I was recently asked, “who are the Nephilim in Genesis 6?”
This is a question that is popular in contemporary America by those who are attempting to blend culture, folklore, popular science, and mysticism. There are entire Discovery Channel productions that attempted to satisfy this synchrotistic desire of the population by searching far and wide to find liberal interpreters of the text who make room for contemporary culture within the pages of the ancient scripture.
For the sake of space, and time, I will address this question through the following progression: biblical context, biblical exegesis, and systematic interpretation.
Context is always relevant to the understanding of any part of scripture. In this case, the first of only two occurrences of the word Nephilim is in Genesis 6:4; therefore, it is important to contextualize what has taken place in this historical narrative.
Genesis 1&2 record the creation account as well as the establishment of marriage and family.
In Genesis 3&4 the scriptures record the sin of man. Genesis 3 contains the account of the disobedience of Adam and Eve and the resulting Fall. Genesis 4 records the murder of Abel by Cain; the first instance in the Bible of sin and murder as a result of the wickedness of man.
Genesis 5, records the lineage of Adam; the multiplication of man upon the earth. This is significant, because this chapter shows the birth and death of man and the increase of the population of mankind upon the earth. This chapter concludes with the birth of Noah’s sons in verse 33.
This brings us to Chapter 6:
(1)Now it came to pass, when men began to multiply on the face of the earth, and daughters were born to them,
(2) that the sons of God saw the daughters of men, that they were beautiful; and they took wives for themselves of all whom they chose.
(3) And the LORD said, ‘My Spirit shall not strive with man forever, for he is indeed flesh; yet his days shall be one hundred and twenty years.’
(4) There were giants [Nephilim] 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.
(5) Then the LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.
(6) And the LORD was sorry that He had made man on the earth, and He was grieved in HIs heart.
(7) So the LORD said, ‘I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth, both man and beast, creeping thing and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.
(8) But Noah found grace in the eyes of the LORD
Contextually, at this point, chapter 6 of Genesis transitions from the accomplishments of man, meaning the multiplication of mankind upon the earth, to the reality of these accomplishments in view of the righteous God.
Man had created and populated the earth, living out their compulsions and instincts to reproduce and create life.
Now, in Genesis 6, the reality of man’s creation apart from the grace of God comes into clear view: “Then the LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually”
Exegesis is a process of understanding what the text communicates from only the text and context itself. To reduce complexity and size, I have limited the exegesis to only those relevant phrases of this conversation and intermixed my commentary into the exegesis.
Now it came to pass – This clearly signifies the start of a new pericope.
when men began to multiply on the face of the earth – This phrase is used to integrate the rest of this pericope into the previous passage as a sort of time reference. This phrase is not as specific as placing an event during the reign of a king (Isaiah 6:1), but contextually it allows the interpreter to align the pericope with the multiplication of man upon the earth captured in the previous chapter.
and daughters were born to them – This phrase, although not technical, does introduce the specific subject of women into the multiplication of mankind upon the earth.
sons of God – This is probably one of the phrases that is most commonly used to bring an interpretation of angelic involvement into the multiplication of man upon the earth.
There are several problems with this interpretation: (1) Angels do no procreate as they are spiritual beings, not fleshly (Hebrews 1:7, 14), (2) Angels are not included in the biblical context of the pericope (this means that the thought of the writer has taken a dramatic jump over the course of a single phrase only to return back to the previous context in the next phrase), and (3) The concept of demigods or an assembly of “lesser gods” is strictly part of pagan theology, not part of the previous 5 chapters of monotheism.
There are two reasonable interpretations for this phrase: (1) Human judges or rulers upon the earth (Psalm 82:1, 6-7) and (2) Descendants of Seth (as Seth is the only son of Adam that was created “in his own likeness, after his image” (Genesis 5:3)
and they took wives for themselves of all whom they chose – Some scholars insist that this phrase implies polygamous relationships and the moral decline and corruption of the family which is what God ‘grieves’ in verse 6. The decision of the implication of polygamy is not as significant as the acceptance that the verse illustrates the moral decline of mankind as they are driven by fleshly desire away from the will of God.
My Spirit shall not strive with man forever – The Spirit that strives with man is the Spirit of life, the breath of life that is required. So even though man has eternity written on his heart (Ecclesiastes 3:11), the LORD has now limited the life of the flesh.
for he is indeed flesh – The reference to man as flesh is not stating the obvious of our exterior skin, but is more focused on the fleshliness of our existence; the inability for man to live and walk in the Spirit.
There were giants [Nephilim] on the earth in those days, and also afterward – Nephilim occurs only twice in the bible (Genesis 6 and Numbers 13). The occurrence in Numbers refers only to their stature (height) and not supernatural ability or or deity. In fact, Numbers 13 completely avoids any such information which would have been relevant to the report and served the purpose of discouraging the listeners.
Most lexicons conclude that the etymology of this word is uncertain, but a close look at the Hebrew root identifies the word, Nephal (to fall). So the Nephilim (plural form of nephal) would be the falling ones. This interpretation allows for consistency between both the Genesis 6 and Numbers 13 usage, as both were separated from God through disobedience and rebellion.
when the sons of God came in to the daughters of men – This is an expression that refers to procreation. The scripture says the Sons of God had physical, sexual relations, with the daughters of men resulting in offspring.
Those were the mighty men who were of old, men of renown – This phrase does not identify deity or supernatural ability, but does identify the children of the union of the Nephilim and the daughters of men with special significance and implies some level of infamy.
the wickedness of man was great on the earth – The subject remains consistent with the identified context: the great wickedness of man.
that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually – The wickedness was persistent, complete, and characteristic of mankind.
He [The LORD] was grieved in his heart – The totality of the wickedness of man hurt The LORD.
I will destroy man whom I have created – The LORD is so repulsed by wickedness that in His perfect holiness wickedness must be destroyed, even when it is a wickedness from His own image.
both man and beast – Man’s sin and wickedness was not confined to only man. The sin of man had also corrupted animal. The sin of man is destructive and pervasive towards everything with which it interacts.
But Noah found grace in the eyes of the LORD – God, even when justified to destroy, is always merciful. He looks for a place to deliver His mercy, and gives it freely.
My interpretation of this passage is based upon my systematic theology which is built upon a God-centered worldview and a Christ-only, God-working, Spirit-powered soteriology.
Nephilim were the offspring of powerful, influential men who procreated with the beautiful women of the day. Their offspring were infamous for their great pride and wickedness. There is some evidence to support that the Nephilim were also great in stature, but their physical appearance has little to do with the thrust of the passage: Man, left to create and multiply will naturally elevate self and pursue wickedness and rebellion.
God is always watching, always aware, and always searching for a place to deliver His mercy and grace to mankind, His special creation.