In a number of recent publications, Michael Heiser has claimed that the etymological sense of the term “Nephilim” found in Gen 6.4 and Num. 13.33 is “giant”.
Most academic attempts to explain the sense of “Nephilim” derive it from the Hebrew root נפל (n-f-l: “to fall”). There is a relatively straightforward explanation for the form of the term Nephilim. It appears to be a reduction of the passive adjective (qaṭīl), קְטִיל. Joüon-Muraoka notes that ‘hardly anything but substantives are found in this form’ (Grammar of Biblical Hebrew, 250, §88E g). So in this form, the meaning of “Nephilim” is something like “fallen ones”. Or, as Victor P. Hamilton translates it: ‘those who were made to fall; those who were cast down’ (The Book of Genesis, 269; cf. Ronald S. Hendel, ‘The Nephilim were on the Earth’, 21; Brian R. Doak, The Last of the Rephaim, 63).
Yet the difficulty is not with the sense of the term, but with determining its precise significance. Unlike in later retellings, there is no indication in Gen. 6:1–4 that בני האלהים (the sons of god(s)) had previously resided in the heavens or had ‘fallen’ to earth or were ‘spiritually’ fallen. Even if such an interpretation is imposed on Gen. 6:1–4, the description ‘the fallen ones’ would presumably apply to the בני האלהים, not their earth-born offspring, the Nephilim. But there is at least one other good explanation for describing these “mighty men” who lived “long ago” (Gen. 6.4) as “fallen ones”. As heroes, the Nephilim would probably have been described as dying in heroic deaths, perhaps to have “fallen” in battle. This explanation was proposed by Hartmut Gese in Vom Sinai zum Zion (p. 110), and provides what I think is the better sense of the “fall” of the “Fallen Ones”.
Yet in a number of publications, Michael Heiser casts doubt on the derivation from n-f-l. These publications include his draft book, The Myth That is True, an article on “Nephilim” for the online FaithLife Study Bible, Sitcheniswrong.com, and this video from AncientAliensDebunked.com. Heiser does so by criticising scholars who have derived Nephilim from the Hebrew participle of n-f-l. He’s right that the term Nephilim does not meet the standard form for a participle. But he either does not mention or quickly dismisses the fact that “Nephilim” perfectly fits the passive adjectival form in Hebrew.
Instead, Heiser argues that the term Nephilim most closely resembles the Aramaic term נפילין (Nephilin). Heiser points out that the “meaning” of the Aramaic term Nephilin is “giant”. So his conclusion is that the Hebrew “Nephilim” was derived from the Aramaic term for “giant”, and that the meaning of the Hebrew term Nephilim is also “giant”. After all, as Heiser claims, the Jews were quite familiar with Aramaic as the lingua franca of the ancient Near East and as a language closely related to Hebrew.
But there is a giant problem with this reasoning, even if we leave aside the fact that “Nephilim” has a perfectly acceptable Hebrew adjectival form. For when Heiser claims that the “meaning” of Nephilin in Aramaic is giant, he appears to overlook the fact that this Aramaic “meaning” only occurs in works which are even later than the biblical texts in Gen 6.4 and Num. 13.33 and which are dependent on the Hebrew biblical texts. A “meaning” is only as good as its particular uses. And you can’t claim that a biblical word derives from Aramaic if the Aramaic usage is later than the Bible!
I am aware of no instances of the Aramaic term Nephilin from Old or Imperial Aramaic – that is, from before the writing of the Pentateuch The first attested examples of the term Nephilin (or variants) occur in post-biblical documents from Qumran: Genesis Apocryphon and the Book of Giants. What’s more, these texts from Qumran are dependent on the Enochic version of the story in Gen 6.1-4. They are retellings of retellings of Gen. 6.1-4. Although some scholars have claimed that 1 Enoch predates Gen 6.1-4, Michael Heiser does not, so this is not an issue here. These Aramaic retellings are certainly interesting developments in the reception of Gen 6.1-4, and it is true that the Nephilim were characterised as “giants” in much of their early reception. Yet it remains the case that there is no intimation of the height of the Nephilim in Gen 6.1-4 itself. The idea that the Nephilim were giants originates in Num 13.33’s comparison of the Nephilim to the gigantic Anakim; it is not present in Gen 6.4. Instead, in Gen 6.4 the Nephilim are identified with “mighty men”/”heroes” of remote antiquity, who were famed for their heroic deeds. The descriptions fit well with the conception of the heroic “fallen dead”, and the derivation of the term Nephilim from n-f-l. But the idea of giants is absent in Gen. 6.1-4 and must be imposed from Num 13 in order to be seen there.
The Aramaic foundation for Michael Heiser’s interpretation of Nephilim is anachronistic: the Aramaic term Nephilin is only attested later than the Hebrew term Nephilim, so cannot be supported as the basis for the Hebrew Nephilim. Moreover, the Aramaic term Nephilin is first attested only in Jewish texts from Qumran which are clearly dependent on the Hebrew stories in Gen. 6.1-4 and Num. 13. Based on the evidence as we have it, the Hebrew term “Nephilim” gave rise to the Aramaic term “Nephilin” – not the reverse.