BIBLE HISTORY DAILY

The Nephilim and the Sons of God

Unlike Hercules, Achilles, and Perseus, demigods were seen more negatively by ancient Israelites

Divine Love Painting

Divine love bringing an end to an illicit trust between Cupid and the Devil. An artistic representation of love being corrupted and God bringing it to an end.

Sandwiched between the genealogies of Adam’s descendants and the tale of Noah’s flood are a few enigmatic verses that leave many of us scratching our heads and wondering what it’s all about:

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. (Genesis 6:1–4)

More often than not it’s just easier to shrug our shoulders and move on to the story of Noah and his family. But the questions remain all the same: Who are these “sons of God” and their Nephilim children, and why would the author of Genesis choose to mention them at all?

In the text we discover that the “sons of God” (Hebrew Benai-Elohim) succumbed to their passions for the “daughters of Men” and had children with them. These offspring were known as the Nephilim (literally, “the fallen ones”), and they were the “mighty ones of old” and “men of renown.”

Though centuries of rabbinical and church tradition would say otherwise, the audience to whom the text was intended would have understood the “sons of God” to be the members of the divine assembly mentioned throughout the literature of the ancient Near East, including the Bible (see Job 6:1; Job 38:7; Psalm 29:1; Psalm 82). In the biblical texts, the “sons of God” are usually described as lesser heavenly beings in the service of the Most High. In the texts of the cultures that surrounded Israel, like the Canaanite literature found at Ugarit, the “sons of God” similarly appear as divine beings in the service to the king of the gods, El, and his queen, Asherah. They include the likes of Baal, Anath, Astarte, Yam, and Mot. The audience of Genesis would have definitely understood these so-called “fallen ones” to be the offspring of celestial beings and human women. (Coincidentally the root of the word Nephilimis used elsewhere for miscarriages and other strange births. Exodus 21:22)


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The reason the author chose to mention the Nephilim can be found in their description, which translated means something to the effect of “ancient champions who made a name for themselves.” Every society has myths and legends about gods having children with humans who become epic heroes and legendary kings. Many of us in the West are familiar with the exploits of Hercules, Achilles, and Perseus, and the Classical versions of their tales have been told and retold for well over two thousand years. However, many famous Classical stories are merely reimagined from earlier Near Eastern ones. There was a vast corpus of heroic literature available from Babylon to Egypt, including such tales as the Epic of Gilgamesh, and the ancient Israelites would have likely known these stories.

Readers of the Bible will be quick to point out the obvious problems with the Israelites’ enjoying the epic tales of demigods’ slaying monsters—they glorify a pagan culture filled with a slew of gods and goddesses far removed from the one true holy God of Israel. And just as my eighth grade Bible teacher thought my deep love of Star Wars was going to lead me into witchcraft one day, the religious leaders of ancient Israel likely feared the stories of Gilgamesh and other demigods would lead the people into idolatry. Unlike my teacher, however, the leaders of Israel did not threaten school detention. Instead, they chose a much more diplomatic solution to the Israelites’ love of stories about epic heroes. They gave an orthodox explanation for them and wove them into the context of their own narrative.

Instead of denying the existence of famous heroes altogether, the author labels them “the fallen ones” and all but blames them for the utter depravity that fell upon the world and necessitated the flood. As to how they corrupted the world we can only guess, but the concept of “making a name for oneself” is clearly at odds with the worldview found within the pages of the Bible, specifically the Book of Genesis, and calls to mind the human pride and wickedness that began in the Garden of Eden. Just after the flood, in Babel (Babylon), a place with a long association with epic tales and legendary kings, human beings decided to band together and build a tower to heaven to make a name for themselves (Genesis 11:1–9).

Were they trying to create their own legends to cement themselves in history alongside the Nephilim? We can only speculate. What we do know is that it isn’t the son of a god or goddess that steps onto the biblical stage soon after the folly of Babel, but a childless man with no strength or glory to speak of. His gift is not the power given by his divine lineage, but a promise of a future for his descendants. And it is God, not the man, who gives him a new name that will be remembered throughout the generations—Abraham.

The legacy of the Nephilim did not end with the flood, however, as the biblical texts go on to attribute them as the ancestors of some of the Israelites’ most feared enemies (Numbers 13:33). Another feared group that was legendary by the time the Israelites settled the land was the Rephaim, who were known to be powerful giants (Deuteronomy 2:11, 20, 3:11; Joshua 12:4, 13:12). It’s unknown if the Israelites originally equated the Rephaim with the Nephilim, but it is clear that by the Intertestimental period (the fourth–first centuries B.C.E.) the Nephilim were thought to be the monstrous giant offspring of fallen angels and humans, as described in the pseudographical Book of Enoch and Jubilees, as well as others found among the Dead Sea Scrolls. The authors of the Greek Septuagint even chose to use the word gigantes in their translation of Genesis 6, a word that also invokes the monstrous Titans—the legendary giants that were destroyed by the gods in Greek myth. And like the Titans of old, the legend of the Nephilim only continues to grow in modern times.

To discover more about the “sons of God,” and learn of other interpretations, read Jaap Doedens’s full article “Exploring the Story of the Sons of God,” published in the Summer 2020 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

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Subscribers: Read the full article, “Exploring the Story of the Sons of God,” by Jaap Doedens in the Summer 2020 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

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When the Sons of God Cavorted with the Daughters of Men If someone asked you to name the origin of a story about gods who take human wives and then give birth to a race of semidivine heroes, you might answer: It’s a Greek myth, or perhaps a Norse legend, or maybe a folktale from Africa or India. Surely this story couldn’t come from the sacred scriptures of Judaism and Christianity. Or could it? In fact, it is one of the seldom-told stories in the Hebrew Bible.

Did Eve Fall or Was She Pushed? In the 1500s, a witch-hunting craze spread throughout Europe. Hundreds of thousands of women were accused of sorcery, tortured and executed. The witch craze, as it was known, was spurred by the publication of a guide to the identification—and elimination—of witches. Written for the Roman Catholic Church, this influential manual, called Malleus Maleficarum (Hammer Against Witches), traced the roots of witchery back to the first woman.

Hercules in Galilee So it was a year ago at our excavation of Hippos/Sussita overlooking the Sea of Galilee.a Our 2010 summer excavation season was followed by the torrential rains of an Israeli winter. Surveying a bathhouse from about 150 B.C.E. that we had been excavating, Nissim Mazig, director of the Sussita National Park, noticed a sculpted head sticking out of the muddy debris.

Adam Meets the Evil Archon The first world religion wasn’t Judaism, Christianity or Islam. It was Manichaeism. Today, even the name of this long-dead religion is unfamiliar. But its foundation story will not be—or at least not entirely. For here, Adam, Eve and the other beloved characters of Genesis are woven into an alien account of a primal battle between the Father of Greatness and the Sons of Darkness. Here, the biblical forefather Seth, the son of Adam and Eve, appears as the spiritual ancestor of Mani, the third-century C.E. Babylonian prophet who founded Manichaeism.

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5 Responses

  1. In order to understand what words like “sons of god” meant to the Israelites, we should look at how Moses used them elsewhere in the Pentateuch. Moses describes the Israelites as “sons (or children) of the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 14:1 & 32:3-6).

  2. Brianroy says:

    Nephilim in Hebrew is spelled from right to left as Nun – Pe – Yod – Lamed – Yod – Mem. There are two prongs of translation that usually have exclusive weight in the defining the word.
    1) The first option put forth is that Nephil (Nun – Pe – Yod – Lamed )comes from a 3 letter root of Nun – Pe –Lamed is napal, and means “to fall, lie down, or be cast down”
    2) The second option, which appears just as likely, places Nephilim as being an expansion of (Pe – Lamed – Alef – Yod) pil’i – “(to be) wonderful / incomprehensible” and finding for its 3 letter root word: pala – (to be ) wonderful / marvelous (Pe – Lamed – Alef).
    However, I would like to present a third alternative, one by which both definitions above are actually derived from, and why both three letter options are equally applicable to the Nephilim as both the “fallen ones” and the “wonderful / incomprehensible” ones. That is the word root of Nun – Pe – He / NaPaH.
    In the word derivatives, NaPaH is an assumed root for TeNUPaH (Tav – Nun – Vav – Pe – He) / a “shaking or wave offering.”
    In Isaiah 19:16,
    16 “In that day shall Egypt be like unto women: and it shall be afraid and fear because of the shaking of the hand of the Lord of hosts, which he shaketh over it.”
    TeNUPaH is used to describe GOD “shaking” His Hand in a manner that proscribes Judgment.
    In Isaiah 30:32,
    32 “And in every place where the grounded staff shall pass, which the Lord shall lay upon him, it shall be with tabrets and harps: and in battles of shaking will he fight with it.”
    we are informed of “battles of shaking” where an earthquake replaces the awesomeness of an army without number whose great weight of the horses and amount of humanity actually shakes the earth under the feet of the participants as they wage war on one another. Read in context within the passage of Isaiah 30:27-33, an earthquake as the means by which the LORD brings about the use of the elements of Creation / Nature against his enemies, is quite clear: lightning, great winds, hailstones, deafening thunder, blasts of great heat and torrents of magma / hot lava….these all place in context that the battles of shaking are great earthquakes and great aftershocks that are used to wage war on those who infuriate the LORD.

    When an object is heavy and concentrated enough, its movement can make the earth rumble or shake under one’s feet. I believe that is what is in the word picture of Nephilim as seen from the root word of NaPaH. It is a combination of a height and a shaking that is experienced through a specific set of human beings we must by necessity call giants, whose very movements were not only loud, but because of the concentration of their height and weight, they shook they earth beneath their feet as they moved hither and thither.

    Og of Bashan’s bed was that being 9 twenty-one inch cubits long and 4 twenty-one inch cubits wide.
    In other words 189″ long = 17′ 4″ and 84″ wide = 7’. If we make an allowance of at least one foot at the head and at the feet, Og was about 15 feet tall, the tallest human that we know of to have ever walked the Earth. However, Scripture calls Og the remnant of the giants; and this means that others at least equal to, and almost undoubtedly many even taller than he, preceded him.

    So when we read Genesis 6, we are to understand that by GIANTS, we are talking generally about statures of 15 feet or more in height, who when they walked, shook the earth beneath their feet. When looked at, Moses himself can be showed to have been attributed a height of 8’11”& reckoned among the Hyksos giants of Egypt (the Exodus being historical literary shown to be 1551BC in both Hebrew & Greek reckonings) but since real history discredits the conflicting timelines of so many millions of $ in books & works, that information is suppressed from formal recognition though it be privately acknowledged in upset whispers.

  3. John Hayworth. says:

    How would Nephilim exist after the flood? Everybody would be a descendant of Noah, surely?

  4. I have not been able to access the full article but, according to scripture, Sons of God is a description applied to mortal believers. This passage records the consequences of believers marrying those who are outside that covenant relationship with God. This passage from Genesis merely records the first overt record of this practice; later forbidden to those under the Law of Moses and Christians alike. This disobedience invariably brings about the corruption of the true church in whatever dispensation you like to consider.

    1. I agree with Martin – see my comment above.

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5 Responses

  1. In order to understand what words like “sons of god” meant to the Israelites, we should look at how Moses used them elsewhere in the Pentateuch. Moses describes the Israelites as “sons (or children) of the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 14:1 & 32:3-6).

  2. Brianroy says:

    Nephilim in Hebrew is spelled from right to left as Nun – Pe – Yod – Lamed – Yod – Mem. There are two prongs of translation that usually have exclusive weight in the defining the word.
    1) The first option put forth is that Nephil (Nun – Pe – Yod – Lamed )comes from a 3 letter root of Nun – Pe –Lamed is napal, and means “to fall, lie down, or be cast down”
    2) The second option, which appears just as likely, places Nephilim as being an expansion of (Pe – Lamed – Alef – Yod) pil’i – “(to be) wonderful / incomprehensible” and finding for its 3 letter root word: pala – (to be ) wonderful / marvelous (Pe – Lamed – Alef).
    However, I would like to present a third alternative, one by which both definitions above are actually derived from, and why both three letter options are equally applicable to the Nephilim as both the “fallen ones” and the “wonderful / incomprehensible” ones. That is the word root of Nun – Pe – He / NaPaH.
    In the word derivatives, NaPaH is an assumed root for TeNUPaH (Tav – Nun – Vav – Pe – He) / a “shaking or wave offering.”
    In Isaiah 19:16,
    16 “In that day shall Egypt be like unto women: and it shall be afraid and fear because of the shaking of the hand of the Lord of hosts, which he shaketh over it.”
    TeNUPaH is used to describe GOD “shaking” His Hand in a manner that proscribes Judgment.
    In Isaiah 30:32,
    32 “And in every place where the grounded staff shall pass, which the Lord shall lay upon him, it shall be with tabrets and harps: and in battles of shaking will he fight with it.”
    we are informed of “battles of shaking” where an earthquake replaces the awesomeness of an army without number whose great weight of the horses and amount of humanity actually shakes the earth under the feet of the participants as they wage war on one another. Read in context within the passage of Isaiah 30:27-33, an earthquake as the means by which the LORD brings about the use of the elements of Creation / Nature against his enemies, is quite clear: lightning, great winds, hailstones, deafening thunder, blasts of great heat and torrents of magma / hot lava….these all place in context that the battles of shaking are great earthquakes and great aftershocks that are used to wage war on those who infuriate the LORD.

    When an object is heavy and concentrated enough, its movement can make the earth rumble or shake under one’s feet. I believe that is what is in the word picture of Nephilim as seen from the root word of NaPaH. It is a combination of a height and a shaking that is experienced through a specific set of human beings we must by necessity call giants, whose very movements were not only loud, but because of the concentration of their height and weight, they shook they earth beneath their feet as they moved hither and thither.

    Og of Bashan’s bed was that being 9 twenty-one inch cubits long and 4 twenty-one inch cubits wide.
    In other words 189″ long = 17′ 4″ and 84″ wide = 7’. If we make an allowance of at least one foot at the head and at the feet, Og was about 15 feet tall, the tallest human that we know of to have ever walked the Earth. However, Scripture calls Og the remnant of the giants; and this means that others at least equal to, and almost undoubtedly many even taller than he, preceded him.

    So when we read Genesis 6, we are to understand that by GIANTS, we are talking generally about statures of 15 feet or more in height, who when they walked, shook the earth beneath their feet. When looked at, Moses himself can be showed to have been attributed a height of 8’11”& reckoned among the Hyksos giants of Egypt (the Exodus being historical literary shown to be 1551BC in both Hebrew & Greek reckonings) but since real history discredits the conflicting timelines of so many millions of $ in books & works, that information is suppressed from formal recognition though it be privately acknowledged in upset whispers.

  3. John Hayworth. says:

    How would Nephilim exist after the flood? Everybody would be a descendant of Noah, surely?

  4. I have not been able to access the full article but, according to scripture, Sons of God is a description applied to mortal believers. This passage records the consequences of believers marrying those who are outside that covenant relationship with God. This passage from Genesis merely records the first overt record of this practice; later forbidden to those under the Law of Moses and Christians alike. This disobedience invariably brings about the corruption of the true church in whatever dispensation you like to consider.

    1. I agree with Martin – see my comment above.

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