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.
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary