A week or so ago I blogged about Dr. Peter Gentry’s attempt to divorce the Nephilim from the supernatural sons of God via a YouTube video he created. His argument isn’t coherent because it implodes on itself, as I noted.
In more recent days (Is there some reason the Nephilim have become popular in Christmas season?) folks have sent me links to another person (I can’t recall if he’s a pastor or a professor somewhere) denying the reality of the Nephilim in the conquest narratives. The argument is a time-worn one (nothing new) that is as incoherent today as it’s always been: Numbers 13:32-33 don’t endorse Nephilim after the flood (or that the Nephilim were unusually tall) because the Israelites spies that told the people about them were lying.
Yes, you read that correctly: the report of the spies was bogus. (Curiously, only the stuff about very tall Anakim is considered a contrivance that didn’t correspond to reality). So there . . . run along citizen Bible student – nothing to see in Num 13:32-33.
This argument is painful for two reasons: (1) It demonstrates deeply flawed thinking, and (2) it forces us to conclude that biblical writers outside Numbers 13 are liars. It’s hard to imagine anyone with a high view of Scripture would make such an argument. I can only reason that they make it because they don’t think well about where it leads.
So let’s take a brief look at why this argument is a non-starter.
I’ll begin by noting that I didn’t say anything specific about this argument in The Unseen Realm. That’s because I presumed that no one serious about the subject would still make the argument. I was wrong (or was I?). At any rate, here’s what I wrote in a footnote in The Unseen Realm (p. 192):
Some try to argue that the report of the spies was a lie or deliberate exaggeration motivated by fear. This is a poorly conceived idea, since it requires either ignoring all the other biblical references to giants (Anakim or otherwise) or considering them to be lies as well. It also requires removing the term nephilim from its context and ignoring the morphology of the word (see chapters 12–13). There is no sound exegetical support for this idea.
True, but not satisfying for our purposes here.
Let’s take a look at Numbers 13:32-33. Here’s the passage in a bit wider context:
25 At the end of forty days they returned from spying out the land. 26 And they came to Moses and Aaron and to all the congregation of the people of Israel in the wilderness of Paran, at Kadesh. They brought back word to them and to all the congregation, and showed them the fruit of the land. 27 And they told him, “We came to the land to which you sent us. It flows with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. 28 However, the people who dwell in the land are strong, and the cities are fortified and very large. And besides, we saw the descendants of Anak there. 29 The Amalekites dwell in the land of the Negeb. The Hittites, the Jebusites, and the Amorites dwell in the hill country. And the Canaanites dwell by the sea, and along the Jordan.”
30 But Caleb quieted the people before Moses and said, “Let us go up at once and occupy it, for we are well able to overcome it.” 31 Then the men who had gone up with him said, “We are not able to go up against the people, for they are stronger than we are.” 32 So they brought to the people of Israel a bad report of the land that they had spied out, saying, “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. 33 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.” (ESV)
I’ve put one line in bold, as that is the basis for the “spies were lying” argument. The spies “brought to the people of Israel a bad report” (v. 32).
The assumption here is that the Hebrew word translated “bad” here means “false” – does it? Well, it would be nice (for starters) if the people making this argument actually looked up what’s behind the English translation. Here’s a screenshot of the passage using the Logos Reverse Interlinear pane:
The Hebrew word in question is dibbah. The word is not used often in the Hebrew Bible. In fact, here is the complete list of occurrences:
|These are the generations of Jacob. Joseph, being seventeen years old, was pasturing the flock with his brothers. He was a boy with the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, his father’s wives. And Joseph brought a bad report of them to their father.
|So they brought to the people of Israel a bad report of the land that they had spied out, saying, “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 the men whom Moses sent to spy out the land, who returned and made all the congregation grumble against him by bringing up a bad report about the land—
|the men who brought up a bad report of the land—died by plague before the Lord.
|For I hear the whispering of many— terror on every side!— as they scheme together against me, as they plot to take my life.
|The one who conceals hatred has lying lips, and whoever utters slander is a fool.
|lest he who hears you bring shame upon you, and your ill repute have no end.
|For I hear many whispering. Terror is on every side! “Denounce him! Let us denounce him!” say all my close friends, watching for my fall. “Perhaps he will be deceived; then we can overcome him and take our revenge on him.”
|therefore prophesy, and say, Thus says the Lord God: Precisely because they made you desolate and crushed you from all sides, so that you became the possession of the rest of the nations, and you became the talk and evil gossip of the people,
Let’s think about these occurrences (saving the ones in Numbers 13 and 14 for last). We need to ask ourselves two questions as we do:
- Does the passage make sense if we presume the dibbah refers to a falsehood, something untrue?
- If we interpret the dibbah as untrue, does that conclusion produce theological coherence?
These are the generations of Jacob. Joseph, being seventeen years old, was pasturing the flock with his brothers. He was a boy with the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, his father’s wives. And Joseph brought a bad report of them to their father.
This is the instance where the young Joseph gives an unfavorable report / assessment of his brothers job performance in tending the flocks of their father, Jacob. Are we to assume the report was false – that Joseph lied to Jacob? On what basis? I think not, namely because of Joseph’s sterling character through the entirety of the Genesis story (chs 37-50), often under tremendous duress. It seems unthinkable he’d just lie to get his brothers in trouble. On the other hand, it seems quite evident that his brothers were men of low character. They threw Joseph into a pit and then lied to their father about Joseph being killed after they’d sold him into slavery. It’s utterly incoherent to think that Joseph’s bad report was a misrepresentation of such men.
For I hear the whispering of many— terror on every side!— as they scheme together against me, as they plot to take my life.
Psalm 31 is a psalm of David. Verse 13 has David concerned about whispering / rumors (dibbah) he has heard—specifically about plotting against him that puts him in harm’s way. Should we believe David was paranoid, that there were no such rumors, or that such rumors were false? Hardly, David spent much of his adult life fleeing from enemies and plots to kill him.
The one who conceals hatred has lying lips, and whoever utters slander is a fool.
This seems to give us at least one instance where dibbah could refer to something false—at least if we accept the semantics of the ENGLISH “slander”. But is that required? What if (per Psalm 31 – and per Prov 25:10 below, the next occurrence) the thing uttered is true but ought not be spoken. Yep, you’d be a fool for doing that. So even this instance isn’t a slam dunk for falsehood—unless you allow an English translation choice do the semantic work for Hebrew. Needless to say, that’s either lazy or bad hermeneutics.
lest he who hears you bring shame upon you, and your ill repute have no end.
Taken in isolation (which is never a good idea for biblical interpretation), cut off from the immediately preceding verse (9), this occurrence again looks like the Hebrew term dibbah might be a falsehood. But here are verses 9-10 together:
9 Argue your case with your neighbor himself,
and do not reveal another’s secret,
10 lest he who hears you bring shame upon you,
and your ill repute have no end.
Once we see this tandem, the point being made might be quite different than the falsehood we presumed. There’s no reason to conclude that the argument against one’s neighbor is a false argument. The point being made by the proverb is the wisdom or privacy—keeping an argument private. If the biblical writer is arguing that personal matters should be kept personal, then it’s actually more likely the secret is real – in which case you’d earn a bad reputation / report about yourself (“ill repute” – dibbah) not because you said anything false, but because you’re a gossip, spreading information that ought to remain private.
For I hear many whispering. Terror is on every side! “Denounce him! Let us denounce him!” say all my close friends, watching for my fall. “Perhaps he will be deceived; then we can overcome him and take our revenge on him.”
This one is akin to Psalm 31:13 – rumors about some impending doom. Are the rumors false? The answer is easy once we know who is being whispered against or about: the prophet Jeremiah. Again, let’s add some verses for some context. Jeremiah laments:
10 For I hear many whispering.
Terror is on every side!
“Denounce him! Let us denounce him!”
say all my close friends,
watching for my fall.
“Perhaps he will be deceived;
then we can overcome him
and take our revenge on him.”
11 But the LORD is with me as a dread warrior;
therefore my persecutors will stumble;
they will not overcome me.
They will be greatly shamed,
for they will not succeed.
Their eternal dishonor
will never be forgotten.
12 O LORD of hosts, who tests the righteous,
who sees the heart and the mind,
let me see your vengeance upon them,
for to you have I committed my cause.
Fortunately for us, the point here is obvious. Jeremiah is speaking the Lord’s word as a prophet in the days before Judah’s fall to Babylon. He has plenty of enemies who want to either shut him up or invalidate his message. One could conclude that this means those enemies are making up falsehoods about him – and so the term dibbah here would point to a lying report. But when we look at what they are actually saying (“Terror is on every side!”) those words are correct! Jeremiah is saying these things, and he’s right. They are the ones in denial. When they verbally whisper their hope that “Perhaps [Jeremiah] will be deceived; then we can overcome him and take our revenge on him,” they’re being honest. They hope they can charge the prophet with falsehood to invalidate his status as a prophet. Then he’d be in their power. Jeremiah prays, though, for the Lord’s help, since he’s doing the Lord’s work (vv. 11-12).
therefore prophesy, and say, Thus says the Lord God: Precisely because they made you desolate and crushed you from all sides, so that you became the possession of the rest of the nations, and you became the talk and evil gossip of the people,
The key here is to ask a simple question: What talk is being referenced by the line “you became the talk and evil gossip of the people”? In context, Judah and its people are the “you” being talked about (the verb is second person plural). Who is doing the talking? Israel’s enemies – the nations around her (who are also under judgment). So are Israel’s enemies saying false things about her? Let’s let the report of Lamentations inform us here. Once Jerusalem fell, Israel’s enemies, the peoples all around her, had a lot to say:
15 All who pass along the way
clap their hands at you;
they hiss and wag their heads
at the daughter of Jerusalem:
“Is this the city that was called
the perfection of beauty,
the joy of all the earth?”
16 All your enemies
rail against you;
they hiss, they gnash their teeth,
they cry: “We have swallowed her!
Ah, this is the day we longed for;
now we have it; we see it!” (Lam 2:15-16)
Israel’s enemies aren’t telling falsehoods about her – they are MOCKING her. The English “evil gossip” is a pretty poor translation of dibbah in Ezek 36:3 given this parallel (actually given this eye witness report) of what happened. It’s a classic instance of letting English wordings influence one’s semantic interpretation of Hebrew wording.
So, what we’ve discovered is that there are NO INSTANCES where dibbah refers unambiguously to a falsehood. Most of the time it clearly does not refer to some contrivance; at other times it might be there is an equally viable (more viable) reading to the contrary. So this argument against taking the Nephilim / Anakim encounter in Numbers 13 at face value is already undermined. But it gets worse for those who cling to it. Now we come to the occurrences in Numbers.
And the men whom Moses sent to spy out the land, who returned and made all the congregation grumble against him by bringing up a bad report about the land—
the men who brought up a bad report of the land—died by plague before the Lord.
These two instances refer back to Numbers 13:32-33, the report that the Nephilim naysayers insist was a lie. They would argue that God is judging these men in Numbers 14 for lying—for discouraging the people. It’s time to ask ourselves the OBVIOUS question that the naysayers don’t seem to raise:
If the 10 spies were lying about the Nephilim / Anakim, were Joshua and Caleb telling the truth? They were the only two among the spies that God spared in his judgment (Num 14:38). Their report was true. They never say that the 10 spies were lying. They object to the faithlessness of their comrades and the people, not their report.
So did Joshua and Caleb consider the Anakim unusually tall?
The answer is obvious: yes. Why? Because both men had traveled with Moses up through the Transjordan where the conquest began. Moses had written this about the Anakim—chronologically AFTER to the Numbers 13 incident, which allows us to discern quite easily that the spies weren’t lying:
28 Where are we going up? Our brothers have made our hearts melt, saying, “The people are greater and taller than we. The cities are great and fortified up to heaven. And besides, we have seen the sons of the Anakim there.” ’
The point here is that, after 40 years of wandering in the wake of the faithless response to the spies’ report in Numbers 13, Moses drops the note that they still had to face the Anakim. And how did Moses described them? Read on …
9 And the LORD said to me, ‘Do not harass Moab or contend with them in battle, for I will not give you any of their land for a possession, because I have given Ar to the people of Lot for a possession.’ 10 (The Emim formerly lived there, a people great and many, and tall as the Anakim. 11 Like the Anakim they are also counted as Rephaim, but the Moabites call them Emim.
17 the LORD said to me, 18 ‘Today you are to cross the border of Moab at Ar. 19 And when you approach the territory of the people of Ammon, do not harass them or contend with them, for I will not give you any of the land of the people of Ammon as a possession, because I have given it to the sons of Lot for a possession.’ 20 (It is also counted as a land of Rephaim. Rephaim formerly lived there—but the Ammonites call them Zamzummim— 21 a people great and many, and tall as the Anakim; but the LORD destroyed them before the Ammonites, and they dispossessed them and settled in their place,
1 “Hear, O Israel: you are to cross over the Jordan today, to go in to dispossess nations greater and mightier than you, cities great and fortified up to heaven, 2 a people great and tall, the sons of the Anakim, whom you know, and of whom you have heard it said, ‘Who can stand before the sons of Anak?’
We’ve learned an important item in these references—that the Anakim were like the Rephaim and vice versa. Both people groups (if there’s a difference that extends beyond the names) were unusually tall. Moses writes about one of these Rephaim (and also uses the description “Amorites” of them – more on that in a moment) in Deuteronomy 3. Throughout that chapter we learn about Og, the king of Bashan, who was the last of the Rephaim and king of the Amorites:
11 (For only Og the king of Bashan was left of the remnant of the Rephaim. Behold, his bed was a bed of iron. Is it not in Rabbah of the Ammonites? Nine cubits was its length, and four cubits its breadth, according to the common cubit.)
That’s quite a bed! Would it fit in your bedroom? While, as I noted in Unseen Realm, these measurements can’t tell us exactly how tall Og was, the measurements telegraph an even more important idea to which the biblical writers wanted to tie Og, and to which, if you are aware of the significance of the Amorites, Og would want to be tied to. At any rate, it’s quite oversized.
The book of Joshua informs us of the same thing that Og was one of the Rephaim:
4 and Og king of Bashan, one of the remnant of the Rephaim, who lived at Ashtaroth and at Edrei
I could cite a number of other verses here about Og the Rephaim king of the Amorites. He had a buddy, Sihon, who was another king of the Amorites that Israel defeated. There are ways to establish that Sihon also hailed from “giant territory,” but I won’t digress. Here are the verses for those interested to look up that identify Og (and we’ll loop Sihon in here) as not only Rephaim, but Amorite (Num 32:33; Deut 1:4; Deut 4:47; Deut 31:4; Josh 2:10; Josh 9:10; 1 Kings 4:19; Psa 135:11).
This identification of Rephaim, who were tall like the Anakim, who were also Amorites, is significant for yet another passage: Amos 2:9-10. Was Amos also lying, like the spies?
Yet it was I who destroyed the Amorite before them,
whose height was like the height of the cedars
and who was as strong as the oaks.
Is Amos a liar? He has the height of the Amorites (= Rephaim = Anakim in Deut 1-3) “like the height of the cedars.” His description would have aligned with that of the spies. Oops.
The Israelite spies were not lying. If they were, then we have biblical writers lying with them. It’s simple: If the writer of Deut 1-3 gets the Anakim correct in those passages, then we have zero warrant to say the spies were lying in Numbers 13:32-33. And if the Anakim were unusually tall like the Rephaim and Amorites, then the writer of Joshua and Amos the prophet were liars as well.
Sorry, but the spies weren’t lying any more than these other biblical writers were lying. For those desperate enough to argue this way I doubt the fact that the view lacks coherence or merit in any regard will matter. They’re already in the business of protecting people from their Bible, so coherence isn’t going to matter.