Radio Interview with Robert Alter – On Translating the Former Prophets

Robert Alter - Ancient IsraelMichael Krasny  interviewed Robert Alter on his KQED public radio programme, Forum, on 3 April 2013. Alter is professor of Hebrew and comparative literature at UC Berkeley. The main subject of the interview was Alter’s latest instalment of his ongoing translation of the Hebrew Bible, Ancient Israel: The Former Prophets: Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings: A Translation with Commentary (New York: W.W. Norton, 2013).

You can listen to the interview on KQED’s YouTube channel:

Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four

Looking at Alter’s translation of Joshua 14:15, I see that he has rendered ענקים ( ‘anaqim) as “giants”:

And the name of Hebron formerly was Kiriath-Arba – he was the biggest person among the giants.

Alter comments, “The narrative context makes clear that the Hebrew ‘anaqim is not in this instance a gentilic (‘Anakites’) but means ‘giants,’ the adversaries of daunting proportions before whom the ten fearful spies felt themselves to be like grasshoppers.”

Possibly. And yet, the closest intertextual relationship concerning Josh. 14:5-16  is not with Num. 13 (which includes the comparison between the Israelites and the sons of Anak involving an analogy to grasshoppers). The closest relationship is instead with Deut. 1:19-46, in particular to Deut. 1:28 and 1:36. These verses alone, without any direct parallel in Num. 13, account for phrases like, “my brothers … caused my heart to faint”, “the land on which my foot went”, the inheritance “and to your sons”, “Anakim” (as distinct from “sons of Anak”).

And in Deut. 1:28; 2:10-12, 20-23; 3:13b, the Anakim are indeed described as entire peoples who occupy the land of Palestine and neighbouring countries.

So rather than “the biggest person among the giants”, I’d opt for “greatest man among the Anakites/Anakim”. They may be giants as well, if you read it in light of Deut. 1-3, but you would not in fact know that from the immediate context of Joshua 14-15.

Update: Jim Davila (PaleoJudaica) notes further media reaction to Alter’s Deuteronomist.

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The age of King Og at the time of his death

Tanzanian correspondent “chamshama” wrote in to Remnant of Giants with a query:

I want to know the age of King Og At the time of his death.

And I’m sure that many of our readers do too, chamshama!

In Deut. 3.1-11 there is an account of a battle in which Israel, under the leadership of Moses, takes on the people of Bashan, who are led by King Og, “the last of the remnant of the Rephaim”.

Og, riding gaily on the unicorn behind the Ark
Og, riding gaily on the unicorn behind the Ark – in Jewish Fairy Tales and Legends by Aunt Naomi (Gertrude Landa)

In the book of Deuteronomy, the Rephaim are identified as exceedingly tall, that is, as Giants. Deuteronomy 1.28 relates that there were Giants who were resident in the Cisjordan, called Anakim, who lived there before the Israelite conquest, and who were discovered by the Israelite spies sent by Moses to scout out the land. Deuteronomy 2.11 considers the Anakim to be Rephaim. In addition, Deuteronomy holds that Israel’s neighbouring countries were also inhabited by races of Rephaim before settled by their human inhabitants. So, Deut. 2.11-12 and 20-21 describe Giant residents living in Moab and Ammon – called “Emim” and “Zamzummim” – who also lived there before the Moabites and Ammonites respectively, and who are also referred to as Rephaim. The description of the Anakim in Deut. 1.28 seems to reflect the parallel account in Numbers 13.28b, 33. Yet Num. 13.33 adds the additional information that these Anakim were “from the Nephilim”. This description links to Genesis 6.1-4, the only other place in the Old Testament where the Nephilim are mentioned, and which describes the descent of these mysterious divine creatures, Nephilim or “sons of god(s)”, to earth, where they interbred with the “daughters of men”, producing “mighty men” of ancient times.

It is not clear whether Deuteronomy considers each and every one of these Rephaim, Anakim, Emim, Zamzummim, mighty men (gibborim), etc to be the Giant offspring of the heavenly Nephilim. The passages in Deuteronomy which mention the Rephaim are too brief to offer us any certainty on the matter. However, that does seem to be a plausible explanation, given the way Deuteronomy tends to associate all the Giant races together and appears to be aware of the spy narrative in Numbers 13. That is, in the view of Deuteronomy, it appears that all of these Giant races seem to have been created by an extraordinary mating between Nephilim and human women.

So how old was King Og at his death? There are a few options.

As the story in Gen. 6.1-4 occurs immediately before the Great Flood, some have suggested that King Og – who is described as one of the Rephaim – must have been born from this encounter between Nephilim and human women. Therefore, King Og would have lived from before the flood, until the conquest of the Transjordan under Moses. Using the famous biblical chronology by Bishop Ussher (just because it’s famous, not because it is all that accurate or even at all legitimate these days) the Flood may be assigned to 2349 BC and the Conquest in 1451 BC. Therefore, if King Og had been born before the flood, he was at least 898 years old!

However, Genesis 6.4 notes that those randy Nephilim were on the earth not only in the days of Noah, but “also afterward”. So it is alternatively possible that King Og was born to a postdeluvian divine-human sexual encounter. In which case, King Og could have been born any time between the end of the Flood and the Conquest, which would make him no more than 897 years old, and possibly much younger.

A third possibility is that King Og was considered the offspring not directly of Nephilim, but of other Rephaim. Passages such as Num. 13.28 and Josh. 15.13-14 describe lineages of Anakim (who Deuteronomy consider to be Rephaim), which suggests that they were thought of as having families of their own following the initial sexual intercourse between Nephilim and human women. If this is the case, Deut. 3.11a might indicate that King Og was the last of a genealogy of rulers which ultimately claim a divine father who mated with a human mother: “only King Og of Bashan was left of the remnant of the Rephaim”. Or does it merely mean that King Og was the last of his kind? Again, this is not entirely clear.

So, how old was King Og at his death? The Old Testament does not say. Yet there is a persistent interpretive tradition, visible in later rabbinic accounts, which dates King Og to antedeluvian times, in an attempt to harmonize the biblical accounts of pre-flood Giants in Gen. 6.1-4 with the reports of Giants still alive at the time of the Israelite Conquest.  On Bishop Ussher’s chronology, this would make King Og at least 898 years old at the time of his death. Yet, the harmonization is not entirely necessary, if King Og was the last in a long line of Rephaim not destroyed by the Flood, or the product of a postdeluvian sexual encounter between Nephilim and mortal women. In this case, the author of Deut. 3.11 may have understood King Og as no older than the age of mortal men.

Giant Librarians of the Ancient World

Big Bad Bible GiantsI learned something I never knew about Giants from the best basic guide to Giants of the Bible. According to Big Bad Bible Giants, authored by Ed Strauss and illustrated by Anthony Carpenter (Zondersexist, 2005), the Bible tells the story of an ancient city populated by Giant librarians!

The Giant Librarians of Debir
The Giant Librarians of Debir

This is not something I’ve discovered in any biblical commentary, because Big Bad Bible Giants has the scoop. It’s all a matter of almost logical inference from three things that the Bible tells us: (1) the city of Debir was also known as Kiriath-Sepher (“The City of Scribes”); (2) Othniel defeated the inhabitants of Debir; and (3) some of the inhabitants of Palestine were Giants. Ed Strauss’s conclusion is that Othniel must have defeated a group of Giant librarians in the city of Debir:

 
Giant libraries
In Joshua’s day, about 600 years after Abraham, the giant Anakites had a city in south Canaan called Debir (Joshua 11:21). The giants called it Kiriath Sepher, which means “City of Scribes” or “City of Books.” The city’s other name was Kiriath Sannah, which means “City of Instruction” (Joshua 15:49). Bible scholars believe Kiriath Sepher was a major center of learning and culture for all of Canaan. It probably had a huge library full of scrolls, and was the city where giants went to learn.
Can’t you just picture a dozen heavy, hairy giants sitting around mumbling loudly as they read? You can be sure they weren’t sitting in ordinary-sized desks!
What were their books about? No idea. All the monster scrolls seem to have been torched when the Israelites conquered the city (Judges 1:11-13).
 –  Ed Strauss, Big Bad Bible Giants
 

Ah yes – there would be traces of these giant books and giant libraries around today, if only the Israelites hadn’t destroyed them all. Ed Strauss also offers us a picture of Othniel’s defeat of the city of Debir, the city of Giant librarians: 

We don’t know the details of this battle and how well the giants fought, whether they made their last stand at the library…
 –  Ed Strauss, Big Bad Bible Giants
Ah – the Last Stand of the Giants at the Library. Mark my words – there’s a film in that!
 
And as a special bonus, a great track from the era of “the Dunedin Sound”: