THE BELIEF that the Philistines were giants (or had giants among them) with six fingers and toes on their hands and feet comes from 2 Samuel 21. That’s not necessarily what those verses mean.
As we discussed in our study of 1 Samuel 17, the oldest Hebrew sources, the Dead Sea scrolls and the first-century historian Josephus, record that Goliath of Gath was four cubits (not six) and a span, or about 6’9”. That’s still big, but not as big as he’s usually depicted.
In 2 Samuel 21, the Hebrew phrase translated “descendants of the giant(s),” yelide ha-rapha, doesn’t mean that the Philistines defeated by David and his men were literal genetic descendants of the Rephaim/Nephilim. According to scholar Conrad L’Heureux, the word yelide more accurately means “one who is born into the group by adoption, initiation, or consecration;” in other words, a member of an elite warrior cult whose patron was “the rapha”—a word that is the singular form of Rephaim.
Who was “the rapha”? We can’t say for sure. The Canaanites venerated a deity called Rapiu, the “king of eternity,” who ruled at Ashtaroth and Edrei, the royal cities of King Og of Bashan, a land that was believed to be the entrance to the netherworld. While Rapiu is the singular form of rapiuma (the Canaanite form of Rephaim), we don’t have an explicit link between Rapiu and “the rapha.”
All that said, it is possible that this warrior cult engaged in rituals that enhanced its members epigenetically. After all, they were able to wield 12-pound spears with shafts “like a weaver’s beam.”
One of the clues is in the name of the Philistine warrior Ishbi-benob. That name should be rendered Ishbi ben ob, or “Ishbi, son of the medium.” The Hebrew word ôb, usually translated “medium,” means “owner of a necromantic ritual pit,” and it’s related to the Sumerian abzu, from which we get the word “abyss.”
In short, the Philistine “giants” were demon-worshipping, and possibly demon-possessed, warriors, similar to Viking berserkers.
We also note that the verse mentioning the six-fingered Philistine, 2 Sam. 21:20, doesn’t necessarily mean that this was a trait of the Nephilim. This (and its parallel, 1 Chr. 20:6) is the only verse that mentions polydactyly in the Bible. Since the giants of Noah’s day were destroyed in the Flood, this may not be a genetic trait of the Nephilim at all.
To be clear, we’re open to the idea of a post-Flood incursion of giant divine-human hybrids. But such an incursion is not explicit in the Bible and it can’t be proved archaeologically—at least, not yet.
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