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?
11 Replies to “The Mystery of the Nephilim: An Analysis of Theories”
I personally find no problems with the fallen angel view, and believe that one to be correct. Jude’s quoting a prophecy from the Book of Enoch and clearly stating that Enoch is the author adds A LOT of weight to that book.
I found it interesting that the movie “Noah” (which I enjoyed as a faith-based piece of fiction) endorses both the Sethite and fallen angel theories, without directly including the Nephilim.
Since writing this article, I have come across the work of Semitic language scholar Dr. Michael Heiser. One of these days I plan to get around to adding some extra material based on his work. I was always inclined toward the “fallen angels” view and his work pushed me over into full acceptance.
While I agree with you that Jude’s citation of the relevant portion of the Book of Enoch solidifies that particular portion of Enoch cited is inspired/accurate, I don’t think I could agree that qualifies the rest of the material in Enoch as inspired/accurate on the grounds that other non-inspired works are also quoted in Scripture that no one would consider inspired. Now, I’m not saying that I don’t believe there’s nothing else of value in Enoch. On the contrary, I would encourage others to read it, if for no other reason than the fact that the Biblical authors obviously had and it helps to pick up on references to the material that will otherwise go unnoticed.
I haven’t seen “Noah,” I’ll have to check it out 🙂
If you are referring to the Russel Crowe movie, the “rock monsters” were supposed to be the Nephilim.
I actually found this article to be rather fair in presenting all the views on this Topic. I still think that there is a lot of difficult questions around the Nephilim and they seem to rather be enigmatic in the story. The Peter 2:410 and Jude scriptures relate more to the judgement that each fallen category incurred (Angels, Antidiluvian world and Sodom) rather than the fact that their sinful actions were similar so that is still a grey area and not as clear cut as some would ascertain. I have listen to Michael Heiser and I am still not convinced by the Angel view of this nor do I yet buy into the Sethite (Righteous vs Unrighteous) view yet. I think there is probably more to research before be conclusive on this.
Thanks for your comment. I’ve looked a lot more deeply into this topic since I wrote this article, so it probably could use an update. I personally find much of Heiser’s work extremely compelling, though there are some areas I disagree with him on. Tim Chaffey has written a book (Fallen: The Sons of God and the Nephilim) that is, so far, the most comprehensive and fair treatment of this topic that I’ve come across and I highly recommend it. Here’s the amazon link if you’re interested: https://www.amazon.com/Fallen-Sons-Nephilim-Tim-Chaffey/dp/0996008799
1. Heavenly or Fallen Angels can not procreate according to biblical scripture. (Matt. 22:30; Mark 12:25; Luke 20:34)
2. There is no evidence from the dead sea scrolls on gen.6:4 that the Nephilium(giants) were the offspring of the sons of God and daughters of men.
3. The Nephilium were present before and after the sons of God and daughters of man had intercourse.
4. Sons of God could mean holy Angels or holy men according to scripture. (Job 1:6; 2:1), (Psalm 82:6, Hos. 1:10; John 10:34-38, Matt. 5:9; Luke 3:38; Rom. 8:14)
Knowing these facts; we can rule out that the sons of God are angels in gen 6:4 because they procreate.
Therefore, they must be men that had God’s favor(Seth’s lineage). The daughters of man would be women without God’s favor(Cain’s lineage). Their offspring would be human.
What are these giants or Nephilium?
Well, they can’t be the offspring of the sons of God and daughters of man according to the facts stated above; because the nephilium were present when the sons of God lusted(married) the daughters of man. Since the Nephilium were present before pregnancy, they can’t be the offspring.
The interpretation from a root word naphil of Nephilium means fallen ones.
Look at the similarities of seraphim and cherubim. Now look at Nephilium.
Seraphim and Cherubim are Holy Angels.
Doesn’t it make since that the Nephilium would be Fallen angels?
The men of renown is another way of referring to famous men…Was Adam, Abel and Seth famous? Of course they were!
The reason the Nephilium were mentioned in scripture was because they lured these renown sons of God to LUST those women just as Satan tempted eve in the garden of Eden.
DYNASTIC RULERS VIEW, FALLEN ANGELS VIEW, GIANTS IN THE BIBLE, GODLY MEN VIEW, NEPHILIM, ROYALTY VIEW, SETHITE VIEW, THE SONS OF GOD, WHO WERE THE NEPHILIM, WHO WERE THE SONS OF GOD?
Let’s See meaning of first script before bible was written of the mystery of word “nephylim to the question “who were the nephilim?”; it means exactly “who were in beginning?”, after “Noah Ark”; and mystery is solved. Nephilim is composed of to words “ne” = in and “philim” = ” beginning”..
The meaning of the word “Nephilim” has been debated for many years, as a noun in the plural, yet the ambiguity of the explanations remains permanent. Still, no one knows what that word means. Explanations relate to the forms of the Hebrew verb “fall,” (Hebrew naphal). But, as it seems to me, it is wrong interpretation.
Thus, the first part of the word (without “im”) “nephil” is considered to have the meaning of the verb “naphal” = “fallen”, “fall”, then the verb “naphal” is also seen as a noun “fallen”, or the “descended”, while “im” returns the singular number in the plural and “naphal-im” is interpreted as ” the fallen”, “the descended” from Heaven or sent of God. Hence various confusing views on the explanation of the word “Nephilim”, which is translated into English as a plural noun: tyrants, giants, angels, titans, men, etc, remain. It is still, not widely known that the Albanian language originates from the Pelasgian language that has been contemporary with the well-known languages of ancient, and to compare the “Nephilim“ with Albanian “Në fillim”.
Of course, any explanation of the genesis of an item or event begins with the word “initially,” or “in the beginning.” The confusion in the English translation of the word “nephilim” from Hebrew is caused because none of the translators understand that “nefilim” is not a Hebrew noun in the plural, but a compound word of a fragment written first in Pelasgian and then in adapted as a plural noun in Hebrew, where, of course, the suffix “im” does not indicate the plural of the Hebrew noun, but is a suffix of verbs ending in “oj” in Albanian as in the verb “punoj” means “I work”, where the suffix “oj” is replaced by “im” and becomes “punim” means “the work”. Similarly in the verb “filloj” ” I begin”, replacing the ending “oj” with “im” becomes “fillim” means “beginning”.
Nephilim is not Hebrew word but of the Pelasgues langage composes of two wards: ne = në = (in) and Philim =fillim (biginning). = in beginning, So, replace it and transate it again form original.
I’m not sure why the argument against the fallen angels theory often hinges on whether or not angels are capable of procreation. The way I understand it, these procreations were conceived by elaborate dark rituals between pagan kings and temple prostitutes, in which unspeakable human sacrifices were made in order to convince fallen angels to possess temple prostitutes, who would then lay with the king and produce a powerful heir. It’s pretty common knowledge that such things happened in ancient Sumeria, Babylon, Mezo-America, even Japan. Hammurabi for instance (of famous Hammurabi’s Code fame) – one of the most famous Amorites in history – claimed to be two-thirds god and one-third human. What he meant was that he had been born through a union between a fallen-angel-possessed-temple-prostitute and his father (who had also been born through a union between a fallen-angel-possessed temple prostitute and his father). It’s the very worst of evil. Sort of an anti-incarnation. The nephilim were the offspring of these evil unions, and were poisoned and twisted in their nature – taking on the dark appetites and enslaving impulses of their fallen forebears. Sort of the opposite of the saints, who Peter – in his second general epistle – says can begin to partake of the Divine nature. In the case of the nephilim, they began to partake of the anti-Divine nature. But no, it would not be possible for angels to reproduce. These fallen angels possessed women and participated in hopelessly depraved dark magic.