The Nephilim Again: A Response to Joe Cathey and Duane Smith

On March 6, 2006 I posted an article, “Rereading Genesis 6:4: Were They Really Giants?“ in which I discussed whether the translation “giants” of the King James Version was the best translation.  My conclusion was that, since we cannot identify who the Nephilim were, translators should allow the word to remain untranslated.

In response to my post, both Joe Cathey and Duane Smith posted articles proposing new and different ways of understanding the Nephilim.  Before I address their suggestions, I need once again to present my views on the Nephilim.

First, the Nephilim of Numbers 13:33 are not the Nephilim of Genesis 6:4.  The reference to the Nephilim in the book of Numbers is part of the pessimistic report the ten spies gave to the people of Israel after their survey of Canaan.

To the ten spies, the fortified walls of the Canaanite cities were an overwhelming obstacle for their conquest of the land.  The spies were so terrified by the size of the inhabitants of Canaan that they concocted a story in order to dissuade the people from entering the land.  The spies said to the people: “The land we explored devours those living in it.  All the people we saw there are of great size.  We saw the Nephilim there (the descendants of Anak come from the Nephilim).  We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we looked the same to them” (Num. 13:32-33 NIV).

In their exaggeration of the situation, the spies said that, in addition to being people of gigantic stature, the Anakim were the Nephilim, the dreadful people who lived on earth in the days before the flood.

Second, the Nephilim of Genesis 6:4 were not the Nephilim of Numbers 13:33.  In Genesis, the Nephilim were a group of people who lived in the days before the flood.  The identification of the Nephilim in Genesis is made difficult because of the confusing nature of the text.

In the Revised Standard Version, the text reads:

“When men began to multiply on the face of the ground, and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that the daughters of men were fair; and they took to wife such of them as they chose.  Then the Lord said, ‘My spirit shall not abide in man for ever, for he is flesh, but his days shall be a hundred and twenty years.’  The Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of men, and they bore children to them. These were the mighty men that were of old, the men of renown” (Genesis 6:1-4).

The proper interpretation of the text hinges on the identification of the people involved in the story.  As I count them, there are six people or groups of people involved in the story:

1.  Men (human beings)
2.  The daughters of men
3.  The sons of God
4.  The Lord
5.  The Nephilim
6.  The children born from the union between the sons of God and the daughters of men

According to the biblical text, it was the progeny of the sons of God and the daughters of men who were “the mighty men that were of old, the men of renown,” not the Nephilim.

This is the way Victor Hamilton interprets the text.  In his commentary, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1-17 (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1990) pp. 261, 270, Hamilton translates Genesis 6:4 as follows:

“(The Nephilim were on the earth in those days–and later too.)  Whenever the sons of God had intercourse with the daughters of humankind, they fathered children by them.  These were the mighty men of old, men of reputation.”

Genesis 6:1-4 does not say that the Nephilim were the offspring of the marriage between the sons of God and the daughters of men.  Some scholars identify the Nephilim with divine beings or angels who fell from heaven because the Hebrew word nephilim comes from the Hebrew verb naphal, which means “fallen ones.”

However, since the Nephilim in Genesis 6:4 were not the children of the sons of God and the daughters of men, it is wrong to identify them with the gibborim, the “mighty men that were of old, the men of renown” (Genesis 6:4).”

In his post, “The Fallen Ones,” Joe Cathey quotes an entry on HALOT to show that the word comes from the root l-p-n and that late Judaism translated the word as “giant,” “monster,” and that eventually the word came to be understood as “giant, arising from miscarriages or hurled down from heaven.”  But this translation presupposes that the Nephilim and the sons of God were the same people.

Joe then concludes by translating Nephilim as “Fallen Ones” and identifying them with the “mighty men of old,” even though Genesis 6:4 distinguishes between the Nephilim and the mighty men of old.

On his post, “The Destroyers (perhaps),” Duane Smith proposes that the word Nephilim may come from an Akkadian verb napalu(m) which means to “destroy.”  Thus, he concludes that the men of renown in Genesis 6:4 were destroyers of cities.

But, Duane also recognizes the problem in identifying the Nephilim with the men of renown.  He wrote: “The hard question in this passage is, does this last clause [in Genesis 6:4] relate to the Nephilim or to the offspring of the sons of God and the daughters of humans?”

And that is the crucial issue of interpretation in Genesis 6:4.  In my post, I had suggested that the word Nephilim be left untranslated because of the difficulty in identifying who the Nephilim were.

Duane’s conclusion seems to affirm my original decision.  He wrote: “It is possible that those who incorporated the Nephilim material into the Hebrew text may not have known what Nephilim meant and took it as a collective name for some class of strange folks.  If that is the case, it may be best not to try to translate it.”

I agree with Duane’s conclusion and that was the point I was trying to convey in my post.  I want to thank Joe and Duane for a stimulating conversation on this very difficult text.

Claude Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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11 Responses to The Nephilim Again: A Response to Joe Cathey and Duane Smith

  1. Duane says:

    >Thank you for bringing it up.


  2. >Duane,Thank you for your stimulating proposal. You and Joe gave birth to a great exchange of ideas.Claude Mariottini


  3. >Claude,Well done here. I might quibble with some of the conclusions but nonetheless, your arguments are well thought out.BestJoe


  4. >Interesting reading. Thanks for sharing your observations.


  5. >Milton,Thank you for your comment. This topic is very controversial and has produced many different views.Claude Mariottini


  6. Anonymous says:

    >Dear Dr. Mariottini,I have a question that I hope you will have time to answer, even if only in summry form. Before I ask I feel I should state that I study the KJV of the (Bible). Does not the Bible teach that Angels are male in outward appearance, character and actions but lack the ability to reproduce (N.T.)? Or, at the least leave a strong impression of this with us.Thanks so much for your time.


  7. mr jack says:

    >ultimayely only truth will remain, the writings of preliterate scribes, writing to please the king, in early literacy may well have been the beginnig of fiction, bones of gigantism do not provide substancial evidence to prove the word of men, words are cheap. spend you time in search for real truths rather than continuing the fiction of the past


  8. >Mr. Jack,I agree with you 100%; "ultimately only truth will remain." Jesus said: "I am the truth." This is the reason truth will prevail. By the way, who said they were giants?Claude Mariottini


  9. Anonymous says:

    >I have found this blog interesting and enjoy reading other folks views on the translation of Genesis 6.I would like to throw in my two cents and make a few brief points.1. The book of Jude in the New Testament, makes a reference to a passage verse in the Book of Enoch,nearly word for word. (Jude 1:14-15 and Enoch 1:9)From this connection we can see that although the Book of Enoch is not regarded as biblical cannon today,(The Ethiopian Orthodox Church does accept Enoch as part of their bible) we can conclude that the writer of Jude as well as others at the time of the writing of Jude were familiar with the manuscripts of Enoch. It was commonly understood and accepted at that time that these nephilim and giants were a result of the fallen angels, reproducing with the daughters of men. If you read the manuscripts of Enoch, it sheds great detail on what happened in the time of Noah, and the Fallen Angels. You will be very surprised. An interesting side note is that there are a few prophecies further along in Enoch which surprisingly shed light on their Messiah, which when read, ironically resemble that of our Christ.If you study Ancient Sumerian history and legend, you will recognize that a common theme emerges regarding the giants of old, and how they were decendants of "The Gods" cohabitating with human women producing offspring. They regarded these offspring as Giants.Greek Mythology also describes similar scenarios.Could this be the Greeks and Sumerians explanation of the giants they saw in those times and how these giants came to be?I find this extremely coincidental!!


  10. >Dear Anonymous,I have read the Book of Enoch. It is a fact that many Jews knew the Book of Enoch and were highly influenced by its theological perspective.The view that the Nephilim were the offspring of angels and the Greek view that giants were the offspring of the gods have much in common. These views are the basis of mythology.Thank you for visiting my blog. I hope you will find other posts of interest to you. I invite your comments.Claude Mariottini


  11. mr jack says:

    >All the ancient writings you propose here are interesting, and some do give interesting similarities tp scenes envisioned while in prolonged medation states, not dreams. which are to complicated to discuss.And your statement to me when you said, " Who said they were giants " is also understandable, given the probabilities of the meanings of words then, and the meaning of the same words now, Since time changes all things, especially words, given the magnitudes of translations from languages, that may have been in use substancially, when the words were written, and are little spoken and may have well changed in meanings to the point they are dead languages, and beyond our comprehension, other then speculation.Perhaps our instrumentation defines us, and as instrumentation changes we and our words change with it, and while many people try to understand the words of preliterate scribes, ending up in different levels of literary hypnosis, creating never ending divisions or disagreements on what peoples deem truth ( the absence of lies ), creating the chaos, dominating mans time, whereby men without morality use the words to jerk people around, creating the predatory laws, and fashions, humanity use to replace the nature they abandon, and with it the loss of natural intelligence.However, for the first time, mankind has " one book " where the last couple of generations have began to merge cultures, requiring significant changes in their ancestors belief systems, which some may term the information revolution, and the beginning of one book, and while Truth, only real truth, may survive the test of time, we may have begun the journey into toward truth, or the book of truth as foretold in esubiuses writings from the council of nicea, when he said it was said by christ, that, while he was leaving, he would leave us with the spirit of truth which would bring unto us all things. Its probable his attempt to merge paganism with christianity subject to emperor constantines approval, may have included actual prophesies as fortold by christ, and since the one book is in the process of increasing mans literacy, and instrumentation exponentially, it may well have been fortold by the great spirit. While it would be interesting to read the lost books, tossed mostly by constantine, perhaps, deemingly, they create more questions than answers. Personally, while I find the great mysteries very interesting, More of my time is spent in data mining, and meditation ( a state of prayer ) in an effort to further the spiritual, mental and other assets given me, as I become closer to the ascention to Truth. Or to return to where I was, before I came here.


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