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Camelot, David and Goliath

David and Goliath by Michelangelo, on the Sistine Chapel ceiling

by Trent Dee Stephens, PhD for the Come Follow Me lesson June 13-19, 1 Samuel 8-10; 15-18

As it turns out, pondering the scriptures can be a lot of fun. I would like to share a story from my own experience.

For anyone interested in human birth defects, the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Washington in the late 1970s was like being in Camelot. Almost everyone who was anyone in the field at the time was there – and most of the rest were in Cincinnati with Josef Warkany at the University of Cincinnati, College of Medicine.

But there was a problem with Cincinnati – Warkany’s wife was allergic to ragweed, and Cincinnati is apparently the ragweed capital of the world. So they moved to Seattle for two months out of every year – every August and September, at least during the years I was there. Warkany, the Father of modern Teratology (the study of birth defects) was so renowned in the medical community that the UW gave him his own office in the Medical School Library for those two months each year.

Every Friday, we all met in Thomas Shepard’s laboratory for cheese, fruit, and wine – a soft drink for me – and to discuss anything that came up. Shepard literally wrote the book on drugs and birth defects (known as teratogens) and was also internationally renowned. My “office” was in the corner of the laboratory where we met on Fridays. The time there was like sitting around the Round Table of King Arthur – we were all treated as equals – we post-docs – along with the professors – the greatest minds in the field of birth defects.

On one of those occasions, Warkany turned to me and said, “You’re very religious aren’t you.”

“Yes,” I answered – everyone in the group was well aware that I was – and am.

“Are you aware that Goliath’s cousin had polydactyly?” he asked. (Polydactyly means having extra fingers and/or toes.)

Suddenly I found myself very much on the spot. I was recognized by the group as one of the world’s leading experts on limb defects – but I was not even aware that polydactyly had ever been mentioned in the Bible – even though I had read the entire Old Testament twice by then – this is a huge problem for someone who is supposed to be religious and an expert on birth defects of the arms and legs. I didn’t even know that Goliath had a cousin.

“I didn’t even know that Goliath had a cousin,” I responded.

“Do you have a Bible handy?” Warkany asked me, with a twinkle in his eye.

Now I was even more on the spot. Here I was the religious one of the group and didn’t even have a Bible in my office.

“No,” I answered sheepishly. He smiled.

Here are the relevant scriptures:

“And there went out a champion out of the camp of the Philistines, named Goliath, of Gath, whose height was six cubits and a span. And he had an helmet of brass upon his head, and he was armed with a coat of mail; and the weight of the coat was five thousand shekels of brass. And he had greaves of brass upon his legs, and a target of brass between his shoulders. And the staff of his spear was like a weaver’s beam; and his spear’s head weighed six hundred shekels of iron: and one bearing a shield went before him.” (1 Samuel 17:4-7)

“And there was again a battle in Gob with the Philistines, where Elhanan the son of Jaare-oregim, a Beth-lehemite, slew the brother of Goliath the Gittite, the staff of whose spear was like a weaver’s beam. And there was yet a battle in Gath, where was a man of great stature, that had on every hand six fingers, and on every foot six toes, four and twenty in number; and he also was born to the giant. [see also 1 Chronicles 20:6] And when he defied Israel, Jonathan the son of Shimea the brother of David slew him. These four were born to the giant in Gath, and fell by the hand of David, and by the hand of his servants.” (2 Samuel 21:19-22)

It sounds more like this giant of Gath was maybe a brother of Goliath, or a nephew, not just a cousin – with polydactyly – six fingers on each hand and six toes on each foot.

Warkany then told us all this remarkable story: There is a modern condition called Goliath syndrome, which consists of a dominant gene causing a pituitary tumor – producing excessive amounts of growth hormone and resulting in gigantism – and polydactyly with reduced penetrance. Reduced penetrance means that not everyone with the defective gene exhibits the condition, in this case, polydactyly. Therefore, two brothers could each have the defective gene. Both might have a pituitary tumor and gigantism, but only one may exhibit polydactyly whereas the other may not. Thus, even though Goliath was described as being a giant, he was never described with extra fingers or toes. The other giant – maybe his brother, on the other hand – actually on both hands, was a giant with polydactyly.

I have tried to look up Goliath syndrome in the literature – without much success. I looked in Warkany’s book, Congenital Malformations (Year Book Medical Publishers, Chicago, Illinois, 1975), but it was not mentioned there. Deirdre Donnelly and Patrick Morrison discussed the syndrome in their paper, “Hereditary Gigantism-the biblical giant Goliath and his brothers,” in the Ulster Medical Journal (83: 86–88, 2014), but argued that the likely, known genes for gigantism and polydactyly are spaced too far apart to be linked without other traits also being present. However, gigantism is a very rare disorder, occurring about 8.0 times per 105 births. Polydactyly is not all that rare, occurring in about 2.0 times per 103 births. Therefore, those two defects would occur together by chance in the same person only 1.6 times per 109 births – that’s 1.6 times in a billion births. The entire earth population didn’t even reach a billion until 1804. Therefore, it is almost certain that the gigantism and polydactyly seen in Goliath’s family were linked as co-inherited dominant traits. Those traits, especially the polydactyly, may have resulted from genes no longer present in today’s populations – after all, according to the scriptures, Goliath and his relatives were killed off at an amazing rate by David and his family.

A pituitary tumor has two additional affects, in addition to gigantism. The tumor tends to impinge upon the point where a portion of the optic nerves cross (the chiasma), resulting in tunnel vision. In fact, an early diagnosis of pituitary tumor is often the onset of tunnel vision – I taught this issue, along with the story I’m telling here, every year I taught Neurobiology or Head and Neck Anatomy at Idaho State University for twenty five or thirty years respectively. The second result of a pituitary tumor is that a large number of blood vessels proliferate around the tumor. Those blood vessels may have one or more associated aneurisms, which may be prone to burst following a trauma, such as a sharp blow to the head.

The scripture continues,“And he [David] took his staff in his hand, and chose him five smooth stones out of the brook, and put them in a shepherd’s bag which he had, even in a scrip; and his sling was in his hand: and he drew near to the Philistine. And the Philistine came on and drew near unto David; and the man that bare the shield went before him. And when the Philistine looked about, and saw David, he disdained him: for he was but a youth, and ruddy, and of a fair countenance.And the Philistine said unto David, Am I a dog, that thou comest to me with staves? And the Philistine cursed David by his gods. And the Philistine said to David, Come to me, and I will give thy flesh unto the fowls of the air, and to the beasts of the field. Then said David to the Philistine, Thou comest to me with a sword, and with a spear, and with a shield: but I come to thee in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom thou hast defied.This day will the Lord deliver thee into mine hand; and I will smite thee, and take thine head from thee; and I will give the carcases of the host of the Philistines this day unto the fowls of the air, and to the wild beasts of the earth; that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel. And all this assembly shall know that the Lord saveth not with sword and spear: for the battle is the Lord’s, and he will give you into our hands.And it came to pass, when the Philistine arose, and came and drew nigh to meet David, that David hasted, and ran toward the army to meet the Philistine. And David put his hand in his bag, and took thence a stone, and slang it, and smote the Philistine in his forehead, that the stone sunk into his forehead; and he fell upon his face to the earth.So David prevailed over the Philistine with a sling and with a stone, and smote the Philistine, and slew him; but there was no sword in the hand of David. Therefore David ran, and stood upon the Philistine, and took his sword, and drew it out of the sheath thereof, and slew him, and cut off his head therewith. And when the Philistines saw their champion was dead, they fled.” (1 Samuel 17:40-51)

With tunnel vision, Goliath could only see enemies directly in front of him, but not to either side. His appearance was intimidating, but with tunnel vision and a “glass jaw” he was nowhere near as formidable as he looked. Of course, the Philistines didn’t know that, the Israelites didn’t know that, David didn’t know that, I don’t think Goliath even knew that. I didn’t know it until Josef Warkany told me the story. But God knew that. He knew that all it would take was a sharp blow to the head with a rock from a sling to disable the giant.

Next day I brought in a set of scriptures for my office. Inside the front cover I wrote down the references to the story of David and Goliath in Samuel and Chronicles. I was never without them the rest of my career. For over forty years now, I have shared this story with my students.

Trent Dee Stephens, PhD

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