Who Were the Nephilim Giants of the Bible?

Bible Scholars Debate the True Origin of Nephilim

Nephilim Giants in the Bible
Norandino and Lucina Discovered by the Ogre, Giovanni Lanfranco (1582–1647). Public Domain

Nephilim may have been giants in the Bible, or they may have been something much more sinister. Bible scholars are still debating their true identity.

The term first occurs in Genesis 6:4:

The Nephilim were on the earth in those days—and also afterward—when the sons of God went to the daughters of men and had children by them. They were the heroes of old, men of renown. (NIV)

Who Were the Nephilim?

Two parts of this verse are in dispute. First, the word Nephilim itself, which some Bible scholars translate as "giants." Others, however, believe it is related to the Hebrew word "naphal," meaning "to fall."

The second term, "sons of God," is even more controversial. One camp says it means fallen angels, or demons. Another attributes it to righteous human beings who mated with ungodly women.

Giants in the Bible Before and After the Flood

To sort this out, it's important to note when and how the word Nephilim was used. In  Genesis 6:4, the mention comes before The Flood. Another mention of Nephilim occurs in Numbers 13:32-33, after the Flood:

And they spread among the Israelites a bad report about the land they had explored. They said, “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.” (NIV)

Moses had sent 12 spies into Canaan to scout the country before invading. Only Joshua and Caleb believed Israel could conquer the land. The other ten spies did not trust in God to give the Israelites victory.

The men the spies saw could have been giants, but they could not have been part human and part demonic beings. All those would have died in the Flood. Besides, the cowardly spies gave a distorted report. They may have used the word Nephilim simply to arouse fear.

Giants certainly existed in Canaan after the Flood. The descendants of Anak (Anakim, Anakites) were driven from Canaan by Joshua, but some escaped to Gaza, Ashdod, and Gath. Centuries later, a giant from Gath emerged to plague the Israelite army. His name was Goliath, a nine foot tall Philistine who was killed by David with a stone from his sling. Nowhere in that account does it imply Goliath was semi-divine.

Debate About the 'Sons of God'

The mysterious term "sons of God" in Genesis 6:4 is interpreted by some scholars to mean fallen angels or demons; however, there is no concrete evidence in the text to support that view.

Further, it seems far-fetched that God would have created angels to make it possible for them to mate with human beings, producing a hybrid species. Jesus Christ made this revealing remark about angels:

"For in the resurrection they neither marry, nor are given in marriage, but are as the angels of God in heaven." (Matthew 22:30, NIV)

Christ's statement seems to imply that angels (including fallen angels) do not procreate at all.  

A more likely theory for the "sons of God" makes them the descendants of Adam's third son, Seth. The "daughters of men," were supposedly from the wicked line of Cain, Adam's first son who killed his younger brother Abel.

Yet another theory links kings and royalty in the ancient world with the divine. That idea said rulers ("sons of God") took any beautiful women they wanted as their wives, to perpetuate their line. Some of those women may have been pagan temple or cult prostitutes, who were common in the ancient Fertile Crescent.

Giants: Scary But Not Supernatural

Because of inadequate food and poor nutrition, tall men were extremely rare in ancient times. In describing Saul, Israel's first king, the prophet Samuel was impressed that Saul was "a head taller than any of the others." (1 Samuel 9:2, NIV)

The word "giant" is not used in the Bible, but the Rephaim or Rephaites in Ashteroth Karnaim and the Emites in Shaveh Kiriathaim were all reputed to be exceptionally tall. Several pagan myths featured gods mating with humans. Superstition caused soldiers to assume that giants like Goliath had godlike power.

Modern medicine has proven that gigantism or acromegaly, a condition that leads to excessive growth, does not involve supernatural causes but is due to abnormalities in the pituitary gland, which regulates growth hormone production.

Recent breakthroughs show the condition can also be caused by a genetic irregularity, which may account for entire tribes or groups of people in biblical times reaching extraordinary height.

Is the Nature of the Nephilim Crucial?

One highly imaginative, extra-biblical view theorizes that the Nephilim were aliens from another planet. But no serious Bible student would give credence to this preternatural theory. 

With scholars ranging widely on the exact nature of the Nephilim, fortunately, it’s not crucial to take a definitive position. The Bible does not give us enough information to make an open-and-shut case other than to conclude that the identity of the Nephilim remains unknown.

(Sources: NIV Study Bible, Zondervan Publishing; Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary, Trent C. Butler, general editor; International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, James Orr, general editor; The New Unger's Bible Dictionary, Merrill F. Unger; gotquestions.org, medicinenet.com.)