The Nephilim and Sons of God in Genesis 6 (Part 1)

Dear Reader,

A friend asked me recently about the Nephilim in Genesis 6:1-4. Are you familiar with the passage? It is one which often proves a stumbling block because it is so obscure and it is hard to know what to make of it. There is really no consensus among either scholars or believers as to what is going on in this short section. So I spent some time studying it and while I will not pretend to have all the answers, I will tell you what my take on it is. (Buckle your seatbelts; this may take a while and probably quite a few posts.)

A brief introduction in case you are new here: I studied Biblical Hebrew in college and grad school, getting a BA and an MA from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and doing most of a PhD program at Harvard in it. I left “ABD” (all but dissertation), as they say, to raise my kids. I have tried to keep up with my Hebrew since then, but my dabbling has been more recreational than scholarly for a while now.

To return to our topic, it is always best to start with the text. Here is how the ESV translates the first verses of Genesis 6 and I think they do a pretty good job:

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.” (Gen. 6:1-4; ESV)

There are a number of things going on with this passage that we could discuss. My friend’s question was about the Nephilim, who they are and if they could be aliens. This is, by the way, a theory propagated by the late Zecharia Sitchin.  So we will start with a bit about the Nephilim themselves.

It seems to be rather generally assumed that the Nephilim are the offspring of the “sons of God” and the “daughters of men” mentioned in the passage. I am not convinced of this myself. As it reads, it seems to me that the plain sense of the passage is that the Nephilim were on the earth before these two groups mated — whoever they are; we will return to that question. This is how it sounds in Hebrew and this is how it sounds in the ESV: “The Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of man” (Gen. 6:4; ESV). Doesn’t that make it sound like the Nephilim were already there? It’s as if I would say: “O, do you remember when we went to so-and-so’s wedding? That was when the Who-sis-es still lived here.” Or perhaps it is more like “Let me tell you about when this story happened. It began way back when once upon a time when giants still roamed the earth.” (The Nephilim may or may not have ben giants; I’ll come back to that point). On the other hand, it does feel a little odd to find two obscure groups dropped in in this passage without much explanation so it would be nice to think that the two are related and that the Nephilim are the offspring.

Either way the key question seems to be who are the sons of God? And more particularly, are they fully human or are they something else? I’d like to start with this question and then return to the identity of the Nephilim if I may.

There are two main theories about who the sons of God in this passage were: either they were divine beings, angels of some sort, or they were human. I’ll start with the latter: that the sons of God refers to the male members of one group of humans and the daughters of men to the female members of another. The most popular variant of this is that the sons of God are Sethites and the daughters of men are Cainites. The logic here is that the Sethites were the godly people and as New Testament  believers are sometimes called things like “sons of the Most High” or “of the Living God” so they too could be termed this way. The Cainites, a sinful clan, are “the daughters of men.” I don’t fund this view well-supported by the biblical text itself. What I will say for it is that it is a lot easier to swallow. We don’t have to deal with the nasty idea that non-human beings mated with human ones and how and why God would possibly let this happen. We don’t have to ask if it is even biologically and genetically possible. Plus there is all the biblical stuff against intermarriage between groups — Israelites were to stick to Israelites, believers to believers. This is solid ground biblically speaking. Yes, theologically and biologically it is much nicer and easer to think that we only have humans involved here.

Unfortunately, textually I find the argument that the sons of God were non-human much more compelling. First there is how the term “sons fo God” is used elsewhere in the Old Testament. Consider these passages:

“Give to the LORD, sons of God, give to the Lord glory and strength.” (Ps. 29:1; my translation)

“And it happened one day when the sons of God came to stand before the LORD, that Satan also came amongst them.” (Job 1:6; also my translation)

Note that in these two instances — the only other OT occurences of such a phrase I am told — that the sons fo God are clearly heavenly beings. I would add to this that other closely related cultures (Ugarit in particular) used the phrase in the same way.

This is a common argument and I think it is a pretty strong one. I would add another (which I havent read anywhere but I am sure I am not the first to say it): The word for “man” as in “the daughters of men” (literally “man” singular in Hebrew) that is used here is adam. Yes, that is the same as the name of the first human. Adam was his name because adam, man, is what he was. It is also used here with the definite article: “the man.” In English we need to translate it “men” or “mankind” but the word ha’adam in Hebrew with the definite article is the same as that used when God made Adam in His image in Genesis 1:26 or when He put him to sleep to take his rib and make woman in Genesis 2:22. So one argument I would make is that both the Sethites and the Cainites were descendants of Adam. This language calls to my mind at least the creation of Adam and his early days. It would be very weird to me to now call Cain’s line the descendants of Adam but to exclude Seth’s. If anything, Seth has a greater claim to the title since he inherited the image of God through his father Adam, a fact we have just been reminded of by Genesis 5 which is a genealogy and traces the line from Adam through Seth and down to Noah, reiterating along the way that it is Seth who inherited the divine image (Gen. 5:3). A second point is that adam is used as “man” as opposed to any other species — whether God Himself or the animals as in Genesis 2. I’m not sure it would fit in context here, but there is another word for man if what we mean is male as opposed to female. To me the whole point of this very brief passage seems to be that the sons of God are put in contrast to the daughters of man. It is divine versus human that is the comparison being made. If they were both human groups, this just doesn’t seem to fit the text as we have it.

There are a lot more questions to ask here like who are these “sons of God” if they are not human and who or what are their offspring and why on earth does God allow all this to happen? I am going to attempt to answer all those questions, but given the vastness of this topic, I am going to continue in another post. Stay tuned for part 2.

Nebby

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4 responses to this post.

  1. […] « The Nephilim and Sons of God in Genesis 6 (Part 1) […]

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  2. […] series on Genesis 6:1-4. I recommend reading the posts in order. Click the links to catch up: Part 1, Part […]

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  3. […] verses and this will not be the last! You can and should read them in order. Here are the links: Part 1, Part 2, Part […]

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  4. […] my series on Genesis 6:1-4. I recommend reading them in order; the earlier parts can be found here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part […]

    Reply

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