The first tractate of the Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot (“benedictions”), contains a rare glimpse into Jewish pilgrimage practices in Late Antiquity. In chapter nine we find a fascinating discussion of the blessing one should recite upon visiting a place where a significant biblical miracle took place:
ברוך שעשה נסים לאבותינו במקום הזה, "Blessed are you...who performed miracles for our forefathers in this place" (m. Ber 9:1). Because the Mishnah does not specify what these places are, the following tannaitic statement (baraita) is quoted:
The majority of these places should be familiar to readers of the Bible. For the most part, they are sites of battles or major events associated with the conquest of the land of Canaan under Joshua, the obvious exception being Lot’s wife which is found in Gen 19:26. Geographically, they are roughly organized in a circle from southeast to northwest and back down to the south. So far so good; now the interesting part. The list contains one item that should strike you as odd: “the stone which Og king of Bashan wanted to throw at Israel.” King Og is mentioned twice in the Torah (Num 21:33-36; Deut 3:1-13). Like his Transjordian colleague, Sihon king of the Amorites (Num 21:23; Deut 2:30), Og refuses to grant the Israelites passage through his territory - the Bashan (today’s Golan Heights) - and is defeated militarily. The defeat of these two kings is seen by the Bible as an example of divine intervention (Ps 136:19-20). But there is no mention of any rock-throwing in the biblical account. Indeed, on the next page of the Talmud, the Gemara is confused by this statement and asks for clarification.
This colorful midrash aggadah does a fine job explaining the rock-throwing, and even presents a novel reading of Ps 3:8. But what function does the hugeness of this rock (12 km wide) serve? Likely the huge size of the rock is inspired by the huge size of Og suggested in one of the stranger verses in the Torah (Deut 3:11):
Parenthetically, I must add that the Septuagint brilliantly translates the name עמק רפאים ("Valley of Rephaim") in 2 Sam 5:18,22 as κοιλὰς τῶν τιτάνων ("Valley of the Titans"). A truly marvelous example of religious syncretism in the Hellenistic world.
Back to the Rephaim. This race of giants likely are named after their founder, Raphah, as is suggested in 2 Sam 21:16-20. But their name may also come from the root רפה, denoting the "extinct ones", or even the "powerless ones." Contrary to what most people assume, the word for "ghosts" in the Bible, also רפאים (Ps 88:11), is unrelated to the name of this race of giants.
The off-hand mention of Og's huge iron bed in Deut 3:11 seems to be a reference to a well-known tourist attraction in the city of Rabbah, which today is the Jordanian capital of Amman. How big was this mythical bed that ancient Israelite tourists would snap pictures of? A cubit is a biblical measure which is basically the length of the forearm, or about 45 cm. If Og required a bed 9 cubits long (= 4 meters), he must have been quite a tall individual, perhaps about the size of another famous giant in the Bible: Goliath (1 Sam 17:4, “six cubits and a span”). Interestingly, while the Bible depicts Og as very tall, he is less than double the size a regular person.
Conversely, rabbinic legends like the one quoted above turn Og into something truly superhuman. For example, Abba Saul relates that while digging a grave, he came across an underground tunnel and was able to walk three parasangs (=13 km) inside of it. Later he found out that this was the femur of Og (b. Nid 24b). Another legend relates that in one meal Og would eat sixty oxen, drink a thousand measures and the volume of a single drop of his semen equaled 36 liters! (Soferim 1: 366-67).
Why this need to magnify Og to such massive proportions? Perhaps this legend emerges from an oral Babylonian tradition which the authors the Bavli were fond of. In recent years it has become increasingly popular for Talmudic scholars to situate these kinds of midrashim within a Zoroastrian context, but regrettably I know very little about this. Another possibility is that the authors of these stories are informed by their knowledge of the topography of the region with which Og is associated. Anyone who has walked around the Bashan can easily see that it is strewn with basalt boulders, which are the result of volcanic eruptions in the Pliocene Era (5-2 million years ago). This basalt cover is very different from the typical limestone/chalk landscape seen all over the land of Israel. Maybe to the ancient Israelites, the origin of these unusual boulders was the massive mountain which Og lifted up upon his head and smashed to pieces.
Similarly, the “bed” found in Deut 3:11 may be a reference to ancient burial markers found all over the Golan Heights, known as a dolmens. This is a table-like structure formed by laying a massive flat stone across two upright stones (see picture above). There are hundreds of dolmens scattered throughout the Golan Heights, most of which have been dated to the Chalcolithic Era (5800-3500 BCE). A particularly famous burial complex known as Rujm el-Hiri, pictured below, contains concentric circles at the center of which is a giant burial mound (tumulus). Perhaps travelers from west of the Jordan River unfamiliar with these massive structures composed these legends about Og to explain their origin. What is even more interesting is that the only other area in Israel which contains a similar concentration of dolmens is around Hebron. Many have suggested that this is precisely the reason that the Torah connects another race of primordial giants, the Anakites (literally, “huge ones”) with the Hebron region in the story of the spies (Num 13:22) and the conquest by Joshua (Josh 11:21).
The tradition of attributing large man-made structures in the holy land to primordial giants continues, as can be seen in the following two examples.
In the late 19th century, while digging the foundations for Jerusalem's Russian Compound, builders uncovered a massive Roman/Byzantine column which cracked during the quarrying process and was left in place. It is known in local lore as the "Finger of Og King of Bashan". Some scholars have hypothesized that this column was intended to be used in the emperor Justinian's massive Nea Church, which was the largest church in Jerusalem in the sixth century. Located in the area of today's Jewish Quarter, almost nothing remains of it.
This mound of stones at Khirbet el-Khan (Horvat Hanot), alongside the ancient Bethlehem-Gaza road, has been known as the tomb of Goliath since the Byzantine period. It is a few kilometers east of the Elah Valley where Goliath was killed by David. The 6th century Piacenza pilgrim visited this site and wrote: "there is also a heap of stones, such a mountain of them that there is not a pebble left for a distance of 20 miles, since anyone going that way makes a gesture of contempt by taking three stones and throwing them at his grave."
Jews were not the only ones who venerated holy sites in late antique Palestine. One of the first Christian pilgrims to the holy land, Egeria, traveled throughout the region in the 380s and left a detailed record of her trip. Her account of the view from the top of Mount Nebo reads as follows:
For more on the representation of Og in post-biblical Jewish texts, see Admiel Kosman, “The Story of a Giant Story: The Winding Way of Og King of Bashan in the Jewish Haggadic Tradition” HUCA 73 (2002), 157-190. For more on the rabbinic discouragement of pilgrimage, see Eyal ben Eliyahu, "The Rabbinic Polemic Against Sanctification of Sites," JSJ 40.2 (2009), 260-80.
I am Jonathan Lipnick, tour guide and educator specializing in Christianity and Judaism. In this blog I explore questions (historical, linguistic) that come up in the course of my teaching and reading.