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Goliath—the BHG

Seven supporting archaeological evidences for the biblical giant

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commons.wikimedia.org, Oritell-es-safi
Figure 1. Tell-es-Safi, the accepted archaeological remains of Gath.

Readers familiar with children’s author Roald Dahl may have heard of the BFG (Big Friendly Giant). This article is about another giant, but definitely not friendly—the BHG (big, hostile giant). Many will be familiar with this giant, or at least his name (Goliath), which like Behemoth and Leviathan (Job 40–41), is synonymous with greatness in size. Made famous in every Sunday school, he was unceremoniously dispatched by David, a stripling lad, with a small stone from his sling and a borrowed sword (1 Samuel 17). David later became the most celebrated king of Israel, and an important ancestor of Jesus Christ (Messiah), Matthew 1:1, 6, 16).

However, is this account just a ‘tall tale’ as many think, or did it really happen? David and Goliath is so familiar, that many, sadly, dismiss the account as fable, along with the rest of Scripture. But what is the evidence? Does archaeology have anything to say about the characters and events of some of the most well-known verses in the Bible? This article explores some surprising supporting evidence that has been unearthed by archaeologists in recent years. Such evidence demonstrates beyond doubt that the events of David’s giant slaying are consistent with the archaeological record.

The following seven evidences are not direct evidence for the existence of Goliath, but are nevertheless consistent with the biblical account, so they provide valuable cultural background for the David vs Goliath account.

BHG#1: Goliath’s city—Gath’s giant sized stones

The Bible (1 Samuel 17:4) tells us that Goliath lived in Gath (in Hebrew pronounced ḡaṯ). This city is mentioned 33 times in Scripture.1 It was one of five Canaanite city-states of the Philistines (Joshua 13:2–3) and is first mentioned in Joshua 11:22. Along with Gaza and Ashdod, Gath was the refuge for giants (Anakim2) and presumably ‘regular’ Canaanites, who had not been killed off during Joshua and Israel’s conquest of Canaan.3

Around 200 hundred years later, Hazael the Syrian king (reigned 842–796 BC) conquered Gath (2 Kings 12:17–18). He then turned his attentions to Jerusalem, but Jehoash king of Judah paid him off from the Temple treasuries to persuade him not to conquer the city.

Archaeologists have firmly established Hazael’s conquest of Gath from archaeological remains discovered at a mound, or tell, called Tell es-Safi (figure 1). It has been explored since 1899, but after 1996 the site has been excavated by the Tell es-Safi/Gath Archaeological Project, directed by Aaron Maeir (an American-born, Israeli archaeologist and professor at Bar Ilan University). Located halfway between Jerusalem and Ashkelon, Tell-es-Safi has been the subject of intensive, technologically advanced archaeological exploration.4 However, it was what was discovered beneath the destruction layer of Hazael that has caused quite the archaeological stir. For instance, The Times of Israel news outlet stated:

“Digging a little deeper [in 2019, archaeologists] found impressive remains that predate the settlement destroyed by Hazael in 830 BC …” described as: “Super-sized remains of ‘enormous’ architecture and fortifications …”5

The Times article explains that the majority of Tell es-Safi’s previously excavated areas were dated to the 10th and 9th centuries BC, and had very little evidence of fortifications. However, the newly excavated layer beneath dates to the 11th century, and stands in stark contrast to the layers above in terms of its massive architecture. This is the correct period for the biblical narrative in 1 Samuel 17, when the future King David slew the giant Goliath.4 Professor Maeir stated for the record:

“For those scholars that accept that David was a historical figure—and I’m among them—the late 11th–, early 10th [centuries BC], the time of the earlier phase of the city of Gath, whose impressive remains were just found, is the time frame in which David existed. … If in fact David did confront an opponent in single combat, most often identified as Goliath, this would, more or less, be the time of this early Iron Age phase of the city of Gath … [the discovered archaeological remains] show that the buildings and the fortifications were very large, built with extremely large stones … of much larger dimensions than almost anything found in the Levant during this era. … In later layers at the site … the ancient architects used half-meter-long (1.6 foot) stones. In the ‘Goliath layer,’ the blocks measure between one and two meters (roughly 3.2–6.5 feet).”4,6

Such archaeological evidence is strikingly consistent with the city being the refuge of the giant Anachim. However, Prof. Maeir is not willing to entertain such notions:

“All Philistine skeletal remains discovered so far have shown absolutely no evidence that the people were larger or different from normal-sized people …” And, “it is hard to say whether or not there is a historical kernel to the story, and if there is in fact a kernel, what this kernel was.”4

For Maeir, it is the giant architecture that led to the legendary giant:

“In light of the new find … whether the various biblical traditions referring to the giants of Gath— Goliath is only one example—may stem from the size of the Philistines’ monumental building.”4

However, it is premature of Maeir to dismiss the Bible’s account of Goliath, as we shall see from further evidence.

BHG#2: The gates of Gath—Giant sized entrances

Archaeologists have found that the city of Gath had enormous gates to go with its enormous fortifications and walls. In 2015 a huge gate entrance to the city was unearthed by the same team lead by Prof. Maeir. An online article at the time stated:

“A massive gate unearthed in Israel may have marked the entrance to a biblical city that, at its heyday, was the biggest metropolis in the region.”

“… it wasn’t until the past few decades that [archaeologists] realized how massive the Iron Age remains really were.”

“The team also found ironworks and a Philistine temple near the monumental gate, with some pottery and other finds typically associated with Philistine culture.”7

Everything about Gath seemed larger than life.

BHG#3: The “Goliath Ostracon”—The giant’s name?

MaeirGoliath-ostracon
Figure 2. “Goliath ostracon”, Tell es-Safi.

In 2005, a shard of pottery with writing (called an ostracon) was discovered at Tell es-Safi by Prof. Maeir’s team, who dated it to the 10th to the early 9th centuries BC. Two names appear scratched on the pottery: “AWLT and WLT” (figure 2). According to Maeir, these names are very close in spelling to Goliath, the famous biblical giant’s name (in Hebrew it is pronounced golyāṯ). The pottery is typical of other examples found at Tell es-Safi and other sites dating from this period.8 Concerning the ostracon text, Maeir states that:

“… it is the earliest Philistine inscription that is deciphered and written in Semitic letters. … It is also one of the earliest Proto-Semitic inscriptions that is both well-dated and from a clear archaeological context … the inscription demonstrates that ca. the 10th/9th cent. BCE, names very similar to Goliath were in use at Philistine Gath. This does provide some cultural background for the David/Goliath story …”9

It is also possible that this pottery shard commemorated the memory of Goliath, possibly a hundred years after the events of his execution at the hands of David.10

BHG#4: The Kfar Monash hoard—Giant sized spears

In the Spring of 1962, at Kfar Monash,11 a hoard of copper tools and weapons were discovered by an Israeli farmer ploughing his field. Some silver plate and beads were also discovered, but the wooden handles belonging to the copper implements had long rotted away. The axe heads were identified as being identical to those found at Tell es-Safi (Gath). It was the copper spear heads that were the most striking (figure 3). The archaeological report states the following:

“This is the most remarkable group among the Monash finds. The four spear heads are powerful weapons, beautifully proportioned, and of excellent workmanship. All four are identical in shape, though they differ in size: The shortest is 33.3cm long (including the tang [where the blade fixing slots onto the wooden shaft]) and weighs 0.35 kg [D, 13 inches, 0.77 lbs]; the longest is 66 cm long and weighs 2.05 kg [A, 26 inches, 4.52 lbs]. … The tangs are massive; near the blades they are round in section, becoming square near the hooked tips (except for the largest, [A]). Heavy hammering shows on their surface. The spear-heads bear signs of use, especially the heaviest, which is bent in one spot and worn in several places along the edges. These heavy spear-heads would have required a long and well-balanced shaft. The complete spear-head and shaft together would form a very long weapon, measuring probably more than the height of a man.”12

commons.wikimedia.org, Gary Toddcopper-spear-heads
Figure 3. Monash hoard copper spear heads, the largest (D) is 66cm (26 inches) long and weighs 2.05 kg (4.52 lbs) (credit: Hestrin).

The report compares the outsized weapons to other weapons in the Ancient Near East (ANE) (average spearheads of this period may be around 6–7cm long13) but then concludes:

“In the case of the Monash spears, however, their unusual size and weight would appear to be an obstacle rather than an aid to anyone carrying them.”9

That is of course, assuming someone of average height and strength. Dismissing the possibility of giant humans, the report then speculates as to the spear’s function, not as weapons, but as large tent poles:

“Because of its size, the powerful spear would be suitable as a tent pole. Not only would it be heavy enough to hold the weight, but it would symbolize the might and strength of the owner.”9

In a footnote, another theory is mentioned, that of battering rams. A simple solution to the puzzle (which takes into account the blade damage) would be that a huge human used the huge spear in battle.

All this should remind us of the details given in the Goliath episode (1 Samuel 17:7). He had:

“… a javelin of bronze slung between his shoulders. The shaft of his spear was like a weaver’s beam, and his spear’s head weighed six hundred shekels of iron” (emphasis added).

The biggest spear found in the Monash hoard weighed 2.05 kg. One iron shekel is equivalent to 12.9g (0.445oz)14 which makes the largest Monash spearhead approximately 160 shekels. This pales when compared to Goliath’s massive 600-shekel spearhead (16 lbs 11 oz, or 7.57kg)15!

That Goliath’s spear-shaft was ‘like a weaver’s beam’ is highly instructive. Examples are known from Ancient Israel of looms used for weaving cloth. It was common for weaver’s beams to be 2 to 2 1/2” inches thick (up to 6 cm) and more than 5 feet long (152 cm). Goliath spear researchers state:

“The Biblical reference of a weaver’s beam is most likely in respect to the unusual thickness and strength of the shaft rather than the length. The weaver’s beam reference contrasts the normal smaller, thinner spear that would be handled by an average size man. There are 4 verses in scripture that mention a weaver’s beam like spear, 2 of which refer to Goliath’s Spear. One refers Goliath’s brother’s spear who was most likely close to Goliath’s size. The 4th verse refers to a giant size Egyptian in that day who would measure over 7 foot 6 in tall [1 Samuel 17:7; 21:19; 1 Chronicles 11:23; 20:5]…”16

Goliath’s armour

Another “remarkable feature of the Monash hoard”9 were around 800 copper scales (a small sample shown in figure 4).17 Similar scales have been found at Gath and were identified as scales of armour. The only difference with the Monash and Gath armour scales compared to other examples from the ANE are that, instead of central holes, they had ridges on the edges. The report stated these could serve as attachment points to be sown to a leather undergarment, and likely overlapped to give additional protection. The mystery for the archaeologists was that there were so many in one spot.

commons.wikimedia.org, Gary ToddRidged-copper-plates
Figure 4. Ridged copper plates, identified as armour scales.

“The great number of scales found would point to several [four suggested later] coats-of-mail being hidden in the Monash hoard. The only parallel for the Monash scales was found at Tel ‘Gath’, where identical copper scales, also forming a package, were uncovered in the area of the city wall … This find is dated by the excavators to the Early Bronze age I stratum.”9

Again, this reminds us of the biblical details; Goliath “… was armed with a coat of mail, and the weight of the coat was five thousand shekels of bronze” (1 Samuel 17:5). Alternatively—these armour scales may represent not several coats, but one coat, worn by a single, huge individual.

Furthermore, significantly from an archaeological perspective, but consistent with biblical history, the Monash Hoard and Tell es-Safi examples push the (secular) date of the development of armour “back to the end of the fourth or to the third millennium BC.”9

The report recognizes that the Monash hoard was deliberately hidden, possibly by four wood-cutters, though for what purpose we may never know. The report concludes that most of the weapons are known from other examples in the ANE, particularly Egypt but:

“With one possible exception, no spear-heads similar to ours have as yet been found. … this corresponds to the Early Bronze Age I or the beginning of the Early Bronze Age II—that is c. 3200–2750 BC.”9

The sizes and weights given in the biblical account discount the Monash hoard as belonging specifically to Goliath, but it is nevertheless consistent with evidence for gigantism. What we have here, despite the report’s reluctance to admit to the obvious, are weapons and armour for a giant, that both point to Gath, but which were also removed 50 miles north and hidden, for whatever reason. The copper hoard is now exhibited in the Israel Museum, Jerusalem, and can be viewed online.18 The spear and armour of Goliath? Probably not, but consistent with a giant Philistine warrior nonetheless.

BHG#5: Giants with six fingers and toes

When answering the visual-test question “how many fingers am I holding up?” and the answer is “six” (including a thumb) then the examiner likely has a recognized genetic anomaly (mutation) called polydactylism.19 These mutations are also observed in animals.20 The Bible gives some fascinating details about the five sons of Goliath of Gath, including one who had twenty-four fingers and toes (six digits each; 1 Chronicles 20:6–8, cf. 2 Samuel 21:20). Does archaeology have anything to say about polydactylism in the ANE around the time-period of Goliath? Interestingly, it does. In an article published on polydactylism, the author states:

“Two examples of polydactylism from the 13th century BC. appear on clay sarcophagi in quasi-Egyptian style found at Deir el-Balah … near Gaza. One, formerly in the collections of Moshe Dayan and now acquired by the Israel Museum, shows a man with six fingers on his left hand. Another, excavated by Trude Dothan, is indistinct in details, but was clearly meant to be polydactylous.”21

Other examples from the ANE are cited, leading to the author’s conclusion that:

“Early examples seem to indicate that polydactylism was a characteristic of giants, or of people with super powers or extra strength. In this connection, we find some depictions with even more than six fingers or toes.”17

Medical science has determined that most mutations are ‘pleiotropic’ (the production by a single gene of two or more apparently unrelated effects). Mutations that lead to giantism in humans may also result in extra fingers and toes. However, such anomalies tend to be disadvantages, and are certainly not examples of upward evolution.

commons.wikimedia.org, Oren RozenTel-Dan-Stele
Figure 5. The Tel Dan Stele (KAI 310) on display at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem.

Once again, the biblical account, even in its minor details is shown to be consistent with what is known about the archaeological record for this time-period and place.

BHG#6: David—the giant-killer

The Tel Dan Stele (figure 5) was discovered in 1993 in Tel-Dan (north Israel). Its fragments were found amongst masonry used in an ancient stone wall that survived into recent times. The stele contains thirteen lines of Old Aramaic. Line 9 contains the words bytdwd “house of David” (highlighted in white). The most likely candidate for the stele’s author (due to the context) is the Syrian king, Hazael (already discussed previously).22 The mention of the “House of David” by Israel’s enemy is demonstrable proof of the existence of King David as an historical figure, who, as a ruddy youth slew another of Israel’s enemies—the giant Goliath.

BHG#7: Goliath killed by a sling stone

As a young Sunday school child I remember singing “Only a boy named David” and at the appropriate point, jumping off my chair, along with my classmates singing “one little stone went up-up-up and the giant came tumbling down!” But how realistic is this story? Could a ‘mere shepherd boy’ really bring down a well-seasoned Philistine warrior wearing armor, with just a sling? And with such accuracy, while staying out of range of his deadly spear? What does archaeology have to say about that?

Seevers and Dennisegyptian-relief-showing-slinger
Figure 6. Egyptian relief showing slinger, Medinet Habu, ca. 1180 BC.

Firstly, slings in the ancient world were not toys, they were devastating weapons of war! The oldest slings known from the biblical world came from King Tutankhamun’s tomb (ca. 1320 BC) who had slings buried with him amongst his grave goods. At Medinet Habu, an Egyptian relief (figure 6) shows an Egyptian slinger in a ships ‘crow’s nest’ (mast lookout structure) engaging the ‘Sea Peoples’ (Philistines) in battle with an outstretched sling. Many other examples of slings used in warfare are known throughout the ancient world.23

Slings are mentioned as weapons of war in the Old Testament. The earliest is during the time of the Judges (20:16) which describes seven hundred left-handed Benjamites whose accuracy was of great renown. 2 Kings 3:25 mentions Israelite slingers who helped defeat the Moabites. Biblical OT professor Boyd Seevers points out that, despite the effectiveness of the sling as a weapon of war, it was considered a low-class weapon of choice for shepherds and poor folk, compared to prestigious, expensive armor and weaponry needed for hand-to-hand combat. Such elitist attitudes are well known from Ancient Greece and Goliath’s disdain for David may well reflect a similar class prejudice (cf. 1 Samuel 17:42–43).23

The slinger required the ability to harness centrifugal force in order to launch a projectile, by releasing one end of the string holding the projectile pouch. This required great skill and coordination, and required strong, supple arms.

commons.wikimedia.org, Deroravi avisling-stones
Figure 7. Sling stones are common in the archaeological record for instance, these from Tel Lachish, dating to 701 BC.

David’s choice of projectile, a smooth river pebble, is also known as a missile of choice from the ancient world, with countless examples known from archaeological digs. Smooth, round projectiles offer the least air resistance in flight and could be launched at speeds up to 182 km/h (113 miles/h). The archaeological record shows an abundance of sling shots (figure 7), many the size of tennis balls; these were able to inflict lethal damage.23

Lastly, could David have released a shot, knocking Goliath down, while keeping out of range? Such questions have been calculated from available archaeological evidence and through careful experimentation. The answer is a resounding yes. It is well within the realms of probability that a smooth, stone (maybe around tennis ball sized), taken from the brook of Elah, could have been slung within 40m (131 feet) of Goliath to bring him crashing down. Goliath’s javelin range may have been 20 to 30 meters (65–98 feet), meaning David outranged him with a low-tech weapon. The deadly nature of slingers were well known from the Ancient World, and could outrange most archers, including for their accuracy.24,25

Seevers concludes:

“David’s sling provided him the advantage of staying out of range of his opponent’s weapons but still hit Goliath’s exposed forehead from perhaps 40 meters away with enough force to penetrate his skull so he could kill him and win the battle for Israel and for Israel’s God.”23

However, it should be added, that David who had killed the bear and lion single handed (1 Samuel 17:34–38) would have been nimble and brave enough to have come much closer if needed.

Conclusion

The seven evidences for Goliath discussed here should give encouragement to all Bible believers. One of the most colorful accounts in the Bible is not contradicted by any of the known facts of archaeology, so it doesn’t take a giant leap of faith to accept the historical accuracy of the Scriptures! Rather the account of David slaying the ‘Big Hostile Giant’ is confirmed with evidence that is entirely consistent with what is known from the archaeology of Israel for the time of David. We can, therefore, confidently offer a logical, reasoned defense of the Bible to those who ask us for a reason of the hope that is in us (1 Peter 3:15).

Published: 29 September 2022

References and notes

  1. Joshua 11:2; 1 Samuel 5:8; 6:17; 7:14; 17:4, 23, 52; 21:10, 12; 27:2–4, 11; II Samuel 1:20; 15:18; 21:20, 22; 1 Kings 2:39–41; 2 Kings 12:17; 1 Chronicles 7:21; 8:13; 18:1; 20:6, 8; 2 Chronicles 11:8; 26:6; Psalm 56:1; Amos 6:2; Micah 1:10. Return to text.
  2. In Hebrew Anakim means “long-necked people” or “neck-chain people”. Return to text.
  3. In Joshua 12:4, the giant Og’s cities were Ashtoroth and Edrei which are named in a Bronze Age Ugarit cuneiform tablet KTU 1.108. Return to text.
  4. Interested readers should see: National Geographic, Tell es-Safi/Gath Excavations, nationalgeographic.org; accessed 3 October 2022. Return to text.
  5. Borschel-Dan, A., Colossal ancient structures found at Gath may explain origin of story of Goliath, timesofisrael.com, 26 July 2019. Return to text.
  6. Assuming rectangular blocks of granite, the Hazael era blocks (1.6 x 0.8 x 0.8 ft) weighed approx. 14 lbs (6.4 kg), compared to the biggest ‘Goliath’ era blocks (6.5 x 3.25x 3.25 ft) weighing 944 lbs (428 kg). Return to text.
  7. Ghose, T., Goliath Gates: Entrance to Famous Biblical Metropolis Uncovered, livescience.com, 4 Aug 2015. Return to text.
  8. Maeir, A. and Demsky, A., A Late Iron Age I/Early Iron Age II Old Canaanite inscription from Tell es-’Iafi/Gath, Israel: Palaeography, dating, and historical cultural significance, BASOR 351:1–33, 2008. Return to text.
  9. Maeir A., Comment on the news item in BAR on the ‘Goliath Inscription’, gath.wordpress.com, 16 Feb 2006. Return to text.
  10. As discussed in: Strata: New finds Gath inscription evidences Philistine assimilation, Biblical Archaeology Review 32(2), 2006; baslibrary.org. Return to text.
  11. Kfar Monash is around 55 miles (90km) north of Tell es-Safi. Return to text.
  12. Hestrin, R. & Tadmor, M., A hoard of tools and weapons from Kfar Monash, Israel Exploration Journal 13(4): 265–288 (p. 279), 1963. Return to text.
  13. For an excellent YouTube presentation on the Kfar Monash copper hoard see: Expedition Bible, Joel Kramer, Archaeological Evidence for Giants in the Bible? youtu.be/dlUJxNFyRBM, 10 Jun 2022. Kramer compares the average size of spear heads to the largest Monash examples. Return to text.
  14. How much does a shekel of iron weigh? goliathsspear.com/shekel; accessed 5 Aug 2022. Return to text.
  15. How big was Goliath’s spear? goliathsspear.com/spear-size; accessed 5 Aug 2022. Return to text.
  16. What is a weaver’s beam? goliathsspear.com/weavers-beam; accessed 5 Aug 2022. Return to text.
  17. Although English Bibles describe Goliath’s armour as being made of ‘bronze’ (an alloy of copper and c. 12% tin) the Hebrew is nechosheth, which refers to both copper and bronze. Return to text.
  18. See: Hoard of copper objects, Kfar Monash, Early Bronze Age, 2950–2650 BCE, imj.org.il/en/collections/394185; accessed 4 Aug 2022. Return to text.
  19. Seven fingers on each hand plus seven toes on each foot are the record (28 digits) see: Most fingers and toes (polydactylism) on a living person, guinnessworldrecords.com; accessed 5 Aug 2022. Return to text.
  20. Rosejul, N., Curious congenital anomalies: Polydactyl and syndactyl humans and cats”, youmemindbody.com, 20 July 2018. Return to text.
  21. Barnett, R.D., Polydactylism in the ancient world, Bulletin of the Anglo-Israel Archaeological Society 6:1986–1987. Return to text.
  22. Lemaire, A., The Tel Dan Stela as a piece of royal historiography, JSOT 81:3–14, 1998. Return to text.
  23. As discussed in: Seevers, B. and Dennis, V., Slinging in the biblical world: and what we can learn about David defeating Goliath, NEASB 63:1–13, 2018. Return to text.
  24. Seevers mentions 8th century BC Greek Homer’s Iliad, 4th century AD Roman military author Vegetius (Epitoma 2.23), Roman historian Livy (1st century BC/AD) (History 38.29), Celcus, Roman medical author (first century BC/AD). Return to text.
  25. For interested readers, Dr Boyd Seevers is interviewed by Henry Smith Jr. of Associates for Biblical Research, Taking down Goliath: digging for truth, youtu.be/7p0jtMy4iwY, 25 Apr 2021. Return to text.

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