Who were the Nephilim? (Numbers 13)

There are only two Biblical references to the Nephilim (Genesis 6:4, Numbers 13:33), people of “great size” (v. 32) from the whom the Anakites were said to have descended. Upon glimpsing these imposing inhabitants of Canaan, ten of the twelve spies became demoralized and terrified. The Nephilim may have been similar in appearance to the Rephaites, a race of strong, tall men with whom the Anakites are compared in Deuteronomy 2:21.

The Nephilim are described in Genesis 6:4 as having been mighty men who lived before the great flood. The author of Genesis linked them to “the sons of God” (other translations render this “sons of the gods”), either in terms of being identical to this group or of being their offspring. Three theories have been proposed regarding the parentage of these Nephilim (these hypothesis do not address the problem of how they might have survived the flood to appear in Canaan at the time of the spy expedition):

  • Some Biblical historians argue that the “sons of God” were righteous men (descendants of Seth) who married worldly, female descendants of Cain and thus became defiled. Their progeny increased in sinfulness until God rectified the worsening situation with the flood. However, this theory does not explain why the word translated “men” in Genesis 6:1 describes all of humanity, while the same word in verse 2 designates only Cain’s line. Nor does it give any explanation to why the children born to them should become “giants”.
  • Other scholars argue that “the sons of God” (Genesis 6:2) were kings who tok multiple wives in order to build dynasties from their numerous descendants. In several instances ancient Near Eastern documents refer to kings as being the sons of particular gods. Also, Akkadian texts indicate that the Hebrew word translated “men” in Genesis 6:4 could alternatively mean “commoners” in some contexts. This would suggest that the Nephilim were kings who acquired harems, using the daughters of commoners, and sired larhe families through them. But no other Biblical passages refer to kings in general as “sons of God”, and later kings (such as Solomon) who had many wives are not identified as being among the Nephilim. And again, this hypothesis does not explain their large size.
  • Still other scholars believe that “the sons of God” were angels who impregnated human women and sired demigods (beings with more power than humans but less than gods) who were able to do whatever they pleased on Earth (much like the mythical Greek Titans), prompting God’s determination to destroy humankind to root out the growing evil.

Jesus specified, however, that angels do not marry (Matthew 22:30), and from this it can be argued that they do not procreate. Yet procreation by these particular angels could be regarded as aberrant behaviour (see Jude 6). It may be helpful to note that the phrase “sons of God” as used elsewhere in the Old Testament and in other ancient Semitic languages always refer to divine beings (e.g. Job 1:6 where the same Hebrew word is translated “angels”).

Ancient Jewish interpreters unanimously believed “the sons of God” to have been angelic beings, a view possibly reflected in 1 Peter 3:20 and 2 Peter 2:4-5. But if “the sons of God” mentioned in Genesis 6 were indeed angels, and the Nephilim were their offspring, how do these facts relate to the Nephilim mentioned in Numbers 13? Most likely the word “Nephilim” in this later context means something like “giants” or “Titans” (i.e. the term was used literally in Genesis 6 but metaphorically in Numbers 13).

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