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SBL e-journal

Zev Farber





Kiryat-Arba: The Father of Giants and the City of Four



APA e-journal

Zev Farber





Kiryat-Arba: The Father of Giants and the City of Four






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Kiryat-Arba: The Father of Giants and the City of Four

How the conflation of Kiryat-arba and Hebron created a new mythic character, Arba, father of the giants.


Kiryat-Arba: The Father of Giants and the City of Four

Illustration from Mundus Subterraneus author Athanasius Kircher

A City Named after a Giant Called Arba

Three separate times, the book of Joshua tells us that the city of Kiryat-arba was named after the ostensible ruler of the city, a man called Arba, who was a powerful giant or the father of the giants. In all three cases, the information appears in relation to Caleb’s receipt of the city:

Caleb is granted Hebron/Kiryat-arba

יהושע יד:טו וְשֵׁ֨ם חֶבְר֤וֹן לְפָנִים֙ קִרְיַ֣ת אַרְבַּ֔ע הָאָדָ֧ם הַגָּד֛וֹל בָּעֲנָקִ֖ים ה֑וּא
Josh 14:15 The name of Hebron was formerly Kiryat-arba, the great man among the giants.[1]

Caleb is granted and proceeds to conquer Kiryat-arba/Hebron

יהושע טו:יג וּלְכָלֵ֣ב בֶּן־יְפֻנֶּ֗ה נָ֤תַן חֵ֙לֶק֙ בְּת֣וֹךְ בְּנֵֽי יְהוּדָ֔ה אֶל פִּ֥י יְ-הֹוָ֖ה לִֽיהוֹשֻׁ֑עַ אֶת קִרְיַ֥ת אַרְבַּ֛ע אֲבִ֥י הָעֲנָ֖ק הִ֥יא חֶבְרֽוֹן:
Josh 15:13 Caleb son of Jephunneh was given a portion among the Judahites, in accordance with Yhwh’s command to Joshua, namely, namely, Kiryat-arba—the father of the giant(s) (anak)—that is, Hebron.

Levitical city list

יהושע כא:יא וַיִּתְּנ֨וּ לָהֶ֜ם אֶת קִרְיַת֩ אַרְבַּ֨ע אֲבִ֧י הָֽעֲנ֛וֹק[2] הִ֥יא חֶבְר֖וֹן בְּהַ֣ר יְהוּדָ֑ה וְאֶת מִגְרָשֶׁ֖הָ סְבִיבֹתֶֽיהָ: כא:יבוְאֶת שְׂדֵ֥ה הָעִ֖יר וְאֶת חֲצֵרֶ֑יהָ נָֽתְנ֛וּ לְכָלֵ֥ב בֶּן־יְפֻנֶּ֖ה בַּאֲחֻזָּתֽוֹ:
Josh 21:11 To them (=Aaronides) were assigned in the hill country of Judah Kiryat-arba—the father of the giant(s)—that is, Hebron–together with the pastures around it. 21:12 They gave the fields and the villages of the town to Caleb son of Jephunneh as his holding.

Hebron – A City with Giants and No Arba!

When describing the giants at Hebron, however, Num 13:22 passes over the figure of Arba entirely:

במדבר יג:כב וַיַּעֲל֣וּ בַנֶּגֶב֘ וַיָּבֹ֣א עַד־חֶבְרוֹן֒ וְשָׁ֤ם אֲחִימַן֙ שֵׁשַׁ֣י וְתַלְמַ֔י יְלִידֵ֖י הָעֲנָ֑ק וְחֶבְר֗וֹן שֶׁ֤בַע שָׁנִים֙ נִבְנְתָ֔ה לִפְנֵ֖י צֹ֥עַן מִצְרָֽיִם:
Num 13:22 They went up into the Negeb and came to Hebron, where lived Ahiman, Sheshai, and Talmai, the descendants of the giant(s) (anak). Now Hebron was founded seven years before Zoan of Egypt.[3]

In this verse, Sheshai, Ahiman, and Talmai are three descendants of the giants (or giant, depending on whether ענק is understood as a collective singular or as a reference to a particular giant). [4] They are not described as the sons of Arba, father of the giants. The mention of this Arba is oddly patterned: he is never mentioned independently, or in a verse that only uses the name Hebron; he is only mentioned in reference to Kiryat-arba.

Sheshai, Ahiman, and Talmai – Sons of Arba?

Only Joshua 15:13-14 mentions Arba along with his sons Sheshai, Ahiman, and Talmai:

יהושע טו:יג וּלְכָלֵ֣ב בֶּן־יְפֻנֶּ֗ה נָ֤תַן חֵ֙לֶק֙ בְּת֣וֹךְ בְּנֵֽי יְהוּדָ֔ה אֶל־פִּ֥י יְ-הֹוָ֖ה לִֽיהוֹשֻׁ֑עַ אֶת קִרְיַ֥ת אַרְבַּ֛ע אֲבִ֥י הָעֲנָ֖ק הִ֥יא חֶבְרֽוֹן: טו:יד וַיֹּ֤רֶשׁ מִשָּׁם֙ כָּלֵ֔ב אֶת שְׁלוֹשָׁ֖ה בְּנֵ֣י הָעֲנָ֑ק אֶת שֵׁשַׁ֤י וְאֶת אֲחִימַן֙ וְאֶת תַּלְמַ֔י יְלִידֵ֖י הָעֲנָֽק:
Josh 15:13 Caleb son of Jephunneh was given a portion among the Judahites, in accordance with Yhwh’s command to Joshua, namely, namely, Kiryat-arba—the father of the giant(s) (anak)—that is, Hebron. 15:14 Caleb dislodged from there the three sons of the giant(s): Sheshai, Ahiman, and Talmai, the descendants of the giant(s) (anak).

This passage, however, does not read smoothly.

  • In v. 13, we are told that Kiryat-arba is so called because it was named after Arba, the progenitor of the giants. Then, in v. 14, we are told that Sheshai, Ahiman, and Talmai are the sons/descendants of “the giant(s),” as if we hadn’t just been told about their progenitor, Arba, in the preceding verse. One might have expected the verse to simply say, “and Caleb dislodged from there his (Arba’s) three sons (וירש משם כלב את שלשת בניו).”
  • Verse 14 is awkwardly repetitive. It begins by saying that Caleb dislodged the three sons of the giant(s) from there, then mentions Sheshai, Ahiman, and Talmai, and then calls them the descendants of the giant, as if that hadn’t just been stated in the same verse.

Layers of Gloss on the Verse

It seems likely that these problems are the results of the heavy glossing of this verse. These glosses are indicated below through indentations and italics:

יהושע טו:יג וּלְכָלֵ֣ב בֶּן־יְפֻנֶּ֗ה נָ֤תַן חֵ֙לֶק֙ בְּת֣וֹךְ בְּנֵֽי־יְהוּדָ֔ה
Josh 15:13 Caleb son of Jephunneh was given a portion among the Judahites,
אֶל פִּ֥י יְ-הֹוָ֖ה לִֽיהוֹשֻׁ֑עַ
in accordance with Yhwh’s command to Joshua,[5]
אֶת־קִרְיַ֥ת אַרְבַּ֛ע אֲבִ֥י הָעֲנָ֖ק הִ֥יא חֶבְרֽוֹן:
namely, Kiryat-arba—the father of the giant(s)—that is, Hebron.
טו:יד וַיֹּ֤רֶשׁ מִשָּׁם֙ כָּלֵ֔ב אֶת שְׁלוֹשָׁ֖ה בְּנֵ֣י הָעֲנָ֑ק
15:14 Caleb dislodged from there the three sons of the giant(s)
אֶת־שֵׁשַׁ֤י וְאֶת־אֲחִימַן֙ וְאֶת־תַּלְמַ֔י יְלִידֵ֖י הָעֲנָֽק:
Sheshai, Ahiman, and Talmai, the descendants of the giant(s).

The original verse simply had Caleb dislodging giants from the portion he was given among the Judahites. When this portion became identified with Hebron, it brought along with it Hebron’s three giants, Sheshai, Ahiman, and Talmai, mentioned as the occupants of Hebron in Numbers 13:22. This is also the source of the second reference to their descent from the giants, this time using the word ילידי instead of בני; the former term is used in Numbers. [6]

The addition of Hebron into the verse brought along with it the mention of Kiryat-arba, which the scribes identified as another name of Hebron. This, in turn, brought along the gloss explaining the name Kiryat-arba found in two other places in Joshua, that the town was named after Arba the giant. This gloss seems to come almost reflexively after the name Kiryat-arba is mentioned.

Both of these glosses, that of Arba and that of Sheshai, Ahiman, and Talmai, appear to have been added separately, with no attempt to connect Arba directly with these three “descendants of the giant(s).” In fact, the Bible never contains the phrase, “Sheshai, Ahiman, and Talmai, sons of Arba the giant.”

Arba the Giant: A Midrashic Consequence of Merging Traditions

What inspired the late gloss “father of the giant(s)”? I believe it is a product of the conflation of Kiryat-arba with Hebron.[7] Numbers 13:23 and Joshua 11:21 suggest that Hebron was associated with giants. As the Hebron and Kiryat-arba traditions merged, the “giants” tradition, which originated with Hebron, became associated with Kiryat-arba as well. This new connection—Kiryat-arba as a city of giants—then inspired the folk etymology of Kiryat-arba=Kiryat-Arba, treating Arba as the personal name of a giant.

City of Four: The Likely Original Meaning

The more original meaning of Kiryat-arba is the “city of four,” with arba as a common, not a personal noun. Scholars have suggested that this “four” could be a reference to four sanctuaries, or a confederation of four groups. It could also be a reference to some geographical feature, or even the organization of the city into quarters.

A city name may be based on a personal name. The Bible, for example, references places like Kiryat-Sihon (Num 21:28), i.e., the City of (King) Sihon, and Kiryat-Ba’al (Josh 15:60, 18:14), the City of (the god) Ba’al. Nevertheless, in the case of Kiryat-arba, this is unlikely, since “four” is not a likely personal name in ancient Israel.

Furthermore, Gen 35:27 and Neh 11:25 call the city קרית הארבע, “the City of the Four.” Herearba cannot be a personal name, since in biblical Hebrew personal names cannot be preceded by the definite article (“the”).[8]  This further suggests that the original meaning of the city name was the “city of four” and not “the city of Arba.”[9]  

The Four Giants or the Four Couples: The Final Midrashic Move

For the most part, the rabbis ignore Arba the giant, and go back to interpreting the name of the city as, “The City of Four.” The most common interpretation in rabbinic literature is Rabbi Isaac’s suggestion (b. Eruvin 53a):

אמר רבי יצחק: קרית הארבע זוגות: אדם וחוה, אברהם ושרה, יצחק ורבקה, יעקב ולאה.
Rabbi Yitzhak said: “The city of four couples [who are buried there, in the Machpelah Cave]: Adam and Eve, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Leah.”[10] 

Nevertheless, the scribal understanding of Arba as the name of a great giant, and meaning ofarba as the number four, merge in one midrashic tradition. A number of commentators suggest that the Kiryat-arba should be understood as “The City of Four Giants,” Sheshai, Ahiman, Talmai, and their father, “the giant,” Arba.

בקרית ארבע – על שם ארבע ענקים שהיו שם אחימן ששי ותלמי ואביהם.
In Kiryat-arba – after four giants who lived there: Ahiman, Sheshai, Talmai, and their father (Rashi, Gen 23:2). [11] 


June 30, 2016


Last Updated

July 8, 2020


View Footnotes

Dr. Rabbi Zev Farber is a fellow at Project TABS and editor of He holds a Ph.D. from Emory University in Jewish Religious Cultures (Hebrew Bible focus) and an M.A. from Hebrew University in Jewish History (biblical period focus). In addition to academic training, Zev holds ordination (yoreh yoreh) and advanced ordination (yadin yadin) from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT) Rabbinical School. He is the author of Images of Joshua in the Bible and their Reception (De Gruyter 2016) and editor (with Jacob L. Wright) of Archaeology and History of Eighth Century Judah (SBL 2018).