Eerdman’s Dictionary of Early Judaism on Giants

Eerdmans Dictionary of Early Judaism
Eerdmans Dictionary of Early Judaism

I just spotted on the shelf of ‘recent arrivals’ the enormous – even gigantic – door-stop of a book, The Eerdman’s Dictionary of Early Judaism (John J. Collins and Daniel C. Harlow, eds, 2010). Applying what is widely known as The Rephaim Rule (that you can judge a book on ancient Judaism by what it says about Giants), I turned to the entry on ‘Giants’ written by John C. Reeves.

Overall, the article provides a fine summary of biblical and other early Jewish texts, and their reception in Talmudic and even Islamic sources. There are brief discussions of Anakim, Rephaim, and King Og in Deuteronomy, Targums, and Islamic sources. No mention of the two Goliaths, though.

But is the following correct?

The Hebrew word usually translated ‘giants’ is gibborim, which usually means ‘strong ones.’ It is glossed in Gen. 6:4 as ‘the famous heroes of antiquity’ (‘ašer me’olam ‘anše haššem).

Well, gibborim certainly appears in Gen. 6.4, but it is translated as ‘mighty men’ in the 400-year-old King James Version (cf. ‘heroes’ in NRSV and the NIV). The word which is rendered as ‘giants’ in Gen. 6.4, rather, is nephilim. Moreover, the only place that the KJV renders gibborim as ‘giants’ apart from the related Num. 13.33 is the odd Job 16.14. By contrast, the KJV renders rapha/rephaim as ‘giant’/’giants’ 17 times (Deut. 2.11, 20 (x2); 3.11, 13; Josh. 12.4; 13.12; 15.8; 17.15; 18.16; 2 Sam. 21.16, 18, 20, 22; 1 Chron. 20.4, 6, 8) and Nephilim as ‘giants’ two times (Gen. 6.4; Num. 13.33) and the NRSV only employs  ‘giant’ or ‘giants’ to render rapha / rephaim. The LXX typically renders both nephilim and gibborim as “giants” in Gen. 6.4, but it is not a usual translation for gibborim in other passages. Moreover, it is not entirely clear (due to the ugly structures of each of Gen. 6.4 and Num. 13.33, which are possibly due to the presence of later redaction or glosses) whether the terms nephilim and gibborim refer to one and the same group of beings, or if they refer instead to fathers and sons. Therefore, I’d say instead: “The term ‘giants’ is usually a translation of the Hebrew word rephaim…”.

Reeves also explains that the understanding of the Anakim from Num. 13.33 as Giants has three grounds. The first two are relatively uncontroversial, being the context of the verse and the way the terms are rendered in the Greek and other versions. But his third ground made me raise an eyebrow:

That these [Nephilim of Num. 13.33] were deemed giants emerges from…the testimony of Qur’an 5.20-26 wherein v. [sic] 22 explicitly terms the promised land’s inhabitants ‘giants’ (jabbarin).

The problem with this reasoning is twofold. First, in what sense can we determine that the Nephilim ‘were deemed’ Giants in the late Persian or early Hellenistic period based on the Qur’an’s paraphrase of Exodus and Numbers in the sixth century AD (i.e. about a millennium later)? Now, what the Qur’an does with this tradition is interesting in its own right, but as an uncritical paraphrase of the meaning of  the biblical text it is of very little value for determining its original meaning. Second, like its ancient Hebrew cognate gibborim, the Arabic jabbarin can mean both ‘giants’ and ‘mighty ones’, and much besides. So does jabbarin refer to the strength of the human inhabitants (Canaanites, Amorites, etc) or to the ‘giants’ (Anakim, Nephilim)? Both groups are mentioned in Num. 13! So to which does jabbarin refer? The employment of jabbarin in Surah 5.22 doesn’t necessarly refer to Giants at all.

Lastly, Reeves provides a fine summary of the typical ideological connotations of the Giant:

The label ‘giants’ is typically applied in proto-ethnographic literature to those persons or peoples who are biologically, chronologically, and/or spatially distant from contemporary cultural norms. Giants are thus freaks and monsters who do not fit within the accepted parameters which govern society. There can even be some question as to whether they should be categorized as human. 

A good summary overall, but a couple of points about which to scratch your head just a little. As for The Eerdman’s Dictionary of Ancient Judaism as a whole, it’s a whopper. It covers the whole period of Second Temple Judaism (538 BC – AD 70), and includes compehensive overview essays on subjects ranging from Jewish History, the Dead Sea scrolls, and early biblical interpretation, before the main feature: a thousand pages of dictionary entries.


4 thoughts on “Eerdman’s Dictionary of Early Judaism on Giants

  1. Can it really be a good summary with such a fundamental flaw as the gibborim/nephilim error? I’ll have to look at the article when I tackle giants but I have my doubts. There seems to be a general discomfiture with ‘giants’ and other potentially ‘mythical’ beings among academics. They often tie themselves up in knots trying to explain themselves and the research, or they simply don’t do the research (as would be the case here?). Oh, and you can tell a lot about a person’s religious viewpoints, or rather their relationship with the biblical text, by their understanding of 6.1-4. Such a hoot!


    • Was I too charitable? Chalk it up.

      Yes, Emma, absolutely, the aversion to myth in the Bible and to myth in general academia is widespread. I’ve got a review of research on the particular issue of Giants with about 80 academic examples. “Giants” appears nowhere in the NIV, too, could ya guess?


  2. six years late in commenting, but passing through and wondering if this Dictionary of Early Judaism uses any Jewish translations. I don’t have easy access to this volume, but I notice that the conversation above is about LXX and KJV, not, e.g., Robert Alter or Everett Fox or “JPS” (Jewish Publication Society) or Artscroll. Onkelos (earliest Aramaic translation), actually puts “giboriah” (גבריא) in place of Nephilim to avoid any suggestion that “Nephilim” might be “fallen.”

    FWIW, “Nephilim” is left untranslated in Fox, JPS, and Artscroll. Alter is the only one who uses “Giants” for “Nephilim.” For “gibborim,” they use (respectively): “heroes who were of former ages,” “mighty men that were of old,” “men of might, who of old, were men of devastation” [ugh!], with Alter using “heroes of yore.”

    Just found your Giant blog, BTW, and will be back.


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