Who Are the Nephilim?

The mysterious beings of Genesis 6

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 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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  • Ranko says

    the bible is full of disgusting violence, misogyny and genocide and religion has been used for centuries to excuse human evils. This particular story was always sickening because it blatantly demonstrates that God’s so-called “holy” angels were nothing more than psychopathic rapists (lets just be real, even if this little fairy tale did happen its doubtful it was romantic, sexy or even consensual between the rapist fallen angels and their human victims). But (of course) no one cared about the lives of the innocent women, only about peddling their religion and waging war against those who (rightfully) opposed it. Religion is for ignorant people and sociopaths. Treating human beings with genuine love, respect and empathy is what matters…not following the words of violent “gods” that never existed.

  • Ewakodanz says

    son of God here refers to men and not angels. How can you say that they are. Did God ever say to angels you are my son? Heb 1:5. Angels don’t have sex as Jesus said in Mark 12:25.

    • John says

      It says the angels in heaven don’t have sex, the sons of god are fallen angels and wouldn’t reside in heaven

  • Ja'shua says

    Thank you for your research and time in this matter. I want to add that Rephaim refers to those departed spirits who were the product of Nephilim and seed of men.

    Because they were part spirit they couldn’t die but because of their earthly origin they are spirits ot the earth looking to inflict harm,deceive, or empower the sons and daughters of Adam. This is found in 1st book of Enoch(Ethiopic) and the very demons The Christ was rebuking out of people.

    Shalom Family in Messiah

  • Matthew says

    I take issue with the author of this article when she states the Nephilim were not likely the reason for the flood. While I am sure the reasons were many, it is difficult to see how the existence of half angel, half human beings would have been anything but an abomination in the eyes of God. Wiping them from the earth would have certainly been a consideration.

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