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David hoists the severed head of Goliath.

In the Hebrew Bible (Christian "Old Testament") the term "Rephaim" (Heb. plural רפאים; "Rephaite" would be the English translation of this term as though it referred to residents of a certain region, which is one use of the term in the HB/OT) has two primary meanings:


Race of giants

"Rephaim" can describe an ancient "race" of giants in Iron Age Israel, or the places where these individuals were thought to have lived: see Gen. 14:5, 15:20; Deut. 2:10-1,20, 3:11,13; Josh. 12:4, 13:12, 15:8, 17:15, 18:16; 2Sam. 5:11,22, 23:13; 1Chr. 11:15, 14:9, 20:4. In the biblical narrative, the Israelites are instructed to exterminate the previous inhabitants of the "promised land," i.e. "Canaan," which include various named peoples, including some unusually tall/large individuals. See the passages listed above in the book of Joshua, and also Deut. 3:11, which implies that Og, the King of Bashan, was one of the last survivors of the Rephaim, and that his bed was 9 cubits long in ordinary cubit (an ordinary cubit is the length of a man's forearm according to the New American Standard Bible, or approx. 18 inches, which differs from a royal cubit. Making this bed over 13 feet long, implying he was a giant). C.f. the reference to Nephilim and the "sons of God" in Gen. 6:1-3. The famous Philistine giant Goliath would seem to fit into this paradigm of giants living in the land that must be slain by the Israelites in order to possess the land.

The area of Moab at Ar, (the region East of the Jordan) before the time of Moses, was also considered the land of the Rephaites. Deuteronomy 2:18-21 refers to the fact that Ammonites called them "Zamzummim", which is related to the Hebrew word זמזם, which literally translates into "Buzzers", or "the people whose speech sounds like buzzing." In Arabic the word zamzamah translates as a distant, unclear sound.

Long dead ancestors

Rephaim can also refer to the residents of Sheol (a biblical term for the land of the dead in the HB/OT). See Isa. 14:9, 26:14,19; Ps. 88:11; Prov. 2:18, 9:18, 21:16; Job. 26:5; and possibly 2Chron. 16:12, where we may read “Repha'im,” i.e. "dead ancestors," as opposed to Rophe’im, “doctors." The Heb. root רפא means "heal," and thus the masc. plural nominalized form of this root may indicate that these deceased ancestors could be invoked for ritual purposes that would benefit the living.

Note also that various ancient Northwest Semitic texts are replete with references to the Rephaim as the dead or dead kings; see KAI 13.7-8, 14.8, 177.1; CTA 6.6.46-52, CTA 20-22 = KTU 1.161 (see the article by M.S. Smith, “Rephaim,” in the Anchor Bible Dictionary). In the very thorough study of T.J. Lewis (professor of Hebrew Bible at Johns Hopkins University), Cults of the Dead in Ancient Israel and Ugarit (Scholars Press, 1989), Lewis undertakes a detailed study of several enigmatic funerary ritual texts from the ancient coastal city of Ugarit. Lewis concludes that the "Ugaritic Funerary Text" (KTU 1.161 = RS 34.126) provides important evidence for understanding Ugarit's cult of the dead, wherein beings called rapi'uma, the long dead, and malakuma, recently dead kings, were invoked in a funeral liturgy, presented with food/drink offerings, and asked to provide blessings for the reign of the current king. The many references to repha'im in the HB/OT in contexts involving Sheol and dead spirits strongly suggests that many ancient Israelites imagined the spirits of the dead as playing an active and important role in securing blessings, healing, or other benefits in the lives of the living. On the role of the dead and burial customs in ancient Israelite society and the cultures of ancient Syro-Palestine generally, see L. Bloch-Smith's Judahite Burial Practices and Beliefs About the Dead (Continuum, 1992).

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Name of an ancient people mentioned in Gen 14:5 as residing in Ham, the territory east of the Jordan, and as having been smitten by Chedorlaomer. The narrator must have supposed that the Zuzim were well known, for he prefixes the definite article to their name, though its use may also imply that even to him the nation was somewhat nebulous. This prefix induced the Septuagint and the Peshiṭta (or the scribe of the copy underlying their version) to read the name as an appellative. They therefore translate it as "the strong" (= "ha'izzuzim") or "the mighty" (= "ha-'ezuzim"), and thus identify the people with the Rephaim, the giants who occupied the district and who are said to have been called "Zamzummim" by the Ammonites (Deut 2:20). The rendering of Symmachus results from a combination of the two names Zuzim and Zamzummim (Σοαζομμειν), and thus anticipates those modern scholars who maintain that the names are identical, the variance being due to scribal errors. Sayce ("Higher Criticism and the Verdict of the Monuments," pp. 160 et seq.; "Expository Times," viii. 463), proceeding on the theory that Gen. 14. is a translation of a Babylonian document, advances the hypothesis that the double spelling of the name arose from the identity of the characters "m" and "w" in Babylonian. It has also been proposed to connect the name with Ziza, a military post of the Roman period (Dillmann, "Genesis," ad loc.).

This entry includes text from the Jewish Encyclopedia, 1906.

A race of giants; "a people great, and many, and tall, as the Anakims" (Deut 2:20f). They were overcome by the Ammonites, "who called them Zamzummims." They belonged to the Rephaim, and inhabited the country afterwards occupied by the Ammonites. It has been conjectured that they might be Ham-zuzims, i.e., Zuzims dwelling in Ham, a place apparently to the south of Ashteroth (Gen 14:5), the ancient Rabbath-ammon.

This entry includes text from Easton's Bible Dictionary, 1897.

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