(Gen. 6:4) Who or what were the Nephilim?

CLAIM: The description of the nephilim has plagued students of the Bible for centuries. Who or what were the nephilim?

RESPONSE: This controversial passage has garnered three separate views:

VIEW #1: The “sons of God” are Seth’s godly line.

Under this view, the “sons of God” are Seth’s godly line (see Gen. 5), and the “daughters of men” are Cain’s wicked line (see Gen. 4). Thus, the sin of Genesis 6 was believers intermarrying with non-believers (Ezra 9:1-10:44; 2 Cor. 6:14-18).

This view has been the “traditional Christian interpretation since the third century.”[1] Martin Luther,[2] John Calvin,[3] Keil and Delitzsch,[4] John Sailhamer,[5] the Scofield Bible, and most interpreters hold to this view.

How can humans be called “sons of God”? These interpreters argue that sometimes God’s people are called “sons of the LORD your God” (Deut. 14:1) or “sons of the living God” (Hos. 1:10).

Critics of this view (like myself) point out that the exact Hebrew phrase (“sons of God” béne-ha’elohim) occurs only here and in Job. These other phrases are not the same language.

Why does this refer to the descendants of Seth and Cain? These interpreters argue that the term “daughters” (vv.1-4) serves as a literary link to Seth’s descendants (“sons and daughters,” 5:4, 7, etc.).

However, this literary link actually backfires. After all, under this view, the “daughters of men” do not refer to Seth’s line, but to Cain’s line! Remember, Seth’s line are the “sons of God” and Cain’s line are the “daughters of men.”

Why does God flood the Earth for human intermarriage? These interpreters argue that this section of Scripture (Gen. 6:1-4) is not a reason for the Flood, but rather an intrusion in the narrative—merely explaining how human proliferated before God judged them (Mt. 24:38).

However, the text says that God “saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth” (Gen. 6:5). What did he see if not the events in verses 1-4? This seems parallel to God “seeing” the Tower of Babel, and then pronouncing judgment on it (Gen. 11:1-5).

Further problems with this view

(1) Why does “men” in verse 1 mean all of humanity, but “men” in verse 2 refers only to Cain’s descendants?

(2) Why do the offspring produce Nephilim (“giants”) and “mighty men… men of renown” (v.4)?

(3) Who are the “angels who sinned” in the days of Noah? (1 Pet. 3:19-20; 2 Pet. 2:4-11; Jude 6-7) If the “sons of God” are not angels, then how could Peter and Jude expect their audiences to know what they were writing about?

VIEW #2: The “sons of God” are ancient Near Eastern kings.

Under this view, the “sons of God” were ANE kings who claimed to be “divine.” These “divine” kings took whichever women they wanted to be their wives (“whomever they chose,” Gen. 6:2). Thus under this view, the great sin here is the “power rape” of the kings, taking polygamous wives from wherever they wanted.

Meredith Kline[6] and Walter Kaiser[7] hold to this view, and Bruce Waltke holds to a modified version of this view, stating that these “sons of God” were demon-possessed kings.[8] These interpreters offer several lines of evidence to support this view:

(1) It would make sense that the offspring of ANE kings could be called “mighty men… men of renown” (Gen. 6:4).

(2) Pharaohs took wives from whomever they wanted (Gen. 12:10-20), as did kings like David (2 Sam. 11).

(3) Some ancient commentaries read “sons of nobles” instead of “sons of God.”

(4) The Hebrew word Elohim is sometimes used for human authorities—not just “gods” (Ex. 21:6; 22:8; Ps. 82:1, 6).

(5) The context for this passage is the boasting of Lamech—a similar despot (Gen. 4:19-24). While Lamech practiced bigamy, these “sons of God” practiced polygamy.

(6) Hebrew word nephilim is very difficult to translate. When combined with gibborom, it could refer to “princes, aristocrats, or great men.”[9]

Problems with this view

(1) How does this explain the NT usage of this passage? As we pointed out above, who are the “angels who sinned” in the days of Noah? (1 Pet. 3:19-20; 2 Pet. 2:4-11; Jude 6-7) If the “sons of God” are not angels, then how could Peter and Jude expect their audiences to know what they were writing about?

Not all demons are in hell. Instead, they are let loose on the Earth. Why then are some demons locked up, and why were these demons mentioned in the context of Noah? Peter and Jude’s audience must have known that these actions referred to Genesis 6—unless there were other demons, who coincidently happened to do horrific, damning actions at the time of Noah, as well.

(2) The term nephilim doesn’t specifically refer to kings and princes; it only takes on this meaning, when combined with gibborom (“mighty men,” Gen. 6:4).

(3) Why does “men” in verse 1 refer to all of humanity, but the “men” in verse 2 only refers to some men? Why then does “man” refer to all of humanity again in verse 3?

VIEW #3: The “sons of God” are angels having sex with human women.

We hold to this final interpretation. Under this view, the “sons of God” are fallen angels, who intermarry and breed with human women. Many ancient Jewish interpreters,[10] Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Clement of Alexandria all held this view.[11] The first-century historian Josephus writes,

Many angels of God accompanied with women, and begat sons that proved unjust, and despisers of all that was good, on account of the confidence they had in their own strength; for the tradition is, That these men did what resembled the acts of those whom the Grecians call giants.[12]

The best modern defense of this view that we have read is from Willem VanGemeren.[13] Below, we give a verse by verse interpretation:

(Gen. 6:1-2) Now it came about, when men began to multiply on the face of the land, and daughters were born to them, 2 that the sons of God saw that the daughters of men were beautiful; and they took wives for themselves, whomever they chose.

The “sons of God” are distinct from the “daughters of men.”

The use of “men” consistently refers to all of humanity in verses 1-4.

The exact Hebrew phrase “sons of God” (béne-ha’elohim) occurs only here and in Job. In Job, it clearly refers to angels (Job 1:6; 2:1; 38:7). Other references to “sons of God” which are similar can also be found that refer to angels (Ps. 29:1; 89:7).

(Gen. 6:3) Then the LORD said, “My Spirit shall not strive with man forever, because he also is flesh; nevertheless his days shall be one hundred and twenty years.”

Under this interpretation, God judges humanity for the grave sin of interbreeding with demons. If regular occult practice incurs capital punishment (Deut. 18:10-12, then how much more would this practice?

Rather than bearing children in the “image of God” and then the subsequent “image” of humans (Gen. 5:3), these humans in Genesis 6 were interbreeding with angels (demons) and producing bizarre offspring (Nephilim, “mighty men”).

(Gen. 6:4) The Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of men, and they bore children to them. Those were the mighty men who were of old, men of renown.

Elsewhere, the term Nephilim refers to giants. The spies told Moses and Aaron, “There also we saw the Nephilim (the sons of Anak are part of the Nephilim); and we became like grasshoppers in our own sight, and so we were in their sight” (Num. 13:33).

Moses refers to the Emim who were as “tall as the Anakim” (Deut. 2:10).

The Rephaim (another term rendered as “giants”) had two giants: Og—the king of Bashan—slept in a 13 foot bed (Deut. 3:11). Goliath (who was also a Rephaite; 1 Chron. 20:4, 6, 8; 2 Sam. 21:16, 18, 20) was a staggering 9 feet tall (1 Sam. 17:4), and had a deformed 24 fingers and toes (1 Chron. 20:6). King Saul was a head taller than every Israelite, and even he was terrified of Goliath’s massive stature! (1 Sam. 9:2)

This must be why the Septuagint,[14] Theodotian, the Latin Vulgate, and many ancient targums translate the Hebrew word Nephilim as “giants.”

When God asked Satan where he had been, he replied, “From roaming about on the earth and walking around on it” (Job 2:2). Because Satan dwells on Earth (2 Cor. 4:4; 1 Jn. 5:19), it is likely that demons dwell on Earth as well. Proponents of this view also point out that 1 Peter 3:18-20, 2 Peter 2:4, and Jude 6-7 refer to this event. This view is the most likely, because it handles these NT texts better than any other.

This view could explain why Pagan religion contains so many references to supernatural god-men. Hugh Ross writes,

Giants also are described in extrabiblical literature. The Greeks, Romans, Phoenicians, Mesopotamians, and Egyptians, for example, all wrote stories of famous heroes, men of supernatural size and strength. Greek literature is especially rich in this respect and the Philistines who settled in the coastal plain of Canaan came from Greece or Crete. In all their accounts, the superheroes came from the sexual union between immortal ‘gods’ and mortal humans.[15]

Waltke agrees, “These heroes may provide the historical base behind the accounts of semidivine heroes, such as Gilgamesh, of mythology. Instead of the Bible representing myth as history, as is commonly alleged, perhaps the ancients transformed history into myth.”[16]

Criticisms of this view considered

CRITIQUE #1: God wouldn’t judge humans for something that demons did. In response, we should point out that God judged the first humans for siding with Satan (Gen. 3), and God holds humans responsible for consorting with demons (Deut. 18:10). Furthermore, both Peter (1 Pet. 3:19-20; 2 Pet. 2:4-11) and Jude (1:6-7) claim that God did judge these demons by sending them to the abyss.

CRITIQUE #2: How could angels (demons) breed with humans, when Jesus stated that angels are neither given nor taken in marriage? (Mt. 22:30)

A number of counter arguments can be made: First, Jesus is referring to angels—not demons—in this passage. Second, Jesus could be referring to the moral will of God regarding angels—not what they are capable of doing. Third, angels often take on other human functions (Josh. 5:13-15; Dan. 3:25; 9:1-23; 10:4ff; Lk. 1:11-20; 24:4-8; Acts 1:10-11; 10:2-8; 12:4-11; 27:23; Heb. 13:2; Rev. 21:9-22:11). Even in the same book, the men of Sodom wanted to have sex with the angels in Genesis 19. Therefore, it really isn’t too difficult to believe that a demon could take on sexual function. Though Derek Kidner remains agnostic on how to interpret this passage, he does note, “The craving of demons for a body, evident in the Gospels, offers at least some parallel to this hunger for sexual experience.”[17] This would explain why God dealt so severely with these angelic beings (Jude 6-7).

[1] Bruce Waltke, Genesis: a commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001), 116.

[2]  Luther’s Commentary on Genesis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1958), p. 129. Cited in VanGemeren, p.335.

[3] Calvin, Commentaries on the First Book of Moses Called Genesis (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1979), p. 238. Cited in VanGemeren, p.335.

[4] C. F. Keil and F. Delitzsch, Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament, (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, n.d.), 131-38. Cited in VanGemeren, p.333.

[5] John Calvin, Genesis, 10. John Sailhamer, Genesis (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1990), 76.

[6] Meredith Kline, “Divine Kingship and Sons of God in Genesis 6:1–4,” Westminster Theological Journal 24 (1962): 187-204.

[7] Walter Kaiser, Hard Sayings of the Old Testament (InterVarsity Press, 1988).

[8] Waltke writes, “The best solution is to combine the ‘angelic’ interpretation with the ‘divine king’ view.” Bruce Waltke, Genesis: a commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001), 117. See also W. H. Gispen, Genesis I: Kommentaar op het Oude Testament (Kampen: J. H. Kok), 221.

[9] Walter Kaiser, Hard Sayings of the Old Testament (InterVarsity Press, 1988).

[10] 1 Enoch 6:1–7; Testament of Reuben 5:6; Jubilees; Zadokite Fragment. Cited in Bruce Waltke, Genesis: a commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001), 116.

[11] J. N. D. Kelly, A Commentary on the Epistles of Peter and of Jude (New York: Harper & Row, 1969), p.256. Cited in VanGemeren, p.345.

[12] Josephus, Antiquities, 1.73.

[13] Willem VanGemeren, “The Sons of God in Genesis 6:1–4 (An Example of Evangelical Demythologization?)” Westminster Theological Journal, 43 (1981).

[14] The Septuagint translation renders Genesis 6:2 as “the angels of God” (Codex Alexandrinus).

[15] Ross, Hugh. The Genesis Question: Scientific Advances and the Accuracy of Genesis. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 1998. 125-126.

[16] Bruce Waltke, Genesis: a commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001), 118.

[17] Kidner, D. (1967). Genesis: An Introduction and Commentary (Vol. 1, p. 90). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.