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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  • ben says

    Um…angels, fallen or not do not marry, or reproduce…. so…. its not a Greek mythology design of Gods coming down to have relations with mortal women. Its just men….

  • Bassett says

    what about the giant skeletons found in various parts of the world e.g. Scicily?

  • Bob says

    I agree with Blaze above. The ancient Hebrews, first millennium BCE, always connected these groups, Nephilim and Rephaim, as having similar origin and attributed evil to them. Modern scholarship constantly desires to distance the Nephilim from evil. Additionally, Hebrew thought directly attributes the Nephilim of Noah’s day as having a large role in the evil of the time.

  • John says

    The alleged meaning “fallen ones” is actually just an etymological guess based on the root n-p-l; one can imagine other suitable etymological meanings, so the derived guess that their divinity “fell” into humans is just second order guesswork. “Sons of God” in the Bible can refer to both humans (as God’s people, e.g. the Israelites post-exodus), or angels. There is no indication of any semi-divine status of the Nephilim of Canaan; if humans and fallen angels could interbreed the same would be true after the flood as well, no? So does the Bible indicate that those who appear as human beings around the world today might actually be children of demons? I don’t think so. Conversely, women who worship idols can be called “daughter[s] of a foreign god” as in Malachi. So the old explanation that this is simply describing intermarriage of believers with unbelievers actually makes sense. Why is it only mentioned one way (not daughters of God marrying sons of man?). May be because although both ways of intermarriage are forbidden, the disobedience of the males in practice seems to be the usual (from Samson to Ezra/Nehemiah). As for “the mighty men of old, men of renown,” perhaps an apologetic against the post-flood deification of pre-flood heroes (it has been suggested e.g. that Vulcan is a deified Tubal-Cain); the point is that they were just men, even if heroes to that wicked generation. Similarly after the flood it is pointed out that nimrod was known as “a mighty hunter before the Lrod” (it has been suggested that Nimrod is the man who was promoted to deity as Marduk, who began his career as a minor deity and eventually was promoted to ruler of the Babylonian pantheon – when he was just a mere mortal he was known as “a mighty hunter before the Lord,” the one true God who does not change.

    • Joseph says

      John, that theory has been disproven time and again. It’s only a segment of church leaders who keep insisting on the Sethite theory despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Please see Dr. Michael S. Heiser’s book Supernatural for an entry-level course into the truth about the nephilim and rephaim.

      • John says

        I don’t subscribe to “the Sethite theory” – no reason to assume the children of God are confined to the line of Seth, nor do I assume the majority is bound to be correct. Heiser’s views are a bit wacky.

  • Blaze says

    The article started right. Sons of God are fallen angels. Scripture says that they mated with human women thus creating a demonized race of giants. Then the writer mistakenly interprets scripture to suit her rhetoric. #SOLOSCRIPTURA

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