Who Were the Nephilim?

By:
Daniel Darling
Perspective:
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The Nephilim may the most peculiar creatures in the Bible and we are not even sure what they really are. They’ve been featured in literature for thousands of years and popularized in culture. The Nephilim have made appearances in The X-Files, Shadowhunters, and Noah. Video games like El Shaddai, Tomb Raider, and Payday 2 feature Nephilim, as does literature such as House of Night, Fallen, and Atlas Shrugged.

What’s more, since the dawn of time, humans have imagined, in their legends and myths, a kind of half-man, half-god figure, from the Babylonian Gilgamesh to the demigods of Greek mythology. But who are these strange characters who make their way onto the pages of our Bibles, who appear during a time of a downward descent into human depravity, a period described by Moses as “every inclination of the human mind was nothing but evil all the time” (Gen. 6:5)?

The answer is, well . . . complicated.

An Overview

So have you turned your Bible to Genesis 6 and asked yourself what in the world is going on? It turns out that you are not alone. What if I told you that Christians have wrestled with this story from Genesis for all of church history and that faithful scholars and Bible teachers find themselves on two sides and hold their positions with little certainty? As of this writing, I am not sure where I land, but I do think whoever the Nephilim are, whoever the sons of God are, God’s larger purpose is communicating to us the depravity of human beings, how humankind’s dalliance with the devil produced just what God predicted it would: sin and death.

Let’s begin by reading the text from Genesis 6:

When mankind began to multiply on the earth and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that the daughters of mankind were beautiful, and they took any they chose as wives for themselves. And the Lord said, “My Spirit will not remain with mankind forever, because they are corrupt. Their days will be 120 years.” The Nephilim were on the earth both in those days and afterward, when the sons of God came to the daughters of mankind, who bore children to them. They were the powerful men of old, the famous men. (Gen. 6:1–4)

Historically, the Christian church has held one of two positions. The first position is held by many of the church fathers such as Ambrose, Tertullian, Cyprian, and Clement of Alexandria. Many Jewish scholars also held this view.

This view argues that the term “sons of God” here in Genesis refers to fallen angels having illicit sexual relationships with human women. One of the more compelling reasons is because the normative usage of this term, “sons of God,” is to refer to angels (Job 1:6; 2:1; 38:7; Ps. 29:1, 89:7; Dan. 3:25). It also seems that the New Testament writers Peter and Jude refer to this:

For if God didn’t spare the angels who sinned but cast them into hell and delivered them in chains of utter darkness to be kept for judgment; and if he didn’t spare the ancient world, but protected Noah, a preacher of righteousness, and seven others, when he brought the flood on the world of the ungodly. (2 Peter 2:4–5)

The angels who did not keep their own position but abandoned their proper dwelling, he has kept in eternal chains in deep darkness for the judgment on the great day. (Jude 1:6)

Peter and Jude are still somewhat ambiguous, but the idea of “angels who sinned” and the judgment of Noah’s flood in the same sentence, seems to point back to Genesis 6 and relationship between the sons of God and daughters of men. In this view, the wickedness between angels and humans was so great it required God to cleanse the earth with the flood and lock up these fallen angels until the time of judgment.

This fits with a key theme of Genesis, of God’s gracious provision and human’s exploitation of that provision and grasping for power and godlike abilities that actually make him behave in less human ways. This is the same problem we see in Genesis 11, where humans attempt to “reach God” by building the tower of Babel. It’s a participation in the Genesis 3 lie of the serpent that “you can be like God.”

It is hard for us to imagine fallen angels cohabitating with humans and creating these warlike, depraved evil monsters, but that could also just be because our minds, in this secular age, do not think of the supernatural and the ways in which demonic powers might prey on God’s people. Throughout Scripture, we see angels take on human bodies and human characteristics (Matt. 8:28–34). Even craving human bodies. This is the height of human depravity.

“This is the story of the Old Testament: even the best and the brightest are not enough to save humanity.”

There is another way that Christians have read Genesis 6 throughout the ages, one shared by Augustine and by reformers John Calvin and Martin Luther. For this view, Jesus’ explicit teaching that angels neither “marry nor are given in marriage” makes it seem impossible for angels to procreate (Matt. 22:30). What’s more, there are instances in Scripture where the term “sons of God” is used to refer to human beings (Hos. 1:10). Seeing the sons of God as the descendants of Seth weaves Genesis 6 into the context of the entire book of Genesis, with the promise of Genesis 3:15 and the seed of the serpent and seed of the woman playing out in the dual genealogies of Seth and Cain—as we have already seen.

Genesis 6 seems to be the climax of this battle, where even the righteous line is overtaken by the depravity of the unrighteous. Sons of God could refer to Seth’s righteous line intermarrying with the daughters of the heathen Cainites. Some even read Genesis 6, which says “they took any they chose” as wives, as referring to the sexual perversion of Lamech in Genesis 4, who took multiple wives for himself.

Those who see the “sons of God” as the family of Seth rightly see this as a trajectory of the Old Testament, that even the most righteous are inevitably corrupted and must be saved. Throughout Israel’s history, they gave in to the temptation to intermingle with the pagan nations, blurring their witness and abandoning God for false idols. God’s people were not to intermarry with the pagan nations, but were to be distinct, a light to the nations that pointed to Yahweh. It is a stark warning for the people of God in every age that we too easily become enamored with a worldly system that is opposed to God. We can, as Jesus said, be salt that “loses its saltiness” (Matt. 5:13 NIV). “What does light have to do with darkness?” Paul warned the Corinthian church (1 Cor. 6:14–17). The growing perversion, even among the righteous line of Seth, even among those whom had just begun “to call on the name of the Lord” (Gen. 4:26), would fit with a theme in Scripture of a falling away of God’s people as the judgment of God grows closer. In his last letter to Timothy, Paul warned:

For the time will come when people will not tolerate sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, will multiply teachers for themselves because they have an itch to hear what they want to hear. They will turn away from hearing the truth and will turn aside to myths. (2 Tim. 4:3–4)

It’s not hard to see that trend in our own day, especially among churches in affluent, Western countries. We are too easily tempted toward worldliness and held captive by false ideologies.

What Are They, Then?

So, what, exactly, are the Nephilim? Are these mysterious creatures related to the Sons of God and the daughters of women? Are they incidental to them? Are they the raging rock-monster half-devil offspring of an illicit relationship between angels and humans? There are multiple theories here. Most who hold that the “sons of God” in Genesis 6 are angels hold that the Nephilim are their offspring. The word Nephilim has an obscure meaning. It can mean “fallen ones,” but was also translated by early Greek translators of the Septuagint (the Bible read in Second Temple era and the Bible Jesus and the apostles read) as “giants.”

What’s even more mysterious about the Nephilim is that it doesn’t appear they were wiped off the face of the earth in the flood. Genesis 6:4 says, “The Nephilim were on the earth both in those days and afterward.” And they show up in a few more places in the story of Israel, such as when the spies returned to give a report to Moses, the pessimistic, unbelieving ten spies. “We even saw the Nephilim there—the descendants of Anak come from the Nephilim!” (Num. 13:33) they reported. It could be that these spies were exaggerating. These warriors there are huge, they are giants, they are . . . like Nephilim! But later in Deuteronomy, Moses confirmed the existence of these rather large creatures (Deut. 1:28; 2:10). And in Deuteronomy 3:11, Israel is said to have defeated Og of Bashan, the last of “what was left of the remnant of the Rephaim.” Some have even linked the Nephilim to the giants in the land driven out by Joshua and even to Goliath, perhaps the remaining of the Nephilim seed.

All of this, of course, is obscure and hard to make sense of. As of this writing, I’m not even sure where I land. On the one hand, it’s hard for me to imagine the idea of fallen angels having relations with human women and bearing half-human/half-angel sort of devilish supervillains. It raises all kinds of questions. Can humans give birth to anything but more image-bearers? Can angels procreate? Scripture seems to indicate that these things are outside of what God allows in creation, though it is not completely clear. And the “sons of God” representing the line of Seth, of whom it is said, “[they] began to call upon the name of the Lord,” and the daughters of men representing the line of Cain, seems to fit with the overall thrust and direction of Genesis.

And yet I can’t escape the fact that a plain reading of that text seems to indicate something supernatural and nefarious is going on here, and the texts in Jude and 2 Peter seem to point both to God’s judgment of humans for their escalating depravity and to the fallen angel host for its preying on humans.

What’s more, we live in a very materialistic world. It’s hard to wrap our minds around this strange mixing of the human and supernatural. However, these kinds of myths have been around since the beginning. According to scholar Gordon Wenham, “Stories of superhuman demigods like Gilgamesh were commonplace, and intercourse with the divine was regularly sought in the fertility cults of Canaan and the sacred marriage rites of Mesopotamia.” And these myths and legends continue on through history, from the demigods of Greek mythology to our own modern pop culture and literary imagination of the divine and supernatural. Could it be that the enemy impregnated humans in order to create a devilish copycat of what is to come, fully human, fully divine, perfect God in the flesh in Jesus Christ?

None of us can be too sure of exactly how to interpret this text. But whether you think the sons of God are angels or descendants of Seth, whether you think the Nephilim are just really big and hairy warriors or superhuman devils, we can be sure that what God is trying to communicate are two important lessons: humans left to their own devices descend into chaos, depravity, and wickedness; and we need a Savior, a righteous seed, the God-man to come and rescue us from ourselves.

In a way, the two most common theories of the Nephilim and the sons of God can both offer important lessons for those of us who read Genesis. Beyond our fascination, when we’ve put down the commentaries and Hebrew texts and have stopped Googling Genesis 6, we should allow God’s Word to speak to us what God intended.

First, it is clear in Genesis that there have always been two groups of people, those who fear God and those who rebel, those who live the way of Seth and those who live the way of Cain, the righteous and the unrighteous. This is the epic clash throughout history that Genesis 3:15 predicted. Regardless of how you interpret Genesis 6, it is clear that even the good seed, the righteous remnant, is being corrupted. Consider that only Noah’s family, by the time of God’s judgment, was found with faith, as we will see later.

Even the good seed was corrupted. This is the story of the Old Testament: even the best and the brightest are not enough to save humanity. Not Seth. Not Enoch. Not even Noah, who after the flood fell into sin. Not even Abraham, who lied about his wife and had a child with his servant. Not even David, who exploited Bathsheba and murdered her husband. Not even Jacob, a deceiver. Not even Hezekiah, whose life ended in disgrace, as did Gideon’s. Samson, the strongman, saved Israel from the Philistines, but couldn’t save himself.

The Big Picture

Failure is the story of God’s people in the Old Testament, and it’s our story as well. Even the best of us fall short. Isaiah 53:6 says that at the end of the day, we are all going the way of Cain, we “all went astray,” while Romans 3:10 says that there is “no one righteous, not even one.”

We need someone from the righteous “branch,” a son of Eve, a son of David, who is also a Son of God. This is the case that the New Testament makes—that Jesus of Nazareth is that One, of whom the Father said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased.” The One who endured temptation, went to the cross, and with His life and death saves humanity and saves the cosmos. The most important lesson from Genesis 6 is not identifying the Nephilim, but identifying the state of our own souls, to look up and put our faith in God’s salvation before we face the time of God’s judgment, to recognize that we cannot save ourselves.

The state of the human heart in these times was desperate. Moses says that in those days, “every inclination of the human mind was nothing but evil all the time” (Gen. 6:5). And yet the indictment against Noah’s age is an indictment of our age. This is what Jesus said: “As the days of Noah were, so the coming of the Son of Man will be” (Matt. 24:37). The prophet Jeremiah diagnoses the true nature of the human heart as “more deceitful than anything else” (Jer. 17:9), while Paul soberly reminds us that without a supernatural rescue by God, we are “dead in [our] trespasses and sins” (Eph. 2:1–3).

Thankfully, we have in Christ the perfect son of Eve, the second Adam, the only one from the line of Seth who could absorb the judgment of God, who “while we were still sinners . . . died for us” (Rom. 5:8). Jesus came to die for the depraved.

And yet the mysterious nature of the Nephilim and the sons of God should also be a somber warning that our struggle for faith is not merely a human struggle. Satan did not take the curse from God in Eden lying down. Satan and his demon horde would strike again and again, throughout the story of Israel, in the life of Christ, both as tempter and murderer, to work against God’s rescue of His fallen race. And today, though he has been defeated, he will do what he can to thwart God’s plans. Though his sentence was pronounced in Jesus’ words on the cross—“It is finished” (John 19:30)—Satan still roams around, seeking whom he may devour (1 Peter 5:8). This titanic struggle is against “the rulers, the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this darkness, against evil, spiritual forces in the heavens” (Eph. 6:12).

As Christians who have put our faith in God’s rescue of us from our own sinfulness, we can defeat Satan because we stand in the victory God has already secured. We can pray against the powers of hell. We can arm ourselves with the truth. We don’t need to fear superhuman devil creatures like the Nephilim, we don’t need to fear the underworld of spiritual warfare, because in the power of the Spirit of the one who has crushed the serpent, we are “more than conquerors” (Rom. 8:37).

For Further Reading:

Characters of Creation

by Daniel Darling

Most Christians are familiar with the opening words of Genesis: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” But push...

book cover for Characters of Creation