Monday, July 1, 2013

REVIEW: The Last of the Rephaim: Conquest and Cataclysm in the Heroic Ages of Ancient Israel by Brian R. Doak

I will admit that I cursed under my breath a little when I saw the blurb for Brian R. Doak’s The Last of the Rephaim: Conquest and Cataclysm in the Heroic Ages of Ancient Israel. I had been planning a comprehensive gigantology as an upcoming project, and I feared I might have been beaten to the punch.¹ Doak’s book, however, is much more narrow in its focus, concentrating on the portrayals of giants within the Hebrew Bible, their context within ancient Mediterranean and Near Easter society, and the function of these giants (especially in the conquest and monarchic narratives) in Israelite self-definition. Doak frames the biblical giants against the background of a wider Mediterranean koine, and through the use of comparisons to sources from the Illiad to Ugaritic funerary inscriptions, he argues that the biblical giants represent a uniquely Israelite manifestation of a cross-cultural trope in which the struggle between heroes and monsters symbolizes the ordering of the universe, and in which the shades of fallen heroes occupy an ambiguous but powerful position in the afterlife.
Doak’s method is unabashedly (but not unapologetically) comparative. Indeed, his first chapter includes a cogent-yet-cautious defense of the value of comparative methodology that also recognizes the limitations (and past excesses) of the approach. Doak joins scholars like Nagy and Niddich (not to mention myself) in stressing the degree of continuity and cultural flow between included Greek, Roman, Anatolian, Egyptian, Levantine, Mesopotamian, and Persian peoples throughout antiquity. This makes it possible to recognize the influence of common tropes, themes, and motifs within their diverse cultural contexts without necessitating evidence of direct lines of influence.

Perhaps the most valuable feature of the book is its comprehensive review of the biblical references to the various groups (Nephilim, Gibborim, Rephaim, Anaqim, etc.) that are either explicitly described as giants, or at some point equated with one of these groups. He makes admirable work of this muddy subject, taking into account the tendency to conflate these various groups as a reflection of the giants’ function as “other.” He pays particular attention to the geographies associated with these groups (leaving me wishing for a map), as a feature of his broader emphasis on the giants, not as primordial monsters, but as the enemies of the Israelite conquest and especially the monarchy. Like Bartelmus and Hendel before him, Doak argues that the giants exist to be destroyed, and that the peoples of the land and the enemies of David were linked to the antediluvian Nephilim and Gibborim in a rhetorical move aimed at emphasizing the inevitability of their defeat.

Doak further draws upon (but adds little to) existing scholarship on the Ugaritic Rapi’uma in order to clarify the dichotomy between the giants as always-already defeated enemies of the past, and their portrayal as the living, flesh-and-blood foes of the Israelites. After Gese and Hendel, he finds hints in biblical texts (especially Ezek. 32 and Is. 26) that the terms Rephaim (like its Ugaritic cognate) and Nephalim may have once been understood to refer to fallen heroes honored after death, much like the Greek cults of heroes. Their use by the prophets, however, appears to be ironic, in that it mocks them as powerless shades, rather than mighty warriors or healing spirits. Through this parallel, Doak is able to negotiate the liminal state of the giants as living figures of the epic past, but long-conquered denizens of the underworld in the present of the authors.

While the nature of his project makes Doak’s emphasis on canonical biblical texts understandable, I found it curious that, given the breadth of comparative material he explored, Doak makes only cursory use of other Jewish texts relating to the giants, particularly 1 Enoch and Jubilees, but also the Sibylline Oracles. What use he does make of Enochic material feels uncritical. He twice (pp. 56 & 216) botches accounts of the descent of the giants from the Watchers in 1 Enoch by relying on details only attested in Syncellus’ version of the Greek, not in the Akhmim Greek or Ethiopic, and he conflates this with the parallel account in Jubilees. He only devotes part of a paragraph to the post-mortem persistence of the giants’ spirits as evil influences in 1 En. 15 and Jub. 10, despite the fact that such a parallel would only bolster his argument, placing the giants in exactly the position Doak wants them: dark reflections of epic heroes. Even a short treatment of these materials would have benefitted the book far more than his clumsy attempt, in the fifth chapter, to shoehorn his thesis into a model of Heroic and Axial ages.

Nevertheless, Doak’s work is a valuable and welcome addition to the study of giants in biblical tradition. While none of his theses is revolutionary, he assembles them in a cogent and illuminating manner, especially with respect to ethnographic and geographic details of the various groups tied to the giants. His emphasis on the latter-day giants (which do, after all, constitute to majority of the biblical references to giants) serves as a useful counterbalance to scholarship (like my own) that is more concerned with traditions related to the primeval history. Most of all, it participates in an ongoing, interdisciplinary dialogue that seeks to synthesize our understanding of the ancient world into a coherent whole, instead of reinforcing artificial divisions between disciplines and methodologies.

¹ I may yet lose in the next round, however, as Matthew Goff is on his way to Germany to work on his own gigantology, due in 2015. I’d better get to work.

CORRECTION: In a classic scribal error, the original version of this review transposed the k at the end of Dr. Doak’s name into the position of his middle initial, which has been corrected to read R.

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