The Origin of the Giant King Og of Bashan

While some people make a name for themselves, in the case of Og, it may be that the name created the person.

Deuteronomy 3.11 describes King Og of Bashan as ‘the last of the remnant of the Rephaim’ and notes that he is buried in a sarcophagus nine by four cubits in size (13 1/2 by 6 feet). Deuteronomy 1.4 describes King Og as reigning in two cities, Ashteroth and Edrei. In addition, a Ugaritic text from about 1200 B.C. (KTU 1.108) states that another member of the Rephaim (or as they said in Ugaritic, a member of the Rapiˀuma) reigned at Ashteroth and Edrei (or Athtarat and Hedrey). Again, an early fifth-century B.C. tomb inscription from the Phoenician city of Byblos (Byblos 13) summons ‘the Og’ against anybody who would disturb the dead person’s remains.

Gregorio del Olmo Lete follows a fairly widespread understanding when he posits a three-stage development in the traditions about Og: 1. a ‘mythical ideological framework’ was developed at Ugarit concerning the Rephaim; 2. a ‘historical’ record was composed in the Hebrew Bible; and 3. a mythological transformation of the historical Og took place in Phoenicia.

But a couple of factors suggest, to the contrary, that the purportedly real King Og of Deut. 3 was a development from the general title ‘og’. First, the only etymology of ‘Og’ which makes sense of his association with the warriors of the Rephaim is, as Chaim Rabin suggested, something similar to the South Semitic ǵwg, meaning ‘man’ or ‘man of valour’. Thus, ‘Og’ is not a personal name but a title of a Canaanite king. It is similar to other titles of the Ugaritic and Canaanite kings which emphasise their manhood par excellence, and thus their strength and military prowess: e.g., ish, amēlu, mt (Del Olmo Lete, ‘Los nombres “divinos”‘, 257-66). Second, the Phoenician tomb inscription Byblos 13 has a definite article before ‘Og’, making its interpretation as a personal name unlikely. It is more likely that the invocation is of ‘the og’, referring to some powerful being who could deal to anybody who desecrated a grave. (Yet note that there is some debate about the transcription and translation of hʿg, originally by Jean Starcky, ‘Une inscription Phénicienne de Byblos’, 1969.) Third, Byblos 13 parallels other tomb inscriptions (KAI 13.8 [the Tabnith inscription] and KAI 14.8  [the Eshmunazzar sarcophagus]) which also summon powerful beings to deal with desecrators of graves, except that the beings are the Rephaim (rpum). The Rephaim and the og are to some extent interchangeable on these Phoenician tomb inscriptions! Therefore, ‘the og’ might be interpreted as a powerful warrior and member of the Rephaim – all qualities which fit with the biblical King Og, except that the general noun ‘og’ has become a proper name, ‘Og’.

A weakness of Del Olmo Lete’s proposed tradition-historical development is that it provides a progression from myth to history to myth. More parsimonious and having the support of the factors listed above is a progression from a mythical early king and member of the Rephaim who is long dead but continues to exercise some power in the netherworld (including gravesites) to a ‘historicised’ or ‘euhemerised’ character believed to have the name ‘Og’ rather than the title of ‘og’, who is made a king in Ashteroth and Edrei and a member of the Rephaim.

The likelihood, therefore, is that Og’s name preceded his invention, in the Bible, as a person.

Updates:

1. Note the interesting comment in the comments section below by Chaim HaQoton: “the notion that Og was a title for the Bashanite King is already found in Medieval Rabbinic literature, see Daat Zeqanim [דעת זקנים] to Genesis 24:39”.

2. Jim Davila (Paleojudaica) comments on this proposal for the origin of Og, on his blog, that “something like that sounds plausible to me”.

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12 thoughts on “The Origin of the Giant King Og of Bashan

  1. There are a few odd references to names with the syllable “og”: There’s one Agag (Numbers 24:7) who is implicitly a famous and mighty king (“their king will be greater than Agag”); there is Gog from the land of the Magog (Ezekiel 38, 39) and there is Agag, king of Amalek in the time of Samel (Samuel 15). Haman, in the book of Esther, is also described as “the Agagite”. All of these with the possible exception of Samuel’s Agag are extra-contextual – the implication is that we ought to know who they are, but we’re not really given enough information to realise their significance. Perhaps the idea that this syllable might be derived from a description gives a clue: the first Agag was mighty because he was an “Og” (a reduplicated one, no less); Gog from the land of Magog is rebuked because his og-like power makes him worthy of rebuke; Haman is described as being og-ish because that’s his nature – he was a fearsome person, even though he did it by sedition rather than outright terror.

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  2. […] And there are so many many things to remember and to make meaning of. Rod the Rogue Demon Hunter (formerly known as Rod of Alexandria) is re-reading Clement of Alexandria. The bible blogger known as perfectnumber628 continues her series on the gospel of Matthew recalling the temptations there (even in a new comic book version). Amanda Mac goes from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to the Apocalypse. Kristen Rosen remembers with us Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, one of the Forgotten Women in Church History, and she calls into question Al Mohler’s view of Atonement bringing in the views of James McGrath. Deane Galbraith looks at just one word as the possible means for the invention of the biblical King Og. […]

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  3. The Hopi also have a tradition of Og, as they do a great exodus and flood. In their Book of the Hopi , elders explain the Ogre Kachina saved them from the great sinking (which is surmised to have been Mu, as their proper name is Hopituh, Shi Nu Mu), and go on to elaborate that the Ogre Kachina saved the world’s first peoples from this event using boats, planes, and round magnetic discs… and took them first to Easter Island and then to the newly risen Americas (an event they say took place only 100,000 yrs ago!); which would explain the similarity of megalithic cultures. The Haida of Alaska tell the same story. The Hopi also believe Ogres come in both red and black (red – not unlike the story of Jacob and Esau), and, like the GEnesis passage, represent them as covered in hair! Is it coincidence that Sasquatch are also seen in both red and black, as well as sometimes even white? Not to Native Americans… in fact, not only Native Americans but many Europeans, even northern Africans (not sure about the Middle East) still have festivals to honor the Hairy man and even make costumes! Native Americans also describe the hairy man as an early race of men, and besides descriptors directly out of Genesis: cannibal (a contraction of Canaan and Baal?), hairy man, part spirit, giants, even stealer of women and children (as the original Hebrew Ea can not only be translated as ‘came into.’ ‘entered into,’ ‘married,”or even “taken”), but the more telling descriptor is… “elder brother of man.” The Nephilim mythos harkens to an earlier age of the EA-rth, while Genesis tells us that Esau’s mother carried two lines of man in her womb, hairy and smooth… and at least one scientist claims the Sasquatch nDNA comes back with one human parent combined with a novel hominid. Others simply explain it away as contamination upon collection. Odd that the Hopi story explains so much…

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