What are we to make of the giants mentioned in scripture, particularly in the passages recording various events taking place in remote antiquity? In the Bible, giants are spoken of under various categories:
Nephilim. The Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament, circa 200 BC) translates Nephilim as “gigantes” (giants) due to their superhuman stature. For example, in Numbers 13:33, the Israelite spies spoke of their experience of being in close proximity to the Nephilim by saying that they had felt like “grasshoppers” in comparison to them.
The word Nephilim may come from the Hebrew word naphal, meaning “fallen”. If this is the intent of the term, it would refer to their evil nature and, perhaps, even demonic origins. Genesis 6:4 says that the Nephilim existed both before and after the Great Flood of Noah. Their origins are recorded as being the union of “sons of God” with “daughters of men”. Two main theories attempt to explain this seemingly cryptic description:
Option 1: “Sons of God” are godly men. Before the Flood this could perhaps refer to males from the line of Seth. “Daughters of men” are ungodly women. Before the Flood this could refer to females from the line of Cain.
Option 2: “Sons of God” are a type of angelic being and “daughters of men” are human women..
The idea that angels could have sexual intercourse with human women and produce children is highly controversial. A spectrum of scholars discounts this interpretation. Among biblical scholars who are skeptical of this idea are those who point to Jesus’ teaching in Luke 20:34-36 that angels don’t marry.
On the other hand, those favoring the concept of “angelic procreation” counter by arguing that Jesus never explicitly said that they couldn’t marry, but only that holy angels don’t do such things. This point of view refers to Jude 6 as speaking of angelic beings who “stepped over the line” into some kind of forbidden activity, possibly hinting at the procreation of children with humans.
They also point to the mythology of Egypt, Greece, Babylonia and Northern Europe, as well as many other countries, which describe demi-gods, produced from the union of human women and divine beings, and which made a name for themselves as heroes. The children of these unions are described as being mighty men of renoun. Whatever they were, this group of primeval heroes probably forms the basis for at least some of the mythical figures, which appear in many legends and folktales of diverse ancient cultures.
Rephaim. The people of Rapha were a race of Nephilim who lived in the highlands of Palestine and Edom as well as in the eastern lands of Moab and Ammon. The Valley of Rephaim, located southwest of Jerusalem, was apparently inhabited by these giants before the Israelite conquest (Joshua 15:8; 18:16).
In the 20th Century BC the coalition of Mesopotamian armies led by king Chedorlaomer had defeated the eastern Rephaim just before being defeated themselves by the patriarch, Abraham. Some five centuries later, the invading Israelites described King Og of Bashan as one of the last remnants of the Rephaim east of the Jordan (Joshua 12:4; 13:12). Deuteronomy 2:10-11 records the Emim as living in Moab, and that they were considered Rephaim, being as tall as the Anakim. Deuteronomy 2:20-21 says that a people called the Zamzumim lived in Ammon, who were also as tall as the Anakim. The Zamzumim were destroyed by the invading Ammonites some time before the Israelite invasion.
Anakim. As the Israelites came into possession of Canaan they encountered the Anakim (Deuteronomy 1:28—“we saw the Anakim there..”). They seem to have been considered by Israel as a clan of the Nephilim (Numbers 13:33). Deuteronomy 9:2 shows that Israel had heard of the reputation of the Canaanite Anakim as being “invincible” because of their uncommon strength and height. Canaanite Hebron is said to have been a stronghold for the Anakim. After the invading Hebrews under Joshua and Caleb conquered Hebron and the surrounding country (Joshua 11:21; 14:12), the surviving Anakim presumably migrated to the nearby Philistine country (Ashdod, Ashkelon, Ekron, Gath and Gaza).
Specific giants mentioned in Scripture include:
Og, King of Bashan (Deuteronomy 3:11). His iron bed frame is recorded at nine cubits by four cubits (13.5 feet x 6 feet).
Goliath of Gath (1 Samuel 17:4). His height is recorded at six cubits and a span (probably 9.5 feet).
A huge man killed by Benaiah son of Jehoida in 1 Chronicles 11:23 is recorded at five cubits tall (7.5 feet).
A Rephaite named Saph was killed by Sibbecai the Hushite in 2 Samuel 21:18.
2 Sam 21:19 says Elhanan son of Jaare-Oregim the Bethlehemite killed Goliath the Gittite, who had a spear with a shaft like a weaver’s rod. But other Hebrew texts such as in 1 Chronicles 20:5 and the Greek Septuagint read: “Elhanan son of Jair killed Lahmi the brother of Goliath.”
Another Rephaite, described as being huge and having six fingers on each hand and six toes on each foot, was killed at Gath by Jonathan son of Shimea, King David’s brother.
The giant Ishbi-benob was killed by David’s nephew, Abishai in 2 Samuel 21:15-22. He had a spear, whose bronze head weight 300 shekels (3.5 kilograms or about 7.5 pounds).
So what are we to make of all this? First, we must remember that the passages which record these giants are all referring to times in remote antiquity. King David, who appears to have been responsible for destroying their last survivors in Israel and its environs, lived around 1,000 BC. That is, fully 3,000 years ago. The people for whom these portions of the Bible were originally written lived in or close to those times. They certainly knew what was being referred to. On the other hand, modern people have no experience with any such beings, and have difficulty believing that anything like them ever existed.
Secondly, ours is an age in which skepticism is one of the supreme virtues. For some people, even to entertain the idea of giants having lived on the earth at one time would be tantamount to rejecting everything they respect, and would result in losing the respect of their friends and colleagues.
Thirdly, it is now probably impossible to know for certain how the giants originated. Both of the two main theories discussed above have issues, which the theories don’t satisfactorily account for. The biblical record doesn’t bother to explain the how and why to our “inquiring minds”.
There are isolated examples in various parts of the world of human-like skeletal remains whose size is similar to that of the giants of the Bible. However, just as with any evidence of this kind, there is much dispute about its authenticity. Some would call any such evidence a hoax, no matter how convincing.
The issue of the widespread mythology of giants is a bit more difficult to explain away. Why do diverse ancient cultures speak in their legends and folklore of abnormally tall, strong and wicked men? Greek pottery even depicts them artistically in the same general proportions recorded in the Bible. Such a thing does not seem to be mere coincidence.
It could also be argued that this is simply proof that, in its infancy, the human race had a widespread belief in such beings. On the other hand, the Bible’s specificity of detail and description of these beings as abnormally large rather than monumental in size would point to this material at least as being more than mere mythology.
Mike, I think you are right on concerning your understanding of giants in relationship to ancient culture.
Quite possibly they were stories of these giant, wicked men in order to keep the people afraid and unwilling to challenge them or other authority figures. In addition they might be grossly exaggerated and become “tall tales” much like we have in American folklore (i.e. Paul Bunyon, Piccolo Pete, etc.) which when read 2-3000 years from now could be interpreted as our simple minds trying to explain the world as we understood it in 2009.
One additional note concerns the reference to Goliath. In the Dead Sea Scrolls Goliath is much shorter. He is only referred to as 4 cubits and a span (about 7 feet tall) which is far more believable. In addition to that, someone who is 9 feet tall would make for an imposing person but a horrible soldier due to the weakness of his bones.