Og, King of Bashan: Underworld Ruler or Ancient Giant?
The victory against King Og of Bashan by the Israelites is mentioned several times in biblical literature alongside the defeat of King Sihon of the Amorites. Evoking these victories reminds the Israelite readers of past glories and military successes.
When Moses narrates the Og account in Deuteronomy 3, he adds:
דברים ג:יא כִּ֣י רַק עוֹג מֶ֣לֶךְ הַבָּשָׁן נִשְׁאַר מִיֶּתֶר הָרְפָאִים…
Deut 3:11 Only King Og of Bashan was left of the remaining Rephaʾim…
A similar notice appears in Joshua, in the description of the Transjordanian borders:
יהושע יב:ד וּגְבוּל עוֹג מֶלֶךְ הַבָּשָׁן מִיֶּתֶר הָרְפָאִים הַיּוֹשֵׁב בְּעַשְׁתָּרוֹת וּבְאֶדְרֶעִי.
Josh 12:4 Also the territory of King Og of Bashan—one of the last of the Rephaʾim—who resided in Ashtaroth and in Edrei.
Who are these Rephaʾim and what does it mean that Og is one of them?
All Hail Og, King of the Dead
Many modern-day commentators understand the term rephaʾim here to mean spirits of the dead or shades, who inhabit the underworld. Indeed, rephaʾim does have this meaning in a number of biblical verses. For example, Isaiah 26 contrasts YHWH to other deities, and says:
ישעיה כו:יג יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ בְּעָלוּנוּ אֲדֹנִים זוּלָתֶךָ לְבַד בְּךָ נַזְכִּיר שְׁמֶךָ. כו:יד מֵתִים בַּל יִחְיוּ רְפָאִים בַּל יָקֻמוּ לָכֵן פָּקַדְתָּ וַתַּשְׁמִידֵם וַתְּאַבֵּד כָּל זֵכֶר לָמוֹ.
Isa 26:13 YHWH our God, other lords besides you have ruled over us, but we acknowledge your name alone. 26:14 The dead do not live; shades (rephaʾim) do not rise—because you have punished and destroyed them, and wiped out all memory of them.
The parallelism here between rephaʾim and the dead helps determine the meaning of rephaʾim. Another example of this usage is in Proverbs, describing the dangers of succumbing to the seductive woman:
משלי ט:יח וְלֹא יָדַע כִּי רְפָאִים שָׁם בְּעִמְקֵי שְׁאוֹל קְרֻאֶיהָ.
Prov 9:18 But they do not know that the shades (rephaʾim) are there, that her guests are in the depths of Sheol.
This translation of rephaʾim is supported by West-Semitic cognate evidence from two Phoenician tombstones (KAI 13:8 and 14:8) and a number of Ugaritic texts, which use the term rpʾum for a special class of the dead, sometimes described as a cult of dead kings. This evidence suggests that according to Deuteronomy 3:10, Og is both a shade and a king.
Several scholars argue that Bashan itself, Og’s kingdom, is a reference to the underworld. The name Bashan likely derives from the proto-Semitic root ב.ת.נ. One meaning of this root, found in the Ugaritic term btn, is “serpent” or “dragon,” mentioned in several mythological texts.
In Deuteronomy 3, evidence for Bashan as a mythic place can be found just a few verses after the reference to Og as a remnant of the rephaʾim. When the text describes the land given to the half tribe of Manasseh, we are told that:
דברים ג:יג ...כֹּל חֶבֶל הָאַרְגֹּב לְכָל הַבָּשָׁן הַהוּא יִקָּרֵא אֶרֶץ רְפָאִים.
Deut 3:13 …The whole region of Argob: all that portion of Bashan used to be called a land of Rephaʾim.
If rephaʾim are shades, then Bashan is apparently the land of the dead. Another text which appears to treat Bashan as a supernatural realm is Psalm 68, which refers to Bashan in mythopoeic terms:
תהלים סח:טז הַר אֱלֹהִים הַר בָּשָׁן הַר גַּבְנֻנִּים הַר בָּשָׁן. סח:יז לָמָּה תְּרַצְּדוּן הָרִים גַּבְנֻנִּים הָהָר חָמַד אֱלֹהִים לְשִׁבְתּוֹ אַף יְ־הוָה יִשְׁכֹּן לָנֶצַח.... סח:כג אָמַר אֲדֹנָי מִבָּשָׁן אָשִׁיב אָשִׁיב מִמְּצֻלוֹת יָם.
Ps 68:(15)16 O mountain of God, mountain of Bashan; O many-peaked mountain, mountain of Bashan! 68:(16)17 Why do you look with envy, O many-peaked mountain, at the mount that God desired for his abode, where YHWH will reside forever?… 68:(22)23 The Lord said, “I will bring them back from Bashan, I will bring them back from the depths of the sea.”
Bashan here is a place that God desires to have as an abode, and it parallels the depths of the sea. Though not the underworld per se, this strengthens the idea that Bashan is a mythical place. To further buttress this identification, scholars have noted that in Numbers 21 (vv. 10–11), the Israelites travel through אֹבֹת (ʾOboth) and עִיֵּי הָעֲבָרִים (ʿIye-ha-ʿabbarim) to get to Bashan; these places can be translated as “ghosts” and “ruins of those passed away.”
Following this interpretation, Og’s defeat takes on a mythic symbolism in which the destruction of Og and his troops signifies not just the displacement of an enemy nation, but, as Professor Francesca Stavrakopoulou of the University of Exeter puts it, “the displacement of these underworld denizens from possession of the land.” And yet, this argument is far from conclusive.
Bashan—Just a Fertile Land
First, the connection of Bashan to the Ugaritic word for serpent or dragon is questionable. While the derivation of Bashan from the proto-Semitic root b.t.n is well accepted, many scholars connect the toponym Bashan to another meaning of this root, “flat ground,” with the connotation of an area easy to grow crops, as per the Arabic بثينة (butina).
This fits with the biblical picture of the area as exceedingly fertile. Bashan is mentioned many times in the Bible, and apart from Psalm 68, it is always used as the name for the northern Transjordan, where Israelites live. Certainly, Bashan is never explicitly said to be in the netherworld in either biblical or extra-biblical texts. The possible but unlikely connection to the Ugaritic word “serpent” or “dragon” does little to change this picture.
The God Rāpiʾu Enthroned in Ashtaroth and Edrei (KTU 1.108)
Another piece of evidence, often quoted in support of Og as the underworld king, is from an Ugaritic text (KTU 1.108; =RŠ 24.252), which appears to associate two of Og’s cities with the god Rāpiʾu, cognate of the Hebrew rephaʾim (lns 1–3):
... ישׁת. רפאֻ. מלכ. עלמ / ו ישׁת [אִל] גתר. ו יקר. אִל יתב. ב עתתרת / אִל תפט. בהד רעי.
… may Rāpiʾu, King of Eternity drink, and may [the god], mighty and noble drink, the god who sits enthroned in Athtarot (ʿṯtrt); the god who rules in Hedreʿi (hdrʿy).”
Professor Baruch Margulis of Haifa University was the first to suggest connecting Athtarot and Hedreʿi from the Ugaritic text KTU 1.108 with biblical toponyms Ashtoret and Edreʿi from the Og story:
דברים א:ד ...וְאֵת עוֹג מֶלֶךְ הַבָּשָׁן אֲשֶׁר יוֹשֵׁב בְּעַשְׁתָּרֹת בְּאֶדְרֶעִי.
Deut 1:4 …Og, king of the Bashan, who dwells in Ashtarot in ʾEdreʿi.
This interpretation has led scholars to understand Og as an instantiation of the god Rāpiʾu, a chthonic (earthy) deity, ruling in Ashtarot and ʾEdreʿi. Yet this interpretation is not straightforward either.
Does Rāpiʾu Rule from ʿAshtharot and ʾEdreʿi?
First, the correspondence between Ugaritic הדרעי and the Hebrew אדרעי is difficult to defend, since switching between heh and aleph is not a common transition in Northwest Semitic. Second, it is not clear that these two names are meant to be understood as toponyms at all.
Other Ugaritologists have suggested that these may be names of deities: The first name can be understood as a reference to the goddess ʿAttartu (=Ashtoreth) and the second as Haddu (=Hadad), yielding something like the following:
... ישׁת. רפאֻ. מלכ. עלמ / ו ישׁת [אִל] גתר. ו יקר. אִל יתב. ב עתתרת / אִל תפט. בהד רעי.
… may Rāpiʾu, King of Eternity drink, and may [the god], mighty and noble drink, the god who sits with Ashtoret; the god who judges with Hadad the shepherd.
In this case, the Ugaritic text provides additional information concerning the god Rāpiʾu that fits with other traditions known from ancient Canaan: Rāpiʾu is the god who “thrones with ʿAṯtartu” and “judges with Haddu.” This is a more straightforward interpretation of the text, and attempts to defend Margulis’ reading by pointing to the Og myth in the Bible would be circular reasoning. It would seem, then, that Ashtoreth and ʾEdreʿi are not underworld domains.
Og the Defender of Graves (Byblos 13)
Another support for Og’s connection to the underworld, noted by some scholars, is a fifth-century B.C.E. Phoenician tomb inscription (Byblos 13), published by Professor Wolfgang Röllig of the University of Tübingen. Here Og appears as a Phoenician deity and the protector of tombs:
[...ואם כל אדם יבקשׁ לפתח ע]לת ארנ זנ ולרגז עצמי העג יתבקשן האדר ובכל דר [בנ אלמ]
[...and if anyone seeks to open] this sarcophagus and to disturb my bones, the Og will seek him out, the strong one, and with all the assembly [of the gods].
In this reading, this Phoenician text from Byblos suggests that Og was remembered as a powerful spirit who protects the graves of his followers.
Does Og Protect Tombs?
While Röllig’s interpretation of the inscription has become widely accepted, and Og’s appearance in it has been frequently noted in connection to his chthonic aspect, the reading is far from certain. Already in 1979, Professor Frank Moore Cross of Harvard University disputed the reading, denying that it refers to Og at all.
Cross notes that the definite article (“the”) before Og makes it difficult to translate the term as the proper name “Og.” Instead, Cross proposed the reading hʿgzt, with no space following the g, yielding the following:
[...ואם כל אדם יבקשׁ לפתח ע]לת ארנ זנ ולרגז עצמי העגזת בקשן האדר ובכל דר [בנ אלמ]
[...and if anyone seeks to open] this sarcophagus or to disturb my moldering bones, seek him out O the Mighty One (=[Baʿal] Addīr) and with all the assembly [of the gods].
This reading alleviates the difficulty of having a definite article attached to a proper name, and parallels Phoenician funerary texts from similar contexts which provide standard formulae concerning the opening of a sarcophagus and disturbing the bones. Indeed, Röllig thereafter revised his original interpretation of the inscription, removing any reference to Og in the fifth edition of his influential compendium of Aramaic and Canaanite inscriptions.
Is Og a Ghost or a Giant?
When we put aside the proposed interpretations of Bashan as a mythical realm, and acknowledge the interpretative and translational problems of the Ugaritic and Phoenician texts, we are left with the statement that Og is one of the rephaʾim. But while this term can refer to shades, it can also refer to the pre-Israelite giant inhabitants of Canaan, a well-attested usage.
For example, in describing the Emim, “Frightening Ones,” inhabitants who lived in the land of Moab before the Moabites came, the text says:
דברים ב:י הָאֵמִים לְפָנִים יָשְׁבוּ בָהּ עַם גָּדוֹל וְרַב וָרָם כָּעֲנָקִים. ב:יא רְפָאִים יֵחָשְׁבוּ אַף הֵם כָּעֲנָקִים וְהַמֹּאָבִים יִקְרְאוּ לָהֶם אֵמִים.
Deut 2:10 It was formerly inhabited by the Emim, a people great and numerous, and as tall as giants. 2:11 Like giants, they are counted as Rephaʾim; but the Moabites call them Emim.
Similarly, in describing the former inhabitants of Ammon, Deuteronomy notes:
דברים ב:כ אֶרֶץ רְפָאִים תֵּחָשֵׁב אַף הִוא רְפָאִים יָשְׁבוּ בָהּ לְפָנִים וְהָעַמֹּנִים יִקְרְאוּ לָהֶם זַמְזֻמִּים. ב:כא עַם גָּדוֹל וְרַב וָרָם כָּעֲנָקִים וַיַּשְׁמִידֵם יְ־הוָה מִפְּנֵיהֶם וַיִּירָשֻׁם וַיֵּשְׁבוּ תַחְתָּם.
Deut 2:20 It, too, is counted as Rephaʾim country. It was formerly inhabited by Rephaʾim, whom the Ammonites call Zamzummim, 2:21 a people great and numerous and as tall as giants. YHWH wiped them out, so that the Ammonites dispossessed them and settled in their place.
This context in Deuteronomy shows that rephaʾim are giants. This is perhaps made clearest in the description of Og’s bed in the following chapter (the verse we opened with).
The Bed Problem
Moses’ narration of the conquest of Bashan adds an additional detail not found elsewhere in the biblical traditions:
דברים ג:יא 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׃
Deut 3:11 Only King Og of Bashan was left of the remaining Rephaʾim. It is noteworthy that his bed was made of iron. Does it not, indeed, still remain in Rabbah of the Ammonites? It is nine cubits long and four cubits wide according to standard measure.
The standard cubit is approximately 18 inches long, so Og’s bed was about 13 and a half feet long and six feet wide. Why does the text emphasize the measurements for his over-large bed? Noting that this seems to point to a giant instead of a shade, scholars defending the Bashan-as-underworld approach felt compelled to interpret the reference in a way fitting to Og’s role as denizen of the underworld, and thus interpreted עֶרֶשׂ ʿereś (bed) as an overly-large sarcophagus, tomb, or grave.
This creative solution stretches the meaning of the verse, once we realize that nothing in the text connects Og or his rephaʾim to the living dead. On the other hand, Professor Alan Millard of the University of Liverpool has shown that in the Bronze Age, when iron was rare and expensive, it was sometimes used as a decorative overlay. If “Og's bed” were an artifact from an ancient time, kept in Rabbah of Ammon and attached to the mythic figure of the past, it would make sense for it to be overlaid with iron. Consequently, he has argued that we should return to interpreting עֶרֶשׂ ʿereś as a “bed” rather than a tomb.
Dr Maria Lindquist of Harvard University connects the size of Og’s bed to the dimensions of the bed of the Babylonian god Marduk, described in Akkadian literature, where its size underscored the deity’s power and might. In light of these arguments, the term ʿereś barzel should be interpreted in line with its simple meaning, “iron bed,” and the text describes the dimensions of his bed, highlighting its—and thus his—enormous size.
The rabbinic exegesis embellishes the description of Og’s height, depicting him as large enough to uproot a mountain (b. Berakhot 54b).
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,
[Og] said: “How big is the Israelite camp? Thirty parasangs? I will go and lift a thirty-parasang mountain and throw it upon them and kill them. He went and lifted a thirty parasang mountain and rested it on his head. The Holy One, bb”h, brought locusts upon it and they ate a hole in it and it fell around his neck. [Og] tried to lift it off himself but his teeth stretched in each direction and he was unable to remove it.
Such embellishments take the rhetorical point further, stressing that his defeat at the hands of the Israelites was all the more impressive.
The Connection between the Two Meanings
The two meanings of rephaʾim in the Hebrew Bible as “shades” and “giants” may be reconciled. When recalling the mythic past, the rephaʾim are assumed to have been the giant inhabitants of Canaan before the arrival of the Israelites. In their own time, however, the biblical writers understand the rephaʾim as a special class of underworld inhabitants.
In other words, from the perspective of the Deuteronomist, the rephaʾim lived long ago, but are now dead. In the case of Deuteronomy 3, it is exactly this mythic past which is being recalled. The description of Og as the last of the rephaʾim, then, has a temporal effect, placing the characters in a distant past. In Deuteronomy 3, Og is the last of the giant inhabitants of Canaan, and not a denizen of the dead.
All Hail Og, the Royal Giant
As I showed above, the view popular among many scholars that Og was an underworld deity is based upon the misunderstanding and synthesis of various traditions from the Bible and the ancient Near East, creating a tradition which would have been alien to both the scribes who wrote Deuteronomy 3 and their ancient audience. While comparative evidence is undoubtably a valuable tool for unpacking the world of the Hebrew Bible, in this case the plain-sense interpretation of the verse is the best one.
Deuteronomy 3 recalls the tradition of Og in order to underscore the military power of the Israelite army. Both the size of his bed as well as the description of Og as the last of the Rephaʾim serve to heighten this dramatic narrative: Og is part of the mythic past, a mighty foe, one of the giants of old, but Israel defeated him nonetheless.
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Prof. Laura Quick is Associate Professor of Hebrew Bible at the University of Oxford, from which she received her Ph.D. in Hebrew Bible. She is the author of Deuteronomy 28 and the Aramaic Curse Tradition (Oxford University Press, 2017), and Dress, Adornment and the Body in the Hebrew Bible (Oxford University Press, forthcoming).
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