Because “On the Shoulders of Giants” Seemed Cliche?

wiseIn the Acknowledgments section of his recent book, Language and Literacy in Roman Judaea: A Study of the Bar Kokhba Documents (Yale Press, May 2015), Michael Wise thanks those who have gone before him in this area of scholarly research.

Yet Michael Wise does not resort to the hackneyed phrase “standing on the shoulders of giants” in order to describe his reliance on the insights of prior researchers. Instead, he offers the following acknowledgment:

Every scholar is well aware that in almost any area of research we enter as grasshoppers a land formerly (and sometimes presently) indwelt by Anakim. (p. x)

That’s very big of Michael Wise.

 

Diagnosing Goliath: Gigantism, Acromegaly, Pituitary Tumours, etc

gigantismIn modern times, various medical experts (and many people who are not medical experts) have attempted to diagnose the cause of Goliath’s gigantic height. One recurring suggestion is that poor old Goliath was suffering either from gigantism or acromegaly, caused by excessive growth hormones.

Malcolm Gladwell, in David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants (2013), traces this diagnosis of Goliath’s stature to a 1960 article in the Journal of the Indiana State Medical Association, “Hereditary Hyperparathyroidism” (53: 1313-1316). Since then there have been a number of supporters, including Gladwell himself, S.W. Lamberts (1992), Dag Moskopp (1996), M. Feinsod (1997), Vladimir Berginer (2000), Vladimir Berginer and Chaim Cohen (2006), and Stephen K. Mathew and Jeyaraj D. Pandian (2010).

For a number of reasons, such endeavours cannot rise above sheer speculation.

  • First, the height of Goliath in the probably older LXX version is only 6 3/4 feet. Even given an average male Philistine height of just over five feet, Goliath’s height is hardly a sure sign of any medical abnormality.
  • Second, the details of the story are dubious. Famously, in 2 Samuel 21, it is “Elhanan” who kills Goliath of Gath, not David. So when modern medical experts draw inferences from the details in the story about David and Goliath in 1 Samuel 17, the grounds for doing so are poor.
  • Third, the story in 1 Samuel 17 emphasizes theological reasons for David’s victory (David has faith in his god Yahweh, while Goliath mocks this god). To treat such a story as good data for medical diagnosis is, therefore, very misguided.

Such considerations have not put a stop to efforts to diagnose Goliath. The latest medical article on the subject is by Deirdre E Donnelly and Patrick J Morrison (“Hereditary Gigantism-the biblical giant Goliath and his brothers”, Ulster Medical Journal, May 2014; 83(2): 86–88).

Donnelly and Morrison take the Bible at face value, seemingly accepting that there was a “Flood” and that the Bible is a good witness to giants at the dawn of time:

Giants have been around since time began; they are first described in the Bible in the book of Genesis (6:1-4)…

Giants lived together as a number of separate races, before and after the Flood….

The giants from Gath were present after the Flood. One possible answer to the often raised question of why the Nephilim giants, present before the Flood were not eradicated by it, could be that new mutations in the AIP gene (or other genes) caused new families of giants to appear

Although it shouldn’t have to be said – the worldwide “Flood” is not an historical event! Donnelly and Morrison’s analysis of medical conditions developing in periods defined “before” and “after” the Flood is, well, silly.

Donnelly and Morrison proceed to connect the name of one group of giants mentioned in the Bible, the ענקים (Anakim) to the Hebrew term ענק (necklace). Which is fair enough. But from this they suggest that the term might possibly refer to the goitre. They then leap to the fabulous conclusion that Goliath’s condition was “hyperthyroidism, possibly due to underlying pituitary gland, or other endocrine, dysfunction”.

Not satisfied with these leaps of fancy, Donnelly and Morrison then reconstruct Goliath’s alleged family tree “from Samuel and Chronicles” (by which they must surely mean the giants mentioned in 2 Sam 21:15–22 and its parallel in 1 Chron 20:4–8). Some of these giants are said to have six fingers, a not uncommon symptom of gigantism. In their reconstructed family tree, Donnelly and Morrison indicate members affected by the hereditary autosomal dominant pituitary gene with black shading,  and indicate the presence of hexadactyly (six-fingeredness) with the + symbol:

goliath-family-tree

The big problem here is that 2 Sam 21:15–22 and 1 Chron 20:4–8 don’t actually mention any family relations. Donnelly and Morrison seem to have read the term “offsprings of the Raphah” (ילידי הרפה) in these passages a little too literally. The term refers generally to the giants of Gath as descendants of the Rephaim/Giants. How Donnelly and Morrison came up with Goliath’s three sons, is more puzzling, but it is not from reading anything in the Bible. In addition, their inclusion of Lahmi as brother of Goliath appears to be ignorant of the well-known interpretation of this phrase as a harmonization with 1 Samuel 17. Elhanan is made to kill Goliath’s brother, rather than Goliath himself, thereby removing the embarrassing contradiction with the story of David and Goliath in 1 Samuel 17 (in which David, rather than Elhanan, kills Goliath). Lahmi does not appear in the more original 2 Samuel 21.  There is simply no “family tree” to be reconstructed here. So the authors’ conclusion about a “hereditary” condition is based on a fundamental misunderstanding.

Donnelly and Morrison go on to explain that Goliath was killed due to impaired vision, caused by his autosomal dominant pituitary gene. Here things descend into pure speculation:

Goliath was killed by David who threw a stone at his forehead (Samuel [sic] 17:49). This gives further evidence that he suffered from pituitary gland dysfunction; a pituitary tumour pressing on his optic chiasm, and consequent visual disturbance due to pressure on his optic nerve, would have made it difficult for him to see the stone in his lateral vision. Pituitary giants look impressive in terms of stature, but may not have speed and agility to match their perceived strength. David, having agility, particularly having declined the heavy set of armour that was offered to him, and being skilled at sling shots, may have found a way around the fearsome looking giant by firing a sling shot from the side of the battlefield….

Goliath himself had a shield bearer precede him, possibly to indicate to Goliath the direction of the approaching foe.

Donnelly and Morrison then cite the other medical experts who have speculated on Goliath’s condition, as “fact”:

The fact that Goliath may have had a pituitary tumour was recognised by Vladimir Berginer in a paper in 2000.

For the reasons provided above, the conclusions of those who have attempted to diagnose Goliath are far from “fact”. The modern diagnosis of Goliath is an entirely misguided enterprise from the get go. It is made more absurd in this case by the misinterpretation of biblical passages as involving a “family tree” where there is none in fact. In their acknowledgements, the authors thank “the theological reviewer who carefully checked our statements on the Biblical giants for accuracy and who provided very helpful comments including original Hebrew text”. Donnelly and Morrison would have received better advice if they had been told to stick to the diagnosis of living patients and leave biblical characters alone.

Believing in the Nephilim with L.A. Marzulli: On The Trail of The Nephilim

L.A. Mazulli, On The Trail of The NephilimProphecy in the News recently interviewed L.A. Marzulli about his book On The Trail of The Nephilim. It is interesting to consider what drives a theory which many would dismiss as conspiratorial or, conversely, to consider the contextual and social factors which make it compelling to Marzulli and to many of his readers.

According to Marzulli, discoveries of giants skeletons in Ohio and Indiana have been covered up by the scientific community, because it contradicts the presuppositions of their Darwinistic worldview:

It comes down to this: that we are – academia, and the scientific community runs under a Darwinian worldview, a Darwinian paradigm. Everything is filtered through that… through Darwinism. And unfortunately, or, I should say, fortunately for us, as Christians, these skeletons go against the Darwinian paradigm. It makes no sense.

Similarly, on the L.A. Marzulli website, the summary of the book describes scientists and archaeologists as involved in a “cover-up”:

This book is the culmination of a lengthy search for the physical evidence of the Nephilim, the Giants of Old Testament lore. A significant cover-up has taken place over the years, reducing these double-digit, gigantic hybrids to the dustbins of history. You’re going to read about the organizations behind this Darwinian-flavored scheme and why they hate the bones and skulls of the Nephilm so much. They’ll go to incredible lengths to make this evidence disappear!

So there is a double thrill of secret knowledge: both in the ‘knowledge’ of giant skeletons and the confirmation that the Bible reveals the truth about the past.

Another comment by Marzulli shows how his theory reduces the dissonance caused by Yahweh’s genocide of entire nations, during what the book of Joshua presents as the Israelite settlement of the land. How does he reconcile the image of the Israelite God in Joshua – disregarding the lives of entire peoples and killing men, women, and children alike – with the Christian conception of a loving God who wishes to save all people? You, quite literally, demonize the enemy:

The theory is, as Joshua and Caleb pushed into the Promised Land, we see all those different tribes: Nephilim tribes – Nephilim, Anakim, Rephaim, the Canaanites, Perizzites – all these Nephilim tribes. And I believe each one had, perhaps, a different physical charactistic.  So as Joshua and Caleb come into the Promised Land, what we see, in my opinion, is this diaspora. The giants realise, the Nephilim realise,  the mandate has gone out to wipe them all off – men, women, children. And remember, these are demonic, hybrid beings, they are Nephilim. And no grace and mercy is shown by a loving – the same loving God in the Old Testament that we serve today – no difference. The judgement is severe, its final, and the giants see this, know this.

The explanation not only takes account of the Anakim and Rephaim mentioned in Numbers 13-14 and Deuteronomy 1-3, but other peoples usually not considered giants – even the Canaanites. And so the theory that the people of the land were all demonic hybrids safeguards the Christian God’s loving nature.

A further impetus for Marzulli’s theory comes in the form of the widely held idea that elements from the beginning of time will be repeated at the end of time: the Urzeit/Endzeit association. One reason these ancient ideas are so thrilling to Marzulli and his readers is that they foreshadow, and appear to provide evidence for, the end of time, including the expected return of Jesus, God’s destruction of all enemies (including the demons and Darwinians):

Jesus says, sorts of admonishes us, gives us a very clear warning: it will be like the Days of Noah when I return – I’m paraphrasing – it will be like the days of Noah when the Son of Man returns – which immediately begs the question: what differentiates the Days of Noah from any other time in history. And of course it’s the presence of the Fallen Angels coming down, having – doing the unspeakable – having sex with the women, and creating this hybrid entity or being known as the Nephilim. In my opinion, this has happened all through our history. The first incursion, of course, is Genesis 6. But then there’s another incursion. We see the same penalty meted out to Sodom and Gomorrah: wipe them all out; there’s not a shred of grace or mercy with Sodom and Gomorrah. We see the same thing again when they push into the Levant, when Joshua and Caleb go into the Promised Land, the same idea: there’s not a shred of grace or mercy.

Here the eschatological expectation is combined with a further apologetic explanation for God’s lack of grace or mercy shown towards the original inhabitants of the Promised Land.

Although regularly dismissed as a fringe or conspiracy theory, we can see ways in which L.A. Mazulli’s theory gains credibility by appealing to other important beliefs of the wider Christian community and offers dissonance resolution in respect of conflicts and doubts regarding evolutionary science and ethical doubts concerning the conquest narratives which have also concerned a much wider section of contemporary Christians.

Recent Giant Scholarship

Israeli Ministry of Tourism logoWhat are biblical scholars saying about the Giants in the Old Testament / Hebrew Bible? The latest word in biblical scholarship can be found here:

Galbraith, D. (2013). “Manufacturing Judean Myth: The Spy Narrative in Numbers 13–14 as Rewritten Tradition”(Thesis, Doctor of Philosophy)

Among the findings:

(1) the Hebronite traditions (concerning the Judahite leader Caleb, the city of Hebron, and ‘the sons of Anak’ who inhabit Hebron) are not vestiges of ancient legend which have been preserved in the text, but are all secondary to the spy-rebellion tradition derived from dtr Deut. 1;

(2) gigantic stature was first attributed to the sons of Anak and Nephilim in the composition of Num. 13–14, and to the Anakim and Rephaim of Deut. 1–3 in post-deuteronomistic Hexateuchal additions which harmonised the text with the expansionary Num. 13–14;

(3) the extension of the term ‘Rephaim’ to denote entire giant peoples throughout their associated territories also originates with the Hexateuchal harmonisations in Deut. 1–3;

And a detailed interview with the author can be found on Jim West’s blog, Zwinglius Redivivus:

“Scholars You Should Know: Deane Galbraith”

I know, I know – such gratuitous self-publicity…

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.

Giant Librarians of Debir, or Who is stronger: Yahweh or some iron chariots?

Bob Seidensticker
Bob Seidensticker

Bob Seidensticker blogs at Cross Examined: Clear Thinking About Christianity. The blog can be found on the “Atheist Channel” on Patheos – a site also known for hosting the blog of novelist Mike Bird, whose fantasy novels have been described as “more like LOTR than the Narnia Chronicles”.

In a recent post, Bob examines examples in the Bible where Yahweh gets defeated in battle by other gods. As Bob says, these narratives are often quickly explained away in Christian commentaries on the Old Testament, given that the Bible’s acceptance of the existence of other gods beside Yahweh is something that many Christian commentators are keen to suppress. Yet the idea that Yahweh is one god among other gods is regularly affirmed throughout the majority of the books of the Old Testament (and continues in early Christianity, although the other gods are demoted to demons). Have a read of Religious Diversity in Ancient Israel and Judah, edited by John Barton and Francesca Stavrakopoulou (2010) for a recent treatment of the many divinities who were worshiped in ancient Israel and Judah.

When Bob describes Yahweh’s defeat by iron chariots in Judges 1.19, he makes mention of Kiriath Sepher (“City of Scribes”), otherwise known as Debir, a  city possibly inhabited by giant librarians – according to one children’s book.

Have a read of Bob’s full post here.