וַנִּקַּ֞ח בָּעֵ֤ת הַהִוא֙ אֶת־הָאָ֔רֶץ מִיַּ֗ד שְׁנֵי֙ מַלְכֵ֣י הָאֱמֹרִ֔י אֲשֶׁ֖ר בְּעֵ֣בֶר הַיַּרְדֵּ֑ן מִנַּ֥חַל אַרְנֹ֖ן עַד־הַ֥ר חֶרְמֽוֹן׃
צִידֹנִ֛ים יִקְרְא֥וּ לְחֶרְמ֖וֹן שִׂרְיֹ֑ן וְהָ֣אֱמֹרִ֔י יִקְרְאוּ־ל֖וֹ שְׂנִֽיר׃
כֹּ֣ל׀ עָרֵ֣י הַמִּישֹׁ֗ר וְכָל־הַגִּלְעָד֙ וְכָל־הַבָּשָׁ֔ן עַד־סַלְכָ֖ה וְאֶדְרֶ֑עִי עָרֵ֛י מַמְלֶ֥כֶת ע֖וֹג בַּבָּשָֽׁן׃
כִּ֣י רַק־ע֞וֹג מֶ֣לֶךְ הַבָּשָׁ֗ן נִשְׁאַר֮ מִיֶּ֣תֶר הָרְפָאִים֒ הִנֵּ֤ה עַרְשׂוֹ֙ עֶ֣רֶשׂ בַּרְזֶ֔ל הֲלֹ֣ה הִ֔וא בְּרַבַּ֖ת בְּנֵ֣י עַמּ֑וֹן תֵּ֧שַׁע אַמּ֣וֹת אָרְכָּ֗הּ וְאַרְבַּ֥ע אַמּ֛וֹת רָחְבָּ֖הּ בְּאַמַּת־אִֽישׁ׃
8. Thus we seized, at that time, from the two Amorite kings, the country beyond the Jordan, from the wadi Arnon to Mount Hermon — 9. Sidonians called Hermon Sirion, and the Amorites call it Senir – 10 all the towns of the Tableland and the whole of Gilead and Bashan as far as Salcah and Edrei, the towns of Og’s kingdom in Bashan. 11. Only King Og of Bashan was left of the remaining Rephaim. His bedstead, an iron bedstead, is now in Rabbah of the Ammonites; it is nine cubits long and four cubits wide, by the standard cubit!
Yep, that’s what it says. King Og’s bed was still around and was huge. So what? Yes, it is one of those sentences that gives the reader pause. It has all the appearances of a gloss, a bit of text inserted by editors or redactors at some later point. Yet it probably isn’t. For one thing, at the time of King Og (whose existence is attested, by the way, in other texts from other civilizations of the time, particularly Phoenician, not just the Torah) iron was not in common use. It was the late Bronze age. In a time when the use of ironw as rare, and it was considered precious, referring to the bed as iron would have great impact. Why would a later redactor, living in a time when the use of iron was common, bother to insert such gloss? That makes little sense.
If this were a subliminal (or perhaps not so subliminal) advertisement from the Rabbah Convention and Visitor’s Bureau enticing people to come see the magnificent iron-adorned bed, it would make sense only at a time when an iron-ornamented bed was a rarity. Most potential candidates for editors and redactors of the biblical text come from a time period well into the Iron age, when an iron bed would be simply ho-hum.
This sort of parenthetical reference is not unique among ancient texts that come from the Middle East and the Levant. One can find similar references in Hittite, Egyptian, and other texts. It is, while not common, a regularly employed literary device, or so it would seem.
The rabbis didn’t have any trouble with this reference. For them it was a clear indicator that Israel was able to defeat even the mighty King Og of Bashan handily. The reference to King Og as the last of the Rephaim, plus the size of his bed, are all intended to indicate that he was a giant, either literally, or allegorically. (Does it really matter which?) The rabbinic midrashim are replete with tales of the giant King Og. It is said he survived the great biblical flood by grabbing on to Noah’s Ark. During battle with the Israelites, he is said to have torn off the side of a mountain and thrown it at them (only to be defeated by Moses himself who stabbed him in the ankle, said to be at a height of 30 cubits!)
Og’s bed was about 14 feet long and six feet wide. Large. Ostentatious perhaps. In fact, maybe it was that large just to show off, and had nothing to do with Og’s stature at all. That’s another school of thought.
Christian scholars of the Hebrew Bible allowed their puzzlement with this seeming gloss to lead them down the primrose path of imaginative retranslation, saying the words “iron bed” were actually colloquial for “stone coffin.” Huh? Fortunately, this theory has fallen out of repute, even among Christian bible scholars, and never gained any traction among Jewish biblical scholars.
However, even Jewish scholars have wandered some strange paths on this one. The medieval scholar as tosafist Bekkor Shor insisted that the word for bed, eres, actually meant fortification in this case, and was meant as a reference to the mighty iron fortifications of the town of Rabbah. His views were adopted by others. It provided a convenient way to sidetrack any discussion about whether or not Og was an actual giant (though this also requires ignoring the reference to Og as Rephaim.
One of the latest theories among biblical exegetes and archaeologists is that Og became deified, and that the bed was a symbol of his deity. Making his defeat by the Israelites an even more remarkable feat. He wasn’t just a giant, he was a god!
What makes this theory even more interesting is that, if we take the Torah, and particularly D’varim. as a faithful description of Moses’ final oratory, then Moses was saying, in effect: Look, we defeated might King Og of Bashan, who, even yet, after our defeat of him some time ago, is still worshipped as a god in Rabbah (the bed being a cultic object.) So G”d defeated a god who was still around being a god. Put that in your monotheistic pipe and smoke it!
So what can we learn from all this? For me, it’s the same lesson I keep learning over and over, and keep sharing with you. This one little reference continues to occupy the thoughts and time of scholars as it has done for two or three millennia. These things are here to baffle us,m to challenge us, to make us scratch our heads. They remind to not take anything at face value (at least, not until you’re satisfied that face value is all there is. And you could still be wrong in the end.)
Words have the power to jar. Last week on Facebook I reshared an article a friend had posted reminding us on July 4th of the three ugly words in the Declaration of Independence in reference to native Americans: merciless Indian savages”. How many of us even realize they are there? How many of us are jarred by them if they are not brought to our attention? So too, with Torah. It’s easy to overlook the strange, the troubling, the out of place, the anachronistic, the gloss.
It’s easy to toss it off, especially if you view the Torah as the work of human beings,or human beings guided by G”d. It’s less easy to toss it off if you have a more literal view, but the rabbis come to the rescue-the rabbis answer it all for you-if you choose to accept their interpretations. But let’s not make the very erroneous assumption that Jews whose practices and beliefs are traditional do not question. Questioning the Torah is not the sole property, nor the invention of liberal Judaism. Methodologies and conclusions may vary, but questioning is at the core for any serious Jew.
So the lesson is – don’t toss it off, ignore it, or even seek a work around for it. Confront it head on, and try and figure it out. For the bed Torah has made for us is akin to the one that was used in Han’s Christian Andersen “The Princess and the Pea.” We must be like that princess, be like Winifred the Woebegone, in Mary Rodger’s adaptation of Andersen’s tale in “Once Upon a Mattress.” We must feel even that one tiny pea under 20 mattresses, and let it keep us awake. And the Torah is full of mattresses with a pea.
“For a princess is a delicate thing, delicate and dainty as a dragonfly’s wing. You can recognize a lady by her elegant air, but a genuine princess is exceedingly rare.” (from “Once Upon a Mattress” music by Mary Rodgers, lyrics by Marshall Barer, book by Jay Thompson, Dean Fuller, and Marshall Barer)
Let us all be the princess who slept on the Torah and sensed the pea.
©2013 by Adrian A. Durlester
Other musings on this parasha:
D’vraim 5772 – Revised 5762 – L’chu v’niva’ch’chah and the Twelve Steps
D’varim 5769-Torah of Confusion
D’varim-Shabbat Hazon 5771/5766 – Refractory Recalcitrant Recidivists
D’varim 5764–Eleven Days
D’varim 5763–Remembering to Forget or Forgetting to Remember?
D’varim 5762-L’chu v’niva’ch’chah and the Twelve Steps
D’varim 5759-Owning Up
D’varim 5760-1-Kumu v’Ivru