Goliath of Gath: A Real Giant or a Biblical Metaphor?

The Bible is full of stories that are told to children generation after generation. Samson and Delilah tells of the downfall of the strength of faith, and it’s last use to crush the enemies that had enslaved him. Moses, from his childhood in Egypt to his leadership of the Israelites to the Promised Land is a story about trials, tribulations and being true to where you come from. And the story of David and Goliath shows that strength of faith, and good aim, can sometimes make up for physical lacks. However, it bears looking into the character and description of our enemy to get a real sense of the fight that went down.

Let’s begin at the beginning. Without equivocation Goliath is described as a giant, measuring at somewhere between 9 and 11 feet tall. Though his weight isn’t given, it’s assumed to be several hundred pounds. Goliath is also described as a pagan that hails from the Philistine city of Gath (which some archaeologists think they might have found). Beyond his sheer size, Goliath is described as wearing heavy armor and a helm, greaves and a coat of mail, all of which made him nearly immune to harm in vital ways. Adding on to this, Goliath was an experienced warrior and a killer of men who carried the tools of his trade in the form of shield, spear and sword. Not a friendly sight to be on the other side of the battlefield from.

What Goliath did was that every day he would step out to the mid point between the Philistine army and the Israelite army and issue a challenge to single combat. This was in fact an accepted custom at the time that the champions of nations would duel so that only one death would result rather than the huge bloodshed brought on by all out battle. Since the theory was that an army’s god or gods traveled with them, this wasn’t in fact about the Israelites and the Philistines at all, but whether Yaweh was more powerful than Baal (who would later become the demon Beelzebub), Dagon and the Philistine gods. Who fought didn’t matter, as long as the terms were agreed to as a way for the gods in question to use their instruments. All the Israelites needed was a champion, and what they got was David.

From there it’s history. David takes the field with his stick and sling, and Goliath reacts with fury at the insult of his challenge being accepted by a boy. He throws away his shield and refuses to use his bow, either of which would have massively changed the way the battle went. David use mobility and range to overcome size and power, aiming his sling stone at the vulnerable place between Goliath’s eyes and inside his helmet. The giant fell, probably senseless from the head wound, which is why David promptly decapitated Goliath before he could return to his senses and do some serious smiting. The battle was won and the legend of a king decided.

Or was it? There is a lot of debate as to whether or not Goliath was a real person and, by extension, if the fight with David could have happened or if it’s meant to be taken purely as a metaphor. Technically it is possible that someone of Goliath’s size and description could have existed. Pituitary giants, those whose bodies produce too much human growth hormone, still exist today as do genetic giants. In the ancient world where might often made right, these people would be swept into professions where their sheer bulk made them valuable, and given the short lifespans of people historically speaking the early deaths of these giants due to heart failure and the body wearing out might not have been noticed. Even accounting for the unrealistic size, Goliath would have seemed bigger due to armor and weapons, since the Philistines had metal working techniques that put them light years ahead of the Israelites in terms of sturdy armor and weapons.

Given that there’s been no sure location of relics like Goliath’s remains, or even the location of the village of Gath, there are some that choose to view this story as a pure metaphor. Often those that take this view claim that Goliath is a descendent of the Nephilim (these were the half breeds of men and angels, created by devils like Azazel before the flood), which makes him not only a powerful force, but a sign of the corruption of the devil. In this light David becomes the champion of good, like the Archangel Michael, fighting against a seemingly superior force that he cannot hope to win against, but with the aid of God he defeats his foe soundly and wins the day for Israel.

The question, sadly, doesn’t have an answer. Was Goliath like Behemoth or Leviathan, monsters recorded in the Bible from real sources that people at the time had seen, or was he an amalgamation of the fears and evils of the nations that were oppressing the Israelites at the time? At the moment at least no one can say, but either way the story of a smaller, but feistier, opponent that fights with the tools he knows defeating a much larger but arrogant foe is one that isn’t likely to depart from cultural mythology any time soon.

“David and Goliath,” by Anonymous at All About the Bible
“Middle East Giants,” by Steve Quayle at Steve Quayle
Excavating Philistine Gath,” by Aren Maier and Carl Ehrlich at Bib-Arch

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