Rereading Genesis 6:4: Were They Really Giants?

Translating the Bible from Hebrew into English is not easy. Translators face the challenge of translating from Hebrew words and expressions that may not be similar to words and expressions in English. In addition, there are verses in the Bible where the meaning of words is known, but translators do not know what the original writer was trying to communicate. Genesis 6:4 is one of those enigmatic verses that is hard to translate because translators do not understand the original intent of the writer of the biblical text.

The King James Version (KJV) translates Genesis 6:4 as follows: “There were giants in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare children to them, the same became mighty men which were of old, men of renown.”

The word translated “giant” in the KJV is based on the Septuagint, the translation of the Old Testament into Greek. This translation is followed by the Darby Bible, the Douay-Rheims American Edition, the Geneva Bible, the New King James Version, the New Living Translation, and the Revised Webster Bible.

The English Standard Version (ESV) translates: “The Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of man and they bore children to them. These were the mighty men who were of old, the men of renown.”

The ESV leaves the Hebrew word Nephilim untranslated. This procedure has been adopted by most modern translations, including the American Standard Version, the Jewish Publication Society version, the New American Bible, the New American Standard Bible, the New International Version (NIV), the New Jerusalem Bible, the New Revised Standard Bible, and the JPS Tanak.

The KJV uses the word “giant” to translate the word “Nephilim” in Genesis 6:4 and in Numbers 13:33. In addition, the KJV uses the word “giants” several other times, but most of them to translate the word “warrior” (Job 16:14 ESV) or the word “Rephaites” (Deuteronomy 2:11, 20 NIV) or “Rapha” (2 Samuel 21:22 NIV). The Rephaim were another group of tall people who inhabited the land of Canaan before the time of the Exodus (Genesis 15:20). Rephaim is a plural word in Hebrew. The New International Version uses Rephaites to express the plural sense in English.

There were several groups of people who were called giants in the Old Testament. One of them was the Anakim. The Anakim were associated with the southern part of Canaan, especially the city of Hebron. They were a tall group of people who lived in Canaan (Deuteronomy 2:21). The word anak in Hebrew means “long-neck” or giants. The Anakim were not the only group of tall people who lived in the land of Canaan.

The Rephaim, whom the Ammonites called Zamzummites, lived in the territory of the Ammonites and were as tall as the Anakim (Deuteronomy 2:20-21). The Emim, who lived in the territory of the Moabites also were as tall as the Anakim (Deuteronomy 2:10). Both the Emim and the Anakim were considered to be Rephaim (Deuteronomy 2:11). This identification of the Rephaim with the Anakim and of the Emim with the Anakim and with the Rephaim reflects the popular view that all the inhabitants of the land were giants.

When Moses sent the twelve spies to visit the land of Canaan (Numbers 13), they identified the offspring of the Anakim with the Nephilim of Genesis 6:4. The identification of the Nephilim with the Anakim is difficult because the most important passage where the word “Nephilim” appears (Genesis 6:1-4), is obscure and has produced numerous and at times, contradictory interpretations.

Most scholars today derive the Hebrew word Nephilim from the Hebrew verb naphal, which means “fallen ones.” This is the translation adopted by Young’s Literal Translation: “The fallen ones were in the earth in those days, and even afterwards when sons of God come in unto daughters of men, and they have borne to them — they are the heroes, who, from of old, are the men of name.”

Thus, some scholars view the Nephilim as the ones fallen from heaven, that is, divine beings or angels. Others have identified the Nephilim with robbers and people who preyed upon individuals, violent men who fell upon their victims. Some scholars have derived Nephilim from a Hebrew word nephel, which means “miscarriage.” These scholars understand the Nephilim as unnaturally begotten superhuman beings emerging from miscarriages.

Which translation is better? Those who translate “Nephilim” as “giants” base their translation on the statement of Genesis 6:4 which declares that the Nephilim were on the earth before the flood and also afterward. This editorial comment, and also afterward, written by the writer of Genesis, seems to imply that the Nephilim survived the flood, thus helping the writer of the biblical text identify the Nephilim with the tall people who lived in Canaan. However, the identification of the Nephilim with giants fails to deal with the moral issues raised by the commingling of “the sons of God” and “the daughters of men.”

Those who leave the word “Nephilim” untranslated recognize that the meaning of the word is unclear, that the Nephilim of Genesis 6:4 were not the Anakim of Numbers 13:33, and that no translation is acceptable since the context is unclear.

The best way to solve this problem of translation is to leave the word “Nephilim” untranslated, as the ESV has done. This solution, however, creates a huge problem because it puts the burden of interpretation on the reader. And since the average reader of the Bible does not know Hebrew and has no idea who the Nephilim were, this solution creates another problem.

The decision to leave the word “Nephilim” untranslated creates a big problem for pastors. When members of the congregation ask their pastor: “Pastor, who were the Nephilim?” That question should send pastors to their libraries to do some research and find the correct answer. However, before pastors go to their libraries in search of answers, they should read my post next week on “Pastors and Their Libraries.” In that post, I will list 10 books that every pastor should buy and read.

Claude Mariottini
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

This entry was posted in Book of Genesis, Giants, Nephilim and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

21 Responses to Rereading Genesis 6:4: Were They Really Giants?

  1. fencekicker says:

    >I’m curious about what if any relationship you see between Gen 6:4 and certain details of Sumerian texts. Thanks :)

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  2. >Dear Fencekicker,Thank you for visiting my web page. Your question is very interesting. It is possible that the story reflects Canaanite religion rather than Sumerian religion. Most scholars agree that the language of this enigmatic passage has some parallel with the Canaanite religious texts found at Ugarit.Again, thank you for your comment. Claude Mariottini

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  3. Anonymous says:

    >Dr. Mariottini,In the past I just glossed over Ge. 6:4. I think one key to unlocking this mystery is that when we don’t know what something means, we must look at what it doesn’t mean. The Nephilim were called giants because the sons of God married the daughters of men. Some have interpreted this as fallen angels marrying human women. However, spiritual beings do not procreate, so this interpretation must be discounted. The term sons of God is more apt to denote individuals that had some covenant relationship with God through the line of Adam to Seth and the daughters of Cain. Why this would create “giants” or “Nephilim” is not completely clear, but I suspect it had to do with earlier genetics, because during this time people lived longer also. Also customs of people during the pre-flood era is not very clear.

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  4. cob says:

    >The NIV is a most unreliable version of interpretations regards the Holy Bible and not to be relied upon. There are many web sites on the internet that will explain the NIV and how it is far from constructive.Key in NIV reliable or not and see for yourselves.

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  5. >Dear Cob,The NIV has its problems but some of the articles you have read about the NIV are wrong in saying why the NIV is unreliable.If you do a Google search of my blog (there is a search engine in my blog that searches only my blog), you will discover that I have written several articles dealing with the NIV.Thank you for visiting my blog.Claude Mariottini

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  6. Anonymous says:

    >recently heard an interesting spin on the translation of nephilim from hebrew as “those who came down” which is very similar to “the fallen ones” but could drastically alter the story.could “those who came down” refer to extra-terrestrials who could have superhuman qualities described in the Bible.this also may explain how they were still around postflood.they may have “come back down” when the coast was clear.what do you think? i’m not crazy- i just have a very open mind.

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  7. >Dear Friend,Thank you for visiting my blog and for your question. The suggestion you propose is not good for two reasons. First, in Hebrew, “to come down” is a word different from the word “naphal” (to fall).The idea that the Nephilim were ET is just not acceptable. I still believe that the suggestion I have proposed better explain the text.Claude Mariottini

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  8. Anonymous says:

    >Hi. I recently became interested in this subject when I was trying to decipher which Indo-Europeans inhabited a hittite protectorate during the years of homers “Troy” being Wilusa or Troy. I became interested in who were the invaders of the north causing the Greek dark ages shortly after the sack of troy. I had hoped for script writing purposes it was The Trojans who had returned. But stumbled upon some things you may be interested in. The ancient Greek legend refers to the period WE call the Dorian invasion, as the “Return of the Heracleidae” being the decendants of several generations past of Heracles or ( Hercules ) The son of Zeus— Sons of God men?The Greek word used for return this author says actualy was translated from: “katienai” and “katerchesthai meaning:, literally those who “come down” or “go down”Now I, having different sources claiming to know the timeline of the writing of Genesis have turned to you. The so Called Dorian invasions began sometime within 1250-1150. If as legend said that they were only several generations removed from the exiled and deceased Heracles. then that may put us as far back as somewhere near 1350BC. 2 questions, Was the book of genesis written after 1350 BC?Could this note be referring to the people of heracles of the Greeks? Or maybe is the story of Heracles a reflection of the Hebrew texts in an attempt to earmark these Great Warrior people of magnificent feat? Is there any link here?I will check back and hope this has not been to indepth or lack clarity.Kelly

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  9. Anonymous says:

    >excuse me- “This note” being the genesis refference of Nephilim.

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  10. Anonymous says:

    >Why is it not acceptable for the Nephilim to be ET? I have read a lot of Sumerian texts and that is where this came from. The Sumerians were the earliest known people on earth. What they have to say is more reliable than any other book written after where their texts were twisted (the bible). I know when the truth is said people get scared because what they were taught all their life might not be true and so they say it is unaceptable.

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  11. >Dear Friends,The probability that the Nephilim were ET is small, to say the least. Many people have tried to find extra-terrestrials in the Bible, but this is a case of a fertile imagination. Just because the Sumerians lived many years ago do not prove that they were more advanced than people who lived centuries after them.Claude Mariottini

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  12. Anonymous says:

    >I BELIEVE ANGELS DID FALL, THE ONES THAT FALL AWAY FROM GOD. ANGELS WHERE KNOWN BEFORE THE FLOOD TO COMMUNICATE WITH US HUMANS. THEY EVEN TALK AND EAT WITH US. SO WHY COULDN'T THEY LIVE OR MARRY MEN'S DAUGHTERS. ANGELS HAVE KNOWN TO TAKE HUMAN FORM. GOD GAVE THEM A WILL OF THERE OWN, SO WHY CAN'T THEY SIN LIKE US. JESUS DID SAY ANGELS CANNOT MARRY, BUT THAT IS ONLY IN HEAVEN. I LISTEN TO CHUCK MISSLER ALL THE TIME AND HE TALKS ABOUT THIS AND I BELIEVE WHAT HE SAIDS. HE HAS ALMOST 40 YEARS AS A SCHOLER AND HE HAS STUDIED HEBREW SO HE WOULD KNOW.

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  13. >Dear Friend,Thank you for visiting my blog and for your comment.I hope you will find other posts of interest to you.Claude Mariottini

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  14. Anonymous says:

    >I am under the impression that the SONS OF GOD were men in the Godly line of Seth, and the Daughters of man were women from the un-Godly line of Cain. This unacceptable union produced Nephilim (Men of Renoun), these were regular humans who became terrible if not evil men even kings or rulers. The corupt nature of these and all men was the reason for God sending the great flood. I do accept that there were Giants in the bible, however I don't believe that Gen 6 is refering to them.

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  15. >Dear Anonymous,The interpretation that the sons of God were the godly people and the daughters of men were the daughters of Cain has been proposed by many people, but I do not believe it is a good interpretation.Mixed marriage is not a good reason for a flood that destroyed the whole world.The translation of "giants" for the Nephilim is based on the Septuagint, the Greek Translation. The word "nephilim" means "the fallen ones."Thank you for visiting my blog.Claude Mariottini

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  16. Anonymous says:

    >Mixed marriages were absolutely a perfect reason for the destruction of the world. The intermingled union of Sethites and Cainanites were in direct rebellion to God, that is sin and all sin is worthy of death. After further study another point became clear, there is no direct reference that says that the Nephilim were even a result of any such union be it angelic/human or strictly human. The bible only says that they were on the earth at the same time and after. My point is that God intended for the two lines to remain distinct. We still to this day are discouraged to become unequaly yolked, however now we have the blood of Christ so we do not have to suffer God's wrath.

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  17. >Dear Friend,Read Genesis 6:11. This is the real reason for the flood.Claude Mariottini

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  18. Anonymous says:

    >I never said that mixed marriages were the only reason for the flood. God destroyed his creation because every thought and intention of man was evil. This I know but it doesn't mean that the nephilim were a race of giants either. Mixed marriages were a result of man's evil intentions not the cause, this bows not negate the fact that ALL sin is worthy of wrath and destruction. Another point is that angels had not been mentioned yet in scripture, however Moses did speak openly against mixed marriages between Cainenites and Sethites. Moses also called Israel "sons of God" when he went before Pharoh in Egypt.

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  19. Anonymous says:

    >Dr. Mariottini, I want to apologies if in my previous posts I sound like I'm trying to draw you into a heated discussion. That is not my intent. I do respect your views on this topic, I do however believe that there is more to this text contextualy. Am I wrong in my quest for clarity? Sometimes I can go a little overboard when I try to defend my position. I am very sorry if I offended you. We are after all brothers under the same blood of Christ.

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  20. Beancounter says:

    Yes, this is a fascinating topic. First timer to this site. I’d be interested in Dr. Mariottini’s thoughts about the following theory of mine:
    One of the great over-arching themes in the Bible is that it documents in painful detail our hopeless attempts at human self-government, starting at the smallest level possible with just two people in a husband and wife relationship and ending up at the largest level possible with an attempt at world-wide dominion by an unholy anti-christ and false prophet. Every imaginable form of human government must be tried and shown to be a failure before King Jesus comes back and sets up his rule and reign.
    After the Fall, the next “advancement” in the form of human government would have been the “clan” system, the earliest form of a tribal system. The rules of society would be set and enforced by the most powerful family around.
    Now we know that God put a “mark” on Cain, but nobody knows what that was exactly, except that somehow it was a deterrant to anyone who may have wanted to do violence to Cain.
    This is pure speculation on my part, but what if, when God marked Cain, the “mark” was actually a change to his DNA? A marker in his gene pool, if you will. Cain’s offspring (both sexes) could have been of an extraordinary stature and of an exponentially violent disposition. “If anyone kills Cain, he will suffer vengeance seven times over.” (Gen. 4:15). In other words, his giant sons would be a formidable form of deterrance in any confrontation between Cain and his family and others. Lamech strategically increased the odds in his favor by marrying two wives, thus multiplying his “quiver” and potential for vengeance even further (Gen 4:23-24)
    If the children of Cain intermarried with the children of Seth, Cain’s DNA mutation could have been passed down into both lines. The violence would have quickly become widespread, rising to a level that ultimately moves the hand of God in judgment (Gen. 6:5). Since we don’t know anything about the wives on Noah’s ark, it seems possible that at least one of the wives (perhaps of Ham) could have carried the mutation. So that’s my theory about how the Nephilim could have been on the earth both before and after the flood. Seems logical and consistent with the text, what do you think?

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    • Dear Beancounter,

      Thank you for visiting my blog. I am glad that you enjoy my post. If you visit the Archive page of my blog, you will find several other posts you will enjoy reading.

      As for your theory, I am sorry to say, it is not a very good way of understanding the problem of the Nephilim. The mark on Cain was a visible mark that was designed to protect him, not his descendants, from being killed. A DNA change would take several generations to take effect and would have no relevance to Cain’s situation. The identity of the Nephilim is a difficult problem that finds no easy solution.

      Thank you for your comment.

      Claude Mariottini

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