Who are the Nephilim?

In my previous post titled: What is the Origin of Demons? I discussed various theories concerning their origins, and referenced one theory that hinges on how one interprets the passages of Genesis chapter 6. Specifically, at issue is the identification of the mysterious “Nephilim” and the “sons of God” mentioned in this passage. Regardless of whatever view one holds concerning the origin of demons, it pales in comparison to the debates and views on the Nephilim. Therefore in this post I will pose the question: Who are the Nephilim?

The short answer is: it depends on how one interprets the passage of Genesis 6:1-4    (see below).

When men began to increase in number on the earth and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that the daughters of men were beautiful, and they married any of them they chose. Then the LORD said, “My Spirit will not contend with man forever, for he is mortal; his days will be a hundred and twenty years.” The Nephilim were on the earth in those days-and also afterward-when the sons of God went to the daughters of men and had children by them. They were the heroes of old, men of renown.

There are two major competing interpretations of these verses. One is called the Godly Line of Seth view, which regards the “sons of God” as descendants from the godly line of Seth (Adam’s third son). It is believed that some of these descendants fathered children with the “daughters of man,” whom descend from the ungodly line of Cain. Some of these children came to be known as the Nephilim. The other interpretation of Genesis 6 is called the Fallen Angel view, which regards the aforementioned “sons of God” as fallen angels who cohabitated with human woman, and produced a race of supernatural beings called the Nephilim.

The correct interpretation of these few verses is a debate that has raged among scholars and theologians for centuries. Notwithstanding that there are multiple variations of the latter interpretation. Therefore, in this post I will present some of the arguments made both for and against each interpretation. Perhaps some of you may find this debate interesting.

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The Godly Line of Seth View

The following is the argument typically made by advocates in favor of the godly line of Seth view of Genesis 6. Rather than summarize this view, I have selected instead an article I came across some years ago that advocates this position. It was written by Rich Deem, and featured in God and Science.

Who Were the Nephilim and Sons of God? 

by Rich Deem

Introduction

There is somewhat of a controversy in Christianity regarding the identification of the Nephilim and sons of God mentioned in the Genesis flood account (Genesis 6:2-4). Are the sons of God the human offspring of the godly line of Seth or angelic beings (demons)? Were the Nephilim a race of giants that existed before and after the flood or is the word just a generic term describing large strong people?

Nephilim and sons of God: Genesis 6

Let’s look at the passage in question, in context:

Now it came about, when men began to multiply on the face of the land, and daughters were born to them, that the sons of God saw that the daughters of men were beautiful; and they took wives for themselves, whomever they chose. Then the LORD said, “My Spirit shall not strive with man forever, because he also is flesh; nevertheless his days shall be one hundred and twenty years.” The Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of men, and they bore children to them. Those were the mighty men who were of old, men of renown. Then the LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. (Genesis 6:1-5)

It’s pretty obvious from the context that God was not happy about what was going on between the sons of God, the Nephilim, and the daughters of men. Let’s go on to examine how other biblical passages use these terms.

Sons of God

Unfortunately, the phrase “sons of God” appears in only five verses from only two books of the Old Testament. Two verses are found in the Genesis 6 flood account. The other three verses are found in the book of Job. From the book of Job, the context clearly indicates that “sons of God” are angelic beings, since they enter directly into God’s presence or existed before the creation of the earth. Although the phrase “sons of God” does not reference human beings in the Old Testament, similar phrases, such as “sons of the living God” do make reference to godly human beings. In the New Testament “sons of God” always refer to redeemed human beings. It would be very unlikely that ungodly demons would ever be referred to as “sons of God.”

The Giants (Nephilim)

The Hebrew word used to describe the Nephilim occurs in only two verses of the Old Testament, one in our passage from Genesis 6 and the other in the book of Numbers. From the book of Numbers, we find that the descendants of Anak are part of the Nephilim. Since Anak was a Canaanite, it would be logical to assume that the Nephilim were human. The verses tell us little about the people, other than they were strong and tall and lived in fortified cities. Were these Nephilim the same as the Nephilim of Genesis 6? Contrary to the beliefs of many, Nephilim does not describe a race of peoples. In the Bible, races of people groups were designated by their founding male ancestor. So, the Anakim were descendent of Anak. However, the Nephilim are never described as being descended from anybody. The term actually means “giants,” being derived from the Hebrew word nephal, which means to “fall upon” or “overthrow,” referring to their warlike nature. Since the Old Testament describes Nephilim both before and after the flood, if the Nephilim were a race then it would contradict the rest of Scripture, which indicates pretty clearly that there were only eight survivors of the flood.

Demonic or angelic beings?

Some Christians have speculated that the “sons of God” from Genesis 6 were demonic beings, who had sexual relations with human women, and are now condemned to future judgment. However, Jesus made it clear that angels are asexual beings who do not engage in sexual relations at all. Since demons are merely fallen angels, they would, likewise, be unable to procreate with women. Some apocryphal books, such as the book of Enoch and book of Jubilees, indicate they were fallen angels. However, these books make some outrageous claims, saying that the giants were 450 feet tall!

Theological Problems as Demons

There are a number of theological problems with the idea that the Nephilim were demons. First and foremost, there are no biblical accounts of any demon taking on human form. By nature, all angels are spiritual, non-physical creatures. All biblical accounts record only obedient angels appearing to human beings. It is never stated that angels have the power to take on human bodily substance (which would be required in order to produce children with human females). Jesus suggested that angles lack the ability to take on human substance, when explaining His bodily resurrection to the disciples:

While they were telling these things, He Himself stood in their midst and said to them, “Peace be to you.” But they were startled and frightened and thought that they were seeing a spirit. And He said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? “See My hands and My feet, that it is I Myself; touch Me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And when He had said this, He showed them His hands and His feet. (Luke 24:36-40)

So, Jesus indicated that all appearances of angels were not bodily appearances, but merely visual apparitions. If you were to try to touch an angel, your hand would just go through the apparition. Such a manifestation would be incapable of impregnating a human female.

If demons did have the ability to produce offspring through intercourse, one would expect that this would be the major way in which demons would attempt to take control of the human race. Instead, one finds that demons can use only deception or possession as ways to attempt to thwart the ministry of Christ.

Conclusion

Since the Bible indicates that angels are asexual beings, it makes sense that they could not be the “sons of God” who produced children with the “daughters of men.” The best interpretation is that the “sons of God” were men who were descended from Seth, who followed the Lord for a time (in contrast to the line of Cain, which produced the “daughters of men”). However, right before the flood, even the “sons of God” took wives among the line of Cain, and, therefore, became corrupted themselves through their unbelieving wives. This is one of the reasons God determined to destroy the entire human race, except for the eight people who still followed the Lord (Noah and his extended family).

Genesis 6 also describes the Nephilim, who were the corrupt strongmen of their time, notorious for their violent exploits (Genesis 6:4). These men were probably also descendents of Cain, who were terrorizing the peoples and represented at least part of the group whose thoughts were “only evil continually.” The Nephilim that were described after the flood were also evil strongmen, but not related to those pre-flood people, since they were all destroyed in the flood.


The Fallen Angel View

The following is the argument typically made by advocates in favor of the fallen angel view of Genesis 6. As there are many variations of this view, I will try to summarize the core thesis and their arguments.

Introduction

The fallen angel view regards the “sons of God” mentioned in Genesis 6 as a group of fallen angels.  It is generally held that this group of fallen angels were among those that followed Satan in his rebellion, but that not all fallen angels engaged in this activity, which resulted in confinement.  Others argue that this was another rebellion (or group of fallen angels) all together. Regardless, advocates for this view, argue that the “sons of God” clearly refers to angels, and cite that the only other uses of the phrase found in the Old Testament (Job. 1:6; 2:1; 38:7) are clearly speaking about angels. Therefore they conclude the same must be the case for Genesis too. They will also point out that the translators of the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible (OT), also translate “sons of God” as “angels”.

Supporting Evidence

In support, they argue that some Jewish writings from antiquity also held this view. The principle book cited is called “Enoch” and was composed around 200 BC. This book provides an account of Enoch’s travel through the heavens, and mentions the judgment of God against certain fallen angels, whom are now bound in prison. The book proceeds to recount how these angels engaged in wickedness, and took to themselves human wives that bore them children who became great giants. However, advocates for this view will quickly acknowledge that Enoch is not a biblical book, and therefore its interpretation of Genesis 6 is not inspired, and concede it could be wrong in several places and undoubtedly is. Nevertheless, they argue it is still significant in that both Peter and Jude (in their view) provide some oblique references to the same story. Thereby seemingly putting their stamp of approval on it, or at least in the interpretation of this specific event.

The passages in question are from 1 Peter 3:18-22; 2 Peter 2:4-5; and Jude 1:6-7. See below:

“For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit. After being made alive, he went and preached to the imprisoned spirits — to those who disobeyed long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built” (1 Peter 3:18-20)

“For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but sent them to hell, putting them in chains of darkness to be held for judgment; if he did not spare the ancient world when he brought the flood on its ungodly people, but protected Noah, a preacher of righteousness, and seven others” (2 Peter 2:4-5)

“And the angels who did not keep their positions of authority but abandoned their proper dwelling — these he has kept in darkness, bound with everlasting chains for judgment on the great Day” (Jude 1:6).

On a side note, the text of 1 Peter is also used to promote the idea of Christ’s descent into hell sometime between his death and resurrection. It does not mean that he offered the residents there a “second chance” for salvation, which is repudiated elsewhere in scripture (Hebrews 9:27; 2 Corinthians 6:2). Rather, it is argued that somewhere during this time Christ simply went there and proclaimed his victory over sin and Satan.

In any event, the echoes of Enoch that some read into 1 & 2 Peter and Jude, leads advocates for the fallen angel view to think that both Peter and Jude were probably aware of the angel interpretation. Moreover, besides referencing fallen angels, the manner in which they appear to later connect the judgment of God on angels, with that of Sodom and Gomorrah, is also cited as support for this interpretation. Although it could also be said, that they are simply providing two well known examples of great judgments by God, in order to make their points. Nonetheless, advocates of this view argue that they seem to be saying more, i.e. after mentioning the judgment of angels for their sin, Jude 1:7 transitions to the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah. It is argued his comparison is not in the judgment itself, but rather in the nature of the sin that results in the judgment. Specifically, desiring or going after strange flesh. The men of Sodom did this in desiring relations with the angels that God sent to visit Lot and his family (Gen. 19). Therefore the implication is that they were committing the same sin as the fallen angels in Genesis 6, who “in a similar way” desired relationships with human women. Of course there are many different ways to interpret all these passages.

Are Angels Sexless?

As indicated from Deem’s article, one major objection to the interpretation of a supposed union between angels and humans, is that angels are generally understood to be sexless beings that do not marry (Matthew 22:30). However, advocates for the fallen angel view of Genesis 6 argue that when Jesus said angels in heaven do not marry, this did not necessarily mean that those angels cast out of heaven were incapable of doing so. They also point out that while human beings in heaven will not marry, they would still retain their identity, which includes being male or female. Therefore angels are not necessarily sexless beings, and they note that when angels are referenced throughout scripture, it is almost always with the masculine pronoun “he” and are described as men.

The Nephilim (Giant Ones)

The final point of evidence for the angel view of Genesis 6 is the reference to the actual Nephilim. The word is generally understood to mean “the giant ones” and is used elsewhere in scripture. For instance, Numbers 13:33 uses the term and clearly means large men. However, it is argued that in such cases (Numbers 13:33) this does not necessarily mean beings produced by the intermarriage of fallen angels and humans (as agued in Genesis 6:4). Regardless, since nobody has any information on what the results of an angel/human union would be, they argue it is impossible to know if such a union might produce literal giants, or if the term simply means giant in stature, as indicated in the proceeding text “heroes of old, men of renown”. To that point, some also argue that this union produced the “mighty men” of antiquity. Since these passages specifically refer to the “heroes of old,” they conclude it is more than probable that the events described in Genesis 6, according to this interpretation, are the origin for stories of half-human/half-divine figures present in virtually all ancient mythologies. Of course the stories, they argue, are all embellished, but nevertheless probably reflected the memories of these ancient figures from the pre-Flood era.

God’s Grace

All that said, many theologians who advocate this position, will note that this interpretation should not detract at all from the fact that the Genesis Flood was a real judgment of God against the ungodliness and wickedness of mankind. However, they also simultaneously see this event as an act of God’s grace. Specifically, in preserving the human-race from Satan’s attempt of contamination and demonic perversion; they state God was actually providing for our salvation by keeping open the line for the Savior to come. If Satan had succeeded, then Christ could not have come, and the human race would have been lost. However, by destroying the contaminated race and saving Noah and his family, God made sure that the salvation and redemption of humanity achieved by Jesus was possible.

Conclusion

That largely summarizes the arguments for the fallen angel view of Genesis 6. There are of course many variations of this interpretation, i.e. that the post-flood disembodied spirits of the Nephilim are demons (as referenced in my previous post), or that both the fallen angels and the Nephilim were demons, or that the Nephilim themselves were a group of fallen angels locked away for their wickedness, and — well you get the point.

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Now for my final thoughts on the Nephilim. Both positions in this debate, I believe, make some good points, and some not so good ones. That said, I have always found this debate fascinating, and found myself intrigued by the fallen angel view. However, my instincts tell me the correct interpretation is likely that the “sons of God” refers to the godly line of Seth. It simply just comes across as the more natural interpretation. Moreover, it is the view with the most historical support from many theological giants (pun intended) of the Church. For instance, theologians ranging from Augustine in the early church, to Protestant Reformers such as Luther and Calvin have taken this view. Therefore, in my view, the Nephilim were renown men of great stature and/or size, but whom engaged in many evil deeds, and such men existed both prior to and after the flood. But who knows, I could be wrong.

In any event, that concludes this post. Thank you for reading, and I hope some may have found this debate insightful.

JDN

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