Who Are the Nephilim?

The mysterious beings of Genesis 6

This Bible History Daily article was originally published in 2014.—Ed.


 
david-and-goliath-johnson

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 descendent 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 naive 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.
 


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


 
ellen-whiteEllen White, Ph.D. (Hebrew Bible, University of St. Michael’s College), is the senior editor at the Biblical Archaeology Society. She 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.
 


 

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  • Agape says

    I have a subscription to your magazine. I subscribed with the hopes of using it as supplemental material for homeschooling. I’ll make sure the homeschool coops do not distribute this crap. These are
    incredible topics that could be researched well and executed on a much higher level. I have to say I’m very shocked with the quality of your “research”. Not just this article, but several others by different writers too. your presumption isn’t based in Semitic writing, but rather assumed modern thinking.
    For other readers please refer to 2 Sam 21, Jude 1:6-7, 2 Peter 2:4. Yes, it’s even mentioned in the NT.
    This article is just another painful reminder at the dumbing down of America. Seems like this was pulled out of your ass in 10 minutes to meet a deadline. And by someone who holds a doctorate.
    I’m tired of this crap. It’s time for Christians to rise up and expose apostate teaching, the occult, and false teachings! Please read through Matthew 7 and listen to Jesus’ Word on the last days! Wolves in sheeps clothing.

  • Agape says

    Re: “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.”

    Genesis 6:1 WHEN MEN began to multiply on the face of the land and daughters were born to them, The sons of God (Elohim) saw that the daughters of men were fair, and they took wives of all they desired and chose. Then the lord said, “My Spirit will not put up with humans for such a long time, for they are only mortal flesh. In the future, their normal lifespan will be no more than 120 years.” In those days, and for some time after, giant Nephilites lived on the earth, for whenever the sons of God (Elohim) had intercourse with women, they gave birth to children who became the heroes and famous warriors of ancient times. The lord observed the extent of human wickedness on the earth, and he saw that everything they thought or imagined was consistently and totally evil. So the lord was sorry he had ever made them and put them on the earth. It broke his heart. And the lord said, “I will wipe this human race I have created from the face of the earth. Yes, and I will destroy every living thing—all the people, the large animals, the small animals that scurry along the ground, and even the birds of the sky. I am sorry I ever made them.”

  • Donna says

    The bible confuses me because so much of it is brief and vague. Do we believe everything in it or not? Some believe every word of the bible. Maybe we should pick and choose by what seems appropriate? What is true and what is not?

    • Dave says

      we already do pick and choose. Humanity is good at dividing information and affixing portions of them to other portion to fit a theory. On all sides of course.

  • Dave says

    No one knows ‘truly’ WHAT WENT ON BACK THEN. Claiming so based on a few brief and vague descript sentences is an infringement on any possible truth. Truth and the pursuit of it should not be embellished to serve ones own personal views or that of any organization. It is stated as a physical event and not of any spiritual agenda.

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