Who Were the Nephilim?

By Wayne Jackson

Who were the Nephilim as described in Genesis 6:4?

And it came to pass, when men began to multiply on the face of the ground, 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 that they chose. And Jehovah said, My spirit shall not strive with man for ever, for that he also is flesh: yet shall his days be a hundred and twenty years. The Nephilim were in the earth in those days, and also after that, when the sons of God came unto the daughters of men, and they bare children to them: the same were the mighty men that were of old, the men of renown (Genesis 6:1-4, ASV).

The term “Nephilim,” as portrayed in the more recent translations of the Bible (ASV, RSV, NIV), is found in two Old Testament texts—here in Genesis 6:4 and in Numbers 13:33. In the King James Version, the original term is rendered by “giants.”

There is a common view that the Nephilim were the offspring of sexual relationships between men and angels (Laney 1997, 20-22). There is absolutely no evidence for that theory (which actually has roots in Greek mythology), and, in fact, it is contrary to the explicit testimony of Scripture.

Angels are spirits (Hebrews 1:14) and do not possess, therefore, physical attributes (Luke 24:39). While angels sometimes temporarily assumed the forms of men (cf. Acts 10:3, 30), they were not actual physical beings. Jesus emphatically stated that angels do not marry (Matthew 22:30; Mark 12:25; Luke 20:34ff).

The fact is, the language of Genesis 6:1ff does not demand that the Nephilim of verse six were the offspring of the unions mentioned in verse two. The presence of the Nephilim may be regarded as merely contemporary (“in those days”) with the marriages described in the context.

It also is exceedingly fanciful to suggest that the Nephilim were the offspring of “demonically controlled men and women of this period” (Morris 1976, 172).

Even more ludicrous is the novel notion that the Nephilim were an animal-human species on their way to becoming fully human via the evolutionary route.

The root meaning of the Hebrew term is debated; that is why most modern Bible versions have transliterated it rather than attempting a pure English rendition. The KJV “giants” derives from the Greek Old Testament (LXX), which has the word gigantes. Some suggest that the original word meant “fall,” perhaps yielding the sense of one who has “fallen”(Youngblood 1997, 678).

If true, this could hint of the apostate character of these people. Others view the term in the sense of “to fall upon,” i.e., an attack (Leupold 1978, 258), which might suggest a violent sort of men who assaulted others.

The contextual use of the term in later history does suggest that, in that setting at least, the Nephilim were men of extraordinary size (Numbers 13:32-33). There are other biblical references to exceptionally large people. Og, king of Bashan, had an iron bed that was some thirteen feet long by six feet wide (Deuteronomy 3:11). Goliath, the giant slain by David, was about nine feet tall (1 Samuel 17:4). Such great size may have been the result of genetic defects. For example, 2 Samuel 21:20 mentions a giant who had a total of twenty-four toes and fingers.

Archaeology has confirmed the existence of large people in the ancient world. One writer notes: “The remains of a man of enormous stature have been discovered at Grimaldi on the Mediterranean coast by the Franco-Italian frontier” (Atkinson 1957, 72).

When all is said, the derivation of the term remains obscure, as do these ancient people themselves, but there is no reason to surmise that the Genesis record has an aura of the mythological.

Sources/Footnotes
  • Atkinson, Basil F. C. 1957. The Book of Genesis. Chicago, IL: Moody.
  • Laney, J. Carl. 1997. Answers to Tough Questions. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel.
  • Leupold, H. C. 1978. Genesis. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker.
  • Morris, Henry. 1976. The Genesis Record. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker.
  • Youngblood, Ronald. 1997. Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis. Vol. 4. Willem VanGemeren, ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
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About the Author

Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.