Does Nephilim mean “Giants”?
The beginning of the sixth chapter of Genesis, where the word Nephilim comes from, is one of the most baffling passages of the Bible:
4 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.
Remarkably, some translations have here the word ‘giants’, instead of ‘Nephilim’:
4 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.
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.
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.
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 
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.
SONS OF GOD
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 – 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) 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.
From this verse, 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.
“The fallen angels” view – the one that I advocated – is one of the most prevalent interpretations of this story. In the previous article, we used the Derash technique and saw that this view stemmed from angels being called “sons of God”, or interpreted as such in Job 1:6, 2:1, and 38:7.
I already mentioned that this “angelic interpretation” (the idea that the “sons of God” were angels, or some kind of divine beings) is almost non-existent in modern Judaism. It’s important to note, though, that for a long time, “the angel view” had been predominant in many extra-biblical Jewish writings (the book of Enoch for example: 1 Enoch 6-11, usually dated c. 200 B.C, clearly identifies the “sons of God” as angels). However, later Jewish commentators choose to read the noun (Elohim) as a plural form, and therefore b’nai ha Elohim here became “the sons of the rulers”, “the sons of the nobles”, “the sons of the princes” or “the sons of the Judges”.
We might note here that, if they were simply the sons of the rulers, or of the nobles, who took simple girls as their wives, their parents, the nobles and the rulers, might not have been happy with these unions – but why God? God doesn’t care about social differences and different statuses. As Dorothy Healy wrote in her comment here: “One thing does seem clear from the text: that ‘the sons of god’ are differentiated from ‘the daughters of men’ i.e. they came from a different sphere, and their procreation was certainly not according to the will of God”. Let us think logically: if “the sons of God” are opposed to “the daughters of men” – doesn’t that mean that they were not ‘sons of men’ and therefore not human: they were “angels who did not keep their own domain, but abandoned their proper abode“.
WHO DID THE SPIES SEE?
In order to understand the nature of the Nephilim, let us turn again to our Derash technique and seek a comparative meaning – a deeper meaning obtained from a passage by comparing its words and content to similar passages elsewhere. We already know that the Torah also mentions Nephilim after the flood, in Numbers 13, when Moses sent twelve spies to scout out the land. All the spies, except Caleb and Joshua, brought up an evil report of the land which they had searched. They were absolutely frightened by what (or whom) they had seen. Who did they see, then?
“ 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. ”
The words in the brackets are very interesting: what does it mean that the descendants of Anak come from the Nephilim? Once again, we will need some Hebrew here. The original text says: -bnei Anak min-haNephilim. The Hebrew word “Anak”– simply transliterated as “Anak” in the English text – means “giant”. So, our Hebrew text literally says: “We saw giants from the Nephilim”.
The response that Joshua and Caleb gave to the congregation of Israel is even more interesting: “… do not rebel against the LORD. And do not be afraid of the people of the land, because we will devour them. Their protection is gone, but the LORD is with us. Do not be afraid of them”
First of all, it is quite remarkable that, even though several parts of the ”bad report” were challenged by Joshua and Caleb, they did not challenge the information about giants. They didn’t say: ‘what are you talking about? There were no giants there, we haven’t seen any giants!’ It seems that these “giants from the Nephilim” were indeed in the Land, if Joshua and Caleb didn’t dispute the fact.
But there is some additional, absolutely intriguing information that we discover in their answer in Hebrew. In English, we have this convenient, “normal” text: Their protection is gone, – but you wouldn’t believe what the original Hebrew text is saying here. Joshua and Caleb are saying about the people of the land: ?”Their shadow is gone!” The Hebrew text doesn’t speak of any protection, it speaks of shadow only: Their shadow is gone, and the Lord is with us!
Are you surprised by this expression? Trust me, I was also infinitely surprised when I made this discovery. And I am not claiming anything – I am just letting you know that the literal meaning (Peshat) of these words refers to Nephilim’s shadow: ‘their shadow is gone!” Definitely, we can still understand it at Remez (allegorical) level, as an implied meaning of “protection” – and to read it as “protection”, of course, would be much more convenient and traditional; we have to remember, though, that one of the main rules of the Jewish hermeneutic states that all the higher levels (starting from Remez/Allegory) should not contradict Peshat: As a general rule, the extended meaning never contradicts the base meaning.
This expression: ‘their shadow is gone!” – occurs only once in the whole Torah, only here, and I think you will agree that it is very peculiar remark. I don’t know about you, but it gives me chills. As Michael Heiser wrote in his wonderful book, “seeing the Bible through the eyes of an ancient reader requires shedding the filters of our traditions and presumptions”.
MORE ABOUT THE SHADOW
Once again, I would turn to my favorite technique, PARDES, in order to examine the meaning of the verse from the book of Numbers:
Only rebel not ye against the LORD, neither fear ye the people of the land; for they are bread for us: their defense (origin. shadow) is departed from them, and the LORD is with us: fear them not.
PESHAT: According to the Jewish tradition, the Peshat is the keystone to understanding scripture: If we discard the Peshat “the text loses its historical significance and meaning and becomes an empty cup to be filled with whatever the teacher/interpreter wants”. It is also true that within the Peshat, a passage can be figurative. However, there are certain rules to determine if a verse should be understood literally or figuratively. For example, when the expression cannot be understood literally – i.e. when an inanimate object describes a living thing or, vice versa, life and action are attributed to an inanimate object – then the statement is obviously figurative (for example, in our verse, the expression “they are bread for us” should be understood figuratively). The opposite is also true: when a verse can be understood literally, it should be understood that way, and our verse can definitely be understood literally. As weird, uncomfortable and inconvenient as it may sound, the plain, simple meaning of these words refers to the Nephilim’s shadow: “their shadow is gone!”. As Dr. Michael Heiser writes, “if it’s weird, it’s important”.
REMEZ (“hint”), we will recall, “is the meaning at which the texts hint, although it is not stated obviously”. Most translations render the word “shadow” here as “protection”, or “defense” thus ascribing the implied meaning of protection. However, we can also read this text differently at Remez level – not as “protection”, but as an “image” (tzelem) of God. Since the Hebrew words tzelem(image) and tzel (shadow) are connected, it might refer to the idea that, unlike men, the Nephilim don’t have the image (shadow) of God within them: the image (shadow) of God is gone! Interestingly, this reading is also supported by the fact, that in these words: the word, “their shadow” (tzel with plural suffix) – is spelled exactly the same as the word “image” in Gen 1:26-27 . I also believe that there is an actual connection between these two levels: between the implied profound thought that the image of God is gone from the Nephilim, and a traditional belief held by many cultures that creatures that don’t cast shadow are not human.
The DERASH method, may I remind you, “examines not only the main text that is being studied or expounded but also any other sacred texts that are associated with the main text”. In fact, we arrived at our current text from Numbers, because we used DERASH while studying the verses from Genesis 6. If we compare these two scriptures (Genesis 6 and Numbers 13-14), we discover that they actually support one another – the verses from Numbers validate non-human heritage. I absolutely admire the faith of Joshua and Caleb, but I can also understand my people there in the wilderness – not only were the people of the Land giants, but if they didn’t cast a shadow, great courage and a very strong faith would have been required to fight these people!
MEN OF RENOWN?
The next step in our research will be connected to the word “ish”– “man”. Genesis 6:4 tells us that Nephilim were “men of the name”, or “men of renown”. The Hebrew word “anashim” here is a plural form of the word “ish”. The meaning of this word is: “man”, “person”, “husband”. An objection can be raised, therefore, based on the meaning of this word: if they are called “anashim” – men – doesn’t that mean that they were regular humans?
Once again, we will use Derash here. Of course, we have many places in Torah where the word “ish” is applied to a regular man – starting from Genesis 2:23 SHAPE \* MERGEFORMAT file://localhost/libronixdls/keylink%7Cref=%5Ben%5Dbible/Gen2.23%7Cres=LLS/ESV where this word occurs for the first time. Yet, surprisingly, we also find this word used in some special cases, referring to angels or some kind of divine beings. Let us look at examples:
Gen 18:22 the men (anashim) …went toward Sodom.
Gen 32:24 – a man (ish ) wrestled with Jacob.
Gen 37:15 file://localhost/libronixdls/keylink%7Cref=%5Ben%5Dbible/Gen37.15%7Cres=LLS/ESV– a man (ish) found Joseph wandering in the field.
We know that in all these cases the persons that the word anashim/ish refers to were not just men – they were divine beings. Therefore, we can conclude that in our case the word anashim doesn’t necessarily define them as humans either.
THE FALLEN ONES
By now, we know that the Nephilim were giants and not humans. But these giants were also evil. How do we know that? Let us use some Hebrew again. The word Nephilim comes from the word fall; a suffix ‘im’ simply adds plurality, hence they were “fallen ones”. Having been born of corrupted, fallen, satanic angels, Nephilim went on to fill the Earth with violence and wickedness and also to reproduce ‘after their own kind’.
I love the books of C.S. Lewis. For a while the only book I read, besides the Bible, were the Chronicles of Narnia. I find it absolutely incredible how Lewis was able to reveal profound spiritual truth in these children’s fairytales. However, there was one thing I couldn’t understand at that point: why would he use all these “mythological” elements in his stories – for example, why make the White Witch very tall and explain it by her non-human origin? I didn’t understand it then, but I can see now, that even in this small detail, Lewis was still reflecting spiritual truths.
Next time, we are going to talk about the Story of the Flood: why God had to go to such extreme measures as a global flood to solve the problem. I have shown you the use of Peshat, and Remez and Derash, and all these levels are wonderful and very helpful, but it’s only when we move to the Sod – Secret/Mystery – that we will really have all the answers and be able to fully comprehend this story. The same is true about our story, so let us trust Him to reveal His secrets in the due time.
 Hidden Treasures, Joseph Shulam, Netivyah Bible Instruction Ministry, 2008, p. 24
 The Unseen Realm, Michael Heiser, Lexham Press, 2015
 I Hidden Treasures, Joseph Shulam, Netivyah Bible Instruction Ministry, 2008, p. 24
 Ibid., p.22
www.eteacherbiblical.com. Used by permission.