My Thoughts on Nephilim: Answering a Criticism

Posted By on March 7, 2013

Some readers have drawn my attention to this recent criticism of my understanding of the morphology of the word nephilim. I left some comments on that blog site, but thought it would be worth a post here. I’ll try to be brief (stop laughing).

First, it is true that most scholars see nephilim (spelled npylym [נפילים] or nplym [נפלים]) deriving from the Hebrew root n-p-l (naphal; נפל; “to fall”). And I’ve never denied that. That argument considers the word nephilim to be a noun of the qatîl pattern with the same meaning as the verb lemma. Again, I’ve never denied this is possible. My argument is, as I’ll outline below, that this explanation lacks coherence.

Second, the argument that the writer cannot find any instances of the plural nephilin (ending with “n” – the presumed plural form that would derive from the Aramaic noun naphila, “giant”) in ancient Aramaic texts dating to the biblical period is a red herring. It means no more than my own observation that there are no other instances in the Hebrew Bible for a qatîl pattern word from naphal besides the presumed instance of nephilim. So both of the “where are the corroborative examples?” arguments cancel each other. It’s a meaningless objection. Frankly, this whole approach of “I need to find X outside the Bible for the X I’m looking to be X” is one reason I insist that biblical scholars ought to take a course in logic. Sure, it’s nice to find a second example of something in another source. But that doesn’t logically mean that what you’re looking at can’t be X. Put another way, if you found one pig that could fly you wouldn’t need to find a second one so you could say you knew of a flying pig. Since the corpus of the Hebrew Bible (and really all ancient Hebrew and Aramaic) is so small, it’s a bit odd that we’d think a morphologically possible word formation isn’t possible unless we found an example of that possibility. The morphology either works within the rules of the language’s morphology or it doesn’t. My proposal does (and the post criticizing my view didn’t deny that – it only sought an external example).

This brings me to the heart of the matter — the incoherence of reading “fallen ones” when your eyes hit npylym [נפילים] or nplym [נפלים]. Here’s why I think naphal is an inferior explanation to the one I propose. It has to do with the way the term is handled in the Septuagint (it is translated with gigantes; “giants”) being a coherent translation choice with the linking of giant clans described in the Torah and Joshua with the word nephilim in Num 13:33. I’ll try to unpack it.

My question is simple: Why would a Septuagint (LXX) translator look at nephilim (npylym [נפילים]; nplym [נפלים]) and *not* choose a straightforward Greek translation of “fallen ones” using a Greek lemma that meant “to fall”? Had the translator understood the word to derive from naphal (“to fall”), the translation choice would *not* have been gigantes (“giants”) in Greek. And so, Why would gigantes have popped into the translator’s head instead? How does the LXX translator’s choice make any sense if the derivation of nephilim was so transparently from naphal (“to fall”)? Put another way, how does the translator look at a word that, we are told, so clearly means “fallen ones” and conclude, “I think I’ll use ‘giants’ for that”?

I think the answer to the above is pretty simple: The translator thought gigantes when he saw nephilim because the Aramaic word naphila popped into his head. But that raises the question, “Why would Aramaic naphila pop into his head?” He’s a Hellenistic Jew!

Yes, he was. He lived after the exile.

There are two trajectories I follow at this point:

1. We cannot forget that by the time of the LXX’s creation, Jewish scholars (the guys who did the LXX) had a thorough acquaintance with Aramaic — because they were living in a post-exilic era. Aramaic had taken over as the primary language within the Jewish community. It would be absurd to say that the translators couldn’t have thought in terms of Aramaic. I would add that it would be very odd for the LXX translators not to think nephilim might have come from Aramaic naphila because of the following thought.

2. Not only wold Aramaic be a possible thing to have floating around in one’s head as an LXX translator, but it would be logical to think in such terms *since the Hebrew Bible itself* associates the giant-sized Anakim with the word nephilim in Num 13:33.

Honestly, this doesn’t feel complicated to me. In light of these two realities, is it really implausible to think that the LXX translator could look at nephilim (npylym [נפילים]; nplym [נפלים]) and think, “Hey, the word I’m looking at might be based on a plural of naphila — a word that means giant?” I don’t think that’s at all implausible. Frankly, it brings all the issues together. I’m trying to make sense of the word (a) as applied to the Anakim by some editor in the exile – the Aramaic nursery for Jewish thinkers – and (b) as understood by ancient translators. The discussion extends beyond nuts and bolts morphology to the pursuit of coherence in the ancient material.

So here’s what I need (for starters – I really am trying to be brief) from the opposition:

Give me a coherent explanation as to why an LXX translator would look at npylym [נפילים]; nplym [נפלים] and conclude that “giants” (gigantes) made sense for translation into Greek from a lemma that means “to fall.”

I propose that, while both approaches are possible, my explanation accounts for all the details, but the naphal view does not.

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22 Responses to “My Thoughts on Nephilim: Answering a Criticism”

  1. Mike says:

    Fewer than 1000 words brief!
    Good job!

    No, really, the details in your response are better than the article’s details.

    • MSH says:

      I just don’t see that the LXX translators and mainstream Jewish writers in the 2nd temple period agreed with a “non-giant” view. They just didn’t see it that way. I’ll throw my hat in with them.

      • Mike says:

        MSH: “I just don’t see that the LXX translators and mainstream Jewish writers in the 2nd temple period agreed with a “non-giant” view. They just didn’t see it that way. I’ll throw my hat in with them.”

        Yep, and why not toss one’s hat there? In my first comment, perhaps replace “really” with “seriously,” because I was merely teasing about the length. However, I was serious about the level of detail. I’ve learned to get suspicious of something or its author, such as the critique being replied to above, when it comes up that there are details missing (from the critique). I’ve become suspicious in those cases of whether the author was aware of the other details and perhaps deliberately avoided them.

        On that note, this critique and Heiser’s response are on this same topic as one of his/your 2004 presentations for Malone–the ones with cyan Hebrew. I’ve been able to share this with a buddy who wouldn’t freak out. I forget his exact words, but he was encouraged and the material opened him up in some positive way toward knowing God and understanding the bible. We had to pause it a few times for the fuzzy graphics, and I had to rewind over a few quick statements to add the pieces together and make sure we knew what we were looking at, but we enjoyed learning this topic. The Jude & Peter references (clarifications) were helpfully enlightening, I think, as examples of God’s character in action as well as his involvement in history for his ultimate, self-glorifying plan. :)

  2. DT says:

    Here’s my problem with just “fallen ones” meaning “ones who fell in battle”, etc:

    In every case I can think of, the emphasis of the text is on either the lineage, the fearsomeness, or the size (!) of the nephilim or tribes associated with nephilim lineage. “Gibborim” instances are focused on the strength, though the Israelite gibborim could conceivably be argued as “special forces” — which doesn’t weaken the rest of the argument. If you’re going to call your best warriors something, you’re going to call them something ferocious and frightening.

    Rephaim/Anakim/etc all (if I’m remembering correctly off the top of my head) are either implicitly or explicitly referring to descendants of the Gen 6 bene’elohim “event” — which is clear enough in Israelite writings. If one takes into account other ANE writings, Gen 6 *must* be parsed as supernatural sexual hijinks. The nephilim are clearly tied to this event in Genesis. Other ANE references to like events make it impossible to break that linkage.

    To de-giantify “nephilim”, you have to A) Deny any link to a supernatural lineage; B) Assume the LXX translators had absolutely no familiarity with their own culture; C) Throw out the Israelite fear of Canaanite tribes; D) Lose the “sons of God” narrative that makes the New Testament theology so incredibly compelling. And that’s just for starters.

    Essentially, Deane seems to want to make the argument without taking Israelite theology, intertestamental theology, NT theology, ANE culture, or wider linguistic arguments into consideration. The result is a hollow critique — that the author apparently just doubled down on here:

    Also, I wonder if the blogger is aware that Heiser doesn’t propose the nephilim were 30-foot tall titans. It seems to me this blogger has been fed up with some of the non-textual, non-archaeological tomfoolery proposed by many Christians on the web. Textual evidence appears to make Nephilim more NBA-sized (with perhaps a bit of variation up to ~9 ft or so) than Beanstalk-worthy.

    Also, if it’s not too much trouble and Deane happens to read this, could you (Deane) please point me to your qualifications? I generally don’t care, but when an imminently qualified scholar is treated like a hack by someone who appears to be “just a blogger”, my Sitchin alarm bells go off.

    • MSH says:

      you also have to basically ignore the numerous instances where these tribes are described as unusually large – it isn’t just about Num 13:33. Like I noted to someone else below, I just don’t see that the LXX translators and mainstream Jewish writers in the 2nd temple period agreed with a “non-giant” view. I’m with them.

      • Joseph says:

        My question is if Nephilim means Giants, how does this relate to the Bnei Elohim? There does seem to be something supernatural here no? Regarding your question of why the translators understood it as Giants as opposed to Fallen Ones, perhaps, there was a theological issue that was seen as problematic. Perhaps something along the lines of Bnei Elohim being changed to Bnei Adam in the Song of Moses. Just a thought.

        • MSH says:

          the parentage question is indeed part of the issue (again, I think the translators and Jewish writers could see that elements clearly as well).

    • steph says:

      Oh really. Quite a bee in your bonnet. I think he’s demonstrated his breadth of knowledge in a far more critical and sophisticated way than your ‘imminently’ conservative hero with circular arguments, in his own writing published on his Giants blog and elsewhere. He is a biblical scholar from the Antipodes. Perhaps you need to lift your blinkers in order to see.

      • MSH says:

        I think you need to think more clearly. Since he hasn’t come up with an answer as to why the LXX translators and 2nd temple folks didn’t see the word the way he does (but are in agreement with my view), maybe you can.

  3. Patrick says:

    My limited experience leads me to think folks don’t want to see this word as “giants”, probably embarrasses them in our modern world.

    This old girl might have been one, who knows:

  4. steph says:

    By the way Deane has replied to this blog with a second post. He sums up Heiser in the final comment, thus:

    So the Hebrew gloss in Num. 13:33 is earlier than the earliest Aramaic use of “Nephilin”.

    How then can you say that Aramaic texts which are dependent on Gen 6:4 and Num 13:33 provide evidence for the meaning of the term “Nephilim” in Gen 6:4 and Num 13:33? Surely this is putting the Aramaic cart before the Hebrew horse?

    Heiser has not responded.

    • MSH says:

      Heiser has responded – there and here. Hope his readers are more attentive than he is. Maybe he’s not approving my comments.

      And he confuses the issue. I’m not saying “Aramaic texts” are dependent on Gen 6:4 and Num 13:33. Read through the comments here for what I’m saying.

  5. blop2008 says:

    I think Deane’s response to you makes his position clearer, which you have to take into account:

    This is a modern critical task. This is not a question of whether the Nephilim were understood to be giants even in Gen. 6:4 – they may well have been. The question is whether the word itself, “Nephilim” has the etymological sense of “giants”. And that is not something you can answer by pointing to later stories which treat the Nephilim as giants.

    He’s arguing for your take on the etymology, not that the the Nephilim were not understood to be the Giants of antiquity.

    • MSH says:

      my etymological take is possible (i.e., it doesn’t violate any rule of morphology). It’s possibility must be set in the context not of some (imagined) “route” of how one language “led to” forms in another, but in terms of cultural and linguistic cross-fertilization. Think of it this way:

      1. We know that the Torah was edited during the exile, the time at which Hebrew scribes adopted the block script from Aramaic, and the time at which the Israelite community adopted Aramaic (point: they had plenty of exposure to Aramaic).

      2. The above time is logically when the gloss on Num 13:33 was added (is there some better option?). And why would a scribe add it? Well, he had to explain the GIANTS after the flood. So he adds a note about nephilim. He isn’t trying to explain “fallen warriors” present after the flood (since when did the flood suggest we’d get no more fallen warriors?). So the scribe sees a problem (hey, there are giants running around in Canaan — and there are many descriptions of unusual size that intimidate the Israelites (this isn’t just about Num 13:33). The scribe thinks that the word nephilim solves the problem of the giants being there, so he creates the link to Gen 6 via the gloss. This is all quite logical. But it’s rendered illogical if we say the term nephilim wouldn’t have meant “giant” to the scribe.

      It is this context that the alternative view cannot explain. And so we are left with a choice:

      1. The alternative view – “hey, I can make a workable morphological argument for nephilim being from Hebrew naphal and meaning fallen ones.” (But then ignore the fact that the pointing for that meaning should be nephulim or nophelim – the latter which occurs in Ezekiel but not in Gen 6 — and the fact that the spelling Heiser emphasizes shows up precisely where one would expect it given his Aramaic starting point – in Num 13:33, at the hand of the scribe trying to solve a giant problem – that is, the long i would have to be in the form if the beginning point was naphila).

      2. My view – “hey, I can make a workable morphological argument for nephilim being from Aramaic naphila and meaning giants.” Ezekiel’s nophelim doesn’t interfere with that, it makes sense of the scribal gloss (it solves his problem) and it’s consistent with what we see in LXX and 2nd temple material.

      The fact is that Deane can’t demonstrate that a naphila derivation doesn’t work morphologically. His beef is the imagined “history” of how that explanation came about between the interactions of Hebrew and Aramaic. Just because no one recorded a process doesn’t mean the process isn’t possible — and given all the contexts to consider – the problem, the gloss, the LXX, the 2nd temple writers – I think the more coherent option is clear.

      The elephant in this room is that scholars regularly pretend that they know more than they do (or can) about language relationships and how writers were influenced, or what they knew. We like to think that we know who was exposed to what when, and for how long, and in relation to what other thing. We don’t. We can’t. The Hebrew and Aramaic corpi are small — and they are even smaller when isolating the material by period. Scholars like to pretend that they can draw conclusions from this tiny data pool about what was going on inside a person’s head – a person we can’t even isolate to a century or decade, much less identify or know what that person was exposed to in terms of texts and language. It’s a charade. Scholars do the best they can with what they have, but it’s just plain false to assume certitude with these sorts of things. I’m just being honest about that — something that has consistently gotten me into “trouble” within the academy. Any conclusion that depends on this presumed omniscience ought to be embraced with great reservation. To act like such conclusions are obvious simply over-extends the data. It would be great if that were different, but it isn’t.

  6. blop2008 says:

    Some good beef….there goes my dissertation :-)

  7. BRAT says:

    There is a common element in both terms “giant” and “fallen”. That element is “height”. Height can be in physical size, heroic actions, financial status, ego and pride to name a few. On the other hand, no one falls when lying flat on the floor.They must be standing up or worse in a high place like a cliff, in an airplane, a space ship or in the presence of God. There are two phrase we use today “Pride comes before a fall” and “The bigger they are the harder they fall”. If someone was to say to you the later without giving any more detail, how would you interpret it? “Tall people hit the ground harder than shorter people”? Or maybe “Big corporations are devistated more little ones when the economy colapses” I will just say that the details in Genisis are clear to its usage. Anything else is just imagination or twisting it to ones beliefs.

  8. Emil says:

    To comment of the article, particularly the question the author poses of…

    “how does the translator look at a word that, we are told, so clearly means “fallen ones” and conclude, “I think I’ll use ‘giants’ for that”?…

    We see this done all the time, even is translations of bibles today. It comes from people having pre-existing ideas of what the scriptures are trying to say. The translator interprets the scriptures by what they believe the scriptures are trying. Here is a perfect example of this in actions:

    NIV© Job 1:6 -One day the angels came to present themselves before the LORD, and Satan also came with them.

    How and why does the translator of the NIV bible transliterate the word “Sons of God” to “Angels” when the Hebrew words for each one is entirely different? How can they look at a word that clearly means Sons of God and transliterate it as Angles. Easy, because in “his” mind “Sons of God” are “Angels”. “His” pre-existing idea actually trumped the actually Hebrew writing and meaning.

    • MSH says:

      The example at the end demonstrates that translators can *ignore* what a word or phrase actually means, so I’m not sure if that was the point you were making. My argument is that LXX translators knew what the term meant and didn’t ignore it – hence gigantes, “giants”.

  9. Emil says:

    Sorry I was not more clear, but that translators can and have ignored what a word or phrase actually means is the point I am making. This is exactly what I am suggesting happened in the case you are making for the word nephilim.

    You asked the question in the above article:

    “My question is simple: Why would a Septuagint (LXX) translator look at nephilim (npylym [נפילים]; nplym [נפלים]) and *not* choose a straightforward Greek translation of “fallen ones” using a Greek lemma that meant “to fall”?”

    And my belief is that the translator ignored what the word actually meant ndn trasMy question is simple: Why would a Septuagint (LXX) translator look at nephilim (npylym [נפילים]; nplym [נפלים]) and *not* choose a straightforward Greek translation of “fallen ones” using a Greek lemma that meant “to fall”?

    My belief is that the translator ignored the actual meaning of the word and translated it biasedly(?) due to his already established belief that the nephilim were giants.

    • MSH says:

      I’m not buying it. There’s no relationship between the two for one thing. But the more telling issue is that “fallen ones” would not have a middle i vowel. “Fallen ones” would be nephulim (the idea is passive). A competent translator (that at least knew Hebrew morphology) would have known that. Third, you’d have to argue that basically all the translators made this decision and no one writing interpretive texts on the basis of the passages (including translations) would have objected – i.e., the interpreters took the word to mean giants. Fourth, the translators would have had to ignore the descriptions given in the Hebrew Bible for these characters — the giant view does not derive solely or even mostly from the morphology. The actual descriptions make it clear these persons are taller than usual. (This “belief” is established by the descriptions of the people, not the morphology alone; I’d say gigantes shows the translators believed what they were reading in the descriptions – which seems a lot more straightforward than what you’re suggesting).

      It just stretches credulity to think these things were all operating together. It almost sounds like a conspiracy against the giant view.

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