Actual Question: Who or what were the Nephilim in the Bible?
Possible Answer: It’s in Genesis 6 and Numbers 13 that we see references to the “Nephilim”. Genesis 6:1-7 (NASB) says, “Now it came about, when men began to multiply on the face of the land, and daughters were born to them, that the sons of God saw that the daughters of men were beautiful; and they took wives for themselves, whomever they chose. Then the Lord said, “My Spirit shall not strive with man forever, because he also is flesh; nevertheless his days shall be one hundred and twenty years.” The Nephilim were 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. Then the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. The Lord was sorry that He had made man on the earth, and He was grieved in His heart. The Lord said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, from man to animals to creeping things and to birds of the sky; for I am sorry that I have made them.”
As with any deep dive into a topic, verse or concept found in Scripture it’s important to understand the verse or verses in the larger context of which they were written. Let’s start with Genesis passage. Genesis chapters 1-5 maps out the detailed account of the creation of the heavens and the earth, the creation of Adam and Eve, the fall and the subsequent population boom. It’s with this backdrop that we enter into the verses in question at the beginning of Genesis chapter 6.
In Genesis 6:1-3 God speaks of the corruption of mankind and how the “sons of God saw that the daughters of men were beautiful; and they took wives for themselves, whomever they chose.” There has been much debate as to what, “the sons of God” actually means. Does this term signify angels, fallen angels, the literal offspring of gods?
Based on the larger context of the passage (the downfall and corruption of mankind) what seems to make more sense is that the “sons of God” refers to “men of righteousness”, those that were chasing after the things of God until they allowed the beauty of the women around them to pull them away from God’s righteousness. The men were marrying those that God did not approve of and were thus creating even more generations that were sure to continue straying from the things of God. It’s in verse 3 that God declares that in 120 years he would step in and put an end to the depravity of the world through the world-wide flood (see Genesis 6:13-22).
It’s in verse 4 that we see the first mention of the “Nephilim”. Nephilim is often translated as "fallen ones" which is closely related to the Hebrew word “naphal” (to fall). One school of thought associates these beings with fallen angels or their offspring. I would argue, based on the context of the surrounding verses that “fallen ones” has more to do with a spiritual falling away and not “fallen” in the sense of “from heaven”. It’s as if verse four is simply repeating or rephrasing what’s already been mentioned in the first three verses, the righteous men of God had “fallen” away and were reproducing with unrighteous women, “daughters of men” and thus increasing the wickedness of the world.
Matthew Henry’s commentary says, “The sons of God that is, the professors of religion, who were called by the name of the Lord, and called upon that name, married the daughters of men, that is, those that were profane, and strangers to God and godliness.” It’s the final part of verse four that creates perhaps the greatest level of confusion. Genesis 6:4b says, “Those were the mighty men who were of old, men of renown.” When we hear this type of language we allow our minds to drift towards fictional characters like Hercules, Percy Jackson and Greek mythology.
Barnes’ Notes on the Bible answers this idea like this, ”’Men of name’, whose names are often in men's mouths, because they either deserved or required to be named frequently on account of their influential or representative character.” In other words, these were men that were often spoken of for their influence and lack of moral character. These were men that were not only interested in making a name for themselves but were succeeding in doing so. Keeping in mind the context of the larger passage (the corruption of mankind and his forsaking of the things of God) it makes sense that this idea would be further illustrated and highlighted. I would also suggest that the term “men who were of old” is not referring to anything pre Adam (since that’s not a thing to begin with) but is instead referring to the idea that this world-wide corruption had been going on for the last 10 generations (from Adam to Noah). This was not a new problem.
In summary of the Genesis passage I’m suggesting the following:
In response to the Numbers passage that also mentions “Nephilim” I would suggest a similar approach in first considering the larger context. Numbers 13:33 (NASB) says, “There also we saw the Nephilim (the sons of Anak are part of the Nephilim); and we became like grasshoppers in our own sight, and so we were in their sight.” If you start with even the beginning of chapter 13 you gain a larger perspective by seeing Moses sending of spies into the land of Canaan to first scout out the Promised Land. Their report back was less than encouraging and each of the spies feared for the future of their nation except Caleb who was sure of their success. Numbers 13:33’s reference to the term “Nephilim” is often associated with “giants” because of their use of the phrase, “and we became like grasshoppers in our own sight, and so we were in their sight.”
If we link this passage back to the Genesis account of Nephilim we can quickly come to the conclusion that this phrase has less to do with physical size (although perhaps some) and more to do with physical prowess. Using the Genesis passage as a reference we remember that “Nephilim” were “men of renown” or men who had made a name for themselves. They were big, strong, aggressive, take what we want when we want it kind of men and since the time of Noah (the sinfulness of man picked right back up after the flood) they had since been breeding more just like themselves.
If you can imagine what type of multi-generational upbringing this must have resulted in you can quickly see why the Israelite spies felt overwhelmed and unsure of their odds against such a group.
In light of the Genesis passage my summary of the Numbers passage is as follows:
In short, I don’t think that the Nephilim were giants at all. I don’t think that fallen angels came down and had sex with the women of the earth to produce these supposed “men of renown”. I don’t think Percy Jackson, Hercules or Greek mythology tie into Scripture at all but they do make entertaining movies. Be encouraged and keep moving forward.