Busting Gladwell's Goliath

Popular writer Malcolm Gladwell's "David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants" is not as good as I had hoped. I'm a great fan of Gladwell's Tipping Point and Outliers, so I had high hopes of a book based on an ostensibly Biblical theme.

If you haven't come across his book you can check out his TED talk on the same subject here. It'll give you a good flavour of the arguments he puts forward. He alleges that the David/Goliath conflict is widely misunderstood; the outcome being a foregone conclusion because Goliath suffered from a debilitating medical condition.

Although a fascinating take on the Bible story, Gladwell's thesis breaks down on several fronts, and I thought it would be worthwhile collating these in a single post.

Myth 1: Goliath was a "giant"

Almost all English translations of the Bible are based on the Masoretic Text (MT), and for a very long time this was the best and most ancient source of the Old Testament that we had. This text describes Goliath as being six cubits and a span tall; roughly 2.8 metres (9 feet, 6 inches). Measured by the larger royal cubit Goliath would stand a full 3.3 metres tall, (just over 11 feet). That's implausibly tall.

The Latin Vulgate and some Greek translations agree with this measurement, but all are dated substantially later than the oldest texts we have available. The Septuagint, Dead Sea Scrolls (dating to 50BCE), Josephus, the Lucian recension, Codex Vaticanus, and Codex Alexandrinus all record Goliath having a shorter height of 4 cubits and a span, just over 2 metres (6 feet, nine inches).

To put this into perspective, archaeology has shown that the heroes buried in the "royal tombs" at Mycenae were 1.76-1.80m tall, while the height of the average man at that period (according to the skeletons excavated) was 1.64 metres 1. Goliath was still tall for an Iron Age man, but he wasn't implausibly tall. Unsurprisingly, modern scholarship prefers the shorter reading2.

Myth 2: Goliath had acromegaly

Gladwell is not alone 3 in proposing that Goliath suffered from a medical condition that resulted in an abnormal height, but as we have already seen there is no need to invoke such an ailment to account for his stature: the most reliable sources we have tell us that he wasn't that tall anyway.

Acromegaly is a defect of the pituitary gland which results in the body producing too much growth hormone. Predictably, this leads to excess growth of body tissue over time.

It's here that the first issue arises: acromegaly affects humans in middle age. As a result, it would have been very rarely seen given that the average Iron Age life expectancy was less than 40 years.

The second issue is that acromegaly is not an inherited condition. This is important as the Bible record indicates that the giants were related:

"...after this there arose war with the Philistines at Gezer. Then Sibbecai the Hushathite struck down Sippai ... one of the descendants of the giants ... and Elhanan the son of Jair struck down Lahmi the brother of Goliath the Gittite ... and there was again war at Gath, where there was a man of great stature ... Jonathan the son of Shimea, David’s brother, struck him down. These were descended from the giants in Gath" - 1 Chronicles 20 v4-8 (ESV)

Finally we must question the wisdom of placing the outcome of a significant military campaign in the hands of an (admittedly well-armoured) invalid. Acromegaly results in various deformities, alongside digestive problems, high blood pressure, and tunnel vision. Why on earth would the Philistines put such an individual forward as their best warrior!?

If the outcome of the battle was as "inevitable" as Gladwell claims, then the Philistines displayed an phenomenal level of stupidity.

By ignoring key details of the narrative we can indeed match pretty much any theory we like to the Bible record. However, this is not an honest way to deal with the text.

Myth 3: Goliath was heavy infantry

Whilst true that David had a strategic advantage as a long-range soldier, characterising Goliath as infantry is only half the story. He was more likely to be from cavalry, or rather, a chariot warrior 4.

Translators derive the English term "champion" from a word understood more literally as "the-man-of-the-in-between-two". This is often interpreted to mean one who stood between two armies (as in the David & Goliath story), though Philistine military custom offers another possibility. Egyptian reliefs show Philistine chariots had three-man crews5, and though it is hard to understand how these men were positioned, similar arrangements are found in other ancient near eastern cultures.

Hittite three-man chariot crews are depicted with the driver and shield-bearer toward the front of the cab, while a spear-wielding warrior is set back, between the other two. If Goliath was indeed the primary warrior of the chariot as the term suggests, this goes some way to understanding why a shield-bearer also appears in the narrative. It is unlikely that such an individual would add much value in hand-to-hand combat, but his presence may be better explained if he were part of Goliath's standard chariot crew.

Hittite three-man chariot crews Hittite three-man chariot crews at the battle of Kadesh, as depicted on the reliefs of Ramesses II. After Kuentz 1928: pl. 40; courtesy of the Institut français d’archéologie orientale.

Goliath was an elite warrior, particularly well equipped in the Philistine army as the army’s champion in a ritual duel. The elite warriors of this era were from the chariot warrior class, making him more than a match for a shepherd boy with a leather sling.

Summary

Although having garnered a reputation for entertaining and insightful storytelling, Gladwell's most recent offering in "David and Goliath" was not well received by critics. This is a shame because much of his work is very thought provoking. It is unfortunate that the central point of this particular book falls quite so flat on its face (pun intended).

Aside from a series of escalating scribal exaggerations regarding Goliath's height the Bible text stands up well to scrutiny. In a further post I'll consider some of the typical foreshadowing and lessons that the account provides.

Meanwhile, feel free to comment via Facebook and Twitter (@biblesnippets).

I'd particularly like to acknowledge the excellent work of Jonathan Burke, particularly his book Living on the Edge, from which the majority of the points above were collated. You can buy yourself a copy of his book from Lulu.

Footnotes:

  1. Margalith, 'The Sea Peoples in the Bible', p. 49 (1994)

  2. Ehrlich, 'Goliath', in Freedman (ed.), 'Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary', volume 2, p. 1073 (1996).

  3. Li, 'Goliath', in Arnold & Williamson (eds.), ‘Dictionary of the Old Testament: Historical books’, p. 356 (2005).

  4. Zorn, J. R. (2010). Reconsidering Goliath: An Iron Age I Philistine Chariot Warrior. Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research (November 2010), (360), 1.

  5. The Epigraphic Survey, Medinet Habu, Vol. 1: Earlier Historical Records of Ramses III. Oriental Institute Publications 8. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1930.

Photo credit: Dark Knight #4 - FIGHT via photopin (cc)

Nathan

Bible enthusiast, husband, Dad, and tech-head with too many projects and not enough time.