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Nephilim – Giants in the Torah

May 6, 2022 | by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld

The Torah talks about giants in Biblical times – in the times of Noah, Moses, and King David. What are their origins and what happened to them?

The Aish Rabbi Replies

Giants are mentioned many times in the Torah, primarily in the antediluvian world (before the Flood). Below is a brief outline of their story.

Genesis 6:4 records that when man began straying from God,

The Nephilim were on the earth in those days – and also afterward when the sons of the powerful ones would consort with the daughters of man, who would bear to them. They were the mighty who, from old, were men of devastation (adapted from ArtScroll Stone Chumash translation).

“Nephilim” literally means fallen ones. Most commentators follow the opinion in the Midrash that “the sons of the powerful ones” (bnei ha’elohim) actually refer to the sons of the judges and noblemen – who by capriciously taking whichever women they wanted “fell” from their appropriate spiritual level. Rather than serving as role models for the lower classes, they used their power to take advantage of them. There is, however, an opinion in the Midrash that they were actually fallen (but not rebellious) angels – who begat a race of physical giants. (See this past response for a lengthy discussion.) In any event, it is clear that the Nephilim were physically superior to common man. The above verse describes them as “mighty”, and in Numbers 13:33 the Spies claim that they felt like grasshoppers before the Nephilim who then inhabited the Land of Israel.

What happened to these giants? Presumably, most were wiped out during the Flood. Indeed, their wicked presence was one of the main reasons God saw fit to destroy the earth. However, many remained afterwards. Tribes of giants are mentioned several times in connection to the conquest of the Land of Israel. As above, the Spies describe themselves as feeling like grasshoppers in their presence, and the Torah itself attests to three giants (“sons of the giant [anak]”) dwelling in Hebron (Numbers 13:22). These giants were known and feared at the time. When Moses assures the nation that God would conquer the Land of Canaan for them in spite of its mighty inhabitants, he describes them as:

A great and lofty people, children of giants, that you knew and of whom you have heard: "Who can stand up against the children of the giant?" (Deut. 9:2, Art. trans.).

There were several other tribes of giants (or near-giants) recorded as living in the area in that time – the Eimim (lit., “fearful ones” – Deut. 2:10) and the Zamzumim (v. 20). These nations were described as “great, numerous, and tall – as the giants” (vv. 11 and 21). (These two tribes are also mentioned in Abraham’s time, being defeated in battle by the four kings whom Abraham later defeated – Gen. 14:5.) Most notably, however, were the Refa’im tribes ruled by Sihon, king of Heshbon, and Og, king of Bashan, in Transjordan, both defeated by Moses and the Children of Israel just before Israel’s entry into the Promised Land (Numbers 21:21-35, Deut. 2:26-3:11).

How did these giants survive the Flood? One possible explanation could be based on the opinion in the Talmud and Midrash that the Flood did not reach the Land of Israel (see Zevachim 113a, Bereishis Rabbah 33:6; see also Rashi to Niddah 61a). This is based on Ezekiel 22:24 which refers to Israel as a land “not rained upon on the day of fury.” Thus, the antediluvian giants and others who lived there were unaffected. (This, however, is inconsistent with the Talmud there that although the water itself did not reach Israel, its inhabitants died from the water’s burning heat. Other commentators also suggest that although it did not directly rain in Israel (and thus, the dove was later able to find an olive leaf there), water spread from other locations, drowning the inhabitants. See Ramban to Bereishis 8:11. Some suggest that even so, giants such as Og were powerful enough to withstand the indirect effects of the Flood – see Maharsha to Niddah 61a.)

Another possibility is based on two other passages in the Talmud. Talmud Niddah 61a states that Og and Sihon were brothers, grandsons of one of the fallen angels. Og furthermore is referred to as a “fugitive” from the Flood – its one survivor, which Talmud Zevachim 113b states he achieved by holding onto (or possibly just staying near to) the ark, which was protected from the burning waters. The Midrash (Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer Ch. 23) describes further how Og rode on the outside of the ark, promising Noah and his sons to forever be their slave if they would save him. Noah then drilled a hole through the ark so he could feed Og daily. (See also Targum Yonasan to Gen. 14:13.) (The commentators note that Sihon, as Og’s brother, appears to have also survived the Flood, and they question how – see Tosafos and Maharsha to Niddah 61a.) Sihon and Og were thus two surviving giants from the antediluvian era, who possibly begat and ruled over races of giant humans, somewhere near their size.

(Incidentally, it seems that in spite of their size, the Biblical giants were not great warriors. Virtually every time the Torah mentions them, it is in the context of being defeated in battle by lesser humans. See e.g. Genesis 14:5, Deuteronomy 2:21 and Rashi to Numbers 21:27). Perhaps they relied on their massive size and never bothered studying the art of war.)

What happened to the giants who remained after the Flood? Many were wiped out in Abraham’s time (see again Gen. 14:5), while some were conquered and displaced by other tribes, including the Israelites. See again Deut. 2 regarding the Eimin and Zamzumim, and Numbers 21:21-35 regarding Israel’s defeat of both Sihon’s kingdom of the Emorites and Og’s of Bashan. See also Deut. 2:24-37. These defeated nations all resided in Transjordan.

What remained were the giants in Israel proper which as above, both the Torah and the Spies attested to. What happened to them? We have no record of Joshua and the Israelites fighting giants after they entered the land. It seems that they were wiped by some of God’s smallest agents – the hornets God promised to send into the Holy Land before the nation:

And also the hornets will the Lord your God send among them, until the remaining ones and the hidden ones are destroyed before you (Deut. 7:20).

A different verse states more explicitly that the main targets of the hornets were the giants:

And I destroyed the Emorite from before them – whose height was like the height of cedar trees and who was mighty as oaks – and I destroyed his fruit from above and his roots from below (Amos 2:9).

God thus spared the Jews much of the rigors of battle – especially against the giants – using insects who fearlessly took on the land’s most mighty inhabitants. (See also Talmud Sotah 36a and Bamidbar Rabbah 18:22.) And with their defeat ended the saga of angel-bred giants dwelling among man.

Now for the most interesting part of this: Just how tall were the giants? First of all, the Torah records them as mating with humans, so they couldn’t have been that huge. Secondly, as above, they were always being defeated in battle. Although the spies described themselves as feeling like grasshoppers before them (Numbers 13:33), that is actually a perfectly accurate description of the complete helplessness a person would feel standing before a warrior 10 feet tall.

In terms of specific dimensions, there is a single verse which is highly significant:

For only Og king of the Bashan was left from the remnant of the Rephaim. Behold! His bed was an iron bed. Is it not in Rabbath of the Children of Ammon – nine cubits its length and four cubits its width, in the cubits of man? (Deuteronomy 3:11).

Now a cubit is generally assumed to be about 1.5 feet. This means Og’s bed was 13.5 feet long and 6 wide. Assuming a person’s bed is about a foot longer then he is, Og would have been 12-13 feet tall – broadly built as well – so well over twice the size of a man. (See however Maimonides, Moreh Nevuchim 2:47 who assumes a person is typically only 2/3’rds the size of his bed, making Og 6 cubits or 9 feet.)

On the other hand, the Talmud (Brachos 54b) describes Og in much more fantastic terms – as a sky-scraping giant who held up a mountain large enough to bury the entire Jewish people until God helped Moshe defeat him. (Following this, the commentators explain that verse describing Og’s bed – which concludes “in the cubits of man” – actually means in Og’s own cubits, whatever they were.) We would tend to view such a Talmudic tale as nonliteral but intended to teach deeper messages (as the Midrash is often meant to be understood allegorically – see this past response). However, interestingly, the Talmud there (54a) rules that a person must recite a blessing upon seeing the location in which Og held up the mountain and was defeated (as we bless whenever we see a place of a personal or national miracle). So there is definitely a strain of thought that Og was a much larger giant.

I’ll conclude by noting that there are also a few later giants mentioned in King David’s time – specifically four brothers, the most famous of whom was Goliath. They were all slain by King David and his men. They were not purported to have descended from angels. Goliath himself was described as “six cubits and a span” (I Samuel 17:4) making him nearly 10 feet tall. Another, Madon, was described as having six fingers and six toes, a known but rare mutation. (See I Samuel 17 regarding Goliath; II Samuel 21:15-22 and I Chronicles 20:4-8 regarding the four brothers.) We could possibly view them as sufferers of some kind of genetic mutation or of gigantism. However, the Talmud (Sotah 42b) explains that their mother, Harafa was actually Orpah – the sister-in-law of Ruth the Moabite who nearly converted but backed out at the last moment (see Ruth 1) – instead turning immediately to wicked ways. In spite of the spiritual giant she might have become – as Ruth, ancestor of King David – she squandered her great potential on the physical plane and bore physical giants instead. See this article where I discuss this further.

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