Who and what the Nephilim were is up for debate. Before the flood, there were Nephilim that were the offspring of “the sons of God” and “the daughters of men” (see Genesis 6:1–4). The meaning of this passage is disputed. Regardless of their specific “DNA,” it seems that the Nephilim were extraordinary. All of them would have been killed in the flood, in which only Noah and his immediate family were spared. Nevertheless, the text indicates that the Nephilim also existed after the flood—they were “on the earth in those days—and also afterward”—that is, after the flood (Genesis 6:4).
If the Nephilim were gigantic warrior people before the flood, it is possible that giant warriors after the flood were also called Nephilim. A modern parallel might be the “modern superhero.” Everyone knows that Superman, Spider-man, and Wonder Woman do not exist in real life, but the mythology of the superhero is firmly planted in our collective psyche. When, on occasion, a policeman, fireman, or a member of the armed forces performs some extraordinarily heroic and dangerous rescue, the news media might refer to that person a “real-life superhero.” They do not mean that this person is actually endowed with superhuman powers, but that his behavior goes so far beyond the ordinary that he is living up to the commonly accepted mythology. This is a possibility in the Old Testament as well: any time an exceptional warrior was found, he was called a “Nephilim” without necessarily implying that he was the offspring of the “sons of God” in Genesis 6. This could explain how giants—fearfully large and ferocious warriors—are called Nephilim after the flood.
In Numbers, Moses sends twelve spies into the land of Canaan—the Promised Land. All the spies agreed that the land was good with plenty to offer, but ten of the spies also were fearful that Israel could not take the land because of the people living in it: “The land we explored devours those living in it. All the people we saw there are of great size. We saw the Nephilim there (the descendants of Anak come from the Nephilim). We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we looked the same to them” (Numbers 13:32–33). Here the Nephilim are described as the descendants of Anak and are associated with men of great size—giants. The best explanation seems to be that the word Nephilim had become a semi-technical term for “giant warrior.” It may have held some overtones of mystery as well, similar to the modern term monster, which can refer to size, as in monster truck. It can also have dark overtones, referring to an evil character. And finally, a monster might be some kind of abnormal or terrifying creature. With our limited knowledge of the word Nephilim, the best we can say is that it appears the Nephilim were gigantic, mysterious warriors of uncertain heritage. To the people who observed them, they seemed to be unnaturally formidable, large, and fierce.
Of all the giants, Goliath is the most infamous, although the Bible never uses the term Nephilim to describe him. Goliath challenged the armies of Israel, and only David was brave enough (because he trusted fully in God) to challenge him in battle. Goliath is described this way: “His height was six cubits and a span. He had a bronze helmet on his head and wore a coat of scale armor of bronze weighing five thousand shekels; on his legs he wore bronze greaves, and a bronze javelin was slung on his back. His spear shaft was like a weaver’s rod, and its iron point weighed six hundred shekels” (1 Samuel 17:5–7). The footnotes in the NIV explain the ancient measurements: Goliath’s height was about 9 feet 9 inches. His bronze coat of armor weighed about 125 pounds, and his spearhead weighed about 15 pounds. Of course, Goliath fell at the hand of David. God is stronger than giants.
Second Samuel 21 records the demise of several giant Philistine warriors, all said to be descended from Rapha in Gath. (Since one of the men is Goliath’s brother, we can assume that Goliath is descended from Rapha as well): “Once again there was a battle between the Philistines and Israel. David went down with his men to fight against the Philistines, and he became exhausted. And Ishbi-Benob, one of the descendants of Rapha, whose bronze spearhead weighed three hundred shekels [7.5 lbs] and who was armed with a new sword, said he would kill David. But Abishai son of Zeruiah came to David’s rescue; he struck the Philistine down and killed him. Then David’s men swore to him, saying, ‘Never again will you go out with us to battle, so that the lamp of Israel will not be extinguished’” (verses 15–17).
In the course of time, in other battles with the Philistines, three more descendants of Rapha were slain: Saph; the brother of Goliath, “who had a spear with a shaft like a weaver’s rod”; and “a huge man with six fingers on each hand and six toes on each foot—twenty-four in all” (verses 18–22). All of these warriors were related to Goliath, but none are called Nephilim.
There are a couple of other giants mentioned in Scripture. Og, king of Bashan, was a huge man with a huge bed (Deuteronomy 3:11). One of David’s mighty men, Benaiah, “struck down Moab’s two mightiest warriors. He also went down into a pit on a snowy day and killed a lion. And he struck down an Egyptian who was five cubits tall. Although the Egyptian had a spear like a weaver’s rod in his hand, Benaiah went against him with a club. He snatched the spear from the Egyptian’s hand and killed him with his own spear” ( 1 Chronicles 11:22–23). Although we don’t know how thick a weaver’s rod was, it would have to be sufficiently strong and thick enough to support the stress of weaving, and, from the way it is used in conjunction with giant warriors, we can infer that it must have been quite large.
GuinnessWorldRecords.com reports Robert Wadlow, born in 1918, to be the tallest man in modern history. He grew to a height of just over 8 feet 11 inches (“The Tallest Man Ever,” accessed 5/26/20). However, he and many other modern “giants” suffered from health problems that would not make them good “warriors.” More modest giants who are able to play professional sports are a bit smaller but still gigantic compared to the average person. There have been a good many NBA players who have been 7 feet 6 inches tall. There is no shortage of NFL players who stand 6 feet 5 inches or taller and weigh in at over 350 pounds. Professional wrestling has also had a few giants, including Andre the Giant who was 7 feet 4 inches tall and weighed over 500 pounds. It is quite possible that, at an earlier time, there was greater variation within the human gene pool, which could have produced even larger giants than we have among us today.
Goliath was very likely not the offspring of humans and angels, and he is never called a Nephilim; however, he was a fierce, gigantic warrior and might have been described, in the parlance of the Philistines or Israelites, as a “modern-day Nephilim.”