When the spies that Joshua sent out to reconnoitre the land returned to camp, they came with bad news: “The people who live in the land are strong and the cities are fortified and very large; and moreover we saw the descendants of Anak there. We are not able to go up against the people, for they are too strong for us.” The spies were quite rattled: “There we also saw the Nephilim and we became like grasshoppers in our own sight, and so we were in their sight!” (Numbers 13:28f) The people were impressed, alarmed, and disheartened at this news. Giants in the land! “Would that we had died in Egypt!” they cried. They instantly re-thought the whole Promised Land project and were all for going back to Egypt. Granted that the spies’ report was rife with fear-driven hyperbole (“small as grasshoppers” by comparison? Really?), we may still ask: what about those giants?
The first question is: how big were the giants? Well, Goliath of Gath in the time of David was possibly six cubits and a span tall—i.e. about nine feet (1 Samuel 17:4). I say “possibly” six cubits tall because that was his height according to the Masoretic text. The Septuagint puts him at four cubits and a span—just over six feet tall. This might be the more accurate, since it is also the reading of the text of 4QSam found among the Dead Sea scrolls. This would not involve anything supernatural or weird (like the rock giants of the 2014 Noah movie). People significantly larger than the rest of the population would get a reputation as giants. A thirteenth century B.C. Egyptian papyrus refers to the Bedouin of Canaan “some of whom are of four cubits or five cubits from their nose to their foot, and have fierce faces” (quoted in the Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible, p. 489). Fierce people whose genes made them tall would leave their cultural mark far and wide.
And Canaan apparently had its share of them. The Israelites called them “the Anakim” (Numbers 13:33). A neighbouring clan were called the “Emim” (Deuteronomy 2:10-11). What seems to have been their parent clan was called the “Rephaim”, and they were also around (Deuteronomy 2:11, 3:11, Joshua 12:4). Given that the term “rephaim” was later used to describe anyone who had died and was in Sheol (the word for such rephaim is usually translated “shades” in Psalm 88:10; Isaiah 14:9, 26:14, 19; Proverbs 2:18), one commentator thinks the term here means “the defunct ones” (Craigie in his NICNT commentary on Deuteronomy, p. 111), meaning that the clan was then dying out. But the Anakim were not then dying out, and their presence in Canaan made a lasting impression on the spies. They described them as “Nephilim”.
So then who were the Nephilim that made such an impression on the spies that they used this term to describe the present occupants of Canaan? The word comes from the Hebrew naphal, to fall. They are briefly mentioned in Genesis 6: 1-4, probably as an illustration of just how bad things got before the Flood. The text reads as follows.
“When man began to multiply on the face of the earth and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that the daughters of man were attractive. And they took as their wives any they chose. Then the Lord said, ‘My spirit shall not abide in man forever, for he is flesh: his days shall be 120 years.’ (The Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward.) Whenever the sons of God came in to the daughters of man, they bore children to them. These were the warriors of old, men of renown.” The text has occasioned the spilling of much exegetical ink throughout the Church’s history. These few verses bristle with difficulty and have produced many questions.
First of all, who were “the sons of God” [Hebrew bene elohim]? The word is used elsewhere in the Old Testament to refer to the angels (Job 1:6; 38:7; Psalm 89:6). According to the obvious meaning of the text, the story here declares that angels found human women attractive, came down, and married them. (The Hebrew verb laqach, here rendered “took” is the usual word used for anyone taking a wife; no coercion is implied.) The children produced by this angelic-human marriages grew up to be warriors [Hebrew gibborim], men of renown. The text also says—parenthetically I suggest—that the Nephilim, giants, were also on the earth. The text does not say that the Nephilim were result of the angelic-human unions; that result is mentioned in the next sentence.
The word “Nephilim” is here used to denote giants—which is how it was translated by the Septuagint. The text says that such giants were on the earth in the days prior to the Flood “and also afterward”. It is clear, however, that the text cannot be understood as saying that the same race of Nephilim were on the earth afterwards, for nothing survived the Flood except Noah and his family (Genesis 7:22). Whatever Nephilim existed prior to the Flood were wiped out in the deluge. Therefore the term “Nephilim” must here generically denote gigantically tall people. But, we may still ask, what does the term “fallen ones” actually mean? If the sons of God were likened to stars in the sky, one commentator suggested that Nephilim denotes meteors, stars falling to the earth (thus Unger’s Bible Dictionary, p. 402).
It is important to situate these verses in the culture of their time. No one then thought that angels or gods could not breed with human beings. This was morally disallowed, but not physiologically impossible. The pagan world knew of a number of beings who were the product of such unions, and who were half-human, half-divine. Such unions were not proper, it was felt, but they were possible. The Hebrews had a horror of mixing—which included a ban on wearing a garment of mixed cloth (Leviticus 19:19)—and the notion of angels mixing with women revealed that all moral order had been overthrown.
The Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible (p. 18) suggests that the Nephilim are to be identified with the apkallu, semi-divine beings who marry human women and produced mixed classes. If this is true, what we have here in Genesis is not history, but polemic. The author of Genesis takes the heroes of the pagan world and paints them as the villains. The picture of giants prowling the earth and of angels mixing with women is intended as a statement that the culture of the pagans of their day was as bad as the sin which provoked the Flood.
Much later these few verses formed the basis of the mythological backstory contained in such inter-testamental pseudepigrapha as the Book of Enoch and Jubilees—a kind of “Nephilim: the Prequel”. It takes the story (one may say, “rips the story”) from its original polemical context and uses it in the service of a raging nationalistic apocalypticism. It was heady and exciting stuff (like an early Dan Brown), even though it had little actual basis in the Biblical narrative.
It is also dramatically weird, and at times feels like a kind of Jewish Gnosticism, as if Valentinus had gotten himself circumcised and kept on writing. In particular the Book of the Courses of the Heavenly Luminaries (chapters72-82) is full of astrological esoterica. It details all the secret paths of the sun, the moon, and the stars, and the angels who rule over them and therefore over mankind, and includes convoluted calendrical calculations. Like other bits of Enoch, it also details the names of the sun and the various angels, as if knowing and reciting their names gave one a kind of magic power. Thus we learn of the names of the sun: Orjares, Tomas; and of the moon: Asonja, Ebla, Benase, Erae. We learn the names of the angelic leaders who divide the four parts of the year: Milki’el, Hel’emmelek, Mel’ejal, Narel, and of those who lead them: Adnar’el, Ijasusa’el, Elome’el. It is to angels that God has subjected everyone and who have the power over night and day and over all created forces.
It sure is exciting, and has absolutely nothing to do with apostolic Christianity, since the angels seemed to have effectively elbowed God out of the way. St. Paul warned the Colossians about a Jewish Gnosticism with its worship of angels (Colossians 2:18), and he warned Timothy and Titus to avoid “Jewish myths” (1 Timothy 1:4; Titus 1:14). One suspects that he was thinking of stuff like this.
Oblique and passing references to such pseudepigraphal material found their way into the New Testament (e.g. 2 Peter 2:4; Jude 6), but only as literary examples of sin and punishment (along with Noah’s flood and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah). Such references do not constitute endorsement of the lurid apocalyptic mythology of Enoch or Jubilees any more than the reference to Michael arguing with Satan in Jude 9 constitutes a theological endorsement of the Assumption of Moses in which that story is found. The references are therefore more literary than theological, and simply illustrate that the apostles were happy to draw from many sources to promote their central Gospel message. They kept the notion that all sin will be punished (and therefore should be avoided); they took a pass on the lurid mythological backstory.
Fast forward to the later exegetes of the Church. Early Fathers like Justin Martyr (in his Second Apology), and Irenaeus (in his Apostolic Preaching) accepted the Genesis story at literal face value. But eventually the Fathers began asking what to us is the obvious question, “How can a bodiless power like an angel have sex with a woman so that she conceives?”—especially since it was understood that angels do not marry (i.e. are not sexual beings; see Matthew 22:30). As St. John of Damascus wrote, “They [the angels] are above us for they are incorporeal, and are free of all bodily passion” (Exact Exposition, Book 2, chapter 3). By this time, the Church’s theological sophistication had grown, so that the idea of angels being sexually attracted to human women, settling down with them in marriage, and having babies made no sense.
But the idea of situating the early Genesis stories in the culture of their day and viewing them as a polemic against pagan mythology was not yet on the exegetical table. So it was that thoughtful commentators like St. Augustine cast about for other explanations. One was that the phrase “sons of God” meant not the angels, but the godly line of Seth. This eventually became the standard interpretation of the Church, given the fact that Genesis cannot be discarded by the Church and that angels cannot impregnate women.
So, what is the lasting significance for Christians today of the Nephilim and the other giants? Theologically and exegetically, precisely nothing. The spies found clans of immensely tall and fierce Canaanites in the land and took fright. Joshua and others were not daunted, but successfully waged war against them along with the other inhabitants of Canaan and drove them out so that Israel might settle in their places. Those giants, though tall and scary, were no different than other Canaanites of their day, and anyway, they are all gone now.
But if the giants have nothing to say to us theologically, they have plenty to say allegorically. The spies feared the Anakim because they did not trust God enough. We also face giants in our day—giants of disease, pandemic, poverty, war, suffering, sin, and death—and we also are tempted to quake and quail before them as the spies did when faced with their own giants. The answer, for them and for us, is trust in God. The spies may have trembled before reports of new Nephilim in Canaan, but Caleb did not: “We should by all means go up and take possession of the land, for we shall surely overcome” (Numbers 13:30). Caleb was right. With God going before us, we have nothing to fear. The giants we face cannot frighten us, or cause us to return to Egypt. With God we have the victory. We are marching on into the Promised Land.