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The Two Meanings of ‘Refaim’ in Tanach

The word רפאים (“Refaim”) appears many times in Tanach. But it has two different meanings. Sometimes it refers to an ancient race of giants. Other times it refers to dead people in the underworld. Can we make any sense of this? Also, what about that word רפא which means “heal”? Does it have any connection with the word רפה which means “weak”? This column is going to address these topics.

Let us start with the easiest question, the possible relationship between רפא and רפה. With regard to the verb רפא, even though we are used to thinking of it as meaning “heal” (as this is its widespread meaning in Tanach and in our prayers), most likely it started out with a more concrete meaning. As one source puts it, most likely it originally meant: “restoring a wrong, sick, broken, or deficient condition to its original and proper state.” For example, at 1 Kings 18:30 it refers to repairing a destroyed altar, and at 2 Kings 2:21 it refers to purifying a spring of water.

With regard to verb רפה, even though we think of it as meaning “become weak,” most likely it started out with the concrete meaning “sink down.” See Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, vol. 13, p. 614. At Ezekiel 1:24 it refers to the dropping down of angels’ wings. It is often used in Tanach in connection with hands dropping down. (For a slightly different approach, see Rav S.R. Hirsch to Deut. 4:31.)

While a relationship between “heal” and “weak” might have been something that could be explained, the original meanings of the words רפא and רפה are very distant.

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The ancient רפאים who were giants are mentioned 11 times in the books of Genesis, Deuteronomy, Joshua and Chronicles. For example, at Deut. 2:11 we have: “The Refaim are also considered like Anakim.” The previous verse had described the Anakim as “ram” (=tall). At Deut. 3:11, we are told: “Only Og, king of Bashan, remained from the remnant of the Refaim.” The verse continues with a description of the size of his bed. The impression one gets from this verse and from Deut. 2:20 is that the Refaim were a race that had died out by the time of Moses. (At Genesis 15: 19-21, they are listed with the several other commonly listed pre-Israelite inhabitants of the land: Chiti, Prizi, Emori, etc.)

In contrast, in the books of Isaiah, Psalms, Proverbs and Job, we have eight times the other meaning of that exact same word רפאים: dead people (or spirits of these dead people). For example, they are mentioned parallel to “meitim” at Isaiah 26:14 and Psalms 88:11, and they dwell in the depths of She’ol (=the underworld) at Proverbs 9:18.

With regard to the dead people meaning, the simplest explanation is to view this meaning as deriving from רפה, with its meanings of “sink down” (to the underworld) or “powerless.” See, e.g., the Brown-Driver-Briggs lexicon, which mentions both of these suggestions. The ה dropped in the plural and it became רפאים. This happened as well with the word טלה = lamb. Its plural is טלאים. See Isa. 40:11. (I am sure there are many other examples.) Among traditional sources, I have seen Rav S.R. Hirsch (comm. to Deut. 2:11) adopt the “powerless” approach to these underworld figures. So does S. Mandelkern in his concordance.

Is there a way to connect the two different meanings of רפאים: “giants” and “dead people”? (It is of interest that in the Greek translation of Tanach, most of the time the Greek word for “giants” is used for both.)

I will mention some approaches that have been suggested:

The word was originally used in a legend about a giant who was banished to the underworld. The name was subsequently applied to all the dead in the underworld.

Taking the “dead people” meaning as primary, the name was applied to that race of people because their race was dying out or had died out at the time of Moses. (Many scholars take this approach. So do R. Hirsch and Mandelkern.)

Those giants caused fear to others, as much fear as seeing a dead person. (See, e.g., S.D. Luzzatto to Deut. 2:11.)

Since we can explain the “dead people” meaning with simple explanations derived from רפה, we should reject that first suggestion. The other two suggestions are creative but farfetched.

We should also note that רפאים, in its context of “giants,” seems to be used as an ethnic term to describe a people who were giants, and not as a descriptive term for “giants.” (This has ramifications in Mandelkern’s concordance: the entries with the “giants” meaning are therefore moved to a separate section with all the other proper nouns, i.e., names whose first letters would be capitalized in English.) Of course, many scholars believe that the term originally was a descriptive one.

There is another interesting twist in our analysis. At 2 Samuel, chapter 21, starting in verse 16, we seem to have the singular of רפאים a few times, and the implication is that it is referring to giants. What is the singular form used? It is רפה each time. (1 Chronicles 20 certainly understands רפה here as having the meaning “giant” and for this reason changes them to רפא.) So if we rely on 2 Samuel, it seems that רפאים as “giants” derives from an underlying רפה spelling. We earlier came to the same conclusion about רפאים as dead people! But it is hard to come up with a meaning of the root רפה that means “giants.”

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“Emek Refaim” is referred to seven times in Tanach (but nowhere in Chumash). It could be translated “Valley of the Dead” or “Valley of the Giants.” The Targum uses the word גבריא, implying a preference for the latter. (See, e.g., Targum to Josh. 15:8.)

We know where this locale is. It is a valley near Jerusalem. This is west of the Jordan River. Daat Mikra (comm. to Josh. 15:8) points out that Josh 17:15 implies that the ancient Refaim also lived on the west side of the Jordan River and not just on the east side as implied from several other verses. Therefore Daat Mikra is willing to adopt the “Valley of the Giants” interpretation.

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The mention of proper names and capitalization of initial letters in English reminds me of the following story. At the time of the drafting of Israel’s Declaration of Independence, there was a dispute between the Orthodox and the secular. The Orthodox wanted a mention of God’s name in the declaration. The secular objected. Then someone came up with the phrase “Tzur Yisrael.”

The secular could agree to this vague concept and the Orthodox could interpret it as a reference to God. What allowed this compromise to work? The fact that Hebrew has no capital letters! Either a capital or a lower case letter would have allowed for no ambiguity and offended one of the groups!


Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected]. He would like to thank Jeff Neugroschl for getting him interested in the roots רפא and רפה.

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