The Cottage Industry in Identifying Goliath’s Giant Armour


When it comes to characters as central to the biblical narrative as King David is, you will find no end of academic publications asking questions about the most minute details of his so-called historical setting. Oddly enough, something of an academic cottage industry has developed merely in respect of the biblical description of Goliath’s gigantic armour – as described  in 1 Samuel 17.5-7.

The latest contribution to this specialized area of academic misadventure is Jeffrey R. Zorn’s ‘Reconsidering Goliath: An Iron Age I Philistine Chariot Warrior’ (Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 360 (Nov 2010): 1-22).

Zorn’s conclusion is that Goliath was an elite warrior, recruited from the maryannu chariot warrior class:

Do Goliath’s helmet, greaves, scale armor, spear, scimitar, sword, and shield-bearer occur in other contexts, some of them in the late Iron Age? Yes. However, each piece of equipment carried by Goliath, his shield-bearer, and his enigmatic designation as “the man-of-the-between-the-two,” have parallels among chariot warriors of the end of the Late Bronze Age and Early Iron Age in the Aegean-Levantine world, and this seems more than fortuitous. In other words, while the story of David and Goliath may have been edited late, the description of Goliath himself preserves very well indeed a memory of a chariot-borne warrior of a bygone era.
(p. 18)

In fact, according to Zorn, the Bible’s preservation of the memory of the armour which was worn by chariot warriors is really quite remarkable, even unique:

The text of 1 Sam 17:4-7 gives a detailed account of the arms and armor of the Philistine champion who battled David in the Elah Valley, a description unmatched for detail in any other biblical text.
(p. 1; emphasis added)

So just what is this unmatched detail that allows us to confidently identify Goliath as a chariot warrior drawn from the maryannu, even in the absence of any mention of a chariot in the narrative of Goliath’s encounter with David? The following is the entirety of the “description unmatched for detail in any other biblical text”:

He had a helmet of bronze on his head, and he was armed with a coat of mail; the weight of the coat was five thousand shekels of bronze. He had greaves of bronze on his legs and 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; and his shield-bearer went before him.
(1 Samuel 17.5-7)

Yes, that’s it. That is the full detail of a biblical text which has launched a hundred commentaries and articles: a listing of three pieces of armour, two weapons, and a shield:

Armour Worn Material Weight / size
Helmet On head Bronze  
Coat of mail On the body   Bronze 5000 shekels (56.7 kg)
Greaves On the legs Bronze  
Javelin Slung between shoulders Bronze  
Spear Held? ? Shaft like a weaver’s beam
    Iron 600 shekels (6.8 kg)
Shield Carried by shield-bearer ?  

Not only that, but the inclusion of some of these details, especially that of the spear, is clearly included so as to emphasise that this is a Giant of some 9 3/4 feet (6 1/2 cubits) in height. Stories about Giants are not usually understood to be really all that interested in “preserving” historic memory – and much less interested than members of the aforementioned cottage industry. 

Isn’t it all a bit like trying to identify the precise variety of Jack’s magic beans (are they broad beans? runner beans?), while ignoring the inconvenient fact that the beans only ever feature in a folk story about a Giant?


8 thoughts on “The Cottage Industry in Identifying Goliath’s Giant Armour

  1. From the author:

    It’s always great to find scholarly articles, such as mine on Goliath and his gear, percolating out to the real world. Anyone who would like a PDF of the article as it appeared in the Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 360 (20210) 1-22 should contact me and I will be glad to forward a copy. Then the reader can judge its merits for him/herself, rather than rely on a review in a blog post.

    Just a few comments to set the record straight. Unlike a blog post my article went through several phases of peer review (i.e. other scholars evaluated its merits). First, a version of it was presented at the 2009 meeting of the ASOR annual meeting and received positive comments. Second, I sent it out to colleagues who are experts in the field of Philistine studies and their feedback was positive. Third, it was sent in for publication in BASOR. The editor can simply dismiss an article as unworthy of publication. It sailed past that hurdle. Finally, it went through formal peer review from two anonymous reviewers. Once their critiques had been worked into the final draft it was accepted for publication. So, at least some scholars thought it was worth publishing :-)

    Second, 1 Samuel 17 passage IS unique in the amount of detail it provides on the weapons and armor borne by any individual in the Hebrew Scriptures. As my article shows, any single piece of equipment is not crucial to the identification of Goliath as a chariot warrior. It is the constellation of ALL Goliath’s gear and other terminology which describe him which establishes him as a chariot warrior.

    I specifically explain in the article why the text does not mention Goliath’s chariot. It is because it does not need to do so. The mere description of Goliath’s equipment would tell the ancient audience that a chariot warrior was meant. To use an analogy: if someone describes a fire, and that the individuals who put out the fire wore certain specialized clothes and carried special equipment they would understand that a fireman/woman was intended. Moreover, they would understand that these individuals would have reached the fire in a special vehicle, their firetruck, even if the truck is not mentioned in the report. It’s exactly the same situation with the biblical Goliath. A modern reader who does not specialize in ancient warfare might miss the clues inherent to the description, but they are there nonetheless.

    Jeffrey R. Zorn
    Cornell University


  2. Thank you for your reply, Jeffrey.

    I note first that I do not dispute the meticulous and thorough scholarship evident in your article, which I agree should be read by anybody interested in what I termed this particular academic ‘cottage industry’. My point rather, presented on this humble non-peer-related blog, was that we might want to stand back and question the inherent limitations of such an enterprise altogether, for which any conclusions, no matter how well they are researched and presented, necessarily remain highly contentious if not impossible to answer with any significant degree of persuasion. And, as you imply, rather than having these articles known only to academic circles, I think there is a great benefit in airing them for a wider audience.

    I wonder if you have the time to clarify one aspect of the article for me, please? You say that a modern reader who does not specialize in ancient warfare might miss the obvious reference to an ancient chariot warrior, implied by the unique taxonomy of Goliath’s gear and other aspects of the narrative. But wouldn’t this be exactly the case also for the ancient reader of 1 Sam. 17? For example, would a Persian-period reader know anything about, let alone be familiar with the constellation of gear and other items in the text, if they describe maryannu? Or does that require a reader from about half a millennium earlier? These are interrelated questions, of course, not requiring altogether separate answers.

    One may well hypothesize that this constellation of terminology in 1 Sam 17 has survived intact as an historical kernel – for over half a millennium of transmission of (oral?) tradition. But could this hypothesis ever be more likely than the alternative hypothesis that a Persian-period author simply listed a bunch of terms that sounded impressive for Persian-period readers, even incorporating the tradition about Giants having spears the size of weaver’s beams (cf. 2 Sam 21)? The same questions apply, to some extent, if you prefer we replace “Persian period” with “late Iron Age” or “Neo-Babylonian”, although I do consider the MT to be no earlier than the Persian period (although this description is, of course, shared with the shorter and I think earlier LXX).


    • Well, you could ask the same question of any reference to material culture in the Bible, yes? However, IMO, it is the references to these sorts of materials that are going to most accurately reflect the reality of the Iron Age Israelite world, not the interpretations put on events and so on by the biblical writers. For example, by the time you get to the latest periods for the editing of the biblical texts (Persian and Hellenistic) few warriors are mounted in chariots. For the most part they are riding horse. So, when the biblical text refers to individuals fighting from chariots with bows they are showing knowledge of warfare in the Iron Age. Just so with Goliath and his gear. If a later writer wants to befuddle his readers he can, of course throw any terms from any periods together he like. Of course a modern writer could mix together powdered wigs, rifled canon, and Kevlar vests to much the same effect! Do note that Homer also is a mixed bag. Sometimes he has a very accurate memory of the Bronze Age (boar tusk helmets) for instance, even though he was composing his stories of that era half a millennium later.


  3. Chariots would seem on the face of it to be rather essential for chariot-warriors. From the vague information given in Samuel, I believe I can confidently identify Goliath as Chinese.


    • Well, it helps if you know Hebrew (and other related languages of the ancient Near East) and are conversant with the actual finds of armor, chariot fittings, etc., and know the artistic representations of the same. If you have that information you will realize that Goliath was not Chinese.


  4. In the hands of an expert, a little bit of information goes a long way. If we read that a soldier was equipped with a bazooka, we can conclude that he (yes, he) fought sometime between 1942 and the end of the Vietnam War.


    • So it’s a great shame that the list of weapons and armour in 1 Sam 17 did not mention a בזוקה. Then we could’ve pinned that dating down!


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