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Who Were the Sons of God and the Nephilim of Genesis 6?

Ask Pastor Alex, Episode. 46

This is the Ask Pastor Alex podcast with your host, Pastor Alex.All right, welcome back everyone. We are here with another episode and another question. And I know it’s been a little bit of a time since our last episode. We took a break for Christmas, but we are back now and we have a new question to start off the brand new year. And it has absolutely nothing to do with New Year’s. I really thought that someone would ask about New Year’s resolutions or something like that, but no, we are addressing a very interesting question today. The question is, who were the sons of God and the Nephilim?

Now this is specifically referencing Genesis chapter 6, Genesis 6 verses 1 through 4. This is what we read, “When man began to multiply on the face of the land, and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that the daughters of man were attractive, and they took as their wives any they chose. Then the Lord said, My spirit shall not abide in man forever, for he is flesh, his days shall be one hundred and twenty years. The Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came into the daughters of man, and they bore children to them, these were the mighty men who were of old, the men of renown.”

Now this is a really interesting section of scripture. It’s a very hotly debated section of scripture, and it’s one in which two questions become immediately apparent. When we’re reading this passage, there are two questions that we must answer as we’re trying to interpret it. So the first question is, who were the sons of God? And second, who were the Nephilim?

So let’s start with that first question, who were the sons of God that it’s talking about in this passage? Well, there are three common interpretations that seek to answer this question. The first interpretation says that the sons of God were the sons of Seth. Now you’ll remember Seth was the third born child to Adam and Eve. They had Cain and Abel and then Seth, and Seth was the one who was the godly son of Adam and Eve. Abel also was, but he was murdered by Cain, and so the godly line is going to continue through Seth. From his line is going to come the fulfillment of Genesis 3:15. And so the godly line is the line of Seth. And so this interpretation says that his sons were known as the sons of God and that they laid with the daughters of men. Now the daughters of men, according to this interpretation, would refer to the daughters of the ungodly line of Cain. So this first interpretation says that Seth’s sons impregnated Cain’s daughters. But there is a second interpretation. The second interpretation says that the sons of God refers to angels and that the daughters of men literally refers to human women. And so basically this interpretation is saying that angels left heaven in order to pursue and act upon carnal lust that resulted in offspring that were part angel and part human. And the third and final interpretation says that the sons of God were ancient heroes. Now the ancient world was full of stories about ancient heroes who seemed to be more than human, right? I mean, a very common one at this time was a man named Gilgamesh. He had an entire epic written about him. And so they referred to sometimes these people, they were referred to sometimes as gods or as sons of God. And so this interpretation says that these ancient heroes impregnated ordinary women who then gave birth to their offspring. And so the question is, well, which one of these interpretations is correct? And I think it’s obvious that the first two are much more probable than the last. But still, how do we know which interpretation is correct?

Well, we have to remember that we cannot read passages of the Bible in isolation. When I’m reading a passage like this, I’m going to home in on that phrase, “sons of God.” And I’m going to ask two very important questions. Number one, does this exact phrase occur anywhere else in Scripture? Because remember, Scripture interprets Scripture. If this phrase occurs somewhere else in Scripture, it could help us understand what is meant by the phrase. So I want to ask that first question, does this exact phrase occur anywhere else in Scripture? And then the second question I’m going to ask as I’m reading this is, if so, what does it refer to in those places? If it refers to something very clear in all those other instances, then that’s going to help us understand what it’s referring to here in this passage. And so interestingly, the exact phrase, “sons of God”, occurs six times in Scripture. The first two are here in Genesis 6 in this passage that we’ve already read. The next two occur in the introduction to the book of Job in Job 1:6 and Job 2:1, in which God is gathering together His angels. He’s calling His angels to come and stand before Him and give an account of what they’re doing. And His angels in that situation are called the “sons of God.” The third occurrence is actually later in the book of Job in chapter 38 verse 7, when God asks Job, “where were you when I created the world?” And it goes on to say that when He did create the world, “the sons of God sang for joy,” which is another reference to angelic beings praising God for His work in creation. The final occurrence is actually in Aramaic, and it occurs in the book of Daniel. When King Nebuchadnezzar looked into the fiery furnace, he saw four people rather than three. And he said that the fourth looked like a “son of God,” meaning some sort of angelic being. So every time the phrase “sons of God” occurs in the Old Testament, it always refers to angelic beings.

This means that the second interpretation of Genesis 6 is the correct one. It’s referring to angels who left heaven in order to impregnate human women. And we actually have further confirmation that this is the correct interpretation as we look to the New Testament. We have the witness of the New Testament. In the book of Jude in verses 6 through 7, this is what we read, “and angels who did not stay within their own position of authority, but left their proper dwelling, he has kept in eternal chains under gloomy darkness until the judgment of the great day.” Now I want to suggest to you, as we pause here real quick, I want to suggest to you that this is a reference to what happened in Genesis 6. And that’s actually helped by the next verse because this is how the Bible continues. Just as, so we’re going to have a comparison here, “just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities which likewise,” there’s another key indication that this is comparison, they “likewise indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural desire.” So notice what Jude is doing there. He’s comparing the situation where angels left their own position of authority in their own proper dwelling to do like Sodom and Gomorrah did, which was to pursue sexual immorality and unnatural desire. So Jude references these angels and I believe that it strengthens the argument that the sons of God in Genesis 6 were angels who left heaven in order to indulge in sexual immorality by impregnating human women. So that answers our first part of our question for today. Who were the sons of God in Genesis 6? They were angels who left heaven because they were wanting to act upon a carnal lust and pursue sexual immorality with human women.

But that leads to the second question. Who were the Nephilim? As the Bible says here, the Nephilim were on the earth in those days and afterward. And so who were the Nephilim? This is a very hotly debated issue and Christians throughout the centuries have come to different conclusions on this. The most common explanation you will hear in the church today is that the Nephilim were the offspring of the angels and the women. That when the angels impregnated human women, the women gave birth to a supernatural race called Nephilim. And those who hold to this view claim that the Nephilim were kind of like demigods who possessed supernatural strength as well as other supernatural characteristics. And they also claim that the Nephilim were giants.

Well let’s pause real quick as we’re considering who they were. Why giants? Where does that come from? Why would people believe that the Nephilim were giants? Well it actually comes from the KJV. It’s due to the translation of the King James Version of the Bible. You see, the Hebrew word for Nephilim is Nephilim. It’s not a translation at all actually. It’s a transliteration, which that often happens when the meaning of a word is so unclear that the translators decide not to try to translate the word, meaning give its meaning, but rather they just represent the word using the letters of the language that they’re translating theBible into. So they just say that, okay, the Hebrew word is Nephilim. We’re not going to translate that. We’re just going to transliterate it. And in English, we’re just going to put it as Nephilim. And it is a confusing word. The word Nephilim seems to be a cognate of the Hebrew verb nephal, which means to fall. So a really rough translation of Nephilim literally would be fallen ones. However, the translators of the KJV decided to translate the word as giants. If you read Genesis chapter six and the King James Version of the Bible, you will read giants. Well, why would they do that? If the Hebrew word doesn’t have anything to do with being gigantic or anything like that, why would they translate it giants? Well, interestingly enough, it’s because they base their translation of this word not on the Hebrew text of the Bible, but on the Latin translation of the Bible. You see, in Latin, the word Nephilim was translated as gigantes, which you can hear the word giants in there. They further justified this use of giants by another occurrence of Nephilim that occurs in the book of Numbers chapter 13 verse 33. You remember in that section of scripture, the spies had gone to spy out the promised land and they bring back this report of the people who inhabited the land. And they said this, “and there we saw the Nephilim, the sons of Onyck, who come from the Nephilim. And we sing to ourselves like grasshoppers. And so we sing to them.” So there was this feeling that the people did not measure up to these great men. And so the KJV translators further justified their use of giants based on that passage, as well as the Latin translation gigantes. However, there are clues in the text itself that lead us away from that common interpretation that says that the Nephilim were the offspring of angels and humans, and it leads us towards a different interpretation.

So first things first, we have to understand how Hebrew narrative works. Almost every sentence in the Hebrew Bible that occurs in a narrative section of the Bible begins with the word and. It’s a way of writing in Hebrew that continues the overall narrative, the overall story. And so when a sentence does not begin with the word and in Hebrew, it’s very intentional. It actually functions like a modern day footnote functions today. Well, that’s exactly what’s happening in Genesis chapter 6. Verse 4, which begins to discuss the Nephilim, does not begin with the word and. And so verse 4 is functioning as a footnote to what is already being said in verses 1 through 3. So Moses, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, recounts that at the time before the flood, angels were mating with humans. And he says, footnote, oh, and by the way, “the Nephilim were on the earth in those days and also afterward.” OK, which days? Which days are you talking about, Moses? He clarifies the days “when the sons of God came into the daughters of man and bore children to them.” The last part of the verse answers the question, well, who are the Nephilim? Literally it answers that the last part of the verse says “these were the mighty men who were of old, the men of renown.” So notice this verse 4 is not saying that the Nephilim were the offspring of the angels and the humans, but rather that the Nephilim were present on earth before and after the angels gave in to their sinful desires. Do you see that? I wish you could be looking at a Bible as we study this passage together, but you need to see it for yourself because notice it says that “the Nephilim were on the earth in those days and afterward.” It goes on to say that “the Nephilim were the men of renown.” And so keep in mind that at the time many people had garnered such a reputation that they were believed to be more than human. They were men of such renown that people attributed to them the status of godhood or at least believed them to be demigods or superhumans. We’ve already mentioned one of the most famous ones, which was of the man called Gilgamesh. These were men whom God had blessed in tremendous ways, but the people made them out to be gods. And in many circumstances, the people accepted that designation of godhood or of being superhuman.

Now one obvious reason that we should reject the theory that the Nephilim were the offspring of angel and human relations is because notice again that verse 4 says that “the Nephilim were present on earth before and afterward” the angels acted in this way. So here’s my question. How could the Nephilim be the offspring of angels and humans when they were already present on earth before angels acted in this way? Also keep in mind the context. You know what’s about to happen in the next few chapters as we read Genesis 6? There’s going to be a global flood that’s going to wipe out all of creation apart from Noah and his family and all the animals who were on the ark. So how could the Nephilim continue to be present on the earth after the flood if they were in fact the offspring of angels and humans? Were any of Noah and his family the offspring of angels and humans? No, scripture never says that’s the case. It only makes sense if the Nephilim refers to great men with extraordinary giftedness. Men of renown, men who were so blessed by the Lord that others are willing to believe that they can’t possibly be just human. These men were present on earth before angels impregnated women and they were present afterward as humanity began to multiply once again and God continued to bless people in wondrous ways.

You might be wondering, well, why would Moses even mention them at all then? Well, you have to understand what he’s doing. Moses is demythologizing here. He’s opposing that common view that existed at the time that said that these men of renown must be the product of divine relations. They have to be the offspring of angels and women. And Moses, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, is saying, no, they were here before, they are here after, they’re not divine creations, they are just people who have been especially blessed by the Lord in many different ways. So again, we ask the question, well, why mention them at all? Why mention them at the same time as he mentions the sexual immorality of the angels?

Well, what do I always tell you on the podcast? Context is king. What’s the context of this passage? It’s the passage that directly leads to God’s reasons for destroying creation with the flood and beginning again. It starts by listing the sins of the angels. They were mating with humans. It then moves on to list the sins of humanity with regard to the men of renown. They were attributing godhood to certain people and unfortunately those people were accepting it. They were leading people away from the one true God and they were making themselves an idol. And then the passage even continues to go on to list the sin of all humanity. The Bible literally says “that every intention of the heart was only evil continually.” And so for all these reasons, the Lord decided to flood the earth, destroy all who persisted in sin and wickedness, and begin again. That’s what this passage is talking about. It is contributing to the list of reasons that God decided to flood creation.

So to sum up, the sons of God were angels who left heaven in order to indulge in sexual immorality by impregnating human women. The Nephilim were not giants necessarily. They could have been pretty tall maybe. And they certainly were not the offspring of angels and women. They were men of renown who had been greatly blessed by the Lord so much so that people attributed Godhood to them and very often they accepted that designation. The world was such a wicked place during the time of Noah that God decided to wipe out creation and start again. So I hope that this explanation has helped you understand the passage better. I hope that it’s helped you understand how to pay attention to context and how to study the Bible. And I really appreciate the question. I look forward to answering more in the future.