“The Nephilim were in the earth in those days, and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare children to them: the same were the mighty men which were of old, the men of renown.” – Genesis 6:4 (RV)
Nĕphiyliym (פיִליםְִנְ) is the plural form of nĕphiyl (נָפִיל H5303). It appears in the Bible three times, nĕphiyl never. Although left un-translated in modern Bibles, “Nephilim” is a coined word in the sense that it’s a capitalized proper noun and nearly always includes a definite article. This word first appeared in the English language in 1885, since the English Revised Version (1885) was the first English-language Bible to use it. Nĕphiyl, however, is a common noun, so there is no good linguistic reason to capitalize this word in either the singular or plural form.
Unfortunately, the etymology of nĕphiyl–nĕphiyliym is unclear. See the definitions below.
- Brown-Driver-Briggs Lexicon: “giants, the Nephilim … etymology dubious; compare Aramaic נִיפְלָא, נְפִילָא Orion; conjectures … very precarious”
- Gesenius’ Hebrew-Chaldee Lexicon: “The etymology of this word is uncertain. Some have compared [Arabic word], which Gigg. and Castell render great, large in body; but this is incorrect; for it means excellent, noble, skilful. I prefer with the Hebrew interpreters and Aquila (επιπιπτοντες) falling on, attacking, so that נָפִיל is of intransitive signification. Those who used to interpret the passage in Genesis of the fall of the angels were accustomed to render פיִליםְִנְ fallers, rebels, apostates.” [Chaldean: “the giant in the sky, i.e. the constellation Orion; plural, the greater constellations”]
- Strong’s Definitions: “a feller, i.e. a bully or tyrant”
- Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament: “The noun seems to embody the notion, so characteristic of ancient Israel, that something gigantic, something exalted, must necessarily fall.”
- Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament [1393a]: “While some scholars attempt to relate this term etymologically to nāpal I (H5307) via the noun nēpel (H5309) … a more likely reconstruction is the proposal of a root nāpal II, akin to other weak verbs, pûl II “be wonderful, strong, mighty,’ pālā’ ‘be wonderful,’ and even pālâ ‘separate, distinguish’ pālal ‘discriminate.’ This pattern of semantically related groups of weak verbs with two strong consonants in common is a notably recurrent phenomenon in Hebrew lexicography. Actually, the translation ‘giants’ is supported mainly by the LXX and may be quite misleading. The word may be of unknown origin and mean ‘heroes’ or ‘fierce warriors’ etc. The RSV and NIV transliteration ‘Nephilim’ is safer and may be correct in referring the noun to a race or nation.”
Contrary to the Theological Wordbook, the idea of “race or nation” is incorrect. Nĕphiyliym describes a generic group of people, not a specific ethnic-based people group. Still, “giant” is only one possible meaning of nĕphiyl. “Bully,” “hero,” “tyrant,” and “warrior” are others. Which one is correct? The key might be the suggested root verb naphal (נפַָל H5307). It means attack, cast or throw oneself on, cause to fall, fall, prostrate oneself, or rush upon (Gesenius). The Hebrew-Greek Key Study Bible’s Old Testament lexicon contains more meanings: abide, attack, be born, decay, desist, drop, settle down, sink, and turn out. According to the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, “damage, death, or destruction [is] often designated by nāpal.” The Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament likewise states that “the majority of its occurrences … point to the realm of destruction – especially death, but also injury.”
Naphal, a verb as common as dirt, appears in the King James Bible over 430 times and is translated as follows: be accepted, cast (down, out), cease, die, divide, fail, fall (away, down, out, upon), fell, fugitive, have, inferior, lie (down), light (down), lose, overthrow, overwhelm, perish, present, rot, slay, smite, and throw down. The most common translation is fall (318x). Most of these translations are also in the active voice, i.e. to fall upon a person or thing or to prostrate oneself. For example, “the Lord caused [naphal] a deep sleep to fall [naphal] upon Adam” (Genesis 2:21). The corresponding Aramaic verb nĕphal (נְפַל H5308) means to fall (down), to happen, or to prostrate oneself (Gesenius). Appearing in the King James Bible eleven times, the most common translation is fall (10x).
If these myriad definitions and translations seem as clear as mud, consider the fact that five Hebrew nouns are derived from naphal. Nĕphiyl is just one. I’ve outlined the others below.
Mappal (מַפָּל H4651)
- Definition (Strong’s): “a falling off, i.e. chaff; also something pendulous, i.e. a flap”
- Definition (Gesenius): “(1) what falls off; (2) something pendulous, loose”
- KJV translations: flakes (1), refuse (1)
Mappalah (מַפָּלָה H4654)
- Definition (Strong’s): “something fallen, i.e. a ruin”
- Definition (Gesenius’): “fallen buildings, ruins”
- KJV translations: ruin (2), ruinous (1)
Mappeleth (מַפֶּלֶת H4658)
- Definition (Strong’s): “fall, i.e. decadence; concretely, a ruin; specifically a carcase”
- Definition (Gesenius’): “(1) fall, ruin; (2) what falls down; (3) a corpse”
- KJV translations: fall (5), ruin (2), carcase (1)
Nephel (נֶפֶל H5309)
- Definition (Strong’s): “something fallen, i.e. an abortion”
- Definition (Gesenius’): “a premature birth … an abortion”
- KJV translations: untimely birth (3)
The peculiarity of this linguistic Hebrew maze is the fact that, unlike these four nouns and naphal, only nĕphiyl and its plural nĕphiyliym contain a vowel: the English letter “I,” or the Hebrew letter “yad” (י). This observation may explain why some linguists speculate whether nĕphiyl is derived from naphal at all. Still, no other verbs seem likely candidates.
The most mysterious, and wonderful, part is the meanings of the letters that make up nĕphiyl and nĕphiyliym. See the list below, taken from “Ancient Hebrew Alphabet” (studylight.org).
- N (ן nun): “The ancient pictograph … is a picture of a seed sprout, representing the idea of continuing to a new generation. This pictograph has the meanings of continue, perpetuation, offspring, or heir.”
- P (פ pey): “The Semitic word ‘pey’ means a ‘mouth’ and there are several ancient Semitic pictographs believed to be this letter, none of which resemble a mouth. The only exception is the South Arabian pictograph,” which “closely resembles a mouth and is similar to the later Semitic letters for the letter ‘pey.’ This pictograph has the meanings of speak and blow, from the functions of the mouth, as well as the edge of something, as the lips are at the edge of the mouth.”
- I (י yad/yud): “The Early Semitic pictograph of this letter is … an arm and hand. The meaning of this letter is work, make, and throw, the functions of the hand.”
- L (ל lam/lamed): “The Early Hebrew pictograph is … a shepherd’s staff. The shepherd staff was used to direct sheep by pushing or pulling them. It was also used as a weapon against predators to defend and protect the sheep. The meaning of this letter is toward, as moving something in a different direction. This letter also means authority, as it is a sign of the shepherd, the leader of the flock. It also means yoke, a staff on the shoulders, as well as tie or bind, from the yoke that is bound to the animal.”
- M (מ mah/mem): “The Early Semitic pictograph for this letter is … a picture of waves of water. This pictograph has the meanings of liquid, water, and sea, mighty and massive (from the size of the sea), and chaos (from the storms of the sea). To the Hebrews the sea was a feared and unknown place. For this reason this letter is used as a question word – who, what, when, where, why, and how – in the sense of searching for an unknown.”
What does this combination mean – a new generation speaking, working, and leading? Do they produce chaos and fear, as they lead people into the unknown? This reading is speculation, of course. The “fall” concept doesn’t appear here, but it isn’t in the “n-p-l” (naphal) combination either. Also, nothing in this list suggests “men of great stature” (Numbers 13:32). The nĕphiyliym in Genesis 6:4 are most likely “mighty men … of old, men of renown.” So, only in the metaphorical sense of community leaders or authority figures can these people be called “giants.”
The verb naphal suggests death, decay, and ruin, either physical or spiritual. If derived from it, then nĕphiyliym probably refers to people falling upon and overtaking others, so their identity as “fallen” beings (angels or demons) is unlikely. The lingering question is whether nĕphiyliym are good or evil. Good leaders or shepherds serve their people. Bad leaders, however, are tyrants. If the latter is true, then nĕphiyliym are predatory in nature. No wonder that this word “implies … reckless ferocity, impious and daring characters who spread devastation and carnage far and wide” (Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown – Genesis 6:4). If this description is accurate, then today’s banksters, Hollywood moguls, politicians, and false prophets are true “Nephilim.”
In part 3 of this series, I’ll explore how nĕphiyliym is translated in English-language Bibles. Stay tuned.
This and other passages put in bold italics have been added since publication.
 The Hebrew-Greek Key Study Bible. Comp. and ed. Spiros Zodhiates. Chattanooga, TN: AMG Publishers, 1984.
 Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament. Volume 2. Ed. R. Laird Harris. Chicago: Moody Press, 1980.
 Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament: The Authorized and Unabridged Translation of Theologisches Worterbuch Zum Alten Testament. Eds. G. Johannes Botterweck, Helmer Ringgren, and Heinz-Josef Fabry. Trans. David E. Green. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998.
 All Scripture references are to the King James Version (KJV), unless otherwise noted.