This is one of the most popular Biblical topics out there, which is kind of sad because it can be a distraction. But I will devote this one post to it. The bottom line is we don’t know for sure, but there are some passages that I believe are helpful. As with other difficult verses I will present the passage, some professional commentary, and then I will weigh in on my own.
“The conditions before the Flood are further characterized. Wild, lawless men, tyrants there were on the earth in those days, offspring of marriages that did not meet with God’s approval, children of wild passion, men that defied order and authority and became mighty men, whose names were mentioned with bated breath as those of unparalleled champions and heroes. The whole earth was full of outrage and violence. Cp. Matt. 24, 38. 39. This is a picture of our own days, of the period immediately preceding the final Judgment, full of the most impressive warning for all that will heed the signs of the times.” – Kretzmann Commentaries
“The Nephilim (“fallen ones, giants”) were the offspring of sexual relationships between the sons of God and daughters of men in Genesis 6:1–4. There is much debate as to the identity of the “sons of God.” It is our opinion that the “sons of God” were fallen angels (demons) who mated with human females or possessed human males who then mated with human females. These unions resulted in offspring, the Nephilim, who were “heroes of old, men of renown” (Genesis 6:4).” –GotQuestions
“There were giants in the earth – נפלים nephilim, from נפל naphal, “he fell.” Those who had apostatized or fallen from the true religion. The Septuagint translate the original word by γιγαντες, which literally signifies earth-born, and which we, following them, term giants, without having any reference to the meaning of the word, which we generally conceive to signify persons of enormous stature. But the word when properly understood makes a very just distinction between the sons of men and the sons of God; those were the nephilim, the fallen earth-born men, with the animal and devilish mind. These were the sons of God, who were born from above; children of the kingdom, because children of God. Hence we may suppose originated the different appellatives given to sinners and saints; the former were termed γιγαντες, earth-born, and the latter, ἁγιοι, i.e. saints, persons not of the earth, or separated from the earth.
The same became mighty men – men of renown – גברים gibborim, which we render mighty men, signifies properly conquerors, heroes, from גבר gabar, “he prevailed, was victorious.” and אנשי השם anshey hashshem, “men of the name,” ανθρωποι ονομαστοι, Septuagint; the same as we render men of renown, renominati, twice named, as the word implies, having one name which they derived from their fathers, and another which they acquired by their daring exploits and enterprises.
It may be necessary to remark here that our translators have rendered seven different Hebrew words by the one term giants, viz., nephilim, gibborim, enachim, rephaim, emim, and zamzummim; by which appellatives are probably meant in general persons of great knowledge, piety, courage, wickedness, etc., and not men of enormous stature, as is generally conjectured.” – Clarke Commentary
What Does it Mean?
I don’t think anyone can definitively declare what the Nephilim were. There simply isn’t enough clear scripture, and at one point or another speculation is going to have to form a critical component of any framework, even mine. Unlike many others though I will point out where I need to speculate.
I would first categorically rule out the Nephilim as being children of fallen angels. God created the bearing of Children as something synonymous with marriage. One exists for the purpose of the other. And we find in Matthew that Angels do not get married, therefore it is fair to say that they likely would not be capable of having children either. To assert otherwise, you either have to believe that God created beings who could have children but were barred from doing so, or you just have to start making stuff up, both of which I am not comfortable with.
Below is the narrative where Jesus teaches angels cannot marry or be given in marriage. I am including the whole narrative for context.
“23 The same day Sadducees came to him, who say that there is no resurrection, and they asked him a question, 24 saying, “Teacher, Moses said, ‘If a man dies having no children, his brother must marry the widow and raise up offspring for his brother.’ 25 Now there were seven brothers among us. The first married and died, and having no offspring left his wife to his brother. 26 So too the second and third, down to the seventh. 27 After them all, the woman died. 28 In the resurrection, therefore, of the seven, whose wife will she be? For they all had her.” 29 But Jesus answered them,“You are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God. 30 For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. 31 And as for the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was said to you by God: 32 ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not God of the dead, but of the living.” 33 And when the crowd heard it, they were astonished at his teaching.” Matt 22:23-33 ESV
I believe I can fairly say that the Nephilim were most likely only of human DNA. This removes all the fun out of it, so my apologies for that. I know a lot of people like their legends and all. That said, what are we left with?
The Nephilim are mentioned by name twice in the Old Testament. The first time is in Genesis and then once again they are brought up in Numbers.
“32 So they brought to the people of Israel a bad report of the land that they had spied out, saying, “The land, through which we have gone to spy it out, is a land that devours its inhabitants, and all the people that we saw in it are of great height. 33 And there we saw the Nephilim (the sons of Anak, who come from the Nephilim), and we seemed to ourselves like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them.” Num 13:32-33 ESV
The plainest understanding of the Nephilim based on the above passage is that it is a genetic thing. Some people are Nephilim and some people are not. I would compare it to being genetically Jewish, British, or Jamaican. Nephilim is simply an ancient ethnicity. Apparently it seems to come with some stereotypical traits, one of which is being really tall.
Though the word isn’t uses specifically in this next passage we can see a very similar theme being conveyed. Take a look:
“Rephaim is a Hebrew word for giants. Deut. 3:11 declares that his “bedstead” (translated in some texts as “sarcophagus”) of iron is “nine cubits in length and four cubits in width”, which is 13.5 ft by 6 ft according to the standard cubit of a man.” –Wikipedia
Keep in mind that just because his bed was 13.5 feet tall that doesn’t mean he was as well. It does mean that he was likely tall enough to need such a bed though. We have tall people like this today who would likely have enormous beds just like King Og.
See below a picture of the tallest man in the world. His name is Sultan Kosen, he is 8’3″ tall and would have grown even more if it wasn’t for a surgery that he received to stop growing. There have been others documented to be as tall as 8’11”.
I am not saying he is a Nephilim, but I am pointing out that extreme height is a thing in the human genome. It is not unreasonable to suspect that there was an ancient ethnic tribe marked by this trait many thousands of years ago. If you want to know where my hermeneutic gets speculative on identifying the Nephilim though then you just found it. This is the piece I am bringing in from my mind, although I do think there is legitimate reason to go here from the text. Let me know in the comments if you think I am wrong here.
In the Biblical passages preceding the Nephilim in Genesis 6 we have two chapters detailing the lineage after Adam. I would recommend that you skim them real quick (Gen 4)(Gen 5). Notice one lineage is from Cain, very wordly and earthy, and then the other is from Seth. The line of Seth is marked as those who “called upon the name of the Lord”.
I would mark the Nephilim as those who came from the line of Cain in chapter 4. This is because when we get to 6 we see the following:
I am arguing that contextually, the sons of God and man are not the same groups of people. The referent for “Man” would be the worldly line of Cain described in chapter 4, and the Sons of God are those who called upon the name of the Lord. They are the more noble line of Seth. You could call them the Christians of this era.
It looks like this breaks down though when those of Seth start marrying into the line of Cain. One of the things that came about was likely a genetic trait of great height, and likely strength too. Not long after that the flood comes and wipes everything out. Clearly there has to be more going on in the text than is actually stated. But that is what I am putting together. It does seem clear though that these traits of height and strength still carried to one degree or another through the line of Noah. Perhaps one of the girls his sons married was related to the Nephilim, which is why we see it later in the land of Canaan.
Is it possible that Goliath was the last Nephilim wiped out by David? I like the Christological typology that would imply but it’s not something I would be dogmatic about.
The reason I prefer the general understanding that I conveyed at the end is because it is the only rendering I have seen that relies on the most scripture and the least amount of assumptions. It does still have a fair amount of assumptions though, more than I am comfortable with anyways. So I hold to it in a state of reverent speculation.
Do I think that other theories are totally wrong? What about the nifty legends of men born from angels with superpowers? What about all the stories from the book of Enoch? Well these stories are fun but they are apocryphal.
I won’t condemn them as heresy but I don’t think they are correct either. Such tales are based more on assumption than scripture, and with what I have presented I think I am able to rely on the scripture more and assumptions less so. What do you think about the Nephilim? Let me know in the comments if you want to.