Posted By MSH 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.