Who or What are the Nephilim?

The story of the Nephilim is one of the more bizarre stories in the Bible.  If you enjoy stories such as Greek mythology you’re probably a fan of this story as I am.  The difference is that the story of the Nephilim is a true story unlike the stories of mythology.  The issue is what the story actually means and how literally should we interpret it.

In Genesis 6 we’re given an account of how wicked the world had become by the time of Noah.  In Genesis 6:1-3 we’re told that the earth is wicked and that God had numbered the days of humanity at 120 years.  But why were they considered so wicked?  We’re only given a few clues.

“When human beings began to increase in number on the earth and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that the daughters of humans were beautiful, and they married any of them they chose.  Then the Lord said, ‘My Spirit will not contend with humans forever, for they are mortal; their days will be a hundred and twenty years.’”

The problem appears to be that the sons of God are intermarrying with the daughters of men.  But who are these two parties?  There are two commonly given answers.  The first is that the sons of God are those who are following God while the daughters of men are the pagans who have rejected God.  This is an intermarrying of faiths or what we might call being unequally yoked.  It is an understandable problem and one can see how the sons of God would be led away from God through this intermarrying.

The other possibility is that the sons of God are not human but rather angels who are fallen.  This is a problem on a whole other level than just an intermarrying of faith.  If this is taking place, women would be giving birth to essentially demonic children.  It is the kind of story that serves as the main plotline for a horror movie.

Some will immediately dismiss the notion of fallen angels marrying humans as absurd or impossible.  Some point to Matthew 22:30 that angels don’t marry.  Jesus said, “At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven.”  Some have mistakenly taken this verse to mean that angels are neuter in gender and/or that they can’t marry.  Jesus never said that angels can’t marry, only that they don’t marry.  There is apparently no need for marriage in heaven.

But if these are indeed fallen angels, they wouldn’t follow the rules of heaven.  Likewise, while there is no need for marriage in heaven, these angels would be here on earth.  So as they interact with humans they would take part in human activities, marriage being one.

It is at least theoretically possible that these are fallen angels that are called the sons of God.  Or they are religious followers of God on earth.  The next verse gives us reason why we should believe one or another.

The Nephilim were on the earth in those days—and also afterward—when the sons of God went to the daughters of humans and had children by them. They were the heroes of old, men of renown.

The Nephilim are the offspring of the sons of God and daughters of men.  If these are simply human offspring, they are particularly wicked as a product of their parents.  There have always been mixed marriages of the religious and non-religious, so this must be a special construct that is particularly wicked if the offspring are worthy of their own separate classification.

The biggest hang up with this theory of the Nephilim is why this offspring are the heroes of old, the men of renown.  This would seem to imply that there is something physically special and impressive about these offspring and there is no reason to reach this conclusion if these are just the product of a godly parent and an ungodly one.

On the other hand, if they are the offspring of an angel and a human, it makes good sense why they would have impressive physical qualities as well as requiring their own classification.  But is this just pure speculation?  In Greek mythology there are similar tales of gods having children to earthly women and it is possible that this is the true source of such myths.  Stories of demigods would have some slight basis in reality if that were the case.

There is more reason to believe this rather than just the fact that it is similar to some mythology.  In 1 Peter 3 there is a very odd allusion to the story of Noah.  Verses 19-20 state   After being made alive, he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits— to those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built.

Jesus is making a proclamation to imprisoned spirits from the days of Noah.  It does not say that these spirits are angels here.  It is possible that these are the spirits of the wicked specifically from Noah’s day, but why single out those from all of the wicked in history through Jesus’ day?  2 Peter gives us a better indication that these just might be angels to whom Jesus is making a proclamation.

2 Peter 2:4

For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but sent them to hell, putting them in chains of darkness to be held for judgment;

We know that Satan took a third of heaven’s angels with him when he fell.  We also know that there are still fallen angels, we refer them commonly as demons, in the world today.  So the angels who sinned and have already been punished can’t be just a reference to those who rebelled alongside of Satan.  They must have done something so heinous that God sent them to hell before the rest of the demons.

Now we’re onto something.  I can’t be sure, so this still amounts to little more than reasoned speculation, but I believe that the Nephilim are the half-demon offspring of fallen angels.  It feels absurd and a bit scary as well, but no more than the reality that demons are real and influence our world today.  There are a group of angels that did something so terrible that God locked them away before the rest of the demons.  I believe that marrying humans and having children with them would certainly meet those criteria.

Although it feels more logical that the sons of God are just followers of God who are led astray by pagans, I don’t believe that this is the logical conclusion that we can reach based on what we’re told in Genesis 6.  This story is one right out of the pages of mythology and it seems absolutely incredible.  But on the other hand, so does the story of the world being so evil that God had to destroy it with a flood and we have no problem believing that.  So just maybe the Nephilim are something that seems too crazy to exist but actually did.