Who Are the Nephilim?

The mysterious beings of Genesis 6


Who are the Nephilim? The giant Goliath is best known for facing the formidable but slight David and losing. Many theorists believe that Goliath was a descendant of the Nephilim of Genesis 6. This painting of the confrontation between David and Goliath was completed by William H. Johnson in 1944 during the Harlem Renaissance. The naïve style presents the scene in its basic, most essential parts. Credit: Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.

The Nephilim, the product of the sons of god mingling with the daughters of Adam, the great Biblical giants, “the fallen ones,” the Rephaim, “the dead ones”—these descriptions are all applied to one group of characters found within the Hebrew Bible. Who are the Nephilim? From where do the “heroes of old, the men of renown” come?

Genesis 6:1–4 tells the readers that the Nephilim, which means “fallen ones” when translated into English, were the product of copulation between the divine beings (lit. sons of god) and human women (lit. daughters of Adam). The Nephilim are known as great warriors and Biblical giants (see Ezekiel 32:27 and Numbers 13:33).

It was once claimed that the mating of the sons of god and the daughters of Adam that resulted in the Nephilim caused the flood, and this caused the Nephilim to have a negative reputation. This was believed because the next verse (Genesis 6:5) is the introduction to the flood narrative and because their name means “fallen ones.” It is unlikely that this interpretation is correct because Genesis 6:4 presents nothing but praise for the Nephilim and no criticism is present. In addition, the name “fallen ones” is likely a reference to their divine paternity transforming—falling—into the human condition, albeit an almost superhuman condition.

In the free eBook Exploring Genesis: The Bible’s Ancient Traditions in Context, discover the cultural contexts for many of Israel’s earliest traditions. Explore Mesopotamian creation myths, Joseph’s relationship with Egyptian temple practices and three different takes on the location of Ur of the Chaldees, the birthplace of Abraham.

Genesis 6, Ezekiel 32, and Numbers 13 are the only passages that mention the Nephilim by that term. So where do the names Rephaim and “the dead ones” originate? The first thing to recognize is that these are not two separate titles, but rather a name, Rephaim, and a meaning, “dead ones.” The Bible refers to two groups as the Rephaim. The first are dead people who have achieved an almost divine status, similar to the concept of Saints. The second is a term that is applied to races of Biblical giants. It is this second usage that is often conflated with the Nephilim.

The Rephaim appear in Deuteronomy 2:11; 3:11; 2 Samuel 21:19 and Joshua 11:22 and almost always take the form of one member of the Rephaim (Anaqim, Og, Goliath) being in opposition with Israel or its representative. In this sense, the Rephaim live up to their name, as their purpose in each narrative is to die. The juxtaposition of the mighty Biblical giants defeated by the underdog, God’s chosen, is foreshadowed in the very name attributed to these characters.

ellen-whiteEllen White, Ph.D. (Hebrew Bible, University of St. Michael’s College), formerly the senior editor at the Biblical Archaeology Society, has taught at five universities across the U.S. and Canada and spent research leaves in Germany and Romania. She has also been actively involved in digs at various sites in Israel.


Further reading in the BAS Library:

Ronald S. Hendel, “When the Sons of God Cavorted with the Daughters of Men,” Bible Review, Summer 1987.

James C. VanderKam, “Enoch’s Vision of the Next World,” Bible Review, April 2003.

Ronald S. Hendel, “Biblical Views: Giants at Jericho,” Biblical Archaeology Review, March/April 2009.

Not a BAS Library member yet? Join the BAS Library today.

This Bible History Daily article was originally published on November 19, 2014.


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  • Phyllis says

    I’m glad I read your comments. I’m no scholar but I didn’t see or agree with where the writer was going.

  • Joanne says

    that was interesting thanks!

  • Dana says

    One would think having a Phd in the Hebrew Bible that the author would detail a more accurate description of the Nephilim. It’s disappointing, yet typical, that the author is not only defending the bad guys, but misleading those whom otherwise don’t know.
    To begin w, responsibility for the flood still to date lies w the “fallen ones”. The author leads you to believe there is a more current or correct theory, although there is not. Secondly, they *earned* their negative reputation by intentionally introducing man to lust, destruction and war. According to every ancient civilization on the planet (another huge clue who they were), they were known as a threat to all mankind. Again, the author suggests they unfairly got a bad rap, which is untrue and absurd. The word Nephilim derives from Naphal, which means “to fall”, as in “abandon.” The im simply is plural. The word giant stems from naphal as well and means “bully” or “tyrant.” Considering language originated from witnessing live events, it’s safe to say they were knowingly mean, which is a far cry from some unfair, underserved, misunderstood reputation that the devil would also have you believe about himself.
    Another incorrect interpretation the author wants you to believe is that the Nephilim received “nothing but praise” and “fallen” is to mean figuratively like falling in love. I don’t know what Bible this author read, but in my bible the words “mighty men” and “old men of renown” does NOT mean “praise”. Mighty means “strong,” which comes from the word gabar, which means to “conduct himself arrogantly” and old men of renown means “old; antiquity,” “adulteress; champion, counselor,” “defamed, memorial, report, repute”. Immediately after the Bible mentions the Nephilim, we’re told how God saw great wickedness of man and was grieved. Thereafter is the flood. W all that said, it’s a wonder how anyone, let alone a Hebrew Bible scholar and professor could misinterpret any of that.
    I’ll also add that in reading many of this article’s comments, there seems to be confusion on whom exactly the sons of god refers. Some insist it’s the fallen angels while others insist it’s man. The answer is…they’re both right depending upon the verse and context, but in this context, they are the fallen angels. We know this from Job 1:6 and 38:7. It’s also been asked how the angels could mate w women as we’re told angels neither mate nor marry, but it’s the angels *in Heaven* that neither mate nor marry, not the spiritually degraded ones that now roam the earth. More importantly, we’re told that angels can shapeshift. Hebrews 13:2 and Gen 19:4-5 says they’re so perfectly human looking that we won’t know the difference. So you see…there’s answers to everything. Just allow Scripture to explain Scripture.

    • Paula says

      Dana; Thank you for you in-depth comments. Very instructive. Thank you again.

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