Sometimes We Just Don’t Know

Sometimes We Just Don’t Know July 23, 2013

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.


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  • Michael Heiser makes the compelling case that nephilim’s syntax actually prevents it from coming from the word for ‘to fall’. He argues that it comes from the similarly pronounced Aramaic word meaning… giant.

    Even before I stumbled onto his thesis, I once held the view that the sons of God were humans, but had left that behind for textual reasons. Astute readers of the deuteronomic history will trace a line regarding nephilim. They’re related to the rephaim and anakim, and geographically situated in the five cities later filed with the Philistine people. The rephaim and anakim are consistently described as excessively large men, with special mention going to Og of Bishon, Goliath of Gath, and the six huge warriors (one having an extra digit on each hand and foot!) who fought David’s men.

    ‘Giant’ is clearly the accurate translation of nephilim, and was the chosen term of the Septuagint. Genesis 6 is an etiology for why there were tribes of such huge men living in Canaan: their ancestors were the offspring of angels who mated with women.

  • Gary in FL

    Anyone know whether the rabbis offer midrash covering this?

  • JL Schafer

    As a young evangelical trying to make sense of my newfound faith, passages like this one always made me very uncomfortable. I resisted the notion that any part of the Bible bore any resemblance to ancient myths, and I gravitated toward any explanation that was consistent with the modernist mind. Here I wanted to believe that sons of God were just the human descendents of Cain, and the Nephilim were just the offspring of mixed marriages between descendents of Cain (“worldly people”) and descendents of Seth (“godly people”). I supposed that this passage was teaching a lesson about marriage, about not getting hitched to an unbeliever. Later, when I heard that the textual evidence for such a view is scant, I didn’t know how to process it. Attending a seminar by Peter Enns and reading his books have been an enormous help. They help me to look at difficult passages like this one with an open mind, without having to be afraid that my faith is going to fall apart if the preferred meaning seems incredible to people in modern times.

  • scotmcknight

    Mark, Dr. Mariottini traces those connections to the giants of Philistines, too.

  • B. Darnell

    You can argue the various linguistic angles on this subject, and yes we were not there. I believe the Word is fairly clear on this strange series of supernatural events. Fallen ones were doing mischief in the fallen world, I feel with an end game to pollute the blood line of the Savior. Since God knows the beginning from the end, and all the answers to these questions,why not pray your guts out and then look for the answers to these questions.

  • Somewhere in my readings I came across a suggestion that Paul has in mind this passage and its expansion in I Enoch when he writes in I Cor 11:10 “It is for this reason that a woman ought to have authority over her own head, because of the angels.” So, a head covering would keep the dudes up there from looking down and seeing that they were hot.

  • Jeff Martin

    Dr. Mcknight, I like your comment at the end there. I have found in Bible studies with mostly conservative Christians (I am in the middle) that when you qualify your statements where you simply say you are not sure, they seem to take it a lot better, than if one were to disparage a long standing doctrine.

    The Nephilim bring up another issue, and that is, if the flood was worldwide or local how is it that the Nephilim somehow survived the flood by having descendants show up later on? One would have thought that of all the people to be sure were wiped out it would have been the Nephilim!

  • This page (link below) refers to some Talmudic sources on Genesis 6.1-4, with exposition corroborating the once common idea that the ‘sons of God’ were angels and the nephilim were their offspring. Justin’s conversation with Trypho, though, seems to indicate the idea was waning among some circles by the second century.

  • pete dayton

    I recently read that, based on average heights at the time, Jesus was probably only 5’1″; so “giants” may be relative. Remember Saul was a head taller than anyone else.

  • Patrick

    “Giants” definitely would be relative. 5′ tall for the average male, a 6′ human would be a giant and we already have evidence of a 4-5000 year old 6′ tall “giant” female skeleton in Persia(the Burnt City 2006 excavation).

    We can’t know for 100% certainty anything in the bible, but, the balance of evidence is strong to nephilim meaning “giant”.

    There’s plentiful evidence, not just syntax.

    The ancient LXX people always used gigantes for nephilim. Giants tend to be all over the Torah by description. Goliath was one.

    Joshua’s spies were petrified of them. Everytime there is the kherem, there they are, whenever there is normal combat w/o kherem, they are nowhere to be seen.

    They explain the kherem and flood, IMO. The seed of the woman and Jews would have been obliterated instead and this = no Christ.

    Jude and Peter both may have alluded to them.

    Other ANE cultures agree, they just revered them whereas the Jews saw them as the fearful serpent’s seed.

  • Georges Bouajkly

    A puzzling question for all: What is the process that allows spirit beings (angels, I’m assuming, are spirit beings) becoming human beings and marrying humans, and fathering human children that are no longer spirit beings?

    How does an angel become human? Giant or not?

    Is it incarnation? Something else?

    This has puzzled me for a long time. My assumption is: There’s only one incarnation. That of the Son of God.

  • Patrick


    It waned because the Jews did not accept “sons of God” as a divine creatures anymore since “son of God” as a divine man was too close for comfort at that point.

    Christians stopped believing the text this way a few centuries later for different reasons, they feared polytheism. These “bene elohim” scared 4th century Christians and so did the elohims/gods of Psalm 82, so they came up with the idea it was all discussing humans of some sort or other.

  • LexCro

    Mark, I’m glad to see you mention Heiser here. I think his reasoning is quite sound, and I agree that these were some kind of hybrid creatures who were physically distinct from normal folks because of the demonic/human cross-breeding. Heiser has said that one of the chief reasons that Christians prefer a non-supernatural view of the Gen. 6:1-4 passage is simply that we have strip-mined the Bible of the supernatural (especially with regard to the Old Testament). I tend to think Heiser is spot on here. Also, if the supernatural/spiritual warfare account is accurate, this may help to explain other ancient, extra-biblical stories from other cultures about celestial creatures who abandoned their abode to mate with human women with the result being monstrous offspring. I’d have to hunt for sources, but I remember reading variations on this in other ancient stories as well. While there are differences between these accounts (as there are between other accounts in Gen. 1-11 and extra-biblical ones covering the same material), the similarities can be striking enough to the same real phenomena reported through different lenses.

  • That’s a ‘process’ we really can’t explain since nothing tells us. But it really didn’t seem much different than angels showing up to Abraham and eating the bread his wife baked for them.

  • Andrew

    Robert Wadlow, descendant of Goliath, and part of the Nephilim family that survived the flood. 8’11”

  • Nancy Janisch

    “Sometimes we just don’t know and not knowing is better than speculating.” Interesting that the majority of the comments continue to speculate. A very hard habit to break.

  • Thanks Scott, very useful.
    Are you aware that there is a trend in pop-eschatology circles to make the reappearance of Nephilim an end-time event? The argument is exceedingly slim, but it rests on (1) Jesus says the last days will be “like the days of Noah”, thus, if there were Nephilim in the days of Noah, then Nephilim must return; (2) Nephilim will be cloned superbeings, possessed by demons; (3) the antichrist is somehow related to them; (4) 1 Enoch is a dependable book, and it talks about future Nephilim. Ah, almost forgot, (5) there is a connection between the rise of UFO sightings and the nearness of Nephilim.
    There’s probably a connection with 9/11 as well.
    If you have a minute to spare, take a look for Nephilim on YouTube, you’ll get an eyeful.

  • This is helpful, thanks, especially for this “strip-mining” analogy.

    My students always quote Matt 22, that angels neither marry nor are given in marriage. But Jesus did NOT say they cannot procreate with human beings – marriage and procreation are not the same thing.

    2 Peter and Jude look as if they accept the typical Jewish opinion of the day, that Gen 6 deals with the angelic apostasy and the intermarriage. It’s an argument from silence; still, if 2 Peter and Jude rejected the common Jewish viewpoint, I would have expected them to say so. Their acquiescence to the intermarriage view seems to be agreement with it.

  • Hungry for Membership

    So if marriage and procreation are not the same thing, then perhaps we will be able to procreate (but not marry) in our final state? That’s a happy thought. 🙂 I say that mostly in jest, but this in seriousness: I’m enjoying this insightful dialogue.

  • scotmcknight

    Thanks Gary… not aware of this one.

  • Lars

    Well that’s just great. Wait till Driscoll finds THIS out…

  • Lars

    But not knowing is also not very fun. Speculating, as we see here, is a blast! What I’m not seeing in this speculation however is the necessary biology to make such a thing happen. Call me a prude but I have a hard time imagining angels with dual-purpose penises. What else does that imply! Extra-dimensional societies (perfectly good ones and perfectly bad ones, of course) with their own wormhole to earth?

    This also highlights another problem – ANE myth creators who performed shoddy cross-referencing, such as The Flood, and having Nephilim that existed before and after said Flood! My concerns were somewhat assuaged by reading Og’s Wikipedia entry where the Midrash states that Og had his own special compartment on the Ark (just down the hall from the dinosaurs?) and the Aggadah suggests he rode out the storm in true warrior-style, from a perch atop the Ark. I’m feeling better about this already!

  • Phil Miller

    Call me a prude but I have a hard time imaging angels with dual-purpose penises.

    What a prude! 🙂

    I don’t really have anything to add… Just your comment was one of the funniest things I’ve seen in a while.

  • Steven Gunter

    Glad you brought this up gary.

    I was talking to a christian coworker of mine and he has now become interested in the Nephilim and the end times. He has been watching these youtube videos that share some very…out there stuff.

    Strange stuff

  • Yeah, they’re out there all right!

    Ah, just ran across the 9/11 connection!

    “9 – 11 is the number of the FALL INTO DEATH. The first day of creation, according to the Biblical Old Testament and the Hebrew Calendar, is regarded as September 11th, or 11/09, or 09/11. This is the first day of the FALL, and according to the fabricated story of creation, it was the day when the FALLEN ONES – the mythological Nephilim race, rebelled against god and were cast out of heaven.”
    Gotta stop: the first step toward paranoia is a fascination with that same paranoia.

  • There’s a Mormon thought, you mean! 🙂

  • A reader of my blog stated that the phrase, Noah was “blameless in his generation”, really means that he was genetically pure, so that he wouldn’t oass on giant genes.

    The context belies the idea, as does the fact that “generation” has a temporal reference, not a biological one.

    Readers might also be interested in the supposed photos where they excavate a giant skeleton. It is an amusing hoax.