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Understanding the Nephilim in Genesis 6:4 in Light of Numbers 13-14

Editor's note: this is a research paper written for my Pentateuch class taken at IRBS in the fall of 2023 and has been slightly modified for this blog post for the sake of the saints at NTBCbiloxi and all who would delight in reading such a subject.


UNDERSTANDING THE NEPHILIM IN GENESIS 6:4 IN LIGHT OF NUMBERS 13-14


Introduction

 Who are the Nephilim and from where did they come? This question has proven difficult to answer due to varying interpretations of Genesis 6:1-4:


1 When man began to multiply on the face of the land and daughters were born to them, 2 the sons of God saw that the daughters of man were attractive. And they took as their wives any they chose. 3 Then the LORD said, “My Spirit shall not abide in man forever, for he is flesh: his days shall be 120 years.” 4 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.


This passage serves as a transition and introduction to the Flood Narrative. Since this is the first place that the Nephilim are mentioned in Scripture it serves as the reader's introduction to them as well. However, the lack of information about the Nephilim conveys a familiarity with their mythos by both the author and his original audience.[1] In that respect, the original audience would understand with greater clarity the identity of the Nephilim, but the question remains — can we know the identity of the Nephilim? To know who or what the Nephilim are, we must first answer two questions surrounding the sons of God — 1) Who are they? and 2) What is their relationship to the Nephilim? 


There are primarily two differing interpretations when answering these two questions, which have had an impact then on interpreting the identity of the Nephilim. However, the identity of the Nephilim need not be connected to the identity of the sons of God, in fact that is Moses’ point — they are not connected. Therefore, in Genesis 6:1-4, Moses is demythologizing the Nephilim as not being associated with nor the offspring from the cohabitation between the sons of God and the daughters of man in light of later events recorded in Numbers 13-14. 


Who are the Sons of God?


Sethites or Fallen Angels


Throughout church history, there have been two primary interpretations when it comes to identifying the sons of God — Sethites or fallen angels.[2] In the Sethite interpretation, the sons of God are the godly line of Seth and the daughters of man are the descendants of the serpentine line of Cain. This is a naturalistic view with both the sons of God and the daughters of man being of human origin. The argument for this view is twofold. First, it seems to follow the natural flow of the text from Genesis 4-5 which contain the genealogies of both Cain and Seth. In the genealogy of Cain the sin of man is continually multiplied, and in the genealogy of Seth the godliness of Seth’s descendents is a central theme. Now in Genesis 6, these two lines seem to merge and this threatens the promise of God in Genesis 3:15 — “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” (Genesis 3:15, ESV). The merging and blending of these two lines then is an attempt by the serpentine line to thwart the promise of God to bring forth the snake-crushing seed of Eve through the godly line of Seth. 


Secondly, in Deuteronomy 14:1, Israel — as Yahweh’s covenantal people — is referred to as “the sons of Yahweh.” In this view, Abraham and his descendents carry on the godly line of Seth through which God will fulfill his promise of Genesis 3:15. Furthermore, this would be the background to God’s prohibition of marriage between Israelites and Canaanites (Exodus 34:11-16; Deuteronomy 7:1-5). 


The latter interpretation lends itself to more of a mythological view as the sons of God are fallen angels. This, likewise, can be taken as an attempt by the demonic powers to overthrow and thwart the redemptive plans of God through the seed of Eve. The argument for the fallen angelic view is threefold. First, Genesis 6:1 introduces the idea of man having daughters born to them. The Hebrew word used there is Adam (הָֽאָדָ֔ם) encompassing all of humanity and not just the line of Cain. If this is the case, then Moses is distinguishing man and their daughters from the sons of God in Genesis 6:1-2. Secondly, when the Hebrew phrase — sons of God — is used elsewhere in the Hebrew Scriptures it refers to angelic beings. Thirdly, the apostolic witness in the New Testament interprets this passage as referring to fallen angelic beings. Therefore, in keeping with the apostolic interpretation, the proper understanding of the identity of the sons of God is as fallen angels. 


A Case for Fallen Angels — Old Testament


The Hebrew phrase — sons of God (בני האלהים) — occurs only five times in the Hebrew Scriptures. The first two occurrences happen here in Genesis 6:2 and Genesis 6:4. The other three occurrences appear in the book of Job (Job 1:6; Job 2:1; Job 38:7). Likewise, Daniel 3:25 may also refer to a son of God (or the gods), but this occurrence is singular and written in Aramaic. Now, according to Dr. Peter Gentry the occurrences of the phrase — sons of God — in both Job and Daniel refer to angelic beings.[3] The case for the sons of God being fallen angels is significantly strengthened by the use of the phrase specifically in the book of Job. 


In Job 1:6 and Job 2:1, the sons of God present themselves before Yahweh, and “based on their actions and access to God, “the sons of God” are supernatural beings (perhaps angels) who apparently serve on what could be labeled the parliament of the universe.”[4] In fact, the NIV translates the Hebrew phrase — bene haʼelohim (בני האלהים) — as “angels” in all three of the Job passages mentioned above. Furthermore, in both accounts of Job 1:6 and 2:1, it is important to note who is also present among the sons of God — Satan, the chief of the fallen angels. While he is distinguished from the rest of the sons of God, Satan is present among them and he is participating in the same activity as the angels — presenting himself before Yahweh. Therefore, if Satan is mentioned alongside the sons of God and performing the same actions as them, then it stands to reason that Satan, though a fallen angel, is considered a son of God. With the Job passages being more clear on the identity of the sons of God than Genesis 6, it would be proper to interpret Genesis 6 in light of Job’s usage of the same phrase.[5]


A Case for Fallen Angels — New Testament


Just as the book of Job adds further clarification to the identity of the sons of God, so too does the apostolic witness and interpretation contained in the New Testament. There are two places in the New Testament where the events of Genesis 6:1-4 are referenced — 2 Peter 2:1-10 and Jude 6-7. 

In 2 Peter 2:1-10, Peter is warning his readers about the coming days of corruption and destruction within the church via false teachers and apostasy. Therefore, Peter appeals to two examples in the Old Testament where God preserves and delivers his people through similar dark days with the application that he will do so as well in the New Testament. Peter first appeals to Genesis 6 with the angels and the deliverance of Noah followed by the story of Sodom and Gomorrah and the deliverance of Lot in Genesis 19. Dr. Gentry suggests that the Greek text clearly marks out two examples in these passages with each example containing a negative part and a positive part, and because the angels’ sin is connected to Noah then this must be referring to Genesis 6.[6] Therefore, Peter, as an apostle, is infallibly interpreting Genesis 6:1-4 as referring to angels who sinned (2 Peter 2:4-5). 


Jude is likewise warning the church about false teachers who deny the faith, and he appeals to the same two texts as Peter in Jude 6-7: 


And the angels who did not stay within their own position of authority, but left their proper dwelling, he has kept in eternal chains under gloomy darkness until the judgment of the great day—  just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which likewise indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural desire, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire. (Jude 6-7, ESV)


However, in Jude’s appeal to these two texts, he focuses on the sexual immorality of both the angels who left their proper dwellings and Sodom and Gomorrah. Again, Dr. Gentry points out that, “In the Greek text it says, ‘since they in the same way as these committed strange immorality.’ The ‘they’ refers to the angels and the ‘these’ refers to the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah.”[7] That is to say, the apostolic witness of Jude is interpreting that in Genesis 6 angels left their proper dwelling place and took up unnatural relationships — i.e. “the sons of God saw that the daughters of man were attractive, and they took [them] as their wives” (Genesis 6:2, ESV). 


Therefore, both Peter and Jude reference this passage in Genesis 6 and interpret the sons of God as angels who sinned by leaving their proper dwelling place and taking up unnatural relations. Now, there is the objection that Jesus in both Matthew 22:30 and Mark 12:25 says that angels in heaven do not marry. However, notice that angels in their proper dwelling places — i.e. heaven — do not marry, but the angels in Jude left their proper dwelling place. By leaving their proper dwelling place and taking for themselves the daughters of man as wives they sin. Therefore, the apostolic witness and interpretation of Genesis 6:1-4 clearly identifies the sons of God as fallen angels. 


Demythologizing the Nephilim


The Relation Between the Sons of God & the Nephilim


Now, if the sons of God are in fact fallen angels, what is their relationship to the Nephilim? The most popular interpretation has been that the Nephilim are the offspring from the cohabitation between the sons of God and the daughters of man, and that seems to be a natural conclusion. Genesis 6:1-2 establishes the cohabitation of fallen angels and human women, and what follows in Genesis 6:4 is the Nephilim’s connection to this cohabitation. However, was this view Moses’ argument in the text? No, it doesn’t appear to be.


This popular interpretation of the Nephilim as the offspring from the cohabitation of angels and humans comes from the Enochic Tradition of the 3rd and 2nd centuries B.C. In First Enoch 3:7-9, the fallen angels took for themselves wives from the children of man and bore great giants. Therefore, this popular interpretation comes from a later reading and understanding of the Genesis account and its basis is from a non-canonical, uninspired source. However, this seems to be the wrong interpretation based upon the text and another apostolic interpretation based on Paul’s writings in his pastoral letters. 


First, Dr. Gentry argues that in 1 Timothy 1:4 and 4:7 [8] — “Paul warns his readers against arguing over endless genealogies and foolish myths. This is a direct reference to the Book of Enoch which has a long genealogy of all the angels down to Satan. [The Enochic Tradition] is trying to blame chaos, death, and evil in the world on angelic sin instead of human sin.”[9] As referenced above, the infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself.[10] The tradition of Enoch came to the wrong interpretation of scripture and the apostles are seeking to correct that error. 


Secondly, the biblical text of Genesis 6:4 seems to indicate a separation of the Nephilim from the cohabitation of angels and humans, and Moses seems to be demythologizing the Nephilim as simply human offspring. When it comes to interpreting the temporal expressions in Genesis 6:1-4, Dr. Gentry argues “that the Nephilim were in the earth before the business of angelic and human beings cohabiting and also afterwards and therefore had nothing to do with these unions.”[11] He goes on to argue that this interpretation is strengthened by the grammar of Genesis 6:4:


Verse 4 consists of two clauses or sentences, the first verbal, the second nominal. Both are marked by asyndeton (i.e., no conjunction or connector at the beginning of the clause/sentence). In the first, the verb is non-initial. This pattern marks a commentary or explanatory digression. The fact that the first sentence is subject-initial indicates a new topic. The relative sentence in verse 4 correlates this new topic with the events of verse 2. The nominal sentence is a further comment on the Nephilim. They were the heroes from the distant past. This may mean the distant past with reference to the writer, or it may indicate a period long past in reference to the event of 6:2. Therefore the writer would be demythologizing the Nephilim. These heroes of ancient times were there before and after the events of 6:2 and were not necessarily related to them at all. Thus, verse 1 describes an increase in female humans, verse 2 describes a cohabitation of angelic and human beings, verse 3 concludes that the result is still human and therefore under God’s judgment, and verse 4 states that all this has nothing to do with the well-known Nephilim. Since the word Nephilim is not otherwise explained, they must have been well known to the ancient (first) readers of this text.[12]


Therefore, contrary to the popular Enochic interpretation, the Nephilim are not the offspring from the cohabitation of fallen angels and the daughters of man, in fact they have nothing to do with one another. According to Gentry, the Hebrew grammar suggests that the Nephilim were present on the earth before the cohabitation of the sons of God with the daughters of man, and therefore they could not be their offspring. Likewise, the Nephilim were there after the cohabitation of fallen angels and women, meaning they are not related. Furthermore, we are told the identity of the Nephilim — the mighty men of old, the men of renown. As stated above, these mighty men would have been known to the first readers, but what should be clear to later readers is that the Nephilim were the descendants of man. They are not demigods or the descendants of angels, and therefore, there is no reason to fear them. 


Demythologizing the Nephilim in light of Numbers 13:33


When considering the Pentatuech as a whole, especially as a singular document, what Moses writes in Genesis 6 will have an impact on what happens later on in the Pentateuch. The demythologizing of the Nephilim as merely humans will play an important role as the twelve spies scout out the land of Canaan in Numbers 13 and Israel’s subsequent disobedience by not entering the land promised to them by Yahweh. 


In Numbers 13:1, Moses is instructed by Yahweh to send in men to spy out the land of Canaan. The twelve men go into the land of Cannan, and they report back in Numbers 13:27-28: “And they told him, “We came to the land to which you sent us. It flows with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. However, the people who dwell in the land are strong, and the cities are fortified and very large. And besides, we saw the descendants of Anak there.” (Numbers 13:27-28, ESV)


They see that the land is good and fruitful just as Yahweh had promised; however, the spies are deterred by a race of people — the descendants of Anak. Now, the descendants of Anak are later identified as the Nephilim in Numbers 13:33 — “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.” Therefore, the people of Israel fear the Nephilim dwelling in the land and rebel against Moses and Aaron. Their fear of the Nephilim is what keeps this generation from entering the land of Canaan, and it is an affront to the power and promises of Yahweh. In Numbers 14:11, “Yahweh said to Moses, ‘How long will this people despise me? And how long will they not believe in me, in spite of all the signs that I have done among them?’” The people of Israel fear the presence of the Nephilim more than they trust in the power and might of Yahweh who rescued them from Egypt and delivered them through the Red Sea. 


According to Numbers 13:32-33, the original audience of the Pentateuch knew who the Nephilim were — they were men of great height and the sons of Anak — and they are the ones who kept Israel from entering the land. Therefore, Genesis 6:1-4 — and specifically v. 4 — should be read as a polemic against the mythology of the Nephilim. If Genesis 6:4 is written before the events in Numbers 13-14, then Moses was seeking to inoculate the people of Israel from fear of the Nephilim when they entered the land. However, if Genesis 6:4 is written after the events of Numbers 13-14, then Moses writes it as a demythologizing of the Nephilim for the next generation so that they will not fall into the same sin as his generation. But regardless of when it is written, the message is clear — the Nephilim are of human origin and the people of Israel need not fear them. 


Conclusion


In conclusion, the theological implication of Genesis 6:1-4 is in fact not about the Nephilim nor the cohabitation of fallen angels and human women. Rather, Moses is demythologizing the Nephilim as not being associated with nor the offspring from the cohabitation between the sons of God and the daughters of man, especially in light of the later events recorded in Numbers 13-14. However, the main theological implication is that the Israelites have no reason to fear the Nephilim and the mythos surrounding them. The Israelites belong to Yahweh, and he has already judged both the angels and conquered the Nephilim. So just as Yawheh conquered and wiped out the Nephilim in the flood, he can do so again in the land of Canaan. Israel is to trust God rather than fear the Nephilim. 


 

[1] Mosaic authorship is assumed in this paper, and the original audience would be Israel while in the Sinai Wilderness.

[2] While there is a third view known that suggests the sons of God were ancient kings, however, for the sake of this paper and section I will only address the two most prominent views from my research. 

[3] Dr. Peter Gentry, “Were the sons of God in Genesis 6 fallen angels? Who were the Nephilim?” 

[4] O’Donnell, ESV EC note on Job 1:6.

[5] The Second London Confession of Faith 1.9 — “The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself; and therefore when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which are not many, but one), it must be searched by other places that speak more clearly.”

[6] Gentry, “Were the sons of God in Genesis 6 fallen angels? Who were the Nephilim?” — Gentry goes on to say that there is no other story in the Old Testament to which Peter can be referring.

[7] Gentry, “Were the sons of God in Genesis 6 fallen angels? Who were the Nephilim?

[8] I would also include the references in 2 Timothy 4:4 and Titus 3:9.

[9] Gentry, “Were the sons of God in Genesis 6 fallen angels? Who were the Nephilim?

[10] The Second London Confession of Faith 1.9

[11] Peter J. Gentry & Stephen J. Wellum, Kingdom through Covenant, 150.

[12] Gentry & Wellum, Kingdom through Covenant, 150-151.



 

Bibliography


Calvin, John. Commentary on the First Book of Moses Called Genesis, Vol. 1. Translated by John King. Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010.


Chase, Mitchell L. Short of Glory: A Biblical and Theological Exploration of the Fall. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2023.


Gentry, Dr. Peter J. “Were the sons of God in Genesis 6 fallen angels? Who were the Nephilim?”Honest Answers episode 81, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 


Gentry, Peter J. and Stephen J. Wellum. Kingdom through Covenant: A Biblical-Theological Understanding of the Covenants. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012.


Heiser Michael S. The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2015.


O’Donnell, Douglas Sean, “Job.” in Ezra-Job. Vol. 4 of ESV Expositoy Commentary. 

Edited by Iain M. Duguid, James M. Hamilton Jr., Jay Sklar. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2020. https://www.esv.org


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