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:
- תנו רבנן הרואה מעברות הים ומעברות הירדן מעברות נחלי ארנון אבני אלגביש במורד בית חורון ואבן שבקש לזרוק עוג מלך הבשן על ישראל ואבן שישב עליה משה בשעה שעשה יהושע מלחמה בעמלק ואשתו של לוט וחומת יריחו שנבלעה במקומה על כולן צריך שיתן הודאה ושבח לפני המקום
- Our Rabbis taught: If one sees the place of the crossing of the Red Sea, or the fords of the Jordan, or the fords of the streams of Arnon, or hail stones in the descent of Beth Horon, or the stone which Og king of Bashan wanted to throw at Israel, or the stone on which Moses sat when Joshua fought with Amalek, or [the pillar of salt of] Lot's wife, or the wall of Jericho which sank into the ground, for all of these he should give thanksgiving and praise to the Almighty. (b. Ber 54a).
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.
- 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 והיינו דכתיב (תהילים ג) שני רשעים שברת וכדר' שמעון בן לקיש דא"ר שמעון בן לקיש מאי דכתיב (תהילים ג) שני רשעים שברת אל תקרי שברת אלא שרבבת משה כמה הוה עשר אמות שקיל נרגא בר עשר אמין שוור עשר אמין ומחייה בקרסוליה וקטליה.
- 'The stone which Og, king of Bashan wanted to throw at Israel'. This has been handed down by tradition. Og said: How large is the camp of Israel? Three parasangs (approximately 13 km!). I will go and uproot a mountain of the size of three parasangs and cast it upon them and kill them. He went and uprooted a mountain of the size of three parasangs and carried it on his head. But the Holy One, blessed be He, sent ants which bored a hole in it, so that it sank around his neck. He tried to pull it off, but his teeth projected on each side, and he could not pull it off. This is referred to in the biblical verse, “You have broken the teeth of the wicked” (Ps 3:8), as explained by R Simeon b. Lakish. For R. Simeon b. Lakish said: What is the meaning of the verse, “You have broken the teeth of the wicked?” Do not read, shibbarta [You have broken], but shirbabta [You have lengthened]. The height of Moses was ten cubits (approximately 5 meters). He took an axe ten cubits long, leapt ten cubits into the air, and struck him on his ankle and killed him.
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):
- כִּי רַק עוֹג מֶלֶךְ הַבָּשָׁן נִשְׁאַר מִיֶּתֶר הָרְפָאִים הִנֵּה עַרְשׂוֹ עֶרֶשׂ בַּרְזֶל הֲלֹה הִוא בְּרַבַּת בְּנֵי עַמּוֹן תֵּשַׁע אַמּוֹת אָרְכָּהּ, וְאַרְבַּע אַמּוֹת רָחְבָּהּ בְּאַמַּת-אִישׁ
- Only Og king of Bashan was left of the last of the Rephaim. His bed which was made of iron – it can still be seen in Rabbah of the Ammonites – was more than nine cubits long and four cubits wide, by the standard cubit.
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).
- Then they who knew the place the priests and holy monks said to us: "If you wish to see the places that are mentioned in the books of Moses, come out of the door of the church, and from the very summit, from the side on which they are visible from here, look and see, and we will tell you each place that is visible from hence." Then we rejoiced greatly and immediately came out. From the door of the church we saw the place where the Jordan runs into the Dead Sea, which place appeared below us as we stood. On the opposite side we saw not only Livias, which was on the near side of Jordan, but also Jericho, which was beyond Jordan ; to so great a height rose the lofty place where we stood, before the door of the church. The greatest part of Palestine, the land of promise, was in sight, together with the whole land of Jordan, as far as it could be seen with our eyes. On the left side we saw all the lands of the Sodomites and Segor which is the only one of the five cities that exists to-day. There is a memorial of it, but nothing appears of those other cities but a heap of ruins, just as they were turned into ashes. The place where was the inscription concerning Lot's wife was shown to us, which place is read of in the Scriptures. But believe me, reverend ladies, the pillar itself cannot be seen, only the place is shown, the pillar is said to have been covered by the Dead Sea. Certainly when we saw the place we saw no pillar, I cannot therefore deceive you in this. The bishop of the place, that is of Segor, told us that it is now some years since the pillar could be seen. The spot where the pillar stood is about six miles from Segor, and the water now covers the whole of this space. Then we went to the right side of the church, out of doors and opposite to us two cities were pointed out, the one Esebon, now called Exebon, which belonged to Seon, king of the Amorites, and the other, now called Sasdra, the city of Og the king of Basan. Fogor, which was a city of the kingdom of Edom, was also pointed out from thence, opposite to us. All these cities which we saw were situated on mountains, but a little below them the ground seemed to be flatter. (Egeria, Itinerary 12)