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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  • BAS says

    “The fallen ones” are in reference to the angels that were cursed to live on earth due to their rebellion. They are also referred to as the “dead”. These spirits although evil, are eternal as well. Because of the spiritual nature of these evil angels, a.k.a demons, most people that come in contact with them assume they are the dark souls of dead humans. This is not the case, but try to explain that to someone thousands of years ago.

    • Andrew says

      They are also known as familiar spirits. Though you are unaware of it, they can follow your movements and spirituals who are in touch with them can present their information as though it comes from a dead loving relative. In fact, it is coming from the enemies of God. I’d rather get my instruction and wisdom from God’s Word, wouldn’t you.
      2 Timothy 3:16
      All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness,

    • Zyla says

      Interesting to know that initiated freemasons are also called nephil ( fallen angels). The noos around neck at initiation ( gallow noose) represents death and they are then baptised into a coffin, making a covenant with death. See Isaiah 28, covenant with death which will be annulled. Antitype is the baptism in water( the symbol of His Word) bringing life!

      • A says

        Hello,

        Interesting. Might I ask for the source of masons being appelated as ‘nephil’ ?

        I only know of some links with the concept of “son of the widow”; but with Nephilim none.

        Thank you

  • Andrew says

    Noah has spent decades inviting people inside the ark to escape the coming wrath. The bible clearly says the nobody heeded his warnings. Everybody was happy to go about their lives.
    Matthew 24:38
    For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark;
    So this superhuman did not hitch a ride INSIDE the ark.
    For him to hitch a ride, it would suggest he must have somehow clung to it. Fair to say it would have been impossible to climb onto the ark and since God shut the door, it was impossible to open.
    So this superhuman clung to the side of the ark, partly treading water, partly white-knuckle holding on until the ark settled back on dry ground in 110 days. The ark was shaped like any normal boat hull, with smooth sides. It was going to encounter some rough weather!! Also, the outside was covered in tar to help seal it. So again, holding on was never going to be a long-term, life-saving venture.
    Today, we stand at the ramp of a new ark. An ark shaped like a cross. Jesus Christ himself is inviting you inside to escape the coming wrath. What will you do?
    Ignore Him and hope He shuts up?
    Eat, drink, be merry, marry, give in marriage? Although there isn’t anything innately wrong with these things, to ignore Jesus calling is to stand outside His ark and tell Him that you don’t believe Him.
    This is akin to walking off a cliff and saying,”I’m ok, I don’t believe in gravity.”
    Listen to Jesus.
    He loves you.
    He died for you.

    Except for this telling verse:
    Genesis 7:23
    Every living thing on the face of the earth was wiped out; people and animals and the creatures that move along the ground and the birds were wiped from the earth. Only Noah was left, and those with him in the ark.
    So, I guess know that the line of Nephilim was history at that point because the bible affirms it.

  • Steven says

    Can the Nephalim represent a vague ancient memory of the Neanderthals? Modern humans came into contact with them when venturing out of Africa about 50,000 BC. It is believed that the Neanderthals were a more robust version of the species Homo and thus may have appeared as Anakim/giants/superhumans. The Neanderthals were eventually wiped out at about 30,000 BC rendering them ‘dead ones’ essentially. Scientists now believe that humans today have a small amount of Neanderthal DNA showing that the two species mated several times during their co-existence. This has many of the elements of the Biblical story.

    • Ryan says

      1. Modern science is not science, it’s a pseudo-science. There isn’t a fragment on earth of anything that dates back more than 6,000 years. Don’t always believe what you are told. Research for yourself.
      2. Man did not migrate out of Africa (that’s pseudo-science). Man migrated out of Mesopotamia, Northern Iraq/Iran. The geology /geography shows and proves that Eden was located in this region. It was Darwin that invented that theory, because he hated Scripture.

    • Helen says

      Good observation, Steven. It bears witness to distant memories, much like Leviathan does elsewhere.

      If the Nephalim are a vestigial memory for the Hebrews, could they also be a vestigial memory for the Greeks when they speak of demigods like Hercules and Achilles? They represent a warrior breed of man. In the Greek case, they end tragically as does Goliath’s end.

      Pay no attn to Ryan’s fallacious argument. He does not understand the multiple means of dating objects not does he fully appreciate the Biblical narrative. He does, however, understand that the headwaters of the 4 rivers is not the same as their mouth 😀 The Garden would be located in far northern Mesopotamia/southern Anatolia.

  • Percival says

    I suggest that the author should also consult The article found in appendix #25-26 of the Companion Bible by the late Dr. E.W. Bullinger. The author has an interesting discussion of the word Nephilim.

  • Sarah says

    How could Goliath have descended from the Nephalim? Everyone alive at the time of the flood drowned, except Noah and his family. Unless they were also descendants of the Nephalim, these giants would have been become extinct.

    • Steven says

      The Midrash deals with this question. According to the Midrash Og, one of the Niphalim, hitched a ride on the ark by clinging to it from outside and thus survived the flood.

      • Laura says

        Only Noah, his wife, their 3 sons and their 3 wives survived the flood; maybe the fallen ones were up to their old tricks?

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