Genesis 6.1-4 (NIV)The Nephilim were the offspring of "the sons of God" and the "daughters of men." Children who go on to become "the heroes of old, men of renown." Along these lines, some think the Nephilim were giants as the only other appearance of the word Nephilim occurs in Numbers in the description the spies bring back about the people in the land of Canaan:
When human beings began to increase in number on the earth and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that the daughters of humans were beautiful, and they married any of them they chose. Then the Lord said, “My Spirit will not contend with humans forever, for they are mortal; their 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 humans and had children by them. They were the heroes of old, men of renown.
Numbers 13.32-33As to the etymology of the word Nephilim the consensus seems to be that it comes from the root npl (נָפַל) "to fall" suggesting that Nephilim means "the fallen" or "the fallen ones."
And they spread among the Israelites a bad report about the land they had explored. They said, “The land we explored devours those living in it. All the people we saw there are of great size. We saw the Nephilim there (the descendants of Anak come from the Nephilim). We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we looked the same to them.”
There are many curious things about the Nephilim in this text, but perhaps the most curious thing has to do with their origins. What's going on with all this business about "sons of God" having sex with "daughters of men"?
There have been two schools of thought about this: the fallen angel theory and the descendants of Seth theory. The former I knew about, the latter I'd just learned.
I think most are familiar with the fallen angel theory. In this view the "sons of God" refer to angelic beings who lust after human women and have sex with them. The children of these unions are the Nephilim who seem to be like demigods. The Greek myths come to my mind here. Percy Jackson anyone? This view gains some support from various noncanonical sources like the book of Enoch (a book that seems to be quoted in Jude 14-15).
The second theory has to do with marriage between the descendants of Seth and the descendants of Cain.
In Genesis 5 we begin to transition out of material related to the first family and into the story of Noah and the flood. To mark this transition there are some genealogies given in Genesis 5. One of the things you notice in these genealogies is that it seems that Seth is contrasted with Cain, with Seth being good and Cain being bad. The descendants of Seth are the good bloodline and the descendants of Cain are the bad bloodline.
One sign you get of this has to do with the 7th descendent in each line. The 7th descendant on Seth's side is Enoch who we are told "walked with God" and who did not die but was "taken away by God."
By contrast, the 7th descendant on Cain's side is Lamech who comes across as a general badass, a sort of super-duper Cain as I've written about before.
All fine and dandy, but why would human descendants of Seth be called "sons of God"?
The idea goes back to how Seth seems to be the "image bearer" of God as his father Adam was:
Genesis 5.1-3The argument here is that the "image of God" is carried through the line of Seth. These "sons of God"--the descendants of Seth--"fall" when they begin to intermarry with the descendants of Cain ("the daughters of men"). And while it might seem that this argument is a bit stretched it is worth noting that some Gnostic sects saw Seth as the father of the children of God, the elect. In this we see a dualism where Seth and Cain function as the primordial ancestors of the "children of light/God" and the "children of darkness/Satan" respectively.
This is the written account of Adam’s family line.
When God created mankind, he made them in the likeness of God. He created them male and female and blessed them. And he named them “Mankind” when they were created.
When Adam had lived 130 years, he had a son in his own likeness, in his own image; and he named him Seth.
Either way, what I think is clear in this strange text is a concern over illicit mixing. As I talk about in Unclean, these mixings are seen as normative threats. Mixing becomes associated with sin. Thus, much of the Levitical code seems preoccupied with preventing various illicit mixtures. And, incidentally, so does much of the contemporary church.
And yet, the great scandal of Jesus is that he mixes with tax collectors and sinners. And it's also the great scandal of the church in the book of Acts that Jews and Gentiles begin to mix in the Kingdom of God.
Sometimes mixing, it seems, is holy and good. The Nephilim notwithstanding.