Roger D. Isaacs
New Interpretations of the Hebrew Bible

A Giant Mystery: Nephilim, Rephaim, and Anakim in the Bible

David and Goliath (traditionally depicted as a giant) by Michelangelo, on the Sistine Chapel ceiling (1509) - Public Domain

Scattered throughout the Hebrew Bible are a selection of words that refer to peoples who were interpreted to be giants. The words themselves are scarce, obscuring their meanings beneath later mythology. Although discussions are present throughout the literature, both new and old, no matter how hard one searches the actual meaning of these words is not clear.

Three words: nephilim, rephaim, and anakim, plague us more than any others. Their roots are buried deep and are almost impossible to dig up. But, by analysing them, we found they refer to groups rather than giants. We determined this through careful study of cognate relationships, with some intriguing results about their true origins.

Starting with a well-known group termed Nephilim, who are described as the offspring of the “sons of God” and human women in Genesis, we immediately find a problem. The root verb from which this word is constructed is n-p-l meaning “to fall”. Scholars suggest that this might be because the ancient authors thought these being so large they were liable to fall, or make others fall (TDOT, v. 9, 497). But, this would be bizarre as a self-designation for a group, as falling does not have a positive connotation, nor relates to the inferred character of the Nephilim. We can more clearly define this word by looking to other languages. In Egyptian there is the word npr.tyw, which means “Shore/Bank/Edge Dwellers.” This group are talked of in the religious text the Amduat, as being encountered by the sun god Ra on his nightly journey (LGG IV, 204). How could such different words be related? If nephilim is a loanword from or at least in some way related to Egyptian, then we’d expect to see certain changes – r often becomes l, the plural .tyw becomes -im. Thus, npr.tyw could then be read as something approaching npl-im. Nephilim may therefore have a relationship to a group of people living on a shore or edge of something.

Another group, who some say like the Nephilim also had giant qualities, are the Rephaim. This word has a very conflicted etymology, and is derived from words surrounding the root r-p-a and for some unknown reason is concerned with healing (TDOT, v. 13, 605-6). What healing has to do with a group of mythical giants is unclear. Yet, it is suggested that the Rephaim may have been a pre-Israelite population whose memory was preserved in a Syro-Canaanite ancestor cult. These ancestors (somewhat thought of as heroes) may have been prayed to in later times as minor divinities, which could have granted healing (HALOT, 1274-5). But this is not the only potential source for the word. In Egyptian, we find the word r-pt (hereditary prince – a variant of the more full jrj-pꜥt), which might indicate the leader or leaders of the group in question. Perhaps the Rephaim were considered nobles. Linguistically, we can explain the difference in the words (whether cognate or loanword) through the elision of the r to the p, and the dropping of the final t (a common feature of Late Egyptian), to form a word sounding much like rpa, with this being pluralised to form Rephaim, indicating the whole group.

A final group often associated with giants is the Anakim. These fierce warriors were said to be the ancestors of the Philistines. As described in Numbers 13, the Israelite spies who scouted the Land of Canaan were terrified of the huge stature of the inhabitants, including the Anakim, although Moses’ lieutenants, Joshua and Caleb, did not report this, perhaps suggesting it was an exaggeration. The etymology of the word is uncertain, but it seems to be associated with chains or necklaces (HALOT, 859). This might make sense if this people were particularly known for wearing necklaces, but there is no textual evidence pointing to this. The Egyptian Execration Texts mention Anak as a name of enemies of Egypt in the Levant, which would be extrabiblical evidence for the group. Other hints are also available in Egyptian: ꜣnq (aneq) is a priestly title (Wb 1, 11.8), whilst Ynk (Yenek or Yanqa) is a place in Syria. But, there is no real evidence about the nature of this group, although the name might refer to a place or priestly group based on the Egyptian interpretation.

The words Nephilim, Rephaim, and Anakim above all refer to peoples, tribes, or groups. Some Bible interpreters have seen them as giants, but the words themselves would not support this theory. There is not one explanation for the etymology of any of these words, but the Egyptian language does provide possible clues about these groups’ nature as observed by the biblical authors. One day inscriptions and archaeological finds may be uncovered that illuminate who these people were. Until then, we must allow the text to speak for itself.

The above was coauthored with Adam R. Hemmings, a Fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society and graduate of the University of Chicago and the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.

About the Author
Roger D. Isaacs is an independent researcher specializing in Hebrew Bible studies and the author of two books, "Talking With God" and "The Golden Ark". Isaacs' primary research site was the archives of the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago, where he is a member of the Advisory Council. He also conducted research at the Spertus Institute for Jewish Studies, as well as digs, museums, and libraries in many countries, including Syria, Jordan, Turkey, Egypt, Israel, and England.
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