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.
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
More blogs about Old Testament.