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Devarim 5769-2009

“Og Stands Tall on the Stage of History”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In his recapitulation of the events leading up to the people’s entry into the land of Israel, Moses recalls the defeat at the hands of Israel of two great ancient kings, Sihon, the king of the Amorites, and Og, the king of Bashan. (The original stories of the defeat of Sihon and Og are recorded in Numbers 21:21-35.)

Because the people of Edom did not permit the ancient Israelites to cross through their land, the children of Israel were forced to turn eastward toward the Jordan and travel through the territories that belonged to the fearsome rulers, Sihon and Og. Despite Israel’s request to pass through his land, Sihon declines to give permission and mobilizes his army to battle Israel. The Israelites, however, smite Sihon and the Amorites by the sword, taking possession of their land. Although these lands were not intended to be a part of biblical Israel, Israel occupied all the Amorite cities, as well as the capital city, Heshbon, and its suburbs.

Marching even further north toward the Bashan, Israel encounters the giant Og, who rallies his army to do battle with the Israelites in Edrei. After being reassured by G-d not to fear Og, the Israelites smite the King of Bashan, his sons and all his people and take possession of his lands as well (Numbers 21:34).

While there is very limited information regarding Og in the biblical text, the Midrash creates an elaborate biography of the King of Bashan.

The Midrash Tanchuma in Leviticus 12, depicts Og as a paradigm of wickedness, citing the verse in Isaiah 57:20, which states that “the wicked are like the troubled sea.” The Midrash explains that, like the sea, the wicked fail to learn from previous failures. Just as the waves do not learn from previous waves that they cannot overwhelm the land, so the wicked fail to learn from the punishments of other wicked people. After all, Pharaoh tried to defeat the Jewish people and was beaten down, but Amalek did not learn from Pharaoh. Sihon and Og should have learned from Amalek, but instead turned a blind eye to Israel’s military successes, went out to attack Israel and were roundly defeated.

It is important to note that Og is not always characterized in the Midrash as being entirely negative. In Genesis 14, we are told that the powerful four kings defeated the king of Sodom and captured Abram’s nephew, Lot, and all his possessions. Genesis 14:13 informs us: “Vah’ya’vo, ha’pah’leet,” and “the fugitive came” and told Abram the Hebrew who dwelt in the Plains of Mamre the Amorite that his brother, Lot, had been taken captive. Abram subsequently makes war with the powerful four kings and defeats them, rescuing Lot. Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105, foremost commentator on the Bible) offers two elucidations of who this “fugitive” might be. According to the literal meaning, Rashi suggests that it was Og, who escaped from the battle with the four kings. This interpretation is based on the verse in Deuteronomy 3:11 that says that only Og was left of the remnant of the Refaim. The Midrash Bereishith Rabbah agrees that the fugitive was Og; however, it identifies him not as a refugee from the war, but as the one who escaped the destruction of the generation of the flood. The allusion to Og in the verse in Deuteronomy is that only Og remained of the Refaim, the giants, who lived prior to the Flood.

The Yalkut, in Deuteronomy 8:10, states that when Moses and the children of Israel came to Edrei and were about to wage war with Og, Moses raised his eyes and saw Og sitting on a high wall with his feet reaching the ground. Struck by Og’s gigantic stature, Moses was seized with fear, to the extent that G-d had to assure him not to be afraid. Moses then proceeded to wage war with Og and vanquished him. The rabbis ask: Why should the great Moses have been afraid of Og? They suggest that Moses was fearful that the merits of Og’s good deed, informing Abram that his nephew Lot had been captured by the four kings, would make it impossible for Israel to defeat the King of Bashan.

Rashi, however, offers an alternate negative interpretation, suggesting that Og was not being at all altruistic when providing this information to Abram. Rather, Og was certain that Abram would be killed attempting to rescue Lot, and that Og would then be able to abscond with Abram’s beautiful wife, Sarai (Sarah).

Og is frequently depicted by the Midrash as being enormously large and powerful. When Moses went out to wage war against Og, Og announced deprecatingly: “How large is the camp of Israel? Three parasangs in circumference? I will pluck up a mountain three parasangs in circumference, hurl it at them, and kill them.” He proceeded to lift a mountain three parasangs in circumference and carried it on his head. But the Holy One sent ants that bored holes in it, so that it slipped down around Og’s neck. He tried to pull it up, but since his teeth began jutting out from both sides of his mouth, he could not pull it past them.

Given Og’s enormous size, how did Moses vanquish him? The Midrash tells us that Moses, who himself was 10 cubits tall, took an ax that was 10 cubits in length, jumped 10 cubits high into the air, and struck Og on his ankles, killing him. Again stressing the great bulk of Og, the Midrash relates a story of Abba Saul, who had been a gravedigger. On one occasion, Abba Saul chased a deer who fled from him and entered the thigh bone of a gigantic corpse. Abba Saul recounts that he pursued the deer into the bone for three parsangs, but he neither caught up with the deer, nor reached the end of the thigh bone. When he returned the way he had come, he was told that the enormous thigh bone was part of the corpse of Og, the king of Bashan.

Scripture in Deuteronomy 3:11 underscores the enormous stature of Og by writing about his special sleeping accommodations: “Hee’nay ar’so eres bar’zel,” behold his bed was an iron bed…nine cubits was its length and four cubits its width by the cubit of a man. The commentators explain that Og was so big and so heavy that ordinary wooden furniture could not support him. Others suggest that the Bible is referring to Og’s bed when he was a baby, that his cradle would break because Og was so strong.

The Midrash elaborates further on the verse in Deuteronomuy 3:11, which states that only Og remained of the remnant of the Refaim. The Midrash suggests that as the floodwaters swelled, Og sat himself on one of the rungs of the ladders of Noah’s ark, and swore to Noah and to his sons that he would be their slave forever. With that assurance, Noah proceeded to punch a hole in the ark, and through it handed food to Og every day. Now it is clear why the verse refers to Og as “The Fugitive,” rather than “a” fugitive. “The Fugitive” indicates that he was someone who had already been known at the time to have escaped from peril, having previously escaped from the Flood.

An alternate view, cited in the Talmud Zevachim 113b, is that Og was so tall that he was able to stand on the side of the ark and not drown in the water. Other views, recorded in tractate Niddah, are that the water reached only to Og’s ankles, or that Og ran to the land of Israel during the flood, where there was no flood (Rashi, Niddah 61a).

The rabbis also offer a gematria interpretation that is based on Genesis 7:23, which states, “Va’yee’sha’ayr ach Noach,” that only Noah survived the flood. The rabbis say that the Hebrew letters “ach Noach” add up to the value of 79, the exact value of the name Og in Hebrew. Thus, besides Noah and his family, only Og remained.

The Midrash further relates that when Isaac was born, Abraham made a great feast (Genesis 21:8). Rabbi Judah Barsimeon says, “Do not read ‘a great feast,’ but rather ‘a feast for great personages.'” Og and all the great ones [the giants] like him were at the feast. Og was asked, “Didn’t you say that Abraham is like a barren mule who could not beget a child?” Looking dismissively at Isaac, Og said, “So what is this gift? Is it not a puny little thing that I can simply crush with my finger?” G-d was angry that Og had belittled His gift to Abraham [the infant Isaac]. “As you live,” said G-d, “you will see thousands of myriads issue from his [Isaac’s] children’s children!” And it was at the hands of Isaac’s descendants that the evil Og was to fall (Midrash Genesis Rabbah 53:10).

What accounts for the unusually extensive attention given Og in the Midrash is uncertain. Certainly, scripture’s lyrical description of Og’s oversized bed and/or cradle (Deuteronomy 3:11) can easily lead to fantasies about giants and visions of massive creatures. Even the inconsistency of hundreds of years that separate the story of Noah from those of Abraham and Moses do not seem to rattle the Midrashic creativity. Perhaps the message that binds the Midrashic narratives together is that the Jewish people, with the help of G-d, have the power to vanquish their enemies, no matter how large or powerful. It is a lesson that must not be dismissed.

May you be blessed.

Please remember: Rosh Chodesh, the beginning of new month of Av, will be on Tuesday night and Wednesday, July 21-22, which marks the beginning of the “Nine Days,” a period of intense mourning prior to Tisha Ba’Av. This Shabbat is called “Shabbat Chazon“-the Sabbath on which we read the prophetic vision of Isaiah and its foreboding message of impending destruction.