Early versions of the Bible describe Goliath, a former Philistine warrior better known as the loser of a fight with the future King David, as a giant whose height in ancient terms reached four elbows and a span. But don’t take that step literally, new research suggests.
Archaeological finds at biblical sites, including the hometown of Goliath, a prominent Philistine settlement called Gath, indicate that these ancient measurements work up to 2.38 meters or 7 feet and 10 inches. This is equal to the width of the walls that form a gateway to Gath that were unearthed in 2019, according to archaeologist Jeffrey Chadwick of Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah.
Instead of being taller than any NBA player, Goliath was probably metaphorically described by an Old Testament writer as a warrior who matched the size and strength of Gath's defensive barrier, Chadwick said Nov. 19 at the schools' annual virtual meeting. oriental research american. .
People known as Canaanites first occupied Gath in the Bronze Age, about 4,700 to 4,500 years ago. The city was rebuilt more than a millennium later by the Philistines, known in the Old Testament as enemies of the Israelites (SN: 11/22/16). Gath reached its peak during the Iron Age about 3,000 years ago, the time of biblical references to Goliath. Scholars continue to debate whether David and Goliath were real people who met in battle at that time.
The remains of Gath are found at a site called Tell es-Safi in Israel. A team led by archaeologist Aren Maeir of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat-Gan, Israel – with whom Chadwick collaborated to excavate the gate of Gath – has been investigating Tell es-Safi since 1996. Other discoveries in Gath include an inscribed pottery fragment. with two names possibly related to the name Goliath. Evidence of the destruction of Gath about 2,850 years ago by an invading army was also recovered.
Archaeologists have long known that in ancient Egypt an elbow corresponded to 52.5 centimeters and assumed that the same measure was used in Gath and elsewhere in and around ancient Israel. But careful assessments of many structures excavated in recent years have revealed that standard measures differed slightly between the two regions, Chadwick said.
Chadwick found buildings in Gath and several dozen other cities in ancient Israel and the nearby kingdoms of Judah and Philistia, excavated by other equipment. They include a 54-centimeter elbow (as opposed to the 52.5-centimeter Egyptian elbow), a 38-centimeter short elbow, and a 22-centimeter diameter that corresponds to the distance across an adult’s outstretched hand.
Sign up to receive the latest from Science News
Headlines and summaries of the latest Science News articles, delivered in your inbox
The dimensions of the plant at these sites show several combinations of the three measurements, Chadwick said. In a settlement called et-Tell in northern Israel, for example, two pillars at the front of the city gate are 2.7 meters wide each or five elbows of 54 centimeters. Each of the four inner pillars of the city gate is 2.38 meters wide, or four elbows 54 centimeters wide and 22 centimeters wide. The excavators of et-Tell regard it as the site of a biblical city called Bethsaida.
Chadwick excavations in 2019 found one of the allegedly several gates that allowed access to Gath through the city’s defensive walls. Like the inner pillars of the gate of the city of et-Tell, the walls of the gate of Gath measured 2.38 meters wide, or four elbows and a span, the same as the biblical stature of Goliath.
“The ancient writer used an authentic architectural metric of that time to describe the height of Goliath, likely to indicate that it was as large and strong as the walls of his city,” Chadwick said.
Although research raises the possibility that Goliath's recorded size refers to the width of a wall, Chadwick "will need to do more research to move beyond an intriguing idea," says Old Testament archaeologist and scholar Gary Arbino of Gateway Seminary in Mill Valley On the one hand, Arbino suggests, it is necessary to establish that the measure applied to Goliath, of four elbows and a palm, was used at that time as a phrase that figuratively meant "big and strong."