Who Were the Nephilim?

Navigating Genesis
By Hugh Ross, Ph.D. (Astonomy)

Chapter 14: Sons of God and the Nephilim

Genesis 6

Genesis 6 opens with contextual details that set the scene for the expansive flood narrative that follows. Yet these details seem so strange, so mysterious, as to present an interpretive and apologetics challenge nearly as great as the flood story itself. In this case, unlike that of the Genesis 5 life spans, the solution to the mystery comes largely from Scripture’s pages, though science does come to bear.

The time frame is characterized by an increase in population. Apparently, at least some of the exponential population growth one would expect from Adam’s long-lived descendants (see table 12) [not provided here] had begun to occur, despite metastasizing violence. Key characters in this story initially include the “sons of God” and the “daughters of men.” Verses 1 and 2 tell us these sons were so captivated by the daughters’ beauty they “married any of them they chose.” Thus far, the story seems straightforward, though we may wonder who these “sons” are.

Then the story line is interrupted with a divine declaration of judgment: human life will be shortened from hundreds of years down to a maximum of about 120, because God will not “contend with man forever.” Contention implies a struggle. It appears humanity has resisted God’s authority and guidance at every turn. Here is our first clue that relations between the sons of God and daughters of men have provoked God to anger and to action. Then, in Genesis 6:4, comes mention of some characters called the Nephilim:

The Nephilim were on the earth in those days— and also afterward— when the sons of God went to the daughters of men and had children by them. They were the heroes of old, men of renown.(1)

Because references to the Nephilim appear in other (later) biblical narratives, most notably in the accounts of King David and his exploits, modern readers can turn there for help in discerning who these beings may be. A reasonable interpretation will offer consistency— biblical, historical, and scientific. The existence of a reasonable interpretation is sufficient, in and of itself, to defend against the skeptic’s challenge that this story is pure fiction or legend. What follows are three different plausible explanations.

Identifying the Nephilim According to the prevailing view among Bible commentators, the sons of God, the daughters of men, and their offspring, the Nephilim, are strictly human in every respect.(2) They read the account as an expression of God’s provocation over wholesale violation of His prohibition against marriage between the sons of God, presumed to be male descendants of Seth, and the daughters of men, presumed to be female descendants of Cain. While no mention of this specific prohibition appears elsewhere in Genesis, it is deduced from passages in both Old and New Testaments, such as Ezra and 2 Corinthians.(3)

Additional support for this view is drawn from Genesis 4:1–24, which deals exclusively with Cain and his descendants, and from Genesis 4:25 – 5:32, which deals exclusively with Seth and his descendants. The Genesis 4:1–24 passage ascribes nothing good (as in godly) to the line of Cain, and Genesis 4:25 – 5:32 passage ascribes nothing bad (ungodly) to the line of Seth. Additionally, the text says that Enosh’s people (Enosh is Seth’s son) “call on the name of the Lord” (Genesis 4:26) and that the name of wicked Lamech’s daughter, Naamah, (Genesis 4:22) means “beautiful.”

The Nephilim, who appear both before and after the flood, are considered in this view to be wicked men of great renown for strength and skill in battle. The Hebrew root of the word “Nephilim” means “fall” (together “Nephal” and “yim” literally equals “fallen ones”). This name, then, suggests the Nephilim were morally flawed. In the post-flood era, the Bible speaks of them as residing among and fighting for the ungodly Canaanite and Philistine populations (1 Samuel, 2 Samuel, and 1 Chronicles).

A check of cross-references to the Nephilim in other parts of Scripture where they are identified by various names, including sons of Rapha, Rephaim, Anakites, and Anakim (KJV) raises some questions, however, about the source of their strength and other features.

The chilling descriptions of these beings focus on their enormous, arguably superhuman, size and strength. The Goliath whom David fought and killed (identified in 1 Samuel 21 and 1 Chronicles 20 as a descendant of Rapha) stood six-and-a-half “cubits” tall (at least nine feet, nine inches) and demonstrated remarkable agility while carrying at least 250 pounds of armor and weapons. (4) Og, the king of Bashan, another of these giants, is said to have slept in an iron bed measuring nine by four cubits (at least 13.5 feet by 6 feet). (5) The Hebrews used three different “cubit” units: the common, royal, and long, measuring (respectively) about 18, 20, and 22 inches. (6) By these measures, Goliath could have been nearly 12 feet tall and Og’s bed, as much as sixteen-and-a-half feet long.

Ancient extrabiblical literature makes plentiful reference to giants. The Greeks, Romans, Phoenicians, Mesopotamians, and Egyptians, for example, all told stories of great and terrible heroes, men of supernatural size and strength. Greek literature is especially rich in this respect, and the Philistines who settled in Canaan’s coastal plain came from Greece or Crete. In all these nonbiblical accounts, the “supermen” sprang from the sexual union between immortal “gods” and mortal humans. These giants certainly resemble the biblical Nephilim in their penchant for fighting (7) and in their tendency to manifest birth defects, such as extra fingers and toes. (8) The extrabiblical stories clearly differ from the biblical ones, however, in attributing honor and immortality to at least a few of the giants. The biblical Nephilim are mortal and thoroughly evil, without exception.

Nephilim as Superhumans

From a scientific perspective, the stature of Nephilim, Raphaim, and Anakim exceeds human physical capabilities as well as the limits of biological engineering. The bone mass necessary to support muscles and resist gravity’s effects rises geometrically with a person’s height (just as the weight of a building’s supporting beams goes up geometrically with the length of the spans they support). This ratio implies an increasingly severe loss of mobility and stamina once human height exceeds about eight feet.

The story of the tallest documented modern human, a victim of a growth-hormone malfunction who reached a height of 8 feet, 11 inches demonstrates the point. (9) This man moved so slowly and with such difficulty that his day-to-day activity was severely limited, and he certainly could not participate in sports.

The physics of basketball provides further corroboration. The ease with which a player can score a basket rises with the square of his height (because the range of shooting angles that will score increases with the square of the height from which the ball leaves the player’s hands). Thus, even a one-inch height advantage is huge. This advantage explains why seven-foot tall players tend to be higher percentage scorers than six-foot tall players. However, basketball players who are seven-and-a-half feet tall or taller tend to move, jump, and dodge with less speed and agility than those only a few inches shorter. The shooting advantage gained from that extra height is counterbalanced by the reduced mobility and stamina associated with it.

Given human physiological limits, the description of the Nephilim— if mere men— must be exaggerated. Strictly natural bodies cannot manifest the stated combination of size, power, agility, load-carrying capacity, and endurance. The only other way to maintain this interpretation would be to question the weights and measures of Moses’ and David’s time. This approach presents difficulties, however, in view of archaeological evidence confirming their consistency, and it raises the additional problem of why Saul, a soldier who was “an impressive young man without equal” and “a head taller” than any other Israelite, (10) was so terrified of Goliath. Likewise, it raises questions as to why ten of the Israelite spies sent into the Promised Land by Moses exclaimed, “We saw the Nephilim there… We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we looked the same to them. (11) Such words could be taken as hyperbole, but the measurements cannot.

Sons of God in the Old Testament

The Hebrew phrase translated “daughters of men” refers consistently to humans, but the phrase for “sons of God” may be used to refer either to humans or to angels (12) and, thus, points to another possible interpretation of the text.

Outside the Genesis 6 passage, the only Old Testament references to “sons of God” appear in Job. In 1:6 and 2:1 the sons of God are said to have presented themselves before the Lord, with Satan alongside them. The location, “before the Lord,” indicates a realm beyond Earth. When God asks Satan where he has been, he replies, “From roaming through the earth and going back and forth in it.” Job 38:7 says the sons of God were witnesses to the laying of Earth’s foundations. No human was present when that event took place. Many modern translations of Scripture simply render the “sons of God” phrase in each of these Job passages as “angels.”

One Old Testament verse, Hosea 1:10, mentions the “sons of the living God.” This phrase refers to humans, Jews in particular, but in a future context. It denotes those Israelites who will partake in salvation through the redemptive sacrifice of the coming Messiah.

Old Testament references to “children of the Lord your God” (13) and “his children,” (14) found in Deuteronomy, and to “my sons” and “my daughters,” in Isaiah, (15) do refer to humans. The Hebrew word for “children” is the same as the word for “sons.” However, neither of the two Hebrew phrases used in the Deuteronomy passages is identical to the “sons of God” phrase used in Job and Genesis. The two Deuteronomy expressions appear to fit well as variants of the 357 references in the Torah (Genesis– Deuteronomy) to “children of Israel.” Thus, the Old Testament provides no conclusive evidence that the phrase “sons of God” must always and only refer to humans (see appendix C) [Not provided here.].

It does seem strange that “sons of God” would be used in reference to fallen angels. Job 38:7 describes the sons of God as shouting for joy over God’s creative work— hardly the kind of behavior associated with fallen angels. However, the Bible never specifies exactly how long before Eden the angelic rebellion occurred. So the expression could include all angelic beings generically. The psalmist uses a nearly identical Hebrew phrase, often translated “heavenly beings” (see Psalm 29:1), with reference to angels.

Outside of Genesis 6, Moses refers to angels fifteen times in the Torah. He identifies them in these other instances using the Hebrew word mal’ak, translated “angels.” In none of these other passages does he use the phrase translated “sons of God.” This raises the question: If these verses in Genesis 6 do refer to angelic beings, why would he not use mal’ak? By the same token, if these two verses refer to Seth’s descendants, why would Moses not say explicitly “the sons of Seth?”

Insight from the New Testament

The New Testament usage presents a contrast that reflects the change Christ brought through His death and resurrection. All eight uses of the Greek phrase “sons of God” in the New Testament refer to humans. The equivalent expression, “children of God,” (used six times) also applies exclusively to humans. Four more passages refer to “sons” without including, but certainly implying, “of God”: Luke 6:35, Galatians 4:4–7, Hebrews 2:10, and Hebrews 12:7. In all cases (see appendix C), however, the designation “sons of God” (or “children of God”) applies to people who trust in Jesus Christ as their Savior and are indwelt by the Holy Spirit. Luke 6:35 and John 1:12 point to future fulfillment of the promise that those who welcome and receive Christ will gain the right to become sons of God. Even the apostles were not called sons of God until after Christ’s resurrection. These texts indicate that only post-Resurrection, post-Pentecost believers may be called the “sons of God” (or “children of God”).

This title went into effect when the Holy Spirit “sealed” the new covenant God established with all those who put their trust in Him (see Acts 2, 8, and 10). Once Jesus’ atoning work was done, the Spirit came to live among and in all people who answer God’s call upon their lives, and, for the first time since Eden, humans regained the right to be called sons and daughters of God. Even great men of God such as Ezekiel and Daniel never bore that title. Only once in Scripture, previous to the Resurrection and to Pentecost, is a human being called a son of God. As we see in the Luke 3 genealogy, Adam began life with that title. Nevertheless, the argument that only Christians can be called sons of God comes by way of scriptural pattern, not by way of explicit doctrinal statement.

Angels and Sex

The primary objection to identifying the sons of God in Genesis 6 as (fallen) angelic beings comes from the typical perception of angels as asexual beings. Genesis here indicates that these sons of God engaged in sexual intercourse with women and impregnated them. Resistance to the angelic interpretation arises from three points: (1) nowhere in the Bible is sexual capacity expressly attributed to angels; (2) at no time has anyone documented a case of a demon’s impregnating a woman; and (3) Jesus said, “At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven.” (16)

Many scholars have pointed out that Jesus’ statement can be interpreted two ways: (1) it may mean that angels have no capacity for sexual relations; or (2) it may simply mean that in heaven humans will not engage in sexual relations, just as angels in heaven now do not engage in sexual relations. It seems reasonable that angels living in God’s presence and experiencing His perfect love at every moment have neither need nor desire for sex. (17) Angels who have broken their relationship with God through rebellion and who follow Satan instead of God have lost that unity, that oneness, and all the pleasures and joys of heaven that go with it. Their loss of place, purpose, and, more importantly, of relationship with God may possibly tempt these beings to seek the kind of intimate union they observe among humans. A subtle hint at this possibility comes from the observation that sexual acts of various kinds have been part of most pagan worship practices, including those of the Greeks and Romans, in the ceremonies and the temples devoted to false gods.

A similar focus on sexual acts seems consistent with a great body of documentation on occult practices. Evil spirits, and humans operating under their influence, manifest an obsession with sex to a far greater degree than the population at large. (18) The incidence of rape and sexual assault on women (as well as on men) seems particularly high among those involved in overtly occult encounters and occult worship practices. (18)

Most people think of angels as “bodiless, purely spiritual-beings and sexless.” (19) However, the idea that angels have the capacity to take on human form and to perform physical functions such as walking, talking, eating, and drinking finds ample support in various biblical accounts from Genesis to Revelation. (20) In their reported encounters with humans, angels were sometimes mistaken for men (though not for women). (21) The men of Sodom apparently viewed Lot’s angelic guests as desired objects of homosexual rape. (22)

Two Possible Explanations

One major question remains, however, even if reasons exist for believing that the sons of God who fathered strange, superhuman offspring by the daughters of men could have been fallen angels: Why is there no evidence in modern times for the impregnation of women involved in demonic encounters?

The argument for interpreting the “sons of God” in Genesis 6 as fallen angels rests heavily on this question, and the Bible offers no explicit answer. However, Jude 1:6–7a offers relevant insight:

And the angels who did not keep their positions of authority but abandoned their own home — these he has kept in darkness, bound with everlasting chains for judgment on the great Day. In a similar way, Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding towns gave themselves up to sexual immorality and perversion.

Jude here associates the angels’ offense with sexual debauchery of the worst kind and scope known to humans.

[ASND offers  this essay  as an additional, useful reference on fallen angles.]

Given the punishment Jude describes for these fallen angels’ behavior, we can better understand the reaction of various demons Jesus cast out of people during His earthly ministry. (23) In many instances the demon (or demons) shrieked with terror at the prospect of being sent to the place of darkness and chains of which Jude spoke — also referred to as the “Abyss,” or “Tartarus.” The demons begged Jesus not to send them there, pleading that they had done nothing to deserve such horrific punishment. In each case, the demons were rebuked and sent away. Jesus appears to have accepted their appeal, reserving their ultimate judgment until a later time.

If demons have the capacity to bear offspring by women, their inclination to do so might be restrained today by the threat of that terrible penalty — consignment to the Abyss — for doing so. Such an interpretation would contribute to our understanding of society’s degradation and the flood’s necessity. The flood would have rid the earth of anyone inclined to engage in sexual relations with demons and of their evil, destructive offspring.

Yet even the flood did not eradicate the Nephilim for good. The sin that produced them recurred after the flood. We see Nephilim mentioned again in Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, and 1 and 2 Samuel. After the flood, they seem to appear only in the region of Canaan. God destroyed these later “giants” by sending Abraham’s descendants into Canaan. He sent Joshua and, finally, David, with his thirty mighty warriors to finish the job. Since the time of David’s conquest, we see no evidence or hint of their return. One possible explanation, then, based on what we read in the New Testament, is that the threat of special punishment for those who cross the line was instituted or perhaps intensified at that time to prevent a recurrence.

One other proposed interpretation of Genesis 6 represents a blending of the two views outlined above. This approach attempts to solve the biological issues by hypothesizing a certain kind, or level, of demon possession. According to this view, the sons of God in Genesis 6 were humans invaded and possessed by fallen angels in such a way as to alter the genes transmitted via intercourse. In this way they produced offspring with the physiological characteristics associated with Nephilim. Further development and discussion of this alternate view seems warranted, but to date little appears in print.

Who’s Judged for Whose Sin?

The three interpretive options addressed here leave many questions unanswered, but they do fit the available information with some level of consistency. The existence of an element of uncertainty detracts no more from the reliability of the larger text than does an unanswered question of science undermine confidence in the entire body of established scientific knowledge.

One as yet unaddressed concern for interpreters of Genesis 6:1–4, however, springs from its implications about God’s judgment. On the one hand, the condemnation of all humanity and animals — except those on the ark — seems unjustly extreme as a response to (apparently unapproved) marriages and childbearing between Seth’s descendants and Cain’s. On the other hand, it seems unjust to make humanity pay for immoral acts perpetrated by demons.

I am persuaded by what follows in Genesis 6, verse 5 and onward, that the sins of the sons of God, the daughters of men, and the Nephilim, whoever they may be, represent just part of the picture of moral disintegration that pervaded Noah’s world. Earth’s entire human population apparently had grown thoroughly and irreparably wicked. As the text records, “all the people on earth had corrupted their ways,” and “every inclination” of every human heart “was only evil all the time.” (24) That mind-boggling scenario carries us to a deeper study of what occurred during the great flood and why.


Reference Notes:

1. Genesis 6: 4.
2. Gleason L. Archer, Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1982), 79– 80; J. Sidlow Baxter, “Who Were Those ‘Sons of God?’” Studies in Problem Texts (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1960), 147– 92; James Boice, “The Gathering Storm: Genesis 6: 1– 22,” Bible Studies, vol. 12, no. 10 (October 1980), 4– 12; Ellen van Wolde, Stories of the Beginning: Genesis 1– 11 and Other Creation Stories, trans. John Bowden (Ridgefield, CT: Morehouse, 1997), 112– 16; Trevor J. Major, “Genesis 6: 1– 4 and the ‘Sons of God,’” Reasons & Revelation 13, no. 7 (July 1993), 54.
3. Ezra 9: 1– 10: 44; 2 Corinthians 6: 14– 18.
4. 1 Samuel 17: 4– 7; 21: 9; 1 Chronicles 20:
5. 5. Deuteronomy 3: 11.
6. The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, vol. 2, eds. James Orr   et al. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1956), 765; Ezekiel 40: 5.
7. 1 Samuel 17: 4– 16, 25, 33; 2 Samuel 21: 16, 18– 22.
8. 2 Samuel 21: 20.
9. Norris McWhirter and Ross McWhirter, Guinness Book of World Records, 1975 ed. (New York: Sterling, 1975), 13.
10. 1 Samuel 9: 2.
11. Numbers 13: 32– 33.
12. The New Bible Dictionary, ed. J. D. Douglas (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1962), 1206.
13. Deuteronomy 14: 1.
14. Deuteronomy 32: 5.
15. Isaiah 43: 6.
16. Matthew 22: 30.
17. Revelation 21: 2– 7; 22: 2– 5.
18. Craig S. Hawkins, Witch Craft: Exploring the World of Wicca (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1996), 60, 79– 81; Hugh Ross, Kenneth Samples, and Mark Clark, Lights in the Sky and Little Green Men (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2002), 68, 131, 137.
19. Baxter, “Who Were Those ‘Sons of God?’” 152.
20. Genesis 18: 1– 8,16; 19: 1– 22; Joshua 5: 13– 15; 1 Kings 19: 5– 8; Daniel 9: 21– 23; 10: 4 –21; Luke 1: 11– 20; Luke 24: 4– 8; Acts 1: 10– 11; 10: 2– 8; 12: 4– 11; 27: 23; Hebrews 13: 2; Revelation 21: 9– 22: 11.
21. Genesis 18: 2– 8; 19: 3– 8; Joshua 5: 13– 15; Daniel 3: 25; 9: 21– 23; Luke 24: 4– 8; Acts 1: 10– 11; Hebrews 13: 2.
22. Genesis 19: 4– 11.
23. Matthew 8: 28– 33; Mark 1: 23– 26.
24. Genesis 6: 12, 5.



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