Who Were the Nephilim? And Were They Bullies? Originally Published June 19-20, 2020.

This week in Parashat Shelah Lekha, at Bemidbar (Numbers) 13:33, we find the Nephilim.  We have talked about them before, when we looked into the Book of Enoch, in which its author describes angels falling from grace (the “Watchers”) taking wives of humans and breeding evil giants - whom he termed “Nephilim” who would consume the earth were they not stopped.  (Enoch was Methuselah’s father, but did not live nearly as long, possibly because of all his witnessing of these heavenly goings-on.)  (The Book of Enoch is a part of the apocrypha, non-canonical books - please see our prior column about it.)

The Nephilim appear also in Genesis, in 6:4:  “It was then, and later too, that the Nephilim appeared on earth - when the divine beings cohabited with the daughters of men, who bore them offspring.  They were the heroes of old, the men of renown.”  (This is in the midst of a rather troubling passage in which these divine beings saw how beautiful the daughters of the men were and took them, and meanwhile God was decreeing that the evil mankind should be mortal, lasting but 120 years.)  (Your correspondent wonders whether the word “heroes” (gibborim) might not have meant something else way back when, more along the lines of “powerful.”)

Now in this current parashah at 13:33 we read that ten of the twelve reconnoiterers sent out ahead to look at the land of Canaan brought back the report that (as translated in the Etz Hayim humash) “The country that we traversed and scouted is one that devours its settlers.  All the people that we saw in it are men of great size; we saw the Nephilim there - the Anakites are part of the Nephilim - and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.”

This report, as we know, did not go over well.  The people were quite annoyed by these dim prospects. 

Now there are lexicographers and interpreters and translators and scholars who feel that the word “nefilim” should be translated simply as “giants,” as some do the term “Anakite,” said to be offspring of nefilim.  Some say the Nephilim are so named because the word - from the same root as “to fall” - indicates that they have fallen.  Others say that they got their name because they cause the world to fall.  The Greek translation by Aquila Ponticus, e.g., has been interpreted to mean either “the fallen ones” or “the ones falling” (perhaps meaning upon their enemies).  And one scholar, Shimon bar Yochai (who lived in the second century CE, a disciple of Rabbi Akiva), declared a curse on anyone teaching that angels could marry humans.  (In popular culture there is a gothic band called Fields of the Nephilim; we throw in for interest.) 

Fall the Nephilim did, according to many scholars (though there are some who feel that somehow 10% of the souls of the Nephilim and Anakites remained on earth to try to sway humans toward evil).  Some say they pushed God over the proverbial edge toward the great flood.  Others say they were too tall to drown in the flood – said to have been some 4500 feet tall - and other action may have been required against them.

The Nephilim apparently were quite pushy, lusting after our women (or worse, our girls) and taking them.  We grasshoppers, though, eventually overcame those louts.  Possibly the first example of bullies in the Bible, it behooves us to reflect upon them, especially in these times rife with bullying.