Who were the Nephilim of Genesis 6?



Today, I am looking back to one of our earlier readings from The Daily Bible. Recently, someone asked me about the Nephilim of Genesis 6: who were they? So, today, I am attempting to shed some light on that subject.

4 The Nephilim were on the earth in those days—and also afterward—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. 5 The 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. (Gen. 6:4-5)

The term nephelim is a transliteration, not a translation.[1] Nephilim is a transliteration of the hebrew term: נְפִילִים (nephilim). The term itself is actually a difficult word to translate. The word appears to have originated from the root term naphal, which means to to fall or lie. Essentially, we can understand the Nephilim to be the fallen ones; or those who fall upon others.[2]

Often the Nephilim are understood to be giants. But this understanding seems to come more from it’s usage in Numbers 13[3], which is many years later than the nephilim mentioned in Genesis 6; and the flood would have wiped out the Nephlim from Genesis 6, making them likely very different than the Nephilim in Numbers 13.

In the passage from Genesis 6, after the Nephilim are mentioned, we are also introduced to two other phrases: sons of God and daughters of humans. It is possible that the Nephilim and the sons of God are completely different people. However, the context seems to indicate that the phrase sons of God is just a further clarification of who the Nephilim were. If we look at this passage this way, then the Nephilim are sons of God.

Ok, so sons of God is not a transliterated phrase, but a translation. But, what are we to make of the idea that people were some kind of descendent of God (the sons of God)?

Elsewhere in the Bible, the phrase: sons of God is used in reference to angelic (heavenly / non-earthly) beings (e.g. Job 1:6; 2:1; 38:7). Any many people interpret this passage to say that the wickedness that God sees here is the intermarriage of wicked angelic beings with humans. But, a few issues arise with this conclusion.[4] (1) In the New Testament (Matt. 22:30), Jesus says that angels do not marry. (2) If it were angels that were wicked, it seems strange for God to punish humans for the wickedness of angels.

I think there is another likely possibility to explain who the Nephilim/sons of God are. And, the answer may lie (no pun intended) in comparing the difference between the s sons of God and daughters of humans — as well as looking back a couple chapters to Genesis 4 and 5. At the end of Genesis 4, it says, “Adam lay with his wife again, and she gave birth to a son and named him Seth…. Seth also had a son, and he named him Enosh. At that time men began to call on the name of the Lord.” (Gen. 4:25-26). Genesis 5 then goes on to give account of the generations from Adam to Noah, which brings us back to Genesis 6 and the Nephilim and sons of God.

It is very likely (and what I think is the most likely case) that the Nephilim are the sons of God; and the phrase sons of God is a reference to those who were most faithful to God — those who called on the name of the Lord (as it says Seth and his descendants did). So, when it says that the sons of God had children with the daughters of humans, and that the Lord saw this as wickedness — what this likely means is that those who called on the name of the Lord began to intermarry and have children with those who did not call on the name of the Lord (likely descendants of Cain). What was considered wicked by the Lord was the mingling of worshipers of God with non-worshippers of God.

Looking at this passage from this perspective, does not make the account of Genesis 6 so different from our own day and age. A take-away for today is that we too wrestle with balancing this ideal of God (and what Jesus further teaches about in the New Testament) to live in the world, but not of it — to use wisdom and discretion in whom we associate, marry, and have children with — to have community and close relationships with others who fear and call on the name of the Lord.

[1] Transliteration is simply taking (in our case) English letters and matching them with the corresponding Hebrew letters — resulting in an English-looking word, but does not have an inherent definition that can be derived from it. Whereas, a translation is an actual rendering of word from another language into English— definition/explanation included. An example would be: baptize, which is a Greek term: βαπτιζο [baptizo]. But, the term baptize does not define/explain the word baptizo. Baptizo is just a transliteration. Rather, a translation of baptizo would be something like: dip, dunk, or immerse — explaining/defining the term in the English term itself.

[2] As could be the case in Genesis 6, where the sons of God marry the daughters of men (falling on [e.g. overtaking their identity through marriage]).

[3] When the Israelites spy out the Promised Land, they describe the inhabitants as Nephilim — tall people, compared to the stature of the Israelites. Many people think Goliath (from the David and Goliath account) was a Nephilim descendent.

[4] Points taken from Wilbur Fields in his book, Old Testament History: An Overview of Sacred History & Truth, 1996.