Fighting Giants

Parashat Dvarim  Deuteronomy 1:1 – 3:22

Presented August  2008 at the Newton Centre Minyan, an egalitarian Jewish congregation in Massachusetts

In Parashat Dvarim (Deuteronomy) Moshe (Moses) succinctly retells their shared history of wanderings and conquering to people who experienced these events together with him. One has to assume that the listeners were presumed to already know most of what Moshe tells them. In other words, this retelling is not meant to be comprehensive, but rather didactic.

In fact, it’s like any historical or autobiographical account. No one can possible tell every single thing that ever happened. Instead, depending upon the audience, we select particular events that seem especially important to us at the time of the telling. Moreover, we often organize the events we choose to tell into a themed narrative.

What do Moshe and / or the redactors want people to know here? I believe that the theme of this parasha (weekly Torah portion) is smaller people conquering bigger people / things.

This is set out right in the beginning: In verse 3 we are given the date for Moshe’s speech – the first day of 11th month, etc. Then, immediately we are given the historical frame for the talk: right after they had defeated Sihon king of the Amorites and King Og of Bashan.

Clearly, lots more had happened before the day of this speech, so why these two particular historical markers?

Both refer to the defeat of kings. And not just any kings: Great kings.

Sihon, King of the Amorites — In Numbers 21: 21 – 31 Sihon is presented as a very powerful king who defeated the first king of Moab (and of course was in turn defeated by the Israelites.) Indeed, the Amorite kingdom was ancient and huge. About 2500 BC it embraced the larger part of Mesopotamia and Syria.

And King Og of Bashan was so huge – he was in fact the only remaining one of the Rephaim – a group of giants that I will come back to shortly that “His bedstead – which now can be seen by anyone in Rabbah of the Ammonites – is nine cubits long and four cubits wide!” (3:11). Also the territory he ruled was big and powerful – “all 60 of those towns were fortified with high walls, gates and bars” (3:5).

Following this historical timetable set, the parasha makes note of God’s order to take possession of the land, something else we’ll come back to.

Still in the first chapter, the  big vs. small theme is further elaborated: We are reminded about Israel’s fear of the huge, indigenous Amorites noted in the spies’ report, “We saw there a people stronger and taller than we, large cities with walls sky-high and even Anakites.” (1:28).

Who are these Anakites mentioned briefly here in the first chapter of the book of Deuteronomy?

In Numbers 13:33 we read:

“‘And there we saw the Nephilim [we’ll come back to them also] (the sons of Anak, who come from the Nephilim); and we seemed to ourselves like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them.’”

(Try to remember these names: Rephaim, Anakites, Nephilim – we’ll come back to them shortly.)

In Chapter 2 of Deuteronomy we get some interesting ethnographic detail regarding the huge creatures: God instructed the Israelites leave the Moabites alone and then he explains that this land “was formerly inhabited by the Emim, a people great and numerous and as tall as the Anakites. Like the Anakites, they are counted as Rephaim, but the Moabites call them Emim.” (2:11).

And then, a few verses later in Dvarim 2:20 we get an expansion of this ethnography: This part of the land of the Ammomites “is counted as Rephaim country. It was formerly inhabited by Rephaim, whom the Ammonites called Zamzummin, a people great and numerous and as tall as the Anakites. The Lord wiped them out, so that the Ammonites dispossessed them and settled in their place.”

I want to point out two things here:

First, the ethnographic style of presentation gives a very strong sense that there really truly are or were these giant people. After all, various cultures know about them and have different names for them.

Second, God tells Moshe to tell the Israelites to leave these two giant people places alone. They are not supposed to conquer them. (We will come back to that as well.)


Firstculturally (I am an anthropologist by trade) this is consistent with a pervasive Jewish theme of the weak overcoming the strong (Moses vs. Pharaoh), younger son beats out older son (Jacob and Esau), etc.

Secondtheologically the inversion theme speaks to the idea that God is so powerful that even the barren can bear children and the weak can beat the strong – but only if they have God on their side.

Third, again culturally, the giant theme resonates with another Jewish meta-theme: The idea that huge creatures are monstrous hybrids (think of the Leviathan with its multiple heads) and hybrids are a fundamental anathema to a culture centered on acts of separation and organizing and purity of species. Basically, as anthropologist Mary Douglas argues and in her analysis of Kashrut (law of forbidden and permitted [kosher] food), this culture doesn’t like mixed up creatures and phenomena. We don’t mix milk and meat, we don’t eat animals that swim like fish but don’t have fins and gills, we keep a firm separation between male and female and we really don’t like hermaphrodites, we even keep linen and wool separate, and of course in our foundational cosmology creation takes place when God organizes the chaos via acts of separation (land from water, day from night).

[Side note: other ancient near Eastern cultures, and of course Greek culture, have lots of hybrid creatures like a goat-man, etc. We don’t have any of this in our Bible. It’s reasonable to assume that these hybrid creatures were quite well known in the ancient world and thus it was a pro-active decision on the part of the Biblical redactors to eliminate them from our text – these kinds of creatures would make God’s world far more chaotic than our culture and theology would like. This makes the presence of giants even more interesting!]

Now – back to the giants. One of the earliest Biblical hybrid creatures are the Nephilim, who, as we heard in Numbers, are the ancestors of the gigantic Anakites.

In Genesis 6:4: “The Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of men, and they bore children to them.” (Yes – that’s the mixing theme – in fact the ultimate monstrous hybridity – creatures that are half god and half man.) And immediately in the next verse: “And the Lord saw that the wickedness of people in the earth ..” and that is when he decides to make the flood.

Now, remember, the Nephilim, as we heard in our Parasha, are also related to the Rephaim – another sort of hybrid creature. Rafa –  rpu’ in Ugaritic literature — legendary ancient heroes who lived in the underworld.

In Isaiah 14:9 and Job 26:5 Rephaim pretty clearly are creatures of Sheol, the underworld. In quite a few translations they are rendered as “they that are deceased;” “the shades” – perhaps the most frightening type of hybrid creature – a zombie “undead” corpse??

Thus, in a “taunt” directed against the king of Babylon, Isaiah 14:9-11:

“The grave [Sheol] below is all astir
to meet you at your coming;
it rouses the Rephaim to greet you –

All your pomp has been brought down to the grave,
along with the noise of your harps;
maggots are spread out beneath you
and worms cover you.”

In 2 Samuel 21: 20 we get a more detailed description of a Rafa – clearly a gigantic hybrid type creature:  “And yet again there was war at Gath, where was a man of great stature, whose fingers and toes were four and twenty, six on each hand, and six on each foot: and he also was the son of the Rafa.  But when he defied Israel, Jonathan the son of Shim’i David’s brother slew him.  These were born unto the Rafa in Gath; and they fell by the hand of David, and by the hand of his servants.” [“David” is King David, an exceptionally important figure in Jewish history and mythology.]

And here we move from cosmology, culture and theology to politics.

The passage in 2 Samuel describing David’s defeat of the Rafa leads us to: The fourth reason that the “small vs. big theme is so important and why Moshe’s recounting of history opens up with it:

Politically, it speaks to a core founding myth of the Davidic dynasty – David is chosen by God to complete the conquering that God explicitly told Moshe not to take on – the lands of the Anakim (as we just heard in our Parasha today.)

Before I go on, I want to introduce the idea in anthropology that minor references refer back to the biggest reference – that fleeting references to known cultural figures or phenomena are filled in by the listener who knows the big important story that the smaller references evoke. This is also one of the principles of parshanut (textual interpretation) used in the Talmud (compendium of Jewish law, custom and history): dvrei Torah ani’im bmakim ehad I’ashirim bmakom aher.

The biggest reference to a giant is Goliath – a descendent of the Anakim!

“And there came out from the camp of the Philistines a champion named Goliath, of Gath, whose height was six cubits and a span [i.e. about 9 feet / 3 meters]. He had a helmet of bronze on his head, and he was armed with a coat of mail, and the weight of the coat was five thousand shekels [i.e. about 125 pounds / 57 kilograms] of bronze. And he had greaves of bronze upon his legs, and a javelin of bronze slung between his shoulders. And the shaft of his spear was like a weaver’s beam, and his spear’s head weighed six hundred shekels [i.e. about 15 pounds / 7 kilograms] of iron; and his shield-bearer went before him.” (1 Samuel 17:4-7 RSV)

Note that not only is Goliath huge, he also is so covered in metal that he sounds like a hybrid half man half machine – a kind of cyborg — surely a creature whose appearance is anathema to a culture that that consistently selects the small over the large and the pure over the mixed.

So, unlike the Rephaim and Anakim and Nephilim, Goliath is described in great detail. And why is Goliath important? Because David kills him. This is a crucial part of the origin myth of the Davidic dynasty – David as miracle worker (very typical story).

We need to remember that our Torah is written and redacted post David dynasty. These other mentions of giants remind the listener that before David there used to be all these giants hanging around.

In fact, David rids the world of giants (they are never mentioned again after the Book of Samuel) much like Patrick rid Ireland of snakes.

In sum, coming back to our Parasha, I’ve suggested today that the listeners to Moshe’s didactic narrative in Deuteronomy are reminded of this ultimate Davidic triumph when Moshe opens his history with fleeting references to a variety of gigantic kinds and creatures.

Indeed, the scattered references to giants beginning in Genesis pretty much ensure that the lay listener receives frequent reminders that until David came along there were, from the beginning of time, some pretty awfully scary creatures in the world.

Fifth, and this is the final idea in the small vs. big narrative.

Goliath, as a descendant of the Anakim, is a member of the Nephilim. Slaying him is the culmination of a meta-narrative that began in Genesis when giants appear as divine-human offspring in the primeval history – and then comes the flood. They appear again as the inhabitants of the land of Palestine before the arrival of the Israelites from Egypt. As such, they are aboriginal inhabitants against whom the Israelites, emerging from Egypt, had to struggle in order to gain control of the land.

Indeed, in virtually every biblical account of giants, they are portrayed as an ancient race that lost favor with God.

Now, here I put my anthropologist hat back on: Cross-culturally, in the context of political power struggles over disputed territories, the newcomers often cast the original or autochthonous population as monstrous giants. More broadly, imagining the enemy as a monstrous “other” creates a discourse in which their destruction is easily justified. And further, casting this “other” as extraordinarily big and strong, creates a discourse in which victory is all that much sweeter.

I think there is a lesson in this analysis for contemporary geopolitics.

For more on giants:  “Giants in the Bible” by Peter T. Chattaway.

Paul B. Thomas Smiting Goliath: Giants as Monsters in the Ancient Near East