The identity of the Nephilim (referred to in Genesis 6 and Numbers 13) has been debated since the time of the early church fathers. There are really three primary theories, each supported by Biblical evidence and espoused by brilliant scholars. Since their identity has no bearing on the gospel, salvation, or Biblical authority, and since each of these theories uses the Bible as its basis- there is really no reason to be dogmatic or argue about any particular view. That being said, it’s definitely a highly interesting debate. In this article we’ll talk about what the word Nephilim actually means; discuss the central issue to the debate, which is the identity of the “sons of God” who were said to breed with women; and analyze the evidence for and against each.
First, let’s take a look at the passages that mention the Nephilim in the Bible:
Genesis 6:1-6 (ESV)– “When man began to multiply on the face of the land and daughters were born to them, 2 the sons of God saw that the daughters of man were attractive. And they took as their wives any they chose. 3 Then the Lord said, “My Spirit shall not abide in man forever, for he is flesh: his days shall be 120 years.” 4 The Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of man and they bore children to them. These were the mighty men who were of old, the men of renown. 5 The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. 6 And the Lord regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. 7 So the Lord said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens, for I am sorry that I have made them.” 8 But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord.
Numbers 13:30-33 (ESV)– 30 But Caleb quieted the people before Moses and said, “Let us go up at once and occupy it, for we are well able to overcome it.” 31 Then the men who had gone up with him said, “We are not able to go up against the people, for they are stronger than we are.” 32 So they brought to the people of Israel a bad report of the land that they had spied out, saying, “The land, through which we have gone to spy it out, is a land that devours its inhabitants, and all the people that we saw in it are of great height. 33 And there we saw the Nephilim (the sons of Anak, who come from the Nephilim), and we seemed to ourselves like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them.”
What does the word “Nephilim” mean?
In order to understand who the Nephilim are the first logical question is, what does the word mean? Herein lies our first problem- there is even debate as to what the word itself means. Tim Chaffey of Answers in Genesis points out in his article Battle Over the Nephilim, “Many people have tried to link it to the Hebrew verb naphal, which means ‘to fall.’ However, strictly speaking, the plural participle would be either nophelim or nephulim, and not nephilim. So some scholars have pointed out that the related Aramaic language has a noun that would be nephilin in its plural form, and in Hebrew this is nephilim. This Aramaic word means ‘giants’ and is also the Aramaic word for the constellation Orion, the great hunter of mythology.” It should be noted that many Bible translations actually replace the word “nephilim” with “giants.” Some of those translations are: the Septuagint, KJV, NKJV.
If you’ll notice, the Genesis 6 description of the Nephilim says nothing about them being giants, however, the Numbers 13 description does.
As Chaffey points out, the term nephilim leaves us with more questions than answers, “Were they the offspring of the unions of Genesis 6 or were they on the earth before these marriages took place? Did the post-flood nephilim come about in the same way as those before the Flood, or were they not related in any way? Were they giants because of extraordinary parentage, or did they simply possess genetic information for great height and strength that is no longer in our gene pool?” The answers to these questions depend on what boils down to the central issue of the debate, which is: who were the “sons of God?”
Who were the “sons of God?”
The identity of the “sons of God” is truly the crux of the debate since they are the origin (or progenitor) of the Nephilim. There are 3 primary schools of thought and we’ll discuss each.
- Fallen Angels View: This is the view that was held almost unanimously by ancient writers prior to Augustine of Hippo. The earliest Jews held to this interpretation as evidenced in the books of Enoch and Jubliees (both are non-canonical works, however a passage relevant to the Nephilim debate is actually quoted from Enoch in Jude.) The Alexandrian codex of the Septuagint takes this view. The ancient Jewish historian Josephus and Jewish philosopher Philo take this view and the Dead Sea Scrolls support this interpretation as well. The following early church fathers take this position: Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, Athenagoras, and Tertullian.
This interpretation holds that the “sons of God” were fallen angels that married women and had children with them. The offspring from these unions were the Nephilim.
Arguments for this view:
- All other uses of the Hebrew phrase bene [ha]’ elohim ([the] sons of God) in the Old Testament refer to angelic beings (Job 1:6, 2:1, 38:7.) A similar phrase used in Psalms, “sons of the Mighty,” also refers to angelic beings. (Psalms 29:1, 89:6.
- Another argument comes from I Peter 3:18-20. However, in order to fully understand this argument you must consider Jude 6. I’ll quote both:
I Peter 3:18-20– 18 For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, 19 in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, 20 because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water.
Jude 4-8– 4 For certain people have crept in unnoticed who long ago were designated for this condemnation, ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ. 5 Now I want to remind you, although you once fully knew it, that Jesus, who saved a people out of the land of Egypt, afterward destroyed those who did not believe. 6 And the angels who did not stay within their own position of authority, but left their proper dwelling, he has kept in eternal chains under gloomy darkness until the judgment of the great day— 7 just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which likewise indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural desire, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire. 8 Yet in like manner these people also, relying on their dreams, defile the flesh, reject authority, and blaspheme the glorious ones.
- Lee Anderson Jr. writing for Answers in Genesis in his article Is the Sons of God Passage in Genesis 6 Adapted Pagan Mythology explains, “Peter seems to be saying that subsequent to His resurrection, Christ went to proclaim His victory over sin and death to the angelic beings who sinned in Noah’s day.” Anderson notes that some people argue that these passages are referring to the original 1/3 of angels who fell with Satan, however he points out the weakness in that argument which is that it leaves the question of why some of those angels were punished with confinement while others were allowed to remain free on the earth.
- Keeping in mind Jude 4-8 above, II Peter 2:4-10 also lends credibility to this view.
II Peter 2:4-10– 4 For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to chains of gloomy darkness to be kept until the judgment; 5 if he did not spare the ancient world, but preserved Noah, a herald of righteousness, with seven others, when he brought a flood upon the world of the ungodly; 6 if by turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to ashes he condemned them to extinction, making them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly; 7 and if he rescued righteous Lot, greatly distressed by the sensual conduct of the wicked 8 (for as that righteous man lived among them day after day, he was tormenting his righteous soul over their lawless deeds that he saw and heard); 9 then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment until the day of judgment, 10 and especially those who indulge in the lust of defiling passion and despise authority. Bold and willful, they do not tremble as they blaspheme the glorious ones,
- Bodie Hodge writes in his article for Answers in Genesis Who Were the Nephilim, “These verses do not specifically mention the Nephilim, nor do they clearly state that fallen angels had sexual relationships with women. However, they do place ‘the angels who sinned’ (II Peter 2:4), ‘who did not keep their proper domain, but left their own abode’ (Jude 6), in the same context as Noah. Both passages seem to compare the sin of these angels with the sin of the people of Sodom and Gomorrah who had ‘in a similar manner to these, having given themselves over to sexual immorality and gone after strange flesh’ (Jude 7). Genesis 19:5 reveals that the men of Sodom “lusted after the two angels who had gone into Lot’s house.”
Arguments against this view:
- Opponents point to Jesus’ words in Matthew 22:30 when He says that angels do not marry. However, proponents argue that this verse speaks of how angels in heaven behave and has nothing to do with the way a fallen angel may choose to behave.
- It is also argued that angels do not have the ability to reproduce. Proponents counter that there really isn’t any passage that indicates whether this is true or not. We do know that angels can take human form and eat. A more compelling point to be made against this view is that while heavenly angels can take human form, there is no Biblical record of a fallen angel being able to appear in human form (outside of demonic possession in which the body is not their own.)
- A good argument against this view is the question: “If all the Nephilim were destroyed in the flood, where did the post-Flood Nephilim come from?” Proponents of this view respond that the unnatural relations continued on a smaller scale after the flood. As corroboration, proponents point out that the grammatical arrangement of the Hebrew in Genesis 6:4 indicates an event that occurred repeatedly. Lee Anderson Jr. explains, “The idea, thus, is that the Nephilim arose ‘whenever’ there were sexual relations between humans and fallen angels.”
- The most serious allegation pointed toward this view is that some believe it opens the door to a mythological or polytheistic element in the Biblical text. The argument is that if the Nephilim are half breed angel/humans then it gives credence to ideas such as the existence of “demigods” which would be worshiped as lesser gods because of their stature (giants) and strength (men of renown). Lee Anderson Jr poses the response to this concern, “However, neither ‘the sons of God’ nor the evil human race can oppose the one true God, who, in the verses to follow, exercises His sovereign prerogative to judge the earth and put an end to the wickedness perpetrated by the fallen angels. As such, the sons of God passage does not endorse myth; it is the antimyth.”
- A notable adaptation of this view is that the “sons of God” are men who have been possessed by demons (fallen angels.) While this position does remedy some of the arguments against the fallen angel view, another large issue remains. There is no instance in the Bible where fallen angels or the demon possessed are referred to as “sons of God.”
- Godly Men or the “Sethite” View: This view has always been around as an alternate interpretation of the fallen angels view with Julius Africanus being the first church father to support it. However, Augustine was responsible for popularizing this view which has become the most widely held view. Both Luther and Calvin adopted this view.
This interpretation holds that the “sons of God” were the godly members of the line of Seth (Cain and Abel’s younger brother). In this view, the sin that warranted God’s judgement (the Flood) was these godly men intermarrying with ungodly women leading to the downfall of humanity.
Arguments for this view:
- Proponents of this view argue that while the exact terminology “sons of God” does not refer to men in the Old Testament, a very similar arrangement does. For example, Deuteronomy 14:1 in which Moses tells the Israelites, “You are sons of the Lord your God.” Also Hosea 1:10 in which the Israelites are called “sons of the living God.” In the New Testament the phrase “sons of God” is used to denote men: Luke 3:38, Matthew 5:9, Romans 8:14, Romans 8:19, and Galatians 3:26. H.C. Leupold says this in his commentary regarding the identity of the “sons of God” as either angels or men, “But of these two uses of the title, which shall we choose in this instance? We have had no mention made of angels thus far in Genesis. We have met with other sons of the true God, in fact, the whole preceding chapter, even 4:25–5:32, has been concerned with them. Who will, then, be referred to here? Answer, the Sethites, without a doubt.”
- This view also fits well contextually- both the historical context of ancient Israel and the broader context of Genesis in the chapter preceding and the chapter following chapter 6. The concept of “unequally yoked” unions fits well as it highlights God’s admonishment not to intermarry with the Canaanites. Also, chapter 4 discusses the evil line of Cain contrasted with the godly line of Seth. Sven Fockner explains, “Because of the way the narrative is designed from Genesis 4 to Genesis 10, the reader expects the passage to deal with the two lines of humanity and the vanishing of one of them. . . The flood resulted from the wickedness of the people. Before ch. 6, only the unbelievers were depicted as wicked (Lamech). Then the sons of God joined this group.”
Arguments against this view:
- This view creates a contextual inconsistency with how “men” and “daughters” are referred to in Genesis 6:1. This verse states, “When man began to multiply on the face of the land and daughters were born to them…” In this context “men” and “daughters” are referred to in a universal sense meaning all men and all daughters. So, why would verse 2, which is also part of the very same sentence as verse 1 (the sons of God saw that the daughters of men were attractive), refer to only Sethite men and only Cainite daughters?
- Next, this view offers no explanation for why unions of ordinary men and women would yield giants. In response to this, proponents would argue that Genesis 6 doesn’t actually say the Nephilim were giants. That information comes from the bad report of the scouts that Moses sent to investigate the Promised Land in Numbers 13. The argument is that the scouts could have been dishonest about the size of the Nephilim in an effort to dissuade the Israelites from invading the land. However, while Joshua and Caleb (the only two scouts with faith in God) disagree with the report of the bad scouts by asserting that the land is indeed good and that they shouldn’t fear the inhabitants of the land, they do not in any way refute what the other scouts say about any other aspects of their report: that both the Anakites and the Nephilim were there, that they were giants, that the Anakites were descendants of the Nephilim, and that the Anakites were only part of the Nephilim.
- It also begs the question that if the Sethite line were so godly, why did they continue to choose ungodly wives? Were there no attractive godly women?
- Royalty or Dynastic Rulers View: This interpretation comes from ancient Aramaic Targums (Jewish writings) and was popular in the middle ages. It is only recently gaining popularity among modern Christians.
This view holds that the “sons of God” were polygamist kings, nobles, or men in high authority positions who forced “common” women to join their harems with the sin garnering judgement (the Flood) being polygamy.
Arguments for this view:
- Proponents of this view say that “sons of God” can be translated “the sons of the gods.” They point to ancient writings that set precedent for the idea of “divine kingship” in which human kings are called the sons of various gods. Bible verses listed in support of this are Exodus 21:6; Exodus 22:8-9, 28; and Psalm 82:1. In these Exodus passages, the term Elohim (God) is translated as “rulers” or “judges.”
- They also point out that this view makes sense in light of the description of the Nephilim as “men of renown” in that the offspring of kings and rulers could easily earn titles as renowned men.
Arguments against this view:
- While it is true that rulers are sometimes referred to as “gods,” they are never referred to corporately in Scripture as “sons of God.”
- A very problematic point for this view is that there is no Scriptural basis for the idea that polygamy would have caused God to send the Flood. After all, many righteous men post-Flood engaged in the practice including Abraham, Jacob, and David.
- Again, this view does not offer any explanation for the Nephilim being giants.
Which theory is correct?
There just isn’t enough information about the Nephilim in the Bible to come to a definitive conclusion. The Royalty/Dynastic Ruler view seems by far the weakest in my opinion. However, both the fallen angel and the Sethite views both have very compelling components to their arguments, yet neither is without its major flaw. It is true that the fallen angel view is indeed the oldest majority view, but that does not guarantee that it is correct. Each of these two views have Biblical support and brilliant theologians who espouse them. Which theory makes the most sense to you?