Turn It Again: Torah Wisdom for Today – Chukat 2024

Turn It Again: Torah Wisdom for Today

In Pirkei Avot, a book of maxims in the Mishnah, an ancient rabbi, Ben Bag-Bag said about Torah study, Hafokh bah, vaHafokh vah, dkhola bah.” Turn it over and over, for everything is in it. For two thousand years, thats what Jews have done. Here is another turning.

Parshat Chukat 2024

There Be Giants Here: How and Why We Tamed the Ancient Tales of the Bible

Part of the enduring appeal of the Bible is its utter strangeness; although it is primarily a book about humans, it is also peppered with fantastical beings. Many sorts of angelic beings are often described in only a few lines of text. Winged cherubs stand guard outside the Garden of Eden holding flaming swords so that Adam and Eve can’t return. Balaam’s donkey begins to speak, then is never heard from again. During the tenth plague in Egypt, an ominous being, known only as Hamashchit, “The Destroyer,” appears to kill all of the Egyptian firstborn. It is never heard from again, although its dark malevolence is tamed when later generations renamed it the Angel of Death. Everyone dies, but not everyone is destroyed. This sort of domestication of the Bible’s menagerie of wild beings tends to be the norm. What can we learn from this process by which readers of the Bible tamed its most alien and shocking cast of characters?

This week’s Torah reading, Parshat Chukat, is a case in point, for the giant Og makes an appearance. Despite the Bible’s tendency to only make furtive and elliptical references to specific super-human beings, it is littered with giants. There are the Nephilim, or immense fallen beings who appear in the Book of Genesis. When the twelve spies scout out Israel, they return to speak of the giants they have seen. For any child who happens to carry the name David, the story of Goliath also holds a special fascination.

Og is mentioned a dozen times. Even so, Og is probably one of the lesser-known of these more-than-human beings, so it’s worthwhile to tell a bit of his story before examining his transformation from monster to man by the classic medieval commentators.

The story of the Israelites’ victory over King Og of Bashan, as mentioned in Numbers 21:33-35, is a blend of historical narrative and legendary embellishment. The text recounts a straightforward military conquest: the Israelites march to Bashan, and, with divine assurance, they defeat King Og and his people, leaving no survivors. From these verses alone, nothing would lead a reader to imagine Og as anything more than a human monarch, yet that overlooks the other places he turns up.

In Deuteronomy 3:11, we read, “For only Og king of Bashan remained of the remnant of the Rephaim. Indeed his bedstead, an iron bedstead, is now in Rabbah of the Ammonites. Nine cubits is its length and four cubits its width, by the standard cubit.” A careful study of who the Rephaim were shows that they were a race of giants.

These Biblical iterations lead to embellishment in later Jewish literature. The Talmud, in Berakhot 54a, presents Og as a figure of immense size and strength, almost otherworldly. According to the Talmudic account, Og attempts to crush the Israelite camp by uprooting a mountain and dropping it on them. However, divine intervention causes grasshoppers to bore a hole in the mountain, which falls around Og’s neck, trapping him and ultimately leading to his defeat by Moses. This dramatic and mythical portrayal of Og poses interpretative challenges, particularly for medieval Jewish scholars.

While the Talmud is comfortable mixing fables, history, and legal arguments together, medieval commentators like Ibn Ezra and Maimonides sought to demystify these legends, emphasizing a more rational understanding of the biblical text. Ibn Ezra, in his commentary on Deuteronomy 3:11, suggests that Og’s size was indeed extraordinary but not beyond human proportions. He interprets the description of Og’s bedstead as evidence that Og was twice the height of an average person, challenging the notion of Og as a grotesque giant.

Maimonides, in his “Guide for the Perplexed,” further clarifies this perspective by explaining that a person’s bed is typically larger than the person themselves, suggesting that Og’s bed being nine cubits long does not imply he was a fantastical giant but rather exceptionally tall by human standards. This rational approach aimed to reconcile the extraordinary elements of the legend with a more grounded understanding of human capabilities and proportions.

Rabbi Solomon ben Aderet (Rashba) offered a nuanced approach by distinguishing realistic and allegorical elements of the legend. He acknowledged Og’s exceptional size but interpreted the Talmudic mountain story allegorically. Rashba suggested that the “mountain” represented the merits of our ancestors, and the grasshoppers symbolized the prayers and spiritual resilience of the Israelites. This allegorical reading transforms the physical battle into a spiritual struggle, highlighting the interplay between divine intervention and human faith.

These medieval interpretations busied themselves with defanging Og, just as they did with other similar Biblical motifs. Why? By providing a rationalistic framework for understanding the story of Og as symbolic or allegorical, they made the story more accessible to contemporary audiences. Additionally, they defended Jewish tradition against the antisemitism of Christian polemics, which often criticized the Talmud for its seemingly irrational legends. In the end, they neutered Og, transforming him from a mythical giant who might keep young children up at night into a more manageable figure.

Their enterprise and agenda are understandable, yet we should wonder at the cost involved. The tendency to deform sacred writings by rendering them fully rational misunderstands the role of religious texts. There are enough books of history and science that attempt to portray the world in a straightforward manner. Yet it is within the mystery and inexplicability that define many different traditions’ holy literature that we find profound moral and spiritual significance that might otherwise elude us. More importantly, despite our best efforts, the world remains more mysterious than we care to admit. Perhaps we are not so different as adults than we were as children peeking beneath our beds for hidden monsters.