The Nephilim of Canaan — Who were They?
When the Israelites were preparing to invade Canaan, they sent out spies to reconnoiter the land. The spies were awestruck by the size of the Canaanites. They called them Nephilim. “They said, ‘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.” Num. 13:31-33. “The people are taller and stronger than we are; the cities are large, with walls up to the sky. We even saw the Anakites there.” Deut. 1:28.
Please note that the Israelite spies were in no doubt about the humanity of these Nephilim. “The people are taller and stronger than we are.” They were very large people, but they were just people.
The Bible records that the Anakites were people of tremendous size and strength. “The people are strong and tall—Anakites! You know about them and have heard it said: ‘Who can stand up against the Anakites?’” Deut. 9:2. The Anakites came from Kiriath Arba, (“City of Arba”) later called Hebron. Josh. 21:11. There were three groups of Anakites—the Sheshai, the Ahiman, and the Talmai, all of whom descended from Anak, who was descended from Arba. Josh. 15:13, 14.
In addition to the Anakites, Canaan was also inhabited by the Emites, Zamzummites, and Rephaites, all of whom were giants. “The Emites used to live there—a people strong and numerous, and as tall as the Anakites. Like the Anakites, they too were considered Rephaites, but the Moabites called them Emites.” Deut. 2:10, 11. The Zamzummites were, “a people strong and numerous, and as tall as the Anakites.” Deut. 2:20, 21.
The Rephaites were a giant people that had lived in the area since before Abraham’s time. Gen. 14:5, 6. One of the Rephaites was Og, King of Bashan. Scripture records that his bed was made of iron and was more than thirteen feet long and six feet wide. Deut. 3:11.
Of course, the Anakites, and the other tall, strong Canaanites, were mortal and could be defeated in battle. The Moabites, descendants of Lot, defeated and displaced the Emites, and the Ammonites, descended from Lot by a different son, defeated and displaced the Zamzummites. Israel’s victory over King Og was celebrated in song and story, and is mentioned at seders to this day. Psalm 135:10, 11; 136:17-22; Neh. 9:22.
The land of the Anakites was given to Caleb, one of the spies who was undaunted by the great size and strength of the Canaanites. In fact, Caleb and Joshua almost wiped out the Anakites. They drove the survivors out of the Hebron area and into Philistine cities of Gaza, Gath, and Ashdod. Joshua 11:21, 22; 15:13, 14.
Later, we find the remnant of the Anakites joining the Philistines and waging war against Israel. Goliath, young David’s adversary, was from Gath and was apparently descended from the Anakites who fled to Philistia. Goliath was six cubits and a span tall. 1 Sam. 17:4. If a cubit was eighteen inches, Goliath was over nine feet tall; a twenty-one-inch cubit would make him over eleven feet tall.
David’s combat with Goliath was not Israel’s only encounter with the giants of Gath. Four other Philistine fighters are identified as “sons of Rapha,” indicating that they were giants:
“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 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. . . . In the course of time, there was another battle with the Philistines, at Gob. At that time Sibbecai the Hushathite killed Saph, one of the descendants of Rapha. In another battle with the Philistines at Gob, Elhanan son of Jaare-Oregim the Bethlehemite killed Goliath the Gittite, who had a spear with a shaft like a weaver’s rod. In still another battle, which took place at Gath, there was a huge man with six fingers on each hand and six toes on each foot—twenty-four in all. He also was descended from Rapha. When he taunted Israel, Jonathan son of Shimeah, David’s brother, killed him. These four were descendants of Rapha in Gath, and they fell at the hands of David and his men.” 2 Sam. 21:16-21.
A parallel passage states that Sibbecai the Hushathite killed Sippai, “one of the descendants of the Rephaites,” indicating that the expression “sons of Rapha” does not mean the sons of a man named Rapha but rather the descendants of the Rephaites, meaning giants. 1 Chron. 20:4-8.
Moses wrote that giants lived before the Flood; he used the term Nephilim to describe them. When the Israelites found nine-foot-tall men living in Canaan, they associated them with the Nephilim that Moses had written about. But the Nephilim that the Israelites encountered in Canaan cannot have been the descendants of a discrete group that lived before the Flood, because everyone who lived before the Flood was destroyed in it, except for Noah and his family. And these Nephilim were not superhuman, because the Israelites defeated them and drove the survivors to the Philistine cities (and sometimes had to fight their descendants several generations later, as David fought Goliath).
A reasonable conclusion from the biblical witness is that people who lived before the Flood were of extremely large stature, and that very tall people persisted, in pockets and isolated areas, for more than a thousand years after the Flood. The tribes of giants that Israel encountered in Canaan were some of these people.
The Incredible Shrinking Pleistocene Fauna
In most young earth (or young life) creationist modeling of origins, the Pleistocene era—the time of glacial advances known as the Ice Age—corresponds to the early post-Flood period, probably within the first millennium after the Flood. For a general discussion of the creationist Ice Age model, please consult this article, excerpted from my book. Here, we will concentrate on one phenomenon of the Ice Age, the larger animal sizes.
Near the end of the Ice Age, more than half of the then-existing mammal species became extinct.[i] Most of the casualties were “megafauna”—species with an adult weight of more than 100 pounds. Famous examples of extinct megafauna include the giant ground sloth, which stood twenty feet tall and weighed several tons; the Irish elk (which was actually a giant deer); the saber-tooth cat; the Mastodon; and the Woolly Mammoth. Forty percent of the large mammals on the continent of Africa disappeared, including giant baboons and pigs, antlered giraffes, long-horned buffalo, scimitar-toothed cats and three-toed horses.[ii]
Of the large mammals that survived, modern representatives are generally smaller than their Ice Age ancestors. The Ice Age Llama was as large as a camel—a third larger than modern Llamas. There were two types of giant camel, both of which were much larger than a modern camel. The Dire Wolf was substantially larger than its modern counterpart, had a more massive skull, much larger teeth, and more robust bones. The surviving North American Bison is the smallest member of a large family of bison, and the Eurasian brown bear is less than half the size of its Ice Age ancestors.[iii]
North America was host to a giant beaver as large as a present-day black bear; South America was home to a giant armadillo almost seven feet long,[iv] and Australia had a ten-foot-tall kangaroo. The Ice Age cave lion was 25 percent larger than is its modern relative.[v] The Ice Age American Lion was larger than the modern African lion. There were vultures with a wingspan of twelve feet.[vi] The extinct stag-moose (Cervalces scotti) was larger than a modern moose and had more complex antlers. The Ice Age jaguar (Felis onca) was significantly larger than modern jaguars.
Dwarf variants also developed, typically on smaller islands. Miniature elephants and hippopotami populated islands in the Mediterranean, very small “mammoths” flourished on the Channel Islands off southern California, and giant ground sloths evolved into dwarf forms in the Greater Antilles.[vii] In at least one instance, on the Indonesian island of Flores, a race of dwarf humans developed.[viii]
The Ice Age phenomenon of larger faunal types that are otherwise similar or identical to animals that are extant today is universally acknowledged. The most widely accepted explanation is that large body mass was a good defense against colder Ice Age temperatures; during the Ice Age, natural selection tended to favor larger varieties for survival and reproduction. When the Ice Age ended, this selective pressure reversed, allowing animals to shrink to smaller sizes.
This theory does not, however, completely explain the phenomenon. First, the Ice Age wasn’t that much colder overall than current temperatures. Rather, as discussed here, there was greater snowfall to build up the glaciers, and cooler summers to keep them from melting back to the starting point each year. Very cold air actually works against snowfall, because extremely cold air cannot hold as much water. So it is unlikely that much greater body mass was necessary to defend against the cold. Second, it seems strange that so many forms became extinct just as the Ice Age was ending, and the weather warming. Many scientists believe that humans hunted many species to extinction, the mammoth foremost among the victims.
As to creationist explanations, many creationists believe that the earth was a much more hospitable place before the Flood and that the ruined post-Flood earth was not able to support its fauna at their larger pre-Flood sizes.[ix] It may be that these large species of mammals either went extinct or evolved to smaller sizes for the same reasons that the large mammal of most interest to us—human beings—also become smaller during this time.
We will next explore several lines of evidence that the human race did in fact become smaller during their same period of time.
[i]. Ice Ages, ed. Windsor Chorlton (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 76.
[ii]. Ice Ages, p. 69.
[iii]. Ice Ages, pp. 56, 57.
[iv]. Reminding one of a Texas bottling company’s 1980s television commercials featuring a “giant armadillo.”
[v]. Ice Ages, p. 62.
12. See, e.g., Wilford, John Noble, “Extinct and with tiny brain, but a clever little relative?” The New York Times March 4, 2005; Morwood, Mike, Thomas Sutikna, Richard Roberts, “The people time forgot,” National Geographic (April 2005); Michael D. Lemonick, “Hobbits of the South Pacific,” Time (November 8, 2004). Homo Floresiensis, as the specimen was dubbed, is essentially a miniature Homo erectus, and performs the Darwin-crushing double duty of (1) exploding any remaining hope of correlating brain size with intelligence—H. Floresiensis had a smaller cranial capacity than a chimpanzee, yet made tools (“sophisticated points, blades, awls and tiny barbs that were probably attached to sticks to make spears”), hunted the dwarf Mastodons on the island, and apparently was able to build a watercraft to reach the island, and (2) showing that there is no reason Homo erectus should not be considered fully human—Homo erectus must have been able to build boats just like his miniature cousin.
[ix]. As to why the earth is now less hospitable to life, some creationists have suggested 1) that at the time of the Flood the earth’s axis assumed its present 23.5-degree inclination relative to the plane of its orbit around the sun, which is what causes the seasons, and/or 2) that the pre-Flood world was incased in a water or water vapor canopy that kept the temperatures warmer and more uniform from pole to pole. Both suggestions are very controversial within creationism, although most creationists would agree that the climate was milder before the Flood.