Bible Q&A: Who Are The Nephilim?

Who are the Nephilim and do they still exist?  Could they have been angelic beings, descendants of fallen angels?

“Nephilim” is the transliteration of a Hebrew word which is defined in several ways.  It’s translated as “giants” (Gen. 6:4; Num. 13:33), but several lexicons also list “fallen ones” (i.e., rebels, apostates), bullies or tyrants, or even constellations in the sky.  The term is used only twice in the Old Testament in Genesis 6:4 and Numbers 13:33. 

In Numbers 13:33, the unfaithful spies while describing the seemingly insurmountable obstacles to conquering the land of Canaan, spoke of “the Nephilim (the sons of Anak, who come from the Nephilim), and we seemed to ourselves like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them.”  The way in which the Nephilim are described make them out to be literal giants, possibly along the lines of Goliath who was around nine feet tall.  They are described as human (“the sons of Anak”) who are descended from other “Nephilim” (giants).  Thus, the Nephilim in Numbers seem to be humans who were large in stature and were descended from other humans large in stature.

Genesis 6:4 also mentions them during a time which took place centuries before Numbers.  Moses wrote that in the time before the flood, “the sons of God saw that the daughters of man were attractive.  And they took as their wives any they chose…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” (Gen. 6:2, 4).  Since the term “sons of God” was used elsewhere to describe angelic beings (cf. Job 1:6; 2:1; 38:7), a popular view is that these angels had intercourse with human females and impregnated them, with the Nephilim being their offspring.  Remembering that “Nephilim” in Hebrew refers to giants and/or “the fallen,” this view would cite the coupling of angels with human females as the reason behind their offspring being giants and/or “fallen” (i.e., fallen angels). 

There are two problems with this view, however.  First, Jesus compared the lack of being in a marital relationship in the afterlife as being similar to how angels are (Matt. 22:30).  Since one of the purposes of the marital relationship is sexual intimacy (1 Cor. 7:1-2), it’s reasonable to conclude that by saying angels do not marry Jesus is also saying that angels do not have carnal relations.  Thus, angels would not have the desire to have intimate relations with beings are “lower” than them, especially when one also remembers that God’s creations were made to reproduce “according to their kind” (Heb. 2:7; cf. Gen. 1:21-22, 24-25).  Secondly, a careful reading of Genesis 6:4 shows that the Nephilim existed both before AND AFTER “the sons of God came in to the daughters of man and they bore children to them.”  Thus, the Nephilim could not have been the offspring of couplings between angels and human women.

A healthier view of Genesis 6:4 is obtained when one remembers that the term “sons of God” also at times refers to righteous followers of God (cf. Gal. 3:26).  With that in mind, the context of Genesis 6 (chapters 4-5) describe the descendants of Cain (4:17-24) and the descendants of his brother Seth (4:25-26; 5:1-32).  The descendants of Cain are described as engaging in wickedness (4:23-24), whereas the descendants of Seth are described in more righteous terms.  For example, Moses writes that “people began to call upon the name of the Lord” during the time of Seth’s son Enosh (4:26).  Several of the names Seth’s descendants gave to their children praise God in various ways by definition.  “Mahalaleel” literally means “praise of God” (5:12).  Enoch, who is said to have “walked with God,” literally means “dedicated” (5:18-24).  His great-grandson was Noah, whom the Lord considered righteous.  Thus, the implication seems to be that Seth’s family seemed to follow God, while Cain’s family did not follow God. 

Thus, it is possible that “sons of God” refers to Seth’s descendants and “daughters of men” refer to Cain’s descendants.  Moses could be describing that in the time before the flood, Seth’s family and Cain’s family intermarried, with the result being that their offspring were “the Nephilim,” human beings who were either large in stature (which would be why they were also described as “the mighty men who were of old, the men of renown”), “fallen” in nature (possibly an indication of how after marriage Cain’s sinful descendants began to influence Seth’s godly descendants to sin, resulting in their offspring becoming more sinful in nature and thus “fallen,” which in turn would bring about the depraved state of the world that would motivate God to bring the flood), or both.  I find this view more likely.

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