The nephilim have always been fascinating to me. I think it is one of the more interesting and fun parts of scripture to explore, though certainly not a foundation of faith by any means. I revisit thinking on them often as I find them to be one of the points where tradition, science, mystery, and yes, even conspiracy theory, intersect. I fully understand if most of you have checked out now, and that is ok, I don’t mind, but before you do, consider this. Here is an easily debatable topic that we don’t need to argue over so vehemently as it is not overly crucial to the faith in general. It may be wrong, but I like to think of it as one of the mysteries God, in His infinite wisdom, inspired the Biblical authors to write about so that we would have mysteries to explore. God understood His greatest creation to be a curious sort after all. Here we go…
In Genesis 6:4 we get a vague and interesting passage. It reads as follows “The Nephilim were on the earth in those days-and also afterward-when the sons of God went to the daughters of men and had children by the, They were the heroes of old, men of renown.” (NIV). Now depending on the translation that you use, you might find Nephilim translated as giant, mighty men, or something similar. Some of the more modern translations use phrases like ‘supernatural beings’ as their translation. This verse finds itself near the beginning of the story of the flood and needs to be properly set there. Shortly after we begin the account of Noah who was a righteous man, blameless among the people and a man who walked with God. (verse 9). Now our exploration is set in it’s proper time and place. The earth has fallen to wickedness, Noah is righteous. The flood is coming. The earth is soon to be destroyed by flood, and mankind gets a sort of reboot. We all learned this in Sunday school. So what is the big deal? Where is the exploration? I’m glad you asked, let’s fast forward to Numbers chapter 13.
Here our exploration has fast forwarded to the time when Moses is sending out men to explore Canaan. The report comes back, and for our purposes we will need to look toward verse 32 and 33. “32 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. 33 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.” (NIV) The word translated here for ‘Niphilim’ is the same word we find in Genisis. This time however, we have the decendents of Anak, who apparently came from the Nephilim. Who were these sons of Anak? They are mentioned briefly in Deuteronomy, Judges, and Joshua, with Joshua eventually driving out the descendants of Anak from Hebron. This is is the most easily found reference to Nephilim after the flood, and it is certainly not the only one as noted above. Did the Nephilim survive the flood then? It would seem so. Their existence seems to be backed up Egyptian execration texts which list political enemies in Canaan including the people of anaq. (Space and Time in the Religious life of the near East published in 2001). It is likely that the people of ‘Anak’ and the people of ‘Anaq’ were one and the same.
As an aside, Ezekiel uses a similar word with differing vowel sounds (near as I can tell) to describe a fallen Phillistine warrior (Ezekiel 32:27). This word is often used to denote physical strength and size as well.
It is here that we need to introduce another group to our exploration. The Rephaites (sometimes called Rephaim) are mentioned numerous times in the Old Testament ( Genesis 14:5 Genesis 15:20; Deuteronomy 2:10-21, 3:11; Joshua 12:4, 13:12, 15:8, 17:15, 18:16; 2 Samuel 5:18-22, 23:13; and 1 Chronicles 11:15, 14:9 and 20:4). This matters as the Rephaites were unusually large and tall people as well. Og, the King of Bashan, was likely one of the last survivors of this group.
Continuing forward, and using Genesis 6:4 as our beginning point, we simply must examine the language. The word translated as Nehphilim, etc. is generally used to describe a bully or a tyrant, and is often used to denote large size as well. That alone would seem to dispel and supernatural origin, or even to denote a race of giants. The majority of ancient Biblical texts interpret the word used to mean giant. This includes The Theodotion, The Vulgate, The Samaritan Pentateuch, The Targum Onkelos, The Targum Neofiti, and of course The Septuagint. It is noteworthy to mention though that Aquila’s translation translates it as fallen ones. There seems to be a reasonable consensus of the majority of sources, the the Nephilim were at the very least giants. That in and of itself is noteworthy and interesting.
We must consider the phrase ‘sons of God’ however as well, as that was who came to the daughters of men. This phrasing is used in 3, possibly 4 other places in the Old Testament. In each of these three places (Job 1:6 Job 38:7 Psalm 29:1) it refers to heavenly beings. The fourth possible place (Deuteronomy 32:8) is the subject of some debate over language and meaning. I mention it for the sake of completeness only. While the conventional usage of the word translated Nephilim does not seem to support any sort of hybrid race, the scriptural usage of the phrase translated ‘sons o God’ does. It can easily be read here that angelic beings copulated with human women and spawned these giant tyrants and bullies. The phrase translated as ‘sons of God’ is also used in Jewish angelic hierarchies. It can be found in the Talmud, rabbinic literature, traditional Jewish prayers and even in kabbalah. In extra Biblical writings (Book of Enoch, Book of Jubilees), the Nephilum are treated as the offspring of mortals and fallen angels. I want to be clear here, these are not cannon. I mention them for two reasons. First, the book of Enoch is referenced in Jude. It therefor contained at least one truth, though that does not mean it contains more than that. It is interesting to note that many of the church fathers thought it had been excluded from what we now call the Old Testament by the Jews because it contained prophecies about Christ. Those fathers include Clement of Alexandria, Athenagoras of Athens, Tertullian, and Irenaeus. this adds some validity to the idea that it contains truth even if not cannon. The Book of Jubilees was well known to early Christians, evidenced by many of their writings, and was used by the community that originally collected the Dead Sea Scrolls. Again, this does put them on the level of cannon, but does add to the idea that they contain some truth.
The reality is that we don’t know for certain what the story here is. If you happen to google Nephilim, you will find all manner of interesting, and often crazy, speculation up to, and including, them being ancient aliens. The view that they were fallen angels is ancient. There is evidence this belief was held as such by the ancient Israelite’s, it was held by some early fathers, including, but not limited to, Justin, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Cyprian, and Ambrose. Flavius Josephus in his Antiquities of the Jews (1:3:1) held the position that angels co-habited with women. Philo of Alexandria also held this position as did many rabbinical authorities. A section of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Genesis Apocryphon, holds this view as well. Some translation of The Septuagint, read ‘angles of God, instead of ‘sons of God’ lending some support to this view as well. It was not until the fourth century and Augustine’s rejection of it, that this understanding fell out of favor almost completely. It is interesting that Augustin’s rejection came from the fact that he did not believe that angels and humans could copulate, not because of interpretive or contextual reasons. In more recent times, those more liberal than I reject this as simply one of many myths that ancient people have. While the angelic understanding is an ancient one, it is not the only ancient one. There is no consensus past the reality that whatever the Nephilim, Sons of Anak, and Rephaites were, they were awful big. They were not fans of the people of God, or apparently of God Himself.
I am coming to an end finally. I did not have the space to get to New Testament supporting evidence, delving into the book of Amos, or a couple of other things, but that is ok, as this is not persuasive so much as an encouragement to explore one of the more interesting mysteries of scripture. Look, read, research, and see what you find. Enjoy trying to solve a mystery that really has no solution. Enjoy a conversation topic that really shouldn’t be to controversial. Peace.