Genesis 6:1-4 “Who Were the Nephilim?” Sun. 11-23-2008

Posted on November 23, 2008. Filed under: Genesis: Answers to Life's Crucial Questions |

Redeemer Church Sunday School

Genesis Class: “Finding Answers to Life’s Crucial Questions”

Genesis 6:1-4 “Who Were the Nephilim?” Sun. 11-23-2008


Read Genesis 6:1-8 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 120 years.” The Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of man and they bore children to them. These were the mighty men who were of old, the men of renown.The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the Lord said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens, for I am sorry that I have made them.” But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord.


Introduction: When we study the Word of God verse by verse we are kept honest by God’s Word in that we do not skip over those passages that we don’t like, that seem boring to us, or that are too difficult to understand. If we really believe that God’s Word is God’s revelation to us, that it is historical and true, then we must not skip over those passages that have a reputation for being difficult. The theme of this class is, “Finding Answers to Life’s Crucial Questions”. Not every passage answers a crucial question, but every passage is important and is placed there by the Holy Spirit for our benefit and God’s glory. This morning’s text is one of the most difficult in all of Scripture. I am using Dr. Kenneth Mathews’ commentary from B&H a lot for my research for this class, his commentary in really one of the best I have ever seen. About this text, Dr. Mathews writes, (p.320) “Unquestionably, 6:1-4 is the most demanding passage in Genesis for the interpreter. Every verse is a source of exegetical difficulty. Also disconcerting is its trappings of mythological story, which makes it, if myth is to be sought, the most likely candidate in the Bible. This requires us to give special attention to it…” and he then proceeds to give a detailed analysis in 19 pages.


I had really planned to cover this in just a couple of pages, maybe 20 minutes of our time, this morning and then move on to some fruitful material in vss. 5-8. Maybe we will get that far, but likely not! Once again, I am surprised as I study God’s Word at how deep it is, how much spiritual wealth is available in every sentence. This is one of those texts that we will not be able to authoritatively state which is the one true interpretation. That will have to wait for heaven. And we may disagree amongst ourselves which is the best. But this morning as we look at this passage together, I want us to see that of the three possible explanations for this text, each one of them can bless us. We will leave here not having a for sure answer about what it means, but with the certain idea that whichever of the interpretations is correct, God can still bless us, challenge us and lead us with his Word.


I.                   The Literary Setting of this Text

A.     We never want to isolate the text we are studying from surrounds it, we must always keep it in context and show how it relates to what comes before and what comes after. Verses 1-8 are a unit even though I will probably only get through vss.1-4 today, they all go together and conclude the toledoth that began in 5:1. Ch.6:9 begins a new toledoth unit. So our text this morning is a bridge between what has gone before and what is to come next. This is seen in its themes and language.


Throughout Gen. 1-11 there is a theme of the progression of God’s blessing of Creation and then the hope of Redemption after the Fall and, in tension with that theme, is the other theme of danger to that hope of Redemption. From the serpent that enters the Garden and tempts Eve and God’s promise of the One who would crush his head to the murder of Abel by Cain to the birth of Seth, from the wanton sinfulness of Lamech (1) to the hope expressed by Lamech (2) that his son, Noah, would bring relief from their toil there is a tension building. Wickedness grows from Cain to Lamech to ch.6:5 “the wickedness of man was great in the earth.”


Compare 1:28 “Be fruitful and multiply…” with 6:1 “When man began to multiply on the face of the land…” In 6:1-7 the word “man- ha’ adam” is used 7 times (notice again the number 7) and links the story back to 5:1. the words, “face of the earth or land- ha’adama” is used in 6:1, 5, 7 and links back to 5:29. The terms “the sons of God” and “the daughters of men” also hearkens back to ch.5 with the use of “other sons and daughters”. There are more of these kinds of use of words and phrases by Moses that show he is deliberately linking portions of his narrative with each other and establishing a rhythmic flow in Hebrew that is even discernible in English, but I don’t want to go into any more detail here because this text also points forward to what is coming next.


Chapter 6:1-8 points us forward to the next toledoth story, 6:9-9:29. Vss.1-8 give the setting for the judgment/flood story that follows. It links Noah from 5:28-32 with 6:9ff. It presents Noah as a type of Christ with his father’s hope “this shall bring us relief” with 6:9 “Noah was a righteous man, blameless…walked with God”. In vs. 3 we have, “My Spirit shall not abide in man forever…” with 7:22 “Everything…in whose nostrils was the breath of life died” with 2:7 “and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life” and even 1:2 “And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.”


Our text also shows a continuity with the idea of man crossing over the boundaries that God has set linking with 3:11 “Have you eaten of the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” with 11:4-9 and the story of the Tower of Babel. It is the story of the progression of sin and the consequential judgment of God. Do you get the idea that Moses is a master wordsmith and God’s inspired Word is a beautiful piece of literature!



II.                Introduction to the Text

A.     It is clear from the context that Moses is implying that something about the marriages between the Sons of God and the daughters of men is contributing to the general wickedness of man on the earth and is linked to the judgment flood. But knowing exactly what Moses was thinking here has proven difficult to interpreters through the centuries. There are three main ways to interpret the text and we shall look at the evidence for each of the interpretations and seek to draw an application from each one.

B.     Vs.1 “When man began to multiply”- although man is evidently fulfilling the creation mandate to be fruitful and multiply, because of the fallen condition of man, you get a multiplication of sin as well. As man spreads throughout the world, so does sin. As the cities are built and population density rises in some locations, sin is concentrated. It is ironic that the rise of cities is the definition of the rise of civilization but along with the advances that cities bring, there is a corresponding rise in sin, violence, greed, lust, etc.

C.     Many of the Liberal scholars point to this text as a classic example of how the Bible is full of myths. In Moses’ day the Canaanites used a similar term, “sons of God” to describe the council of lesser deities who met with El, their chief god. The gods of the Canaanites, Sumerians, Greeks and Romans all were known to have sexual relations with beautiful human women. The offspring of these unions were the demigods, the heroes like Achilles, Odysseus, Hercules, etc. were either the direct descendants of gods with humans or the grandchildren of such unions.


I have told this class many times that Moses will take a myth or false religious idea of his day from the pagans around Israel and set the record straight. He seems to delight in poking a finger in the eye of the pagans as he writes and defends the truth. In the Babylonian myth, Atrahasis the population of the earth grows rapidly and the noise of people bothers the god Enlil who sends a flood to destroy them. Here we see the population growing but it is there sinfulness, their lust and violence that leads God to judge man and send the flood. So yes, there are some touchstones between what Moses wrote and what the pagans wrote, but the differences are very unique, very specific, and point to the holiness and grace of God and the sinfulness of man. We will see in the next couple of weeks that Moses and the Epic of Gilgamesh have a lot in common too. This confirms to me that Moses was well read, that he was writing to his people in order to protect them from the culture around them and that he was writing to that culture to possibly even evangelize them.



III.             Who Were the Sons of God and Daughters of Men? There are three interpretations of who the sons of God were: 1) fallen angels; 2) human rulers/tyrants; 3) the descendents of the godly line, Seth, who began to marry the descendents of Cain.

A.     The first theory is that the “sons of God” are in fact fallen angels, celestial beings. The sons of God- bene ha’ elohim– are angels who have fallen and come to earth and are having sexual relations with women and even producing offspring who are the Nephilim, the mighty men of old.


Support for this view comes from several places, including inside the text as the sons of God seems to be deliberately contrasted with the daughters of men. Mathews writes, “…it means they are of the realm of the heavenly (angels) in contrast to the ‘daughters of men’ whose realm is terrestrial. As the argument runs, their unnatural sexual union produced the ‘Nephilim’, whose notorious deeds (v.4) required the strongest of penalties (v.5). Proponents of this view can boast that it is the oldest opinion known, since it was advocated by the Jews at least by the second century BC as indicated by 1Enoch 6-11. Early Christians also advocated the angel view” (p.325).


The real strength of this view lays in the use of this phrase, “the sons of God” elsewhere in Scripture to describe angels. Job 1:6 and 2:1 are especially noteworthy. This is strengthened by the fact that Job is possibly composed at about the same time that Moses is writing the Pentateuch 1400-1200 BC.


As I mentioned earlier, the Epic of Gilgamesh portrays the idea of the gods mating with human women; Gilgamesh himself is semi-divine. This idea of the gods consorting with humans, both male and female, was common. It could be then, that Moses is telling the pagans around him, “No! God is a Spirit and would not, could not mate with humans, and God is the One and Only, there are no other gods. What you are referring to is that fallen angels did this. They are the source of these ancient heroes, who were wicked. Mathews writes, (p.326) “in this view, the Hebrew account corrects the false notion that there was in antiquity a superhuman race of semi-divine beings and shows that the culprits were not gods but degenerate angels whose offspring were merely sinful “men of renown”.


Some point to 1Peter 3:19-20 as a text that may support this theory, but I don’t think so. A better text is 2Peter 2:4 and the best text is Jude 6-7.


Another text in Genesis points to this possibility. Look at Gen. 19. You have two angels in a physical form. They eat with Lot in vs.3 so they have a physical body. The perverted, homosexual men of the city apparently found the visitors very attractive and gathered around Lot’s home demanding that he turn them over to them for sex in vss.4-5.

I would add that in the book I mentioned last week, To Hell and Back by Maurice S. Rawlings, MD, a heart surgeon, (Thomas Nelson, 1993) some of the stories he relates of those who died on the operating table and had a hell experience tell of being violated by demons, who are fallen angels.


However, this interpretation has some problems. There has been no certain mention of the angelic host in Genesis to this point. Granted in 1:26 and God uses the plural that could refer to himself and his heavenly court, and in 3:22 God again refers to himself in the plural, “the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil” and that by that time Satan at least had fallen, and likely the angels with him. And in 3:24 there is a reference to the cherubim.


In 6:1-8 the main subject is the sinfulness of man, not angels. The judgment that is to follow is upon man, not angels. In the creation account it is clear that each animal reproduces after its kind and there is no other suggestion in Scripture that angels can reproduce. The strongest argument against this view comes from Matthew 22:29-30 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.


Of course the difficulty with the Matthew verse is that it says, “like angels in heaven” and in Genesis 6 the context is here on earth and is likely dealing with fallen angels, not like the angels of heaven.


The application of this view, should it be correct is that we need to realize that in our post-modern, scientific, skeptical age, there is an inherent prejudice against the supernatural realm. This Genesis passage avoids the pagan myths of gods consorting with humans sexually, but preserves the supernatural by including fallen angels as being capable of this action. We do need to be aware of the spiritual realm without drifting into weirdness. In the gospels we see Jesus dealing with the demonic in many ways. Angels and demons are real, they can have an affect in the material world and even have physical manifestations.


B.     The second interpretation of this passage is that the “sons of God” refers to those who are rulers who are acting as Tyrants. The word ‘elohim can be used in Scripture to refer to men as judges. Psalm 82:1, 6-7 refers to men as ‘elohim and even as sons of the Most High, bene ‘elyon. In this interpretation the Nephilim are not regarded as the children of the sons of God but are their contemporaries. These judges were tyrants who “took as their wives any they chose”. This could be a link back to Lamech who had two wives and could indicate that they were gathering harems, with many wives. This can also be related to the Epic of Gilgamesh in that one complaint about Gilgamesh as king of Uruk was that he was practicing primus noctus, that he would take to bed all young brides before their husbands. Again, Moses shows he is familiar with the literature of his day. Mathews writes, (p.329) “With Cain’s lineage we have the origins of city organization, polygamy, and violent tyranny. Thus 6:1-8 describes how this emerging Cainite kingship achieved its evil endeavors and God’s judgment. In essence the sons of God refers to the Cainites. The Sumero-Akkadian tradition presents a cultural parallel: Atrahasis prefaces the flood by describing the origins of divine kingship in association with the founding of urban life.”


The problem with this interpretation is that, while it avoids the problems with angelic beings/demons mating with humans, it lacks context. The larger passage does not talk directly of kingships. The phrase, “any they chose” may infer polygamy, but not clearly.


Application- Although God ordains government, all governments are built by sinful men and tyranny is always a threat. While we must be peaceful and respect the authorities God has place over us, we must be vigilant against those who would be tyrants and promote evil in the land.


C.     The third interpretation of this text is that the “sons of God” refers to the godly line of Seth. This is the view of Augustine, Luther and Calvin, giants all. This is the preferred view of Mathews. Chapters 4-5 of Genesis contrast the lines of Cain and Seth and here in ch.6 we see how the two lines now intermarry and bring even more evil and then the judgment. The flood account is linked to the Sethite genealogy. Mathews writes (p.330), “This provides the appropriate interpretive key for understanding 6:1-8. During this period of amazing Sethite expansion (ch.5), the Sethite family marries outside its godly heritage, which results in moral decline.” Mathews says that ‘elohim can be translated as “godly sons” supporting this view. Giving weight to this argument is the way Israel is called the children of God throughout the Pentateuch. Thus this would serve as a warning to Israel in Moses’ day to not marry outside the faith, a rule which was demonstrated in 28:1; 34:1ff; 38:1ff.


Application- 2Cor.6:14 Do not be unequally yoked and Amos 3:3 Can two walk together unless they be agreed. It has long been a teaching in the Church that Christians should not marry unbelievers. I have seen the devastation that this causes in too many homes where the girl marries the bad boy thinking she can tame him and they live spiritually apart for the rest of their lives.


IV.              Who Were the Nephilim?

A.     Mathews writes (p.335) “The identity of the Nephilim and their relationship, if any,  to the marriages (v.2) is perplexing. The word occurs but once more, in Numbers 13:33, where it refers to an indigenous population inhabiting Canaan. For 6:1-4 the primary question is whether the Nephilim are the offspring of the marriages or merely their contemporaries.”


The word itself is difficult to define but we think it is related to the word for “fall” napal. This may point to them being fallen from heaven which would support the first view of the “sons of God”, or fallen in nature, i.e., very sinful and degenerate which could support all three of the views. It may also be related to “having fallen in battle”. Another candidate for the meaning of Nephilim is nepel, meaning “miscarriage”, which could mean some form of a disfigurement due to miscarriage. This seems to maybe fit the first view since the offspring of demons with humans would be a hybrid with some form of distortions.


The King James translates the term giants, which follows the LXX and other ancient versions. This is again related to the Numbers 13:33 text and we should also note that 1Chron.20 includes the story of not just Goliath, but other giants as well.


The Numbers text says that the Anakites are the descendants of the Nephilim, which is a problem, in that after the flood weren’t the Nephilim gone? This could imply that either some survived the flood (as well as others?) or that there was a repeat of the sons of God cohabiting with human women. Do you see how complex this is? Mathews does not think the Numbers text is an effort at linking the Nephilim of that day with the Nephilim of Genesis 6.


So who were the Nephilim? The text itself does not specifically link the Nephilim to the sons of God as children, though it may be taken that way. They could be contemporaries of that time, and that is Mathews’ view. He views the Numbers 13 passage as being an exaggeration by the spies who were trying to persuade Israel to not go into the Promised Land.


The “mighty men’ or “heroes” and the “men of renown” are the offspring of the sons of God and daughters of men and are clearly called “men”.


V.                 Conclusion

There are so many problems with all the different interpretations that we can say this text is one of the most difficult in all the Bible. Each of the three main views does have something to say to us today, however. I personally believe that the first view, that fallen angels had relations with human women produced the Nephilim and the mighty men, has the best textual support, though clearly the most problems theologically. No major doctrinal point stands or falls on this passage. I believe we live in a day that is so heavily influenced by materialistic scientism that the idea of the spiritual realm is drifting away, even within the church. The big warning for me from this text is that there are things in God’s universe we cannot understand or explain and we should approach them humbly. There are spiritual realms around us that are at war. The souls of men are the prize. I have no doubt that as wicked and evil as our present world is, we are liable to the judgment of God. I think that a lot of the evil we face cannot be understood apart from a belief in demons and angels.


This passage alerts us to the concept of evil and spiritual warfare and we know that “we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God…” Ephesians 6:12-13





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