Excursus on the Nephilim

posted in: Textual Studies | 0

broken-angel-1535298In my series on the primeval history of Genesis 1-11, I have tried to focus on narrative themes and the development of a uniquely Genesis-based worldview. As such, I have intentionally skipped over traditional discussions in Genesis in favor of hovering over seemingly minor details relating to the larger narrative. When I prepared to write on Genesis 6, I realized that the first four verses posed a problem. Here we see a very intentional feature of the text, the story of the Nephilim, that is both an important canonical theme and an inscrutably opaque reference. I have decided to reckon with this text by writing this little excursus on the Nephilim. It may be skipped in reading the series without great harm, but I think it important enough that I write it.

The Mini-Narrative of the Giants

The text of Genesis 6:1-4 forms a minor narrative strand that runs beyond Torah and into the remainder of the Hebrew Scriptures.

When man began to multiply on the face of the land and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that the daughters of man were attractive. And they took as their wives any they chose.Then the LORD said, “My Spirit shall not abide in man forever, for he is flesh: his days shall be 120 years.” 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.

Two groups of people come into contact in the passage: “the sons of God” and “the daughters of man.” The sons find the daughters “attractive” (or “fair,” NRSV) and so couple with “any they chose.” YHWH looks on this scene and determines that man’s days should be shortened because his evil is great, a detail to be discussed later in chapter six. In the mean time, the sons of God and the daughters of men have children called the Nephilim. Nephilim “were the mighty men of old, the men of renown.”

Much later, Moses sends spies into foreign lands and there they find “the sons of Anak, who come from the Nephilim,” men of such stature that the spies considered themselves grasshoppers by comparison (Numbers 13:33). These Anakim are slain during the conquest, except for a group of them that dwelt in Gath (Joshua 11:21-22). The last of these figures are defeated in the days of David. Goliath of Gath was slain famously by David himself (1 Samuel 17), and David’s warriors finished off Ishbi-benob, Saph, “Goliath the Gittite”1, and the six-fingered man (2 Samuel 21:14-22).

Morally, the story is the beginning of the long standing warning to Israel against intermarriage.2 The main controversy for commentators revolves around who or what these sons of God might be. If they are angels, then we have a unique tale of intermarriage between heavenly beings and mankind. Interpreted in this way, the story is analogous to the tower of Babel story later on, as “both acts illicitly blur the boundary between God and mankind, and so attract divine wrath that affects the whole human race.3

Various Approaches

The source-critical view of this text is to consider it a nod by the Genesis editor to the polytheistic past of Israel. In this perspective, the “sons of God” were in fact divine or quasi-divine beings of the pre-exilic Canaanite pantheon. Perhaps the author/editor believed “that there were in fact other gods but that YHWH was supreme.”4 However, this view makes little sense to me, as it posits that the editors of Torah were actually theologically sloppy. They allow for various gods in one passage while firmly asserting the Shema in another, “a supremely monotheistic statement”5. For me, it is easier to believe that God’s revelation is complicated than to conclude that its editor simply couldn’t make up his mind on Torah’s most significant theological assertion. Likewise, I would rather wrestle with the intent of Psalm 82’s “divine council / in the midst of the gods” than dismiss it as a vestige of a polytheistic past.

Another view considers this an account of angelic beings. The phrase “sons of God” seems to have that meaning in Job, though this conclusion is debatable (Job 1:6; 2:1; 38:7). An important passage to consider as well is Deuteronomy 32:8:

[JPS] When the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance, when He separated the children of men, He set the borders of the peoples according to the number of the children of Israel.

[ESV] When the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance, when he divided mankind, he fixed the borders of the peoples according to the number of the sons of God.

[NRSV] When the Most High apportioned the nations, when he divided humankind, he fixed the boundaries of the peoples according to the number of the gods;

The BHS Hebrew text here reads bene israel, “the sons of Israel,” but it notes an important variant. The Qumran scroll for this text (4QDeutj) says bene elohim, “the children of the God/gods.”6 This discrepancy results in the three variations in the English translations above, but also relates to our question. Did the ancient Qumran scroll represent the earliest tradition? If so does that mean that a later scribe understood “sons of God” and “sons of Israel” to be synonymous? Or did a later scribe simply find the reference to mythical “sons of the gods” unpalatable and change it, a more source-critical approach to the passage?

For our purposes, this tangent demonstrates that the phrase is unclear at best. Even the scribes of Israel struggled with it, as have translators ever since that time. The problem with considering these beings as angels is thus more theological, even cosmological, than it is linguistic. If we take the revelation of Genesis 6 seriously and at the same time consider these to be angels, then we are forced to ponder what sort of beings angels would be. Far from the chanters about the throne of God depicted in other texts, these angels seem motivated by human-like lusts. They are able to copulate with human women and produce offspring. And what of the Nephilim? In a consistent narrative, they cannot be both the hybrid offspring of angelic-human relations before the flood and at the same time the giant race existing after the flood. The world that contained such beings perished, if ever they existed.

A Thematic Approach

I would suggest the better approach understands the story as continuing the themes developed in chapters four and five of Genesis. Chapter four describes the genealogy of Adam/Cain falling into a destructive spiral. Chapter five describes an alternative genealogy of Adam/Seth that maintains some kind of faithfulness. These two genealogies would have interacted and indeed intermarried. As they did, the faithful “sons of God” were drawn time and again to the heirs of Cain’s legacy. As such, the lineage of Cain would have flourished, while the lineage of Seth would have diminished. The men of Cain’s lineage became as Lamech of chapter four who acted with violence. They would have behaved as Nimrod in chapter ten, a conqueror and empire builder (more on that in another article later on in this series).

This view is supported by the detail in the text: “they took as their wives any they chose.” They are women-takers, brutes reminding us of the Benjamites kidnapping the virgins of Jabesh-gilead (Judges 21). Nephilim then becomes a term describing a type of man, not a race of man. They were plunderers and warlords, champions of oppression just as Goliath in another age. “These were the mighty men who were of old, the men of renown.”

Theologically, the passage is actually important in reinforcing the two divergent trajectories of the primeval history. Men choose a path. They may seek to become “men of renown,” and pursue through violence and manipulation the power they sought to attain when they ate a fruit in the garden long before. These are the pillagers and crusaders of history. Or, they may seek to live out God’s story in faithfulness, saved by grace as a man named Noah. These are the quiet and faithful remnant of humanity drawn to God’s will in every age.

In every age, many are the Nephalim and mighty, but it is the humble who find grace in the eyes of the Lord.


  1. This is either an incomprehensible second reference to Goliath of Gath, or more likely an obscure telling of the story of 1 Chronicles 20:5, where Lahmi, the brother of Goliath is slain by Elnathan. “According to Gesenius, Goliath means simply a stranger, and exile, and might, therefore, have described all the members of a family or tribe.” Joseph Exell, ed., Preacher’s Homiletical Commentary (Funk & Wagnalls Co, 1892) e-Sword.
  2. Gordon Wenham, Story as Torah (Grand Rapids MI: BakerAcademic, 2000), 27.
  3. Ibid., 36.
  4. Here the commentator is referring to a similar phrase in Deuteronomy 32:8. Richard Elliott Friedman, Commentary on the Torah (New York: HarperCollins, 2003), 667.
  5. Ibid., 586.
  6. Ibid.
Follow Benjamin Williams:

Pulpit Minister for Glenpool Church of Christ (Glenpool, OK); BS in Astrophysics from University of Oklahoma; MDiv in Ministry from Oklahoma Christian Graduate School of Theology

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