🔼The name Nephilim: Summary
- The Fallen/Falling Ones, The Extraordinary Ones
- Cloud People (Rain Makers, River Formers)
- From the verb נפל (napal), to fall, which appears to have to do with the verb פלל (palal), to distinguish, or פלה (pala), to be extraordinary.
- From the noun νεφελη (nephele), cloud.
🔼The name Nephilim in the Bible
The Nephilim are mysterious supermen from ancient times, men of name, who lived before and after the flood of Noah. Before the flood they are mentioned in Genesis 6:4, and after in Numbers 13:33. The question this raises is: who are the Nephilim and how did they survive the flood? If Noah, his sons or any of their wives had been Nephilim, the text would have certainly mentioned it, and the Nephilim would have been treated more positively.
Genesis 6:1-4 appears to tell us that the Nephilim were fathered by 'sons of Elohim' with human females. The phrase 'sons of God' may indicate angelic creatures but also the members of some very strong race. It seems that Nephilim were generated from human stock, not just once but often and separately, and not only before the flood but also after. The Bible basically states that biology allows that human females may be and have indeed been impregnated by spirit beings, a fact of course made ultimately evident in the conception of Jesus Christ.
But whatever they were, the Nephilim seem to have been divided into several sub-categories. The spies who were sent to Canaan reported seeing children of Anak, or the Anakim, who were Nephilim (Numbers 13:33). The word for children that is used in Numbers 13:28 is ילד (yalad) and means 'born ones,' that means of regular birth and not of some 'son of Elohim.' The name of the father of Anak is Arba, and his city, Hebron, is given to Caleb (Joshua 15:13). Caleb subsequently drives out the three sons (perhaps again three subdivisions of the Anakim) of Anak, whose names are Sheshai, Ahiman and Talmai. Strangely enough, in 1 Chronicles 9:17 occurs a small list of Levites whose names are: Akkub, Ahiman, Shallum and Talmon. This curious symmetry remains unexplained.
Deuteronomy 2:10 speaks of Emim, a people as great, numerous and tall as the Anakim. Deuteronomy counts both the Anakim (who are Nephilim) and the Emim among the so-called Rephaim, but in Genesis 14:5 the Rephaim and the Emim are listed separate. Genesis 14:5 also lists the Zuzim, which many (possibly erroneously) suppose are the same as the Zamzummim of Deuteronomy 2:20, who are a people like the Anakim and also counted among Rephaim.
🔼Etymology and meaning of the name Nephilim
Here at Abarim Publications we surmise that the Nephilim were not so much named for their great physical size, but rather for their wisdom in governance. The Bible clearly associates divine sonhood not with physical height but rather with a knack for governance (Psalm 2:7-12, Isaiah 9:6, Matthew 5:9), and the Nephilim doubtlessly were reckoned for their magnificent rule and thus their booming societies (after all, the difference between us smart-phone toting moderns and our bear-skin toting forebears is solely a matter of wisdom and societal organization; also see our article on Corinth).
It's not precisely known when the specific reference to the Nephilim was inserted into the story, but we do know that for many centuries the Semitic and Indo-European languages were widely exposed to each other. The Semitic Phoenicians traded all over the southern coasts of Europe, and for many centuries, in Persia, the Semitic Jews intermingled with their Indo-European hosts and build their vast Talmudic centers (and invented the postal service: our word "angel" comes from the Persian word for mailman; see our article on αγγελος, aggelos).
That said: in Greek, the word νεφελη (nephele), cloud, made sense because it corresponded to a widely attested Proto-Indo-European root "nebh-", meaning cloud or nebula. And in Judah, the name Nephilim made sense because, as we will see below, it corresponded naturally to the stem פלל (palal), to intervene. But on the vault line between the Semitic and Indo-European language basins, where a great many terms existed that were neither exclusively Greek nor exclusively Hebrew and had meaning on both sides (see our list), the name Nephilim would have made a great deal of sense because it resembled the word for cloud:
The noun νεφελη (nephele) means cloud, but since the ancients had a firm fix on the hydrological cycle, and associated rivers with cultures (the noun מורה, moreh means both rain and teacher), clouds were always closely associated with human (or even angelic) collectives of vast superiority over regular earthlings and their primitive doings. Hence God guides in the form of a cloud (Exodus 13:21, Mark 9:7), the Son comes from the clouds (Matthew 26:64, Revelation 1:7), mankind meets the divine in the clouds (1 Thessalonians 4:17), and the witnesses of all this appear as a cloud (Hebrews 12:1).
The ancients knew that clouds rise from the sea (Psalm 135:7, Ecclesiastes 1:6-7, Luke 12:54), which in the Bible tends to denote the fluidic future since the east represents the past (see קדם, qedem, east or past). And they connected the rise of cultures to the rivers that birthed them (see our article on the name Tigris). That means that the appearance of the Nephilim in Genesis 6:4 is not a coincidence, but appears to have been designed as a dark-cloud prelude to the flood.
The Hebrew word נפלים nephilim is a common masculine plural, but the single form, נפל (nepel), does not occur in the Bible (which by itself is not at all unusual). In another context, however, the word נפל (nepel), which is spelled identical but pronounced slightly different, means untimely birth or abortion. It comes from the verb נפל (napal), to fall or be cast down:
Root פלל (palal) is all about distinguishing and discerning, and often emphasizes representation of something unseen or not present. It's frequently used in the sense of to entreat or pray on someone's behalf.
Noun תפלה (tepilla) means prayer. Noun פליל (palil) describes an inspector or umpire and noun פלילה (pelila) refers to the place at which an umpire operates; a judge's office. Adjective פלילי (pelili) means "for a judge" or "to be judged" and noun פליליה (peliliya) means verdict or assessment. Noun פול (pol) means beans (and was probably imported but fits right in).
Verb פלה (pala) means to be distinct or separated. Pronoun פלני (peloni) refers to "a certain person/place."
Verb פלא (pala') means to be extraordinary. Nouns פלא (pele') and מפלאה (mipla'a) refer to extraordinary things or deeds. Adjective פלאי (pil'i) means extraordinary.
Verb אפל ('pl) means to disappear, depart or set (of the sun). Nouns אפל ('opel), אפלה ('apela), מאפל (ma'apel) and מאפליה (ma'pelya) mean darkness. Adjective אפל ('apel) means gloomy. Adjective אפיל ('apil) means late or belated (i.e. long unseen).
Verb נפל (napal) means to fall (down, down to, into or upon). The plural form נפלים (napalim) literally means 'fallen ones' or 'settled ones'.
Noun נפל (nepel) refers to an abortion or untimely birth. Noun מפל (mappal) describes that what falls. Nouns מפלה (mappala) and מפלה (mappela) mean ruin, and noun מפלת (mapplet) refers to a ruined thing or a falling.
HAW Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament mentions the similarity of our name with the verb נפל (nepel), to fall down, with some disdain and pronounces a much more likely etymology based on words such as פלא (pala), to be marvelous, wonderful, or פלה (pala), to be distinct, marked out, or even פלל (palal), to intervene, interpose, pray. This latter verb is one of many for prayer and other interventions, and in search of origins of this particular verb some scholars end up right back at נפל (napal), to fall (i.e. to prostrate oneself). This becomes especially compelling when we remember that the name Rephaim has to do with a verb that means to sink, let drop, fall slack.
The Nephilim are the Fallen Ones, and the Marvelous Ones.
BDB Theological Dictionary adds a very interesting note, although, in its signature grumpy style, pronounces any etymology 'dubious' and 'precarious': The words for Nephilim, נפילים and נפלים bear a striking resemblance to Nephila, the Aramaic word for Orion: ניפלא and נפילא.
Ergo: the Nephilim are also the Orionids.