Who were the Nephilim?

Q.  Who were the Nephilim? Offspring of angels? Or is that theory completely wrong?

The Nephilim appear in the Bible early in Genesis, and they seem in some way to have helped bring about the flood.  Their story is told this way:

“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 Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time. The Lord regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled. So the Lord said, ‘I will wipe from the face of the earth the human race I have created . . .’”

I believe that here the biblical author is intending to describe marriages that are best understood as unions of human women and some sort of male supernatural beings. These marriages produced offspring who were “the heroes of old, men of renown.”  That is, the offspring were capable of prodigious deeds.  But as a result they also threw off restraint and led the entire world into “great wickedness.” God became so “deeply troubled” by this wickedness that he “regretted that he had made human beings” and decided to destroy them in the flood.

This passage naturally poses many problems for interpretation.  If it really is describing marriages between humans and supernatural beings, how are we to account for its claim that such marriages not only took place, but actually produced offspring?

In light of this difficulty, many interpreters posit that the “sons of God” in view here are not actually supernatural beings, but rather the descendants of Seth, the son born to Adam and Eve after Cain killed Abel. He founded a line that “called upon the name of the Lord.” These godly Sethites, in the understanding of these interpreters, were corrupted by intermarriage into the culturally accomplished but godless line of Cain, which would be called here the “daughters of men.” Such dilution and compromise of the godly line led to unrestrained wickedness throughout the human population, these interpreters suggest.

But if this is the case, it is difficult to understand, for one thing, why intermarriage should only have been between Sethite men and Cainite women, rather than also between Sethite women and Cainite men.

Moreover, this interpretation requires that the term ‘adam, which to this point in the book has always had a generic meaning (“humanity”), suddenly and without indication be used to signify only a certain line of human descent (not “the daughters of humans” but “the female descendants of Cain”). But the generic meaning is clearly required again where God says “my Spirit will not contend with humans forever,” while the specialized meaning would be needed once more in the second reference to the “daughters of humans [Cainites?],” and the generic meaning would be needed again where God observes the wickedness of the “human race” and regrets making “human beings.” And yet there is nothing in the text to guide the reader in making these shifts of meaning.

Finally, the contexts of the other biblical occurrences of the phrase “sons of God” all call for a supernatural meaning. The term occurs near the beginning and ending of Job, for example, where the NIV translates it as “angels.” While it is true that the chosen people, to whom the Sethites would correspond at this point, are referred to metaphorically as God’s “sons” from time to time, the precise phrase “sons of God” is never used to describe them.

There is an alternative non-supernatural interpretation, first offered by Meredith G. Kline, in which the “sons of God” are kings. Kline argued that this passage actually describes human corruption in the form of institutionalized polygamy: “The sinfulness of the marriages described in [this passage] was not that they were . . . a mixture of two worlds . . . . The sin was that of . . . polygamy, particularly as it came to expression in the harem, characteristic institution of the ancient oriental despot’s court.”

But while this explanation accounts for why no marriages between the “daughters of God” and “sons of men” are described, it is still vulnerable to the same objections based on the shifts required in readers’ understanding of the term ‘adam (here it would have to mean “commoners” sometimes and “humans” the rest of the time) and the meaning of the phrase “sons of God,” which does not signify kings anywhere else in biblical Hebrew.

For all of these reasons, we should accept that the author’s intention is to refer to marriages between humans and supernatural beings, as difficult as this might be to square with our conceptions of those beings. As Derek Kidner notes at this point in his commentary on Genesis, “If the [supernatural] view defies the normalities of experience, the [non-supernatural] defies those of language (and our task is to find the author’s meaning).”

If this passage does describe marriages between humans and supernatural beings, however difficult it may be to understand how those could have taken place, this would actually fit well into the developing argument of the early narratives of Genesis, which explain the trouble-fraught human condition as a departure from an original paradisal state in consequence of measures God took to prevent human grasping after divinity.

The first pair are expelled from the Garden of Eden, for example, so that, having already become “like God” in “knowing good and evil,” they will not also “take from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever.” At the end of these early narratives, God divides the human community into contending factions through the confusion of languages, in order to frustrate its project of building a tower with its “top in the heavens.” In the same way, as Kidner observes, this passage “could well belong to the series [of human overreachings] as an attempt, this time on angelic initiative, to bring supernatural power, or even immortality, illicitly to earth.”

Even if the initiative was angelic, however, it appears that human consent was required, since the formal phrase for contracting a marriage is used in the passage: “to take a wife.” But we can imagine that this consent was granted only too willingly, since the prospect of semi-supernatural grandchildren would have suited perfectly the aspirations to “supernatural power” of the “men” who arranged these marriages for their daughters.

(The term Nephilim appears once more in the Bible, in the book of Numbers, at the place where the spies report back about the land of Canaan.  But there the term probably just means “giants,” not semi-supernatural beings:  “We saw the Nephilim there . . . We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we looked the same to them.”)

Bieter Bruegel the Elder, “The Tower of Babel.” An example of human “grasping after divinity,” as the arrangement of marriages between human daughters and male supernatural beings may also have been.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

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