with a problematic manuscript. We can account for the oddities in 2 Sam 21:19, by working our way to the precise reading of 1 Chr 20:5. Doing so erases all the contradictions, and so 1 Chr 20:5 should be used to correct 2 Sam 21:19.

David killed Goliath as 1 Samuel 17 says, and Elhanan killed Lahmi, the brother of Goliath.

A Man of Large Strides: Goliath's Foot Size


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Patrick Fore

Patrick Fore is an visual designer and photographer living with his family (Jaimi and Lucy) in beautiful Imperial Beach, California. When Patrick is not taking photos, you can find him working on a graphic design project for a client, or down at the beach.