The Nephilim

So I'm teaching through the book of Genesis out at the prison. And the other day we got to one of the stranger passages in the bible. To get ready for the class I had to spend some time looking into the Nephilim. You'll recall the text:
Genesis 6.1-4 (NIV)
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. 
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:
Numbers 13.32-33
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.”
As 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."

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 5.1-3
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. 
The 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.

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.

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17 thoughts on “The Nephilim”

  1. Ok. How is it possible that I am a 42 year old woman who grew up a preacher's kid, went to  private Christian, elementary, secondary, and university schools with extensive Bible classes and I have never even stumbled on this? I must be brilliant at skipping over bizarre passages in the Bible and acting like they don't exist. Good thing I married you. I would have missed so much (about a lot of things). Your blog is predictably unpredictable.

  2. This is interesting to me too, though (like Jana said), I never gave the Nephilim much thought.  What a way to demonize the other, though.  It doesn't get much more black and white:  children of light/God and children of darkness/Satan.  And if you're born that way, well, not much hope for change, is there.  This is the Hindu philosophy of religion in the caste system.  Only if you graciously endure your station in life, is there hope of reincarnating -- the next time around -- as someone better off.  It's the perfect "system"...for those at the top of the heap!

    In my nursing home Bible fellowship, we studied Exodus for an extended period of time.  At one point, the text talked about the priest wearing a garment with pomegranates and bells, alternating, all around the hem.  All I could think of was a cat with a bell on its collar.  I joked, "Do you think the bells are to warn god when the priest is about to come into the inner holy of holies, or do you think it's for the people outside to know if god has struck the priest dead in there (no more bells jingling)?"  For all I know, the bells were embroidered like I assume the pomegranates were, and not literal bells.  LOL  I mostly just admit to my dear elderly friends when I have no freakin' clue about something we're reading!  And then go on to tell the "big picture" view of the story.  Thanks for sharing this interesting bit of information.  I'll remember it well.  ~Peace~

  3. Maybe we get the Suzetta and the Children's Ministry to go with this story for VBS next year, or would that be too inappropriate? :-)

    At the very least, I have this great Halloween costume idea for you and I this year...

  4. Funny, I've heard that the descendents of Seth were the elect and anyone not were predestined for hell.

  5. Depending upon your view of inspiration (Hmmm, when should that NOT preface a discussion of the bible?)  it has been suggested also that this is an answer from God to the legends of the other cultures around the Jews.  As in "all those stories you hear about great heroes,  they are nothing but minor things compared to me!"

    I wonder how much of that intermixing idea comes into play with the mention of the children of Lamech, who all basically had professions that were not related to the nomadic tribal lifestyle of the Jews at the time of the stories.

  6. Dr Beck,

    Have you read Greg Boyd's "God at War?" It's one of the only books I know of dealing with the concept of spiritual warfare from a more scholarly perspective. He deals with these passages quite a bit.

    Also, Margaret Barker suggest in this paper:
    that the stories of the Fallen and the Watchers have everything to do with wisdom and knowledge. A very interesting perspective with some extremely strong textual support. Worth a look.

  7. I'm really going out on a limb here, but there's at least one other possibility.

    God created humans on earth, and the "Sons of God" were mere humans.God created spirit beings (angels) in the heavenly realm (but still part of the created cosmos), and the "Sons of God" were these angelic beings. Like Jesus' resurrected body, they seem to be "physispiritual", having both a physical nature (able to eat and be hugged and cook breakfast and bear scars and have flesh and bone) and a spiritual nature (able to pass through solid walls and locked doors, able to teleport in and out of places, able to change appearance, able to fly into space without wings or a space suit).
    Perhaps God created other physical beings in the "heavenly" realm (i.e., space, the final frontier), which for a short while had interaction with humans on earth, and the "Sons of God" were these extraterrestrials.Note that I'm not presenting this third notion as true. It seems rather far-fetched to me, especially since I (agnostically) don't even believe in ETs. I'm just saying it's a possible consideration.

    Or it might be that angles are ETs (or vice-versa). There are at least two "species" of angels I know about - Seraphim and Cherubim. Perhaps one of these (or another species not mentioned by species-name in the Biblical text) is what we would consider a space alien.

    I know, I know. It all sounds nutty. And as I say, I don't really buy into it. But it's something I gotta at least consider.

  8.  As I understand it, yes the bells were so that the people would know if the priest dropped dead.  Also, the priest would have a rope tied around him, so that he could be removed without anyone else having to enter the innermost chamber.

  9. A fundamentalist sect I am familiar with in my home town uses these passages and others to support an "old earth" theory as well as proof text against interacial marriage.  Aparently the "sons of God" are "sixth day man" (non white, non Adamic)- Gen 1:26-31. The "sons of men" are "seventh day man" Gen 2: 2 & 7.(white Adamic). In short the doctrine teaches that the non white races existed for possibly hundreds of thousands of years before white (Adamic) people. Hence the explanation for older (pre-Edenic, approx 6000 B.C) civilisations. With this doctrine you get what most fundamentalists need- Creation and proof texts to back up SEPRATION. It's a strange sect. One one hand, totally supporting archeological findings of dinosaur skeletons (in support of a created old earth) and on the other hand still, in the 21st century, activly resisting the marriage of "white" and "non white" members of their congregation. Maybe Richard we could smuggle a few copies of "Unclean" onto their church bookshelf?

  10. Hi Rob,

    Thanks!  It seems I have read or heard this somewhere before, too.  Which only makes it more hilarious to me.  Can you imagine?  Hauling on a rope to drag the dead high priest from the innermost chamber of the tabernacle?  And what might have ensued following such an "untimely" death?  Surely the god is displeased...  How to placate him.  Who would volunteer to be the new high priest?  I choose to take it lightly, and led my nursing home friends in a moment of laughter, as we pictured it in our minds.

  11. I've always thought that this is where Tolkien gets his ideas (along with many other sources as well) in the Silmarillion regarding the Ainur as sort of angelic beings set in the traditional hierarchy of Creation between God and man. More specifically, there are a few instances where the Maiar have sexual relations with the "Children of Illuvatar" aka the Elves - the one that first comes to mind is the union of Thingol and Melian the Maiar. Just some interesting parallels. 

  12. This passage illustrates the fact that much of the Bible is mythology. A poetic description of angels mingling with humans as seen in other ancient myths. We try to hard to assign a spiritual meaning to these stories.

    Det. Goren

  13. Has everyone read L'Engle's /Many Waters/? It has Nephilim characters, explicitly as fallen angels. They are quite creepy...but their children are not universally evil. It's quite like L'Engle to do something like this, but it almost seems as though the illicit mixture produces someone /better/ than the pure line.

  14. Great blog....but I noticed that you didn't seem to touch on why there were still descendants of the Nephillim after the flood. Another thing to take note of is that the Hebrew word for Nephillim is also used in a more general way in reference to those slain in battle (Jsh 8:25, Jdg 20:46, 2Ki 25:11, Ps 145:14, Jer 39:9, Jer 52:15, Ezk 32:22, Ezk 32:24). Strongs does make a distinction between the two uses...H5303 from H5307 - a bully or tyrant.

  15. Thank you for the excellent ongoing blog, and for this post which gives me a chance to recommend Tim Powers' The Stress of Her Regard  (, a gripping story about the Nephilim, the great Romantic poets (Byron, Keats, and the Shelleys), the Frankenstein story, and vampire legend. Powers began his career as Philip K. Dick's protege, and has made a wonderful, unclassifiable career out of telling secret histories, stories that pry into the cracks between this familiar world and the mysteries and horrors that lurk just beneath the surface.

  16. Who are the Watchers?Different names for Watchers – nephilim, archons, annunaki, false godsAre Watchers related to Reptilian beings?

  17. What was the sin that Eve committed in the Garden of Eden? Hint: she didn't eat an apple.

    The Hebrew text is B'nai Elohim. 'The sons of God.' The only other time that exact phrase is used in the Scripture is in the book of Job in reference to heavenly beings.

    Jude references the fallen ones as well

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