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Inspired by this question on Biblical Hermeneutics.

What were the Nephilim mentioned in Bereishis and in Bamidbar?

Bereishis 6:1-4

The Nephilim were in the earth in those days, and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bore children to them; the same were the mighty men that were of old, the men of renown.

Bamidbar 13:33

And there we saw the Nephilim, the sons of Anak, who come of the Nephilim; and we were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so we were in their sight.'

Which commentaries speak about it?

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Genesis 6:4

ד) הַנְּפִלִים הָיוּ בָאָרֶץ בַּיָּמִים הָהֵם וְגַם אַחֲרֵי כֵן אֲשֶׁר יָבֹאוּ בְּנֵי הָאֱלֹהִים אֶל בְּנוֹת הָאָדָם וְיָלְדוּ לָהֶם הֵמָּה הַגִּבֹּרִים אֲשֶׁר מֵעוֹלָם אַנְשֵׁי הַשֵּׁם:

Rashi, Ibn Ezra, Radak, Ramban (quoting Rashi and Radak), Chizkuni, and Malbim (on Genesis 8:21) all say that they were giants (ענקים). This interpretation is probably based on the only other place where the Nephilim are mentioned, Numbers 13:33, which states

וְשָׁם רָאִינוּ אֶת הַנְּפִילִים בְּנֵי עֲנָק מִן הַנְּפִלִים וַנְּהִי בְעֵינֵינוּ כַּחֲגָבִים וְכֵן הָיִינוּ בְּעֵינֵיהֶם:

Why were they called that? Ibn Ezra and Radak explain that

"ופירוש נפילים שיפול לב הרואה אותם, שיתמה מגובה קומתם."

Ramban and Abarbanel explain that they were the children of the בני האלוהים and בנות האדם.

Ibn Ezra (in his alternate commentary) explains that they were the "opposite of the גבורים" mentioned in that verse. (I'm not sure what that means.)

The פנים יפות (R. Pinchas son of R. Zvi Hirsh haLevi Horowitz, 1700's) says that they were "fallen angels." The תורה תמימה (R. Baruch Epstein, 1900's) says similarly, that they are "those that fell from heaven to earth."

(Please note that "fallen angels," while making first appearance in the Book of Enoch, an ancient Jewish book written in the 1st century BCE, were greatly popularized in Milton's Paradise Lost, published in 1667. As such, it's plausible that these last two commentaries were influenced by Paradise Lost.)

  • Ibn Ezra's comment means that the Nefilim were "lowly people", people of unimportance, aka "the mob" while the givurim were the important people, the "upper classmen" – avi Dec 15 '11 at 9:13
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The Pirkei D'Rav Eliezer says these were angels that fell from heaven and married the daughters of Kayin who were dressed inappropriately, and had children that were giants.

http://hebrewbooks.org/pdfpager.aspx?req=21858&st=&pgnum=131

http://hebrewbooks.org/pdfpager.aspx?req=21858&st=&pgnum=132

  • Is there any commentary which can explain the idea of angels "falling"? – rosends May 13 '18 at 19:49
  • The Radal on 14 (sub 32) deals with it but it isn't fully clear on how an angel (which has no free will) can "fall." @Gershon Gold – rosends May 13 '18 at 20:08

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