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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.