The Nephilim and the Sons of God in Genesis 6:4

I get questions about the Nephilim from Genesis 6:4 all the time. With several recent book series and movies based on speculation about what it might mean that the “sons of God married daughters of men”, producing the Nephilim, I thought it was time to weigh in on this long-standing puzzle from the Bible. After some careful investigation, I believe that it is possible to give solid answers to most questions about the Nephilim based almost entirely on information to be found within the Bible itself, rather than turning to sensationalistic speculation and outright myth.

Perhaps one of the most puzzling passages in the book of Genesis is found in 6:4:

The Nephilim were on the earth in those days– and also afterward– when the sons of God went to the daughters of men and had children by them.

This enigmatic verse has caused no end of confusion, consternation and, of course, speculation. One of the most common speculations holds that this verse teaches that fallen angels (e.g. the “sons of God”) had sex with human women, giving rise to some kind of human/angel hybrid called the Nephilim. This view has been popularized in books, movies, TV shows and, most unfortunately of all, in sermons by irresponsible preachers.   This teaching depends on the fact that in the book of Job, the phrase “sons of God” is a clear reference to angelic spirits (cf. Job 1:6, 2:1, 38:7) and assumes that the phrase must mean the same thing here in Genesis.  The fact that the Nephilim, who appear to be the offspring of this union, are said to be “heroes of old, men of renown” reinforces the idea that they are not mere mortals but had supernatural qualities.

This idea certainly feeds our appetites for sensationalism, but is it good biblical teaching?  No, it is not.  More importantly, it ends up causing people to miss the very point God was making when He inspired Moses to write these words!

Let’s deal first with why this popular idea of angel/human hybrids is almost certainly mistaken:

1. This union between the “sons of God” and the daughters of men” was clearly displeasing to God, which would mean that any angels who entered into such unions were rebelling against God.

The evidence for this is primarily to be found in the fact that, between the statement about the union (Gen 6:2) and the statement about the offspring of that union (Gen 6:4), we find this:  Then the Lord said, “My Spirit will not contend with man forever, for he is mortal; his days will be a hundred and twenty years” (Gen 6:3). The Hebrew here is constructed in such a way that there can be no doubt that this statement about God’s displeasure was linked to the previous verse.[1] In other words, these marriages were not God’s will.

Now, if these “sons of God” were angels, then they would have been disobeying God by doing this and their disobedience would seem to constitute an angelic rebellion.  As there is no mention of Satan here in Gen 6 or any mention elsewhere in the Bible of Satan leading the rebellion by marrying a human woman, this would almost certainly have to be a different angelic rebellion than the one most of us are familiar with.  However, there is no mention anywhere in Scripture of a second angelic rebellion.  It would be very surprising, to say the least, that there would be no comment made about such a thing either here are elsewhere in the Bible.

So, if this is not a matter of previously loyal angels abandoning heaven, then the only other option would be to understand these “sons of God” as already-fallen angels, otherwise known as demons or evil spirits.  But if these are demons or evil spirits, then calling them “sons of God” would be a very strange thing to do…

2.  The Bible does not refer to rebellious angels as “sons of God.”

Some readers will probably think that this is so obvious that it needs no explanation.  After all, how could demons be called “sons of God”?  The Hebrew phrase here (beni ha elohim) and the Greek equivalent (huioi theou) used in the New Testament are most typically used to denote creatures who are faithful and obedient to God’s will.  We see this even in so near a context as Job 38:7 where the “sons of God” are angels who rejoice at God’s work…quite the opposite of a typical demonic response!  In the New Testament, we see the same positive association without exception (cf. Mat 5:9, Luk 20:36, Rom 8:14, Rom 8:19 and Gal 3:26).

However, it is clear that the use of this phrase in Gen 6:2 and 6:4 cannot easily be understood in so a positive light since God is obviously displeased by what they were doing.  Therefore its use in Gen 6 is somewhat anomalous.  In that sense, it could theoretically be a reference to angels who were rebelling at this moment, but as we mentioned above, there is no other biblical reference to what would have to be considered a second angelic rebellion.

Now, to be fair, there is a place in the Bible where the phrase “sons of God” might be easily misunderstood to include fallen angels as well as the still-loyal ones.  We do find this exact same phrase in Job 1:6 and 2:1, both of which say that the “sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord and Satan also came among them.”  While this might appear, at first glance, to say that Satan was counted among the “sons of God”, a closer looks makes this very unlikely.  The Hebrew word (gam) translated here as “also” (as in “Satan also came”) is typically used to indicate association with distinction; that is, it is not the word one would use to speak of a thing which was simply part of the larger whole.  For instance, you would not use this word to say “a bushel of apples and also an apple” but rather to say “a bushel of apples and also an orange.”  The use of this word sets Satan apart in an important sense from the assembly of the “sons of God”, though indicating that he was to be found “among” the crowd of them.  This same idea of association-with-distinction is also typical of the Hebrew word (tavek) translated here as “among”.  In summary, while Job 1:6 and 2:1 say that Satan came before God along with a crowd of angels, it does not say that he was one of these “sons of God”.  On the contrary, these verses seem to distinguish Satan from the group of angels called “sons of God.”  Apart from these two verses in Job, there is simply no evidence from Scripture that Satan or any other fallen angel was ever called a “son of God” and even these two verses, rightly understood, do not support such an understanding.

So, while “sons of God” can mean angelic spirits, it does not mean demonic spirits or rebellious angels, so it is very unlikely to have that meaning here in Gen 6.

3.  Angels don’t marry, but the language here is clearly that of marriage.

At various points in history, some scholars have attempted to dismiss the idea of angels marrying humans on the basis of what Jesus said in Matthew 22:30:  “At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven.”  This approach might be a bit too simplistic,[2] but that doesn’t mean that it is false or can be easily ignored. If the angelic nature is such that they do not marry one another, then the idea that they might be interested in marrying a completely different kind of creature is rather difficult to fathom.  This is all the more difficult a notion to accept when we consider the question of why non-physical spirits would find human women “beautiful.”

Perhaps more importantly, there is the problem of the essential nature of angels vs. the essential nature of human beings. Angels are spirits whereas humans are physical or, more properly embodied spirits.  To be fair, some angels may[3] be able to manifest with actual physical form (as opposed to simply being visible) for a time (cf. Gen 18:1 and 19:1), but it remains a fact that their normal state is non-physical.[4]  The idea of a “marriage” between a physical and a non-physical creature simply makes no sense, especially given the fact that marriage as instituted in Genesis has the effect of making the two partners “one flesh” (Gen 2:24), a concept which is meaningless if one of the partners has no flesh!

For an angel to really marry a human woman, it would have to take on physical form in a permanent or at least semi-permanent way which raises all sorts of additional problems.

4.  Angels having children with human women is both physiologically and theologically problematic.

First, to be blunt, as angels are by nature non-physical creatures, they do not naturally possess sperm with which to impregnate human women.  Even if we assume that angelic spirits can take physical form for a while, it is an assumption orders of magnitude greater to think that their temporary bodies possess DNA wrapped up in sex cells which can be introduced into a human woman, beginning the process of sexual reproduction and maintaining cellular meiosis even after the angelic spirit has returned to its natural, non-physical state.  Second, from a theological perspective, any child born from an angel/woman union would not be of Adam’s line and would therefore not be under the Adamic churse, yet as we will see in the next section, the Flood narrative seems to include the Nephilim in with the other, sinful descendants of Adam.

An alternative interpretation, one held by John Macarthur, is worth mentioning here:  it is held by some that demons did not directly impregnate women but rather, possessed human men who then impregnated women.  This view does not have the ontological or theological difficulties of the more popular view.  However, it remains problematic for different reasons.  First, there is no evidence for this in the passage itself; on the contrary, the passage explicitly says that the “sons of God” directly married the “daughters of men.”  If they had to do so via intermeidary bodies possessed for this purpose it is surprising that no mention of that fact is made.  Second, this view is apparently intended to explain the unusual physical nature of the Nephilim, but I cannot see how it does so.  Even if a man impregnates a woman while possessed, his sperm would still be entirely human.  If there is a reason why the offspring of a possessed man and a woman should have unusual physical capacities, it is never made clear (or even hinted at) in Scripture.

5.  God brought judgment on humanity for this sin, not on angels.

The context of Genesis 6 strongly suggests that this displeasing union between the “sons of God” and the “daughters of men” was part of God’s motivation in bringing the Flood upon the earth.  Note that Gen 5 concludes with the introduction of Noah and then Gen 6:8 returns to discussion of Noah and his righteousness.  The intervening verses, including the statements about the “sons of God” marrying “daughters of men” and the brief statement about the Nephilim, are all part of the declaration of humanity’s great wickedness.  Interestingly, Gen 6:12 says that God saw how bad things had gotten because (literally) “all flesh”[5] had become corrupt, a term closely associated with human beings throughout the Hebrew Scriptures.  This is a clear indication that physical human beings are the focus of God’s judgment, not angelic spirits.

The result of this great wickedness was the Flood on earth, not a purging of the heavens, maintaining the focus on human sinfulness and punishment, but making no mention at all of the sin or punishment of angelic spirits. If the nephilim’s very existence is an abomination, then why are humans held responsible for it rather than the supposedly angelic “sons of God” who are explicitly identified as initiating these unholy unions?

Note:  some scholars, Sailhamer among them, argue that Gen 6:1-4 are intended to be a conclusion to the genaeology of Gen 5 rather than an introduction to the Flood narrative of Gen 6.  If this is correct, then it is possible that there is no particular judgment implied upon these unions.  Rather, in this view, Gen 6:1-4 could be simply a “calm before the storm”, though with an ominous statement that God’s judgment upon wickedness is coming.  If this view is correct, then the point I have made in this section becomes irrelevant to the larger discussion.  However, an alternative view is that Sailhamer is correct that Gen 6:1-3 belongs as the conclusion to chapter 5 and 6:4 actually begins the flood narrative.  I actually think this quite likely based on the fact that 6:1, 6:2 and 6:3 all have a waw/vav connector at their beginning but 6:4 does not, suggesting it is not so intimately connected to the preceding verses.  If this is the case, then the mention of the Nephilim are still part of the Flood narrative.

6.  The word “Nephilim” seems to mean “giant humans” and is not a proper noun.

The mysteriousness of Gen 6:4 is considerably heightened because most Bible versions have simply transliterated the Hebrew word rather than translating it.  This means that most versions have retained the sound of the original word using the closest letters in the target language, but in so doing they have treated the word as though it were a proper noun which it may not be.  This same word recurs in Num 13:33 where it appears to be a description rather than a proper noun:  “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.”

When we remember that the Flood wiped out all human beings but Noah and his family and realize that Anak was a descendent of Noah’s son Ham,[6] it becomes clear that these are two completely unconnected groups of people being described by the same Hebrew word.  This strongly suggests that Nephilim is not a proper noun at all but a descriptive noun meaning something like “giants”.  When read in this way, it becomes very likely that Genesis 6:4 is referring to human beings who possessed unusual physical size and strength which is why they were called “heroes of old, men of renown.”  (Note also that they are specifically called men of renown, a translation of the Hebrew term ish which is normally only used in reference to human males).[7]

7.  Genesis 6 does not focus on the nephilim as result of this union but rather cites them as evidence of the human wickedness of “those days.”

There are two distinct literary units in the first part of Gen 6.  The first is found in 6:1-3 and the second in 6:4-8.[8]  Both of them have a very similar function:  they emphasize the fact that wickedness on the earth was growing and about to be judged.  When this is understood, it becomes likely that the nephilim are cited as evidence of the prevalence of this wickedness; that is, they are mentioned because they contribute to the point Moses is making:  the Flood was justified because the world was full of terrible evil.  The nephilim are apparently an example of that evil.

Now, to be fair, there are at least two possible reasons why the nephilim would have been used as an example of rampant evil.  One option is that they were the unnatural offspring of angels and humans, but we have already seen several reasons why this is very unlikely.  The other option would be that the original audience of Genesis knew of some human example of nephilim that was closely associated with evil.  But that is precisely what the Bible tells us!

As we have already seen, the word nephilim which is probably a descriptive noun meaning “giants,” also occurs in Num 13:33 where it was used to describe some of the Canaanites the Israel were facing as they contemplated entering the Promised Land.  The Bible gives several horrifying descriptions of Canaanite evil and it would have been quite natural to fixate on the “giants” among them as a kind of representative archetype of these evil people, similar to the way that Goliath would later come to be a kind of archetype of the “giants” that oppose God’s people.  Given what they were facing, this is likely how the original audience of Genesis would have responded to the word nephilim when they encountered it in Gen 6:4.   They would have understood the presence of giants before the Flood as evidence of the great wickedness of “those days.”

Moses is not emphasizing the supernatural nature of these “giants” but merely citing them as evidence of the great wickedness of “those days”.  In this light, the statement that these nephilim were “heroes of old, men of renown” is likely not a positive thing.  Rather, it emphasizes the fact that these evil, violent – but undeniably powerful – men were looked up to![9]  This is probably supposed to be an indictment of those who looked up to these men rather than a statement about how great the nephilim were.

Further support for this understanding of Gen 6:4-8 comes from Jesus himself.  In one of Jesus’ most famous sermons, he spoke about the “days of Noah” (Mat 24:37-38, Luk 17:26-27) as an example of evil days when people are not paying any attention to God.  While he clearly refers to Gen 6 in this sermon, he never once mentions the nephilim, but he specifically mentions people “marrying and being given in marriage” which sounds suspiciously similar to what Moses said in Gen 6:1-2 and 6:4!  If the point of Gen 6:4 was the nephilim themselves, Jesus seems to have missed it.  Rather, he seems to think that the point of the entire section of Gen 6:1-8 is to describe how bad things had gotten.  The wicked, though much-admired, nephilim were simply one example of mankind’s evil in “those days.”

There is not a single good piece of evidence that the “sons of God” in Genesis 6:2-4 were angels, either of the previously-fallen or the fell-at-that-moment variety.  The nephilim were not angel/human hybrids but were rather men huge men with great strength admired by the rest of an increasingly wicked humanity.

But if the nephilim are not angel/human hybrids, then why are they mentioned in conjunction with the “sons of God”?  And if the “sons of God” were not angels, then what were they?  At this point, you may already have a pretty good idea what the answer is, but let’s look at the alternatives first:

Option 1 – The “sons of God” were ancient kings.

In the ancient Near East, it was not at all uncommon to describe rulers as descendants of the gods and some scholars have suspected something of that sort operating here in Gen 6:4.  However it is not at all clear why kings would be spoken of as a group (i.e. “sons of God”).  Nor does this view explain why God would have been displeased with the kings taking wives, unless the issue is that they took more than one, thus committing polygamy, which some scholars have suggested.

Option 2 – The “sons of God” are of the godly line of Seth.

In this view, the “sons of God” is a phrase used to distinguish between the godly line of Seth and the rest of humanity.  This does take the “sons of God” in a more positive light which seems natural, but it does not explain why the marriage to the daughters of men should have been received negatively, unless this is a veiled reference to marriages outside of tribes.  This is an intriguing possibility suggested by the statement that they “married any of them they chose” but there is not enough evidence to know for certain if this was what Moses meant.

Option 3 – The “sons of God” is simply a stylized way – and possibly an ironic one – of identifying human males.

One of the most important features of Hebrew literature was parallelism between elements in the first and second stichs (lines of poetry).  From that perspective, the simple “men” of 6:1 might simply be parallel to the more stylized “sons of God” in 6:2.  In support of this is the nearly certain observation that the simple “daughters” of 6:1 is parallel to the more stylized “daughters of men” in 6:2.  It seems very unlikely that “daughters” and “daughters of men” are intended to identify two different groups of women.  Therefore, it is also unlikely that “men” and “sons of God” are intended to identify two different groups of men but rather a single group; i.e. human males.  It should be noted that in Luke’s genealogy of Jesus, he traces the family line back to Adam whom he identifies as being a son “of God” (Luk 3:38).[10]  Further support for this view comes from the genealogy in Gen 5 where the fact that Adam was made “in God’s likeness” (5:1) is reiterated and it is also said that Adam had a son, Seth, “in his own likeness” (5:3).  In other words, there are good biblical reasons to take the phrase “sons of God” to be some kind of reference to God’s initial creation of Adam as his image and likeness and a continuation of this thought to the male “sons” who were born to Adam.[11]

But why would men be called “sons of God” whereas women are called “daughters of men”?  The answer may simply be that Adam, the first man, had no human ancestor and was therefore a direct “son of God.”  Eve, however, was created from Adam’s rib and was therefore in some senses a descendent of Adam.  While this might seem on the surface to exalt men and denigrate women, no such slight is intended.  On the contrary, not only does Gen 1:27 explicitly state that both males and females were made as God’s image, but this truth is reiterated again 5:1-2.  In Hebrew, the phrase translated as “daughters of men” is literally “daughters of Adam” and likely points back to the direct connection between women and the first Adam.  In that sense it is simply an acknowledgement of the creative order by which God brought Adam and Eve into existence.

If “sons of God” (Gen 6:2) is merely a more stylized version of “men” (6:1) – as “daughters of men” (6:2) is merely a more stylized version of “daughters” (6:1) – then both terms simply identify human males.  Further evidence for this option emerges from Mat 24:38 where Jesus said that in the days before the Flood, “they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noah entered the ark.” Here we have what appears to be a clear reference to all this marriage business that precedes the Flood account, yet it is also clear that it is human marriages that are in view.  In other words, Jesus seems to have understood Gen 6:1-3 to be referring to purely human marriages.  If Jesus thought there was something more spectacular going on here, he was completely silent about it.

But what is the point of this passage then?  Why should Moses have bothered to say that men were taking any women they chose as wives and having more kids?  And why would he have made this enigmatic mention of these nephilim who were “on the earth in those days”?  Both questions are easily answered when the context, both literary and cultural, is considered.

The nephilim were mentioned in order to encourage God’s people as they were learning to trust God after their exodus from Egypt.

The point of Gen 6:1-8 is simply that human wickedness spread like wildfire upon the earth, leading to God’s judgment exercised via the Flood.  The business about men taking any wives they wanted may simply be a statement of rampant procreation; more and more humans means more and more sin.  However, remember that Moses was giving this account to the Israelites after the exodus from Egypt, at precisely the same time that God was forbidding them from taking wives from among the Canaanite tribes they were encountering.  In that cultural context, the statement that men were taking any women they chose might well have been understood as a statement of their lawlessness and a warning that falling into similar sin was serious business.

Remembering this cultural context of the Exodus might also explain the reference to the nephilim. If, as I have already argued, nephilim, is a descriptive noun (i.e. giants), then Moses might have been drawing a connection between what happened back then and what the Israelites were facing in their present circumstances.  When the spies who explored the Promised Land returned, they reported that they saw “nephilim/giants…and we became like grasshoppers in our own sight” (Num 13:33).  As we might easily imagine, confronted with an enemy who had giant soldiers, the Israelites panicked.

What better way to encourage and strengthen them than to remind them that there had been wicked giants on the earth in the past, too, but that God had destroyed them along with all of the other evil-doers who had necessitated the Flood?  Remember that Gen 6:4 doesn’t simply say that there were giants “in those days”, it goes on to say “and also afterwards”.  What is the point of this if not to draw an explicit connection between the days of Noah and the situation the Israelites were facing when this was written?

In other words, Moses was saying something like this:  “Look, don’t be afraid of these giants in the land.  God will destroy the evil that threatens His people.  He’s done it in the past…remember the Flood?  And by the way, back when God sent the flood there had been giants too, powerful warriors of great renown, just like the ones you’re facing right now!  But what happened to those giants in the past?  They were powerless before God.  They were swept away by His might!  And so too will these giants threatening us now be swept away before Him!”

This mention of the nephilim back in Gen 6:4 was an encouragement to the Israelites facing giants as they contemplated entering the Promised Land.  That might seem like a complicated way to encourage someone, but it would have been quite powerful in those days.  Hebrew literature is rarely direct, preferring instead to make its point progressively by a carefully crafted telling of a story.  If nothing else, modern biblical scholarship has confirmed to us time and again that the Old Testament is not simply a random collection of historical anecdotes but rather a carefully crafted story intended to impart truth and encourage God’s people.  These are true stories, to be sure, but they are also carefully crafted so that the point of telling them is accomplished…as long as we remember how to read them.


[1] There is a waw/vav attached to the Hebrew verb amar at the beginning of v.3, tying v.3 back to v.2.

[2] The fact that angel-angel marriages do not occur does not necessarily mean that they would have no interest in angel-human marriages.  However there are other reasons why the idea of angel-human marriages is problematic.  I am simply acknowledging that Mat 22:30 does not completely preclude the possibility that angels might be interested in marrying human women.

[3] The texts listed above (Gen 18 & 19) are the primary ones which suggest that some angels can manifest in physical bodies and it may be that Heb. 13:2 is referring specifically to these accounts.  However, there are a number of interpretive difficulties with Gen 18 & 19, several of which make the identification of these visitors with spiritual angels (as opposed to, say, prophets) somewhat suspect.  The Hebrew word for angel (malak) can be used of both physical and spiritual messengers.  One must depend on context to know which is intended and the difficulties of interpretation in Gen 18 & 19 make certainty here impossible.

[4] The non-physical nature of angelic spirits is evidenced by the Hebrew and Greek words for “spirit”, ruach and pneuma respectively.  Both terms literally mean “wind” or “breath,” emphasizing the fact that one may see the effects of such beings but not the beings themselves, precisely because they are non-corporeal entities.

[5] Basar.

[6] Anak is listed in Numbers, Joshua and Judges as the ancestor of a tribe of Canaanites who are all descended from Ham.

[7] As to the question of why most English versions choose to transliterate this term rather than translate it as “giants,” the answer is two-fold.  First, it follows a long-standing tradition of treating this term as a proper noun though there is not, as we have seen, any compelling reason to do so.  Still, tradition is difficult to ignore.  Second, nephilim is not the more common Hebrew word for giant.  In 2Sa 21:16,18,20, 22 and in 1Ch 20:4,6,8, we find the more common word rapha.  Since nephilim and rapha are not clearly related terms, translators may have been reluctant to translate nephilim as a synonym.  However, it seems likely that they are synonymous terms.  It may be that nephilim is based on an ancient Egyptian loan-word for giant and was employed by Moses (who had an Egyptian education) whereas later Hebrew writers opted for rapha which had roots in the Canaanite language which surrounded them in the Promised Land.

[8] This is partly accomplished by the presence of the Hebrew vav prefix (which indicates continuity between what came before and what now follows) at the beginning of 6:1, 2 and 3 but which is absent from 6:4.  The separation between the sections is further demonstrated by the divine pronouncement of judgment in 6:3.  It might even be that 6:1-3 more properly belongs to the preceding chapter than to this one.

[9] No pun intended…just a happy coincidence.

[10] The Greek word for son, huios, is not actually present in this final clause of the genealogy.  However, huios does appear in a governing capacity back in Luke 3:23 where Luke says that Jesus was “as was supposed, the son of Joseph, of Eli, of Matthat, of…etc.” All of the following ancestors are named without actually using huios again, but it is clearly assumed.  For this reason, the translation “Adam, the son of God” is accurate.

[11] It is important to note, however, that this was not intended to denigrate women in any way.  On the contrary, not only does Gen 1:27 explicitly state that both males and females were made as God’s image, but this truth is reiterated again 5:1-2.