Who were the Nephilim? (Genesis 6)

The Bible is full of little mysteries. The core truths are crystal clear, leaving us in no doubt that God created and loves the world and sent His son Jesus Christ to redeem sinful humanity. But, there is much that is not so clear, and that has inspired scholarly debate for centuries. Most of this need not worry us, and certainly shouldn’t divide us, but it raises three thoughts in my mind: firstly humility, the sense of how little of the big picture we see and understand as finite and flawed beings. As Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 13:12, in this life we see only in part; only in eternal life will we see in full. Secondly, a marvelling wonder at the wealth of detail in God’s great tapestry. Thirdly, an insatiable curiosity about mysterious passages.

 

The opening verses of Genesis 6 are an example of an unclear but fascinating passage. We’re told:

 

“When human beings began to increase in number on the earth and daughters were born to them, 2the sons of God saw that the daughters of humans were beautiful, and they married any of them they chose. 3Then the Lord said, ‘My Spirit will not contend with humans for ever, for they are mortal; their days will be a hundred and twenty years.’ 4The Nephilim were on the earth in those days – and also afterwards – when the sons of God went to the daughters of humans and had children by them. They were the heroes of old, men of renown. 5The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time. 6The Lord regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled. 7So the Lord said, ‘I will wipe from the face of the earth the human race I have created – and with them the animals, the birds and the creatures that move along the ground – for I regret that I have made them.’ 8But Noah found favour in the eyes of the Lord.” (Genesis 6:1-8)

 

A tragic passage, but full of interest. For the first time in Scripture we’re introduced to ‘the sons of God’, a mysterious group whose identification in normal Old Testament usage is ‘angels’ (see Job 1:6, 2:1, 38:7). Two main theories exist as to their identity: a) they were angelic/demonic beings, or b) they were a particular group of human men, possibly of the line of Cain. I find the first problematic (for example, how do angel/demons reproduce?), and the latter unconvincing, but in the absence of better alternatives I probably favour the former.

 

The juxtaposition of the phrases ‘sons of God’ and ‘daughters of humans’ seems to distinguish the two from each other as if they were fundamentally different. If both were human, then why not say ‘sons of men’, or ‘daughters of God’? The only other time the phrase ‘sons of God’ is used in the Old Testament (i.e. pre-New Testament when all Christians are seen as adopted sons and daughters of God, e.g. Romans 8:16-17) is in the book of Job, where the persons referred to are angels. Ought not the same interpretation hold true here?

 

When the passage moves along verse 4 makes it clear that the Nephilim were the offspring of this union between the sons of God and the daughters of humans, whoever the former were. We’re told that they were ‘heroes’ and ‘men of renown’. The implication is that they were formidable warriors, and superb physical specimens. The kind of men who might make the 300 Spartans look like wimps. Think Achilles, Hercules, or other demi-gods of ancient Greek mythology. How did such a group appear, impressive enough to be distinguishable from ordinary humanity, if their parents were only human? The addition of something non-human into the mix would make most sense when trying to understand how the Nephilim gained such a reputation. Were they, in fact, superhuman?

 

It’s also suggestive to me that God’s dismay over the evil of humanity should be triggered by the arrival of this group, as if it were they who had plunged humanity deeper into fallenness. 2 Peter 2:4-6 certainly seems to support the idea that the punishment of fallen angels was bound up with the wider punishment of the Flood. What has suddenly happened that was so bad? Bad enough to make God not only limit the human life-span to 120 years (as opposed to the 900-odd years of Adam and his immediate descendants), but also to resolve upon their destruction? Yes, we saw Cain’s descendants slide into violence and pride in Genesis 4, but if such sins merited this punishment from God, why wasn’t it decreed there and then? Instead, God decrees it as soon as the Nephilim appear. A cross-breeding of angels/demons and humans would be a sinister sin, something to really provoke trouble in God’s heart. It might also have created such a potent genetic make-up that they needed to be removed, lest evil spread unchecked.

 

It seems possible that the Nephilim were superhumanly evil – villains of the piece and not heroes at all. The memory of their prowess might have made them heroes in the minds of men who did not know God. The same legend was enough to make Joshua’s scouts think that the huge men they found in Canaan were actually Nephilim, due to their size and strength (Numbers 13:33). I do not think that the Nephilim survived the flood – I think the flood was designed to destroy them, amongst others. What the scouts saw were probably just uncommonly large men who could be mistaken for Nephilim.

 

Can angels reproduce? Hardly a question I can answer, but to those who would automatically say no, I would suggest a couple of things that might give pause for thought. Firstly, if angels can take on visible form, so as to appear to humans (e.g. Mark 16:5-7), could they not have the capacity for assuming other human functions? Secondly, the many times in the gospels where we see demons possessing humans (e.g. Matthew 8:28) suggests a hunger on the part of demons for human embodiment, a kind of warped craving for the union of human and non-human that was so perfectly achieved in the incarnation of Jesus. And if they craved human bodies on a physical level, why not on a sexual level too? After all, the daughters of humans ‘were beautiful’. It’s not clear whether these daughters were innocent victims of rape, or willing partners in sinful lusts, but there does seem to be enough suggestive evidence to encourage us not to automatically discount the identification of the ‘sons of God’ as angels purely on physiological grounds.

 

So I think the Nephilim were half-human and half-demon, fearsome beings who spiced up primordial human existence for a brief time before being exterminated by God. I think they represent the deepest level of human sin, the fruit of an age so wicked that even unnatural unions between humans and spirits were not balked at. I’m not the only one to take this view, but an almost equal number of people shy away from this, preferring to think of the sons of God as just headstrong humans, and their children as just unusually gifted. It’s impossible this side of heaven to tell which interpretation is right.

 

If in doubt, I lean towards the more dramatic, more disturbing option. That’s probably the fantasy writer in me. My imagination kindles at the thought of such things, and inspires me with ideas for my own stories. Part of what I love about the Bible is how full of amazing stories it is – God’s word is replete with all kinds of inspiring things. In my created world there is a race of elves, part of which fall so far from God that he curses them with mortality. What if demons were part of this, or superhuman demigods? While trying to steer away from anything heretical, I do love the licence of introducing into my own stories some of the amazing things in the Bible, even if the exact interpretation is debatable.

 

I should conclude by stressing again that this is a million miles away from being the most important thing in the Bible. But nor is this just a flight of fancy; it is also a serious enquiry of Scripture. I’ll let God continue to inspire me for now, and wait till eternity for the answers.

3 thoughts on “Who were the Nephilim? (Genesis 6)

  1. Interesting debate, Mike. I, too, have had a fascination regarding the Nephalim. The late Matin Selman, Old Testament tutor at Spurgion’s College, and my Old Testament tutors at St. Mary’s, both told me that the ancient texts had undergone several episodes of editing over the centuries. Things/theologies that the current editors didn’t agree with we’re simply deleted or rewritten on each occasion, but one or two things were overlooked and ,thus, remained. The Nephalim being a case in point. They are a remnant of a more ancient belief system; a hint of what was believed long, long ago. Remember that the most recent editing was post-exile (500 years before Christ or less) and that the Deuteronomist editors were monotheistic Yahwists (unlike their pre-exile predecessors) and so most references to any other superhuman beings were erased.

    1. Thanks for your extra insights Pat. I would love to study this properly, but don’t have the time or money. Through all the editing processes we believe that God guided the survival and collation of the Scriptures He wanted – we take in faith that what has survived to today is there for a reason. So I’m curious to know why this passage is still included, and what value it has for us now.

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