Some passages are just plain tough to understand (and even tougher to teach). This is the second in a two-part Tough Texts series.
Who were the Nephilim in Genesis 6:1-4
This text is confusing in part because the Nephilim (which means “fallen ones”) are mentioned but not really described here. In Numbers 13, however, they’re described as some sort of large people, like giants. To add to the confusion, this language about the “sons of God” procreating with the “daughters of men” surrounds the mention of the Nephilim. So, is there a connection? Are these verses cobbled together but not related? We also obviously have to figure out who the “sons of God” and “daughters of men” are. Here are a few possible interpretations.
The first view is that the Nephilim are offspring of the “sons of God” and “daughters of men.” The idea is that the “sons of God” refers to angels or fallen angels (this term is used for angels in other places in Scripture, like the beginning of Job) and “daughters of men” refers to human women (self-explanatory). So the Nephilim, then, are superhuman offspring of angels and humans. This would explain their size and the reverence people have for them. Proponents of this view will also point to Jude 6-7 (God has kept certain fallen angels/demons locked away in Hell because they committed sexual immorality and went beyond their boundaries as non-humans). Some people will also couple this with 1 Peter 3:19, where it may indicate that Jesus proclaimed judgment on the angels who committed this crime between his death and resurrection. So, the “sons of God” are fallen angels who had sex with human women, creating the Nephilim, and were chained up for crossing the boundaries God had given them to roam the Earth (like they do now) before Jesus comes back to destroy them for good.
A second possible interpretation is that the “sons of God” describes godly men, perhaps from the line of Seth, one of Adam and Eve’s other children, who procreated with sinful/non-God-worshiping women (“daughters of men” meaning they didn’t belong to God). The defense of this is that this story follows right after Cain wanders out into the wilderness, and so the wicked offspring of Cain start intermingling with the people who still worship God. This would help explain verse 3 (“God was tired of battling with mortals”) then verse 5, which talks about the earth being filled with wicked people, causing God to want to flood the earth. So it’s possible that the Nephilim are the same people as the “sons of God,” which would make sense since they’re described as “heroes of old,” which means that they were in some sense good—at least at one time.
Finally, some argue that the Nephilim are simply an odd addition here, but don’t mean much to the story. So they’re either inconsequential to the story of the “sons of God” and “daughters of men,” or we don’t know enough about the Nephilim to know how they’re related to the story.
We should be careful anytime we decide that a passage of Scripture is “inconsequential,” so the third view should at least be set aside until we consider others. The first and second views both have merit, but perhaps the first view lines up best with the canon of Scripture. There is more biblical evidence to corroborate this view, since it makes some sense in light of Jude and 1 Peter in particular in the ways they describe the fallen angels. Whether the Nephilim are actually superhuman offspring is a little more debatable, but the view does make sense of the Flood, at least in part, because sin had become so rampant that angel/human procreation had begun. Though it seems like a sci-fi movie, it is perhaps one of those strange occurrences in Scripture that we’re not sure what to do with other than what we can gather from these few verses.
Brandon D. Smith is Assistant Professor of Theology & New Testament at Cedarville University, Editorial Director for the Center for Baptist Renewal, and host of the Church Grammar podcast. You can follow him on Twitter.