The Nephilim were in the earth in those days, and also after that, when God’s sons came in to men’s daughters and had children with them. Those were the mighty men who were of old, men of renown. (Genesis 6:4)
Opinions on the identity of the Nephilim range from the constructive to the flat-out bizarre, but no matter their intentions, I think almost all such speculations are based off the wrong questions. We focus on the WHO the Nephilim were, but we don’t often ask better questions, such as: ‘what did the Nephilim DO?’ or ‘what is it about the Nephilim God wants us to learn?’ To this latter point, it’s obvious God wants us to learn from them, seeing how He made them noteworthy by the simple fact He included them in His Word.
Thus ‘what happened?’ is the right question to ask, because as it stands almost no theory on the Nephilim really answers this question. All theories generally treat their existence as an “aside”, yet none of them paints the Nephilim a warning for future generations.
It’s remarkable to me how the bizarre theories (i.e. the Nephilim were space aliens visiting the Earth from time to time) ignore how the Bible describes them. Even some of the more dominant theories – i.e. the Nephilim were the giant offspring of fallen angels and human women – also surprisingly dismiss some of the more obvious facts disclosed to us. This is something followers of the One True God must correct, as these theories misrepresent the Book and makes us seem like myth-tellers. For one example, the Nephilim are often compared with the Greek Titan myths.
Therefore, it is imperative that any teaching on the Nephilim require textual criticism, logic, and God’s ‘what happened’ lesson. And because we don’t want to ignore the facts that God DOES disclose to us, here’s what we can learn from the text:
The Nephilim were giants. In the book of Numbers there is a description of Nephilim that reads: “The land, through which we have gone to spy it out, is a land that eats up its inhabitants. All the people who we saw in [the land] are men of great stature. There we saw the Nephilim, the sons of Anak, who come from the Nephilim. We were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so we were in their sight.” (Numbers 13:32-33)
There can be no doubt from this description that the Nephilim were giants, but when made to be something more, like space aliens or fallen angels, specific words get ignored.
The Nephilim were just human men. There are only two places where the word n’filim appears (in Genesis 6 and Numbers 13, both of which I already cited). In both cases they are clearly described with words applicable only to human beings. Numbers 13:32 uses am (people or tribe) and iysh (meaning “man”). In Genesis 6:4, iysh is also used, twice in the phrase “these are mighty men of old, men of renown.” Lastly, Genesis 6:3 is the third indication of the Nephilim’s humanity, which not only calls them ‘men’ but also reads “he is just flesh” (using the word basar for ‘flesh’), which denotes the flesh-and-bone existence of mankind in the derogatory way. To put it a modern way, God is dissing the Nephilim when He says “he is just flesh“!
They had sexual intercourse with human women. It’s a tall order to consider the Nephilim as anything other than human men, especially when they had to have the tools necessary for you know… having children. In other words, their iysh parts had to mesh with iysha (women) parts. So the Bible betrays anyone who wants to enlarge the Nephilim beyond the status of regular men.
Speculations about the identity of the Nephilim traditionally hinge on the phrase “sons of God” (starting in Genesis 6:2). Admittedly, it is an awkward phrasing, but the writers were seemingly differentiating from its textual counterpart – the “daughters of men“. It wouldn’t have the same effect if it read “men saw women, that they were good“. They took poetic license for a number of reasons.
I’ve written about one such reason here. The Hebrew ben (meaning “son”) was used a lot in the verses around Genesis 6, as is bat (“daughter”). This carries with it spiritual undertones, meant to portray God looking at a world where his creations – his sons and daughters – were experiencing a spiritual drowning long before the physical one in the Great Flood.
There are also more practical reasons, too. The text does not say “b’nai elohim” like we’d expect for “sons of God”, it has a definite article and reads ‘b’nai ha elohim‘ – literally “sons of the gods” (as skeptics are quick to show). However, this is not a nod to polytheism. Remember, the Nephilim are described in the human terms of iysh, am, and basar. So this is either a contradiction, or poetic license. I’ll continue to advocate reading the first few chapters of Genesis under a poetic lens and emphatically suggest that this is more of the same.
The word “elohim” is one of those terms that can only be interpreted through context. So is the entire phrase “b’nai ha elohim“. For starters, ben doesn’t always denote “male-child” but it can also mean an entity. For example, in 2 Kings 2:3 ‘sons of the prophets‘ clearly means just ‘the prophets’. Additionally, elohim doesn’t always mean God (i.e., as in Genesis 1:1), it can also mean ‘rulers’. A well-known example of denoting rulers as ‘elohim‘ can be found in Psalms 82: “God presides in the great assembly. He judges among the gods. How long will you judge unjustly, and show partiality to the wicked?” (vv.1-2) and again says, ‘I said, “You are gods, all of you are sons of the Most High. Nevertheless you shall die like men, and fall like one of the rulers.” (vv. 6-7. By the way this is also the exact point Messiah was making in John 10:34).
So given that the definition of elohim can mean ‘rulers’, and that these elohim had real human children, by context we can understand these ‘b’nai ha elohim‘ were human rulers provoking the One True God to wrath (which by the way was the same situation in Psalms 82). We can conclude that these rulers were abusing their power, and building harems for themselves.
The fact of the matter is, Genesis 6:4 is clarifying who the “b’nai ha elohim” were. Obviously, by using the term “in those days, and even after, so that” we know this was an insertion by compilers hundreds, maybe thousands of years after the fact. The irony is, they probably were trying to clarify any confusion about who the b’nai ha elohim might’ve been! They made it a point to highlight the Nephilim as two things: they were famous (men of name) and they were gibborim (powerful). In other words, they were in fact our mysterious ‘b’nai ha elohim‘!
In other words, Genesis 6:4 is saying, ‘Remember those ‘elohim‘ who took women as wives, all that they wanted’? Well, this was when those infamous Nephilim were in power. They were the rulers who took wives so that they would bear children to them, to keep the Nephilim in power.’
In other words, the Nephilim saw women as “good” (tovot, cf. Genesis 6:2, not ‘fair’ or ‘beautiful’ as some translate it) in the sense that women were “useful” for keeping them in power, because the more sex they had, the more the odds increased that they would have Nephilim children – powerful gibborim men to dominate the world.
In my last post I proposed that at some point men stopped his outward expansion into the Earth and set his sights inward – on dominating men and women and establishing a powerful dynasty of Nephilim rulers. And God did NOT create men and women to be under the control of a gibborim dynasty:
The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of man’s heart was continually only evil. The LORD was sorry that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him in his heart. (Genesis 6:5-6)
Keep in mind, that these gods – like the rebuke of Psalms 82 – were ruling with corruptness and violence (cf. vs. 11). They ruled by force; they took what they wanted violently. If they wanted additional wives, they took them. If they did not bear giant children for the Nephilim, the Nephilim gave her away to one of the non-Nephilim. So much in every way, the Nephilim were controlling who was being born. That is why the Bible emphasizes their positions as rulers (bnai ha elohim) and being gibborim, as well as tying that to how they took wives and had children… for THEMSELVES. In those days everything revolved around how they kept themselves in power.
I’m sorry if this disappoints anyone who wants to believe in space aliens or fallen angels who impregnate women. The truth is, while these corrupt rulers may have been giants, they were not gentle giants – they were brutal giants, who destroyed the lives of many people on the earth. All in all, as the LORD said, at the end of the day they were still “just flesh“, and received the same death that these powerful gibborim was powerless to stop.