In recent times, the rediscovery of the original ancient context of Genesis 6:1-4 has led to a fascination with the subject of the ‘Nephilim’, who are here said to be produced through sexual immorality involving angelic beings and human women. In some quarters, this has been developed into full-fledged conspiracy theories regarding these ‘Nephilim’ still existing in our world today. Those fascinated by crypto-archaeology produce doctored photos of what they hold to be gigantic human skeletons, the remains of these people. This near obsession has exploded as a counter to a re-reading of the Genesis and later texts, begun by St. Augustine, which reads these texts in a de-mythologized way, seeing all involved parties as human. The interpretation of these few verses in Genesis leading into the flood of Noah seems to be primarily a subject of literary curiosity. Understanding this text, and the traditions which lie behind this text, however, is critical to understanding later narratives within the Torah, the entire arc of the book of Joshua and his conquest, and even the early history of monarchic Israel in the books of Samuel.
The word ‘Nephilim’, sometimes left untranslated in English translations of 6:4, does indeed refer to ‘giants’. Some have sought its origin in the Hebrew word ‘naphal’, arguing for a translation of ‘fallen ones’, connected to the fall of the angelic beings involved. The verb, however, would be the wrong conjugation, and be something closer to ‘those fallen upon’. Some have advanced that translation, arguing that it is referring to the fact that the descendants of these being were attacked and slain by Israel. All of this is seen to be special pleading, however, in light of the fact that the Aramaic word ‘nephilin’ means ‘giants’. This is certainly the understanding taken by the Septuagint translators, who render the word ‘gigantes’. Like the English word ‘giant’ this is often a reference to physical size, but it is important to note that it can also be used to describe a tyrant, or what we in modern times would call a bully or a thug. It includes both size and demeanor. By placing this word in parallel in the text with a reference to the ‘gibborim’, the mighty men, the heroes, the men of great renown, Genesis 6 recasts these figures from ancient traditions in the Near East as something darker, more wicked, and more brutal.
Later Second Temple Jewish literature such as 1 Enoch and the Book of the Giants discovered among the Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran preserve the ancient Babylonian traditions which formed the background for the genealogies and narratives of Genesis 4-6. In Babylonian tradition, there were a group of seven gods called the ‘apkallu’. In king lists tracing the succession of their dynasties, the six kings who reigned before the flood are listed with the name of the ‘apkallu’ who served as his advisor. These gods were considered by the Mesopotamians to have communicated various advances of technology, art, and culture to humanity through these kings, which is what enabled them to rule. It is not coincidence that these are the same advances described in the genealogy of Cain in Genesis 4:17-24. The first post-flood king likewise has an apkallu listed as his advisor, and then the following kings, such as the hero Gilgamesh, are said to be ‘2/3 apkallu’, or the product of divine and human coupling. The Sumerian King List which lists Gilgamesh among the kings of Uruk identifies him as being ‘the son of a spirit’ or ‘ghost’. The Book of the Giants from the Dead Sea Scrolls identifies Gilgamesh as one of the Nephilim. Genesis can therefore be seen to be interpreting what was, for its original hearers, the historical record of gods and kings through a very different theological lens. Similar elements are found in cultures throughout the ancient world, including for example the Greek story of the ‘Gigantomachy’, or war with the giants, and the stories of heroes like Herakles or Achilles with divine and human parents.
The perspective, then, of the Biblical writers, as well as later Jewish and Christian interpreters, is that these so called ‘gods’ were in fact demonic spirits (Deut 32:16-17), the wisdom which they taught was actually depravity and corruption, and that these heroes were petty tyrants produced by demonic fornication. As Genesis 6 communicates, these ‘giants’ were present on the earth not only in the time of the flood of Noah, but also after (Gen 6:4). They will continue to appear in the early history of Israel as recounted in the latter part of the Torah, the book of Joshua, and Samuel in the form of multiple tribes. Just as at the time of the flood, these demonically wicked ‘heroes’ of the nations are under God’s judgment, and it is Israel which will serve as the means by which that judgment is brought to bear. Israel will expressly be sent by God to annihilate the giants, and only the giants, as a distinction will be made between these, and Canaanite foreigners per se.
Likely the most famous of these giants in Israel’s early history is Og, the king of Bashan. The narrative of the defeat of Og is decidedly spare, representing only five verses in Numbers 21:31-35, and retold in eleven verses in Deuteronomy 3:1-11. Much of the latter is a description of the land, rather than of Og or the battle. Og is identified as a giant in Deuteronomy 3:11, in which his gigantic iron bed is described. It is not merely the size of the bed suggesting Og to be a giant, but the fact that this bed exactly matches the dimensions and description of a ritual bed found in excavations of the ziggurat at Etemenanki, which was used for pagan sexual rituals. Og is therefore here depicted as the product of demonic fornication. Like his neighboring king, Sihon, Og is not given a chance to allow Israel to pass, nor is the result of war with Israel merely the loss of land. Rather Og and his people are completely eradicated from the land due to his origins. Despite the brevity of the description of his defeat, the defeat of Og is treated later in the Old Testament as being a particularly spectacular moment of triumph in the history of Israel (cf. Psalms 135 and 136, sung as the polyeleos in the Orthodox Church, and Amos 2:9). We are told (Deut 3:11) in tandem with the reference to his bed, and his demonic origin, that Og is the last of the ‘Rephaim’. Bashan, the territory over which Og ruled, now in the Golan Heights, is the site of many megalithic tombs which were hundreds, and in some cases thousands of years old by the time the Israelites would have encountered Og. ‘Rephaim’ seems to be derived from a Ugaritic root, ‘rph’, which refers to ancient (dead) kings in several funerary and religious texts. Og is therefore presented not only as a giant, but as the last of a race of these kings who are extinguished once Og and all of his sons are slain.
Though the ‘Rephaim’ as a line of kings meet their end with Og, this is not the last time that they are seen in the scriptures. In Isaiah 14:9, as Babylon’s destruction is prophesied, it is said that as they sink down to Sheol, the realm of the dead, the ‘Rephaim’ rise up to meet them. In Isaiah 26:14, the false gods who Judah sinned in worshipping in the past are now ‘Rephaim’ in the grave. In Psalm 88:10, the Psalmist questions whether God works wonders for the dead, and whether the ‘Rephaim’ rise up to praise him? This is paralleled in verse 11 placing the ‘Rephaim’ in the place of destruction. In many other passages, the ‘Rephaim’ are described as the denizens of Sheol or Hades (cf. Proverbs 2:18, 9:18, 21:16, Job 26:5-6). To go to dwell among them is not merely to share their fate, but being among them is a threat in and of itself. This understanding generated in Second Temple Judaism the idea that many if not most of the demonic beings encountered, for example, possessing individuals are in fact the spirits of these ancient kings, dead Nephilim (cf. 1 Enoch 15:8-12).
The other major Biblical ‘tribe’ of giants is the ‘Anakim’, sometimes called the ‘Sons of Anak’ in English translations. In Arabic traditions, Og himself is referred to as ‘Uj ibn-Anaq’. In Numbers 13, 12 spies are sent to scout out the land as the people of Israel draw near to Canaan. The spies return and report that they have seen the ‘Anakim’ in the land, in the south, near Hebron, and that the ‘Anakim’ are Nephilim (Num 13:22, 28, 33). This news causes most of the spies, and the majority of the people, to refuse to enter the land for fear of the ‘Anakim’. This rebellion is punished by forty years wandering in the wilderness. Deuteronomy identifies the ‘Anakim’ as related to the ‘Rephaim’, and with a third group of giants whom the Moabites referred to as the ‘Emim’, or ‘feared ones’ (Deut 2:10-11). Throughout the narratives of the conquest beginning in Numbers and Deuteronomy and continuing in Joshua, it has been noted that in some cities and locations, God commands complete and total destruction of the residents, and in others, the people in the land are merely dispossessed and their land given by God to Israel. A careful reading of the text reveals that those places where total destruction is mandated are the places in which the ‘Anakim’ dwell, while those where ‘Anakim’ have not been cited are spared total annihilation. This is made especially clear by the summary of Joshua’s conquest in Joshua 11, which culminates with the statement that the mission has been accomplished because Joshua had cut off all the ‘Anakim’ from the land and had devoted their cities to destruction (v. 21). We are told in verse 22 that the only ‘Anakim’ who survived judgment at the hands of Israel had done so by fleeing to three Philistine cities, Gaza, Gath, and Ashdod. Goliath, the giant slain by the Prophet David, came to oppose Israel from Gath (1 Sam 17), marking him out as one of these surviving ‘Anakim’. David, as king of Israel, completed the task of the conquest and unification of the land, conquering the city which would become Jerusalem, for example. One of these tasks which fell to David and his military lieutenants was the final eradication of the giants who had escaped to the Philistine lands. These battles are described, with details concerning the size and power of these giants, in 2 Samuel 21:15-22.
The text of Numbers, Deuteronomy, and Joshua do not describe a ‘holy war’ or genocide directed at a particular ethnicity of human beings, but of a war waged by the worshippers of Yahweh, the God of Israel, against his spiritual enemies, demonic powers that had come to dominate the region of Canaan and the Transjordan. It is important to remember, as we read these texts as modern people, that ancient peoples did not have a concept of a secular space. People, places, and even objects were not spiritually neutral. People, places, and objects either existed within a sphere which had been consecrated to Yahweh, the God of Israel, or they existed outside of that space, under the control of dark spiritual powers. At Christ’s ascension into heaven and enthronement, Christ’s kingdom is established in the heavens, and breaks in to expand upon the earth (hence the Lord’s Prayer). The Church by her ministry brings people, territory, and the things of this world into the kingdom, purifying and restoring them, through her many blessings of people, places, and objects. Outside of the Church, however, ancient people made no distinction between a person with great material and spiritual power, such as a king or Caesar, and the spiritual powers which Jew, Christian, and pagan alike all understood to stand behind and empower that person. The pagan considered these spirits, such as the genius of the emperor, gods to be worshipped. Jews and Christians considered them to be demons, in continuity with the ancient kings described in scripture. It is for this reason that St. Paul can say that, “our struggle is not with blood and flesh, but with the rulers, with the powers, with the cosmic powers of the darkness of this age, with the evil spirits in the heavens” (Eph 6:12).