The Rephaim – Who were they?

The word Rephaim is used in two different ways in Hebrew. It refers to the spirits of the departed dead who dwell in Sheol; it is a poetic description of the dead. It also refers to a strong, tall race of people who lived in Canaan. The second meaning of the word Rephaim is a literal meaning, used to describe actual people who existed. Rephaim was not the description of a person's ethnicity, but rather a characteristic that the people of a certain area shared. The word Rephaim means "terrible ones" and they are described in the Bible as "giants" and "mighty men."

The Rephaim (or Rephaites) appear first in a battle with king Chedorlaomer (Genesis 14:5). Chedorlaomer and his allies defeated the Rephaim, along with the Zuzim and Emim peoples. The Rephaim were similar to the Anakim (Deuteronomy 2:20–21). The Rephaim are mentioned again in Exodus when the Israelites were trying to enter the Promised Land. The Rephaim were living in Canaan, and the Israelites were terrified of them—the Israelites didn't want to go into the Promised Land because it was inhabited with "giants" (Numbers 13:33), the sons of Anak. The spies came back to Israel and told the people that "The land, through which we have gone to spy it out, is a land that devours its inhabitants, and all the people that we saw in it are of great height. And there we saw the Nephilim (the sons of Anak, who come from the Nephilim), and we seemed to ourselves like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them" (Numbers 13:32–33). The Promised Land, though beautiful (Numbers 13:27) was inhabited with giants—men so big that the Israelites felt like grasshoppers next to them. The Rephaim were of the same type.

Can this be taken literally? Who are the Nephilim? The Bible says that Og, king of Bashan (one of the last Rephaim) had a bed that was thirteen feet long (Deuteronomy 3:11). Was this just the grandiosity of a king, or did Og really need a bed that large? We know the ancient Jews believed them to be giants because the Greek word titanes, from which English derives the word titan, is used to translate the Hebrew word rephaim. Ancient folklore from many cultures features stories of giants. And there is biblical basis for their existence. The Nephilim (the word used synonymously with the Anakites) were the offspring of fallen angels and women (Genesis 6:1–4). How this is biologically possible we don't know, but the story is presented literally. The phrase used in the passage is "sons of God" who took "daughters of man" as their wives and bore children through them. The phrase "sons of God" is used exclusively elsewhere in Scripture to describe angelic beings.

If we take these biblical accounts at face value, we see that the Nephilim, the Anakites, and the Rephaim all had three things in common: great strength, great height, and part-angelic parentage. Reliable extra-biblical historical books like the Book of Enoch, the Book of Jasher, and the writings of the Jewish historian Josephus all also mention the Nephilim, referring to them as mighty men, giants, the sons of an unnatural union between human beings and fallen angels.

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