Michael Heiser: Putting the Aramaic Cart before the Hebrew Horse

Michael Heiser - Putting the Aramaic cart before the Hebrew horse

Michael Heiser – Putting the Aramaic cart before the Hebrew horse

This response is further to an earlier post on Remnant of Giants, “Michael Heiser’s (Mis)interpretation of “Nephilim” as “Giants” not “Fallen Ones”“, which was followed by a comment from Michael on the same post and Michael’s post, “My Thoughts on Nephilim: Answering a Criticism” on The Naked Bible:

Thank you for your reply in the comments section of my earlier post, Michael, and for your post. What you have written here and in your post helps me understand how you have come to your conclusion, which I continue to consider is unsound.

Of course, I quite agree that there is no simple morphological basis for preferring my explanation that “Nephilim” is a Heb. qatil or your explanation that it is a loanword from the Aramaic usage attested in the Genesis Apocryphon and Book of Giants. The form would be the same in either case. So this is not at issue between us. But your claim faces much more substantial problems than morphology.

What is at issue is the cogency in claiming that “Nephilim” is an Aramaic loanword into Hebrew, when the only passages in Aramaic which employ the purported Aramaic loanword are so obviously dependent on Gen. 6:4. Both Genesis Apocryphon and Book of Giants are rewritings of the Genesis narrative. The obvious conclusion is that their employment of the term Nephilin is dependent on the use of Nephilim in Gen. 6.4. So of course the Aramaic would have the same form as the Hebrew: the occurrences of “Nephilin” are all dependent on the Hebrew “Nephilim”. You have put the Aramaic cart before the Hebrew horse! My argument is not merely that there is an absence of Aramaic evidence that precedes Genesis – but that the Aramaic evidence we have is clearly dependent on Genesis. So your reliance on the Aramaic “meaning” of Nephilin faces what I consider is an insurmountable problem, and I hope I have made this problem clearer to you.

If you wish to continue to make an argument that the Aramaic meaning of the term “Nephilin” is “giants” and that this meaning influenced the Hebrew, the onus is on you to provide the evidence. But there is no evidence – is there? Furthermore, the only evidence we have in Aramaic suggests the opposite conclusion: the Aramaic term “Nephilin” is only used in contexts which are dependent on the Bible’s use of “Nephilim”. Your argument from Aramaic “meaning” is circular at best.

Furthermore, I do not follow your logic in mentioning that the gloss in Num. 13:33 is “quite late”? First, Nephilim is not a gloss in Gen. 6:4 – or do you also date Gen. 6:4 “quite late” (whatever that means)? Second, for what I think is your argument to have any cogency, the three mentions of “Nephilim” in the Hebrew Bible must all be later than the earliest evidence of Nephilin in Aramaic – later, that is, than the approximately second century BCE works, the Genesis Apocryphon and Book of Giants. Are you really saying that all the occurrences of “Nephilim” in Gen. 6:4 and Num. 13:33 are this late? Third, your statement “basically everyone takes Num 13:33 as a gloss” is either inaccurate or incorrect. It is normally understood that only the words “the sons of Anak from the Nephilim” comprise the later gloss within Num. 13:33. But it is incorrect to say that Num. 13:33 is widely interpreted as a gloss, And there is still one occurrence of the term “Nephilim” in Num. 13:33 which lies outside of the later gloss. So if you are attempting to argue here (and I confess, it is not clear to me if it is your argument) that Num. 13:33 is later than the Aramaic occurrences of Nephilin, you face a number of significant problems.

As your argument for the etymological meaning of Nephilim as “giants” faces these significant problems, I can understand why you might want to switch to the fertile history of the reception of Gen. 6:4, and in particular the Greek Septuagint (LXX). But, evidentially, this is also putting the cart before the horse. As is widely acknowledged, Gen. 6:4 is famously obscure, and gives rise to sometimes quite bizarre later interpretations. One can fairly easily surmise that a translator familiar with Greek literature – writing in, perhaps, the third century BCE – might leap to the conclusion that Gen. 6.1-4’s odd story of dalliances between sons of the gods and human women sounded like something from Greek myth. But this tells us a lot more about the Greek-influenced reception of Gen. 6:4 than it does about Gen. 6:4 itself. This is why Lothar Perlitt cautions that the LXX mixed two quite different worlds in translating historisierenden Notizen des Alten Testaments (‘historicizing notices in the Old Testament’) with terms which were weitgehend mythologisch in sensu stricto (‘largely mythological in sensu stricto’). If hard cases make bad law, obscure stories make bad translations – and Gen. 6:4 is a prime case in point. Perlitt’s conclusion is correct: Kurzum: die Frage nach den Riesen im Alten Testament fände auf dem Wege über die griechische oder lateinische Konkordanz nur falsche Antworten (‘In short: the question concerning Giants in the Old Testament would find only wrong answers by looking in a Greek or Latin concordance’). And of course, the wrong answers are only compounded by looking at interpretations of the Nephilim which come even later than LXX.

So for these reasons, I still cannot see how you could reasonably rely on Aramaic evidence in order to arrive at the meaning of “giants” for Nephilim. You may certainly raise the conjecture that the term “Nephilin” was used in Aramaic to mean “giants” before the composition of Gen. 6:4 and Num. 13:33. Or you can feel free to raise conjectures that there were similar words in Egyptian, or Akkadian, or whatever – which I am sure would be based on just the same amount of evidence (that is, none). But I will continue to prefer the facts that exist – and that includes the fact that Nephilim follows a Hebrew form, the qatil, with an etymological meaning of “fallen ones”. I am, however, most willing to be persuaded otherwise, if you are able to present a sound argument for the etymological meaning of “Nephilim” as “giants” from the Aramaic evidence.


Filed under Biblical Exegesis, Genesis 6.1-4, Nephilim, Numbers 13-14

17 responses to “Michael Heiser: Putting the Aramaic Cart before the Hebrew Horse

  1. Pingback: Michael Heiser’s (Mis)interpretation of “Nephilim” as “Giants” not “Fallen Ones” | Remnant of Giants

  2. mheiser

    This is lengthy, but doesn’t address my question about why the LXX translators simply didn’t agree with your take on this. I’m siding with them. I think they knew what they were doing. I’m also siding with the 2nd temple writers as well, who also disagree with your take. For those who want the link to what I think is really the issue, see: http://michaelsheiser.com/TheNakedBible/2013/03/thoughts-nephilim-answering-criticism/

    Sorry I don’t have time for more!


    • No, I did in fact address why the LXX translators used gigantes. See the bit that reads “As is widely acknowledged, Gen. 6:4 is famously obscure, and gives rise to sometimes quite bizarre later interpretations. One can fairly easily surmise that a translator familiar with Greek literature – writing in, perhaps, the third century BCE – might leap to the conclusion that Gen. 6.1-4′s odd story of dalliances between sons of the gods and human women sounded like something from Greek myth”.

      Which second-temple writers “disagree with my take”? I am unaware of any who examine the etymology of nephilim/nephilim. This is a modern critical task. This is not a question of whether the Nephilim were understood to be giants even in Gen. 6:4 – they may well have been. The question is whether the word itself, “Nephilim” has the etymological sense of “giants”. And that is not something you can answer by pointing to later stories which treat the Nephilim as giants.

      But this all detracts from my main point: how can you rely on Aramaic evidence for the meaning of Nephilim, when the only available Aramaic evidence is dependent on Gen 6:4/Num 13:33?


  3. mheiser

    I should add that “quite late” means exilic – the editorial activity on the Torah at that time. It’s late in biblical history.


    • Thank you. So the Hebrew gloss in Num. 13:33 is earlier than the earliest Aramaic use of “Nephilin”.

      How then can you say that Aramaic texts which are dependent on Gen 6:4 and Num 13:33 provide evidence for the meaning of the term “Nephilim” in Gen 6:4 and Num 13:33? Surely this is putting the Aramaic cart before the Hebrew horse?


      • I copied your question in the comments section of the blogger Heiser’s post. It appears that Mr Heiser is too embarrassed to publish it and my comment is censored. It would seem completely unprofessional and perhaps dishonest, not to respond to your question.


      • Steph – I had written a comment on his Naked Bible blog post, too. It has never shown up, even though other comments have been approved. There are, unfortunately, more people who prefer to close their minds than there are satyagrahis in this world.


  4. SF

    I left this comment on a thread on http://www.reddit.com/r/AcademicBiblical, but might as well reproduce it here:

    I honestly don’t really have an informed opinion on the matter – in the sense that I believe that a great familiarity with the ancient Near Eastern analogs to Gen. 6.1-4 is going to be our best guide in figuring out how to understand/translating נְּפִלִים…but just to play devil’s advocate, out of boredom: a better argument for teasing (something akin to) the meaning ‘giant’ out of it – without appealing solely to the (late) Aramaic נפ(י)לא, as in the Targum to Job 38.31 – is to take it as derivative from the niphal of פלא, as something like ‘awesome, marvelous’ (cf. Ps. 139.14, נִפְלָאִים). However, it seems that then we’d have to posit that נְּפִלִים is a later ‘correction’ – including, among other things, dropping the final aleph, taking it instead from נָפַל.

    But interestingly, in Deut. 2, the giants (גדול ,רום) of the Moabite land are called אימים – probably deriving from a root ‘terrible, frightening’: ‘the terrible ones’.

    The association of ‘fear’ and ‘awesomeness’ seems fairly natural, even appearing in the psalm I mentioned above (ירא, right before א/פלה). Cf. also Deut. 28.59, perhaps, for פלה in a quite negative context.

    I don’t really have a dog in the fight, though. I haven’t spent enough time with the particular issue.

    But, based on my limited knowledge, I’m still banking on something like ‘fallen ones’.


  5. You’re still missing the point. The issue is explaining how the LXX translators and the Jewish thinkers of the 2nd temple period *did not* see the word as “fallen ones.” Their translation and writings just don’t go there. This is a little like textual criticism — the effort there is to determine the best reading — but really, the reading that best explains how the other ones arose is the best bet. I’m trying to account for why no one in the ancient world followed the path you take (and many others take). That has nothing to do with all the nuts and bolts stuff you’re doing. I’m providing a hypothesis that is not only possible, but one that accounts for all the issues. You’re only worried about philology, but where you arrive doesn’t address why no one followed that path.


    • I doubt very much that I’m missing the point. And I’m quite sure that my explanation better accounts for all the facts.

      As I have noted, it is quite explicable that Jewish interpreters/translators, writing in Greek in the LXX, would make connections between Gen 6:1-4 and somewhat similar Greek myths about intercourse between gods and human women and their heroic offspring. The explanation of the LXX interpretation/translation of gigantes is thus quite explicable, no matter what the etymological sense of the Hebrew term “Nephilim”. As the precise sense of the term “Nephilim” was somewhat obscure to the translators, it is quite explicable why they chose to render it with the Greek term “gigantes” with recourse to the context of Gen 6:1-4. This is especially so given the association of the fallen heroic dead of long ago with gigantic stature (perhaps only a head and shoulders above your average five-foot-and-a-bit Greek of the third century BCE, but of heroic and gigantic stature all the same according to Homer). The connection is already made in the association (in Num 13.33) between the tall “sons of Anak” and Nephilim, which provides the first extant imputation of the Nephilim/ancient heroes with giant stature. (“Gigantes” isn’t a completely bad translation in LXX, as it picks up on the identity of the Nephilim as heroes of old. But in later tradition, it tended to be confused with the gigantes of the gigantomachy or the Titans.) But the main point here is that there is a perfectly good reason why a Jewish translator into Greek would choose the term gigantes to translate Nephilim. It is an interesting curiosity in the history of tradition that this accent on height in the translation gigantes gave rise to many creative expansions of Gen 6:4 in the Second Temple period and beyond (eg. Book of Giants; Genesis Apocryphon; and many more). But as all of these expansions are (again, quite explicably) later haggadic developments of the original association in Num 13:33 and LXX Gen 6:4; you can hardly rely on them as proof of the earlier Hebrew meaning of Gen 6:4. That would be, as I have said, to put the cart before the horse.

      But back to the question that you haven’t yet addressed: do you still consider it is legitimate and persuasive to cite the Aramaic “meaning” of Nephilin in order to interpret the etymological sense of Nephilim in Gen 6:4 as “giants” – given that the Aramaic “meaning” is later than and dependent on Gen 6:4?

      Thank you for your response.


  6. So you answer is that the passage and gigantes is obscure and the translators were looking at a word that meant “fallen ones” but opted for giants because they were confused? Sorry, but I think they knew very well what they were doing. The scribe was trying to solve a problem. I don’t appeal to ancient ignorance when there’s a much simpler (and less insulting) solution.

    You also seem to not have read my thoughts on giants. I don’t think they were any taller than really tall people today. But that’s over on PaleoBabble.

    You’re still actually misunderstanding my thinking. I’m not arguing to “dependence” of anything in any way. See my own comments on this on my blog, or the new archive page devoted to it (working on it now).


    • Deane

      It would be wrong to suppose that such a development of tradition involves “ignorance” so much as the influence of new factors on later interpretations. One of the lessons of all the work done recently in “inner-biblical interpretation” is that there is a key paradox that frequently arises: authors both claim to be faithful to a received tradition and yet develop it in new directions due to their differing interests, the influence of socio-economic factors, etc. I think that is precisely what is happening here in the reception history of Heb. Gen 6:1-4. (You may find this explanation less “insulting” too, if you are given to phrase it that way – but I would not use such language, as I do not think that there can be any “insult” to ancient dead writers.)

      I have indeed read your thoughts on the height of the biblical giants being similar to really tall people today, and I substantially agree with you here. I knew we had some common ground! ;-)

      I still very much doubt that I have ever misunderstood your argument from the Aramaic term Nephilin. I have never claimed that you argued “dependence” on Aramaic. My point is, rather, that in your argument that the best evidence for Heb. Nephilim meaning “giants” is in Aram. Nephilin, you had completely overlooked the fact that the Aramaic term is dependent on the Hebrew term. It is clear to me now that you never considered the basis for the dictionary “meaning” of Nephilin in Jastrow, etc (which you cited in your article, “The Meaning of the Word Nephilim: Fact vs Fantasy”). The problem, as I have presented to you for your reply, is that the earliest known usages of Aram. Nephilin (in Genesis Apocryphon, Book of Giants) are based on passages that are clearly dependent on Hebrew in Gen 6:4. This is why I have repeatedly asked much the same question: do you still consider that the Aramaic Nephilin provides any good proof of the meaning of Hebrew Nephilim? There is no need to answer, now, because it is quite clear that it does not.

      Thank you again for your response, and I will check out the updates to your website at a later date.


  7. Hello. This is a wonderful blog site. Many thanks.

    I have not been following the discussions as I should, and perhaps I have missed something in all the astute discussion between Deane Galbraith and Michael Heiser (please forgive me if what I mention now is an oversight). I am learning a lot from this!

    The word “nephilim” is, as mentioned, pointed thus in the MT. However, the first “yod” äquivalent is not represented by the consonant (with a vocalic value). It is possible, less in the Hebrew text itself, than in interpretations of such a form (which may be attested or presupposed in the Enochic literature, including the Book of Giants), that we have to do with a vocalisation such as “nephalim”, which in later rabbinic literature can carry the meaning “abortions”. If there is anything to this, then the interpretation of such a form (with “patach” rather than “hireq”) may be a vivid way of re-presenting the myth that imagines women unable to carry the offspring of the angels to full-term (because of the size of fetus), so that they fall out of the wombs prematurely. In this case, we may have to do with a secondary, vivid historisizing of this fascinating story, which, by extension, has so many further corollaries.

    Loren Stuckenbruck


    • Deane

      Thank you, Loren. Michael and I had not discussed this possibility, so thank you for outlining it. Our discussion focused on whether Aram. Nphilin could be evidence for the sense of Heb. Nephilim, rather than the sense of Aram. Nphilin itself. In fact, it is still an open question as to what the Aram. term Nphilin means etymologically, and a question that we did not really get into. Lexicons such as Jastrow give “giant” as the meaning, with reference to Ruth Rab, etc. But this does not really offer many clues as to the etymological sense.

      Your suggestion about its origin in imagined fetal dystocia has got me thinking. I can’t think of any discussion of the process of childbirth which would suggest such a thing, as women in the reception of this myth are somewhat limited to temptresses (well before childbirth), and I can’t recall any examples which might imply the condition of the women after childbirth. (Are there examples?) Noah’s mum talks about her giant son after he is born, so as to reassure Noah’s dad that he is hers in the Genesis Apocryphon, but the point of course is that while tall [probably – but the text has a lacuna here] he is not an offspring of angels. I tend to think that the gigantic nature of the Nephilim is a secondary development, by way of harmonising Gen 6:4 with Num 13:33. But your suggestion is very interesting!

      The blog is mainly to do with recent reception of biblical giants, but whenever you have a read, I would value your comments.


  8. Pingback: Biblical Studies Carnival – March 2013 | Reading Acts

  9. Chris of the Delany clan

    Some people can talk such flash words but, where do those words lead? IMO they lead to confusion and confusion is not helpful.

    Giants and fallen ones , which is the right translation/transliteration?

    Why not try and see the impotence of the conversations?


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