Who Are the Rephaim in the Bible?

The Rephaim aren't the most famous group of people that Abraham and his descendants fought against, but they make an impression when they appear. But what were they, really?

Contributing Writer
Jul 07, 2022
Who Are the Rephaim in the Bible?

As a teen, my Sunday School teacher was Rose Palmer, a Jamaican woman full of the Spirit and love for the Bible. I vividly remember one Sunday morning her rant about how we spend too much time telling our kids fairy tales when we should be telling them the Bible stories. Her reasoning was simple and two-fold. First, the biblical stories are amazing narratives. Second, they are real.

I grew up loving fairy tales, superheroes, fantasy, and science fiction. I fell in love with Narnia at a young age and read those classics several times. In fact, I still love those stories and write those kinds of books and screenplays. However, I took her advice to heart. I could tell you every character in all the Star Wars movies, but could I tell you the twelve tribes of Israel? Could I tell you Jesus’s twelve disciples? While I didn’t reject fictional books or stories (even fantasy), I have made sure to take the study of the scripture as a serious and primary focus. Because she was right: there are some amazing stories in there.

Giants consistently appear in fairy tales, from Jack and the Beanstalk to The Princess Bride. Giants are a main feature in the Bible, too, especially in the Old Testament of Genesis through the history of King David.

The main term for “giant” in the Old Testament is Rephaim. The Rephaim are an interesting and important theme throughout Old Testament history.

Where Does the Bible Mention Rephaim? 

The first mention of the Rephaim (or Rephaites) appears in Genesis 14. The Bible describes the political situation leading up to Abraham’s nephew, Lot, being taken captive along with the people of Sodom and Gomorrah. Before that, King Kedorlaomer defeated the Rephaites at a place called Ashtaroth-Karnaim (Genesis 14:5). That same king also defeated the Zuzim and the Emim (Genesis 14:6).

If we assume that the Rephaim were giants, along with the Zuzim and the Emim, then the Bible is making the point that King Kedorlaomer was a powerful king. He beat armies of giants. King Kedorlaomer was rising to power and consolidating nations and lands, so other kings joined into a confederation to fight Kedorlaomer (Genesis 14:8). The confederation included Sodom and Gomorrah.

After the confederation loses in a battle against King Kedorlaomer and his allies, their territory is rated, and Lot is among the captives (Genesis 14:12). A survivor informs Abraham of these events. Abraham arms his household and goes to battle, joining other kings to beat Kedorlaomer. And they win.

Genesis 14 makes several interesting points. First, Abraham is listed among kings, treated like one even though he is a wandering wealthy patriarch. Second, Abraham beat a king that beat armies of giants.

Deuteronomy 2:20-21 mentions the Rephaim along with other large people. Deuteronomy is a book of the last words of Moses before Joshua sends them into the Promised Land, and Moses recounts much of the Israelite history. In Deuteronomy 3, there is an interesting story about King Og of Bashan, a giant man who was the “last of the Rephaim.”

David battles with the Philistines several times throughout his life, and one famous place was called the Valley of Rephaim, a place southwest of Jerusalem in the land of Judah (2 Samuel 5:17-22).

Were the Rephaim Giants? 

The Hebrew word Rephaim is often translated as “giants,” and taking the biblical descriptions into account, it’s clear the Rephaim were considered giant people, tall of stature. The Rephaim could be interpreted as a people group, like the Israelites, or from a family line. Whichever, the Old Testament continually associates Rephaim with giant people.

For example, when describing King Og of Bashan, Deuteronomy says his bed was 14 feet by 6 feet, an object that people could still see years later. Deuteronomy 2 makes it clear in descriptions of those men that they were large or especially tall, what we would consider giants.

Certain biblical academics could argue that the Old Testament was being hyperbolic, overstating for the sake of their own fantastical history. However, Egyptians mention giants living in the land of Canaan. Archaeologists regularly find skeletons of large people, what scientists now call “giantism.” The Rephaim were giants and not just fairy tales.

Are the Rephaim Related to the Nephilim or the Anakim? 

The Rephaim aren’t the only name for giants in the Old Testament. The Zuzim and Emim of Genesis 5 are also mentioned later among people named as giants. The Ammonite name for giants was the Zuzim (or Zamzummim, depending on the biblical translation), and the Moabite giants were called the Emim.

These people groups were all Canaanites living in the region of Canaan, and the Bible says the Canaanite name for giants was the Anakim. These different names are clearly mentioned in Deuteronomy 2, where it appears the Rephaim was a more general term for giants, and each ethnic group (Canaanites, Ammonites, and Moabites) had their own term for “giants.”

The connection to the Nephilim is also fascinating. While not all scholars agree, there is a connection between the Nephilim of Genesis 6 and the Rephaim. Genesis 6:4 is the source of much imagination and speculation, an odd scripture for sure that seems random. Or is it?

Genesis 6:4 describes angels coming down and mating with human women, an abominable thing. The resulting offspring were men of renown, strong men, called the Nephilim. The word Nephilim is also sometimes translated as “giants,” and it comes from the Hebrew root nephal, which means “to fall.” Nephilim is another name for “fallen ones.”

When the Israelites sent spies to report on the Promised Land of Canaan, they returned and talked about the giants there. Numbers 13:3 literally calls the giants Nephilim, fallen ones, and associates them as “sons of Anak,” the Anakim. Here the Nephilim are connected with the Anakim (which are considered Rephaim), and all of them are some type of “giant.”

Again, scholars debate this heavily, but if we follow that thread from Genesis 6 to Genesis 14 to Numbers 13 to Deuteronomy to the life of David, we can see a logical reason why giants keep showing up.

What Happened to the Rephaim? 

Given the possible connection between the Nephilim of Genesis 6 to the giants in Canaan, it makes sense that the Israelites would have been frightened of crossing the Jordan to fight these people. Not only were they tall and strong, but they may have been descended from fallen angels. Their fear kept them from moving forward, even though Abraham beat a king that beat those same giants.

Moses reminds them again in Deuteronomy that they have beaten giants before, just as he is about to give leadership over to Joshua and fight giants again. This is symbolic of a spiritual and physical conquest – from those descended from fallen angels and idolaters to people of promise (the Israelites) who worship the true God.

The giants show up again in the book Joshua over and over. Even Caleb, the only other survivor of the 40 years in the wilderness, says he will fight for the land dominated by giants (Joshua 14:12). Caleb was over 80 years old and ready to fight some giants.

Joshua and the Israelites didn’t kill or remove all the people from Canaan, which creates a cycle of idolatry and deliverance in Judges. It isn’t until 1 Samuel that we see giants again: David defeats the Philistines and conquers Jerusalem of the Jebusites, one of the cities in Israel not conquered before him. The Old Testament repeatedly brings up giants in David’s exploits, including those with his mighty men. David proves God anointed him by defeating – you guessed it – a giant.

As a testament to the singular power of King David, we don’t hear about giants as physical people after his reign. However, Jewish poetic literature connects the Rephaim with a more spiritual connotation, the people of the dead whose dwelling place was Sheol. We see these examples in Job 26:5, Isaiah 26:14, Psalms 88:11, and others. The later prophets and writers of the Old Testament saw Rephaim as a symbol of evil and death, something to fight against and overcome.

What Can We Learn from the Stories of the Rephaim Today? 

To be clear, we shouldn’t consider tall people as descended from demons. That’s not a New Testament idea and goes against clear New Covenant injunctions that we don’t wrestle against flesh and blood but against powers and rulers in spiritual places (Ephesians 6:12). Even if we don’t all agree on the interpretations or validity of Rephaim, Nephilim, and giants, we can learn from these stories about giants and apply those spiritual principles today.

Jesus, as the Son of David, came into the land of Israel and began his ministry. He didn’t deal with physical giants, but he did deal with demons – a great many of them. A main component of Jesus’ ministry was consistently driving out demons from people (even legions of demons). His disciples, like David’s “mighty men,” were also given the power to cast out demons.

This is important. Jesus didn’t deal with physical giants because the promise isn’t a physical land anymore (John 4). The promise is a people, and just as Moses, Joshua, and David removed giants before entering the promise, Jesus removed demons within humans to call them to life and redeem them to the promise.

The New Testament is clear that we are in a spiritual battle. We have a spiritual enemy that seeks to kill, steal, and destroy. We’ve been given armor to help us in this battle (Ephesians 6). And yet, we must remember that we can’t stand up against these evil forces on our own. We will retreat in fear if we try. Joshua and Caleb argued at the Jordan that they would win if they trusted God and his promise. Joshua and Caleb put that belief to the test 40 years later. David told Goliath that the battle belonged to the Lord, not to sword and spear.

Our victory in this spiritual battle completely depends on our trust in God, his love, and his promise to us. But we must fight. As my mentor Larry Trammell used to say, “We haven’t been invited onto a cruise ship but recruited onto a battleship.” Too often, we forget that Christianity is entering the reality of a war waging in the unseen around us, and who we rest in and trust to get power for that battle. The goal of that war? People’s souls.

The land was promised. Joshua and the Israelites still had to go and fight with God at their side to get the land. The harvest is ready, but we must pray to be the ones to harvest the souls that God is after, to win them for reconciliation with God, to rescue them from the evil forces out to destroy them.

What “giants” are before you as God calls you forward? Learn from Abraham, Moses, Joshua, Caleb, David, Christ, and the heroes of faith. Engage in the battle with faith that it all belongs to God, who is faithful and good, who already won the battle at the cross and resurrection, and that death is defeated in Christ.


Photo Credit: Getty Images/fcscafeine

Britt MooneyBritt Mooney lives and tells great stories. As an author of fiction and non -iction, he is passionate about teaching ministries and nonprofits the power of storytelling to inspire and spread truth. Mooney has a podcast called Kingdom Over Coffee and is a published author of We Were Reborn for This: The Jesus Model for Living Heaven on Earth as well as Say Yes: How God-Sized Dreams Take Flight.

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