There has been a lot of discussion about the Nephilim in recent days, at least in my spheres, and about the identity of the “Sons of God” who marry with the “daughters of men” in Genesis 6.
For those who have been living under a rock for the last decade or so, there is a popular strand of interpretation that sees these “sons of God” as fallen angels who rape women and forged a half-breed race of part-human, part-angelic rulers that poisoned the human line and forced God to flood the earth to free the world of their oppressive tyranny.
Frankly, this interpretation is patent nonsense, and is a shining example of the ways in which we let ourselves over-complicate Scripture. It is the classic problem of modern evangelicalism to over-complicate that which is simple and simplify that which is complicated.
Now, I readily admit that such an interpretation would be really cool. But coolness is not a factor in exegetical work. The fact is that this view is almost entirely imported from Second-Temple Judaism around the time of Christ, post-exilic Rabinical traditions, and pagan mythology rather than from Scripture itself, and there is no indication that this is something the Biblical writers of any book actually had in mind for their readers to understand.
The answer is far simpler, as we shall see.
So what was going on? Genesis 6 tells us that as man multiplied in the Land, the “sons of God saw the daughters of man” and “took as their wives any they chose,” (vv. 1-2). It is clear that whatever is going on here involves intermarriage of some kind, and this involves a temptation and fall.
In fact, this passage is parallel to the temptation of Eve in Genesis 3:
“So when the woman saw (ra’ah) that the Tree was good (tobe) for food” – Gen. 3:6
“the sons of God saw (ra’ah) that the daughters of men were attractive (tobe)” – Gen. 6:2
Thus, something similar is happening in both passages. These unions were bad because as soon as they take place, because “Yahweh saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually,” (6:5).
But what was the problem? To answer this question, we have to go back to the beginning. At the start of Genesis, God makes three zones or spheres for mankind to dwell in, the Garden, the Land/Field, and the wider World (Gordon Wenham and James Jordan have written about this). Genesis 3-6 presents three falls, one in each environment. Adam and Eve fall in the Garden and are sent into the Land. Cain falls in the Land and is sent out into the world. And the “sons of God” fall in the World and the whole system is purged and re-established in the flood.
The central question of this narrative is the preservation of the Godly line. That is, when God outlines the consequences that come from the Fall, He also promises that the seed of the serpent and the seed of the woman will have a rivalry until the Messiah comes to destroy the Serpent once and for all (Gen. 3:15). The narrative of Cain and Abel illustrates this (Gen. 4), dividing humanity, brother between brother and establishing an unGodly line of evil men. But Abel is dead, so what becomes of the Godly line and the promises of God? Ahh, but Adam and Eve have another faithful son, Seth, who establishes a line of justice and faithfulness in the earth, a lineage recorded in Genesis 5.
But flip the page to chapter 6 and suddenly “the wickedness of man was great in the earth,” and “every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually,” while Noah alone “found favor in the eyes of Yahweh,” (6:5, 8). The central key to the passage, the thematic core of the narrative is: “But what happened to all the other faithful ones? What happened to the line of Seth?”
There’s only one place in the narrative to explain what happened to all the other just men on the earth: Genesis 6:1-4. For the Biblical writer(s) to suddenly abandon the central question right at the most important point in favor of going on about angels marrying human women is beyond implausible (in effect introducing a new matter into the story at a climactic point).
No, whatever is going on in Genesis 6:1-4, it revolves around the fall of the Sethite line of faithful people. But what of the “sons of God” and daughters of men? While it is true that the phrase “sons of God” is applied to angels (Job 1:6; 2:1; 38:7), this is a minor theme in comparison with the amount of times the people of God are described as “sons of God.”
Adam himself is the “son of God.” He is made after the likeness of the divine Image (Wenham, Genesis 1-15, 32). Christ is, of course, the true Image of God (2 Cor. 4:4; Col. 1:15), the Son of God, and Adam (and therefore, all humanity) was made in His Image. This, by extension, makes Adam the “son of God,” made in the image of the Son of God, Who is the Image of God. And, in fact, Scripture confirms this directly: Adam is “the son of God,” (Luke 3:38). Seth, made in the image of Adam (Gen. 5:3), is also, therefore, a “son of God,” and his descendents are the “sons of God.” This begins a long Scriptural theme of the people of God standing as the sons of God, corporately the brother of Christ, the Son of God. “You are the sons of Yahweh your God,” (Deut. 14:1). The meticulous record of genealogies serves the purpose of ensuring that all of Israel remained in the image of Adam, the son of God made in the image of the Son of God. God’s fatherhood also directly speaks to humanity (and the people of God particularly) as the “son of God” (Psa. 27:10; 68:5; 89:26; 103:13; Prov. 3:12; Isa. 9:6; 22:21; 63:16; 64:8; Jer. 3:19; 31:9; Mal. 2:10).”Give glory to your Father in heaven,” “so that you may be sons of your Father Who is in heaven,” “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect,” (Matt. 5:16, 45, 48, 6:1, 4, 6, 8, 9, 14-15, 18, 26, 32; 7:11, 21; 10:21, 29, 32; 12:27, 50, etc.).
This sonship of Israel was eventually tied to the Messianic promise (see Christopher J. H. Wright, Knowing Jesus, 118-135): originally referring to Solomon, but also to Jesus, Yahweh declares “He shall be my son, and I will be his father,” (1 Chron. 22:10). Jesus, of course, fulfills this theme of Messianic sonship: “This is My Beloved Son, with Whom I am well pleased,” (Matt. 3:17). And Jesus, as Son of God, has “brought many sons to glory” and made many brothers of all who believe, which makes them “sons of God” also (Heb. 2:11-18). The peacemakers shall be “called sons of God,” (Matt. 5:9). Those who “are considered worthy to attain the Age to come and the resurrection” are “sons of God,” (Luke 20:36). “For all those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God,” (Rom. 8:14).
It should also be noted that aside from Job and one or two other places, the angelic hosts are never described in equivalent terms. They are always spoken of as subordinates and guardians of man, not as sons awaiting elevation as humanity was (Heb. 1-2; Gal. 3-4). “When we were children, were enslaved to the elementary principles of the world,” (Gal. 4:3), “enslaved to those that by nature are not gods,” (Gal. 4:8), who are “weak and worthless,” (Gal. 4:9). Christ is “much superior to angels,” and not Christ alone, for the angels serve the Church also (Heb. 1:4, 14). The Torah was given “through angels by an intermediary. … So then, the Torah was our guardian until Messiah came, in order that we might be vindicated by faithfulness. But now that faithfulness has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Messiah Jesus you are all sons of God, through faithfulness,” (Gal. 3:19, 24-26).
I trust that this is enough to establish the fact that it is far more likely the reference to the “sons of God” in Genesis 6:2 is to the people of God in the antediluvian prefiguration of the Land (Gen. 6:1) than it is to angels marrying human women. This reading makes sense of the central thrust of the immediate narrative questions and the biblio-typological narrative concerning the identity of the “sons of God.” These are the line of Seth marrying outside of the holy line, corrupting the seed of the women with the “daughters of men,” the pagan girls.
What then are the Nephilim? Once again, the answer is simple one we strip away the assumptions of outside texts and mythologies. The word rendered Nephilim or “giants” simply means feller, or slayer, a bully or tyrant. There is no suggestion here that their “giant” status must, in fact, be physical. All the stresses of the passage are on traits beyond physical stature. They are “mighty men” (gibbor), which simply means powerful, a champion or chieftain, and “men of renown” (shem), which simply means of great position, great fame; legendary. They are great warriors known throughout that part of the world at the time.
And what about the Nephilim from Numbers 13:33? The first thing to note is that if God’s intention in sending the flood was to wipe out the Nephilim, who were human-divine half-breeds, then the purpose of the Flood was a clear failure. Despite the fact that only Noah and his family survived, and their line was pure, the Flood failed to actually eliminate these demonic demigod monsters from the earth. But if the Nephilim are the offspring of compromised marriages, then the “nephilim” can easily resurface in new bloodlines, because they are not the half-breed offspring of women and angels. Are these new nephilim giants too? Not that the text seems to indicate. They are the descendents of Anakim, and said to be “great and tall” (Deut. 1:28; 2:10, 21; 9:2). But “great” here (gidol) refers to older or greater in number, not physically larger. Likewise, “tall” (rum) means to actively raise up or lift up, in the sense of self-exaltation, proud, haughty. Thus, these nephilim that possessed Canaan were many in number and haughty in their opinion of themselves and their possession of the land. And what of Og’s bed that was thirteen feet long (Deut. 3:11)? Well, it doesn’t say a thing about Og himself, does it? Not a word. Just as a person who sleeps on a queen-sized bed today isn’t six feet wide, so there is no reason Og need be thirteen feet tall. Also, the word “bed” here (eres) is unusual, and could refer to Og’s sarcophagus, which would have included room for burial contents along with him, demanding a larger space.