We find a strange allusion in Genesis chapter six.
We read, “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” (Genesis 6:4). Note the ESV avoids translation here. “Nephilim” is simply a transliteration of the Hebrew term.
The King James translates the passage in this way: “There were giants in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare children to them, the same became mighty men which were of old, men of renown.” (The Septuagint translates Nephilim as “giants” which may be influencing this translation.)
The New Living Translation compromises: “In those days, and for some time after, giant Nephilites lived on the earth, for whenever the sons of God had intercourse with women, they gave birth to children who became the heroes and famous warriors of ancient times.”
So who are the Nephilim? Are they giants? And perhaps more importantly, as we will see, who are the “sons of God” in this passage?
The Nephilim Controversy
GotQuestions.org makes this claim:
“The Nephilim (“fallen ones, giants”) were the offspring of sexual relationships between the sons of God and daughters of men in Genesis 6:1-4. There is much debate as to the identity of the “sons of God.” It is our contention that the “sons of God” were fallen angels (demons) who mated with human females and/or possessed human males and then mated with human females. These unions resulted in offspring, the Nephilim, that were “heroes of old, men of renown” (Genesis 6:4).”
Thus, according to GotQuestions.org, the “sons of God” are angels and the Nephilim are their superhumanish (my term) offspring. This understanding is not unfounded or unheard of, but does it work?
Let’s ask some other commentators.
In the John MacArthur Study Bible, MacArthur disagrees with the suggestion the Nephilim are the offspring of angels and humans. The notes read:
Nephilim. This word is from a root meaning “to fall,” indicating that they were strong men who “fell” on others in the sense of overpowering them (the only other use of this term is in Num. 13:33). They were already in the earth when the “mighty men” and “men of renown” were born. The fallen ones are not the offspring from the union in 6:1–2.
However, MacArthur does affirm the phrase “sons of God” in Genesis 6:4 refers to angels. He lays out the three typical explanations of this passage, but favors the one involving fallen angels:
“The sons of God, identified elsewhere almost exclusively as angels (Job 1:6; 2:1; 38:7), saw and took wives of the human race. This produced an unnatural union which violated the God-ordained order of human marriage and procreation (Gen. 2:24). Some have argued that the sons of God were the sons of Seth who cohabited with the daughters of Cain; others suggest they were perhaps human kings wanting to build harems. But the passage puts strong emphasis on the angelic vs. human contrast. The NT places this account in sequence with other Genesis events and identifies it as involving fallen angels who indwelt men (see notes on 2 Pet. 2:4, 5; Jude 6). Matthew 22:30 does not necessarily negate the possibility that angels are capable of procreation, but just that they do not marry. To procreate physically, they had to possess human, male bodies.” (The MacArthur Study Bible)
The ESV Study Bible takes a different tact. Essentially, it implies interpreting “sons of God” is not necessary for understanding this passage and may miss the point. It notes:
“Though it would be difficult to determine which of these three views may be correct, it is clear that the kind of relationship described here involved some form of grievous sexual perversion, wherein the “sons of God” saw and with impunity took any women (“daughters of man”) that they wanted. The sequence here in Gen. 6:2 (“saw … attractive [good] … took”) parallels the sequence of the fall in 3:6 (“saw … good … took”). In both cases, something good in God’s creation is used in disobedience and sinful rebellion against God, with tragic consequences. Only Noah stands apart from this sin. (See note on 1 Pet. 3:19.)”
In other words, the main thing is simply that some type of perverse union was happening.
As for the Nephilim, the ESV Study Bible suggests the Nephilim and “men of renown” are one and the same, writing:
Nephilim. The meaning of this term is uncertain. It occurs elsewhere in the OT only in Num. 13:33, where it denotes a group living in Canaan. If both passages refer to the same people, then the Israelite spies (Num. 13:33) are expressing their fears of the Canaanites by likening them to the ancient men of renown. Although in Hebrew Nepilim means “fallen ones,” the earliest Greek translators rendered it gigantes, “giants.” This idea may have been mistakenly deduced from Num. 13:33; one must be cautious about reading it back into the present passage. The Nephilim were mighty men or warriors and, as such, may well have contributed to the violence that filled the earth (see Gen. 6:13).
So what do we make of all this?
The Sons of God
Considering all the above, I believe the “sons of God” were indeed humans. I favor John H. Sailhamer’s explanation of this peculiar phraseology. He writes:
Why then are the men specifically called the “sons of God” and the women the “daughters of men”? Such a designation of the men and the women in this summary is in keeping with the earlier description of the origin of the man and the woman. Though the description of the creation of the man and the woman in chapter 1 is clear that both have been created in God’s image, chapters 2 and 3 specify that the man was created by the breath of God and that the woman was created from the “side” of man. Thus men are called the “sons” of God – denoting their origin form God – and the women are called the “daughters” of man – denoting their origin form man. (Sailhamer, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, p. 78)
The details from the text are so scant that it seems excessive to read into this brief allusion a story of demonic, half-breed angel children. This interpretation would also introduce all kinds of theological complications with regards to materiality/immateriality of angels and the fate of these offspring. As renowned Old Testament scholars Keil and Delitzsch point out, “the expression ‘sons of God’ cannot be elucidated by philological means, but must be interpreted by theology alone. (Keil and Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament, p. 81) In other words, there’s more to consider here than just vocabulary and grammar. We must consider if our interpretation is in keeping with the theology of the whole Bible. (See also their extensive treatment of 2 Peter 2:4 and Jude 6, pp. 84-85 of Commentary of the Old Testament.)
So who were the Nephilim? It seems most likely the Nephilim were not giants or superhumanish angel offspring. They were simply a mighty warrior clan.
But that’s just me. How do you interpret and piece together the data?
I’d love to hear your thoughts. Please consider leaving a comment.
Update: I’ve changed my view. I was wrong. I explain here: Fallen Angels in Genesis.