I decided to make this a post of its own as the notes on the Flood Part 1 were becoming more treatise than blog post. I want to note that I’m writing this as if it actually happened. I believe that the Nephilim are ancient mythological interpretations of something in the world the ancients did not understand.
There are two sets of beings mentioned in Genesis 6, the Sons of God, and the Nephilim. Entire books have been written based on the first five verses of the chapter. Some of these books are considered scripture by certain Christian churches, most are considered apocryphal, however.
The Sons of God
The Sons of God, or bene elohim in Hebrew, are particularly interesting to me. The typical explanation is that the bene elohim are fallen angels or demons. Many, if not most Christian denominations believe that fallen angels and demons are one and the same. At any rate they seem to be the same as the “Watchers” mentioned in the Book of Enoch. These Watchers are mentioned briefly in the book of Daniel.
The Bible does not spend much time on the subject, and the conflation of the two is based more on supposition and tradition than anything in scripture. Because of this I’ll use the term “Sons of God”, “Watchers” and “Bene Elohim” to refer to them, just as Genesis 6 (and other passages) does.
To really dig into the concept of The Sons of God, one must first understand the idea of “God’s Heavenly Council”. These bene elohim are part of God’s divine council, and are for lack of a better term ‘gods’. As noted we call them angels today. The concept comes up fairly often in the Old Testament, the best example I know is 1 Kings 22:19-23 (and a slightly different telling in 1 Chronicles 18). The passage indicates God consulting with a heavenly advisory board (called a host) on how to set up King Ahab so he would die in battle.
The relationship between the wives of the Watchers is something that’s kind of hard to nail down. Most traditional interpretations say that the Watchers raped these women, or that the women were wicked. There’s no mention of rape or evil women in these verses.
The phrase ‘took them wives of all those they chose’ could mean they raped the women. However, since wife now means ‘spouse’ and not just ‘woman’, I can’t see why that word would be used in modern translations. I suspect the author was simply indicating these women had whatever was considered a normal relationship at the time with their divine husbands. This certainly could have included being forced into ‘marriage’, which was common, but it could just as likely have been mutually consenting. I’d imagine a baby Nephilim would be rather helpless just like human babies, and illegitimate children used to be frowned upon much more than now. So very few would have made it to adulthood without their father’s protection.
Most of the information we have on the Sons of God come from The Book of Enoch, as well as other books that did not make it into either the Christian or Jewish canon. The Book of Enoch was apparently a popular read in Jesus’ day and for some time after until it was lost in the west. This explains why it is quoted directly in Jude, and Jesus seems to allude to concepts presented in it. It might have even been considered scripture back then, but I don’t know enough about that to make a guess.
The Nephilim are explicitly said to be the offspring of the bene elohim and human women in Genesis 6. Pretty straightforward, they were half human and half divine being. The Nephilim were supposed to have been wiped out in the flood, but then are still around after.
What the word Nephilim actually means is a point of debate among many scholars. The Septuagint and older English translations just call them ‘giants’. Some translations call them ‘fallen ones’. Most of the recent English translations don’t bother to translate the word. It obviously meant something to the author and his readers, but we do not have anything but context clues today.
The text does not indicate the Nephilim were evil. In fact it almost says the opposite, that they were mighty, renowned men. Some translations like the New International Version and Young’s Literal Translation use the word ‘heroes’. Personally, I just think this is an ancient explanation for demigods like Hercules and other folk heroes and villains from other cultures. Cain himself was said to be the offspring of the serpent and Eve by some ancient Jews, so it is likely they had similar stories of other demigods themselves.
I suspect that the idea that the Nephilim were on the earth after the flood was an interpolation. Later parts of Genesis mention them in settings that are definitely supposed to be post-flood. Since the books of the Bible were written at different times by different authors it is conceivable that some of those authors may have not even been aware of Genesis’ existence and thus had no idea what it said about them. Nephilim like Og of Bashan might not have been seen as demigods, just really large men.
Og’s bed (or coffin/sarcophagus in some translations) measured some thirteen and a half feet long by six feet wide. It is commonly assumed that he needed such a large bed because he was probably ten feet tall. I suspect he had such a large bed because he was a king and wanted something grand. I myself own a queen size bed which is six feet eight inches long and five feet wide, I’m not even six feet tall nor are my shoulders five feet wide. Og’s bed would accommodate the tallest NBA player, his very tall wife, and have a little over five feet extra for a dog or two at the end. I see no reason to suspect he was much taller than seven foot five at most.
This is assuming that the bed or coffin in Rabbah actually existed, and actually belonged to Og. Apparently in the ancient near east they would occasionally come across the bones of extinct elephants and mistake them for the skeletons of dead heroes. They’d dig up the bones and arrange them like they thought they were supposed to look and re-bury them in enormous coffins. If this was an iron sarcophagus of some kind, this might be exactly what happened.
Personally, I think what the word Nephilim meant was understood in the author’s day, and over time it changed. Originally it could have meant ‘demigod’ but was later understood to mean something else, then even later it meant ‘giant’. So, the author of Genesis 6 could have one meaning in mind, and the author of Numbers 21 had some similar but slightly differing ideas.
Imagine two hundred years from now someone says something like, “And they used rotary phones back then, and also afterwards, when people bought a phone someone from Ma Bell had to come into their house and install it.” We might be dealing with a similar concept. The people living two centuries from now probably will not use ‘phones’ in the way we do. Elon Musk will have become an immortal machine spirit and they’ll be on the fiftieth revision of whatever his brain implant idea turns into. They’ll have context clues, but they certainly won’t fully grasp the idea of an analog communication device that only works with audio, and sometimes permanently mounted to your wall.
I bet fully half of the people who read the statement above don’t know what “Ma Bell” even means.
One interesting idea I’ve run across lately is that the whole of the Old Testament narrative is actually about an ongoing war between the descendants of Eve and the descendants of the serpent.
The idea behind this hypothesis is that the descendants of the serpent, or rather the descendants of the Watchers are waging war on God by corrupting mankind. One day a Messiah descended from Eve will come and ‘crush the head of the serpent’.
In this view, or at least one variation of it, the reason for the flood was the corrupt offspring of the bene elohim. They were the cause of man’s wickedness, not anything inherently bad in humanity. I looked up a few sites on Judaism and it seems the Jewish view on the flood and the Christian view are the same: mankind sucked so bad that God decided everything needed a reboot.
Personally, I tend towards this plain reading of scripture. The passages in question are straightforward and don’t appear to be using metaphor or ancient forgotten idioms to get it’s point across. There’s no reason to think these giants were more evil than regular human beings, or that Noah and his family were the last of the ‘purely human’ people on earth.
The Line of Seth
One idea is that the ‘bene elohim’ were the wicked line of Cain and the ‘daughters of men’ were the descendants of Seth. This is a common idea among various Christian groups. I think at the root of this is the idea that angels don’t have gender and thus can’t reproduce. It’s a way to rationalize the Bible in ways that it doesn’t really need to be rationalized. Assuming Cain’s descendants were human, what made the marriage of these cousins any different than the rest of mankind? It doesn’t. Cain’s line isn’t even said to be particularly evil either.
My grandfather subscribes to a less silly theory that the Watchers were the descendants of Adam, and the daughters of men were just other people in the world. This makes a lot more sense in the context of the first creation story. This means that Cain didn’t marry his sister as there were people running around outside Eden. In this view Adam was either a special creation to tend the garden, or he was just one man that God set aside to tend the garden. I do not agree with this idea either as the bene elohim are referred to elsewhere as supernatural beings.
Of the two my grandfather’s theory makes more sense than the Seth/Cain theory.
The Nephilim were simply an ancient Hebrew story to explain the demigods in the myths and legends that were passed around at that time. They were supposed to have been half-divine men who accomplished both great and terrible deeds, no different than Hercules, Perseus, and Gilgamesh.
If this is a topic that interests you from a fictional perspective, I highly recommend Brian Godawa’s “Chronicles of the Nephilim”. They’re a set of books that retells the Biblical narrative from Genesis to somewhere around David, with spin off books telling other fictional stories. He also has a set of books about Jesus and the End Times. They are based around the “Line of the Serpent’ idea, and they have thoroughly researched appendices and supplemental material to defend his ideas. His books were one thing that made me start thinking of these things from other perspectives.
The regular versions are definitely for adults, but he’s released some less controversial teenager friendly “Young Adult” versions.