Numbers 13 records that Moses sent twelve Israelite spies to investigate the land of Canaan after the exodus from Egypt. The spies reported the inhabitants were strong giants with fortified cities (Numbers 13:28) and included Nephilim. Two of the spies, Caleb and Joshua, expressed confidence the Israelites could drive them out (Numbers 13:30), but the other ten disagreed:
We can’t attack those people; they are stronger than we are. . . . The land we explored devours those living in it. 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 (Numbers 13:31–33, NIV).
Were the Nephilim Giants?
Around the third century BC, Jewish scholars rendered Nephilim as γίγαντες [gigantes] in the Greek Septuagint (LXX). The gigantes in Greek mythology “were a race of great strength and aggression, though not necessarily of great size.”1 The LXX is often viewed as reflecting Jewish tradition, and we are confident the LXX scholars did not literally mean Greek demigods; they probably meant beings with characteristics like gigantes. The KJV translates the word as “giants,” which the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament states “is supported mainly by the LXX and may be quite misleading.”2 Indeed, Numbers 13 suggests the Nephilim were more than just giants; they were especially strong and aggressive.
To be precise, after the spies reported that the Canaanites were “of great size,” they added that they “saw the Nephilim there (the descendants of Anak).”3 Not all Canaanites were Nephilim. And the Nephilim were not only big; they made ten spies feel “like grasshoppers.” It is physiologically implausible that this literally refers to a size difference. More likely—since the Bible describes Anakim as giants who were especially strong and warlike (Deuteronomy 9:2)—it means the spies believed these Nephilim would defeat the Israelites as easily as crushing a grasshopper underfoot.
Nevertheless, as large and strong as the Nephilim were, the Israelites defeated them 40 years later in their conquest of the Canaanites: first Anakim relatives, the Rephaim, including the giant Og (Deuteronomy 2:11), and then the Anakim themselves (Joshua 11:21). Yet Anakim were left “in Gaza, in Gath, and in Ashdod” after the conquest; hence one might imagine giant, warlike Philistines like Goliath and his brother Lahmi were Nephilim.
Linguistics provides another clue to the characteristics of Nephilim. The word comes from the Hebrew root nâphal, which Brown-Driver-Briggs defines as “to fall” or “to fall upon, attack.” The first definition allows support for the fallen angel theory, but the second suggests the Nephilim might just be violent attackers. Martin Luther held this position and believed the Nephilim were tyrants.4 Several modern evangelical scholars agree.5 Old Testament scholar Harold Stigers, for example, suggests “a picture of [Nephilim] falling on victims, to tyrannize by such action.”6 Mickelson’s Enhanced Strong’s Dictionaries of the Greek and Hebrew Testaments defines Nephilim as “a bully or a tyrant.” The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament says “the word may be of unknown origin and mean ‘heroes’ or ‘fierce warriors.’”7 This is consistent with Genesis 6:4, which describes the Nephilim as gibbôr (“mighty men”).
Nephilim as Evil Rulers
Now, we’ll pull together the information in both Genesis 6 and Numbers 13 to reach a conclusion. Genesis 6:1–4 reveals that parents of Nephilim were strong and oppressive rulers of the people, whose debauchery included rampant, forced polygamy that destroyed the family structure ordained by God. This set a pattern for oppression, polygamy, and general sexual depravity by the Nephilim; they exalted themselves with absolute power over others, including sexual licentiousness. Numbers 13 adds that the Nephilim were strong and warlike, and describes them as giants. They were tyrannical absolute rulers and probably aggressive conquerors.
Such was the character of the “men of renown” mentioned in Genesis 6. With these Nephilim in charge, it is easy to envision an utterly evil and lawless society in which the strong took anything they wanted. Oppression, polygamy, and sexual wantonness were conveyed from the rulers down to secondary administrators, down to lower bureaucrats, and finally down to the people themselves. This answers the question about the extraordinary wickedness of the society led by the Nephilim, which explains why God decided to destroy his creation:
The LORD regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled. So the LORD said, “I will wipe from the face of the earth the human race I have created—and with them the animals, the birds and the creatures that move along the ground—for I regret that I have made them” (Genesis 6:6–7, NIV).
A Lesson in Humility
Fortunately, the story doesn’t end there. Scripture next introduces Noah, a humble nobody who alone rose above the evil and debauchery of his society:
Noah found favor in the eyes of the LORD. . . . Noah was a righteous man, blameless among the people of his time, and he walked faithfully with God (Genesis 6:8–9 NIV).
Genesis 6 thus draws a sharp contrast between the proud and exalted “men of renown” and the humble and insignificant Noah, between the tyranny and sexual depravity of the Nephilim and the righteousness of Noah.
Everyone knows the rest of the story: God sent a great flood in which all the exalted Nephilim perished, along with the rest of a wicked, depraved society. Yet God had commanded Noah to build a great ark; and onboard the ark, Noah and his immediate family (along with a selection of animals) were the lone survivors. Through this family, God spared humanity and the animal kingdom from complete extinction.
That leads to an answer to the question raised in the title of this article: who were the “men of renown”? Why are these Nephilim, exalted rulers of the people, not named? Genesis and other parts of the Bible include extensive genealogies—even for Cain (Gen 4:17–24). Why is not one of these mighty men worthy of mention? They might have led conquering armies, built great cities, and accumulated vast wealth. Why does the Bible fail to name them or cite their accomplishments?
Jesus declared: “Those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (Matthew 23:12). The Nephilim exalted themselves with extreme evil and created a lawless society in which oppression and debauchery were the norm. It seems logical that such extreme evil would bring about extreme humiliation.
And so it was. For someone who believes himself/herself famous, there is no greater humiliation and dishonor than to be erased from history. Communist dictator Joseph Stalin knew this; he purged defeated opponents from Russian history books. The ruling Nephilim were not just brought down—they were disgraced so thoroughly that they were expunged from the historical record. Their names [shêm] and their accomplishments were swept away in the flood along with their lives.
But the humble Noah is exalted as the first savior of humankind. In the end, Noah is the only one remembered from this chapter of human history. He is the real—and only—“man of renown.”
- “Giants,” GreekMythology.com, accessed December 5, 2020, https://www.greekmythology.com/Myths/Creatures/Giants/giants.html.
- R. L. Harris, G. L. Archer Jr., and B. L. Waltke, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (Chicago: Moody Press, 1980), 1393.
- The descendants of Anak were the inhabitants of Hebron (Numbers 13:22), who were driven out by Caleb 40 years (or so) later with the Israelite conquest of Canaan (Joshua 15:14). In Deuteronomy 1, 2, and 9, the “Anakites” are described as people who are especially big and strong and numerous.
- C. F. Keil and F. Delitzsch, Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament, trans. by J Martin, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1959).
- B. H. Carroll, An interpretation of the English Bible (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1948), 174; H. G. Stigers, A Commentary on Genesis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976), 99.
- Stigers, Commentary on Genesis, 99.
- Harris, Archer, and Waltke, Theological Wordbook, 1393.