Genesis' Mysterious Giants: Who Were the Nephilim?

Does Nephilim mean “Giants”?

For many people, the beginning of the 6th chapter of Genesis, where the word Nephilim comes from, is one of the most baffling passages of the Bible:

 The Nephilim were on the earth in those days—and also afterward—when the sons of God went to the daughters of humans and had children by them. They were the heroes of old, men of renown.[1]

Remarkably, some translations have here the word ‘giants’, instead of ‘Nephilim’:

There were giants in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare children to them, the same became mighty men which were of old, men of renown.[2]

As if to make this story even more complicated, scripture also mentions Nephilim after the flood: in the well-known story in Numbers 13, where Moses sent twelve spies to scout out the land, and all the spies, except Caleb and Joshua, brought up an evil report of the land which they had searched, saying:

 We saw the Nephilim there (the descendants of Anak come from the Nephilim). We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we looked the same to them.[3]

 Once again, King James Version translates the word “Nephilim” here as            “giants”:

33 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.[4]

For centuries,  people have debated whether the “sons of God” expression refers to angels or to men, and just who these Nephilim/giants were. As in the case of Melchizedek, this story also gains much more clarity when read in Hebrew.



However, before we delve into our story and use some Hebrew, I would like to introduce here four different levels of Biblical interpretation in Judaism: PARDES. The term PaRDeS is an acronym formed from the initials of these four levels, which are:

Peshat  “plain”, “straight” – the direct, literal meaning of Scripture;

Remez  “hint” – the deeper, symbolic meaning, beyond the literal sense;

Derash  “to inquire”, “to seek” – the comparative meaning: a deeper meaning obtained from a passage by comparing its words and content to similar passages;

Sod  “secret” ,  “mystery” – the deeper meaning, revealed only through inspiration or revelation.

Thus, Peshat means the literal interpretation; Remez is the non-literal, or allegorical meaning; Derash refers to the expanded comparative meaning; Sod represents the hidden, secret meaning of the text.

There is something I should add here: This word pardes  that was chosen by our sages to symbolize the different levels of  interpretation of  scripture, means “garden” or “orchard” in Hebrew, and comes from the Song of Solomon:

Your plants are an orchard (pardes) of pomegranates
With pleasant fruits,
Fragrant henna with spikenard [5]

An orchard might be filled with the most fragrant scents and the most delectable tastes, but one has to walk through it and sample the fruit of the trees in order to appreciate the tastes and smells. Yes, even from outside you can peek in , even from outside, you can  try to recognize which trees grow there – however, it is only when you go inside, when you walk through the garden, when you really see and taste the fruits, that the garden also becomes for you an orchard, or pardes. (If you are interested to see the examples of PARDES interpretation, you can read my book, Abraham had two sons[6]which is written according to the four levels of PARDES).



Now we have all the necessary tools to delve into our story. First of all, let us try to understand who “the sons of God” were. The Hebrew words translated “the sons of God” are b’nai ha Elohim,  Does the Torah mean angels, or just “the sons of rulers”, or “the sons of the nobles”, as some Jewish translations translate b’nai ha Elohim here? We have “the sons of the princes” in Targumim, and “the sons of the Judges” in Midrashim[7] – in fact, the “angelic interpretation” (that they were angels, or some kind of divine beings) is almost non-existent in Judaism. Many of you probably know that the noun Elohim is in a plural form, and it can be read not only as “God”, but also as ‘gods” or even “lords, rulers”, and this is exactly how the Jewish commentaries choose to read this word in this particular verse.

However, if we study the use of this expression in Tanach, we will see a completely different picture. There is no better commentary to the Bible than the Bible itself, and for that reason, we will use the “derash” technique to compare our passage with other similar passages.

The expression “sons of God” doesn’t occur many times in Tanach. The next time we encounter this expression is in Job 1:6 Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan came also among them. We have the same expression again in Job 2:1: Again there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the LORD, and Satan came also among them to present himself before the LORD.

 Nobody questions the meaning of “the sons of God” here: We all know that these verses describe the Divine Council – a meeting in Heaven – therefore, the “sons of God” here are obviously not humans, but angels, who are meeting with God.  Notice that the words in Hebrew translated as “the sons of God” here, are exactly the same as in Genesis 6:2: -b’nai ha Elohim.

The next (and the last, at least in Hebrew[8]) reference to “the sons of God” in Tanach is again in the book of Job, in chapter 38. Speaking about the creation of the universe, God is saying: I laid the foundations of the earth… When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy.[9]

From this verse[10], we can see that the sons of God existed even before the earth itself was created.  This indicates that every use of the term: b’nai ha Elohim or b’nai Elohim in the Old Testament, is, in fact, a reference to angelic beings. Thus, we can conclude that “the sons of God” in Genesis 6 also refers to angels.

Now, that we’ve established that “the sons of God” were angels, we can try to understand the story of Nephilim – and we will do it in our next post.[11] Used by permission. 


[1] Gen. 6:4, NIV

[2] Gen. 6:4, KJV

[3] Num 13:33, NIV

[4] Num 13:33, KJV

[5] Song of Solomon 4:13

[6] You can get the book from my website:

[7] Gen. Rabbah 26:5

[8] In Ps 29:1, we have B’nai Elim  – sons of elim.

[9] Job 38:4,7

[10] In Hebrew, it is b’nai Elohim here, without 

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