Diagnosing Goliath: Gigantism, Acromegaly, Pituitary Tumours, etc

gigantismIn modern times, various medical experts (and many people who are not medical experts) have attempted to diagnose the cause of Goliath’s gigantic height. One recurring suggestion is that poor old Goliath was suffering either from gigantism or acromegaly, caused by excessive growth hormones.

Malcolm Gladwell, in David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants (2013), traces this diagnosis of Goliath’s stature to a 1960 article in the Journal of the Indiana State Medical Association, “Hereditary Hyperparathyroidism” (53: 1313-1316). Since then there have been a number of supporters, including Gladwell himself, S.W. Lamberts (1992), Dag Moskopp (1996), M. Feinsod (1997), Vladimir Berginer (2000), Vladimir Berginer and Chaim Cohen (2006), and Stephen K. Mathew and Jeyaraj D. Pandian (2010).

For a number of reasons, such endeavours cannot rise above sheer speculation.

  • First, the height of Goliath in the probably older LXX version is only 6 3/4 feet. Even given an average male Philistine height of just over five feet, Goliath’s height is hardly a sure sign of any medical abnormality.
  • Second, the details of the story are dubious. Famously, in 2 Samuel 21, it is “Elhanan” who kills Goliath of Gath, not David. So when modern medical experts draw inferences from the details in the story about David and Goliath in 1 Samuel 17, the grounds for doing so are poor.
  • Third, the story in 1 Samuel 17 emphasizes theological reasons for David’s victory (David has faith in his god Yahweh, while Goliath mocks this god). To treat such a story as good data for medical diagnosis is, therefore, very misguided.

Such considerations have not put a stop to efforts to diagnose Goliath. The latest medical article on the subject is by Deirdre E Donnelly and Patrick J Morrison (“Hereditary Gigantism-the biblical giant Goliath and his brothers”, Ulster Medical Journal, May 2014; 83(2): 86–88).

Donnelly and Morrison take the Bible at face value, seemingly accepting that there was a “Flood” and that the Bible is a good witness to giants at the dawn of time:

Giants have been around since time began; they are first described in the Bible in the book of Genesis (6:1-4)…

Giants lived together as a number of separate races, before and after the Flood….

The giants from Gath were present after the Flood. One possible answer to the often raised question of why the Nephilim giants, present before the Flood were not eradicated by it, could be that new mutations in the AIP gene (or other genes) caused new families of giants to appear

Although it shouldn’t have to be said – the worldwide “Flood” is not an historical event! Donnelly and Morrison’s analysis of medical conditions developing in periods defined “before” and “after” the Flood is, well, silly.

Donnelly and Morrison proceed to connect the name of one group of giants mentioned in the Bible, the ענקים (Anakim) to the Hebrew term ענק (necklace). Which is fair enough. But from this they suggest that the term might possibly refer to the goitre. They then leap to the fabulous conclusion that Goliath’s condition was “hyperthyroidism, possibly due to underlying pituitary gland, or other endocrine, dysfunction”.

Not satisfied with these leaps of fancy, Donnelly and Morrison then reconstruct Goliath’s alleged family tree “from Samuel and Chronicles” (by which they must surely mean the giants mentioned in 2 Sam 21:15–22 and its parallel in 1 Chron 20:4–8). Some of these giants are said to have six fingers, a not uncommon symptom of gigantism. In their reconstructed family tree, Donnelly and Morrison indicate members affected by the hereditary autosomal dominant pituitary gene with black shading,  and indicate the presence of hexadactyly (six-fingeredness) with the + symbol:

goliath-family-tree

The big problem here is that 2 Sam 21:15–22 and 1 Chron 20:4–8 don’t actually mention any family relations. Donnelly and Morrison seem to have read the term “offsprings of the Raphah” (ילידי הרפה) in these passages a little too literally. The term refers generally to the giants of Gath as descendants of the Rephaim/Giants. How Donnelly and Morrison came up with Goliath’s three sons, is more puzzling, but it is not from reading anything in the Bible. In addition, their inclusion of Lahmi as brother of Goliath appears to be ignorant of the well-known interpretation of this phrase as a harmonization with 1 Samuel 17. Elhanan is made to kill Goliath’s brother, rather than Goliath himself, thereby removing the embarrassing contradiction with the story of David and Goliath in 1 Samuel 17 (in which David, rather than Elhanan, kills Goliath). Lahmi does not appear in the more original 2 Samuel 21.  There is simply no “family tree” to be reconstructed here. So the authors’ conclusion about a “hereditary” condition is based on a fundamental misunderstanding.

Donnelly and Morrison go on to explain that Goliath was killed due to impaired vision, caused by his autosomal dominant pituitary gene. Here things descend into pure speculation:

Goliath was killed by David who threw a stone at his forehead (Samuel [sic] 17:49). This gives further evidence that he suffered from pituitary gland dysfunction; a pituitary tumour pressing on his optic chiasm, and consequent visual disturbance due to pressure on his optic nerve, would have made it difficult for him to see the stone in his lateral vision. Pituitary giants look impressive in terms of stature, but may not have speed and agility to match their perceived strength. David, having agility, particularly having declined the heavy set of armour that was offered to him, and being skilled at sling shots, may have found a way around the fearsome looking giant by firing a sling shot from the side of the battlefield….

Goliath himself had a shield bearer precede him, possibly to indicate to Goliath the direction of the approaching foe.

Donnelly and Morrison then cite the other medical experts who have speculated on Goliath’s condition, as “fact”:

The fact that Goliath may have had a pituitary tumour was recognised by Vladimir Berginer in a paper in 2000.

For the reasons provided above, the conclusions of those who have attempted to diagnose Goliath are far from “fact”. The modern diagnosis of Goliath is an entirely misguided enterprise from the get go. It is made more absurd in this case by the misinterpretation of biblical passages as involving a “family tree” where there is none in fact. In their acknowledgements, the authors thank “the theological reviewer who carefully checked our statements on the Biblical giants for accuracy and who provided very helpful comments including original Hebrew text”. Donnelly and Morrison would have received better advice if they had been told to stick to the diagnosis of living patients and leave biblical characters alone.

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Recent Giant Scholarship

Israeli Ministry of Tourism logoWhat are biblical scholars saying about the Giants in the Old Testament / Hebrew Bible? The latest word in biblical scholarship can be found here:

Galbraith, D. (2013). “Manufacturing Judean Myth: The Spy Narrative in Numbers 13–14 as Rewritten Tradition”(Thesis, Doctor of Philosophy)

Among the findings:

(1) the Hebronite traditions (concerning the Judahite leader Caleb, the city of Hebron, and ‘the sons of Anak’ who inhabit Hebron) are not vestiges of ancient legend which have been preserved in the text, but are all secondary to the spy-rebellion tradition derived from dtr Deut. 1;

(2) gigantic stature was first attributed to the sons of Anak and Nephilim in the composition of Num. 13–14, and to the Anakim and Rephaim of Deut. 1–3 in post-deuteronomistic Hexateuchal additions which harmonised the text with the expansionary Num. 13–14;

(3) the extension of the term ‘Rephaim’ to denote entire giant peoples throughout their associated territories also originates with the Hexateuchal harmonisations in Deut. 1–3;

And a detailed interview with the author can be found on Jim West’s blog, Zwinglius Redivivus:

“Scholars You Should Know: Deane Galbraith”

I know, I know – such gratuitous self-publicity…

The Brick Testament: Old Testament Collection (Genesis-Kings) to be Published

The Brick Bible: A New Spin on the Old TestamentFor years, The Brick Testament has entertained us with its online portrayal of biblical stories, lovingly recreated with Lego bricks and figurines. Now, the entire Genesis-Kings collection is to be published in book form. Brendan Powell Smith’s The Brick Bible: A New Spin on the Old Testament (Skyhorse Publishing) will be available from 1 October 2011:

Brendan Powell Smith has spent the last decade creating nearly 5,000 scenes from the bible—with Legos. His wonderfully original sets are featured on his website, Bricktestament.com, but for the first time 1,500 photographs of these creative designs—depicting the Old Testament from Earth’s creation to the Books of Kings—are brought together in book format. The Holy Bible is complex; sometimes dark, and other times joyous, and Smith’s masterful work is a far cry from what a small child might build. The beauty of The Brick Bible is that everyone, from the devout to nonbelievers, will find something breathtaking, fascinating, or entertaining within this collection. Smith’s subtle touch brings out the nuances of each scene and makes you reconsider the way you look at Legos—it’s something that needs to be seen to be believed.

Publisher’s blurb

No doubt, there will be Giants, as the Bible is full of them… including Ishbi-Benob, whose bronze spearhead weighed three hundred shekels,and who was killed by one of David’s mighty men, Abishai:

And King Og of Bashan:

Og of Bashan

And Goliath:
Goliath
And the Anakim:

Anakim

And of course, there are the Nephilim, who came down to the Earth to have sexual intercourse with women, and – in Powell’s interpretation, apparently – made them peform oral sex on their angelic members:

Nephilim