In his parting oration to the people of Israel, Moses recounts the last battle before entering the holy land – the battle with Og, king of Bashan. Og was unique among men; standing, if his “bed of nine cubits” is any indication, over four meters tall. Maimonides plays down Og’s height by explaining that a man’s bed is “customarily” one-third longer than his height (Guide, 2:47). Nevertheless, we are still left with a giant measuring over 2.7 meters tall.
Now, if this wasn’t enough, the Talmud endows Og with truly mythical proportions in a tale so tall that it was “one of the more notable [legends] used by Christian polemicists to discredit the Talmud” (Kosman).
[Og] said: “How large is the Israelite camp? Three parasangs [i.e., 11 km]. I shall go and uproot a mountain of three parasangs and throw it on them and kill them.” He went and uprooted a mountain of three parasangs and brought it over his head. The Holy One, blessed be He, sent grasshoppers upon it, and they burrowed a hole in it and it dropped around his neck. He tried to pull it off his head, pulling with his teeth from side to side, but could not pull it off. To this Scripture wrote, “Thou hast broken the teeth of the wicked” (Psalms 3:8), as explained by Simeon ben Lakish. For Rabbi Simeon ben Lakish said: What is the meaning of the text, “Thou hast broken (shibarta) the teeth of the wicked”? Do not read shibarta, but shirbavta, “Thou hast entangled”. How [tall] was Moses? Ten cubits [i.e., 4.57m]. He grabbed hold of an ax ten cubits long, leaped ten cubits, and struck [Og] in his ankle and killed him. (Berachot 54b).
The Rabbis here have outraged our sensibilities in an effort to engage us – Midrash, it must be remembered, is not history but philosophy painted in parable. To interpret this Midrash, however, we must know more about Og than simply his height. An investigation of the text (Deuteronomy 3:11) reveals that Og was a survivor of the Rephaim – a people, explains Rashi, who were beaten in war at the time of Abraham. In that narrative (Genesis 14), Abraham is told by a “refugee” that his nephew Lot had been abducted. Rashi (Genesis 14:13) explains that this refugee is none other than Og, who was a refugee from the war against the Rephaim.
Rashi, however, is not satisfied in leaving us with this genealogical account and adds, figuratively, that Og was a “refugee” from the antediluvian days of Noah. A Midrash makes this connection by noting that the Rephaim are synonymous with the Nephilim, a people introduced in the narrative describing God’s displeasure with humanity just prior to the flood. Now the Nephilim, explains Rashi (Numbers 13:33), were so named because they were the children of two angels “who fell (naflu) from the heavens.”
The Zohar (Balak 207b) provides the background on the fallen angels. At the time of creation, God conferred with the angels regarding His plan to create man. The angels demurred – creating a being with the propensity for evil, they argued, would not bode well. Objections notwithstanding, God proceeded with His creation. Man sinned. At this, two of the angels approached God and said, “We told you so.” “If you were among them,” God responded, “you too would have sinned”; and He cast them to the earth to prove it.
Og, as it turns out, was none other than the grandson of the fallen angels (Niddah 61a). As such, he carries the legacy of questioning the worthiness of man. When Og stood blocking the doorstep of the land of Israel, he was effectively questioning the worthiness of man. The people of Israel entering the land of Israel, explains Rav Kook, is like Adam entering the Garden of Eden. Og thus stood in the way of Israel, arguing that they were unworthy, just as his grandfather stood in the way, as it were, of Adam.
Tellingly, Og’s unprovoked attack on Israel stirred fear in Moses. It was not fear of the physical that troubled Moses but something spiritual (Nachmanides, Numbers 21:34). On the one hand, Moses was concerned that perhaps Og had some merit making him invincible; on the other hand, Moses trembled with fear that perhaps his people had sinned in the war with Sihon thus making them unworthy to conquer Og. The question of worthiness, then, is what troubled Moses before the war with Og.
And it is precisely this issue – the worthiness of man – that our original Midrash sought to convey. The Midrash depicts, in vibrant colors, the battle underlying the battle – the battle over the worthiness of man.
The Midrash starts with Og lifting a mountain the size of the entire camp of Israel in order to bury them. The only other time a mountain is held over all of Israel is when God took the mountain of Sinai, as it were, and placed it over Israel saying, “If you accept the Torah all is well, but if not, then there will be your grave” (Shabbat 88a). Appropriately, the Psalmist equates the mountain of Bashan with Mount Sinai (Psalms 68:16). As such, Og is holding the mountain overhead saying, “If you accept the Torah all is well, but if not, then there will be your grave”; or, antagonistically, “You are not worthy to enter the land, there will be your grave.”
To this threat God sends “grasshoppers”. We are reminded here of the spies who toured the land of Israel and brought back the report, “And there we saw the Nephilim … and we were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so we were in their sight.” The spies saw the Nephilim, the very people of Og, and, filled with fear and disbelief, viewed themselves as “grasshoppers”. Now God sends the descendants of the “grasshoppers” who, in contrast to their progenitors, faithfully accept His will and fight Og, king of the Nephilim.
The fight, however, is not against Og the giant, but against the mountain of divine command that serves as Og’s giant claim: man is not worthy. By accepting the weight of responsibility represented by the mountain of Sinai, Israel demonstrated that they are worthy of creation. And though they had accepted the will of God at Sinai itself, the acceptance there was largely passive in contrast to the battle with Og wherein they had to demonstrate their belief in action; something their “grasshopper” ancestors clearly failed to do.
The mountain of divine command, actively accepted by Israel, now falls around the neck of the giant. The midrash describes the result: “‘Thou hast broken (shibbarta) the teeth of the wicked”; read it not as shibarta, but rather as shirbavta, “Thou hast entangled”. Og, grandson of the fallen angels who claimed man is unworthy, is now ensnared by his own argument.
With the spiritual battle won, Moses finishes off the giant with a blow to his ankle, located thirty cubits high. “Thirty cubits high” serves as a profound allusion to Og as survivor of the flood, for the number first appears in the Torah as the height of Noah’s ark (Genesis 6:15). That Og stood far above the flood waters is of great import, for it teaches that the flood waters that washed away the world as it was, washed away neither the purpose for which it was created nor the question of man’s worthiness.
With Israel at the threshold of the holy land, that question – a giant question – was laid to rest by Moses, the faithful shepherd, who successfully led his people to reach the pinnacle of human existence: to be worthy of creation.
 And indeed, this could very well be the reason Rashi brings the midrash as pshat on the verse (Numbers 21:35). That is, the straightforward philosophical underpinnings of the battle as expressed in the outrageous midrash.