RELG 303

Giants in the Bible

by Peter T. Chattaway
March 10, 1994

I. The Races of Giants
I.a. Nephilim (the Hebrew spies, the "sons of God")
I.b. Rephaim (Og, Goliath)
I.c. Anakim
II. Historical Background to the Giants
III. Interpreting the Giants
III.a. Half god, half man
III.b. The fallen ones


Tales of giants abound in the popular cultures of most ages. The human imagination is often drawn to stories about humans who are larger than life. A random sample of such characters, good or evil, might include Goliath, the Cyclops, the giant at the top of Jack's Beanstalk, Paul Bunyan, or even Colossal Kid in the Legion of Super-Heroes. Sometimes this desire for the human-who-is-larger-than-life is expressed in physical terms, as seen in the Colossus of Rhodes, the Sphinx of Egypt, the effigies of Easter Island, and the Statue of Liberty.

The Bible is no exception. Giant stories are particularly prominent in the narratives of Israel's history and pre-history, and the effect they had on Israelite thought can still be felt in the writings of the later poets and prophets. The variety of these traditions, together with their antecedents in non-Israelite cultures and the use that was made of them by the Israelite authors and editors, is the topic of this paper.

I. The Races of Giants

I.a. Nephilim

The first race of giants mentioned in the canon is perhaps also the most enigmatic. The relevant passage runs thus:

When men began to increase in number on the earth and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that the daughters of men were beautiful, and they married any of them they chose. Then the LORD said, "My Spirit will not contend with man forever, for he is mortal; his days will be a hundred and twenty years."
The Nephilim were on the earth in those days -- and also afterward -- when the sons of God went to the daughters of men and had children by them. They were the heroes of old, men of renown. (Genesis 6:1-4, NIV throughout except where noted otherwise)

It has been argued that the portion of v. 4 that mentions the Nephilim should stand on its own, apart from the rest of this passage (cf. Westermann, p. 366). Be that as it may, it is difficult to understand who the Nephilim are, exactly, without some sort of context, even if we must put them in a context that is fraught with its own problems of interpretation.

But first, why should we look at the Nephilim at all? Why should they be considered giants, and thus included in this paper? The answer can be found in Number 13:32-33, which is the only other explicit reference to the Nephilim in the canon. In this passage, the Hebrew spies tell their desert-wandering comrades what they found in Canaan:

"...All the people we saw there are of great size. 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 spies are clearly exaggerating (cf. Barker, p. 210). If "all the people" were of such great size, one wonders how to account for the apparently normal size of Rahab, the Gibeonites, and others that Joshua encounters upon entering Canaan 38 years later (cf. Joshua 6:25, 9:3-15). Still, there is no question that the "descendants of Anak" are giants, as we will see below. Thus, while it is possible that the spies are panicking and exaggerating when they claim to have seen the Nephilim, they do make a connection between the Nephilim and the "descendants of Anak", and this would seem to secure a reputation for the Nephilim as people of great stature. The translation of Nephilim as gigantes in the Septuagint and the Vulgate supports this tradition (Hess, ABD 4.1072), as does Josephus' use of this Greek term for giants (Antiquities 1.73).

It has been suggested that the Genesis passage was edited to take this episode from Numbers into account. In Genesis, it is said that the Nephilim were in the earth "also afterward" -- i.e., after the Deluge -- and this phrase may have been inserted into the text to account for the presence of Anakites in the period following the Exodus (Vawter, p. 113; Westermann, p. 377). However true that might be, there seems to be little interest, in both the primary and secondary sources, in how the Nephilim could have survived the Deluge. Perhaps the spies in Numbers invoked the Nephilim simply to scare the Hebrews away from the land, and a later editor interpreted the spies' account literally and modified Genesis accordingly.

The bulk of the Genesis account would seem to be earlier than the Numbers passage, since it is here and only here that the Nephilim -- or any race of giants -- are described in a remotely positive light, as heroic. It was not necessarily impossible for a giant to be a hero in ancient traditions; an obscure Hebrew aeitology for Golgotha, the "hill of the skull" outside Jerusalem, said that it was the skull of Adam himself, who was thought to be of gigantic size (Hertzberg, p. 153 n. b). But in virtually every other biblical account, the giants are portrayed either as foes that the Israelites must defeat or as an ancient race that lost favour with God (cf. Hendel, p. 21); they are the enemy, and their treatment becomes increasingly negative in Jewish and Christian literature. If the tone of later passages were to change, one would expect the writers to become more hostile to the Nephilim, not less; indeed, one can detect this trend occurring in the passage from Josephus cited above, which omits any possible trace of heroism:

[The Nephilim] proved unjust, and despisers of all that was good, on account of the confidence they had in their own strength; for the tradition is, That these men did what resembled the acts of those whom the Grecians call giants. (Antiquities 1.73)

Yet, as far as the author of the Genesis passage is concerned, it would seem that these antediluvian Nephilim are the subject of heroic legends that are now lost to us.

Not all scholars agree with this conclusion, of course. In the last sentence of v. 4, it is the word hmmh, translated here as "they", that indicates the party to be described as haggibbrm ("renowned"). The question then, is, Who does hmmh refer to? It could refer to the Nephilim or to the children produced by the intercourse between the "sons of God" and "daughters of men", and referred to in the last clause of the previous sentence. Birney has suggested that it might even refer to the "sons of God" themselves, but he then goes on to equate the "sons of God" with the Nephilim (Birney, p. 51)! This seems very unlikely; one does not speak of Israelites being in Canaan "in those days" when Hebrews happened to live there. The passage only makes narrative sense if the Nephilim and the "sons of God" are distinct groups of beings and not merely two different names for the same group. To which group, then, does hmmh refer?

First, let's consider the nature of the "sons of God". The expression used here for these beings also occurs in Job 1:6 and Psalm 89:6, referring to "heavenly beings". Job 1:6 and I Kings 22:19 suggest a council of such entities, presided over by God; and traces of a committee-like approach to divine leadership remain in three passages in the primeval cycle (Genesis 1-11, esp. 1:26, 3:22, and 11:7), where God appears to refer to himself in the plural. The existence of these so-called "sons" need not mean that God reproduced, sexually or otherwise; in Semitic use, bn ("son") could simply "denote membership of a class or group" (Byrne, ABD 6.156). To support this, von Rad notes the company of prophets who are called ben hanneb'm ("sons of the prophets") in II Kings 2:3 (p. 114). Although this plurality of quasi-divine beings may point to an originally polytheistic belief, it would seem these members of the heavenly court were subordinate to Yahweh by the time these stories were written down in their current form. If the "sons of God" are heavenly beings, then they are probably not the "men of renown".

This textual interpretation, however, presents its own challenges, and other interpretations have been suggested. The motive for these alternatives is clear: in no other text is it suggested that heavenly beings might enter into sexual relationships with each other, let alone with humans! As one concerned writer put it, "the whole conception of sexual life, as connected with God or angels, is absolutely foreign to Hebrew thought" (William Henry Green, quoted in Birney, p. 45). That, however, did not prevent Josephus (Antiquities 1.73) or the authors of Jubilees and other Jewish writings from equating the "sons of God" with the angels, even in a sexual context.

Another objection has been that, if the "sons of God" are not human, God appears in v. 3 to be punishing mankind for something that was not mankind's fault (e.g., Eslinger, p. 65); it is therefore suggested that the "sons of God" are actually humans, either dynastic rulers or the descendants of Seth who are listed immediately before the "sons of God" passage in Genesis. Both of these human alternatives are somewhat weak. This is especially true for the Sethite interpretation, as there is no evidence in the text to suggest a division between the Sethites and any other clan (Cain was not the only other surviving son of Adam, cf. Genesis 5:4) that would warrant a special designation for the Sethites as "sons of God". The activities of dynastic rulers, on the other hand, would certainly provide at least a subtext for a narrative about "sons of God" whose actions prompt God to punish mankind as a whole, since the fate of the people under a king's rule was often affected by the fate of the king himself (Clines, p. 34). Westermann (pp. 367-368) has noted parallels between this passage and the stories of Pharaoh and Sarah (Genesis 12:10-20) and David and Bathsheba (II Samuel 11-12), in which kings notice the beauty of certain women, take them into their possession, and are soon rebuked by God (in Westermann's view, the "sons of God" would have been rebuked, too, in an older and now displaced version of Genesis 6:3). This, however, is not to suggest that the "sons of God" are dynastic rulers themselves; it could be taken to suggest that the "sons of God" had a position of power or even authority over humans which resembled that of kings, and that the fates of these humans were bound to the fates of the "sons of God" themselves. A king in that day and age might often refer to himself as a "son" of the gods (Byrne, ABD 6.156), but this vocabulary was usually limited to isolated cases of court propaganda and is "rarely if ever attested in the ancient Near East as a term for kings in general" (Clines, p. 34). The simple fact is that the term "sons of God" (or "sons of the gods") applied to deities -- albeit "second rank gods" (W. Herrmann, quoted in Westermann, p. 372) -- in the ancient Near East, particularly in the Canaanite world that the Israelites were most immediately influenced by (cf. Suggs, p.16). Thus, they are most likely not to be equated with the "men of renown" referred to in Genesis 6:4.

These heroes are then either the Nephilim or the children born to the "sons of God" and their human wives, or both. This may depend on whether the Nephilim "were" on the earth, and just happened to be there when the "sons of God" mated with human women, or "arose, came to be" as a result of the marriages; the word hy is open to both possibilities. Birney (p. 50) sees a problem in relating "arose" to the phrase "and also afterward"; however, even assuming that this phrase is not an interpolation, "arose" could still apply to the Nephilim, since they were presumably destroyed in the Deluge and would have had to start anew if they were ever to exist in the post-diluvian world. Vawter prefers "appeared" (p. 110), while Hendel (p. 15), von Rad (p. 113), and Westermann (p. 365) translate it "were"; all four, however, interpret the passage as an aetiology for the gigantic Nephilim.

The Nephilim, then, are a race of giants, born of a mixed divine and human parentage, who became famous for their heroic deeds in the days before the Deluge, and who may or may not have been present in the land of Israel after the Deluge, too, though this seems unlikely.

I.b. Rephaim

Despite the famous enigma that is the Nephilim, the race of giants who permeate the greatest span of Israelite historiography are the Rephaim. They are first mentioned in Genesis 14:5 as one of several peoples defeated by an alliance of kings led by Kedorlaomer of Elam. Their defeat is a prelude to the sacking of Sodom and Gomorrah (vv. 8-12), the chief purpose of Kedorlaomer's expedition. Because his nephew Lot was among the captives taken from Sodom, Abram pursued the Elamites and rescued the Sodomites. After this, Yahweh appeared to Abram and entered into a covenant with him, promising him "the land of the Kenites, Kenizzites, Kadmonites, Hittites, Perizzites, Rephaites, Amorites, Canaanites, Girgashites and Jebusites" (15:19-21). To judge from the grammar in the original Hebrew, the Rephaim were not a nation in the strictest sense, but "a loosely defined group used to fill out this list" (Smith, ABD 5.675). There is no indication here that they are any different from the neighbouring peoples.

The Rephaim are not mentioned again until Deuteronomy, in which Moses gives a speech to the Israelites shortly before they enter Canaan. At this point the Israelites have already defeated a few kings in the Transjordan area, and Moses now reminds the Israelites that God is going to give them the land of Canaan even though they are "a stiff-necked people" (9:6). The Israelites are not allowed to invade the lands of the Moabites or Ammonites, since Yahweh has given that territory to "the descendants of Lot" (2:9,19; cf. Genesis 19:36-38). Moses reminds the Israelites that Yahweh has defeated giants on behalf of those other two nations, and that he will do the same for them; on both occasions he equates the local giants with the Rephaim:

The Emites used to live there [in Moab] -- a people strong and numerous, and as tall as the Anakites. Like the Anakites, they too were considered Rephaites, but the Moabites called them Emites. (Deuteronomy 2:10-11)

That too [the land of the Ammonites] was considered a land of the Rephaites, who used to live there; but the Ammonites called them Zamzummites. They were a people strong and numerous, and as tall as the Anakites. The LORD destroyed them from before the Ammonites, who drove them out and settled in their place. (Deuteronomy 2:20-21)

Shortly after this summary of their neighbours' history, Moses reminds the Israelites that they have recently defeated Og, king of Argob in Bashan, and killed everyone in his sixty cities (3:3-10). The text then adds:

Only Og king of Bashan was left of the remnant of the Rephaites. His bed was made of iron and was more than thirteen feet long and six feet wide. It is still in Rabbah of the Ammonites. (Deuteronomy 3:11)

Given that most scholars today consider Deuteronomy to be a later document than the rest of the Pentateuch, it is worth noting that the original account of Og's defeat in Numbers 21:33-35 makes no mention of his size; the Deuteronomist may have merged the account of Og's defeat with another legend based on the "iron bed" that one could still see in Rabbah. Also, given that the Israelites still had the Anakim to defeat, one might doubt whether Og was truly the "only" member of the Rephaim left. Joshua 12:4 and 13:12 modify this somewhat by saying that Og was "one of the last" of the Rephaim.

There is also an interesting reference in Joshua 17:15 to the tribe of Manasseh migrating to "the land of the Perizzites and Rephaites"; all the previous references to Og placed him in the Transjordan vicinity of Ashtaroth. Genesis 14:5 places the Rephaim in Ashteroth Karnaim, possibly the same Karnaim that is several kilometers north of Og's Ashtaroth (Suggs, map 1). An Ugaritic text also names Ashtaroth and Edrei (Og's other city; cf. Deuteronomy 3:10, Joshua 13:31) as the cities of one Rapa'u, whose name seems linked to that of the Rephaim (Smith, ABD 5.675). The Perizzites, however, are typically placed on the west side of the Jordan in the land of Canaan (Barker, p. 315; cf. Joshua 3:10, 12:8); if the Rephaim were their neighbours, it would seem that the Rephaim were spread out over a much wider area. (The Rephaim are listed immediately after the Perizzites in Genesis 15:18-21, but as one of many races in the land that God promises to Abram, a land that stretches "from the river [Nile] of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates". The Rephaim need not have been neighbours of the Perizzites in that catalogue.) The "remnant" of which Og was a part is therefore probably a sub-group within the larger group of Rephaim, and might be better translated "kinsmen" (cf. Talmon, p. 237); Og would then be the last of his local clan, but not the end of the Rephaim per se.

Indeed, the "descendants of Rapha" are mentioned once more in II Samuel 21:15-22, though they are not identified explicitly as "Rephaim" here. This term is used in I Chronicles 20:4-8, a later passage that picks up and modifies the account in Samuel somewhat. (Interestingly, Chronicles places its version of this passage immediately after David's capture of Rabbah (20:1-3), the same Ammonite city where Og's "iron bed" is said to have been; is the Chronicler trying to associate the two? The capture of Rabbah occurs considerably earlier in II Samuel (11:1, 12:26-31) and serves as a framing device for the narrative of David's aforementioned encounter with Bathsheba.) All the references to the Rephaim here associate them with the Philistines, who had probably either conquered them and forced them into military service, or else hired them as a mercenary force similar to David's personal guard of Kerethites (who in turn appear to have been captured or mercenary Philistines; cf. II Samuel 15:18, 20:7; Zephaniah 2:5; Talmon, pp. 239-240). Of the four fighting men who defeat these Rephaim, all are from the tribe of Judah; one is from David's hometown or a nearby community, and two others are David's nephews! Judging from David's "exhaustion" (II Samuel 21:15), these encounters may have occurred fairly late in David's reign; they certainly herald the end of his career on the battlefield.

The first "descendant of Rapha", mentioned in II Samuel 21:15-17 but missing from Chronicles, is named Ishbi-Benob. (This is disputed by Josephus, who says in Antiquities 7.299 that he was "Achmon, the son of Araph, he was one of the sons of the giants.") There are no exact references to his stature; instead he is said to have used a new sword and a bronze spearhead that weighed 7.5 pounds. Ishbi-Benob was killed by Abishai, the brother of David's general Joab and the son of David's sister Zeruiah (cf. I Chronicles 2:16). Saph, the second "descendant of Rapha", was killed by Sibbecai the Hushathite (II Samuel 21:18; I Chronicles 20:4), a member of the tribe of Judah through Zerah and a division leader in David's army (II Samuel 27:11). The fourth "descendant of Rapha" was an unnamed giant (Josephus gives his height as six cubits, i.e. over nine feet; Antiquities 7.303) who had an extra finger or toe on each of his hands and feet. This giant was killed by David's nephew Jonathan for "taunting Israel" (II Samuel 21:20-21).

The third "descendant of Rapha" bears a distinct resemblance to one particular famous giant of uncertain racial origin:

In another battle with the Philistines at Gob, Elhanan son of Jaare-Oregim [or "Jair the weaver"] the Bethlehemite killed Goliath the Gittite, who had a spear with a shaft like a weaver's rod. (II Samuel 21:19)

One is instantly reminded of the first military encounter that David of Bethlehem had with the Philistines:

A champion named Goliath, who was from Gath, came out of the Philistine camp. ... His spear shaft was like a weaver's rod, and its iron point weighed six hundred shekels [about 15 pounds]. (I Samuel 17:4a,7)

Goliath is not specifically called a Rephaite, or an Anakite, or any other particular sort of giant; this is simply inferred from his height in I Samuel 17:4b (more on that below). While the account of David's Goliath offers much more physical detail, the similarities in name, hometown, and weaponry ("spear shaft like a weaver's rod") were apparently too similar for at least one ancient writer, the Chronicler, who sought to separate the two by changing the description of Elhanan "the Bethlehemite [bt hallahm]" into a description of the giant as "Lahmi the brother" of Goliath (Hertzberg, p. 387). Most scholars now believe, however, that one tradition has borrowed from the other.

The proposed form of this borrowing has taken many forms. It is highly unlikely that any scribe would have taken the victory of the legendary King David and transferred it to one of a handful of David's mighty warriors. Any details that might have been borrowed, then, would have passed from Elhanan to David.

One theory advanced to harmonize the stories holds that Elhanan was the real name of the champion who, on becoming monarch, assumed "David" as his throne title; this theory was bouyed partly by the discovery that dawidum was a term for "commander" in the Mari texts. This view is not held by the majority of scholars, though, partly because it fails to explain why Elhanan would be counted as one of his own heroes in a passage which seems to have been compiled at an early date, yet uses the name David six times in the space of eight verses without once implying that David and Elhanan were remotely identical (Hertzberg, p. 387). A similar view, which holds that Elhanan's story was transferred in toto to David at a later stage (as implied in Suggs, p. 335), seems unnecessary, since much of the story of David and his Goliath is actually a story about David and "the Philistine", who is named "Goliath" in verses that suggest later editing of the narrative. The consensus now is that details of the Elhanan story "attached themselves artificially to an unrelated duel of David's own" (McCarter, p. 291).

But can any of these details be traced decisively from Elhanan to David? The only details that these accounts share are the name "Goliath", the fact that the giant came from Gath, and his spear "with a shaft like a weaver's rod". The location of Goliath's home is not entirely persuasive, since all of the "descendants of Rapha" slain by David's men came from Gath (II Samuel 21:22). Goliath is the only one singled out as a "Gittite", true, but the "huge man" with the extra digits is also singled out for being slain at the city of Gath itself. Even in the passage in which the Elhanan anecdote is preserved, Goliath's residency is not unique. One could even suggest that a race of tall people, if such existed, would naturally have concentrated on a relatively small geographic location, just as ethnic groups are "ghetto-ized" today. If the giant stories are purely legendary, it also stands to reason that the Elhanan and David narratives could spring from a common story about Gittite giants and Hebrew (or Bethlehemite, for that matter) warriors. The other terms may also not be so unique. Hertzberg has suggested that the name "Goliath" had already "come to designate a type" (p. 387); the same might be true of the "weaver's rod" analogy, which I Chronicles 11:23 adds to the otherwise completely unrelated story (originally found in I Samuel 23:20-21) about an Egyptian giant killed with his own spear by Benaiah son of Jehoida.

At any rate, it is commonly accepted that the story of David and Goliath stood on its own originally, even if Goliath was not so named in the earliest versions of the story. The narrative's emphasis on Goliath's weapons and armour has been interpreted by Hertzberg and others to suggest that the Davidic account was first preserved independently at the site of the Tabernacle, where Goliath's weapons were left for David to retrieve them later (Hertzberg, p. 154; McCarter, pp. 294-295; cf. I Samuel 21:9, in which Goliath's name could be omitted without any mistake as to which giant is referred to). Indeed, much is made of Goliath's accoutrements in I Samuel 17:5-7 that is not found in the Elhanan account, and the manner in which his battle gear is described suggests that David's Goliath is a composite of the various foes that Israel had to contend with:

That David's opponent is no "Mycenaean hoplite" has been shown clearly by K. Galling ... who finds the armor to be a diverse collection of offensive and defensive weapons combined by the narrator from a variety of places and styles to emphasize the formidability of the Philistine champion. (McCarter, p. 292)

Thus, the "Goliath" we are told about in I Samuel may borrow some elements from giants of various other traditions, including that of Elhanan's encounter with what appears to have been one of the last of the Rephaim. At the same time, it appears that at least one similar story (McCarter argues for two that were edited together) existed independently for David, whose foe might or might not have come from a known race of giants. The connection between the Philistine champion and Gath suggests that he was of the same racial stock as the "descendants of Rapha" killed by David's warriors, possibly even the Anakim.

In summary, then, the Rephaim in Israelite historiography were a quasi-national Syro-Palestinian race of unusually tall people that were displaced by the Israelites, Moabites, and Ammonites towards the end of the Bronze Age. They are the only giants for whom we have any names or physical height statistics, and they appear to have been absorbed into the Philistine culture, particularly its military, where they became the catalyst for a number of legends about the victorious Israelites.

I.c. Anakim

The "descendants of Anak" are first mentioned in Numbers 13, when the Hebrew spies investigate the Promised Land of Canaan and return to discourage the other Hebrews from entering it. The Anakim are associated with the Nephilim from the beginning (Numbers 13:33), and they are later equated with the Rephaim, too (Deuteronomy 2:11). They are consistently described as "strong and tall", and their cities as "large, with walls up to the sky" (e.g., Deuteronomy 1:28).

Despite this reference to "cities" in the plural, most geographic references to the Anakim before the Israelite invasion place them simply in Kiriath Arba, later known as Hebron, where it is said that three particular "descendants" or "sons" of Anak lived: Ahiman, Sheshai, and Talmai. They are said to have lived in Hebron when the spies arrived, and were still there 38 years later when Joshua and Caleb, the only survivors from the original group of spies, returned to drive them out (Numbers 13:22; Joshua 11:21, 15:14; Judges 1:20). However, Joshua 11:21-22 does credit the Anakim with control of a much wider territory, extending to the cities of Debir and Anab and "all the hill country of Judah, and ... Israel." One other Anakite is named in the biblical text: Arba, after whom Kiriath Arba was supposedly named. He is referred to as both "the forefather of Anak" (Joshua 15:13, 21:11) or "the greatest man among the Anakites" (Joshua 14:15). This aetiology provides no further details, and it has been suggested that, since arba is the word for "four", Kiriath Arba originally meant "City of Four", possibly referring to the four other names associated with the town: Ahiman, Sheshai, Talmai, and Anak himself (Graves & Patai, p. 107).

Although the biblical text states that Caleb drove the Anakim out of Hebron (Joshua 14:12, 15:14; Judges 1:20), Joshua is also credited with this feat in the larger context of driving them out of the hill country (Joshua 11:21). All references to the Anakim by that name are limited to four books: Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, and Judges. There is no clear record of the Anakim after the Israelite invasion, but since a remnant survived in Gaza, Gath, and Ashdod (Joshua 11:22), it is probably safe to assume that they were assimilated into the culture of the Philistines, who were just beginning to settle in that area. These three cities went on to play a central role in Philistine politics, and Gath has already been noted for its connection to the giants. These Anakim have already been equated with the Rephaim (Deuteronomy 2:11), so they were no doubt understood to be the same as the "descendants of Rapha" who worked out of Philistine Gath in II Samuel 21:22.

II. Historical Background to the Giants

While legends of giants often sound overly fantastic, individuals of unusually tall stature are a recorded phenomenon. The key difference between fact and legend is that, by modern medical standards, giantism is normally regarded as a disease or something similarly unhealthy; the chances of an abnormally tall person having a body sturdy enough to pose a serious threat on the battlefield is somewhat unlikely.

Then again, "tall" is a relative measurement. Generally speaking, some races can be said to be taller or shorter than others, and it is possible that the Israelites were confronted with an enemy people (or peoples) that was, on the average, taller than the Israelites were. Given the popular but by no means proven belief that the Philistines came from the Aegean, some have noted the "fairly tall stature" of skeletons from the Minoan culture in Crete and sought to establish a connection between the Cretans and the Philistine giants (cf. Dothan & Dothan, p. 112).

Such efforts have their roots in the authors of antiquity, who speak of the bones of past heroes and villains that were still on display for others to see. Josephus wrote that one could see the bones of the Anakim "to this very day, unlike to any creditable relations of other men" (Antiquities 5.126). Cimon is said to have recognized the bones of Theseus on the isle of Scyros by their enormous size (Plutarch, Theseus 38), and Pausanias in his Guide to Greece speaks of two separate caches of giants' bones that one may visit in Arkadia (8.29.4, 8.32.5).

Only two giants are actually given exact heights in the biblical accounts, and while the figures show evidence of exaggeration, neither case is wholly implausible. In a somewhat unnecessary move, Wiseman supports the plausibility of Goliath's height ("six cubits and a span", corresponding to about 3 metres or 9 feet, according to most translations of I Samuel 17:4) by citing anonymous skeletons with heights of up to 3.2 metres that he says have been found in Syro-Palestine; however, he does not cite any particular studies to support this claim (pp. 23, 244 n. 58). In any case, the textual evidence suggests that Goliath, while a giant, was originally somewhat shorter than the height given in most versions of the Bible today. While the Masoretic Text and certain editions of the Septuagint do give Goliath's height as "six cubits and a span", Josephus (Antiquities 6.171) and a Dead Sea Scroll fragment known as 4QSama both give his height as "four cubits and a span", as do certain other editions of the Septuagint (McCarter, p. 286). One would certainly not expect copyists to downplay the challenge faced and won by David, thus it seems that Goliath was, in fact, closer to six feet nine inches tall, "a true giant in an age when a man well under six feet might be considered tall" (McCarter, p. 291). The only other giant for whom we are given an exact height is Benaiah's Egyptian victim, who was five cubits tall (roughly 2.3 metres) according to I Chronicles 11:23, though this would appear to be a gloss on the heightless account in II Samuel 23:21; in any case, such a height is plausible, if remotely so. (We are also given the impressive length of Og's bed, but for Og himself no exact height is given.)

Giantism is not the only medical anomaly suggested to explain the giant stories. The Hebrew word anaq can mean "necklace", as in Proverbs 1:9, and it has been suggested that the Anakim (anaqim) were people with "grossly enlarged necks due to endemic goiter", which would have resembled great puffy "necklaces". Sussman (ABD 6.13) finds this explanation unlikely, since there is no evidence for a widespread condition of this sort in the ancient Middle East, though he notes that "the pituitary abnormalities associated with giantism and acromegaly are, in fact, associated with goiter. It may be that our texts give a clue to accurate observation" (ibid.). Mattingly (ABD 1.222) has also suggested a connection between anaq and the Anakim, though for him anaq would indicate a "long-necked" people, and thus the giants.

Many other explanations exist for the name of the Anakim. Moshe Dothan, an excavator with years of experience on the Philistine sites, has sought to equate the Anakim with the early Aegean settlers on linguistic and archaeological grounds. Between the Canaanite and Philistine layers at Ashdod (one of the Anakite cities in Joshua 11:22), he discovered evidence of a Mycenaean settlement that pre-dated the later Philistine culture. Dothan thus called these early settlers Anakim, "taking [his] cue from the Bible" (Dothan & Dothan, p. 169). Dothan's hypothesis for the origin of the name itself is that "Anak" or "Anakim" may be derived from the Greek "Wanax", which he describes as "a generic name for the king or head of a community or of tribes." He says the one major difficulty with his theory is that "it is not so easy to transform the Greek omega and make it an 'ayin in Hebrew in this period" (Dothan, in Shanks, p. 47). Another problem may be that all the biblical references to the Anakim occur well before the Israelites encounter the Philistines; as we have seen, the only explicit references to a race of giants fighting for the Philistines refer to them as Rephaim or "descendants of Rapha".

Others point to the Egyptian Execration Texts that condemn a long list of the Egyptians' enemies. Included in that list are 'Erum, Abi-yamimu, and 'Akirum, the "Ruler[s] of Iy-'anaq" (Pritchard, p. 328). Some have sought to relate this tribe to the Anakim of the Bible, but the Execration Texts date to the 19th-18th centuries B.C., at least five hundred years before the Israelite invasion and probably another few hundred years before the accounts were written. Nothing else is known of the Anakim or the Iy-'anaq outside of these documents, so the connection must remain speculation for now (cf. Mattingly, ABD 1.222).

Graves & Patai offer an interesting twist to the tall-immigrants theory by suggesting, as part of their way of explaining the enigmatic "sons of God" passage in Genesis 6:

The explanation of this myth ... may be the arrival in Palestine of tall, barbarous Hebrew herdsmen early in the second millennium B.C., and their exposure, by marriage, to Asianic civilization. 'Sons of El' in this sense would mean the 'cattle-owning worshippers of the Semite Bull-god El'; 'Daughters of Adam' would mean 'women of the soil' (adama), namely the Goddess-worshipping Canaanite agriculturists, notorious for thier orgies and premarital prostitution. If so, this historical event has been tangled with ... Ugaritic myth ... (Graves & Patai, p. 104)

This is an intriguing interpretation, but one cannot help but find it a little over-elaborate. For one thing, the "orgies and premarital prostitution" are not necessitated by Genesis 6:1-4, which simply states that the "sons of God ... married" -- i.e., took legitimate wives from among (Westermann, p. 372) -- "the daughters of men". While later interpretations of the union between heavenly beings and humans saw it in a thoroughly wicked light, this is barely even suggested in the text of Genesis 6:1-4 itself. The rest of this particular modern historical aetiology must remain speculation.

Graves & Patai also advance the view, supported by others, that giant stories may have been inspired by the larger-than-life effigies left behind by previous civilizations (p. 106; cf. Vawter, p. 110). This is not implausible; in fact, even today, such monuments continue to inspire much mythmaking, though storytellers now speak not of gods but of extraterrestrials and the like. One can also detect this process at work in the story of Og, whose claim to gianthood was his "iron bed"; the word "sarcophagus" is sometimes suggested for Og's "bed", with "basalt" taking the place of "iron" (McMillion, ABD 5.9). If other remains of this sort existed in ancient Canaan, they could very well have prompted the imagination of ancient storytellers. If not, then tales of giants may have passed into Canaan through the oral traditions of passing tribes.

The more obscure tribes of giants, the Emim and Zamzummim of Deuteronomy 2, have equally obscure historical backgrounds. The Emim are not attested in any text outside of the Bible, and their name is Hebrew for either "terrible ones" or "frightful ones" (Mattingly, ABD 2.497). The Zamzummim may be related to the Zuzim of Genesis 14:5, who are mentioned in conjunction with the Rephaim and Emim. The name might derive from zamzama, Aramaic for "murmuring" or "muttering", but in light of their association with the giants, it seems more likely that their name may be related to zumzum-, a prefix denoting "the best, the select (of men or camels)" (Astour, ABD 6.1176).

Another tribe, the Horim, are mentioned in two biblical passages (Genesis 14:6 and Deuteronomy 2:12,22), and they are associated on both occasions with the races of giants. However, there is nothing in the text or in their name to suggest that they were giants themselves; they simply occupied the land of Seir before they were driven out by the Edomites, though it appears from Genesis 26 that the Edomites had lived relatively peacefully with them at first. In any case, while the Horim lived in the region and would appear to be guilty of giantism by association, there is no evidence that they were ever actually seen in this light.

III. Interpreting the Giants

III.a. Half god, half man

If we accept that Genesis 6:1-4 offers a mythological account of the birth of the Nephilim, the story may be seen to parallel tales in the mythologies of surrounding cultures, tales that may provide clues to the Genesis account's meaning. For example, according to Apollodorus (1.6.1) and Hesiod (Theogony 183-185), the gigantes were the offspring of Earth (Gaia) and Sky (Ouranos), which may parallel the mating of the heavenly "sons of God" with the women who are daughters of man (adam), and therefore of the earth (adama).

However, in the biblical text's current form, the Nephilim bear a closer resemblance to the Greek demigods, who were children of mixed human-divine parentage, and not fully divine. Hendel argues that the existence of these half-gods was the reason for the Deluge in a very early oral tradition that was common to the Hebrews and Greeks, however faintly it may be detected in the surviving texts (Hendel, p. 23). A Norse myth, which was not written down until over a thousand years after the Greek and Hebrew counterparts, might also be traceable to this common tradition; in it, three gods (Odin, Vili and Ve) kill Ymir, the father of the frost giants, whose blood flows so freely that it becomes a flood which drowns the other giants (Crossley-Holland, p. 4). Admittedly, the Norse example has little else to recommend it, as two giants do survive in a boat (like Noah) to perpetuate their race; and, at any rate, the line between giants and gods remained blurry at best in Norse mythology (e.g., Loki was the son of two giants, yet he was counted as one of the gods; Crossley-Holland, p. 247).

Hendel stakes much of his case on the rarely-used word hmitheoi, which is used by Hesiod on at least two significant occasions and by Homer only once. Hendel cites an existing fragment of Hesiod's Catalogue of Women:

Zeus was planning wondrous deeds, to mingle disorder on the boundless earth, for he already was hastening to annihilate the race of mortal men, as a pretext to destroy the lives of the demigods, [so that] the children of the gods [would not mate with wretched] mortals, seeing [fate] with their own eyes, but that the blessed gods [henceforth], as before, should have their way of life and their accustomed places apart from mortal man. (in Hendel, p. 19)

The word hmitheoi is used here to describe the demigods, and Hendel notes that use of this word is "rare in Hesiod"; the other main occurence is in The Works and Days 160, where the "half-gods" were limited to the fourth age of mankind, the one immediately preceding the iron age, before they were separated "far from the immortals" (Works and Days 168) on islands at the edge of the world. The only occurence of this word in Homer occurs in a passage that describes a sort of miniature flood which the gods sent to destroy a rampart built by the Achaeans:

But once the best of the Trojan captains fell,
and many Achaeans died as well while some survived,
and Priam's high walls were stormed in the tenth year
and the Argives set sail for the native land they loved --
then, at last, Poseidon and Lord Apollo launched their plan
to smash the rampart, flinging into it all the rivers' fury.
All that flow from the crests of Ida down to breaking surf...
... where tons of oxhide shields
and horned helmets tumbled deep in the river silt
and a race of man who seemed half god, half mortal.
(Homer, Iliad, 12.16-22,25-27)

Hendel supports Scodel's argument that this is a "vestige of an older flood tradition which the Trojan War has largely displaced" by noting that Poseidon here takes part in the destruction of the rampart when, elsewhere in The Iliad, he had been "decidedly pro-Achaean" (Hendel, pp. 19-20).

This argument is not entirely persuasive, of course. The favour of the gods could never be taken for granted, and shortly after the Trojan War ended, a prominent Achaean named Odysseus lost favour with Poseidon for mistreating his son the Cyclops (Homer, The Odyssey, 9.574-589). Bernard Knox sees no grand theme in this passage but, rather, interprets it to mean that even the seemingly greatest of human conflicts "will not even be allowed to leave a mark on the landscape"; Knox compares the rampart to the "great artificial harbours" of the 1944 landing at Normandy, where little if any sign of that "gigantic enterprise" remains today (Knox, in Homer, Iliad, p. 38). In fairness to Hendel, though, it should be noted that a desire to keep the gods and humans separate exists on Zeus' part in Hesiod's works (Hendel, p. 19), and that Knox interprets the overarching theme of The Iliad to be the humanization of Achilles: where Achilles begins the poem full of unchecked rage, pursuing it as single-mindedly as the Greek deities do, Book 24 finds Achilles finally learning how to empathize with another human being:

The Iliad shows us the origin, course and consequences of his [Achilles'] rage, his imprisonment in a godlike, lonely, heroic fury from which all the rest of the world is excluded, and also his return to human stature. (Knox, in Homer, Iliad, p. 46)

Knox then goes on to describe the Greek view that man must occupy a middle ground between gods and beasts, a belief that was compromised for as long as these half-gods continued to exist (cf. pp. 57-58).

This brings us back to the biblical text and its wider context within the primeval cycle in Genesis. As odd as the Nephilim passage in Genesis 6:1-4 is, it fits with the recurring theme in the cycle that God -- or the gods -- are separate from man and must be kept separate (cf. Hendel, pp. 24-25). Man can not live forever and know good from evil (Genesis 3:22), man can not prolong his life through a divine parentage (Genesis 6:3), and man can not reach for heaven and hope to remain as united as the deities that already live there (Genesis 11:6-7). (Cf. Hendel, p. 23, who cites Mary Douglas' observation that "purity laws" serve to keep "distinct the categories of creation"; the mixing of human and divine blood -- if the gods have blood -- worked against the "purity" of "distinct categories".)

III.b. The fallen ones

One other tradition, common to the Nephilim and the Rephaim, is that these giants perished long ago and dwell now in the underworld. "Nephilim" has been traced to the root word npl, meaning "to fall"; thus the Nephilim are the "fallen ones" in the underworld (Hess, ABD 4.1072), either because they "fell" from grace as a result of their supposed wickedness, or because they "fell" in battle and died. Applying different vowels from the ones supplied by the Masoretic Text (which uses the word npelm), it has been shown that Ezekiel refers to the Nephilim in this sense when he offers a lament for Pharaoh, in which he describes the fates of other nations that the Egyptian king and his army will join in "the earth below" (Ezekiel 32:18):

Meshech and Tubal [peoples who had lived in Asia Minor; Suggs, maps 6-7] are there, with all their hordes around their graves. All of them are uncircumcised, killed by the sword because they spread their terror in the land of the living. Do they not lie with the other uncircumcised warriors who have fallen, who went down to the grave [sheol] with their weapons of war, whose swords were placed under their heads? The punishment for their sins rested on their bones, though the terror of these warriors had stalked through the land of the living. (Ezekiel 32:26-27)

The Rephaim are also used this way in the poetic and prophetic literature of the Hebrew Bible. In a "taunt" against the king of Babylon, Isaiah 14:9-11 preserves most clearly a macabre sense of the royalty that the Rephaim once had:

The grave [Sheol] below is all astir
to meet you at your coming;
it rouses the spirits of the departed to greet you --
all those who were leaders in the world;
it makes them rise from their thrones --
all those who were kings over the nations
They will all respond,
they will say to you,
"You also have become weak, as we are;
you have become like us."
All your pomp has been brought down to the grave,
along with the noise of your harps;
maggots are spread out beneath you
and worms cover you.

Isaiah also makes use of the Rephaim in 26:14, where he speaks to Yahweh about the Rephaim:

They are now dead, they live no more;
those departed spirits do not rise.
You punished them and brought them to ruin;
you wiped out all memory of them.

Job 26:5 also speaks of the dead who are "in deep anguish". Psalm 88:5 speaks of the "slain" who are "cut off" from God's care. Proverbs 2:18 warns that the adulteress' paths lead "to the spirits of the dead." In Proverbs 9:18, the dead are guests of "the woman Folly" in Sheol. Proverbs 21:16 says that "a man who strays from the path of understanding / comes to rest in the company of the dead." All these canonical references are further attested to by texts such as the apocryphal book of Baruch:

Israel, how great is God's dwelling-place,
how vast the extent of his domain!
Great and boundless it is, lofty and immeasurable,
There of old the giants were born,
a famous race, mighty in stature, skilled in war.
But those were not chosen by God
or shown the way of knowledge.
Their race perished for lack of insight;
they perished in their folly.
(Baruch 3:24-28, REB)

This tradition developed and spread to territories far from that of the Israelites. Phoenician inscriptions have also been discovered which list the Rephaim as those who are joined by those who cease to live (Smith, ABD 5.674). One can detect parallels between the Hebrew underworld and the shadowy Hades where Odysseus visits the dead Greek heroes (The Odyssey, Book 11). In some places, the Septuagint translates the word "Rephaim" not as giganton (e.g. I Chronicles 11:15) but as Titanon (II Samuel 5:18), thus alluding to the Greek deities who were bound in Tartaros, a place far beneath the earth that was feared even by the gods (Hesiod, Theogony 713-725, 743-744).


Giants served a variety of purposes in Israelite literature. On the one hand, as epitomized in the stories of Goliath and other Philistine champions, giants symbolized the powerful neighbouring states who posed such a daunting challenge to the young Israelite nation's struggle for independence. Stories about Og and the Anakim served to remind the Israelites of the odds that they had already overcome with the help of Yahweh, and these victories were reinforced by poetic references to the giants as "the dead", those who are no longer alive, who no longer pose a threat to Israel's security. Yet, at the same time, the giants served to remind the Israelites to depend not on their own strength but on Yahweh. The giants may have descended from the "sons of God", and they may have been "renowned" for their once-upon-a-time "heroism", but that did not save them from destruction at the hand of God. The ancient Israelites understood the giants' fate to be the result of wickedness and folly; and if heroes could come into such disfavour with God, it was incumbent on the Israelites to remain faithful to the God who had displaced the giants in the Israelites' favour. To borrow from Isaiah 26:14, not quite "all memory" of the giants disappeared, but traces of heroic legends are alluded to in the earliest chapters of Genesis that are, sadly, lost to us now. Like the Nephilim and Rephaim of who they spoke, those tales are now little more than shades in the biblical text.


Apollodorus (trans. Sir James George Frazer). The Library: I. London: William Heinemann Ltd., 1921.
Barker, Kenneth, ed. The NIV Study Bible. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Bible Publishers, 1985.
Birney, Leroy, "An Exegetical Study of Genesis 6:1-4", Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (No. 13, Winter 1970), pp. 43-52
Clines, David J. A., "The Significance of the 'Sons of God' episode (Genesis 6:1-4) in the Context of the 'Primeval History' (Genesis 1-11)", Journal for the Study of the Old Testament (No. 13, July 1979), pp. 33-46.
Crossley-Holland, Kevin. The Norse Myths. London: Andr Deutsch Limited, 1980.
Dothan, Trude & Dothan, Moshe. People of the Sea: The Search for the Philistines. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1992.
Eslinger, Lyle, "A Contextual Identification of the bene ha'elohim and benoth ha'adam in Genesis 6:1-4", Journal for the Study of the Old Testament (No. 13, July 1979), pp. 65-73.
Freedman, David Noel, ed. The Anchor Bible Dictionary. New York: Doubleday, 1992.
     Gerald L. Mattingly, "Anak", vol. 1 p. 222
     Gerald L. Mattingly, "Emim", vol. 2 p. 497
     Carl. S. Ehrlich, "Goliath", vol. 2 pp. 1073-1074
     Ernst Axel Knauf, "Horites", vol. 3 p. 288
     Richard S. Hess, "Nephilim", vol. 4 pp. 1072-1073
     Phillip E. McMillion, "Og", vol. 5 p. 9
     Mark S. Smith, "Rephaim", vol. 5 pp. 674-676
     Gershon Edelstein, "Rephaim, Valley of", vol. 5 pp.676-677
     Max Sussman, "Sickness & Disease", vol. 6 pp. 6-15
     Brendan Byrne, "Sons of God", vol. 6 pp. 156-159
     Michael C. Astour, "Zuzim", vol. 6 p. 1176
Graves, Robert & Patai, Raphael. Hebrew Myths: The Book of Genesis. New York: Anchor Books, republished 1989.
Hendel, Ronald S., "Of Demigods and the Deluge: Toward an Interpretation of Genesis 6:1-4", Journal of Biblical Literature (Vol. 106 No. 1, March 1987), pp. 13-26.
Hertzberg, Hans Wilhelm (trans. J.S. Bowden). I & II Samuel: A Commentary. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1964.
Hesiod (trans. Richmond Lattimore). The Works and Days / Theogony / The Shield of Herakles. Michigan: Ann Arbor Paperbacks, republished 1991.
Homer (trans. Robert Fagles, intro. Bernard Knox). The Iliad. New York: Viking Penguin, 1990.
Homer (trans. Robert Fitzgerald). The Odyssey. New York: Anchor Press, republished 1963.
Josephus, Flavius (trans. William Whiston). The Works of Josephus: New Updated Edition. Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1987.
Kilmer, Anne Draffkorn, "The Mesopotamian Counterparts of the Biblical Neplm", in Perspectives on Language and Text: Essays and Poems in Honor of Francis I. Andersen's Sixtieth Birthday July 28, 1985, ed. Edward G. Conrad & Edward G. Newing, Winona Lake, Indiana: Eisenbrauns, 1987, pp. 39-43.
Matthiae, Paolo, "New Discoveries at Ebla: The Excavation of the Western Palace and the Royal Necropolis of the Amorite Period", Biblical Archaeologist (Vol. 47 No. 1, March 1984), pp. 18-32.
McCarter, P. Kyle, Jr. I Samuel: A New Translation with Introduction, Notes & Commentary (The Anchor Bible, volume 8). Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1980.
Pausanias (trans. Peter Levi). Guide to Greece: II. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books Ltd., 1971.
Petersen, David L., "Genesis 6:1-4, Yahweh and the Organization of the Cosmos", Journal for the Study of the Old Testament (No. 13, July 1979), pp. 47-64.
Plutarch (trans. Ian Scott-Kilvert). The Rise and Fall of Athens: Nine Greek Lives. London: Penguin Books, 1960.
Pritchard, James B., ed. Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament (2nd ed.). Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1955.
Shanks, Hershel, "The Philistines & the Dothans: An Archaeological Romance (An Interview with Moshe and Trude Dothan, Part 2)", Biblical Archaeology Review (Vol. 19 No. 5, Sep/Oct 1993), pp. 40-53, 88.
Sitchin, Zecharia, "Anakim Origins", Biblical Archaeology Review (Vol. 20 No. 1, Jan/Feb 1994), p. 16.
Suggs, M. Jack, etc., ed. The Oxford Study Bible. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.
Talmon, Shemaryahu, "Biblical Repa'im and Ugaritic Rpu/i(m)", Hebrew Annual Review (Vol. 7, 1983), pp. 235-249.
Tripp, Edward. The Meridian Handbook of Classical Mythology. New York: Meridian, republished 1974.
van Gemeren, Willem A., "The Sons of God in Genesis 6:1-4 (An Example of Evangelical Demythologization?)", The Westminster Theological Journal (No. 43, 1980-1981), pp. 320-348.
Vawter, Bruce. On Genesis: A New Reading. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1977.
von Rad, Gerhard (trans. John H. Marks). Genesis: A Commentary (revised). Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1972.
Westermann, Claus (trans. John J. Scullion S.J.). Genesis 1-11: A Commentary. Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1984.
Wiseman, Donald J., "Medicine in the Old Testament World", in Medicine and the Bible, ed. Bernard Palmer, Exeter: The Paternoster Press, 1986, pp. 13-42, 239-249.

© 1994-2001 Peter T. Chattaway
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