To a large extent, the book of Dvarim is a retrospective of events and laws taught in previous sections of the Torah. For this reason, the book is often called Mishneh Torah or Deuteronomy, which both mean 'repetition of the law'. The book begins by outlining the time, place and context of what is to follow.
These are the words which Moshe spoke to all Israel on the other side of the Jordan in the wilderness, in the Aravah opposite the Red Sea, between Paran, and Tophel, and Lavan, and Hazerot, and Di-Zahav, eleven days' journey from Horev by way of Mount Se'ir to Kadesh-Barnea. And it came to pass in the fortieth year, in the eleventh month, on the first day of the month, Moshe spoke to the people of Israel, according to all that God had given him in commandment to them. After he had slain Sihon the king of the Amorites, who lived in Heshbon, and Og the king of Bashan, who lived at Ashtarot in Edre'i. On the other side of the Jordan, in the land of Moav, Moshe deigned to explain this Torah, saying: (Devarim 1:1-5)
The time is the fortieth year after the Exodus, the place is Transjordan, and the context is the aftermath of the battles with Sichon and Og - battles that were won and described in the Book of Bamidbar.
And they turned and went up by the way of Bashan; and Og the king of Bashan went out against them, he and all his people, to the battle at Edre'i. And God said to Moshe, 'Fear him not; for I have delivered him into your hand, and all his people, and his land; and you shall do to him as you did to Sihon king of the Amorites, who lived in Heshbon.' So they struck him, and his sons, and all his people, until none was left alive; and they possessed his land. (Bamidbar 21:33-35)
In preparation for the battle against Og, Moshe is told not to be afraid. What is it about this particular battle, more than any other struggle or task, that fills Moshe with fear? The re-telling of these events in the Book of Devarim is no more enlightening than the first account in Bamidbar
Then we turned, and went up through the Bashan; and Og the king of the Bashan came out against us, he and all his people, to battle at Edre'i. And God said to me, Fear him not; for I will deliver him, and all his people, and his land, into your hand; and you shall do to him as you did to Sihon king of the Amorites, who lived at Heshbon.' So the Almighty our God delivered into our hands Og also, the king of Bashan, and all his people; and we struck him until none was left remaining. (Devarim 3:1-3)
Here, too, the text recounts that Moshe was gripped with fear; the description ends with what sounds like a song:(1)
For only Og king of Bashan remained of the remnant of Refaim; behold, his bed was a bed of iron. Is it not in Rabbat of the sons of Ammon? Nine cubits was its length, and four cubits its breadth, according to the cubit of a man. (Devarim 3:11)
Moshe begins to explain the Torah only after these battles have been fought. While the time and place seem clear, the significance of these particular battles seems obscure. Why does the defeat of Og serve as the context for the beginning of the book? How does this battle set the stage for Moshe to teach the Torah to the people? And why was the battle against Og, more than the other battles they had fought, fraught with fear? An analysis of Og from the midrashic perspective will shed more light on this character.
In rabbinic literature, Og is a legendary figure of mythic proportions.(2)
It was taught: Abba Saul (or, as some say, R. Yochanan) stated: I was once a grave-digger. On one occasion, when pursuing a deer, I entered the thigh-bone of a corpse, and pursued it for three parasangs but did neither reach the deer nor the end of the thigh-bone. When I returned I was told that it was the thigh-bone of Og, King of Bashan. (Talmud Bavli Nidah 24b)
'The stone which Og, king of Bashan wanted to throw at Israel'. This has been handed down by tradition. He said: How large is the camp of Israel? Three parasangs. I will go and uproot a mountain of the size of three parasangs and cast it upon them and kill them. He went and uprooted a mountain of the size of three parasangs and carried it on his head. But the Holy One, blessed be He, sent ants which bored a hole in it, so that it sank around his neck. He tried to pull it off, but his teeth projected on each side, and he could not pull it off. (Talmud Bavli Brachot 54a)
Moshe and Israel came to the borders of Edre'i. Moshe said unto them [Israel]: 'Let us encamp here, and in the morning we will enter the city.' As they were about to enter, [it was so dark] that nothing could as yet be seen. Moshe lifted up his eyes and beheld Og sitting upon the wall with his feet touching the ground; Moshe said [to himself], 'I do not know what I see; these people must have built up an additional wall during the night.' Whereupon God said to Moshe: 'Moshe, what you see is Og.' R. Johanan said: The length of his feet was eighteen cubits. Thereupon Moshe became frightened, but God said, 'Do not fear, because I will make him fall before you.'(Midrash Rabbah - Devarim 1:24)
This last source explains Moshe's fear as a reaction to Og's incredible size: apparently seeing a man the size of a mountain caused Moshe to reconsider the wisdom of the battle.(3) Alternatively, Rashi(4) cites a tradition, found in both Talmud and Midrash, that attributes Moshe's fear to more spiritual concerns. Moshe was worried about Og, and not any of the other kings or armies they faced, because Og alone possessed certain merits that could tip the scales in his favor. At face value this concern seems strange: How can the merits of a heathen king be more impressive than the combined merit of God's chosen people and Moshe, a spiritual giant, the man who brought the Torah down from heaven, who spoke to God face to face?
The Talmud provides some background concerning the merit that Og had accrued:
And God said to Moshe: Fear him not'. Consider: Sihon and Og were brothers, for a Master stated, 'Sihon and Og were the sons of Ahiyah the son of Shamhazai', then why was it that he feared Og while he did not fear Sihon? R. Johanan citing R. Simeon b. Yohai replied: From the answer that was given to that righteous man you may understand what was in his mind. He thought: Perhaps the merit of our father Avraham will stand him by, for it is said, 'And there came one that had escaped, and told Avram the Ivri (Hebrew).' In this connection R. Yohanan explained: This refers to Og who escaped the fate of the generation of the flood. (Talmud Bavli Nidah 61a)
Og stands between the People of Israel and the realization of their dream, the Promised Land. According to the Talmud, this same Og was an acquaintance of Avraham. The Talmud refers to the battle between kings in which Avraham's nephew Lot was captured and an anonymous palit, a survivor or refugee, travels back to Avraham's encampment in Elonei Mamre to inform him.
And there came one who had escaped, and told Avram the Hebrew; for he lived in the plain of Mamre the Amorite, brother of Eshkol, and brother of Aner; and these were allies of Avram. (Bereishit 14:13)
Midrashic logic identifies the bearer of these dire tidings, the sole survivor of one or another cataclysm, this unnamed refugee: In our present parsha, Og is the sole survivor; thus Og is the survivor in all cases. It was Og who bore the news of Lot's capture to Avraham.
What was the importance of Og's action? According to the Talmud, informing Avraham that Lot was captured had saved Lot's life; this was the merit that Og had accrued, the merit Moshe feared. The Midrash goes one step further, providing us inside information regarding Og's motivation for being instrumental in Lot's rescue:
FEAR HIM NOT.' There did not exist in the world a man of might more difficult to overcome than he; as may be inferred from the text, For only Og king of Bashan remained of the remnant of the Rephaim (Deut. III, 11). He had been the only survivor of the strong men whom Amraphel and his colleagues had slain; as may be inferred from the text, And smote the Rephaim in Ashteroth-Karnaim (Bereishit 14: 5). And this man was the refuse among them, like the hard olives that escape being mashed. This may be inferred from the fact that it says, 'And there came one that had escaped, and told Avram the Ivri (Hebrew)--now he dwelt by Elonei Mamre of the Amorite, brother of Eshcol, and brother of Aner; and these were allies of Avram." (Bereishit 25: 13) This man that had escaped was Og -while our own text also describes him as a remnant; for it says, 'Of the remnant of the Rephaim.' It was his intention that Avram should go out and be killed. The Holy One, blessed be He, gave him the reward that his feet had earned him, and he lived all those years, but He collected his debt from him in that he fell by the hand of Avraham's children. Moshe, on coming to make war with him, was afraid. He thought: I am a hundred and twenty years old while he is over five hundred. If it were not that he possessed some merit, he would not have lived all these years. Said the Holy One, blessed be He, to him: "Fear him not; for I have delivered him into your hand." (Bamidbar 21: 34). (Midrash Rabbah Bamidbar 19:32)
Moshe understands that the ancient Og must surely possess spiritual merit; if this were not the case, his relative longevity would be incomprehensible. Moshe assumes that this fearsome giant is spiritually protected due to the service he rendered to Avraham. But why did Og want Avraham dead? Another Midrash explains the desire behind the deed:
"And there came one that had escaped, and told Avram, etc." (Bereishit 14: 13). R. Simeon b. Lakish said in the name of Bar Kappara: That was Og; and why was he called Og? Because he came and found Avraham sitting and engaged in the precept of [unleavened] cakes (ugot). He did not act from a pious motive, but he said to himself: 'This man Avraham is vindictive: I will apprise him that Lot is captured; then will he go out to battle and be slain, and I will take Sarah.' 'By your life!' said the Holy One, blessed be He, to him, 'you will receive reward for your journey [footsteps] by living a long time in the world. But because you intended to slay that righteous man, you will see myriads of his descendants and will ultimately fall into the hands of his sons,' as it is written, 'And God said unto Moshe: Fear him not; for I have delivered him into your hand, etc.' (Bamidbar 21: 34). (Midrash Rabbah - Genesis 42:8)
Another explanation: "And God said to me: Fear him not: for I have delivered him into your hand." It is not written here, 'For I will deliver him into your hand,' but, "for I have delivered him into your hand!" God said: Already in the days of Avraham did I decree his fate.' How? When Lot his nephew was taken captive, Og came and informed Avraham, as it is said, "And there came one that had escaped- hapalit" (Bereishit 14: 13). R. Levi said in the name of Bar Kappara: His name was Palit and the reason why he was called Og is because when he came he found Avraham occupied in the preparation of unleavened bread and Passover cakes. He did not, however, come for the sake of Heaven, but on account of the beauty of Sarah. He said to himself: 'I will bring him the tidings and my troops will kill him and I will marry his wife Sarah.' God said to him, 'Wicked man, is that your intention! By your life, I will give you the reward for your journey, and will prolong your years. And as for your planning to kill Avraham and to marry Sarah, you will perish by the hand of her descendants.' (Midrash Rabbah - Devarim 1:25)
The fact that Og's reward for the service he performed for Avraham was so great, even though his motivation was far from pure, only reinforced Moshe's fears: Avraham's stature was such that Og's merit posed a daunting challenge.(5)
The identity of Avraham's anonymous informant is not unanimously accepted in rabbinic literature. The Midrash records a tradition that makes an even more surprising identification: According to the Pirkei d'Rebbi Eliezer, (chapters 16&23) Og is none other than Avraham's most trusted servant, Eliezer!(6) This tradition would explain the prodigious strength attributed to Eliezer in the battle Avraham fought against the kings who held Lot captive:
And there came one who had escaped, and told Avram the Ivri, who he lived in Elonei Mamre of the Amorite, brother of Eshkol, and brother of Aner; and these were allies of Avram. And when Avram heard that his brother was taken captive, he armed his trained servants, born in his own house, three hundred and eighteen, and pursued them to Dan. (Bereishit 14:13-14)
The Talmud identifies these warriors:
"And he armed his trained servants, born in his own house." Rav said, he equipped them by [teaching them] the Torah. Shmuel said, he made them bright with gold [i.e., rewarded them for accompanying him]. Three hundred and eighteen: R. Ammi b. Abba said: Eliezer outweighed them all. Others say, It was Eliezer, for this is the numerical value of his name. (Talmud Bavli Nedarim 32a)
If Eliezer is Og, the man-mountain of monstrous proportions, we can easily understand how one man could equal 318 warriors.
On the other hand, this identification is difficult in light of many other midrashic sources that portray Eliezer as so righteous that he inherited his share of the World to Come without death or pain. To even suggest an association with Og seems demeaning. This objection was voiced by Rabenu Bachye, who suggested that perhaps there was more than one Og king of Bashan: perhaps the name Og is actually a title and not a given name, analogous to "Pharaoh king of Egypt."(7)
The Yalkut Shimoni(8) also accepts the identification of Og as Eliezer, while maintaining a negative appraisal of Eliezer. Various midrashim support a rather dim view of Eliezer's character: Eliezer was suspected of deflowering Rivka during their journey to meet Yitzchak. When the accusation proves to be false, Eliezer is granted his freedom as compensation; as a free man, he becomes known as Og. According to an alternative teaching recorded in the Yalkut, after being falsely accused Eliezer enters Gan Eden alive.(9)
The passage in the Talmud cited above refers to Og as a survivor of not only the battle between the kings but of the flood as well:
R. Yochanan explained: This refers to Og who escaped the fate of the generation of the flood. (Talmud Bavli Niddah 61a)
This teaching is expanded in a second passage in the Talmud:
The people in the generation of the Flood sinned with hot passion, and with hot water they were punished. - And on your view, how could the Ark travel [at all]? Moreover, how did Og king of Bashan stand? Rather, a miracle was performed for it [the water], and it was cooled at the side of the Ark. (Talmud Bavli Zevachim 113b)
Og's survival cannot be credited to his impressive height. The Talmud teaches that height alone would not have saved him, because the waters of the flood were boiling hot - quid pro quo for the burning passions that generation succumbed to. A miracle saved Og - nothing short of direct Divine intervention. We can only assume that Og was innocent of the sins that led to the destruction, free of the sins that the others' committed in their passion. Had Og given in to the same base desires as the other members of his generation, he would not have been spared their fate.
This being said, the midrashic accounts of Og's desire for Sarah or the suspicion in which he was held regarding Rivka do not seem to easily fit with the tradition that Og survived the flood. Can we say that Og underwent a negative metamorphosis after being spared? Or should we look further into the midrash and wonder how innocent and upstanding a character Og was: Why was he left to fend for his own life, standing outside the Ark? Why was he not invited inside? Was Og as righteous as Noah or as wicked as the many others who were left off the ark and wiped out by the flood?
According to the Zohar, Og is one of the souls that Avraham brought close to God. He underwent circumcision at the same time as all of Avraham's household, indicating his commitment to self-restraint and control of sexual desires.
And God said to Moshe, "Do not fear him." Og was one of those who attached himself to Avraham and were circumcised with him. Hence Moshe was afraid that he would not be able to overcome the sign which Avraham had impressed upon him. Therefore God said to him, "Do not fear him (oto)", as much as to say, Do not fear that sign (ot) which is upon him, because he has impaired that sign of his, and whoever impairs his sign deserves to be annihilated. Therefore Israel destroyed him entirely, with his sons and all his people, as it is written: "And they smote him and his sons and all his people." (Zohar, Bamidbar 3:184a-b)(10)
This profile is consistent with what we know about Eliezer/Og: he was an individual who merited surviving the flood that wiped out all those guilty of licentious sexual behavior. Perhaps Og desired Sarah but was more moral than his neighboring pagans, for he did not attempt to kill Avraham, he simply plotted, hoping that Avraham's morality would be his downfall. His attitude was not "all is fair in love and war." Rather, Og hoped that Avraham would die in the war, leaving Sarah a widow - and a legitimate object for his passion.
With this profile of Og, we may begin to understand the significance of the victory over Og in our present context. Og knew how to control his passions; he was willingly circumcised in order to confirm his commitment to a higher level of morality. It is precisely regarding the subject of circumcision that Moshe may have felt spiritually vulnerable: He had not circumcised his own sons, nor were the Jews born in the desert circumcised.
At that time God said to Yehoshua, 'Make sharp knives, and circumcise again the people of Israel a second time.' And Yehoshua made him sharp knives, and circumcised the people of Israel at the hill of Aralot. And this is the cause why Yehoshua circumcised: All the people who came out of Egypt, who were males, all the men of war, died in the wilderness on the road, after they came out of Egypt. Now all the people who came out were circumcised; but all the people who were born in the wilderness on the road as they came forth out of Egypt, those were not circumcised. For the people of Israel walked forty years in the wilderness, till all the people who were men of war, who came out of Egypt, were consumed, because they obeyed not the voice of God; to whom God swore that he would not show them the land, which God swore to their fathers that he would give us, a land that flows with milk and honey. And their children, whom he raised up in their place, them Yehoshua circumcised; for they were uncircumcised, because they had not circumcised them on the road. And it came to pass, when they had finished circumcising all the people, that they stayed in their places in the camp, till they had recovered. (Yehoshua 5:2-8)
In order to enter and inherit the Land of Israel, the Jews must be more meritorious than the nations standing in their path. If Og indeed is Eliezer, the merit of his controlling his passion, of the moral covenant sealed on his flesh by circumcision, would serve as an obstacle, a merit that the Jews might not be worthy of overcoming. We can understand Moshe's fear: What if Og, in this very particular sphere, is found more deserving of the Land than the Jewish People? God assures Moshe that Og is not as he seems: Despite the commitment he undertook, despite his circumcision, Og's control over his sexual desires was limited, and therefore did not afford him absolute protection.
Of all the forefathers, the individual most strongly associated with the idea of controlling passion is Yosef. And so, when the tribes of Reuven and Gad ask to inherit and settle in Transjordan, outside the borders of the Promised Land, Moshe sends part of the tribe of Menashe to join them on the lands captured from Sichon and Og:
And Moshe gave to them, to the sons of Gad, and to the sons of Reuven, and to half the tribe of Meanashse the son of Joseph, the kingdom of Sihon king of the Amorites, and the kingdom of Og king of Bashan, the land, with its cities in the borders, even the cities of the country around. (Bamidbar 32:33)
The Tribe of Menashe, descendants of Yosef, inherit the lands previously held by Og:(11)
And Moshe gave inheritance to half the tribe of Menasheh; and this was the possession of half the tribe of Menasheh by their families. And their border was from Mahanaim, all Bashan, all the kingdom of Og king of Bashan, and all of Havot Yair, which are in Bashan, sixty cities. And half the Gilead, and Ashtarot, and Edre'i, cities of the kingdom of Og in Bashan, belonged to the sons of Machir the son of Manasheh, to the one half of the sons of Machir by their families. (Yehoshua 13:29-31)
Here, then, was the threat perceived by Moshe: Og had made a commitment to moral sexual conduct. Could the Jewish People make the same commitment? Could they be more deserving of the Holy Land? Would they be capable of maintaining the level of purity and sanctity required to live in the Land of Israel? God reassured Moshe: Og would not be a major obstacle. He had not lived up to his commitment. He had not abandoned the warped sexuality of the surrounding pagan nations, had not managed to fully control his sexual desires. The descendents of Yosef haTzaddik would inherit Og's land.
The book of Devarim recounts the final preparations before the great transition, before Moshe takes his leave and Yehoshua assumes the leadership. Og's merit was no match for Moshe's unparalleled stature. Yet Og's defeat is not only the final item on the agenda to be cleared before Moshe begins to teach the people; Og's defeat is part and parcel of the lesson that Moshe teaches the nation before his death, before they enter the Land: Only those who remain true to the covenant of purity, who maintain a higher moral standard, can inherit the Holy Land. Anything less than the self-restraint personified by Yosef is unacceptable, and Og's defeat is an illustration of the fate of those who do not live up to the covenant sealed into our collective body, the covenant of purity known as brit milah. The great message which Moshe will now begin to impart is just this: Be holy, for God has chosen us to be a holy nation in the Holy Land.
1. See the comments of the Meshech Chochma on the verse, where he explains that this verse contains echoes of an epic song of praise dedicated to Og which was surely sung by his people; in these verses, Moshe mocks that song.
2. See Eruvin 30a, 48a, Yoma 80b.
3. According to the Midrash Og and another legendary giant, Goliath, differed inasmuch as Goliath was proportioned like a normal person of extremely large size, while Og was more of a monster. Devarim Rabba Leiberman edition section 29.
4. See Rashi Bereishit 14:13, Bamidbar 21:34, D'varim 1:4,3:2, 3:11.
5. See Tosfot Niddah 61a "Zeh Og shepalat m'dor hamabul."
6. This tradition is also cited in Sofrim (additional notes 1:2) Yalkut Shimoni Chaya Sarah 109, Machzor Vitri section 524. Daat Zikeinim of the Ba'alei haTosfot, Bereishit 24:39.
7. Rabenu Bachye, Devarim 21:34, cites this as a legitimate opinion, though eventually he rejects this approach due to lack of Rabbinic evidence.
8. Yalkut Shimoni, Chaye Sara section 109.
9. This teaching comes in context of Betuel being reported to have had a policy in his kingdom of deflowering all the virgins. His constituents, who had been subjected to this humiliation, now insist that he follow the same practice with his daughter Rivka, therefore Betuel dies at this juncture. The Midrash probably associates the name Betuel as pertaining to virginity. For more on this see http://arikahn.blogspot.com/2009/11/parshat-toldot-5770-echoes-of-eden.html.
10. See also Midrash Rabbah - Kohelet 7: 4: Og attended Abraham's feast and was not excluded from Gehinnom.
11. See Rav Tzadok Hakohen, Tzidkat haTzadik section 96.