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Who Are the Nephilim?

This week's question deals with an obscure, but rather interesting topic from the Old Testament. In Genesis 6 we read an account about the "sons of God" coming to earth and impregnating women. Their offspring were called Nephilim, or giants. So, who were the "sons of God" and who were the Nephilim?

Let's look first at the scripture in question: "When people began to multiply on the face of the ground, and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that they were fair; and they took wives for themselves of all that they chose. The Nephilim were on the earth in those days--and also afterward--when the sons of God went in to the daughters of humans, who bore children to them. These were the heroes that were of old, warriors of renown" (Genesis 6.1-2, 4).

The specific Hebrew term used for "sons of God" in this passage is found only here and in the first two chapters of Job. In Job we find that the "sons of God" presented themselves before God and Satan also came (Job 1.6; 2.1). Because of this passage it has been conjectured that the sons of God were angels, since tradition maintains that Satan is a fallen angel. However, according to Jesus and the New Testament tradition, angels seem to be genderless spirits that aren't given to marriage (Matthew 22.30).

Others have speculated that the term refers to those who were of the lineage of Seth, the third son of Adam. According to some, the lineage of Seth was a godly ancestry who were favored by God, while the lineage of Cain (supposedly the only other progenitor of offspring) was evil. Thus, when the sons of God (of Seth's lineage) met the daughters of men (Cain's lineage), their children became Nephilim--the mighty ones.

But who were the Nephilim? The Hebrew word Nephilim has as its root a word that means "fallen ones." In fact, most occurrences of the word have to do with someone or another having fallen. On the other hand, the King James Version of the Bible translates Nephilim as "giant" because in Numbers 13.33 we read, "So they brought to the Israelites an unfavorable report of the land that they had spied out, saying, 'The land that we have gone through as spies is a land that devours its inhabitants; and all the people that we saw in it are of great size. There we saw the Nephilim; and to ourselves we seemed like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them'" (Numbers 13.32-33). Thus, at least according to the pessimistic reports of the Israelite spies, the Nephilim were rather large/tall, so some, including the translators of the King James Version, have suggested that the Nephilim were giants.

But to further complicate the matter, according to a Babylonian epic tale prevalent at the time of Genesis' authorship, Gilgamesh was a hero of renown who was half-human and half-god. Is it possible the writers borrowed in part the Babylonian story and made it their own?

The answer is we just don't know. There simply isn't enough information for us to know who or what the Nephilim were. What we do know is that the biblical text and the resulting traditions endow supernatural attributes to the Nephilim. Further, it is clear God wasn't too happy with the situation, since immediately following the Nephilim passage in Genesis God decides to flood the earth because "The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart" (Genesis 6.5-6). On the other hand, the flood didn't put an end to the Nephilim because they turn up again centuries later in Numbers 13.33.

Not knowing is a frustrating place to be in scholarship, but the fact is there's much about the Bible we just don't know. Were the Nephilim half-angels, half-gods, giants, the favored offspring of Seth, or a myth? Unless something comes to light to provide us some definitive answers, "I don't know" is going to have to be good enough.

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