A Question I Was Asked:

Who Were the Nephilim and 'Sons of God' in Genesis 6:3-5?

Who were the Nephilim or 'Sons of God' in Genesis 6:3-5?

UK Apologetics Reply:

Okay let us look at this matter. At first let me say that some Bible questions, with the required study behind one, are not too difficult to answer, but here we have one of the most famously tricky ones (although it has never come my way before).

We need to start off in Genesis 6, and we will take in the full context:

When human beings began to increase in number on the earth and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that the daughters of humans were beautiful, and they married any of them they chose. Then the Lord said, "My Spirit will not contend with humans forever, for they are mortal; their days will be a hundred and twenty years." The Nephilim were on the earth in those days - and also afterward - when the sons of God went to the daughters of humans and had children by them. They were the heroes of old, men of renown.

The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time. The Lord regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled. So the Lord said, "I will wipe from the face of the earth the human race I have created - and with them the animals, the birds and the creatures that move along the ground - for I regret that I have made them." But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord. (Genesis 6:1-8).

In the ancient world the Lord clearly allowed men to have more than one wife as several of the patriarchs certainly did, however, here we seem to have unbridled polygamy and the taking of mistresses and wives, very possibly involving the kidnapping of these unfortunate women on a very large scale. The expression 'sons of God' does not have to denote supernatural spirit beings as some have speculated - don't forget, one should always establish difficult Bible sections by strong, clear and affirmed Bible sections - not the other way around! Having said that, several major commentators do believe the 'sons of God' here were angelic beings, mainly on the strength of Job 1:6. However, the same expression is used of human leaders in Psalm 82:6. But - for myself - I think that the angelic theory is probably incorrect and, if the reader will bear with me for a few minutes, I will now show why.

The Lord certainly points the finger of blame here toward the Nephilim who were apparently a human race of great physical stature but also great lawlessness. Whilst there is no doubt that the expression 'the sons of God went to the daughters of humans and had children by them' causes us big problems, can we really establish that these were non-humans? No, because the very next section here seems to address that very point: 'They were the heroes of old, men of renown.' So these were indeed men and soon after, the Lord brought the Great Flood in order to repair some of these problems: spirit beings would not be affected by a flood so these were obviously not that but, rather, fleshly men (as the Scripture actually says). However, it could be argued, of course, that certain supernatural beings caused problems which could only be resolved by a great flood (even though such beings themselves would not be affected by that). Yet I am not impressed with the view that these were angelic, or demonic beings. We should always establish difficult Scriptures by more clear ones on a similar topic and nowhere in the Bible are we given the slightest indication that spiritual beings can ever have sexual relations with people on earth. What could even be accomplished by that?

It seems that much of the great wickedness upon the earth which led to the Lord bringing about the Great Flood was initiated, propagated and encouraged by these 'men of renown,' the Nephilim. Plainly this tribe, or race, did huge damage in antediluvian human society.

In Numbers 13, referring to a later post-flood period, we have this:

But the men who had gone up with him said, "We can't attack those people; they are stronger than we are." And they spread among the Israelites a bad report about the land they had explored. They said, "The land we explored devours those living in it. All the people we saw there are of great size. We saw the Nephilim there (the descendants of Anak come from the Nephilim). We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we looked the same to them." (Numbers 13:31-33).

This might seem as though the Nephilim still existed at the time of Moses but we must remember that these men were looking for excuses not to go into the promised land because they were fearful. Having said that, the Scripture does state that the people of Anak were of the same genealogical lineage as the Nephilim. Now let us look at Deuteronomy:

They were a people strong and numerous, and as tall as the Anakites. The Lord destroyed them from before the Ammonites, who drove them out and settled in their place. (Deuteronomy 2:21).

(Og king of Bashan was the last of the Rephaites. His bed was decorated with iron and was more than nine cubits long and four cubits wide. It is still in Rabbah of the Ammonites.) (Deuteronomy 3:11).

So it seems that giantism - eradicated with the Nephilim at the time of the Flood, re-appeared for a while among the Anakites and Rephaites who - apparently - were of the same genealogical strain. But the phenomenon later disappeared as being a characteristic of a particular race or tribe. All of this raises an obvious and interesting question: since the original Nephilim were destroyed in the Flood and we know that only Noah's family survived that deluge, how come that these other more warlike giant races re-appeared? The answer is in the human gene pool which God created. It is in the genes of all peoples, plants and animals to diversify and produce variation. This actually gives the lie to evolution as commonly taught: we all already have these capacities within us - millions of years are not required! We don't know how many of the human races were present before the flood, but they certainly re-appeared afterwards even though only the descendants of Noah survived and, of course, all the races of our modern day came from Noah's children.

But why does Genesis describe the original Nephilim as "the heroes of old, men of renown," this might well be a somewhat sarcastic statement; very possibly this is how they described themselves! Maybe they saw themselves as a 'master race' who were needed to 'save humanity,' a bit like Hitler's 1930s Germany. If the Great Library of Alexandria had not been destroyed by fire in the 4th century AD we may have known quite a bit more about the Nephilim and indeed about many other matters of the ancient world. Unfortunately all of that is now lost.

So the Nephilim, it would seem to me, were a gigantic race or tribe which existed prior to the Flood. We know little of them but it seems clear that they must bear some of the responsibility for the utter lawlessness which existed prior to that Flood. Enough seems to be suggested in Scripture for us to say that their warlike and rebellious nature was of an equally great stature. Other very large people apparently re-appeared in the days of Moses (the Anakites and Rephaites) but were apparently mostly destroyed with the taking of the promised land by the Israelites. The Goliath who later fought David, however, may also have been from this line.

This explanation does not necessarily answer every single question one could have on this difficult Scripture and on the matter of the Nephilim, but it is probably the best we can do with the information which God has revealed to us at the present time.

Robin A. Brace. April 18th, 2014.