In the Acknowledgments section of his recent book, Language and Literacy in Roman Judaea: A Study of the Bar Kokhba Documents (Yale Press, May 2015), Michael Wise thanks those who have gone before him in this area of scholarly research.
Yet Michael Wise does not resort to the hackneyed phrase “standing on the shoulders of giants” in order to describe his reliance on the insights of prior researchers. Instead, he offers the following acknowledgment:
Every scholar is well aware that in almost any area of research we enter as grasshoppers a land formerly (and sometimes presently) indwelt by Anakim. (p. x)
Employing Donna Haraway’s definition of “cyborg”, Uhlenbruch interprets each of the the Nephilim as “a cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction” (“A Cyborg Manifesto”, p. 149). For Uhlenbruch, the Nephilim are boundary-crossers, defying monist categorization. Unlike the twelve spies, whose ancestors are given as the twelve sons of Jacob/Israel, the Nephilim do not derive from the utopian unity which originates in the Garden of Eden and which may be traced through to the Patriarchs. In Genesis 6:4, the Nephilim are instead described as hybrid descendants of human women and the sons of the gods.
“They are partial gods, partial humans, there has been intimacy with human women, and through this breach of boundaries, they are definite symbols of perversity” (p. 178).
But in the biblical story, partial identities and “contradictory standpoints” are not to be permitted. “In the ideal world-to-be that Numbers 13 proposes, the boundary-crosser will be eliminated… Their presence is clearly not desired in the biblical Promised Land, at least not by the Israelites” (p. 179).
And indeed, in the book of Joshua, the Anakim – said to be the descendants of the Nephilim in Num 13:33 – are finally driven out by Caleb (Josh 14-15). Or was that Joshua (Josh 11:21-22)?
(1) the Hebronite traditions (concerning the Judahite leader Caleb, the city of Hebron, and ‘the sons of Anak’ who inhabit Hebron) are not vestiges of ancient legend which have been preserved in the text, but are all secondary to the spy-rebellion tradition derived from dtr Deut. 1;
(2) gigantic stature was first attributed to the sons of Anak and Nephilim in the composition of Num. 13–14, and to the Anakim and Rephaim of Deut. 1–3 in post-deuteronomistic Hexateuchal additions which harmonised the text with the expansionary Num. 13–14;
(3) the extension of the term ‘Rephaim’ to denote entire giant peoples throughout their associated territories also originates with the Hexateuchal harmonisations in Deut. 1–3;
And a detailed interview with the author can be found on Jim West’s blog, Zwinglius Redivivus:
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.
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 publicationsinclude 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: GenesisApocryphon 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.
If you look for the signage at The Giant’s Causeway – a bunch of basalt columns in Northern Ireland that attracts basalt-column-loving tourists from all around the world – you won’t just get a scientific explanation of its origins, you’ll now get the Creationist view as well:
The National Trust decided to include creationist views about the Giant’s Causeway out of respect and tolerance and a genuine concern for ticket sales. This wily pandering to those whom the irrepressible Richard Dawkins described as the “intellectual baboons of young Earth creationism” followed some concerted lobbying from The Caleb Foundation – a conservative evangelical “umbrellaorganisation” in Northern Ireland.
As an umbrellaorganisation which represents the interests of mainstream evangelical Christians in Northern Ireland,we have worked closely with the National Trust over many months with a view to ensuring that the new Causeway Visitor Centre includes an acknowledgement both of the legitimacy of the creationist position on the origins of the unique Causeway stones and of the ongoing debate around this. We are pleased that the National Trust worked positively with us and that this has now been included at the new Visitor Centre.
We fully accept the Trust’s commitment to its position on how the Causeway was formed, but this new centre both respects and acknowledges an alternative viewpoint and the continuing debate, and that means it will be a welcoming and enriching experience for all who visit….
We feel that it is important that the centre, which has been largely funded out of the public purse, should be inclusive and representative of the whole community, and we have therefore been engaged in detailed and constructive discussions with the Trust in order to secure the outcome we have today.
All this makes great fodder for the Guardian‘s indignant readers. But what hasn’t been noted is the strange conjunction of Caleb and Giants. Compare Numbers 13.30-33:
And Caleb stilled the people before Moses, and said, Let us go up at once, and possess it; for we are well able to overcome it. But the men that went up with him said, We be not able to go up against the people; for they are stronger than we. And they brought up an evil report of the land which they had searched unto the children of Israel, saying, The land, through which we have gone to search it, is a land that eateth up the inhabitants thereof; and all the people that we saw in it are men of a great stature. And there we saw the giants, the sons of Anak, which come of the giants: and we were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so we were in their sight.
Spooky, possums, just spooky. And it gets spookier.
The Giant’s Causeway (Clochán an Aifir) is also called the Causeway of the Fomorians (Clochán na bhFomhórach), named after the Fomorians, which count orcs and goblins in their number. If you’re into painting miniature figures, you will be pleased to know that you can buy this set of three Fomorian sirens to paint, for only £4.00 :
The end-results are well worth the effort (well, compared to tiling the floor, that is):
According to legendary beliefs which are not in the Bible, the Giant’s Causeway was built by Fionn mac Cumhaill, known in English as Finn McCool. (McCool! McCool!!) The Giant Fionn mac Cumhaill led a band of warriors known as the Fianna, the name of which was adopted by the Fenian Brotherhood, also known as Fenians, along with members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood and fairly much anybody else in Ireland not interested in kissing the Queen’s arse.
The chairman of The Caleb Foundation is Wallace Thompson, a former adviser to the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) deputy leader Nigel Dodds. The major opponents of the DUP are Sinn Féin, the successors to the Fenians, and often labelled Fenians by their opponents. Again: it’s Caleb versus the Giants!
Dilligent readers will no doubt recall at this point that the founder of Sinn Féin, Arthur Griffith, and other Fenians or “Sinner Feins”, appear in James Joyce’s Ulysses, in the “Cyclops” chapter – that is, the Giant Cyclops.
According to Numbers chapter 14:11-12, the national god of Israel, Yahweh, once made up his mind to kill the entire population of Israel – about two or three million Israelites – but for Moses and his family.
The background is provided in Num. 13, a story in which Israelite spies discover monstrous Giants in the land to which Yahweh has brought them, after their escape from slavery in Egypt. After the spies describe these Giants, called Anakim, the Israelites get scared and decide to return to Egypt. Israel’s fighting men numbered just over 600,000, so together with those aged under 20, women, and Levites, there are some two to three million Israelites who God decides to kill in the story. Of course, it is just a fictional story, with no basis in reality. There never was a migration of two to three million people from Egypt; Egypt”s population never exceeded three million during the relevant period (the late Bronze Age). But despite the fictional nature of the story, as a story it does present a rather jealous and irascible god, who is eventually partially placated by Moses (Num. 14.13-20a), but who still decrees the deaths of two to three million Israelites aged 20 and over (except Caleb, who is oddly not previously excepted in Num. 14.11-12). That is, the story sees no contradiction in proclaiming grace and forgiveness in one breath and the genocide of all those aged 20 and above in the other.
After a century of genocides – including the genocides orchestrated against Jews, Armenians, and Tutsi – justified by various extreme nationalist ideologies, Numbers 13-14 should be read as an example of how human life can become worthless when viewed against some mythical Big Idea – whether that mythical Big Idea is “Yahweh is Almighty God” or “Germans are the Uebermenschen” or “the Tutsi are Hamite invaders from the north”. Allegiance to such ideas not only requires genocide, but perversely justifies it as a good, a kindness or “grace”.
However, those who cling to some Big Idea will of course still consider that genocide is justifiable. Jim West thinks that the death of every Israelite, in the story of Num. 13-14, is justifiable. And his position is as logical as it is absurdly unsound. For if the idea of a genocidal god is worth more to you than the lives of two or three million people, you too should support genocide. The obvious alternative, of course, is that ideas about Yahweh shouldn’t be taken seriously enough to justify the killing of any people, let alone an entire nation.