Dr. Richard S. Hess

Old Testament Questions from the desk of Dr. Richard S. Hess

Who were the Nephilim (Genesis 6:1-4)?

Adapted from Richard Hess, “Nephilim,” Anchor Bible Dictionary (Doubleday, 1992).

The Nephilim were a group of antediluvians (people living before Noah’s flood) who were the product of the union of the sons of God with the daughters of humans (Genesis 6:1-4). They are described as heroic and famous. In Genesis 6, the Nephilim are connected with the multiplication of humanity on the face of the earth (verse 1) and with the evil of humanity which brings about God’s judgment in the form of the flood (verses 5-7). Verse 4 includes a reference to later (postdiluvian) Nephilim. The majority of the spies who were sent by Joshua to spy out Canaan reported giants whom they called Nephilim, and who are designated in the account as the sons of Anak (Numbers 13: 33). The reference to Nephilim as ancient dead warriors in Ezekiel 32: 27 is less likely. It requires a textual change.

Their heroic attributes were noted in translating Nephilim in the versions. Both the LXX (Greek) and the Vulgate (Latin) render the expression as gigantes “giants.” The Samaritan Pentateuch and targums also follow this custom, using terms for figures of great strength. Targum Pseudo-Jonathan translates Nephilim with the names of fallen angels mentioned in I Enoch as leading the rebellion. Nephilim are referred to as “giants” in the Apocrypha/Pseudepigrapha, usually with reference to their pride and wickedness, and to God’s judgment upon them (e.g., Baruch 3:26-28). The fullest development appears in 1 Enoch 6-19, and this is followed by allusions in the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Midrashim, and the New Testament.

II Peter 2: 4 and Jude 6 are the New Testament allusions to the Nephilim. Here they are identified as angels who rebelled and have been imprisoned by God. They lead a list of biblical examples of rebels and their punishments current in contemporary Jewish paraenisis. Although elements of Greek Titan mythology have been identified here and in Gen 6: 1-4, the presence of a common source for the traditions of I Enoch and those of the Greek world is more likely.

The Hebrew root, npl, “to fall,” seems to be the basis of Nephilim, i.e. “the fallen ones.” The earliest use of the West Semitic npl occurs in a military context, the fourteenth century B.C.E. letter of Lab’ayu of Shechem to the pharaoh, EA 252, lines 25-27, “Fall under them that they may smite you!” The sons of Anak, who are identified with the later Nephilim in Num 13:33, are also identified with the Rephaim in Deut 2:11. As the Rephaim are understood as ancient warriors slain by Israel and others, so the Nephilim, “the fallen ones,” are those who are doomed to die.

As fathers of the Nephilim, the identity of the sons of God is important in understanding whether the Nephilim of Gen 6 were semi-divine or completely human. The sons of God have been understood as nonhumans (gods, angels), rulers, or as descendants of Seth. The first interpretation is supported by the term’s use in Ugaritic myths, in the OT (Psalm 29: 1; Job 1: 6), and in the Intertestamental and New Testament material noted above. It allows for a real contrast with “daughters of men” which would be nonspecific if it were to mean daughters of nonrulers or daughters of the descendants of Cain. The mating of deities with human women appears in ANE and Greek mythology. Support of identification with rulers may be found in a similar designation given to the Ugaritic king Keret and to the Davidic king (II Samuel 7: 14; Ps 2: 7), and in traditional Jewish exegesis. The connection with the line of Seth has few modern adherents.

For Wenham (1987: 141), the key seems to be the limitation of human life span in verse 3. The daughters of men willingly cohabited with divine beings in order to produce offspring who would gain much longer life spans and perhaps achieve immortality. By rejecting this attempt, God has established a rigid distinction between the mortal and the immortal.


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