They Might Be Giants – Parshat Devarim

This land was once filled with giants. But they died out, slowly, over the centuries, until there was only one left – the great and mighty Og. And now he, too, is gone.

So we read in this week’s parsha, in the description of the battles that the Israelites fought as they approached the land of Canaan:

Only Og, King of Bashan was left of the remaining Rephaim. His bed, a bed of iron, is now in Rabbah of the Ammonites; it is nine cubits long and four cubits wide. (Deuteronomy 3:11)

כִּי רַקעוֹג מֶלֶךְ הַבָּשָׁן, נִשְׁאַר מִיֶּתֶר הָרְפָאִיםהִנֵּה עַרְשׂוֹ עֶרֶשׂ בַּרְזֶל, הֲלֹה הִוא בְּרַבַּת בְּנֵי עַמּוֹן:  תֵּשַׁע אַמּוֹת אָרְכָּהּ, וְאַרְבַּע אַמּוֹת רָחְבָּהּ

There are three words in the Torah that are sometimes translated as “giants” – Rephaim, Nephilim, and Anakim – and all of them will be relevant to our story eventually. But, for now, let’s stay with this verse.

This is the only place in the Torah that makes reference to Og’s size – though only indirectly, through this “bed.” The cubit measurement here would come out to approximately 14 feet by 6 feet; and if it was roughly proportional, then Og must have been at least 10 feet tall. Now that’s a big bed by anyone’s standards, but the Rashbam tells us that the unusual word for bed here – eres (ערש) – actually means crib! So if this was Og’s bed when he was a baby, there’s no telling how massive he became eventually! (Nachmanides adds that the bed had to be made of iron, and not the standard wood, so that it wouldn’t break under Og’s weight.)

These are the technical attempts to prove Og’s gigantic stature. But much more interesting are the many strange stories of Og the Giant recorded in the Talmud and Midrash. Taken together, they constitute one of the most fascinating legends in rabbinic literature. Og is a shadowy figure who seems to always have been around, and – according to the rabbis – keeps popping up at key moments in the Torah’s narrative.

Why are the rabbis so obsessed with Og? What does he represent? And where does the legend of Og begin?

To answer those questions, let’s start with the battle that Moses is describing in our parsha, and work our way back. This battle took place in the Book of Numbers, and while we hear about the start of the conflict – “King Og, of Bashan, with all his people, came out to Edrei to engage them in war” (21:33) – and its conclusion – “They defeated him and his sons and all his people, until no remnant was left of them and they took possession of his country” (21:35) – there is no detailed account of the battle itself. So the Talmud steps in to tell the story. And it is a wild one:

There is a legend about the rock that Og, King of Bashan, tried to throw at Israel. He said, “How large is the camp of Israel? Three parasangs (approx. 10 miles). I will go and uproot a mountain three parasangs wide and throw it on them and kill them!

He went and uprooted the mountain and hoisted it up over his head. But the Holy Blessed One sent ants, which dug holes in the the mountain, and it collapsed around Og’s neck. He tried tried to cast it off, and gnashed his teeth from side to side, but he could not get it off…

Then Moses, whose height was ten cubits, took an axe ten cubits long, and jumped ten cubits into the air, and struck Og in the ankle, and killed him. (Berachot 54b)

אבן שבקש עוג מלך הבשן לזרוק על ישראל גמרא גמירי לה אמר מחנה ישראל כמה הוי תלתא פרסי איזיל ואיעקר טורא בר תלתא פרסי ואישדי עלייהו ואיקטלינהו

אזל עקר טורא בר תלתא פרסי ואייתי על רישיה ואייתי קודשא בריך הוא עליה קמצי ונקבוה ונחית בצואריה הוה בעי למשלפה משכי שיניה להאי גיסא ולהאי גיסא ולא מצי למשלפה

משה כמה הוה עשר אמות שקיל נרגא בר עשר אמין שוור עשר אמין ומחייה בקרסוליה וקטליה.

Mountain-tossing! Ants to the rescue! Wow. And how is Moses suddenly 10 cubits tall? That’s about 15 feet – looks like we’ve got another giant on our hands!

To make some sense of this fantastic tale, we’ll need more information. The only other thing we read in the Torah itself is that God said to Moses:

Do not fear him, for I will deliver him and all his people into your hands. (Num.  21:34)

אַלתִּירָא אֹתוֹכִּי בְיָדְךָ נָתַתִּי אֹתוֹ וְאֶתכָּלעַמּוֹ, וְאֶת אַרְצוֹ

Why, the Midrash Tanchuma asks, is Moses particularly afraid and in need of reassurance? And they answer:

For no one mightier than him had ever stood in the world. For “Only Og, King of Bashan was left of the remaining Rephaim. (Deut. 3),” He remained from those mighty ones that Amraphel and his troops had killed. As it says, “They struck the Rephaim at Ashterot-karnaim.” (Gen. 14) But he was the survivor among them, like the pit of an olive, that survives the olive press. As it says, “And a survivor came and brought news to Abram the Hebrew.” (Gen. 14) (Tanchuma Chukat 55:1)

שלא עמד בעולם גבור קשה ממנו, שנאמר כי רק עוג מלך הבשן וגו‘ (שם ג יא), והוא נשאר מהגבורים שהרגו אמרפל וחביריו, שנאמר ויכו את רפאים וגו‘ (בראשית יד ה), וזה הפסולת שלהם, כפריצי זיתים שיוצאין ולפיטים מתחת הגפת, שנאמר ויבא הפליט וגו‘ (שם שם יג)

So there was once a race of giant men, in the days of Abraham, and they were destroyed. But Og was too tough to kill – he survived as all his compatriots fell. He even came and told Abraham that his relative Lot had been captured in the war. So Moses is afraid of him not just because he seems invincible, but also – as Rashi explains – because his kindness to Abraham gave him extra merit in God’s eyes. Og is suddenly not just a monster. Yes, he is massive, and terrifying… but there is also something righteous in him.

Now, there is another tradition that also identifies Og as the “survivor” who brought news to Abraham. But in this version, what he had survived was not just the war. Take a look at this passage from the Talmud, again attempting to explain why Moses feared Og so much:

[Moses] thought, maybe the merit of our father Abraham will stand with him, for it says, “And a survivor came and brought news to Abram the Hebrew.” This is Og, who survived the generation of the flood. (Niddah 61a)

אמר שמא תעמוד לו זכות של אברהם אבינו שנאמר (בראשית יד) ויבא הפליט ויגד לאברם העברי ואמר רבי יוחנן זה עוג שפלט מדור המבול

The flood?! We thought only Noah and his family survived the flood. But no! Og managed to make it through somehow, even as the entire world was being destroyed. What did he do? Did he just swim for 40 days? Was he so tall that the water did not drown him? Another Midrash – this time Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer – gives an even stranger answer:

“All existence on earth was blotted out…” (Gen. 7:23) Except for Noah and all who were with him on the Ark, as it says, “Only Noah remained, and those with him on the Ark.” And except for Og, King of Bashan, who sat on a rung of one of the ladders on the Ark, and swore to Noah and his sons that he would be a servant to them forever. So what did Noah do? He drilled a hole in the Ark and would stick out food for Og every day. And so Og also remained, as it says, “Only Og, King of Bashan was left of the remaining Rephaim.” (Deut. 3:11) (Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer 23:8)

וימח את כל היקום אשר על פני האדמה, חוץ מנח וכל אשר אתו בתבה שנאמר וישאר אך נח ואשר אתו בתיבה, וחוץ מעוג מלך הבשן שישב לו על עץ אחד מן הסולמות של התיבה ונשבע לנח ולבניו שיהיה להם עבד עולם מה עשה נח נקב חור אחבתיבה והיה מושיט לו מזונו בכל יום ויום ונשאר גם הוא שנכי רק עוג מלך הבשן וגו‘.

So now, Og’s story goes back to the days before the flood. And not only was he connected to Abraham, but he forged some kind of eternal pact with Noah. Think of it: the whole point of that story was that only one righteous family survived – and now we learn that, of all people, Og was there, too!

But there is one piece of this account that doesn’t fit. In this version, what do we make of this last verse the Midrash quotes, the one we started with up top, that only Og was “left of the remaining Rephaim.” Earlier, we thought that meant he survived an attack against the Rephaim. But where were the Rephaim before the flood? Rashi answers that question for us, revealing the final piece of Og’s origin story:

“The remaining Rephaim,” refers back to what it says in Genesis: “And the Nephilim were upon the earth.” (Rashi on Gen. 14:13)

וְזֶהוּ מִיֶּתֶר הָרְפָאִים, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר הַנְּפִלִים הָיוּ בָאָרֶץ וְגוֹ

Remember how there are three words for giants in the Torah? Well, the first one to appear is Nephilim, and it takes us to one of the strangest passages in Genesis:

It was then, and also afterwards, that the Nephilim were upon the earth – when divine beings came and cohabited with the daughters of men, who bore them offspring. They were the ancient mighty ones, the men of renown. (Gen. 6:4)

הַנְּפִלִים הָיוּ בָאָרֶץ, בַּיָּמִים הָהֵם, וְגַם אַחֲרֵיכֵן אֲשֶׁר יָבֹאוּ בְּנֵי הָאֱלֹהִים אֶלבְּנוֹת הָאָדָם, וְיָלְדוּ לָהֶם:  הֵמָּה הַגִּבֹּרִים אֲשֶׁר מֵעוֹלָם, אַנְשֵׁי הַשֵּׁם.

These giants, it seems, were more than just enormous men. They were divine beings. In fact, the word,‘nephilim’ (נפילים), means ‘fallen,’ and many think that this refers to fallen angels. The Targum Yonatan, for example, says that among them was the fallen angel Shemchazai. And the Talmud – in the very last clue of our story – tells us that Og was the grandson of Shemchazai.

So Og was not just ancient; he was primordial. He goes all the way back, almost to the beginning. And he was not just a giant; he was partly divine. Partly, that is, but not all. Og may have had angelic parentage, but he was not himself an angel. He was some kind of blend: in some ways just like us, and in some ways otherworldly.

That is the long and twisted story of Og.

But we still have not answered any of the questions of what it all means? What is it about this giant that keeps him coming back? What role does the story of Og play in our own story?

The key to understanding all of this, I believe, can be found in one line from the Book of Numbers. It appears in the infamous story of The Spies, who are sent to scout out the Land of Canaan – that promised land that is supposed to flow with milk and honey. They are expected to bring good tidings. But when they come back, their report is… not so good.

They bring back some of the fruit of the land, which is gigantic. That seems like a good sign of abundance. But then, they tell of great dangers. The nations who dwell there are powerful. The cities are large and fortified. And, above all, they warn, “we saw the Anakim there.”

Remember ‘Anakim’? That was our third world for ‘giants,’ along with Rephaim and Nephilim. And the spies make this connection explicit:

All the people we saw there are men of great size. We saw the Nephilim there – the Anakim come from the Nephilim – and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we were in their eyes. (Numbers 13:32-33)

וְכָלהָעָם אֲשֶׁררָאִינוּ בְתוֹכָהּ, אַנְשֵׁי מִדּוֹת.  וְשָׁם רָאִינוּ, אֶתהַנְּפִילִים בְּנֵי עֲנָקמִןהַנְּפִלִים; וַנְּהִי בְעֵינֵינוּ כַּחֲגָבִים, וְכֵן הָיִינוּ בְּעֵינֵיהֶם.

So the Anakim come from the Nephilim. These giants come from those mysterious giants in back Genesis, just as Og was descended from those same angelic beings. It seems that all the giants in the Torah are related.

But the strangest thing about this verse isn’t how the Anakim looked. It is the last phrase, about how the spies looked. For the spies don’t just say that “we looked like grasshoppers to them.” They say, “we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves… and so we were in their eyes.”

The fruit, the cities, the people – everything and everyone looked overwhelmingly big to the Israelites – primarily because in their own self-perception, they were so small. The Anakites may indeed have been people of great stature, but God certainly doesn’t think they are unbeatable. To the spies, however, they are simply giants. More, even – they are the legendary Nephilim, the kind of giants that possess supernatural powers, the kind of giants that take the daughters of men.

But then, when you feel like a tiny insect, every person you come across is a giant.

The persistence of Og in our collective story, then, is a testament to our persistent feeling of smallness. Giants haunt us because we fundamentally do not believe that we are big enough, or strong enough, to survive.

That is why, in the crazy story of Og and the mountain, God sends ants to save the day – as if to say, even the smallest creatures on earth have the power to defeat a giant. And that is why, perhaps, Moses is then suddenly 15 feet tall. At first he was afraid of Og, just as the spies were afraid of their giants. But when one arrives at a place of a confidence in one’s own stature in the world, then one walks tall like everyone else.

Og is gone, but there will always be giants in the world. So long as we are small in our own eyes, there will always be some new, oversized monster, threatening to annihilate us. To defeat giants, we must begin see ourselves as normal-sized. And then, remarkably, the giant begins to shrink.

Maimonides, the great rationalist, held that Og was:

Twice the size of most other people, or a little bit more. This is undoubtedly rare in the human race, but in no way impossible. (Guide to the Perplexed 2:47)

Yes, he was big. But he wasn’t inhuman.

That confusion has been with us from the start. All of the stories we’ve seen have this element of uncertainty in them. Is Og human, or not? Is he righteous, or evil? Is he our friend, or our enemy?

We remain suspicious, nervous, wary of everyone around us. We are always worried that the giant will come back. But the truth is, we are not really afraid of how big the giant is. We are afraid, have always been afraid, of how small we are.

About Rabbi David Kasher

Check Also

boulder county center for judaism logo

RSVP for Boulder’s Outdoor Lag BBQ

Lag B'Omer is coming up this weekend on Sunday, May 26. We'd love for you to join us and celebrate this holiday of Jewish Unity together!

Boulder Chevra Kadisha Looking for a Few Good Men

Judaism’s taharah ritual involves respectful preparation of deceased Jews for burial. Volunteers, especially younger men, are needed to sustain this practice.