At the beginning of his weekly cabinet meeting, on 9 July 2017, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu read from Genesis 23.16, 19-20. This passage narrates the story of Abraham’s purchase of a tomb for the burial of his wife, near the city of Hebron.
16 Abraham agreed with Ephron; and Abraham weighed out for Ephron the silver that he had named in the hearing of the Hittites, four hundred shekels of silver, according to the weights current among the merchants…. 19 After this, Abraham buried Sarah his wife in the cave of the field of Machpelah facing Mamre (that is, Hebron) in the land of Canaan. 20 The field and the cave that is in it passed from the Hittites into Abraham’s possession as a burying place.
Hebron is a city in Palestine which is currently under military occupation by Israel.
On 7 July 2017, UNESCO voted to recognize the Mamluk-era Old Town of Hebron (Al-Khalil), including its first-century CE Tomb of the Patriarchs (the Ibrahimi mosque), as a protected World Heritage site.
In response, Netanyahu argued, based on the legendary account in Genesis 23, that Hebron was Jewish. “The connection between the Jewish people and Hebron and the Tomb of the Patriarchs is one of purchase and of history which may be without parallel in the history of peoples.” Netanyahu also had a bit of a tantrum, and said that he wouldn’t pay $1 million from Israel’s United Nations membership dues, but would instead transfer the funds to the establishment of The Museum of the Heritage of the Jewish People in Kiryat Arba and Hebron.
But did Abraham really buy the tomb?
According to Genesis 23, Abraham bought the tomb from a Hittite man named Ephron. However, Abraham’s legal title to the land is highly questionable, in light of the rival account in the Torah, in Numbers 13. Here, the city of Hebron clearly belongs to three Giants (Anakim), named Ahiman, Sheshai, and Talmai. It doesn’t belong to Hittites at all. So on the basis of Numbers 13, we have to question whether the Hittite Ephron ever had a good legal title to give to Abraham. Hebron, according to this account, belonged to Giants.
Therefore, under the legal principle of Nemo dat quod non habet (a person cannot grant a better title than they have), Abraham never legally bought the land. He could only have bought it from its legal owners, the Giants. If we treat the Torah as history, we must respect the legal ownership of Hebron by ancient Giants.
… unless, of course, both Genesis 23 and Numbers 13 are just legends, and neither should be cited as “history” by a modern Prime Minister.
But then, might the Israeli government have to admit that the notion of modern Israel’s right to “Greater Israel” (Kol Yisrael) might itself be based on legends?
(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:
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:
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.
According to Numbers 13-14, Moses sent a group of spies to spy out the promised land. The spies returned to the whole assembly of Israel, and discouraged them from entering into the land, claiming that they had seen giants there. But Caleb, along with Joshua, encouraged the Israelites to kill all the prior inhabitants of the land and settle in their place. For this, Caleb was praised for “fully following after” the Israelite god, Yahweh.
Earlier this year , a decision by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to add two West Bank shrines to a list of Israeli heritage sites set off weeks of clashes between stone-throwing Palestinians and Israeli troops in the biblical city of Hebron. Both of those sites, the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron and Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem, hold great significance for Muslims and Jews.
No clashes were reported during the pilgrimage to Kifl Hares, which began late Thursday and ended early Friday. The Palestinian mayor, however, called it “a serious bother.”
Israeli soldiers, some using glow sticks to direct traffic in the darkness, imposed a curfew on the Palestinian residents. The Jewish visitors, some carrying children or pushing strollers, walked the village’s narrow streets. Near the tombs, groups of ultra-Orthodox men with sidelocks and black hats recited prayers, sang and danced in circles.
Some devout Jews claim biblical Joshua, along with his father, Nun, and companion Caleb are buried in Kifl Hares.
– Ben Hubbard, “Thousands of Jews visit disputed West Bank tombs”, Boston.com, 9 April 2010
This is causing some bother:
Thousands of Jewish settlers raided Friday the West Bank town of Kifl Hares north of Salfit to perform traditional prayers at what they have claimed is the tomb of Joshua the son of Nun.
Israeli Radio put the number of settlers that raided the site from Thursday night to Friday morning at 15,000. They were protected by Israel occupation forces (IOF).
Ahmed Bouzia, the mayor of Kifl Hares, called the most recent visit “a serious bother” and said many villagers worry Israel will try to take the sites away from them.
“All three are Islamic graves,” Bouzia said, adding that one contains the remains of an ancestor. “Anyone who uses his eyes and head can see that these are Islamic graves.”
– Ben Hubbard, “Thousands of Jews visit disputed West Bank tombs”, Boston.com, 9 April 2010
So right now, in Israel, a tradition is being invented about the tomb of Caleb.
According to a fresh report by the PIC, there are three Islamic shrines in Kifl Hares, Dhul-Kifl, Dhul-Nun, and a shrine built by Sultan Saladin, which Israelis wish to convert into a biblical site, naming it the shrine of Joshua, who led Moses’ army into Palestine from Jericho.
Palestinians fear Israel wants to hijack the shrine in the center of the village and add it to the alleged Jewish heritage list, as was done with Ibrahimi and Bilal Ben Rabah mosques.
– Uprooted Palestinians, “Jewish settlers raid Kifl Hares in bid to claim shrine”, 30 April 2011