The Nephilim Connection

The Nephilim of Genesis 6 has been a topic of great speculation over the centuries. The word appears in Scripture two times, first in Genesis 6 and then in Numbers 13. There have been three major theories regarding the identity of the Nephilim:

  1. The Fallen-Angel Procreation Theory: this view puts forward that fallen angels entered into sexual union with the “daughters of men” and produced a hybrid creation known as the Nephilim.
  2. The Fallen-Angel Possession Theory: this view is similar to the first, but it assumes that these fallen angels possessed men who then had sexual relations with ungodly women thereby producing the Nephilim.
  3. The Seth-Line Theory: this view assumes that the “sons of God” in Genesis 6 refer to the line of Seth that intermingled with the line of Cain and produced offspring (Nephilim) that corrupted the morality of the earth and eventually led to God’s flood.

There are variations of each theory, but these are the most popular models of interpretation. I will not be delving into the validity of each model but instead will make some interpretive observations before arriving at a conclusion.

Interpretive Presuppositions

The initial problem stems from a crisis of definition. Nephilim is often translated as “giants.” Jerome’s Latin translation has gigantes which literally means “giants.” The King James Version is one of the few translations to preserve the word “giant” in its text, thus leading to a majority interpretation that these creatures are giants similar to Goliath the Philistine who we see in I Samuel 17.

The idea that the Nephilim are super-human giants develops out of the first and second theories which assume sexual intercourse between angels and humans. In such readings, there is usually a presupposition that Second Temple Jewish texts offer clarity to the biblical text. In general, this leads to various speculative interpretations which de-materialize the human encounter choosing rather to prefer supernatural interactions. These interpretations are not compelling since they generally add too much confusion to the text itself and seek for unhelpful ways to collaborate the interpretive process with outside biblical sources. My contention is that these do not form hermeneutical models that lead to more trust in the text, but rather find solace in extra-biblical appeals.

Further, how we interpret passages like these also reveals a bit of our understanding of the Creation Week. My own experience has been that interpreters who depend too heavily on Ancient Near Eastern contexts or other outside narratives often complicate the clear meaning of the text, and therefore the more outside of general interpretive history one tends to go on the matter of creation. And how we view the text of Genesis 1-3 shape deeply our reading of Genesis 6 and other related texts.

Theories that explain the creation account only through the lens of poetry or as topical guides without concern for chronology also seem to align themselves with theories of the Nephilim that introduce extra-mundum creatures into the world. As a result, the text of the Bible does not provide a cohesive self-interpreting guide but is instead dependent on outside sources to make sense of it. There is no denial that sources outside the Scriptures may confirm the text, but it does not supplant the text as some variation of a 67th book.

The Angels in Jude

As an example, many introduce Jude’s citation of Enoch and assume with little data that Jude is dependent on Enoch. But what Jude is doing is appropriating Enoch to make a case to his readers. We may even suspect that Enoch was a common book used by the Jewish Zealots creeping into the Church. But as James B. Jordan notes,

The argument that Jude is leaning on Enoch here and elsewhere is wholly gratuitous. Why not say that both Jude and Enoch are citing a common tradition? The Book of Enoch gives us the same information, but not under Divine inspiration. There is in fact absolutely no evidence to suggest that Jude was leaning on Enoch for anything, and thus no reason to tie Jude 6 with Enoch‘s speculations concerning the sons of God and the daughters of men in Genesis 6.

The Spirit could have led Jude to cite other texts, but our first task is to compare Scripture with Scripture rather than jump into the extra-terrestrial, angelic plot. In interpreting Jude’s language, most commentators view the angels and the archangel Michael only in the context of angelic/spiritual beings, but rarely are these assumptions challenged. But if we consider the usage of angelos in the Bible, we quickly realize that in the Book of Revelation, angelos can refer to angelic beings, but also to simple human messengers of God. When Revelation 2 addresses a specific angel for each church, there is little to suggest that God appoints an supernatural being to guard an individual congregation. Still, there is plenty to suggest that these are pastors or leaders of each Church called to hear what God has for them and what judgment, if any, Jesus will bring upon them.

When James speaks of Rahab, he says she received angelos (Jam. 2:25). We know from the story that these were not spiritual/angelic beings, but human messengers. The Bible uses human messengers and spiritual messengers, so if we are going to entertain angels in our interpretation, let us entertain the right ones lest we over-spiritualize the text.

It seems a lot more reasonable to connect Jude’s language to the Sethites in Genesis 6. The “sons of God” are messengers who initially sought to follow the Seed of the Woman but intermingled with the line of Cain. They lost their places of authority and are set aside for judgment at the last day.

In the case of Jude, commentators often make a passing allusion to Zechariah 3:2 but fail to investigate the chapter itself for a fuller picture of Jude’s reference.

Jude’s quotation of Zechariah 3:2, “Yahweh rebuke you” is clearly a reference to a pre-incarnate manifestation of Jesus who in Zechariah 3 is identified as the “angel of Yahweh.” This angel has the power to take away sin (Zech. 3:4) which is not an authority granted to any angelic being, but the true Messenger of Yahweh, Jesus. When Jude speaks of the “archangel Michael,” disputing with Satan, considering the previous assertions, it is more than likely that Jude has the Arch-Messenger of Yahweh in mind. After all, it is Jesus who rebukes the devil in the wilderness by quoting from Deuteronomy, and again, Jesus quotes Zechariah in his dispute with the devil. It should be noted that “Michael” means “one who is like God.” The Arch-Messenger, Jesus, points to Yahweh’s rebuke as a final case that the liturgical system of Moses (known as Moses’ body) belongs to the Seed of the Woman and not the Seed of the Serpent.

Biblical Symbolism

Another pressing hermeneutical duty we have is to understand the symbolic language of the Bible. Man is inherently symbolic since he is a representative of the Most-High God. His duties are architectural since he is the sub-contractor who goes to the ends of the earth and claims the land on behalf of Yahweh. In various occasions, as in the Garden, he also names land and enhances the local dialect with the language of heaven. He mirrors creation’s language and explores the earth through creational lenses since he understands the purpose and order of Creation.

Similarly, as symbolic creatures, the Biblical writers are at ease in a world where the grammar of heaven is used frequently. This familiarity does not replace reality but gives reality greater depth. As Leithart notes,

…symbolism allows objects to be both themselves and also—simultaneously, without ceasing to be what they are, for the very reason they are what they are—something else.

The task of the interpreter is to see language that appears to be other-wordly and understand that it is often speaking eloquently about earthly realities. Sun, moon and stars are initially actual pieces of the architecture of creation directing the days/seasons chronologically. Later, when the prophets and then Jesus use such terms, it is incorporated into the political environment of the time seeking to portray the world in adversarial language. For the biblical writers, the sun, moon and stars serve as illustrations for the fall of earthly empires, whether pagan or disobedient Israel.

The Nephilim Connection

Indeed, when we circle back to the question of the identity of the Nephilim, we find ourselves in familiar territory. At the Fall of Man, there was a strict division placed on two lines: The Seed of the Woman and the Seed of the Serpent (Gen. 3:15). The first operates with a distinct view of creation. For this line, the world serves as a sacramental memorial where God reminds us of his promises embedded in the good and true, and we in turn perform acts of adoration reminding Him of His covenant and acts of defiance to the political orders that oppose Yahweh God.

The second family line operates under false principles by following the path of ingratitude and disobeying the order of creation, choosing instead to intermingle sexually with the sons of God, thus embracing a secularized view of creation. They form their own time zone, walking according to the deeds of the flesh.

These two lines are put into concrete war zones when Cain murders his brother Abel and sets his trajectory away from Eden and farther into desert places. The Seth-line, initially a faithful line (Gen. 4:26), eventually cohabitates with the beautiful daughters of Cain (Gen. 6:2). One clear reason we are still dealing with humans in the text instead of an angelic/human combination is because the text explicitly says that the Spirit no longer wishes to contend with mortal humans (Gen. 6:3). There is no reference to angels in any of the judgment language used before/during/after the Flood (Gen. 6).

The Nephilim, therefore, seem to fit best in line with the third theory as direct descendants of Seth, but representatives of great and fallen men. After all, the term stems from the naphal which means “to fall.” The term seems to be a referring to mere men who once were “heroes of old” and “men of renown” (Gen. 6:4). Such language is never used of angelic beings, but its root iysh is used by Adam himself (Gen. 2:23). The entire narrative in Genesis 6 sets the stage for the destruction of the earth and not once implicates angelic creatures in that judgment.

The use of Nephilim is a basic way of describing men who once held to a remarkable status within God’s initial world but now have fallen in a great way following the way of Cain (Jude 11). Such great falls happen in the Bible (2 Sam. 1:19) and serve to indicate that these fallen men of noble background will lose their status in God’s redemptive work and will be set aside for eternal damnation.

The other reference to the Nephilim in Numbers 13 should be understood in the context of the narrative it is brought up in—i.e. the bad report brought from the Israelite spies. Whether their report was true or not, depending on how exaggerated their words were to express their fear of conquering the land, the Nephilim could simply have been a group of powerful men who chose to carry on the legacy of the offspring of the Seth/Cain alliance  before the flood. The sons of Anak (Num. 13:30-33) could have been referred to as Nephilim to deter God’s people from conquering the land. But Joshua and Caleb do not reinforce their comrade’s report but challenge their statement by stating that God’s people should not be afraid of them (Num. 13:30).

In sum, whether the sons of Anak are revived forms of the Nephilim whose message was passed on by oral tradition through Noah’s family after the Flood, or whether this report is an attempt to frighten God’s people from conquering the land, the identification of Nephilim still continues to be an expression of a line of men who were initially judged by God due to their corruption. Further, assuming they re-appear in Numbers 13, they cause no fear in God’s people post-flood; they are a continual expression of the Serpent’s Seed in Genesis 3:15. This interpretation preserves the clarity of the text without conjectures about intermingling angelic beings. It allows the text to speak for itself without relying on non-scriptural texts for authority. Ultimately, the line of Nephilim is destroyed when the true Seed of the Woman breaks the power of the Serpent’s line on the blessed Tree (Heb. 2:14).

Uri Brito is the Senior Pastor of Providence Church in Pensacola, FL. He is the editor of The Church-Friendly Family, and author of The Trinitarian Father. Uri is the founder of and contributor to Kuyperian Commentary, and is a board member of Theopolis.

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