Nephilim: A Grammar Lesson

It became clear to me this past weekend how little I know about biblical (classical) Hebrew. I prefer modern languages, especially those with alphabets that resemble English. If this issue weren’t enough, I keep seeing spelling changes in biblical manuscripts. Why does this matter? I said in part two that “Nephilim,” which I transliterated as nĕphiyliym, is a common noun, so it doesn’t require a definite article and shouldn’t be capitalized. I’m still not sold on the capitalization part; this word describes a generic people group. But on the definite article, I was wrong. See below.

ם י לִ י פִ נְּ הַ = old for H5303 = nĕphiyliym / Nephilim [plural noun][1]

ל י פִ נָ = new for H5303 = nĕphiyl [singular noun]

The first one most closely resembles the ancient manuscripts, since the plural noun appears in the Bible three times (Genesis 6:4 once, Numbers 13:33 twice), the singular never. Why did BLB change this word from plural to singular, even though the latter is the root? I don’t know. But notice that I said ‘most closely resembles.’ Neither word appears in the Masoretic Text (MT) in Genesis. What does appear has one extra letter and one missing letter. See below. [This spelling also appears in the Hexapla (c. AD 240), compiled by the Greek theologian Origen (184-253).

ם י לִ פִ נְּ הַ

alphabet hebrew-egyptianThe extra letter is הַ [he], which appears at the beginning. The missing letter is י [yod], which should be fourth from the left. A variation in niqqud (vowel points or diacritical marks) is one thing; missing or extra consonants are something else. Should this word be spelled “Nephilim” without the first yod? Still, the extra letter he is where I made my mistake. According to, “the original pictograph for this letter is … a man standing with his arms raised out. The … original name is ‘hey,’” i.e. “‘behold,’ as when looking at a great sight. This word can also mean ‘breath’ or ‘sigh,’ as one does when looking at a great sight. The meaning of the letter … is behold, look, breath, sigh, and reveal or revelation from the idea of revealing a great sight by pointing it out. … This letter is commonly used as a prefix to words to mean ‘the’ as in ‘ha’arets,’ meaning ‘the land.’ The use of this prefix is to reveal something of importance within the sentence.” In other words, ם י לִ פִ נְּ הַ means ‘the nĕphiyliym,’ or whatever this word is, so God (via Moses) wanted readers to take notice. My point is that this noun requires a definite article! However, I still don’t know what to do with that missing first yod.

While studying biblical Hebrew grammar, I’ve learned that some nouns lose consonants in their plural forms. So why is nĕphiyliym (the plural of H5303) spelled two different ways in Numbers 13:33? The first appearance of this word matches the old BLB, with two prefixes: ם י לִ י פִ נְּ + הַ + ־ ת אֶ. Depending on context, the first prefix can either mean ‘with’ (preposition) or signify a direct object. The latter is the case here, so this word just means “the nĕphiyliym.” The second appearance matches Genesis 6:4, again with an extra prefix: ם י לִ פִ נְּ הַ + the preposition ־ ן מִ [‘from’ or ‘out of’]. This word means “from/out of the nĕphiyliym.” Diacritical marks are the same for each plural (without prefixes), except that the first word contains the extra yod. So, does it alone mean nĕphiyliym and the second something else? If one looks just at spelling in the Masoretic Text, then the “first” use of nĕphiyliym in Numbers 13:33 is the only time that this word appears in the Bible. The two words without the first yod, in this verse and in Genesis 6:4, are spelled differently, so they may have a different meaning. What is that meaning? I’m leaning toward fierce warriors or evil leaders, not physical giants. The singular form nĕphiyl is also an assumed word, since it never appears in the Bible.

I’m still learning how different English-language Bibles have translated ם י לִ פִ נְּ הַ, starting with the Old English Hexateuch (c. AD 1000). But I’m no longer certain how this word should be spelled, or even what it truly means. If I understood Hebrew grammar better, these spelling changes might make sense. As it is, I’m linguistically lost.


[1] I can’t get the Hebrew to go from right to left in WordPress, so all the Hebrew words are spelled backward.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.