Who Were The Nephilim?

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Nebuchadnezzer fights Zedekiah, last king of Judah

The term Nephilim has been a point of debate amongst biblical scholars. There has been a theory that they were angels cast out of Heaven or that they were the Sons of Seth (the son of Adam), who had taken to an evil path. According to the classic Hebrew rabbinical interpretation the Nephilim were tyrannical rulers of the ancient world.

The Fallen Ones

The most common definition of Nephilim is “Fallen Ones” indicating they had fallen out of the sky/Heaven. The confusion over the nature of the Nephilim is related to the construction of the word itself. The Hebrew word nephîyl which is transcribed as Nephilim is defined as “a feller, bully or tyrant.” The root verb is nâphal, “to fall, perish, be overthrown etc.” Hence a Nephilim is more properly understood as “one who causes others to fall” rather than as a “Fallen One.”

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)

Sons of God

In both passages the Nephilim could easily be seen as tyrants and usurpers but the reference to the “sons of God” has caused some difficulty. The term for son in the Hebrew is bên, which can indicate a variety of relationships from actual family ties to affiliation with a group or nation. In this case, “sons of God” is then, benei haelohim. The word for God is Elohim which refers to the Canaanite pantheon of deities fathered by the chief deity El.

Therefore the “sons of God” becomes easily understood as followers of the old cults which were forbidden by the Jewish covenant with Yahweh.

The relationship between the Nephilim and the forbidden gods can also be understood in light of the traditions of divine kingship. Many ancient monarchs stylized themselves as the servants of gods or even the sons of gods. 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.”

Sons of Anak

As for the sons of Anak. Anak was a warlord known to the Israelites as they made there way to 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. This could easily be explained in the context of the “sons of Anak” being fearsome fighters in the tradition of previous conquerors, such as the Amorites and Egyptians, who had already been terrorizing the land of Canaan for a thousand years before the Israelites arrived.