Og, King of Bashan

One of my favorite streets in Jerusalem is Emek Refaim in the German Colony. I lived off of it when I studied at Pardes and the Conservative Yeshiva, and I loved going out on Saturday night to the restaurants-especially Burgers Bar. Emek Refaim is generally taken as meaning “valley of the ghosts” but an alternative meaning is “valley of the giants,” and it is that on which I want to focus today. Og King of Bashan, who was killed in Parshat Hukkat, is described in this week’s portion as the only survivor of the Refaim.[1] The Refaim were a group of giants who lived during biblical times. They were larger than any other people-as we learned in Tractate Soferim, Og was so big that he could hide Abraham’s feet in the palm of his hand, and Abraham himself was the height of 74 men![2]

What happened to the Refaim? In Genesis,[3] King Chedarlaomer waged war against the Refaim and killed them all, except for one refugee[4] who told Abraham of the destruction and of how his nephew Lot was captured-and that refugee is said to be Og.[5] Abraham made Og into his servant and there is even an account of Og being Eliezer who went down to find a wife for Isaac.[6] A different account has Og surviving the flood by sitting on one of the wooden planks in the ark after promising Noah and his sons that he would serve them forever.[7]

Where in this story did things go wrong, where Og became a king who waged war against Israel during its journey in the desert? Midrash Rabbah presents a different account-that Og had told Abraham about the capture of Lot so that he would die in battle, at which point Og could marry Sarah.[8] It appears that Pharaoh and Avimelech were not the only two jealous of Abraham’s marriage to Sarah. It was therefore quite to Og’s surprise when Abraham can back unscathed from his defeat of Chedarlaomer, and Og would from that point on be at war with the descendants of Abraham.

In addition to Og surviving from among the Rephaim, the Torah describes him as having an iron bed which can still be found in Rabbat B’nei Amon and which was 9 cubits (13.5 feet) long and 4 cubits (6 feet) wide. According to Midrash, when Og was a boy placed in a crib, he broke through the wood and hence needed iron to sustain his massive frame.[9] He was certainly a giant of a man.

Why should we care about this? After all, Og had become an enemy of our people so his massive size should not be described in such great detail. The Midrash states that Og’s giant nature needed to be described to show the greatness of Moshe in defeating him.[10] Similarly, many verses are given to describing Goliath in detail in order to show the greatness of David in being able to defeat him. This is why G-d had told Moses אל תירא אותו “Do not fear him,”[11] as you have the ability to defeat him. Through faith in G-d, Moses was able to defeat this giant and conquer his land.

As we prepare for Tisha B’Av this evening and tomorrow, the day on which we recount the destruction of both our Temples, our expulsion from Spain and all the other calamities that befell our people, we need to take a moment to have the faith of Moses that through trust in G-d we will eventually prevail over those who seek to do us harm. If the giant Og could have been defeated, how much more so can we defeat our adversaries. We also have to keep in mind the possibility that people are not always who they appear to be. According to our tradition, Og began as a “gentle giant” and full-fledged member of the household of Abraham. It’s only later on that he turned against our people. As vigilant as we are and as we must be against our enemies let us also keep in mind the possibility of their repentance and turning back to join with our way of life.

[1] Deuteronomy 3:11

[2] Tractate Soferim 21:9

[3] Genesis 14:5

[4] Genesis 14:13

[5] Midrash Tanhuma 153:25 and Talmud Niddah 61a

[6] Masechet Soferim 21:9

[7] Pirkei D’Rebbe Eliezer 23

[8] Bereshit Rabbah 48:8

[9] Devarim Rabbah

[10] Lekah Tov

[11] Numbers 21:34

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