There were giants in the earth in those days?

The Nephilim were in the earth in those days, and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bore children to them; the same were the mighty men that were of old, the men of renown.(Genesis 6: 4)

Who Were the Nephilim?; a study of Biblical cosmology

The meaning of the Hebrew word Nephilim has long been a point of debate amongst Biblical scholars. Although often seen as fallen angels, giants, or even alien invaders, the Nephilim are more likely to be identified as despotic rulers of antiquity who take the place of a missing cosmological generation in the Bible. There was one ancient theory that they were angels cast out of Heaven and yet another that they were the mortal sons of Seth (the third son of Adam), who had taken to an evil path. The facts may lead to the conclusion that they were both.

fallenangel

Fallen Angel by Alexandre Cabane

In the classic Hebrew rabbinical interpretation the Nephilim were the tyrannical rulers of the ancient world whose evil deeds provoked God to cause the Great Flood.i After an enlightened start on the path to civilization, these men, the sons of Seth, followed in the sinful steps of great uncle Cain until such a time that only Noah and his family were left as righteous people.ii Built upon this tradition are a number of divergent ones. This includes modern speculation of extraterrestrial involvement or identification of the Nephilim as a race of giants. The alien theory however is actually nothing less than a scientific version of the angel theory and the giant theory hinges on the word’s confusing etymology, so the real investigation is within the ancient sources.

Nephilim In Context

To further understand the Nephilim it is necessary to place them in context within the Biblical narrative. They are mentioned only twice in the Bible, the first time during a recollection of the events that preceded the Great Flood.

The Nephilim were in the earth in those days, and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bore children to them; the same were the mighty men that were of old, the men of renown.(Genesis 6: 4)

The second time they are mentioned is in a report given by some spies whom Moses had sent into Canaan to get the lay of the land.

And there we saw the Nephilim, the sons of Anak, who come of the Nephilim; and we were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so we were in their sight. (Numbers 13:33)

Secondary Sources

The original vague account of the Nephilim in Genesis 6:4 can reasonably be dated to around the 6th century BCE. It appears that within a few centuries of the writing of Genesis a more detailed account of Nephilim mythology developed. In a number of Jewish texts, such as the Book of Enoch, the Nephilim are outcast members of Heaven’s angelic host who willingly followed their leader in defiance of God.iii

The interpretation of the Nephilim as supernatural beings developed from late antiquity into the Early Middle Ages with the Talmudic text Targum Pseudo-Jonathan. The Targum Pseudo-Jonathan, like the Book of Enoch, identifies the Nephilim as being supernatural creatures of angelic origin.iv This account is hard to date but can be reasonably placed between the 8th and 14th Centuries CE and was likely a key influence on Christian Medieval writings that speculate on either the angelic or demonic persona of the Nephilim.

Much of the inherent confusion over the Nephilim appears to arise from the translation of the word itself between Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Aramaic and now into modern languages. A common etymological definition of Nephilim is “fallen ones” apparently indicating they had fallen out of the sky/Heaven and/or perhaps having lost a divine status. The confusion over the nature of the Nephilim is in part related to the construction of the word itself. The Hebrew word nephyl, which is transcribed as Nephilim, is defined, according to the Talmudic tradition, as a feller, bully or tyrant. The root verb is nphal, to fall, perish, be overthrown etc. Hence a Nephilim is a feller, more properly understood as “one who causes others to fall” rather than as a “fallen one”.v

This confusion over this translation is compounded by the interchange between the terms Nephilim and Anakim which are etymologically unrelated apart from the one association in the Biblical Book of Numbers. However some scholarly traditions readily translate both terms to mean “giant.”

Anak was a warlord known to the Israelites as they made their way into Canaan. He was said to be unusually tall as were his warriors. According to the reports the spies were very intimidated by what they saw. However based on this account there is no reason to suppose that Anak and his sons were anything other than physically imposing warriors fitting the description of the tyrants in the classic tradition.

Yet this identification of the sons of Anak, the Anakim, with the Nephilim led some ancient Jewish writers who were following the Torah Chronology, such as the authors of the Book of Enoch, to speculate on how a portion of the Nephilim had survived the Deluge. Part of this explanation was that the only way they could have survived the world destroying flood was if they were at least in part divine.

Further complicating the story, the Jewish scholars in Egypt who had written the Septuagint, the 2nd century BCE Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, had used the Greek word gigantes in translation for Nephilim. These “giants” are the sons of the primal gods and indeed like the Nephilim they were very threatening to ordinary men. However there is not much in the sources on the gigantes of Greek Myth. Hesiod describes them as being megálos, meaning “great in size” but they are not endowed with the supernatural characteristics of their cousins the Titans.vi

Dionysus fights a giant. From the Louvre collection.

Dionysus fights a giant. From the Louvre collection.

Josephus, in his 1st century work, Jewish Antiquities compares the exploits of the Nephilim to the giants of Olympian mythology, both being fearsome warriors. He writes, “For the tradition is, that these men did what resembled the acts of those whom the Grecians call giants.” vii This reference in Antiquities entrenched the Nephilim/supernatural-giant connection. Subsequent centuries of scholars would turn Josephus’s comparison between the men who were the Nephilim and mythological giants into an equation.

Sons of God

In both Biblical passages the Nephilim could easily be seen as the traditional tyrants and usurpers but the reference to the sons of God has caused some difficulty, seeming to imply a divine lineage present on earth.

The term for son in the Hebrew is ben, which can indicate a variety of relationships from actual family ties to affiliation with a group or nation.viii In this case, sons of God, sometimes interpreted as “angels” is then, benei haelohim.ix The word for God is Elohim which refers to the Bronze Age Canaanite pantheon of deities fathered by the chief deity El. However in the Biblical context the word does not necessarily denote that a pantheon of gods was worshiped by the Hebrews. Yet the fact that most Judaic angelic names contain the suffix “el” makes the connection clear.

It should be noted that the word used throughout the Hebrew Bible for angel is mal’ak, meaning “messenger [of God].” The translation of benei haelohim into angel is unique to Genesis 6:4 and is confined to extra-Biblical sources. Out of all the modern English translations of the Bible only the International Standard Version uses the term “divine beings” instead of “sons of God.” In the Vulgate, the Latin Bible, the term used is filii Dei, also meaning “son of God”

    Mythological Context

By the time of Josephus much of the mythology of the Western World was seen from a Greek perspective. There was parity given between gods such as Zeus (son of Cronos), Jupiter (son of Saturn) Baal Haddad (son of El), Ammun-Ra (son of Nu) and Marduk (son of Ea). Yahweh, the patron deity of the Jerusalem region from middle of the 2nd millennium BCE, entered the scene as another son of El and in Canaan he contested the ascendency of Baal Haddad.                                          

In ancient Near Eastern myths  these gods were part of a series of cosmological generations which in the distant past had taken a part in the chaos from which the world emerged thanks to the order implemented by the creator god. In each of these mythos there are creatures which contemporary storytelling cannot help but equate with the giants of Western folklore. One such primal monster from the Hurrian Mythos, with whom the gods were forced to contend, was Ullikummi, who is described as a living mountain. In the Enuma Elish, Tiamat assembles a host of monsters that threatens the gods themselves. In this context it is easy to see the tales in the Book of Enoch, of rebellious angelic hosts in conflict with the forces of Heaven, falling neatly in line with Near Eastern cosmological mythology.

Marduk battles Tiamat and her minions.                 From a Neo-Assyrian cylinder seal.

Marduk battles Tiamat and her minions. From a Neo-Assyrian cylinder seal.

However as ancient Hebrew mythology transformed itself into modern Judaic lore the focus on the imperative of generational struggles between hero-gods and these primal deities was all but removed from the lexicons. Hence the Book of Enoch’s label as Pseudepigrapha, indicating a Judeo-Christian text was excluded from the Bible.

By the Post Exilic Period, during the 5th century BCE, the emphasis was on Yahweh as a stand-alone deity who shaped the world in perfection and without any supernatural by blows. Manifest evil was thought to have developed when Adam and Eve gave into temptations in the Garden of Eden. Evil was not as the result of the gods fighting each other or manipulating mortals into violence as in other mythos.

Thus the cosmological generational dynamic to which Hesiod devotes much of his Theogony is relegated to only one sentence in the Bible and the Nephilim are inserted as a mere mythological place holder. Although the ancient Jews may have had real world tyrants in mind when they used the word Nephilim, they nevertheless painted them as players, albeit minor ones, in the Biblical cosmology. This should not necessarily be seen as an acknowledging the legitimacy of other gods or demi-gods by the Hebrews, but rather as an obligatory part of the storytelling process which is revealed throughout antiquity in such places as the Prologue of Greek theater.

Divine Kingship

Although the ancient Hebrews choose to exclude Yahweh from the polytheistic conflicts that had defined the cosmologies of most ancient myths they were no doubt aware of the polytheistic world in which they lived. Hence the Hebrews made it a point to call out by name “false” gods such as Baal. The cults of Yahweh’s rivals were a real threat to the goal of Hebrew cultural preservation which was likely a prime motivator for the writers of Genesis. Indeed it may well be that it is these cultists, and not the divine generations themselves, that are being referenced with the term benei haelohim.

Considering this the sons of God may be understood as followers of the old cults which were forbidden by the Jewish covenant with Yahweh. According to the ancient Judaic traditions, related by Josephus, the sons of God are indeed the descendents of the old aristocratic families, the Sons of Seth, who had ruled in the Ancient Near East for centuries. The connection between ancient ruling families and their gods often goes back to a mythical ancestor of divine status, such as Venus in the case of Rome’s Julian dynasty.

 Therefore the relationship between the Nephilim and the forbidden gods can also be understood in the context of the history of divine kingship. Many ancient monarchs stylized themselves as the servants of gods, sons of gods or even divine kings going back to the very dawn of civilization. All of this was anathema to the Post Exilic Jews.

 In fact one potent nemesis of the Jewish people, Nebuchadnezzar, the King of Babylon, kept this tradition alive with his name which means “[the god]Nebo has protected the succession-rights.” It is even reasonable to suggest that some of the writers of Genesis were contemporaries of Nebuchadnezzar and had him or his relations in mind as they wrote their cosmology. Bronze Age and Iron Age despots had often violently imposed their “divine” will upon their subjects, and more than once the Jews themselves had fallen victim to this violence, hence the condemnation of the Nephilim by the writers of Genesis.

 In an interesting twist of history as the Hebrew Bible grew into the Christian Bible it did finally succumb to the mythological imperative of the progression of divine generations. Which is why the “Old Testament” is now customarily appended by the “New.” In fact the New Testament embraces many of the notions of the ancient Hebrew Pseudepigrapha including the concept of legions of angels in opposition to legions of devils and demons. This mythological evolution allowed the Nephilim, incorrectly labeled as “fallen ones,” to assume a place in the Christian cosmology that was denied to them by the Judaic.

 

Sources

Flavius Josephus, Jewish Antiquities

 
Livingston, David, “Who Were the Sons of God in Genesis 6?”

 
Strong, James, (Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, Nelson, Nashville, 1990)

 
The Hebrew Bible in English

 
The Book of Enoch

Citations

i Strong, James, Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, Nashville, 1990 ref-5303, pg 95

ii Qumran fragment 4Q417

iii Charles, R.H., The Book of Enoch, chapter VI;3.

iv The Targums of Onkelos and Jonathan Ben Uzziel On the Pentateuch With The Fragments of the Jerusalem Targum From the Chaldee by J. W. Etheridge, M.A. 1862, chapter VI

v Girdlestone R. Old Testament Synonyms p. 54) (Origen’s Hexapla and Fragments: Papers Presented at the Rich Seminar on the Hexapla, Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies, [July] 25th-3rd August 1994. Mohr Siebeck. p. 190.) – Note: Mike Heiser in conjunction with Ancient Aliens debunked has done some work on the word Nephilim. While I have chosen to go with the classic Hebrew etymology of the word Nephilim based on Strong’s Concordance and other cited sources, Mr. Heiser has some compelling views of his own relating the word to an Aramaic root. 

vi Hesiod, The Theogony, translated by Hugh G. Evelyn-White, 1914, http://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/hesiod/theogony.htm

vii Josephus, Flavius, Jewish Antiquities, Chapter 3;1

viii Strong, ref-1121, pg 20

ix K. van der Toorn, Bob Becking, Pieter Willem van der Horst (eds), Dictionary of deities and demons in the Bible (revised 2nd edition, Brill, 1999) p. 274, 352-3