What Are Nephilim?


Do you remember those Staples commercials that came out a few years ago with the “Easy” button? Someone would be struggling with a task, then hit a big red “Easy” button, and miraculously the problem would be solved. Yesterday while I waited in line at a grocery store, the credit card machine malfunctioned for the lady in front of me, and as the cashier and customer worked to get the machine running again, I thought “This could use an ‘Easy’ button.”

There are definitely other times in life in which we need more than an “Easy” button — we require a “Pass” button. Last week a dead possum ended up in our yard. It was disgusting. My husband and I knew we should get a shovel and get it out of there, but instead we used a “Pass” button and called the city to come pick it up.

Being very honest, I wanted to press a “Pass” button for Genesis 6:1-4 today. On the surface, the story seems fairly disturbing, and we need to do some research to figure out what it really means. Here is what the text says:

“When humans began to multiply on the face of the land and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that the daughters of humanity were attractive. And they took as their wives any they chose. Then the Lord said, “My Spirit shall not abide in the human 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 humanity and they bore children to them. These were the mighty men who were of old, the men of renown.”

I have never understood this passage. Frankly, it’s right before the story of Noah, so it’s almost easier to just move on to the flood story. Rather than brushing over it, though, I decided to do some research.

People have interpreted the “Nephilim” in a variety of ways, most of which involve sin and fallenness. Answers In Genesis created a list of the most prominent interpretations of the Nephilim. The first is that the Nephilim were the children of Satan/fallen angels, who bred with human women; second, that the Nephilim were children of men who Satan/fallen angels possessed, who bred with human women; third, that the Nephilim were children in the line of Adam, Seth, and Noah who strayed to worship other gods; and lastly, that the Nephilim were children of godly men who bred with ungodly women, causing their children to stray from God.

Here’s the issue with all of these interpretations: the passage never mentions sin, Satan, fallen angels, possession, or any negative attributes of the Nephilim. We can find the Sons of God who “come into the daughters of man” objectionable, certainly; but they’re not the Nephilim. Rather, the text lauds the Nephilim as “mighty men who were of old, the men of renown.” The biblical text doesn’t import anything negative about the Nephilim.

So we need to do a bit more digging, and the Bible is the best place to start. The only other place the word “Nephilim” shows up is in Numbers 13:33. At this point in the story, Moses sent spies to scope out the land of Canaan, and they have returned with a report. Here is what the text says:

So they brought to the people of Israel a bad report of the land that they had spied out, saying, ‘The land, through which we have gone to spy it out, is a land that devours its inhabitants, and all the people that we saw in it are of great height. 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.'” 

What we know of the Nephilim, based on the two passages we have about them, is that they are “mighty men of renown” (Gen. 6:4) and that they are “of great height” (Num. 13:33).

Rather than importing a bunch of external theology about Satan, fallen angels, and possession, the most biblical way to understand Genesis 6:1-4 is that there were men in the land who were so large and powerful that we don’t have human words to describe them. That the best way to communicate their strength and renown is to say the men who produced them must have been of God.

Sometimes we make things hard on ourselves. From adding unnecessary tasks to our lists, to cleaning up other people’s messes, to stretching ourselves too thin. We work hard every day, and often some of that work isn’t necessary.

What we see in the text today is one of those examples. People have put hours, days, and weeks postulating what Genesis 6:1-4 could mean. They’ve created flow charts and written books imposing wild theology onto this one passage. Yet all we needed to do was look up Numbers 13 to get a clear sense of who these people were and how the biblical writer wanted us to understand them.

Let’s look around for our “Easy” buttons today. We don’t need to create more work for ourselves, fighting to get answers from unfruitful sources. Let’s turn to the most fruitful source, the one that often offers us the most fulfilling “Easy” button, and find there the truth that we are searching for.

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