I remember reading Genesis 6 the first time — way back in high school — and thinking “what in the world is this about?” Here is Genesis 6:1-4, and you should notice that the NRSV has “Nephilim” — untranslated Hebrew:
When people began to multiply on the face of the ground, and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that they were fair; and they took wives for themselves of all that they chose. Then the LORD said, “My spirit shall not abide in mortals forever, for they are flesh; their days shall be one hundred twenty years.” The Nephilim were on the earth in those days—and also afterward—when the sons of God went in to the daughters of humans, who bore children to them. These were the heroes that were of old, warriors of renown.
But when I was in high school we read the KJV and it had “giants.” We see the same in the NLT today. The ESV has “Nephilim” as do the following translations: JPS, NAB, NASB, NIV, NJB, and the TNK. This is discussed in Claude Mariottini, Rereading the Biblical Text.
How do you explain the “giants” or “Nephilim” of Genesis 6:1-4?
There are other “giants” in the Old Testament in the KJV, as in Numbers 13:33, Job 16:14 and 2 Sam 21:22. A tall group of people called the Anakim lived in Canaan (Deut 2:21). The word means “long necked ones.” The Rephaim and the Emim were tall folks too. In Num 13:33 the twelve spies connect the Anakim with the Nephilim of Genesis 6. As if the Nephilim survived the Flood.
Mariottini observes that most today see Nephilim meaning “fallen ones” and some see them as those fallen from heaven, that is, fallen angels. (This is the view I heard when I asked my pastor in high school.) Some see them as robbers, that is, those who prey on or fall upon others.
There’s lots of speculation here; most of it nothing but speculation. We are left with two major options: guess what it means or admit we don’t know and translate it “Nephilim.”
Sometimes we just don’t know and not knowing is better than speculating.