Many of us are familiar with children’s books illustrating the biblical story of David and the giant Goliath (1 Samuel 17:4–7) – with pictures showing the young David overshadowed by a huge figure perhaps twice as tall as himself.
Giants are first mentioned in the Old Testament as early as Genesis 6, where we are told “There were giants on the earth in those days, and also afterward…” But are these stories of giants just “tall tales” as many presume – or, if they are based in fact, what exactly are the stories talking about?
The word in Genesis 6:4 translated “giant” in the King James Version and some other versions of the Bible is the Hebrew word nephilim, and the actual meaning of the word is unknown – which is why it is simply left untranslated in most modern versions such as the NIV, ESV, HCSB, etc.
The “Nephilim” are also mentioned later in the Scriptures. When the Israelite spies returned from their reconnaissance in the Promised Land, they reported: “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 13:33). This description does make the Nephilim sound like giants.
But in the book of Ezekiel the Nephilim are spoken of simply as great warriors: “But they do not lie with the fallen warriors of old [Hebrew Nephilim], who went down to the realm of the dead with their weapons of war – their swords placed under their heads and their shields resting on their bones – though these warriors also had terrorized the land of the living” (Ezekiel 32:27).
So the exact meaning of Nephilim is uncertain – possibly the word refers to giants, or it may mean only something like mighty warriors. It is clear, however, that some of the descendants of the Nephilim exhibited the characteristic of great height. We are told the size of some warriors of this group, but there are still uncertainties.
Goliath, for example, is said to have been “six cubits and a span” tall (approximately 9 ft. 9 in.) according to the traditional Masoretic Hebrew text, but the Septuagint and an ancient Hebrew manuscript found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, designated 4QSama, list Goliath’s height as four cubits and a span (approximately 6 ft. 9 in.).
Yet even the great heights recorded for “giants” like Goliath are not outside of possibility. Today, in 2017, the tallest man living is Sultan Kösen of Turkey who was officially measured at 8 ft. 2.8 in. (251 cm.) in Ankara, Turkey, on 08 February 2011; but Robert Wadlow, who lived in the United States 1918–1940, was measured at 8 ft. 11.1 in. (272 cm. – just a little under 9 ft. and almost as tall as even the greatest measurement found in biblical manuscripts for Goliath.
Even today, some human populations are much taller than others, though gigantism of the kind recorded in the Bible is usually the result of an over-production of growth hormone in the pituitary gland. We can conclude, therefore, that it remains uncertain whether the “Nephilim” of the biblical accounts were all extremely tall or simply mighty warriors among whom some were “giants,” but the recorded heights of the tallest of these individuals are certainly within the realm of actual possibility.