Who are the Nephilim? And what are they doing at the beginning of the Book of Devarim-Deuteronomy?
Nothing good, most people say.
Nephilim in This Week’s Story
The book of Devarim is set “in the fortieth year” of the wilderness journey, “after [Moses] has defeated Sihon king of the Amorites…and King Og of Bashan” (Deut 1:4-5).
So it’s no surprise that Moses quickly starts bragging about these military victories.
But I like to think he’s also bragging because he believes he has made the world a better place.
Let me explain.
Og, it turns out, is a very scary character. He is the last of the Rephaim, who are as tall as giants. And the giants, we learned in Parshat Shlach (Num. 13:1-15:41), are some of the Nephilim. The Hebrew word Nephilim means “the ones who fell,” and it’s related to an Aramaic word that means “giant.”
Where Do the Nephilim Come From?
The Nephilim do have an origin story. You find it right at the end of Parshat Bereisheet (Gen. 1:1-6:8), just as we transition into the story of Noach and the flood. So, it looks like the Nephilim—whoever they are—caused the wickedness that brought on the flood.
The story is bizarre. Here is my translation.
The sons of Elohim saw that the daughters of Adam were beautiful. They married any wives they chose. God said, my spirit won’t dwell in them forever, because they are flesh. They will live 120 years. In those days, and also afterwards, the Nephilim were in the land. Thus the sons of God mated with human women, who birthed children. These are the warriors, famous men forever. God saw that human wickedness was great.
That’s all we have to go on. A broken narrative and a key word—Elohim—that can be translated several ways. It can mean “God,” so “sons of Elohim” can mean “sons of God.” But it can also mean “aristocrats,” “judges,” or “leaders.” So, “sons of Elohim” can mean high ranking people.
Here are two of my favourite interpretations of the Nephilim story. You’ll notice they have a similar message.
Nephilim: Symbols of Greed
The first Book of Enoch, written in the 2nd century BCE, says the Nephilim are fallen angels. They teach their wives all the arts of civilization. But their children become greedy, and consume everything around them. They eat all the plants and animals, and then start eating people.
Think: greed, habitat destruction, and ecological change.
Nephilim: Symbols of Corruption
Genesis Rabbah, a rabbinic midrash collection from about 600 CE, says the Nephilim are human beings. These men worked in trusted positions, but they were not trustworthy. They assaulted any women they chose. Out of self-interest, they destroyed everything entrusted to them—including their communities.
Think: political corruption.
So, I like to think that Moses was bragging about stamping out greed and corruption from the land.
But, if Moses thought this might be a once-for-all-time victory, he was mistaken. It doesn’t matter which land we live in—there’s always work to be done.
Originally offered as a derash (short Torah teaching) for Congregation Beth Israel, Vancouver.