Michael Heiser’s (Mis)interpretation of “Nephilim” as “Giants” not “Fallen Ones”

Michael Heiser - Giant?
Michael Heiser – Giant?

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.

See also: Michael Heiser: Putting the Aramaic Cart before the Hebrew Horse

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26 thoughts on “Michael Heiser’s (Mis)interpretation of “Nephilim” as “Giants” not “Fallen Ones”

  1. This explanation is the only one that makes sense to me. It also makes the best sense in light of the “fallen mighty” of Ezekiel 32:27.

    Do you see the same sense implied in Numbers 13:33?

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    • Yes, Paul – the Nephilim of Gen 6.4 and 13.33 and the Nophelim of Ezek 32 should all be understood somewhat alike in the sense of dead, fallen heroes or kings. This is so even in Num. 13.33, where the Nephilim (or their descendants) are still alive, as the setting of the story is in the remote past of a founding tradition.

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      • I said the Nophelim and Nephilim were alike, Michael, not Identical. A comparison may be made with the Gebir of Gen 27 (“lords”) and Gibborim (“mighty men”) of many other passages. Both are alike in depicting “great” or “strong” men, based on the same root g-b-r, but there is a slight difference in meaning. Likewise, both the Nephilim of Gen 6 and Nophelim of Ezek 32 refer to the fallen dead. But there is also some distinction in respect of the Nephilim, probably to do with their renown as heroes of ancient times.

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    • It is funny , I do not even understand Hebrew, yet I see the links, or morphology of Nephilim,Rephiam and Nophelim.

      I study music and ‘scale formation evolution’ works just like etomology.

      Take the word/scale Nahawand,(aramic) vs the word Nahavent/nahavend (turkish) these are both the same scales but with some variations in the micro-tones. Obviously the root scale/or word has the same meaning, but not the same flavor.

      Would it not be concise to state, similar words are derived from similar meanings?

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      • Hi there.

        It seems there is a problem with the understanding of Aramaic vs Hebrew vs Greek.

        Just because a language is recorded before another language does not in any way mean, they both can not have borrowed from each other.

        We see examples of, the amalgamation of languages now days; who shortened the word brother to bro first was it any particular language or ethnicity>?

        Can ‘bro’ mean different things ?

        I really do not understand these arguments. Maybe it is a case of not actually learning the culture from whence the writings became?

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  2. The problem faced here is in the words ” he appears to overlook the fact that this Aramaic “meaning” only occurs in works which are even later than the biblical texts” Terms and definitions are well-known long before they are written down. Being placed on a ms. doesn’t mean that that is the first time it is used or known.

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    • What you say is correct, but not at all persuasive.

      In this case, “Nephilin” only appears in literature influenced by the (Hebrew) Bible. The existing evidence supports precisely the reverse direction of dependence than that required for Heiser’s position to be right. Based on the evidence as we have it, the term “Nephilim” gave rise to the Aramaic term “Nephilin”. Sure, base your conclusion on hypothetical earlier uses of which we have no evidence, but I’ll stick to what is known before turning to unfounded speculation.

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  3. The problem comes in with the context of the text. To say ‘the fallen ones were in the land…” doesn’t make sense since all but 8 were fallen people, sinners who pursued sin so greatly that God felt sad that He created man.

    Now to say ‘there were giants in the land…’ makes sense because not all of the people were giants and they needed a special reference to make note of them.

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    • As I explained in the post, the “fallen” nature of the Nephilim refers to their characterisation as fallen heroes of antiquity – not from any concept of a fall from heaven or a fall into sin. As Gen 6.4 proceeds to explain that the ‘Fallen Ones” were “the mighty men of old” and also explains that they were the “men of renown”, I doubt that the original readers would have had any problem understanding the reference.

      Further, my “Fallen Ones” is an etymological rendering of the word, and should not be confused with the meaning. Given the context, albeit a brief one, I would translate Nephilim as “Fallen Heroes” – a once precisely understood reference.

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      • I agree with you Deane that “giants” would be an Aramaic anachronism. I also agree with theology-archaeology here that it doesn’t make sense for the 10 unfaithful spies of Num 13 to say “We are afraid of the fallen ones”. If they were fallen then why fear them. There may have been some later revising where someone put in the word “fallen ones” after it had become more of a class of beings, but it also seems a stretch. The best thing I can figure (and feel free to correct me) is that it originally meant “those who cause to fall” (i.e. mighty in battle). Then they would be a formidable people to be feared. Perhaps the word (only found in two places) had already fallen into obscurity by the time that the “matres lectionis” were inserted. The two different morphological forms of the word in Num 13 may indicate some poor struggling scribe hedging his bet.

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      • Hi Sedes – I just saw your comment, so sorry for the late reply.

        I don’t think that it poses any problem that the spies say they saw (etymologically) “fallen ones” in the land. This is only the etymology of the word – the word’s meaning is a different matter. “Nephilim” means something like “great heroes” in Num 13.33, based on the parallels listed in Gen 6:4.

        Also, the qaṭīl form is passive, so it is the Nephilim most probably who are fallen.

        It just occurred to me that there is a strong argument against your objection. Numbers 13:33 actually includes a qualification to the description of the giant residents of the land as “Nephilim” – it adds the gloss to the word Nephilim, “the sons of Anak from the Nephilim”. It is probable that the author of Num 13:33 saw a problem with saying that the spies saw the Nephilim themselves (who had all died before the Flood). So the author explains that what they saw were only descendents of the Nephilim. The Nephilim themselves had fallen long ago.

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  4. I always understood the ‘giants’ to be the literary result of the Nephilim’s sex with human women. The Nephilim were heavenly beings, who came down to earth and knocked up the earth girls. Gen 6 gives states that this resulted in the ‘giants’, which the Enochic tradition picks up on. The Genesis Apocryphon certainly supports this interpretation. It’s why Lamech is so worried that Bitenosh is not carrying his son. So the Nehpilim are not the giants, but they were supposedly heavenly beings.

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    • In the reception of Gen 6.1-4, you often get the Nephilim identified with the sons of the gods. But you also get very, very imaginative developments of this very, very short biblical episode! That is, 1QapGen is not an exegesis of Genesis as we might do, but develops all sorts of interesting speculations and additions. So I don’t think that we can rely on it to support an interpretation of Gen 6.1-4.

      Gen 6.1-4 is somewhat ambiguous or difficult to follow, in particular because of the uncertain function of אשׁר (‘when’? ‘because’?) and the uncertain referent for המה (‘they’) in 6.4. Yet it would be the conclusion of most interpreters that the Nephilim are the “offspring” of the sons of the gods and human women, to be equated with the “mighty men or heroes of antiquity” and “men of renown”, but distinct from the sons of the gods. I think the consensus is right on this, because I conclude אשׁר is a causal conjunction (“because”) which identifies the Nephilim with the offspring, and the referent of המה is the Nephilim or immediately previously named offspring.

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    • The nephilim are never cast as heavenly beings in 2nd temple literature. LXX translators and 2nd temple writers had them as giant offspring of heavenly beings.

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      • This may be so, but the Book of Giants is ambiguous, with its pairing of “Gibborim/Giants and Nephilim” – is this is a distinction from giants or apposition? The fragmentary nature of the text from Qumran prevents any definitive answer.

        Moreover, the Nephilim are equated with the sons of the gods soon after the second temple period, per the extant texts: in Origen’s Hexapla and Targum Ps-Jonathan.

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  5. A few thoughts: (1) there are no actual examples of the qatil formation of from n-p-l in the Hebrew Bible — and I acknowledge that *formation* is a possibility in what I’ve written. (2) the Aramaic notion is not anachronistic, as the gloss (and basically everyone takes Num 13:33 as a gloss) would be quite late. (3) An exilic reworking of material like this is quite consistent with an exilic final editing of the Torah — and the Babylonian flavor to much that is found in Gen 1-11. He never explains how “Aramaic is later than the Bible” — unless he takes a fundamentalist view that the Torah was not reworked during the exile — a reworking of the Bible still results in the Bible, and so his anachronism argument is incoherent. (4) Deane offers no rebuttle to the morphological possibility for which I argue (i.e., it works). (5) I don’t see an explanation for how the LXX translators could conclude that gigantes (“giant”) was a good translation — as opposed to “fallen ones” in Greek. Why don’t we get that? My view accounts for this. (6) The idea of giants in 2nd temple literature is not mutually exclusive with “fallenness” (anyone familiar with 2nd temple literature will tell you they are conceptually linked).

    So, where’s the impossibility of the morphological explanation? It’s consistent with everything we know of “giant theology” in the second temple era. Nothing I say is inconsistent with the mass or scholarship on this issue — only my morphological suspicion differs. So, Dean wants to condemn someone who arrives at the same destination because they took a different route (which route is quite workable). Really? Why the beef? Must have been a slow blogging day.

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  6. its the same story told 100s of times in the bible; the believers and followers of God fall into apostasy and mingle with the heathen people of the world, and then follow after their gods….This is what Solomon did, this is also the condition of the present day church…These mighty-men become famous and extremely influential. “IE” the Pope etc…They are mighty men of renown and influence, such as all of the great and well known preachers today preaching heresies. Billy Graham is the biggest giant of the 20th century, 100s of millions of $ by Randolph Hurst was poured into his agenda. in Luke and in Matthew, Jesus said cursed it is a curse to be a famous preacher of renown,….The snares that Gods people fall into are reoccurring themes told over and over again in the bible, nothing new under the sun.., and they are to be as a warning for Christians in this present age to remain sober and diligent in the word…………..grace and truth, bill

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