Many Christians kick off the new year by flipping back to Genesis, getting a fresh start in their daily scripture reading. In this incredible first book of the Bible, we meet our Creator. We have the pleasure of witnessing His power, love, and grace at work. We also come face to face with our own origin story through the tragic fall of Adam and Eve. Then, in the sixth chapter of Genesis, we’re introduced to a group of mysterious beings: the Nephilim.  

Scholars have debated the Nephilim’s identity for ages. Scripture may only provide a limited view of them, but there’s no denying that the events that surround their brief mentions are some of Biblical history’s most pivotal moments. 

What Does the Bible Say about the Nephilim?

The Nephilim are directly named in Scripture only twice: in Genesis and Numbers. But many see allusions to their existence throughout the Old Testament. Genesis 6:1-4 clearly defines the Nephilim as the offspring of the “sons of God” and “daughters of men.” The main controversy about the Nephilim’s identity stems from differing interpretations of this verse pertaining to the Nephilim’s paternal origin.

Who were these “sons of God” who mated with the daughters of men to produce the Nephilim? Before we can explore two prevailing theories, we must examine the verse’s context as it fits into the overall redemptive theme of Scripture. 

What is the Context of Genesis 6:1-4?

Over a millennium had passed since God created Adam and Eve. Their descendant, Noah, was nearly six hundred years old. He had a wife and three sons—Shem, Ham, and Japheth.

Humanity had heeded God’s command to “multiply and fill the earth.” Some scholars estimate that well over a billion people lived during this pre-flood era, given their incredibly long lifespan. But sadly, evil plagued the thoughts and inclinations of nearly every human heart. Wickedness had spread through humanity like an insidious virus. 

During this exact moment in time, the Bible first mentions the Nephilim: 

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 … 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.” (Genesis 6:1-4)

After Scripture provides this shocking peek at the previously unnamed heroes of old, the narrative continues with God’s reaction to the corruption and violence that had overtaken humanity. He’d had enough. In fact, the Lord was so fed up with wickedness that He vowed to send a flood to destroy the entire human race. Only Noah—a righteous man, blameless among the people—and Noah’s family members were exempt from God’s swift and thorough eradication of evil.

This sobering account is one that many Christians have heard from childhood. We sing about the
 “arky-arky,” learn how rainbows were born, and witness powerful displays of God’s justice and mercy through the story of Noah and the flood. 

But when this narrative is taught or preached, we rarely hear about the Nephilim. Is it any wonder? Their existence seems to be slipped into the backstory of the flood as if by mistake. But we know that all Scripture is inspired by God and given to Believers for specific and important purposes—His purposes. (2 Timothy 3:16-17) So what can we learn from the Nephilim? What role did they play in God’s ultimate decision to destroy humanity? A clue may be found in their name.

What Does Nephilim Mean?

Nephilim is derived from the original Hebrew word naphal, which means fallen. The context points to spiritually fallen ones. The Septuagint, an ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament, further associates Nephilim with the Greek word for giant. This descriptor goes hand in hand with the Nephilim we see in the book of Numbers. 

The land we explored devours those living in it. All the people we saw there are of great size. We saw the Nephilim there (the descendants of Anak come from the Nephilim). We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we looked the same to them.” (Numbers 13:32-33)

After Moses led the Israelite slaves out of Egypt, he sent Joshua, Caleb, and ten other spies to scout Canaan. The spies returned with good and bad news. Yes, the land flowed with milk and honey. However, the Promised Land, the land God had called them to conquer, was also inhabited by the Nephilim.

Joshua and Caleb never denied the report about the land being filled with the giant Nephilim, but despite the danger, they were willing to proceed with the mission because they trusted God. However, when the rest of Israel were faced with the choice to trust God or fear the Nephilim, God’s people gave in to their fear. Their unbelief resulted in the forty years of wandering, and all the adults except Joshua and Caleb forfeited their eventual entrance into the Promised Land.

Again, Scripture only briefly describes the Nephilim, but the devastating impact of their presence is evident. This passage also broadens our understanding of the Nephilim’s physical form. These “giants” were formidable. Many historical records and pseudepigraphical books, like The Book of Giants, corroborate this finding and aid in our deeper understanding of Scripture. 

Later, in Deuteronomy 20:6, God demands that His people rid their promised territory of every living creature. This command may seem extreme, but many scholars believe God ordered the utter destruction of the Canaanites, not because of ethnic prejudice, but to keep the DNA of the Nephilim from tainting the lineage of the Messiah. 

Two Theories about the Nephilim

To understand who the Nephilim were, we must first identify their parents. The following theories agree that the “daughters of men” were human women. But each theory differs when it comes to the “sons of God.”

Fallen Angels Theory

Proponents of this theory believe the sons of God were fallen angels who bred with human females to produce a hybrid race of superhumans called Nephilim. They base this belief on the fact the Bible only uses this specific phrase “sons of God” in Genesis 6 and when describing angels (Job 1:6; Job 2:1; Job 38:7). They also cite 1 Peter 3:18-22 as strong scriptural confirmation that the spirits in prison from Noah’s day are indeed the same fallen angels in the Genesis 6 account. They further maintain that similar passages in 2 Peter and Jude clear up any controversy about the difference in terms.

The fallen angels theory is the oldest historical viewpoint and the most favored in ancient Judaism and the early church. This view is represented in historical and extra-Biblical resources like the Book of Enoch, The Book of Jubilees, the Septuagint, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the writings of Josephus.  

The primary difficulty with this position lies in Matthew 22:30, where Jesus states that angels in Heaven do not marry, nor are they given in marriage. The term given in marriage is a Hebraic reference for sexual intercourse; this leads opponents of the theory to argue that fallen angels could not have procreated with human women. 

However, supporters of the fallen angel theory maintain that while Heavenly angels do abstain from intercourse to preserve divine order, as Jesus explained, the Genesis account describes fallen angels who defied God (Jude 1:6).

Sethite Theory 

Those who support the Sethite theory believe that a line of men, from Seth to Noah, were given the title “sons of God” because of their righteousness. When these righteous sons took wives from the impure women of other clans (particularly Cain’s descendants), the Nephilim were born from their sinful union. Some supporters of this theory believe that these Nephilim were beyond redemption because of their defiled bloodline. 

Supporters of this theory believe that Genesis 4:25-5:32 and Genesis 4:1-24 provide clear scriptural evidence for two distinct lines of human descent from Adam—the godly line of Seth and the ungodly line of Cain. They also claim that God’s chosen people are sometimes called God’s sons in the Old Testament (Deuteronomy 14:1, Jeremiah 3:19). However, the term is not identical to the “sons of God” used in Genesis 6.

The origin of this theory dates to the fifth century A.D., when the church was struggling to combat the surging practice of angel worship and trying to defend the institution of priestly celibacy. 

Julius Africanus and Augustine supported the new Sethite interpretation of Genesis 6 as a less controversial explanation. Thus, the theory was carried into the Middle Ages and is still taught by many respected and outstanding Bible teachers today, who consider the fallen angel theory too “absurd” and disturbing to believe.

Opponents of the Sethite theory believe there is no solid scriptural evidence for this view. They see the theory’s inability to scripturally prove a correlation between Seth’s line and the “sons of God” as highly problematic. They also argue that it would not be scripturally plausible for sons of God to sinfully fulfill their lust then righteously “call on the name of the Lord,” as Seth’s line did. (Genesis 4:26) Finally, opponents conclude that if Seth’s line of human men had sex with ungodly human women, they would have given birth to human offspring – not mighty men of renown or giants. 

Do Nephilim Still Roam the Earth Today?

One thing is certain. Nephilim did exist. Scripture confirms that these beings were distinctly different from other humans and posed such a threat to humanity that God chose to eliminate the Nephilim from the population at all costs—first through the flood, then again in Canaan. The question is, do the Nephilim still roam the earth?

Two key passages in Scripture offer assurance that God’s plan succeeded in eliminating the Nephilim from the earth. 

For if God spared not the angels that sinned, but cast them down to hell, and delivered them into chains of darkness, to be reserved unto judgment; And spared not the old world, but saved Noah the eighth person, a preacher of righteousness, bringing in the flood upon the world of the ungodly.” (2 Peter 2:4-5)

In this passage, Peter uses clear and vivid terms to establish the truth about the fallen angels’ fate – specifically those alive during Noah’s pre-flood days. They are bound and chained in hell until the judgment. Peter shares this truth to assure Believers that the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials, and He holds rebels for punishment till the day of judgment, especially those who “follow the corrupt desire of the flesh and despise authority,” like the fallen angels. (2 Peter 2:6-10)

Similarly, Jude describes the fate of a group of specific fallen angels, comparing them to citizens of Sodom and Gomorrah who “indulged in immorality and pursued strange flesh”:

And the angels who did not stay within their own domain but abandoned their proper dwelling—these He has kept in eternal chains under darkness, bound for judgment on that great day.” (Jude 1:6)

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Annette GriffinAnnette Marie Griffin is an award-winning author and speaker who has managed and directed children’s and youth programs for more than 20 years. Her debut children’s book, What Is A Family? released through Familius Publishing in 2020. Annette has also written curriculum for character growth and development of elementary-age children and has developed parent training seminars to benefit the community. Her passion is to help wanderers find home. She and her husband have five children—three who have already flown the coop and two adopted teens still roosting at home—plus two adorable grands who add immeasurable joy and laughter to the whole flock.