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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  • Bob says

    it is all just fantasy

  • John says

    They are the Annunaki.

  • Amber says

    Looking at the context during this time, it is clearly talking about the lineage of Seth (sons of God) finding the daughters of the lineage of Cain (the fallen which is the translation of Nephilim) beautiful and intermarrying thus spreading sin to Seth’s lineage.

  • Michael says

    This is the word spelled הַנֹּפְלִים in that verse. The English to Hebrew translator says this is the word for giants ענקים
    The Nephilim were the heroes of old, men of renown. The people of the world were in a state of moral decay, and had fallen spiritually.

    The word nephilim is not a name title, and it should have been translated as the “fallen ones.” It is referring to those who have fallen spiritually and are in moral decline.

    The term “sons of God” is used in the bible to refer to the Elect.

  • George says

    This is a sadly narrow understanding of the Nephilim. One needs to understand that these half gods are the foundation of the Sumerian, Babylonian, Persian and Assyrian religion. Their creation story shows that the Nephilim were that actual creators of “The race of dark haired men.”
    We don’t get to know where the blonds came from but it seems that these yellow haired folk were known to the ancients. Educated guess. Both populations may well have lived in the plane around the ancient fresh water lake that became the bottom of the Black Sea. Such an understanding places everyone in the right place to make Noah’s story work perfectly. It also builds out the linkage for the other Mesopotamian peoples; non-Semite Sumerians.

    Using this basis, we also see that the calendar for all of the civilizations clicks together. The flood works, the mountains of Ararat work, the Assyrian and Sumerian stories link together. It is a good thing.

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