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Sihon's and Og's Overthrow
Late winter of their fortieth year in the wilderness found the Israelites encamped at Eziongeber, a small port town on the Gulf of Elath (modern Aqaba). As the time to invade Canaan approached, over two million men, women, and children began a two-hundred-mile trek north toward ancient Jericho. For all the hardship it brought, that earlier mission of the twelve spies to search out Canaan had served one good purpose. As a result of his later debriefings of the twelve, Moses now had a far better idea of the land's physical features, the strength of its occupants, and the logistical problems and other obstacles that the invading Hebrews would encounter. From their intelligence reports, he learned, too, that many giants occupied the south country, but that not many now lived in the lands east of the Jordan River. So central Canaan seemed to him the most vulnerable place to attack. He therefore decided that the Hebrew legions should strike first from across the Jordan, near Jericho.
Their long march toward this well-known city of the giants took the Hebrew multitude through Edom, Moab, Gilead, and Bashan. Some four hundred years earlier, many Rephaim, Horim, Emim, and Zamzummim giants had possessed these lands. Then came Chedorlaomer and his Babylonian cohorts. On their punitive raids throughout Transjordan and Edom they slew many giants and wasted their cities. An unknown number managed to escape Chedorlaomer's sword, but their once-firm hold on those countries was forever broken. The "land of the Rephaim," so-called because the giants had so completely dominated it, was no more. In later times, the Rephaim that still lived in Transjordan and Edom were defeated by the numerous descendants of Lot and Esau. This interesting bit of history appears only in Moses' journal. In his account of the He-brews' wearying march toward Canaan's eastern border, the great lawgiver included several entries--written parenthetically--that tell us how the Gibborim mongrels that survived Chedorlaomer's onslaught were finally dispossessed.
After leaving Elath, the Israelites first passed beyond the sons of Esau, who lived in Seir. This country, Moses wrote, was formerly occupied by the tall Horites, but the "sons of Esau dispossessed them and destroyed them from before them and settled in their place." Writing of their passage through the wilderness of Moab, he also noted: "The Emim lived there formerly, a people as great, numerous, and tall as the Anakim. Like the Anakim, they are also regarded as Rephaim, but the Moabites call them Emim." When they came opposite the land of Ammon's descendants, Moses gave orders that they not be provoked, explaining that the Lord God had given that country to the sons of Lot for a possession. "It is also regarded as the land of the Rephaim," he added, "for Rephaim formerly lived in it, but the Ammonites call them Zamzummim, a people as great, numerous, and tall as the Anakim, but the Lord destroyed them before them. And they dispossessed them and settled in their place, just as He did for the sons of Esau, who live in Seir. . . . And the Avvim, who lived in villages as far as Gaza, the Caphtorim who came from Caphtor destroyed them and lived in their place."167
Thus, in Transjordan, only a remnant of the Rephaim survived. But the Israelites still faced a considerable threat there. For many Amorites now inhabited that same vast territory. They stood not quite as tall as the Rephaim, Horim, Emim, and Zamzummim. But biblical records and ancient monuments still represent them as a people of great size and strength. The prophet Amos, in a later reference to this campaign, describes them in these words: "Thus says the Lord,'... It was I who destroyed the Amorite before them, though his height was like the height of cedars and he was strong as the oaks.'"168 The cedar, of course, denotes the Amorites' exceptional tallness. The oak symbolizes their great might. Some monuments discovered by archaeologists bear out Amos' description. On these, says historian Philip Hitti, the "Amorite stature appear tall and martial. Their size and culture must have so impressed the primitive and short troglodytic inhabitants of southern Syria that legends grew that a giant race came and intermarried the daughters of men-- legends which were passed on to the Israelites."169
Over these Transjordanian Amorites reigned two giant kings, Sihon and Og. Moses refers to them as remnants of the Rephaim. Og later became the most famous of the two, because of his great bedstead. But from what records we have, Sihon appears to have been the most powerful and probably posed the greatest threat to the advancing Hebrews' plan of attack. Having completed their long, hard march across Edom and Moab, Moses' legions now waded the Arnon, which formed the border between Moab and Sihon's kingdom. That night they pitched camp on the Bamoth plateau in the mountains of Abarim, not far from the famed peaks of Pisgah and Nebo. From this plateau the Israelites got their first view of the land promised to them. Only Sihon now stood between them and their resolve to enter and possess it. War with the giant king and his tall warriors thus seemed unavoidable. As a courtesy, Moses sent messengers of peace to Sihon, saying: "Let me pass through your land. We will not turn off into field or vineyard; we will not drink water from wells. We will go by the king's highway until we have passed through your border."170
In their day, Sihon and Og commanded wide respect as great and mighty monarchs.171 Although Sihon is not described in scripture as a giant, as Og was, other sources definitely place him among the Rephaim. Rabbinical literature, for instance, identifies him as Og's brother. The ancient rabbis likewise list both kings as grandsons of Shamhazai, a fallen angel (Niddah 61a), who evidently was of the Nephilim. Sihon, they further write, resembled Og in stature and bravery (Midrash Agadah, Hukkat, ed. Buber, p. 130a). These old writings also identify him with Arad the Canaanite (Numbers 21:1), who was called Sihon because he resembled the foals in the desert for swiftness.172 Accordingly, the rabbis sometimes referred to him as "the Canaanite," claiming that he was overlord of that land and had over there many vassal kings who paid him tribute. The five Midianite kings later slain by the Israelites (Numbers 31:8; Joshua 13:21) came under his suzerainty. Sihon, himself, when the Israelites asked permission to pass through his territory to enter Canaan, advised them that he was in that land only to resist their attack upon his Canaanite kings (Tan., Hukkat, 52, ed. Buber, p. 65a).173
That he came primarily to defend his Canaanite territories, and not his Transjordan kingdom, sounds reasonable. For Sihon could not have viewed the Hebrews as much of a threat to his eastern domain. Experts who have visited this area say that if the king had retained his troops in the various cities of his Transjordan realm, the Israelites would have been able to take them only with the greatest difficulty. But as suzerain over several kingdoms west of the Jordan, Sihon apparently felt some obligation to protect them. Most likely he was also moved by arrogance. These small-statured desert nomads, he believed, could not possibly stand before his much taller, better-armed Amorites. He therefore denied Moses' request for passage. Then, mustering a great army, he marched out to check Israel's advance toward Canaan. At Jahaz, a small town on the plains of Moab, he led a charge against the Hebrews. What he thought would be an easy battle for his mighty Amorites against the puny Israelites suddenly turned into a rout of the Amorites. On that day at Jahaz the giant king and all his sons fell, mortally wounded.174
Giving a fuller account of this important battle, Josephus writes: "As soon as the Hebrews saw them giving ground, they immediately pursued them close; and when they had broken their ranks, they greatly terrified them, and some of them broke off from the rest, and ran away to the cities. Now the Hebrews pursued them briskly, and obstinately persevered in the labors they had already undergone; and being very skilful in slinging, and very dexterous in throwing of darts, or anything else of that kind, and also having nothing but light armor, which made them quick in the pursuit, they overtook their enemies; and for those that were most remote, and could not be overtaken, they reached them by their slings and their bows, so that many were slain."175 Even many who had earlier managed to escape, according to Josephus, were later slaughtered as they crowded, in an agony of thirst, into the bed of a cool mountain stream.
Following up their stunning victory over Sihon at Jahaz, the Hebrews seized Heshbon, his capital. It lay about twenty miles east of the Jordan River, on parallel with the northern end of the Salt Sea. After wandering forty years in the wilderness, these former slaves and sons of slaves now owned, by right of conquest, a piece of land. On that day they must have looked with exhilaration beyond the smoldering ruins of Heshbon to the surrounding countryside. Westward from where they stood on the crown of this low rocky hill, the Hebrews had the land of Canaan before them. Turning northward, they saw an elevated land crossed by well-wooded mountain ridges with broad fertile valleys intervening. Eastward they beheld a wide expanse of fruitful, rolling plains that extended unbroken to the desert. Beyond that distant wasteland rose a range of purple-fringed mountains. Greatly encouraged by their successes on the battlefield, they next besieged and captured the walled cities of Nophah, Medeba, and Dibon, putting all their lofty inhabitants to death. The rest of Sihon's towns and villages, being without protecting walls, soon afterward fell. The whole rich country situated between the Arnon to the south, the upper Jabbok to the north, and the Jordan to the west, along with its cities, crops, and cattle, thus came into the Hebrews' immediate possession.
"The wanderers were now masters of a wide region of splendid upland pastures, intersected by numerous fertile valleys, and abounding in streams," relates historian Cunningham Geikie. "The crossing of the Arnon and the digging of the first well had already kindled the poetry of the camp;176 but such a conquest as this was still a more worthy theme for their inspiration. The vast tent city of the host, therefore, soon resounded with songs in praise of the conquerors, now returning to camp in triumph. Taunts and derision of their foe mingled in these strains, of which one has happily come down to us."177 Around their campfires that night, the ballad singers, as if calling to the vanquished Amorites, sang:
Through Heshbon ran the main north-south highway that connected Edom and Moab to Bashan. From here the road westward ribboned rapidly down into the Jordan Valley, past Abu Shittim and the Meadow of die Acacias, to the fords opposite Jericho. This way to the promised land now lay open to them. But the Hebrew legions looked north. That way lived the giant King Og and his cedar-tall Amorite warriors. They remained a threat.