Who are the Nephilim? (Part 3)

Dear Reader,

This is part 3 of my continuing series on Genesis 6:1-4. I recommend reading the posts in order. Click the links to catch up: Part 1, Part 2.

Although the question I was originally asked was about the Nephilim, I have spent most of my time on the sons of God in Genesis 6:1-4. Now I would like to return to the question of who the Nephilim are. As I said in my first post, I am not convinced that the Nephilim are the offspring of the sons of God and the daughters of men. Here again is our passage:

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)

It sounds to me, both in Hebrew and here in English as the ESV translates, as if the Nephilim were around before these unions came to be, meaning they could not be the offspring. If this is the case, however, we are left with very little information on the Nephilim. There is one other occurrence of the word in the Old Testament which I will return to shortly. For various reasons which I will explain, I don’t think it helps us much in identifying them.

So really we are left with just the word itself and we must resort to looking at its etymology and its usage in other languages. In Hebrew there is a root npl which means to fall. Nephilim, then, could be translated as “the fallen ones.” It is tempting to connect this term with the fallen angels. While I do not subscribe to this interpretation (see part 2), many people identify the sons of God with the rebellious angels who were cast out with Satan. My gut feeling is that this is a more modern use of the word. And it is certainly not the only sense in which can be “fallen.” The Anchor Bible Dictionary suggests that they may be fallen in the sense of one who has fallen in battle. In other words, their name would merely indicate that they are extinct — long gone — no more. They are “the ones that were.”

We need not connect Nephilim with the verb “to fall” at all, however. In Aramaic, a language closely related to Hebrew (think Spanish and Portuguese), there is a very similar word which means “giants.” This is also how most of the ancient translations like the Greek and Syriac have understood the word. This is also how that other passage I mentioned, in the book of Numbers, takes it. In Numbers 13, the spies Moses had sent out have just returned to give their reports on the promised land. Ten of the twelve, while acknowledging the fruitfulness of tha land, are afraid to enter it. Here is what they say:

Then the men who had gone up with him said, ‘We are not able to go up against the people, for they are stronger than we are.’ So they brought to the people of Israel a bad report of the land that they had spied out, saying, ‘The land, through which we have gone to spy it out, is a land that devours its inhabitants, and all the people that we saw in it are of great height. And there we saw the Nephilim (the sons of Anak, who come from the Nephilim), and we seemed to ourselves like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them.'” (Num. 13:31-33; ESV)

I would translate slightly differently and say: “And there we saw the Nephilim — the sons of Anak [are] from the Nephilim — ” etc. But the point here is that the spies call the inhabitants of Canaan Nephilim and that the key characteristic  in their eyes is the people’s great size. In other words, these people are giants. As I said above, however, I do not think this is incontrovertible evidence that that is what the Nephilim were. All we can say is that the spies, and presumably their audience as well, think the Nephilim were giants. Many have looked at this passage and said that the Nephilim survived the flood. I do not think this need be the case. I think the spies are calling the Canaanites giants, but I think they have an agenda. They are not trustworthy witnesses. In fact, I think it much more likely that they and their audience all know that the Nephilim are long gone, but that they are calling them by the old word for giants to make a point.

In terms of identifying the Nephilim, then, here is what we can say: the word may be related to an  Aramaic word meaning giant and many ancient interpreters, including even the people of Moses’ day, understood them to be giants. The word could also be related to the root “to fall” but it would be presumptuous, and likely anachronistic, of us to conclude from this that they were fallen angels.

My personal feeling is that Nephilim may be “fallen ones” in the sense of those who have died. I think they likely also were impressive physically in some way and quite likely were giants (at least to some degree). However, I think they are long gone by Moses’ day. I do not think they are the offspring of the sons of God. I think the mention of the renowned and mighty offspring (as we are told they are) has called to the narrator’s mind these other famous, mighty beings and so he mentions them here in Genesis as having been around both before and after the sons of God came down and mated. This all still leaves quiet a bit unanswered about who the Nephilim were: Were they human? Did they survive the flood? I wish I knew, but the truth is the biblical text tells us very little about them and I don’t think there is any way to get behind it and know more.

Next time I would like to go back and address an issue that I realize I have neglected: how the sons of God were able to mate with human women. After that I will give my take on the why of Genesis 6:1-4 and indeed of all Genesis 1-11.






2 responses to this post.

  1. […] « Who are the Nephilim? (Part 3) […]


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


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