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NEPHILIM (Heb. נְפִילִים), a race of giants said to have dwelt in pre-Israelite Canaan (Num. 13:33). Genesis 6:1–2 relates that the "sons of gods," i.e., divine or angelic beings, took mortal wives; verse 4 continues, "It was then, and later too, that the Nephilim appeared [lit., were] on earth–when the divine beings cohabited with the daughters of men, who bore them offspring. They were the heroes [Heb. gibborim] of old, the men of renown." This could mean that the Nephilim were contemporaneous, but not identical, with the offspring of divine beings and earthly women, who were called gibborim (so, e.g., Morgenstern, in HUCA 14 (1939), 85ff.). The above translation, however, follows an ancient tradition in equating the Nephilim and the gibborim as offspring of the union of *angels and mortals .

In apocryphal writings of the Second Temple period this fragmentary narrative was elaborated and reinterpreted. The angels were then depicted as rebels against God: lured by the charms of women, they "fell" (Heb, nfl. נפל), defiled their heavenly purity, and introduced all manner of sinfulness to earth. Their giant offspring were wicked and violent; the Flood was occasioned by their sinfulness. (None of these ideas is in the biblical text.) Because of their evil nature, God decreed that the Nephilim should massacre one another, although according to another view most of them perished in the Flood. One version asserts that the evil spirits originally issued from the bodies of the slain giants. These giants, or their offspring, are identified as Nephilim (See I En. 6–10, 15–16; Jub. 7:21ff.). As this dualistic myth does not appear in the apocalypses of Baruch and Esdras nor in the aggadah of the talmudic period, it was apparently rejected as incompatible with Jewish monotheism. The "sons of God" are explained in the Targum to Genesis 6:4 and the Midrash (Gen. R. 26:5) as young aristocrats who married the daughters of commoners. The Targum renders both gibborim and Nephilim by gibbaraya; the Midrash (Gen. R. 26:7) lists seven names applied to giants. The Babylonian Talmud mentions the names of Shamhazzai, Uzza, and Uzziel, the leaders of the fallen *angels in Enoch , but does not say that they were angels: Yoma 67b alludes to the sins of Uzza and Uzziel; Niddah 61a states that Sihon and Og were descendants of Shamhazzai. In Deuteronomy 3:11 *Og is described as a giant, and this theme was developed to a large degree in aggadic legend. In post-talmudic literature (cf. Rashi, Yoma 67b) the long-suppressed myth came to the surface again. The Palestinian Targum gives the orthodox rendering of Genesis 6:1, but translates verse 4 as: "Shamhazzai and Uzziel fell from heaven and were on earth in those days"–identifying the Nephilim as the fallen angels rather than their children. The same identification is found in a late Midrash, which calls the fallen angels Uzza and Uzziel; another passage in the same document says the Nephilim were descendants of Cain (Aggadat Bereshit, ed. S. Buber, introd., p. 38). The Zohar (1:58a) also identifies the Nephilim with the fallen angels. The standard medieval Bible commentators generally followed the classical aggadah in rejecting the mythological interpretation and asserting that the marriages in Genesis 6 were human. Some variant opinions about the "sons of God" are offered–e.g., that their distinction was not only social, but physical and even moral, and that the offspring were called Nephilim because they "fell short" of their fathers in these respects (Nahmanides, Abrabanel).


U. Cassuto, in: Sefer ha-Yovel… J.H. Hertz (1943), 35–44; B.J. Bamberger, Fallen Angels (1952), 3–59; H.L. Ginsberg, in: EM, 5 (1968), 896–7 (incl. bibl.).

[Bernard J. Bamberger]

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.