The Ancient Near Eastern Standard for a ‘Giant’

By ancient Near Eastern standards, someone is considered a giant if they are over six feet tall. (People were shorter back then.)

– Thom Stark, The Human Faces of God: What Scripture Reveals When it Gets God Wrong (And Why Inerrancy Tries to Hide It) (Wipf & Stock, 2010), p. 78, no. 14.

What are these ‘ancient Near Eastern standards’ for the height of a ‘giant’? Where are they found? In fact, what texts from the ancient Near East ever mention a species called ‘giants’?

Maybe Thom Stark was merely claiming that anybody over six-feet tall would be considered very tall in the ancient Near East – which is probably true. However, the text on which is commenting, Gen. 6.1-4, does not, as he acknowledges, merely describe some particularly tall people. Instead, it describes the hybrid offspring of the ‘sons of the gods/God’ and the ‘daughters of men’. In Num. 13, these same ‘giants’ (Nephilim) are described as possessing extreme height, making the Israelites appear like tiny grasshoppers. So, we’re not just talking about humans that happen to stand out in a crowd. We’re talking about a different species; half-breeds: giants.

So, back to these ‘ancient Near Eastern standards’ for the height of a ‘giant’. If Stark is just referring to humans, he’s right – but it’s not relevant to his discussion of Gen. 6.4. But if he’s referring to giants, it sounds to me like a generalization that’s pulled out of the air.

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10 thoughts on “The Ancient Near Eastern Standard for a ‘Giant’

  1. With most scholars, I take the reference to being like grasshoppers next to the Nephilim to be hyperbolic. Again, with most, I take the Nephilim to be a legendary, exaggerated description explaining the existence of “very tall people,” as you put it.

    It’s not that difficult to get one’s head around.

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  2. Yes, the grasshopper reference is hyperbolic of course.

    But were there “very tall people” behind this story? It’s an interesting conjecture, but it can’t get much further than a conjecture, without any ready means of verification. But is it a worthwhile conjecture, or a modern-day attempt at euhemerizing a story which should only be explained in terms of the myths or legends on which it relies? The way the Bible explains the extraordinary nature of the Nephilim involves a description of ‘sons of god/s’ copulating with human women, creating hybrid heroes/gibborim. The story in Num. 13-14 does not merely consider that the people are particularly ‘tall’, but that they were Giant-sized heroes – a breed apart – a hybrid being. Heroes are Giants simply because they meet the mythic definition of heroes, no matter which locale they are associated with. They are exceptional characters in any region, not associated with the more regular-sized inhabitants. So explanations in terms of an historical kernel of ‘very tall people’ miss the mark; the stories base their extraordinary nature on something more – on their hybrid nature as heroes/giants.

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  3. As you well know, I am well aware of the mythological nature of these narratives.

    “The story in Num. 13-14 does not merely consider that the people are particularly ‘tall’, but that they were Giant-sized heroes – a breed apart – a hybrid being.”

    They were warriors who were tall, and that’s what the text says distinguished them.

    “Heroes are Giants simply because they meet the mythic definition of heroes, no matter which locale they are associated with.”

    No. There are mythic heroes who were not giants.

    Look, I think there’s probably a historical kernel behind the mythology. For some reason you don’t, and you think that by referencing a historical kernel I’m “euhemerizing” (“euphemizing”?) the narratives. Far from it. That doesn’t follow from my position at all. These aren’t like the myths about the gods in the heavens. These are account of tangible supernatural beings that were engaged in combat. With the majority of scholars, I see these as mythological explanations for the existence of tall people who as a result of their height made for good warriors. By saying that I’m hardly watering down the mythological character of the accounts, any more than I’m watering down the mythological nature of the virgin birth narratives by insisting that Jesus was actually born and really existed.

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    • The central conception of these heroes as divine-human hybrids places them uncannily close to the mythographers, rather than an author who was writing about recent events like Luke. That’s what makes it euhemerization for you in respect of Gen 6 and not for Luke.

      And doesn’t having the majority of scholars on your side make you a little uneasy?

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  4. No and no.

    The writers of the narratives referred to contemporaneous peoples as the descendents of these mythological hybrids; so no I’m not being “euphemistic” by pointing out the obvious fact that the myths were designed to explain the existence of real people.

    And Luke, despite his proximity to the life of Jesus, employed numerous standard mythological motifs.

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  5. Just to clarify: Which ‘real’, ‘contemporaneous peoples’ were named as descendents of the hybrid Nephilim? And by ‘contemporaneous’ (with the writers?), to which period approximately are you referring?

    Note: I’m using the term “euhemerizing”, not ‘euphemistic’.

    Sure Luke employed mythological motifs. But is there a difference at least in degree between somebody writing about somebody who lived in recent memory and somebody writing about origin stories in the remote past?

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  6. Euhemerizing. Got it.

    According to Joshua 11:22, the surviving Anakim migrated to Philistia—thus connecting the royal accounts of Goliath and his brothers with the mythology of the Nephilim. There is also some connection between the Nephilim and the Amalekites.

    Most scholars assume the mythological flood narratives have a localized historical kernel; most scholars contend that the Israelite exodus myth has some small historical kernel. That doesn’t mean all mythologies are rooted in some sort of history; and it doesn’t mean that just because there is a historical kernel that somehow vindicates the mythology. Mythologies were created to explain real realities. It’s not at all controversial to contend that the mythologies of the hybrid giants were created to explain why some people were noticeably taller than others.

    You seem to have an investment in denying what I and many others think is quite obvious; after all, that is the whole theme of your blog here. But I have no interest in the dispute. I just object to your insinuation that my position (the consensus position) somehow rests on tenuous ground.

    Thanks again. All the best. Signing off.

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  7. Yes – mythologies were created to explain realities, but the realities of those who wrote them. You didn’t give an answer about what approximate period you believed was “contemporaneous” with the writers, so I will have to guess. Did you mean the “time of David” by your reference to Goliath? That would hardly explain the realities of the (Persian) writers, would it? Or is this where you differ from the “majority of scholars” and claim that the references to Anakim in Numbers and Joshua and to Goliath in Samuel were all written much earlier? Or perhaps that they derive from a tradition that derives from a much earlier period, that somehow survived for half a millennium or so?

    In addition, the text distinguishes the Amalekites (and Canaanites, Jeusites, etc) from the Anakim, so that is the difficulty in asserting “some connection” between them.

    If we’re dealing with Persian writing, however, the realities which these myths seek to explain are not the existence of any tall people living half a millennium to a millennium before (well, in fact, in the undateable mythic past). Rather, the realities with which the myths deal is the contemporary Persian idea of Anakim as legendarily tall warriors, their height derived from their half-divine origins. The reason for the explanation of this reality can then have nothing to do with the euhemeristic explanation (that the writers sought to explain the existence of contemporary tall people), but is already immersed in a mythic tradition for which any historical kernel has become almot entirely irrelevant. And that is a reason why your “ancient Near Eastern standards” for the height of a “giant” are not relevant to his discussion of Gen. 6.4.

    As for your comment that I have an “investment” in denying the obvious -I’ll bypass the implied sleight. I will simply question whether the things that you and these “majority of scholars” see as “obvious” only appear “obvious” because the better options have not yet been adequately explored. Maybe not, but the results of inquiry in biblical studies are seldom “obvious”.

    Thanks again for your comments.

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