In the Hebrew Bible, as well as non-Jewish ancient texts from the region, the Northwest Semitic term Rephaite (cf. the plural word in Hebrew: רְפָאִים, romanized: rəfāʾīm (Rephaim); Phoenician: 𐤓𐤐𐤀𐤌 rpʼm) refers either to a people of greater-than-average height and stature (possibly giants) or departed spirits in the Jewish afterlife, Sheol.
There are two main groups of etymological hypotheses explaining the origins of the biblical rephaim. The first group proposes that this is a native Hebrew language term, which could be derived either from the root רפא or רפה. The first root, רפא, conveys the meaning of healing and is realized in words such as Hebrew rofe (a physician) or refuah (medicine). The second root, רפה, means being weak, powerless.
The second group of etymological hypotheses treat the word rephaim as a loanword from some other ancient Semitic language. Among the proposals is the Akkadian rabu, a prince, but this explanation enjoys rather limited popularity. Far more support has been gained by the hypothesis which derives the Hebrew refaim from the Ugaritic rpum which denotes the semi-deified deceased ancestors who are mentioned in such sources as the so-called Rephaim Text (KTU 1:20–22).
Despite the clash between these hypotheses and although the modern translations clearly distinguish between Rephaites as one of the tribes (e.g. Book of Genesis 14:5; 15:18–21; Book of Deuteronomy 2:11–20) and rephaim as the inhabitants of the underworld (e.g. Book of Isaiah 14:9–11; 26:13–15), the same word is used in the original text. The use of rephaim in the Hebrew Bible suggests that behind the biblical narrative were the legends of some ancient indigenous peoples, who inhabited the valleys of the land of Canaan which was subject to the gradual Hebrew conquest.
Canaanite people group
In the Hebrew Bible, "Rephaites" or "Rephaim" can describe an ancient race of giants in Iron Age Israel, or the places where these individuals were thought to have lived. According to Genesis 14:5, King Chedorlaomer and his allies attacked and defeated the Rephaites at Ashteroth-Karnaim. Rephaites are also mentioned at Genesis 15:20; Deuteronomy 2:10–21, 3:11; the Book of Joshua (Joshua 12:4, 13:12, 15:8, 17:15, 18:16); the Books of Samuel (2 Samuel 5:18–22, 23:13); and the Books of Chronicles (1 Chronicles 11:15, 14:9 and 20:4).
In the biblical narrative, the Israelites were instructed to exterminate the previous inhabitants of the "promised land", i.e. Canaan, which include various named peoples, including some unusually tall/large individuals. Several passages in the Book of Joshua, and also Deuteronomy 3:11, suggest 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 cubits. (An ordinary cubit is the length of a man's forearm according to the New American Standard Bible, or approximately 18 in (460 mm), which differs from a royal cubit. This makes the bed over 13 ft 00 in (3.96 m) long, even longer if the cubit was based on a giant's forearm). Anak, according to 2:11, was a Rephaite.
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 notes that the Ammonites called the Rephaites "Zamzummim". In Deuteronomy 2:11, the Moabites referred to them as the "Emim".
Long dead ancestors
Rephaim have also been considered the residents of the Netherworld (Sheol in the Hebrew Bible) in more recent scholarship. Possible examples of this usage appear as "shades", "spirits", or "dead" in various translations of the Bible. See: Isa 14:9, 26:14, 26:19; Ps 88:10; Prov 2:18, 9:18, 21:16; Job 26:5, and possibly 2 Chron 16:12, where Repha'im may be read as “dead ancestors” or "weakeners", as opposed to Rophe’im, “doctors”. The Heb. root רפא means “heal”, and thus the masculine plural nominalized form of this root may indicate that these “deceased ancestors” could be invoked for ritual purposes that would benefit the living.
Various ancient Northwest Semitic texts are also replete with references to terms evidently cognate with Rephaim as the dead or dead kings. Lewis (1989) undertakes a detailed study of several enigmatic funerary ritual texts from the ancient coastal city of Ugarit. Lewis concludes that the “Ugaritic Funerary Text” 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 Hebrew Bible 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.
- Booth, Scott W. "Using Corpus Linguistics to Address some Questions of Phoenician Grammar and Syntax found in the Kulamuwa Inscription" (PDF). Archived from the original on March 23, 2012. Retrieved 2013-12-04.CS1 maint: bot: original URL status unknown (link). 2007. p. 197.
- "Rephaim". www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org. Retrieved 2020-06-07.
- Francis Brown, Samuel Rolles Driver and Charles A. Briggs C.A., A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament (Oxford, 1907/2013) [BDB], (CD-ROM), 9242.
- Kohler, Ludwig, and Walter Baumgartner. 2002. The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament. Leiden: Brill [HALOT]. (CD-ROM), 8014.
- Harris, R. Laird., Gleason L. Archer, and Bruce K. Waltke. 2003. Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament. Chicago: Moody Press [TWOT]. (CD-ROM), 2198d.
- Lewis, Theodore J. 1999. “Dead.” In Dictionary of Deities and Demons, pp. 223–231.
- Rouillard-Bonraisin, Hedwige. 1999. “Rephaim.” In Dictionary of Deities and Demons, pp. 692–700.
- Kosior, Wojciech (2018-05-22), "The Fallen (Or) Giants? The Gigantic Qualities of the Nefilim in the Hebrew Bible", Jewish Translation - Translating Jewishness, De Gruyter, pp. 17–38, doi:10.1515/9783110550788-002, ISBN 9783110550788, retrieved 2018-08-04
- R. Mark Shipp. Of Dead Kings and Dirges: Myth and Meaning in Isaiah 14:4b-21. 2002 p. 121: "It is also possible that the distinction here is not between the Rephaim and non-Rephaim dead kings, but rather between the rpim qdmym (Ulkn, Tr 'limn, Sdn w Rdn, Trmn; the “ancient Rephaim”) and the more recent Rephaim (Ammishtamru, ..."
- Matthew J. Suriano The Politics of Dead Kings: Dynastic Ancestors in the Book of ... 2010 p160 "Unlike the texts from Ras Shamra, however, Israelite literature negatively portrayed the Rephaim in order to undermine a politically potent element that was otherwise embraced in Ugaritic tradition. The equation of the Rephaim as dead ..."
- Brian B. Schmidt Israel's beneficent dead: ancestor cult and necromancy in ancient ... 1994 p267 "The Ugaritic rp 'um are repeatedly invoked as confirmation for the existence of both a living and dead biblical Rephaim. De Moor's theory comprises the most compelling and thoroughgoing proposal to date. According to this author,"
- 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.
- T. J. Lewis (professor of Hebrew Bible at Johns Hopkins University), Cults of the Dead in Ancient Israel and Ugarit (Scholars Press, 1989)
- KTU 1.161 = Ras Shamra 34.126
- On the role of the dead and burial customs in ancient Israelite society and the cultures of the ancient Levant generally, see L. Bloch-Smith's Judahite Burial Practices and Beliefs About the Dead (Continuum, 1992).
- Gabriel Levin, Hezekiah’s Tunnel, 1997, Jerusalem, Ibis