Episode 6: Who were the Nephilim in Genesis 6? Were they the Offspring of Angels and Humans? Reading: Genesis 6, Ezra 6, Matthew 6 and Acts 6.
Today’s reading is Genesis 6, Ezra 6, Matthew 6, and Acts 6. It may be that our focus reading for the day should continue in Matthew 6, because Jesus’ teaching there is so majestic and beautiful that no passage should really overshadow it. If you will indulge me a bit, we will return to Matthew tomorrow for our focus, but today – we are going to discuss the Genesis passage. Genesis 6 has long been one of my favorite passages in the Bible. It is fascinating, scary, and very, very mysterious. I wrote a book last year called Angels, Ghosts and other Bible Mysteries (on Amazon) that is very focused on many of the mysteries that are brought up in this passage. If you like this discussion, you will probably enjoy that book. If not, then skip the book!
Before we get to the question and answer section, however, let’s mine some spiritual gold from this passage.
Here is a powerful and encouraging word from our friend and mentor, Charles Spurgeon:
My brethren, how displeased the great God has been with men. He said that it repented him that he had made men upon the earth. That was a striking expression which is used in Genesis 6:6: “It grieved him at his heart.” He seemed to grow so weary of man’s wanton wickedness that he was sorry that he ever made beings capable of so much evil. Yet he is so well content with his beloved Son, who has assumed our nature, that we read of him, “The Lord is well pleased for his righteousness’ sake: he will magnify the law, and make it honourable.” (Is. 42:21). The Lord looks down upon those who are in Christ with an intense affection, and loves them even as he loves the Son, for that is the meaning of this word, “In whom I am well pleased.” All who are in Christ Jesus are pleasing to God; yea, God in Christ looks with divine satisfaction upon all those who trust his Son: he is not only pleased, but well pleased. If you are pleased with Jesus, God is pleased with you: if you are in the Son, then you are in the Father’s good pleasureC. H. Spurgeon, “The Voice from the Cloud and the Voice of the Beloved,” in The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit Sermons, vol. 29 (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1883), 355–356.
I would say that Genesis 6 presents us with one of the top five mysteries in the Bible – especially if you read it in the King James Version! Check this out:
And it came to pass, when men began to multiply on the face of the earth, and daughters were born unto them,That the sons of God saw the daughters of men that they were fair; and they took them wives of all which they chose.And the Lord said, My spirit shall not always strive with man, for that he also is flesh: yet his days shall be an hundred and twenty years.There were giants in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare children to them, the same became mighty men which were of old, men of renown.Genesis 6;1-4, King James Version
SO MANY QUESTIONS! What is going on here? Are angelic beings having relations with human women (apparently…) were the offspring of those unions giants (maybe…but that’s not the best translation.) did God send the flood because heavenly beings and earthly beings were having relationships?! These are all tough questions and likely too big for our short little podcast to cover, but I’ll try to at least give a short answer to some of them. (maybe we’ll do a special episode on this chapter at some point)
Question #1: Are heavenly beings in Genesis 6 actually having children with human females?
The answer to this question depends on who, exactly, the “sons of God” are in Genesis 6. There are three main theories. The first is that they are powerful men and leaders that were human – maybe significantly above average humans. Think body-builders, great/tall athletes, charismatic politicians, etc. Theory #2 is that these ‘sons of God’ are descendants of Seth, thus making the ‘daughters of men,’ primarily descendants of Cain. This theory is the one I have heard most at seminary and in academic circles. Theory #3 is that ‘sons of God’ are some type of heavenly creature – an angel, or something like an angel.
I personally see no grammatical or historical evidence of theory #1. All of the sudden these guys realized that human females were beautiful (vs. 2)? This theory doesn’t seem to fit the context of the verse very well, and theory #2 even less so. There is literally NOWHERE in Scripture that suggests that the daughters of men were of the line of Cain and the sons of God were of the line of Seth. Seth is mentioned ten times in the Bible, and only twice after Genesis 5. (Once in a genealogy in Luke and in 1st Chronicles) Cain is mentioned only 3 times after Genesis 5, and all three times are in the New Testament, and do not discuss his descendants at all, but only his murder and his wrong-offering. Genesis six mentions neither Cain nor Abel, so this theory – and it is a popular one – simply has no biblical support whatsoever that I can find.
Which brings us to theory #3 – the sons of God are some type of heavenly creature. Believe it or not, this theory has the most textual support by far. The phrase ‘sons of God,’ occurs three times outside of Genesis in the Old Testament. All three times are in the book of Job, and all three times are clearly speaking of heavenly creatures – angels, or something like angels. That is a strong bit of evidence in favor of viewing these sons of God as Heavenly beings. Vs. 2 is also strong contextual evidence in favor of theory 3. Consider this verse, “The sons of God saw that the daughters of mankind were beautiful.” if that verse is simply talking about human males, the descendants of Seth, or whomever, then it is a strange, strange passage. Did it really take hundreds (or thousands!) of years for human males to realize that human females were beautiful? Frankly, I think that is silly. I believe the biblical text is pointing us to theory #3 that these beings were heavenly.
One more bit of evidence, and this evidence is weak, but worth noting. The Book of Enoch is not a biblical book, and was not written by the Enoch spoken of in Genesis. It was not canonical, and I do not believe it to be inspired. It is, however, a very old book and it was read by people in the early church, and many early church fathers. Scholars’ best guess is that the book of Enoch dates to around 100-300 years before the birth of Jesus, though some sections could be older. That book is very, very clear about who the ‘sons of God’ in Genesis 6 were. Listen to this!
Book of Enoch – Enoch 15: And He answered and said to me, and I heard His voice: ‘Fear not, Enoch, thou righteous man and scribe of righteousness: approach hither and hear my voice. And go, say to the Watchers of heaven, who have sent thee to intercede for them: “You should intercede” for men, and not men for you: Wherefore have ye left the high, holy, and eternal heaven, and lain with women, and defiled yourselves with the daughters of men and taken to yourselves wives, and done like the children of earth, and begotten giants (as your) sons? And though ye were holy, spiritual, living the eternal life, you have defiled yourselves with the blood of women, and have begotten (children) with the blood of flesh, and, as the children of men, have lusted after flesh and blood as those also do who die 5 and perish. Therefore have I given them wives also that they might impregnate them, and beget children by them, that thus nothing might be wanting to them on earth. But you were formerly spiritual, living the eternal life, and immortal for all generations of the world. And therefore I have not appointed wives for you; for as for the spiritual ones of the heaven, in heaven is their dwelling. And now, the giants, who are produced from the spirits and flesh, shall be called evil spirits upon the earth, and on the earth shall be their dwelling. Evil spirits have proceeded from their bodies; because they are born from men and from the holy Watchers is their beginning and primal origin; they shall be evil spirits on earth, and evil spirits shall they be called. [As for the spirits of heaven, in heaven shall be their dwelling, but as for the spirits of the earth which were born upon the earth, on the earth shall be their dwelling.] And the spirits of the giants afflict, oppress, destroy, attack, do battle, and work destruction on the earth, and cause trouble: they take no food, but nevertheless hunger and thirst, and cause offences. And these spirits shall rise up against the children of men and against the women, because they have proceeded from them.
One objection that many have to theory #3 is from Matthew 22:30, ” 30 For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage but are like angels in heaven.” I do not believe this objection holds much water for two reasons: #1 Genesis 6 seems to be talking about intimate relations and not necessarily marriage. It is possible to have relations and not be married. #2, Jesus specifically mentions “angels in Heaven,” and Genesis 6 is quite obviously dealing with beings that are on earth. Perhaps angels in Heaven do not marry, but the beings in Genesis 6, be they human or angels are not at all in Heaven, and don’t seem to be concerned with the rules of Heaven.
Another objection might say that Heavenly beings are without gender, but I don’t see that in Scripture either. There are Heavenly beings in Zechariah 5 that are female (not necessarily angels) and the Heavenly beings in Genesis 18 are clearly male. Can heavenly beings procreate? The only bit of biblical evidence in favor of that possibility would seem to be here in Genesis 6 and I see nothing anywhere else that gives me the idea that they are incapable of such things.
Question #2: Is Genesis 6 telling us that giants used to exist on the earth?
Not necessarily – the Hebrew word there is the word Nephilim. It is a difficult word to translate because it only appears in one – or two – other places in the entire Old Testament. Reference #1 is from Numbers 13 and is probably where the King James translators got the inspiration to use the word, “giant.”
30 Then Caleb quieted the people in the presence of Moses and said, “Let’s go up now and take possession of the land because we can certainly conquer it!”31 But the men who had gone up with him responded, “We can’t attack the people because they are stronger than we are!” 32 So they gave a negative report to the Israelites about the land they had scouted: “The land we passed through to explore is one that devours its inhabitants, and all the people we saw in it are men of great size. 33 We even saw the Nephilim there—the descendants of Anak come from the Nephilim! To ourselves we seemed like grasshoppers, and we must have seemed the same to them.”Numbers 13:30-34
So – these Nephilim are clearly quite big and impressive…but are they giants? I live in Salinas, California – about an hour from where the Golden State Warriors play basketball. If I went over to practice one day, and somehow, someway got a chance to shoot around with those guys, I’d probably come home and tell my family that I felt like a grasshopper. I’m 6’1, but compared to Kevin Looney (6 feet, 9 inches) or Willie Cauley-Stein (7 feet!) I’m quite short. I believe that these Nephilim were the offspring of heavenly beings and human females, so it is certainly possible that they possessed traits that were above human capability, but we just can’t be sure about their size at all, beyond saying that they were likely significantly larger than the Hebrews.
Question #3: Did God flood the earth because of human-angelic relationships?
If definitely seems like there is a subtle relationship between God flooding the world and whatever was going on with these sons of God and daughters of men. Could 2nd Peter 2 be giving us a clue about this?
4 For if God didn’t spare the angels who sinned but cast them into hell and delivered them in chains of utter darkness to be kept for judgment; 5 and if he didn’t spare the ancient world, but protected Noah, a preacher of righteousness, and seven others, when he brought the flood on the world of the ungodly;2 Peter 2:4-5
That passage is quite interesting, but also fairly obscure. I’m not sure we should build a lot of theology on it. The fact is, however, that the first part Genesis 6 seems to indicate that the sins of humans grieved God in the context of the flood.
5 When the Lord saw that human wickedness was widespread on the earth and that every inclination of the human mind was nothing but evil all the time, 6 the Lord regretted that he had made man on the earth,and he was deeply grieved. 7 Then the Lord said, “I will wipe mankind, whom I created, off the face of the earth, together with the animals, creatures that crawl, and birds of the sky—for I regret that I made them.” 8 Noah, however, found favor with the Lord….Genesis 6:5-8
The second part of Genesis 6, however, seems to make room for more than humans to be involved in the judgment.
11 Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with wickedness. 12 God saw how corrupt the earth was, for every creature had corrupted its way on the earth. 13 Then God said to Noah, “I have decided to put an end to every creature, for the earth is filled with wickedness because of them; therefore I am going to destroy them along with the earth.Genesis 6:11-13
So, my conclusion to the question is a weak ‘maybe.’ If the sons of God are indeed heavenly beings, as I suspect they are, it would appear that their dalliance with human females had at least a small part to play in the flooding of the earth. We might go too far past the text if we say much more than that.
I’ll close with the conclusions of Jonathan Edwards – probably American’s foremost theologian – on the question of the giants/nephilim:
“And there were giants in the earth in those days,” etc. “Pausanias, in his Laconics, mentions the bones of men of a more than ordinary bigness, which were shown in the temple of Aesculapius at the city of Asepus; and in the first of his Eliacs, of a bone taken out of the sea, which aforetime was kept at Pisa, and thought to have been one of Peleps’. Philostratus, in the beginning of his Heroics, [says] that many bodies of giants were discovered in Pallene, by showers of rain and earthquakes. Pliny, Bk. 7, ch. 16, says, ‘That upon the bursting of a mountain in Crete, there was found a body standing upright, which was reported by some to have been the body of Orion, by others, the body of Eetion. Orestes’ body, when it was commanded by the oracle to be digged up, is reported to have been seven cubits. And almost a thousand years ago, the poet Homer continually complained, that men’s bodies were less than of old.’ And Solinus, ch. I, ‘Were not all that were born in that age, less than their parents?’ And the story of Orestes’ funeral testifies the bigness of the ancients, whose bones, when they were digged up, in the 58th Olympiad at Tegea, by the advice of the oracle, are related to have been seven cubits in length. And other writings, which give a credible relation of ancient matters, affirm this, that in the war of Crete, when the rivers had been so high as to overflow and break down their banks, after the flood was abated, upon the cleaving of the earth, there was found a human body of three and thirty foot long, which L. Flaccus, the legate, and Metellus himself, being very desirous of seeing, were much surprised to have the satisfaction of seeing, what they did not believe when they heard.” Grotius, De Veritate, Bk. 1, sec. 16, notes.Jonathan Edwards, Notes on Scripture, ed. Harry S. Stout and Stephen J. Stein, vol. 15, The Works of Jonathan Edwards (London; New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), 506–508.
“Josephus, Bk. 5, ch. 2, of his ancient history. ‘There remains to this day some of the race of the giants, who by reason of the bulk and figure of their bodies, so different from other men, are wonderful to see, or hear of. Their bones are now shown, far exceeding the belief of the vulgar.’ Gabinius, in his history of Mauritania, said that Antaeus’ bones were found by Sertorius, which, joined together, were sixty cubits long. Phlegon Trallianus, in his 9th chapter of Wonders, mentions the digging up [of] the head of Ida, which was three times as big as that of an ordinary woman. And he adds also, that there were many bodies found in Dalmatia, whose arms exceeded sixteen cubits. And the same man relates out of Theopompus, that there were found in the Cimmerian Bosphorus, a company of human bones twenty-four cubits in length.” Le Clerc’s notes on Grotius, De Veritate, Bk. 1, sec. 16.
“We almost everywhere in the Greek and Latin historians meet with the savage life of the giants, mentioned by Moses. In the Greek, as Homer, Iliad 9, and Hesiod in his Labors. To this may be referred the wars of the gods, mentioned by Plato in his Second Republic, and those distinct and separate governments, taken notice of by the same Plato, in his third book of Laws. And as to the Latin historians, see the first book of Ovid’s Metamorphosis, and the 4th book of Lucan, and Seneca’s third book of Natural Questions, Ques. 30, where he says concerning the deluge, ‘That the beasts also perished, into whose nature men were degenerated.’ ”
By the way, Augustine – writing all the way back in the 300s! Makes a case contra the above, and believes that the sons of God were merely men. His reasoning is that there are at least two men in the Bible that are designated as angels/messengers that were obviously human, and that is likely what is going on here too. I respect and admire Augustine, but disagree with him here, noting that “sons of God” does not, of necessity, equate to angels.
WHETHER WE ARE TO BELIEVE THAT ANGELS, WHO ARE OF A SPIRITUAL SUBSTANCE, FELL IN LOVE WITH THE BEAUTY OF WOMEN, AND SOUGHT THEM IN MARRIAGE, AND THAT FROM THIS CONNECTION GIANTS WERE BORN
- In the third book of this work (c. 5) we made a passing reference to this question, but did not decide whether angels, inasmuch as they are spirits, could have bodily intercourse with women. For it is written, “Who maketh His angels spirits,”4 that is, He makes those who are by nature spirits His angels by appointing them to the duty of bearing His messages. For the Greek word ἄγγελος, which in Latin appears as “angelus,” means a messenger. But whether the Psalmist speaks of their bodies when he adds, “and His ministers a flaming fire,” or means that God’s ministers ought to blaze with love as with a spiritual fire, is doubtful. However, the same trustworthy Scripture testifies that angels have appeared to men in such bodies as could not only be seen, but also touched. There is, too, a very general rumor, which many have verified by their own experience, or which trustworthy persons who have heard the experience of others corroborate, that sylvans and fauns, who are commonly called “incubi,” had often made wicked assaults upon women, and satisfied their lust upon them; and that certain devils, called Duses by the Gauls, are constantly attempting and effecting this impurity is so generally affirmed, that it were impudent to deny it.5 From these assertions, indeed, I dare not determine whether there be some spirits embodied in an aerial substance (for this element, even when agitated by a fan, is sensibly felt by the body), and who are capable of lust and of mingling sensibly with women; but certainly I could by no means believe that God’s holy angels could at that time have so fallen, nor can I think that it is of them the Apostle Peter said, “For if God spared not the angels that sinned, but cast them down to hell, and delivered them into chains of darkness, to be reserved unto judgment.”1 I think he rather speaks of these who first apostatized from God, along with their chief the devil, who enviously deceived the first man under the form of a serpent. But the same holy Scripture affords the most ample testimony that even godly man have been called angels; for of John it is written: “Behold, I send my messenger (angel) before Thy face, who shall prepare Thy way.”2 And the prophet Malachi, by a peculiar grace specially communicated to him, was called an angel.3
- But some are moved by the fact that we have read that the fruit of the connection between those who are called angels of God and the women they loved were not men like our own breed, but giants; just as if there were not born even in our own time (as I have mentioned above) men of much greater size than the ordinary stature. Was there not at Rome a few years ago, when the destruction of the city now accomplished by the Goths was drawing near, a woman, with her father and mother, who by her gigantic size over-topped all others? Surprising crowds from all quarters came to see her, and that which struck them most was the circumstance that neither of her parents were quite up to the tallest ordinary stature. Giants therefore might well be born, even before the sons of God, who are also called angels of God, formed a connection with the daughters of men, or of those living according to men, that is to say, before the sons of Seth formed a connection with the daughters of Cain. For thus speaks even the canonical Scripture itself in the book in which we read of this; its words are: “And it came to pass, when men began to multiply on the face of the earth, and daughters were born unto them, that the sons of God saw the daughters of men that they were fair [good]; and they took them wives of all which they chose. And the Lord God said, My Spirit shall not always strive with man, for that he also is flesh: yet his days shall be an hundred and twenty years. There were giants in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare children to them, the same became the giants, men of renown.”4 These words of the divine book sufficiently indicate that already there were giants in the earth in those days, in which the sons of God took wives of the children of men, when they loved them because they were good, that is, fair. For it is the custom of this Scripture to call those who are beautiful in appearance “good.” But after this connection had been formed, then too were giants born. For the words are: “There were giants in the earth in those days, and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men.” Therefore there were giants both before, “in those days,” and “also after that.” And the words, “they bare children to them,” show plainly enough that before the sons of God fell in this fashion they begat children to God, not to themselves,—that is to say, not moved by the lust of sexual intercourse, but discharging the duty of propagation, intending to produce not a family to gratify their own pride, but citizens to people the city of God; and to these they as God’s angels would bear the message, that they should place their hope in God, like him who was born of Seth, the son of resurrection, and who hoped to call on the name of the Lord God, in which hope they and their offspring would be co-heirs of eternal blessings, and brethren in the family of which God is the Father.
Augustine of Hippo, “The City of God,” in St. Augustin’s City of God and Christian Doctrine, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. Marcus Dods, vol. 2, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1887), 303–304.