Og and Sihon: Myth and reality

A new age has dawned, new challenges. Seize it with both hands

Og and Sihon: Myth and reality (photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
Og and Sihon: Myth and reality
(photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
The opening lines of the Torah portion of Devarim, the first in the Book of Deuteronomy, lists names of places in the wilderness not previously mentioned as being on the Children of Israel’s route from Egypt. Rashi says that these names hint at sins committed by the Israelites at these locations.
However, in verse four we find names that have been mentioned before – Sihon, king of the Emorites, and Og, king of Bashan. We made their acquaintance in the Book of Numbers as the defeated and slain enemies of the Israelites.
But why are their names also not given to us in hints, by, say, recalling the places in which they were conquered? Moreover, these kings are named repeatedly in this portion. What is so significant about them? We meet Sihon first in Numbers 21:21: “Israel sent messengers to Sihon, king of the Emorites, saying: Allow us to cross your territory, we will not turn into your fields or your vineyards, we will not drink from your wells... But Sihon would not permit Israel to cross his border...and went out to meet Israel in the desert… and Israel smote him and took the land.”
Og appears in the same chapter: “And they (the Children of Israel) went up by way of the Bashan, and Og, king of Bashan, came to meet them in battle at Edrei. And God said to Moses ‘Don’t be afraid of him, because I have given him into your hands.’” Our portion adds that Og was the last of the giants, or Rephaim, that originally lived before the Flood. “Pirkei DeRebbi Eliezer,” an 8th-century midrashic work, says that he survived the Flood thanks to the generosity of Noah. In so doing he swore eternal fealty to him.
In another source, he is Abraham’s servant Eliezer, part of a gift given by the hunter-king Nimrod to the patriarch after the latter succeeded in emerging unscathed from the furnace into which the wicked monarch had thrust him. As a reward for his life-long service to Abraham, God turns Og into king of Bashan.
However, other midrashim are less complimentary about the giant, claiming that he lusts after Sarah, and plots to take her on Abraham’s death. Moses’s fear of Og, however, according to one legend, owes nothing to the king of Bashan’s size. “I am a mere 120 years old,” says Moses, “while Og is over 500 years old – surely that means he has some special merit.”
According to the Talmud, Og and Sihon were brothers: both were giants.
One midrash observes: “Sihon and Og were tougher than Pharaoh and his armies” adding that “neither would lift a finger to help the other.”
What does this all mean? Perhaps it can be understood in juxtaposition with the verses Moses speaks shortly after the opening: “God spoke to us at Horeb and said... Behold I have given you the land – come and possess the land that was sworn to your ancestors, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to give it to them and their descendants after them.” (Deuteronomy 1: 8) Rashi explains that this attests to the fact that the Israelites could see the Land of Canaan for themselves, and did not have to rely on myth or hearsay: “Look with your own eyes – the land is yours to take...”
Moses offers here a commentary on the recent past as well as a vision of what can be in the future. Paradoxically, the giant kings are recalled one last time, so that they can be consigned to oblivion.
Forget Og and Sihon, Moses is saying here. They were survivors from the mythic past, and now belong to the mythic past: we’ve beaten them. The period of myths is past. The Promised Land is the reality with which you have to deal. Forget the sinful past. Remember the covenant I made with your ancestors: you are just a step away from fulfilling that promise.
There are many people today who still think in terms of the sins we have committed. “Because of our transgressions we were exiled from our land.” They cannot move forward. They are still mourning.
They cannot rejoice with what their own eyes have shown them.
This is the message of Moses here. A new age has dawned, new challenges. Seize it with both hands, without calculations, and possess the Promised Land. 
Mordechai Beck is a Jerusalem-based writer and artist. This essay, adapted from the forthcoming book “The Sacred Whore of Jericho and Other Biblical Rewrites,” is in memory of his father, Rabbi Shlomo Zalman