“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” (ESV, Gen. 6:4). The King James Version (KJV) of the Bible translates the verse slightly differently: “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.”
What does this mean? Who were the Nephilim? Were they really giants, as the King James Version translates the word Nephilim to mean? Who were these “sons of God”? That phrase is translated the same way in both versions of Genesis. The only clues Genesis 6:4 gives us as to who these beings were are that they were “mighty men,” “old”, and “men of renown.” Also, how and why did they “c[o]me into the “daughters of men” and impregnate or “bare children to them”? Who were these hybrid children of the Nephilim and human women, and what happened to them? What does the verse mean by “and also after”? What ultimately happened to these Nephilim?
There is a lot to unpack here, along with a lot of unanswerable questions, especially when only using the accepted canonical Hebrew Bible as a reference. There are other references to the Nephilim in the non-canonical and deuterocanonical books of Enoch, Jubilees, Judith, Sirach, Baruch, Wisdom of Solomon, and several other ancient writings. However, these books are not included in the accepted Hebrew Bible, so we will not examine them here. Is it possible that the Nephilim were mentioned so many different times in so many different books because they were a real race of giants, widely known and accepted? Could they even exists among us today? Maybe that explains why some people grow to be over seven feet tall. Perhaps, when deciding which books would be canon, the Council of Trent in the mid-1500s was trying to cover up the fact that there were these ancient demon/human hybrid giants roaming the Earth, but they overlooked the two surviving references to the Nephilim in Genesis 6:4 and Numbers 13:33? This conspiracy theory is far outside the scope of this paper. Instead, let us focus on what we do know about the Nephilim from the Hebrew Bible as it exists today.
First, for context, let us examine the verses surrounding Genesis 6:4:
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 [a] 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.
The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the Lord regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the Lord said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens, for I am sorry that I have made them.” (ESV)
First, we have that phrase, “sons of God.” This phrase, translated from the Hebrew bene Elohim, is often interpreted to mean fallen angels (Boyd). As the story goes, these fallen angels were kicked out of Heaven by God and sent to Hell and/or Earth. This story has no Biblical reference, but is based on old Jewish oral traditions that predate even the book of Genesis (Grabbe).
The phrase “sons of God” is mentioned four times in the canonical Hebrew Bible: in Genesis 6:2, as referenced above; in Job 1:6, where “the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came among them” (ESV) in order to convince God to test his faithful servant Job’s faith; in Job 38:7, when God is telling Job how mighty God is by asking him, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? … when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” (ESV); and in Psalm 29:1, “Ascribe to the Lord, O heavenly beings, ascribe to the Lord glory and strength” (ESV), where the phrase “heavenly beings” can also be translated from the Hebrew bene elim to mean “sons of God.”
So, let us assume when the “sons of God” are mentioned in Genesis 6:4, the writer is referring to some sort of ethereal, ancient being from another dimension. This first reference to them gives no further description of these beings. However, in Job 1:6, these “sons of God” come before the Lord along with Satan. This “Satan” is also translated in the English Standard Version Bible as “the Accuser” or “the Adversary”. Satan is also mentioned in Numbers 22:22, 1 Samuel 29:4, and Psalms 109:6, and is alternatively translated as “the accuser” or “the adversary.” Satan is widely known throughout the Abrahamic religions as the leader of the fallen angels (David). Therefore, it is safe to assume these fallen angels who come before the Lord with Satan are in fact Satan’s cohorts—his fellow fallen angels, or demons. In Job 38:7, God is likely speaking of the time before the angels fell, when the “sons of God shouted for joy” as God created everything. The Hebrew Bible’s final mention of the “sons of God”, in Psalm 29:1, is giving them a prophecy, saying even these demons will “ascribe to the Lord glory and strength” again one day.
To conclude, based on the other three verses where the phrase “sons of God” appears in the Old Testament, the phrase likely can be equated with fallen angels, or demons. Therefore, one plain interpretation of Genesis 6:4 is that demons came to Earth, mated with human women, and these women gave birth to demon/human hybrids, which were giants and were known as the Nephilim.
Genesis 6 leaves many unanswered questions. When looking at the rest of the chapter, Verse 4 about the Nephilim seems oddly out of place. Genesis 6:1 and 6:2 talk about the demons mating with human women. Then Genesis 6:3 has the Lord randomly declare that people will no longer live forever, but will instead die when they turn 120 years old. Next, out of nowhere, Genesis 6:4 talks about the mighty Nephilim of renown. Genesis 6:4 does not explicitly say the Nephilim were the demon/human offspring, but let us assume that is what is implied. In the following paragraph, Genesis 5-8 talks about the Lord’s regret for creating Earth and people, so he decides to wipe out everyone except Noah and his family with a global flood.
The choppiness of Genesis 6 might lead some to believe the text was edited, or at least mistranslated. It seems something is missing to hold these sentence fragments together. Each of these three topics—the sons of God mating with women, the Nephilim being giants of renown, and God’s ultimate decision to destroy everything except for Noah and his family—feel like they should have more written about them, or should have at least been written about more clearly. Perhaps this lends credence to the conspiracy theory that this part of the Bible was edited by the Council of Trent or even by Moses or others; but then, why leave the word Nephilim or mention of giants in there at all? Regardless, while the verses do not follow a logical structure, we can at least infer from their all being in the same paragraph that the three things are directly related.
There is but one other direct mention of the Nephilim in the Bible: in Numbers 13. After Moses and his Jews were exiled from Egypt, Moses sent 12 spies out to scout the surrounding lands of Canaan for somewhere to settle. After 40 days, the spies returned and in verses 32 and 33 reported, “’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’” (ESV).
How these Nephilim, called by Moses’s spies as “the sons of Anak,” survived the global flood is not explained in the Bible. After all, we have already inferred the Nephilim were directly responsible for God’s displeasure with man and his decision to destroy the Earth and everything on it. Maybe the sons of God decided to mate with human women again after all of their Nephilim were wiped out during Noah’s flood? Anak, however, is mentioned several other times: in the books of Deuteronomy, Joshua, and Judges.
In Deuteronomy 1:28, Moses’s people are scared to leave their encampment, saying, “’The people are greater and taller than we. The cities are great and fortified up to heaven. And besides, we have seen the sons of the Anakim there’” (ESV).
In Deuteronomy 2:10-11, some clues as to what may have become of the Nephilim are given. As Moses and his people were heading towards the wilderness of Moab (modern-day Jordan), the Lord warns him not to go to war with the people who lived there. Then, in parenthesis, the author notes, “The Emim formerly lived there, a people great and many, and tall as the Anakim. Like the Anakim they are also counted as Rephaim, but the Moabites call them Emim” (ESV). Later, in Deuteronomy 2:16-21, the Lord explains that Moses should not settle in Moab, because he gave that land to Lot. Again in parenthesis, the author notes, “it is also counted as a land of Rephaim. Rephaim formerly lived there—but the Ammonites call them Zamzummim—a people great and many, and tall as the Anakim; but the Lord destroyed them before the Ammonites” (ESV).
Finally, in Deuteronomy 9, the Lord seems to change his mind about the Jews attacking the Anakim. He tells his people in verses 1-3 to:
Cross over the Jordan today, to go in to dispossess nations greater and mightier than you, cities great and fortified up to heaven, a people great and tall, the sons of the Anakim, whom you know, and of whom you have heard it said, ‘Who can stand before the sons of Anak?’ Know therefore today that he who goes over before you as a consuming fire is the Lord your God. He will destroy them and subdue them before you. So you shall drive them out and make them perish quickly, as the Lord has promised you. (ESV)
While the consuming fire of the Lord may have destroyed the Anakim in Jordan, some of these giants, formerly called Nephilim, must have escaped. Joshua Chapter 11 tells of his exploits, as Joshua leads the armies of Israel throughout the lands of the Canaanites, where Moses’s 12 spies originally spotted the Nephilim in Numbers 13:33, and kills them all. From Joshua 11: 21-22, “And Joshua came at that time and cut off the Anakim from the hill country, from Hebron, from Debir, from Anab, and from all the hill country of Judah, and from all the hill country of Israel. Joshua devoted them to destruction with their cities. There was none of the Anakim left in the land of the people of Israel” (ESV). However, some Anakim remained in Gaza, Gath, and Ashdod.
In Joshua 14:12, he gives the land which the Anakim formerly inhabited, along with their “great fortified cities”, to Caleb the son of Jephunneh as an inheritance. Caleb called the land Hebron, but, when the Anakim were there, it was called Kiriath-arba (translated as “the city of Arba”), because Arba was the greatest man among the Anakim (ESV, Josh. 14:14-15). In the next chapter, the book of Joshua states Arba was the father of Anak (ESV, Josh. 15:13). Accordingly, Caleb then finished ridding his lands of the Anakim by driving out Anak’s three descendants, Sheshai, Ahiman, and Talmai (ESV, Josh. 15:14). A confirmation of this land of Hebron being given to Caleb is again written in Joshua 21:9-12, where it is again referred to as “Kiriath-arba (Arba being the father of Anak), that is Hebron, in the hill country of Judah” (ESV). Additionally, Judges 1: 20 confirms, “And Hebron was given to Caleb, as Moses had said. And he drove out from it the three sons of Anak” (ESV).
So, what happened to the Nephilim? If one were to come up with a modern-day narrative, based entirely on the books of the canonical Hebrew Bible, it might go something like this: The Nephilim were the giant children of humans and Satan’s demons. These giant Nephilim were mostly destroyed by God during a great worldwide flood; however, at least one of them survived, named Arba. God did not give up; he kept hunting down these Nephilim, one at a time, using his servants. First Joshua came through and drove all the giants out of Arba’s city. However, Arba had a son name Anak, who was also a giant. Anak had three children: Sheshai, Ahiman, and Talmai. God then used Caleb to drive these three giant Nephilim away.
The story does not end with Sheshai, Ahiman, and Talmai’s defeat, thought. For one thing, the book of Joshua does not say that they were killed, merely driven away. Also, Arba and his son and grandsons were only one genetic line of the giant Nephilim. Other Nephilim also survived—they are called Emim, Rephaim, and Zamzummim; and these are just the ones mentioned in the Hebrew Bible! For all we know, the Nephilim’s ancestors could still be living among us.
Boyd, Gregory. God at War: The Bible & Spiritual Conflict. InterVarsity Press, 1997. Print
Grabbe, Lester. A History of the Jews and Judaism in the Second Temple Period, 2006. Print.
Leeming, David. The Oxford Companion to World Mythology. Oxford University Press, 2005. Print
English Standard Version (ESV) Bible. Bible Gateway. Web. 1 Nov. 2015.