You are here
It Ain't Necessarily So: Giants and Biblical Literalism
In our culture, giants belong to the realm of St. George's dragon and other folklore. Belief in giants as flesh and blood rather than myth can be traced to a prescientific tradition. The Greeks had Prometheus, for example, and Gaea and the Titans; the Scandinavian first being was the giant Ymir whose body parts became the earth when he was slain by Odin and his brothers (a story similar to the Hindus' account of goddess Kali).
Mythic and distant, giants are as easy to comprehend as normal people drawn large. From ancient mythology to Gulliver's Travels and The Attack of the Fifty Foot Woman, giants are conceived of as outsized but normally-proportioned humans. In reality, however, anatomical size variation follows biological and physical laws of scaling rather than the rules of photographic enlargement. The "attack" of the Fifty Foot Woman should have actually consisted of her collapsing upon her own shattered feet and legs! But, if such creatures are anatomically impossible, they are very much a part of folk beliefs around the world. We can enjoy their feats or comprehend their symbolic lessons or meanings without taking seriously the biological problems of their mere existence because we all know they are really make-believe.
Or, at least most of us familiar with the scientific tradition know this. Scientific creationists, however, find ancient, "normally-proportioned" giants acceptable and have even made them a crucial aspect of their case against evolution. As a result, some creationists spend a great deal of time looking for giant tracks in the ground and in the Bible. While most creationists do not claim that all of the supposed human contemporaries of dinosaurs were giants, they do use the huge size of some of their alleged human footprints as proof of the scientific inerrancy of scripture.
Since one can accept the laws of physical scale and still be an antievolutionist, it is curious that scientific creationists build so much of their current argument around the existence of superior human giants. An extremely literal approach to the Bible might well insist that Adam and Eve had to be normal, fully modem humans. In fact, it would seem to require a substantial evolutionary change to convert a ten or sixteen foot Adam into a species less than half that tall, as some creationists have claimed (cf., Baugh, 1983b, Burdick, 1950, Dougherty, 1978:51). Burdick (1950:6) unwittingly writes that such evolution (he calls it degeneration) has taken place since the days of Eden when everything was bigger and better than it is today.
- page 49 -
People convinced that humans and dinosaurs coexisted because the Bible implies they did have already made up their minds, whatever the evidence. There are biblical references to "giants," especially in the most popular fundamentalist versions of the Bible, and the first century historian Flavius Josephus (1850) mentions them. We have discussed material evidence elsewhere, but the literary evidence also needs to be examined. What does the Bible say?
Beierle (1980:95-98) cites several biblical references to giants: Genesis 6:4 "There were giants in the earth in those days. . . ."; Joshua 18:16 ". . . the valley of the giants on the north . . ." (also, Joshua 15:8); I Samuel 17:4 tells the story of David and Goliath; Deuteronomy 3:11 refers to King Og's bed as nine cubits long (up to 14 feet); Job 40:15 "Behold now behemoth, which I made with thee." Beierle claims that behemoth refers to Brontosaurus, and the Bible-Science Newsletter (1984b:16) claims the reference is to dinosaurs, at least.
Examined closely, these passages are a bit different from what creationists imply, and there are additional biblical references to giants which can be similarly analyzed. King Og's bed size can probably be ignored (by such standards we could prove that Hugh Hefner is a latter day giant!), but what of other references?
Translations as well as interpretations of meaning differ. In the preface to his history, Flavius Josephus (1850:24) notes that the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible) was written enigmatically, allegorically, and philosophically; he saw Genesis as a repository of deeper meanings, not simply an historical primer. Beyond the cloisters of slavish literalism, most biblical scholars today agree.
"Giant" is a common but not universal English rendering of several different Hebrew words, as Unger (1961:402) notes. They include Nephilim, literally "the fallen ones" (Genesis 6:4,5; Numbers 13:33). (The suffix "im" in Hebrew indicates a plural.) Rephaim are "ghosts" as well as the aborigines of Canaan and other areas (Deuteronomy 3:11; Joshua 12:4, 13:12). Anakim, the sons of Anak, are classed with the Rephaim in Numbers (13:33) because of their size. Goliath was a relic of the Anakim (I Samuel 17:4). "Emim" inhabited Moabite land (Genesis 14:5) and were as "tall as the Anakim" (Deuteronomy 2:11). "Zamzumim" were giants in the land of Ammon (Deuteronomy 2:20). These and perhaps other references can be added to Belerle's catalogue, but even without a closer look it can be seen that the English word "giant" does not seem to be an adequate translationwe at least need "giant type 1, 2, 3, 4," etc.
- page 50 -
Each of these references could easily be interpreted metaphorically. For example, David's battle with Goliath represents a weak-looking but valiant early Israel confronting seemingly stronger neighbors and triumphing against the odds. Indeed, a literal Goliath seems less interesting, less evocative of a powerful image and traditiona diminution of David's symbolic accomplishments. "Jack the giant killer" is a motif common to many mythic histories and folktales, not evidence of one historic event.
The Book of Joshua describes the boundaries of the area inhabited by Judeans. The Anchor Bible (Boling and Wright 1982:360) translates Joshua 15:8 as "The boundary went up the Valley of ben Hinnom to the Jebusite ridge (or Jerusalem) from the south. The boundary went up to the top of the mountain opposite Hinnom Valley on the west, at the northern end of Rephaim Valley." Why is this of any interest? Because The Interpreter's Bible (Buttrick 1952-1953:628),for example, translates this last clause to read "which is at the end of the Valley of the Giants northward." Joshua 18:16 repeats this description with the same alternative translations. Were Rephaim actually giants? This region is one of the best explored on earth by archaeologists, and no outsized human skeletons have ever been found. There is no more reason to think the natives were gigantic than there is to claim that the San Francisco Giants baseball team consists of gargantuans.
Genesis 6:4 in the Revised Berkeley Version of the Bible (the Gideons International, 1974:4) reads: "There were giants on the earth in those days, and later, too, when the sons of God used to cohabit with the daughters of man, who bore them children, those mighty men of old who made a name." The same passage in The Anchor Bible (Speiser, 1964:45-46) reads: "It was then that Nephilim appeared on earthas well as laterafter the divine beings had united with human daughters. Those were the heroes of old, men of renown." Speiser writes that this is a fragment of an older Hittite myth about battling gods who mate with humans. He writes that it may have been included in Genesis, a bit out of context, to suggest the kind of vile conditions the coming flood would be sent to eradicate. Unger (1961:788) gives a similar interpretation:
- page 51 -
"Nephilim" also appear in Numbers 13:33 where scouts sent ahead return to report pessimistically that the Israelites should not march into new territory that Caleb wanted them to conquer. "We saw there the Nephilim, the descendants of Anak, who are the giants. Even to ourselves we looked like grasshoppers, and so we looked to them!" (The Gideons International, 1974). This is obviously the metaphor and exaggeration of people afraid of the prospect of attacking a powerful foe. The Interpreter's Bible (pp. 534-535) matter-of-factly discusses the mythic nature of giants and notes that while some spies reported finding giants, others did notand the Israelites went on to conquer the territory without encountering any. Although Josephus reports differentlythat there was a "race of giants" whose bones "are still shown to this very day" (p. 105),he elaborates on the undependability of the spies' reports, saying that they were terrified by the obstacles to capturing the land of Canaan p. 78).
Caleb and Joshua had been there, too, and they advised people not to be taken in by frightened lies, and the invasion was carried out successfully. Also, the frightened spies who brought back tales of giants were stricken dead by God for lying (Numbers 14:37-38)!
Job 40:15 is cited on the plaque at the McFall site as an apparent reference to the giant trackmaker dubbed "Humanus Bauanthropus." The Anchor Bible passage reads: "Behold now behemoth, which I made as well as you; grass he eats like an ox" (Pope, 1965:321-323). "Behemoth" is usually translated as "hippopotamus" and traced to Egyptian linguistic roots. It is never translated as "giant human" or "Brontosaurus" or "dragon," as some creationists claim. The reference to behemoth in Job is simply God's reaffirmation to Job that he created all things.
"Giant" stories in the Bible serve various functions, but giants are never equated with Adam and Eve or other heroes. They are always hated, feared, abnormal, foreign, and perhaps envied, not the scions of a Golden Age. This is particularly obvious in Joshua 13:12 where a remnant of the "giants" are mentioned, "for these did Moses smite, and cast them out" (The Gideons International, King James Version, 1964:226). Monsters and bogeymen beyond the horizon are a nearly universal human myth born of fear or ignorance of the unknowninstruments of social control reinforcing cultural solidarity. The clearest biblical references to giants fit this broad, cross-cultural pattern.
- page 52 -
Many historical details in the Bible can be confirmed by archaeology. But if some things can be confirmed, it stands to reason that some things may be falsified by material evidence. Creationists who accept the challenge to confirm their Bible scientifically would seem to leave open the possibility that the Bible can be proven wrongsomething other creationists would call a materialist debasing of faith. That no giant human bones or tracks have ever been found in the Middle East is not proof that they are not there, awaiting discovery, but such a test is not crucial to most believers. Scientific creationists do not accept the possibility of negative evidence, and thus they do not really espouse a "scientific" creationism, because their a priori reasoning starts from the premise that the Bible is accurate in every historic and scientific detail, as their organizations' membership oaths make clear.
We have seen that there is no scientific evidence for the existence of preflood human giants. But, perhaps more surprisingly, there is no support for pre-flood giants in the Bible, either. The notion that Adam and Eve and most of the people who lived before the Flood grew to great sizes is nowhere stated in the Bible and can in no sense be supported by the few biblical references to various hated and feared "giants." Creationists read the Bible as selectively as they do the geological record and thus fail to see that their preconceived conclusions about scriptural accuracy are poorly served by their work.
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.