World of the Sages: Giants of old

Who was the ultimate survivor in biblical lore?

Giants were part of the landscape from the earliest biblical times (see Genesis 4:6). These mighty men who once struck fear in the hearts of people suffered two great defeats. Their first rout was at the hands of Chedorlaomer, during the war of the four kings against the five kings (see Genesis 14:5). In this famous battle, Lot was taken captive - a move that would prove to be fatal for the heretofore triumphant four kings, for one person managed to escape and bring the news of Lot's capture to his uncle Abraham. Abraham quickly entered the fray to rescue his nephew. With his force, Abraham subdued the four kings, freeing Lot and regaining much property that had been plundered by them. Who was the refugee who brought the news to Abraham and thus turned the tide of the war? The commentators noted the use of the definite article - the survivor - and sought to identify who this news courier was. Some commentators suggested that it was a refugee from the very battle in which Lot was seized. Another suggested that it was a solitary survivor from Lot's camp (Shadal, 19th century, Italy). Our sages, however, looked further afield for the identity of this news bearer: Who was the ultimate survivor in biblical lore? During the deluge, as all life was being wiped out except for Noah and his ark, Og managed to climb onto one of the ladders on the outside of the ark. As he clung on, he swore to Noah and to his sons to be their slave forever. In exchange, Noah bored a small hole in the ark and each day he would proffer food to the giant, who thus weathered the storm (Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer 23). Though not included in the ark, Og managed to survive the flood in this manner and for that feat he was known as the survivor (B. Nidda 61a). The survivor who brought the news to Abraham was the famous refugee, Og. According to one opinion among the sages, Og was driven by shadowy motives: He hoped that Abraham would fall in battle and he could marry the beautiful Sarah (Devarim Rabba 1:25). Whatever his motive, Og who had survived the flood, had now survived the onslaught of the four kings. Og's survival resolve was shown once more when the fearsome giants were vanquished a second time, this time by the Ammonites (see Deuteronomy 2:20-21). In this context, Og's magnitude is described in terms of his cradle, which measured nine forearms long and four forearms wide - at least 4.5 meters by 2 meters, perhaps even more depending on whether Og's forearms served as the yardstick. The cradle was not made of wood but of iron so that it could hold this colossal baby's weight (Deuteronomy 3:11). Maimonides (12th century, Cairo) sought to extrapolate from the size of the cot just how big Baby Og was: A person generally makes his bed a third longer than his height, assumed Maimonides. Thus Og must have measured six cubits in height; an average height of a person, notes Maimonides, is three cubits. Baby Og was therefore double the height of an average person. This huge cot was displayed in the capital city Rabat Bnei Ammon and served as a reminder of victory for the Ammonites who bested the giants (Ramban, 13th century, Spain-Eretz Yisrael). Og for his part moved north and settled in Bashan. Despite Og's endurance, our sages describe the lead up to his eventual downfall. When the Jewish people reached the area of Edrei on the east bank of the Jordan River, Moses announced: "We camp here tonight, and tomorrow we conquer the city" (Devarim Rabba 1:24). Early the following morning they set out, but the landscape had changed. Moses looked up and saw Og sitting on the wall of the city with his feet reaching the ground. Not understanding what he saw, Moses wondered: "What's going on, did they build another wall overnight?" The Almighty explained: "Moses, what you see is none other than Og." Moses was frightened, "Do not fear, Moses," reassured the Almighty, "For he will fall before you." Og saw that the entire camp of Israel was three parasangs square: "I will uproot a mountain of such size and throw it on the entire camp and kill them all," planned the giant (B. Berachot 54b). Og found such a piece of land, picked it up and held it aloft as he planned to bury the Jewish people. The Almighty sent ants which began to bore holes in the uprooted mountain, and clumps of earth began to rain on Og's head. Og tried valiantly to brush the earth off, but his teeth grew, extending downward and locking his head in position. Og demise was not far. Moses - himself no pipsqueak - was 10 cubits tall. He took an axe with a 10-cubit handle, and he jumped 10 cubits into the air. He reached up and with the axe 30 cubits above the ground he struck Og - in the heel! The blow to the tender "Og's heel" - as perhaps we should call it in our tradition - was sufficient and the giant came crashing down. What is the legacy of this giant? In days of old, people would surely stare with amazement at the size of Og's cradle. This cradle, however, is no more. The Talmud rules that whoever sees the rock with which Og had planned to crush the Jewish people must recite a blessing praising God for miraculous salvation (B. Berachot 54a). We barely recall Og's tenacious ability to survive and the only memento of his exploits was a rock that we can no longer identify. Alas, the giants of old who so capture our imagination are but a distant memory, alive today only in aggada. Though, perhaps, giants are not only gauged by the measurements of their cradle or the height of their heel or the size of the mountains they uproot. The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.