When the Israelite spies explore the land in Numbers 13, they report seeing giants: the “descendents of Anak” . The question that most people ask me is: how tall were these Anakim?
They were remarkably tall, if we accept the comparison the spies make between the height of the Israelites and that of the Anakim (Num. 13.33): “And we were, in our eyes, like grasshoppers” (ונהי בעינינו כחגבים). It’s probably not a literal comparison, though: in Isa. 40.22, the inhabitants of earth are described as being “like grasshoppers” from the perspective of Yahweh’s heavenly focalisation. Yet while probably figurative, the comparison does indicate that the Anakim boasted some impressive and towering height. This description is followed by a parallel clause: וכן היינו בעיניהם, often translated “and so we were in their eyes”. However, if we treat the second line as synonymous parallelism, perhaps the better translation of וכן is “and like a gnat” (with the assimilation of the כ- prefix to the first radical). The translation of the parallelism would then be: “And we were, in our eyes, like grasshoppers; and like a gnat we were in their eyes”. Similar translations have been suggested by Snaith, Leviticus and Numbers, 242; Maarsingh, Numbers, 47; Budd, Numbers, 146; and HALOT, כן V.
Yet whether the comparison is with grasshoppers or with grasshoppers and a gnat, we cannot employ the comparison to make any exact estimation of the imagined height of the Anakim. Quite apart from the figurative nature of the comparison, the report of the spies in Numbers 13.33 appears at the end of what the narrative has introduced as a דבה (“evil report” or “malicious report”). At this point in the narrative, the spies are doing all they can to dissuade the people from following Yahweh’s command to go into the land. The majority of the spies are also in opposition to the good spy, Caleb, who encourages the people to enter the land (13.30), and who later is the only one mentioned as being spared from Yahweh’s decree that this entire generation shall die in the desert (14.24). Caleb does not dispute this description of the inhabitants, even when he refers to them (14.9). But his silence on their stature does not settle matters one way or the other.
However, another element in the narrative suggests that the Anakim were not merely imagined as very tall humans (say 7- or 8-feet tall), but that they were thought to be fantastically tall. This element is the enormous bunch of grapes the spies find in the Eshcol Valley, which is so large that it can only be “carried on a pole between two [men]” (Num. 13.23). The bunch of grapes is mentioned immediately after the first mention of the “descendents of Anak” who are inhabitants of Hebron (Num. 13.22). The naming of the Eshcol Valley (“Grape-bunch Valley”) is explained in terms of the gigantic bunch of grapes carried by the two spies (Num. 13.24). Even if the Hebron tradition (13.22) and Eshcol tradition (13.23-24) had no original tradition-historical connection, the best explanation for the gigantic size of the grapes in Num. 13.23-24 is that they match the size of the gigantic inhabitants of the land. The giant grapes and giant inhabitants fit very well together. Indeed, motifs of “eating” or “devouring” are ambiguously associated with both the land and its inhabitants in Num. 13.32 and 14.9. Therefore, we should not – as some commentators have done – search for examples of very tall humans as the “historical kernel” of this account. Instead, the author of Num. 13-14 is describing the Anakim in fantastic terms: as eaters of grape bunches so large that it is impossible for a single person to carry one! The height of the Anakim is removed from the realm of ordinary human parallels, consistent with their assignment to an ancient era, before regular mortals (the Israelites) occupied the land. The narrative in Num. 13-14 leads us into the realm of the fantastic.
We should therefore disregard the attempts of biblical commentaries to rationalise the height of the Anakim. For example, Jeffrey Tigay (in his 1996 commentary on Deuteronomy) attempts to compare the Anakim to 7-foot “Watusi” or 7-foot skeletons found in the Jordan. His assumptions are not much different from those of George Gray at the beginning of the same century, who stated, “There is, of course, nothing intrinsically improbable in the existence in Ḥebron of three individuals famous for their height,” defining the “historical” sons of Anak as “a class of very tall men, whose height lingered long in the memory of the Hebrews”. Indeed, most biblical scholars are unable to deal with the fantastic as fantastic when it comes to the story of the giant Anakim in Numbers 13-14.
In a paradoxical turn, those who get this passage right are not the rational experts, but those who deal most bizarrely with biblical texts: biblical conspiracy theorists, children’s books authors, government propagandists, American homeschoolers, and pre-moderns.
We should consult the spinners of fantasy to understand fantasy! Here are examples of each:
1. The biblical conspiracy theorist
Rob Skiba runs the Babylon Rising Blog, which includes a number of detailed pages on The Return of the Nephilim. Rob has helpfully worked out what size a bunch of grapes must be if they need to be carried by two men. From this, Rob has worked out what size the Anakim must be if the gigantic bunch of grapes appears normal to them:
It’s not mere coincidence that God gives us these details to consider. He is showing us connection after connection, helping us to see the “bigger” picture. As I began to realize this, I took a closer look at the grapes. As I did, I saw that the grapes actually confirmed the size of the giants who were eating them! …
Looking at this graphic, we can see that a 6 foot tall man would have no trouble carrying a cluster of grapes scaled to anything smaller than that which a 30 foot giant would have been eating. But much bigger than that, and you can see why it took two men to carry one cluster on a pole! So, the grapes are showing us that these giants were massively huge! And this is a fact that is later confirmed by the prophet Amos who wrote about God describing them as being tall as cedar trees:
Yet destroyed I the Amorite before them, whose height was like the height of the cedars, and he was strong as the oaks; yet I destroyed his fruit from above, and his roots from beneath.
– Amos 2:9 (KJV)
(Rob Skiba, “The Return of the Nephilim”)
2. The children’s book author
In How Do You Feed a Hungry Giant: A Munch-and-Sip Pop-Up Book by Caitlin Friedman, illustrated by Shaw Nielsen, a friendly giant arrives in Oscar’s backyard, asking to be fed. The first thing Oscar gets to feeds the giant is three bunches of grapes. However, this turns out to be grossly inadequate for the giant’s considerable appetite, and the giant eats the three bunches of grapes in “one big gulp”. In a variation on what occurs in Num. 13-14, three normal bunches of grapes fill up Oscar’s hands, but are tiny in the gargantuan hands of the giant:
How Do You Feed a Hungry Giant, by Caitlin Friedman, illustrated by Shaw Nielsen
3. The government propagandist
The Israeli government has been spinning fantasies about the land and its inhabitants for several decades – such as the myth of an “empty land” and the legend of creating paradise out of a desert. The Israeli Ministry of Tourism bases its logo on the spy narrative in Num. 13-14. As might be expected, the grapes are enormous, out-of-proportion to anything which Israeli tourism really has to offer:
4. The American Homeschooler
My son is working on a project for an upcoming history, art, and science fair for homeschoolers. It’s called the Valley of Eshcol and comes from Numbers 13:23
(Bunny Trails Photography)
I don’t know whether this plasticine study of Numbers 13.23 was classified under history, art, or science. Within the American homeschooling system, I guess that “history” would be probable.
But, that aside, check out this fantastic, gigantic bunch of grapes, and tiny Israelite spies set against enormous trees:
5. The pre-modern
Yeah, ok, I know that modernity brings its own myths and all. But when it comes to the biblical myths, there is a great deal of continuity in mindset until the modern era. As a consequence, pre-moderns tend to take the biblical references to a fantastically large bunch of grapes in either a literal or allegorical (eucharistic, etc) sense. Contrast modern depictions of the grapes of Num 13, which tend to be downsized and made more “realistic”.
In this depiction on a 4th-5thC lamp, the bunch of grapes is even lower than the spies’ feet (which must have made walking difficult):
Insofar as the biblical conspiracy theorist, the children’s book author, government propagandist, American homeschooler, and pre-modern enter into much the same dimension of fantasy as that entered into by the author of Num. 13-14 – wherein giant and human realms exist on vastly different scales – they provide far more insight into the biblical spy narrative than almost every modern biblical commentator.
So – how tall were the Anakim? Far taller than any humans we know of. In the imagination of the author of Num. 13-14, the Anakim were somewhere between 15- and 40-feet tall. Mere humans would have appeared like grasshoppers or gnats beside them.