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    Og of Bashan

    Og's bed, by Johann Balthasar Probst, c.1770

    As in every narrative, the Torah has its major characters and also its second-level figures who walk across the stage of history without playing a larger-than-life role.

    One of the second-level personalities of the Torah is Og king of Bashan, a ruler in the region of Transjordan.

    In the first chapter of D’varim we learn, almost incidentally, that he was defeated and slain at Edre’i (Deut. 1:4).

    The third chapter gives us more detail and states that his territory comprised sixty fortified cities; each city had a double gate and bars, and the Israelites were understandably afraid to venture against them until God told them to advance without fear (Deut. 3:1-4).

    What explains the Israelite panic is Deut. 3:11, which tells us that Og had a bedstead of iron, nine cubits by four, which seems, in Hertz’s words, to have been preserved as a curiosity.

    Og was a giant of massive size, so large, according to the rabbis, that he picked up a mountain, intending to hurl it against the Israelites, but while he was carrying it on his head a swarm of locusts burrowed through it so that it fell around his neck.

    Moses summoned superhuman strength and succeeded in killing Og by hitting him on the ankles with an axe (Ber. 54b).

    Another rabbinic idea was that Og – or someone prefiguring him – was already alive at the time of the Flood, but survived the waters because he was so tall and the waters reached only to his ankles (Midrash P’tirat Moshe 1:128).

    It was Og who, generations later, came to Abraham with the news that Lot had been captured; he expected that Abraham would try and set Lot free but would lose his life in the battle and then he, Og, could marry the beautiful Sarah (Gen. R. 42:12; Deut. R. 1:25).

    As a reward for bringing the news to Abraham he was endowed with long life, but as a punishment for desiring Abraham’s wife he was destined to be slain by the descendants of Abraham.

    The victory over Og is said to have been as important as the triumph at the Red Sea, but no song of praise was composed to mark the occasion until the time of David, who refers to it in Psalm 135:11.

    Og still rates a mention from time to time when Yiddish-speakers see someone who is particularly tall and say, “He is as tall as Og king of Bashan!” (Others, however, used to say of a tall person, “He is as long as the Yiddishe golus, the Jewish exile!”)

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