Masthead header

The sons of God and Nephilim (1 of 2) – Geeky Version

With the movie “Noah” coming out in a couple week’s time, I thought it’d be fun to start my new blog off with a dip into the story of Noah and the Flood.  Over the next couple weeks, I’ll be posting cool things I’ve read about this section of Genesis from a variety of commentaries.  I love dipping into Scripture and there’s so many strange and unexpected turns that happen when you look at what modern evangelical scholarship says about the Bible, that I’ve created this blog to try and ‘translate’ some of the cool tidbits that are commonly found in technical and ‘scholarly’ commentaries, that a lot of Christians don’t commonly encounter.

This page contains a considerable level of detail.  For a less detail oriented summary (easier to read!), you’ll find the same information at the coffee break version of this topic.

Why Gen 6:1-4 might not be part of Noah’s story (Part 1 of 2)

Nephilim, Sons of God, Noah, Flood

Subject Headings that group Gen 6:1-4 with Gen 6:5-8

First off, of course, read Gen 6:1-4:

When humankind began to multiply on the face of the earth, and daughters were born to them, 2 the sons of God saw that the daughters of humankind were beautiful. Thus they took wives for themselves from any they chose. 3 So the Lord said, “My spirit will not remain in humankind indefinitely, since they are mortal. They will remain for 120 more years.”

4 The Nephilim were on the earth in those days (and also after this) when the sons of God were having sexual relations with the daughters of humankind, who gave birth to their children. They were the mighty heroes of old, the famous men.

If you crack your Bible open, odds are that you’ll find a subject heading for Gen 6:1-8, so that these 8 verses are grouped together, usually under a subject heading like ‘God responds to man’s wickedness’ or something like that.

Nephilim, Sons of God, Noah, Flood

Subject Headings that group Gen 6:1-4 with Gen 6:5-8

Many English versions will have a heading such as “Godʼs Grief over Humankindʼs Wickedness” (NET Bible), or “Wickedness in the World”, making you read Gen 6:1-4 in the light of that heading, so that you’ll see the marrying of sons of God with human women as a sinful event that caused God to bring the Flood, or a ‘negative event’.  In reality, this event might not be negative at all in God’s eyes, but rather a positive event.

That Gen 6:5-8 is about the wickedness of humankind is beyond doubt or question.  but Gen 6:1-4, by contrast, might well be about a good thing that happened in God’s eyes.

(1) Who are the ‘sons of God?’

The phrase ‘sons of God’ is actually very rare in the Bible.  As ‘sons of Elohim’, it occurs only here (Gen 6:1-4), and in Job 1:6, Job 2:1, and Job 38:7, though as ‘sons of El’, it appears also in Ps 29:1 and Ps 89:7.  So the only reference we have, Biblically, to define ‘sons of God’ that is external to Gen 6:1-4 is in Job (the Psalms references are less relevant because they are more likely related to views like that of Ps 82, where YHWH/Elohim invades the divine assembly of other nations’ gods (like the Canaanites in Ps 82)).  In Job, the ‘sons of God’ refers to a heavenly court that waits on God.  Because both Genesis and Job are among the oldest books of the Bible (from a conservative standpoint, and I would argue the facts–but liberal scholarship views Job as one of the youngest books of the OT), it is interesting that this phrase is never used again after it’s earliest appearances.  As the background information on the use of ‘sons of God’ in Job makes clear, the appearance of the ‘sons of God’ in Job is in the heavenly court, which itself mirrors Mesopotamian and Canaanite (not to mention Egyptian and Greek) religious views of ‘the gods’ meeting in court-like settings to discuss the happenings of the world.  Perhaps the most famous to modern ears is the Greek gods meeting on Mount Olympus to discuss mortal events.

Some Christians get nervous with such background information because they are used to secularists taking such evidence and jumping, quite illogically, to the viewpoint that the Bible ‘stole from’ or ‘is descended from’ these non-Biblical mythologies, and that therefore, the Bible’s version of it is fake (because it is preceded by or even has an analogue to a non-Biblical mythology).  This leap in logic is quite unjustified, as has been pointed out ad nauseum in conservative apologetics against these old claims.  Neighboring cultures sharing similar stories is not only to be expected, but moreso would be surprising if they were absent, and figuring out ‘who stole from who’ is almost always a meaningless exercise, since whichever came first ends up being a moot point on the other’s validity anyway.  As this topic has had much ink spilt over it, and is quite convincingly argued, I’ll only reference it here.

Nephilim, Sons of God, Noah, Flood

Divine Council from Greece (500 BCE). Source:

Returning to the divine council, therefore, Job (and Gen 6) reference this ancient religious motif of a divine council but put a unique monotheistic spin on it.  Whereas the neighboring cultures of Israel viewed the gods convening and debating and talking amongst themselves, Israel’s monotheistic religion also viewed divine beings convening and talking amongst themselves, but since God is the only god, the divine council has to be made up of divine, but not godly, beings, and that is what we see in Job and, by extension, Gen 6.  The easiest modern word for such beings would be ‘angels’, and in loose translations of Gen 6 and Job, the English word ‘angels’ is often picked for the Hebrew “sons of God”.  These are divine or ‘not-mortal’ beings, but since Israel is monotheistic, they are not gods.  Ignoring English, we see that Jude 6, which is referencing Gen 6:1-4, uses the Greek word ἀγγέλους (angels/messengers).  However, the LXX of Gen 6 uses the words υἱοὶ τοῦ θεοῦ (sons of God), translating the Hebrew literally and accurately.  Since the LXX was for the most part the Bible of the NT writers (see post on LXX here [CREATE LINK CHECK]), we see further evidence that Jude is engaged in canonical (God-breathed) eisegesis when he interprets a phrase the LXX rendered faithfully into a new word (not found in the Bible Jude could have referenced), namely ‘angel’.

We can be very certain that the ‘sons of God’ is a phrase that means not-mortal.  While it is true that later writings see Adam as descended from God, and therefore humankind as descended from God (see, among other sections, Luke’s genealogy of Jesus in Lk 3:38), that is not what Moses (or the author of Job) have in mind when they use the phrase ‘sons of God’.

A Jewish apocalyptic writing from just before the time of Jesus, and indeed a book quoted, possibly as Scripture (this is debated), in Jude 14-15, is 1 Enoch 1:9.  In 1 Enoch 6-7, these sons of God are seen as rebelling against God, and the leaders of the ‘rebellion’ are even named.  Jude mirrors 1 Enoch’s view and sees the ‘angels’ as doing an evil act, certainly contributing to the view that Moses thought they were too, and included this act of their taking mortal women as wives (and having children through them) as a major sexually immoral act and one of, if not the impetus, for the Flood.

One quick negative note.  The theory that ‘sons of God’ refers to Seth’s line, and ‘daughters of men’ refers to Cain’s line, has been sufficiently disqualified by the evidence, and while noted as a possibility in modern commentaries, is summarily dismissed after noting it.

With all of this being said, then, the ‘sons of God’ are divine beings, certainly lower than God, and not necessarily angels (though later writers, including Jude, saw them as such), who attend to God in a heavenly court, and are sent out, in Job’s theology, to ascertain facts for God (in Job’s theology, they could be construed as the ‘agents’ by whom God ‘achieves’ or is omniscient.  That is, if we are to make sense of the confusing theology of Job 1-2, which otherwise might imply that God is not omniscient, one of the few ways ‘out of’ this conclusion is to see the divine council, and the sons of God within it, as a dramatization of the ‘how’ of God’s omniscience, namely that he is omniscient because his divine council, his sons, are sent out from him to discover what is happening, and report back to him (instantaneously, if that helps the concept, though this is not present in the text).  Whether this is how the ‘mechanics of God’s omniscience’ works, or whether it’s just a dramatization, a poetic license taken by the author of Job to heighten the emotion, and thus theology, of Job’s prologue, is up for debate.

Nephilim, Sons of God, Noah, Flood

Divine Council from 900 BCE (Babylonian). Source:

That the phrase ‘sons of God’ is never again used after Genesis and Job (both completed, in the conservative evangelical view, around Moses’ lifetime, albeit with redactions later on through the centuries), is certainly curious, especially from the Christian perspective which, for obvious reasons, might struggle considerably with the uncomfortable ‘existence’ of the phrase in the Bible.

Another note of some importance is that in Job, ‘the accuser’ (mistranslated ‘Satan’ in older English translations) is listed among the ‘sons of God’.  It is possible that the ‘mistake’ of viewing ‘the accuser’ in Job’s prologue with ‘Satan’ led to the later interpretations of Gen 6:1-4 as viewing the ‘sons of God’ as doing something evil here.  This is relevant because when the Hebrew text is read properly (the definite article before Hebrew ‘satan’ (lower-case) disallows translating it as a proper noun or name), the accuser, one of the sons of God, is the agent of Job’s tragedy, but the instigator and author of Job’s tragedy is in fact God (this is a topic for another post), hence the entire discussion of the book of Job in the first place.  As such, despite the confusing English translations (and historical tradition that predates English, indeed predates even Jesus) that imply Satan is a son of God, in actual fact both the Hebrew text of Job as well as the older-preserved, LXX version of Job, agree that ‘the accuser’ is merely a pawn of God’s, and therefore, the portrayal of the sons of God in Job is positive (or at the least, not negative).  View this post for the clear cut consensus on this subject by the major modern evangelical commentaries.

Given this, we have no reason to see the sons of God as ‘evil’ in Gen 6, when they are ‘good’ in Job, their only other appearance in the Bible, unless Gen 6 gives us some reason for seeing them as evil in its context.  As we’ll, see, Gen 6:1-4 actually doesn’t give us any such reason, and in fact portrays them and their act positively.  This is confirmed by the Hebrew text having no intrinsic meaning of illicit sexual behavior.  That is, Hebrew obviously has the ability to describe illicit sexual practices and moral sexual practices.  The words, grammar, and word order in Gen 6:1-4 contain no illicit sexual references.  Even Wenham, in the WBC (the ‘highest rated’ evangelical commentary on Genesis), who argues for Gen 6:1-4 being part of the genealogies and a prologue to the Flood, shoots down any of the theories that argue for the words themselves containing illicit sexual meaning.  Oddly, Wenham takes the absence of any mention of the daughters of men (or their fathers) resisting the marriage proposals as a silent condemnation on the daughters, their fathers, and by extension all humanity, for committing some unnamed evil, though his evidence of ‘absence’ of any resistance shows, if it shows anything, that it was a non-issue because there was nothing to resist.  He’s on much firmer ground when he points to Levitical laws against the mixing of different kinds of things (Lev 19:19, Deut 22:9-11), as he searches for something in the union of the sons of God with mortal women to be offensive to God.

(2) The Hebrew wording of ‘the sons of God seeing the daughters of men’

Gen 6:2, in Hebrew, matches quite closely the passages in the Creation account where God sees what he has created and calls it ‘good’.  First off, the Hebrew says not that the daughters of humankind were ‘beautiful’, but rather that they were ‘good’.  Next, the word choices are all parallel, down to the words.  Where the words are not in ‘quotation marks’, below, the Hebrew is absent and the English is merely supplied to produce good English:

Gen 1:4 ‘God’                       ‘saw’ ‘that’ ‘the light’                                        ‘was good’

Gen 6:2 ‘The sons of God’ ‘saw’ ‘that’ ‘the daughters of humankind’  ‘were good’

For those with a background in Hebrew, the similarity is even more visible, since word order is largely irrelevant in Hebrew grammar except for emphasis and poetic use, and sure enough, the word order (and even the word choices, out of the number of possible options available to Moses) is maintained with Gen 6:2 mirroring the formula of Creation being ‘Good’:

Gen 1:4 וַיַּרְא אֱלֹהִים אֶת־הָאֹור כִּי־טֹוב 

Gen 6:2 ַיִּרְאוּ בְנֵי־הָאֱלֹהִים אֶת־בְּנֹות הָאָדָם כִּי טֹבֹת 

(Gen 3:6) וַתֵּרֶא הָאִשָּׁה כִּי טֹוב הָעֵץ לְמַאֲכָל 

As seen from the language here, the author of Genesis is deliberately trying to mirror the language of Creation (just as lyrics in songs and poetry ‘point back’ to similar wording), where there is no question that what is being created is indeed good.  The use, by the same author and just chapters after using the phrase some 6 times, suggests that here too, Moses means to see the union of human women with ‘angelic’ males as a positive, indeed, as something that ‘they saw, and it was good’.  Yes, Moses could have used it in counterpoint (Jesus, for example, took ‘yeast’, which in Judaism normally always was a metaphor for something bad, and flipped it upside down to use it positively in a parable), where here a kind of ‘sarcastic’ use could have driven home the point of how evil the action was, even though they thought it was good, but the rest of Gen 6:1-4, and it’s context, suggest otherwise, and agrees with the mirrored language of creation that what is being described here was a good thing.

Against this view, Wenham in the WBC on Genesis says that Gen 6:2 most closely matches Gen 3:6, in which Eve takes the apple and begins the domino effect for the first sin.  I won’t compare the English translations, but as listed above, Hebrew readers will I’m sure notice that this statement hardly seems to be the case, the match with Gen 1:4 being closer in word choice, grammar, word order, and even the presence of maqaf.

(3) The sons of God marry the daughters of men

Nephilim, Sons of God, Noah, Flood

Jewish Marriage request in Aramaic (July 3, 449 BCE, Egypt) Source: objects/3488/Marriage_Document#

What nearly all scholars admit is that the Hebrew idiom used to describe the sexual union of sons of God with daughters of men is a positive one (approved by God) meaning ‘taking in marriage’.

Attempts to see in the language of Gen 6:1-4 some kind of illicit sexual union between the two run into the problem of the text saying the union was in the bounds of marriage, with no negative or sinful connotations present in the Hebrew text.

Again, if Moses wanted to convey that there was something immoral about the union of the sons of God with the daughters of men, we know from his other writings that he could easily do so.  That he chose to portray it positively (good in the eyes of God), is significant.

(4) The Nephilim and Mortality

Continuing on from Gen 6:1-2 into verses 3 and 4, the sons of God have already mated (technically ‘took wives’, to be faithful to the text) with mortal women, and now we learn that their offspring have unnaturally long lives (even for the time in which this story takes place, where humans live for many centuries).  In fact, Gen 6:3 gives us the ‘key’, which is to say ‘function’, for Gen 6:1-4, and in doing so also tells us exegetically that Gen 6:1-4 is a distinct  paragraph and section from Gen 6:5-8 (incidentally, the MT tells us this distinctly with it’s paragraph marker after Gen 6:4, another very clear sign that it is distinct from Gen 6:5-8).

The ‘function’ of Gen 1-11 is to explain ‘why things are the way they are’ in Moses’ time (and our time), by explaining how they came to be that way.  Each distinct pericope or narrative story in Gen 1-11 has a purpose that can be introduced with the phrase, “and that’s why…”.   In the case of Gen 6:1-4, the purpose of this section is to explain why the legendary heroes of old (of Moses’ time), whose stories are not recorded by Moses (since they are off topic from Moses’ purpose of guiding us towards a relationship with God), are dying out (there are some left in the Promised Land, which strikes fear into the Israelites later on when they are taken into the Promised Land).  While Gen 6:3 gives us this key, we should turn first to Gen 6:4, which in English thought comes before (the Hebrew reverses the ‘logical order’ (in English thinking) for this story.

Gen 6:4 uses a word that most modern English translations simply don’t translate, ‘Nephilim’, and defines who they are.  A popular lay conception of the Nephilim, given their later reference in Num 13:33 (the only other occurrence of the Nephilim in the MT, though the LXX’s Ezek 32:27 arguably references them in the phrase “the fallen warriors of ancient times”), is that they are giants, and some older English translations actually translated the Hebrew ‘nephilim’ into ‘giants’.  This is, however, likely wrong, and is corrected in most modern English translations (the misconception comes from the fact that the nephilim were viewed as ‘giants’ in the sense of 7 feet tall and bigger, but their height was only an aspect of who they were.  They weren’t just ‘giants’, they were ‘legendary heroes of old’, who had ‘legendary height’ along with ‘legendary this and that’.  Gen 6:4 goes on to describe the Nephilim with the phrase “legendary heroes of old”.  As both this phrase, as well as Mesopotamian mythology makes clear1, the Nephilim were heroes, like Achilles is for us today, who lived in a ‘long ago time’, that is, before the Flood, and achieved great feats, likely as warriors.  Gen 6:4 tells us two things, that the Nephilim were ‘legendary heroes of old’, and that they were the offspring of the sons of God mating with mortal women, the implication being quite clear, that they were in fact ‘legendary heroes’ because they were the offspring of divine and mortal unions.

Nephilim, Sons of God, Noah, Flood

‘Legendary hero of old’ – A hero kills a lion, between 1900-1500 BCE (Mesopotamian). Source:

In opposition to this, NICOT offers an interesting counter-view that the Nephilim are distinct from the ‘mighty heroes of old’.  That is, it puts the line “The Nephilim were on the earth in those days–and also afterwards” in ‘brackets’, merely as a ‘timestamp’ by Moses for when the events of the sons of God marrying the daughters of men and producing the mighty heroes of old happened.  While interesting (and many English translations do put this in brackets, mirroring the interpretation), the reading in Hebrew is hardly natural, at least to me (and apparently to many commentators, who neither take this approach nor even mention it).

In the MT, no one other than Moses ever mentions the Nephilim again, and it is likely because of Moses’ and his generation’s encounter with the descendants of the Nephilim that this story of their origin is even included in the first place.  Moses gives a reason for why the people in Num 13:33 were so large and impressive by tracing their origin back to before the Flood–a somewhat strange contradiction if we take the Bible too literally, since they should have perished in the Flood by such a strict reading.  While some interpreters try to account for this impossibility by saying that Nephilim just means ‘giants’, and that there is no ‘genetic’ link between the pre-Flood Nephilim and the post-Flood Nephilim, the (an) alternate possibility is that, because the Nephilim and their fathers, the divine sons of God, are not in fact engaged in anything evil, or anything related to the Flood, there was no reason for them to stop their ‘non-evil’ act after the Flood either, so that Nephilim, or ‘descendants of mortal women and sons of God’, could have been produced after the Flood just as easily as before, with the new caveat by God of Gen 6:3–that they no longer live beyond ‘normal’ human lifespans.  To this point, the Hebrew text actually clarifies that “the Nephilim were in the earth in those days, and also after those days“, a statement that almost seems a clarifying answer to the modern question of ‘shouldn’t there be no Nephilim after the Flood?’  Even Wenham in the WBC (which views Gen 6:1-4 negatively) offers nothing but rebuttals to views that ‘and also after those days’ refers to anything else but ‘after the Flood’, and, in turn, he offers no replacements for them, so that we are left with no legitimate arguments that the Nephilim perished completely in the Flood.

Indeed, Gen 6:3 explains why the descendants of the post-Flood Nephilim that are encountered in Num 13:33 were impressive, yes, but not immortal or semi-divine–perhaps that’s even the function of Gen 6:3 for Moses (though today, such a line, and indeed Gen 6:1-4 altogether, has little if any application for us).  This seems to me a much more natural reading of Gen 6:1-4 read next to Num 13:33, in the context of the Flood separating the two events.  The use of ‘Nephilim’ in Num 13:33 does not lend itself well, at all, to an adjective describing size, which the first theory depends on.  The Hebrew grammar clearly uses Nephilim as a proper noun, for a people group or family line.  Likewise, Gen 6:4 uses ‘mighty/legendary heroes of old’ to describe the term Nephilim.  If Nephilim meant ‘giant’, and not a people group, we wouldn’t describe or define ‘giant’ as ‘legendary heroes of old’.  The theory that ‘Nephilim’ means something other than a genetic line that should have died out, permanently, in the subsequent flood, fails to make grammatical sense in Gen 6 or Num 13, and as such is turned into a rather weak theory, buttressed, nevertheless, by a strong impetus to gel Jude with Gen 6 and see the Nephilim and sons of God as ‘evil’.

The Hebrew for ‘legendary heroes of old’ is somewhat idiomatic (it doesn’t translate neatly into English).  Literally, it’s “the strongs who were from a long time men of fame”, a very clunky sentence to say the least.  The rendering of the NET translation, ‘mighty heroes of old’, is entirely acceptable.  I prefer ‘legendary heroes of old’, though this is looser and less literal.

As alluded to above, in the LXX textual tradition of the OT, there is a third possible canonical reference to the Nephilim, but by description, not name.  It is in Ezk 32:27, where not only the description matches that of Gen 6:13 and Num 13:33, but also the attitude (positive and respectful).  If the LXX textual tradition is original, it supports a positive reading of Gen 6:1-4, and is against a negative reading.

Given that we now know what the Nephilim are and that they came from a union of divine and mortal ‘races’, the ‘key’ to the story is found in Gen 6:3, in which God says, in response to the birth of the Nephilim (whose fathers, it seems safe to assume, are immortal):

“My spirit will not remain in humankind for eternity, because they are flesh.  His [their] days will have 120 years.”

While many, including the NET notes (Gen 6:3), argues that because the lifetime of people after the flood lived much longer than 120 years, that the better interpretation of this phrase means the Flood will happen in 120 years from this time.  However, given that Moses himself, the first author of this passage, lived to exactly 120 years, it is quite safe to assume that the redactor who wrote of Moses’ death (or perhaps Moses himself) saw here that God was limiting the lifespan of humans to it’s ‘normal amount’ (while 120 is obviously excessive, it is not mythologically excessive, and more importantly Hebrew uses the ‘ideal’ age, as indeed Moses died at it, as a ‘euphemism’ for a well-lived, blessed life).  Moses was trained as a scribe, and would have likely been familiar with certainly Egyptian, and probably some Mesopotamian mythology/religion as well.  In Mesopotamia, 120 years is the ideal human lifespan, just as it is in Hebrew.  So too we have a text found in the town of Emar that says 120 years is the ideal lifespan.  In the Gilgamesh epic, the second half in which the Flood tale is retold to Gilgamesh includes a limiting of mortality on humanity by the gods (so that they could not ‘compete with God–the same reasoning given by God in the Garden of Eden for kicking Adam out of it).  Another interesting parallel is the Egyptian god Atum, whom Moses was certainly familiar with, who in Egyptian mythology is the Creator and who floated or hovered over Nun, the primordial waters, before Creation (just as God’s spirit does in Gen 1 before Creation).  In addition, in Egyptian mythology Thoth tells Atum to shorten lives of mortals because they have betrayed and done ‘hidden damage’ to Creation, and Atum obliges.  It is likely not coincidental that the first two appearances of the spirit of God in Genesis occur in Atum-related mythology, namely God’s spirit hovering over the primordial waters, and God taking away his spirit from mortals to shorten their lives in Gen 6:3.

Furthermore, given how often the Bible plays with timelines and mentions a ‘commandment’ or ‘truth’, before going on a tangent, and then coming back to it again, it is well within Biblical style to have God say he will limit mortal lives from the many-centuries of Gen 1-11 to the patriarchs and ‘modern period’, and then have a narrative sequence between his statement and the application of it.  There is no need to pin the text down and insist it’s decrees follow in the next verse or moment (indeed, such a view is violated hundreds of times (I’m guessing) in the Bible, such as all of the messianic prophecies that Jesus fulfills).

Taking a completely different approach to seeing Gen 6:1-4 as part of the Flood narrative, Wenham in the WBC makes a solid argument that, since humanity failed to eat of the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden before being kicked out and barred from coming back (Gen 3:22, whose language mirrors Gen 6:3), the daughters of man mating with the sons of God is an attempt by humanity (and the sons of God?) to weasel their way around the Tree of Life and procure immortality through mating with divine beings.  This then provides the sin that is (in my estimation) absent from Gen 6:1-4, and which Wenham himself agrees is absent from the sexual activity itself, which in the Hebrew contains no indication of being of an illicit or offensive nature (the sons of God take the daughters in marriage–they do not rape or otherwise immorally sexually use them).  If Wenham is right that this is an attempt to procure immortality, it answers both God’s decree of 120 years, as well as the theory that Gen 6:1-4 contains evil things that need to be punished.  Against this, though, the latter is still unproven (there is nothing evil in Gen 6:1-4 exegetically) and the former is ultimately eisegesis, though intriguing.  For example, since God bars humanity from the Garden of Eden because if we eat of the Tree of Life we will become gods ourselves, then when ‘we’ successfully mated with sons of God and achieved this workaround that is proposed, why was not a bigger deal made out of it by Gen 6:1-4, instead of just a declaration by God that our lives were now 120 years.  If that was the only solution required, than the dramatic emphasis on the impossibility of ever getting back into Eden is overkill compared to the understated solution of Gen 6:3 (not to mention the inconsistency in both limiting ‘our’ lives to 120 years and killing all of ‘us’ in a Flood at the same time).

The Nephilim, or the ‘legendary heroes of old’, are not surprisingly welcome in the ancient near east religions and mythologies.  Gilgamesh himself fits the description, being heroic, legendary, from an ancient time (even in the perspective of his legends), and being gigantic in proportion (eleven cubits tall).  Likewise, we see analogues to the Nephilim in the apkallu, also from Mesopotamian mythology.  The apkallu are ‘ancient sages’, semi-divine, indeed one of them being called the ‘son of god’ (Ea).  The apkallu married human women, and their offspring were mixed classes.  After the Flood of Mesopotamian mythology, the sages were instead called ummianu and were of human descent.  Both apkallu and ummianu are considered ‘heroic figures of old’.  As such, like the sons of God and their descendants the Nephilim, the apkallu and ummianu are also told in their mythology in close proximity to the mythology of the Flood.  There is certainly a temptation to see in such close analogues a kind of ‘shared tradition’ or ‘shared memory’ that, if we are Christian, we are to assume we recorded correctly.  The fact that Gen 6:1-4 is incredibly cryptic and non-specific about any details helps this view.  That is, Moses is explaining to the exodus generation (and the next) the mythology they know of the legendary heroes of old and their historical timeline around the Flood, but since Moses is a monotheist concerned only with relation to God, he mentions these figures, who probably (?) figured prominently in ‘camp-fire tales’, ‘bed time stories’, and songs, as a mere aside in the greater story of God’s relationship to humanity.  For Mesopotamians and perhaps for the Israelites, the ‘Nephilim’ were perhaps a major cultural mosaic and language.  For Moses, they are an aside, requiring a mention so that their presence in the culture is included, but figuring in no importance in the story of the Fall of man’s relation to God, and it’s necessary redemption and salvation.

So what is the point of this section, Gen 6:1-4, in a book, Genesis, which is all about answers to questions of “why does X happen?”.  The patriarchal narratives of Gen 11-50 are, for Moses, an answer to the question of why and how Israel was chosen, and the foundation of Moses’ covenant (Torah) being based ultimately on Abraham’s covenant (trust in God, without the ‘law’ of Moses).  The ‘pre-patriarchal’ narratives of Gen 1-11 are answers to other questions, from the prosaic and seemingly superficial (why do snakes and humans hurt each other, why does childbirth hurt so intensely, why do we have to work, why do people get married) to the theological and profound (why must we rest on the Sabbath, who is the Creator and author of the universe and our lives, why should we trust God, why is there free will, why do we have to die).  So too, for Moses, Gen 6:1-4 is included to explain the ‘upper limit’ of mortal life.  Not so much why we do have to die (that story is told in Gen 2), but why is our lifespan such-and-such.  Bundled with this question-answer is the question of Moses’ generation about the remarkable Nephilim descendants (not Nephilim, the text makes clear) they meet in Num 13, and also about the legends of ancient heroes that, while not recorded in the Bible, are referenced as being know among Moses and the people (campfire stories at night).

The Nephilim appear in only one other part in the Bible, Num 13:33.  In both parts, the Nephilim are not described as ‘evil’ or ‘sinful’.  Instead, Gen 6 has only good things to say about them–that they are “famous and mighty heroes from long ago”.

The key to understanding Gen 6:1-4 is in Gen 6:3.  This verse answers the question that Moses poses throughout all of Genesis.  That is, nearly every section of Genesis can be summed up with the words, “and that’s why…”.  It’s a book of answers to ‘why questions’.  In the case of Gen 6:3, the question is “why do men only live for a short time?”.

The question was first addressed in Gen 5, which lists the generations of humankind from Adam straight down to Noah.  These men all lived for centuries.  Their story is summed up in Gen 6:3, when God decrees that men will now only live for 120 years.  God does this because the sons of God are marrying and mating with human women, and their offspring, the Nephilim (‘heroes of old’), are ‘semi-divine’.  God is ensuring in this intermixing of human and ‘divine’ that the lifetimes are limited.

This next part is crucial.  Gen 6:1-4 clearly states (1) that the Nephilim existed before and after–most likely before and after the Flood, and (2) the lifespans of men after the Flood were still longer than 120 years.  Only by Moses’ generation did human lifespans descend to 120 years or less.

What this means is that the Nephilim were not ‘judged’ in the Flood, nor were the sons of God disallowed from marrying human daughters and producing Nephilim offspring.  Surely if their marriages and offspring were so offensive to God as to bring him to cause a Flood that destroyed nearly all life, God wouldn’t turn around after the Flood and permit some sons of God to continue to marry mortal women and produce more Nephilim!

That is, if the sons of God marrying the mortal women was evil and the reason God sent the Flood, then it would make no sense for the Bible to say that the Nephilim–the offspring of divine fathers and human mothers–existed both before “and also afterwards”.  Also, the lifespan of humans to 120 years is itself not connected to the Flood.  If it were, then after the Flood God would limit human lives to 120 years, as he said he would.  But he did not (Noah lived for centuries, as did his descendants all the way to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob).  Therefore, the limitation of 120 years is not a punishment related to the Flood, but a separate topic altogether, explaining why the Nephilim existed after the Flood (neither they nor their parents were being judged by God), and why men lived longer than 120 years after God said they wouldn’t before the Flood happened.

To the Hebrews, wandering in the desert for 40 years, continuing to tell the stories and sing the songs of the legendary heroes from before the Flood, and encountering their descendants when they spied on the Promised Land, Moses answers through the Word of God that they were (indeed) the product of divine and mortal union, and were (indeed) famous and mighty men of ancient times, but that God has now limited lifespans, so there will be no more such heroes again.

(5) Gen 6:1-4 is self-contained and an epilogue to Gen 5

Continuing through the text, there is a simple grammatical marker in the Hebrew text that separates Gen 6:1-4 as one unit, and Gen 6:5-8 as one unit.  It is the פ letter, which, while not original to the text, was used by the Masoretes to indicate a separation of a complete idea or story or point or thought that takes multiple sentences to convey.  Very often, this is used as a paragraph marker, meaning it’s the end of a paragraph.  However, English translations sometimes ignore and sometimes follow this marker.  In most English translations, this marker has been ignored.  This is not well justified by the English translations, which should follow the marker and distinguish Gen 6:4 from the new concept introduced in Gen 6:5 (just as 5:32 is separated from 6:1, and 6:8 is separated from 6:9).

Nephilim, Sons of God, Noah, Flood

Marker in Bible of ‘end of idea/paragraph’

Slightly related, Gen 6:5-8, which is without question a prologue to the Flood narrative (whether or not Gen 6:1-4 also is), is not only its own unit, but is internally consistent.  In its focus on evil and God’s reaction to it, Gen 6:5-7 each contains a pair of parallel lines, and thus can be (but rarely is) presented in English translation as ‘set apart’ poetic lines on the nature of evil.  If Gen 6:1-4 were part of this theme of evil and the cause of the Flood, we might expect a great consistency in parallelism or even chiasm, but there is none.

Furthermore, a great deal of modern commentaries view either Gen 6:1-4, or in some cases Gen 6:1-8, as the ending or epilogue to Gen 5.  This argument has considerable weight in that many theologians accept the proposal that the toledot (part of the Hebrew for ‘these are the generations’) is the chief structure of Genesis (many think that in Moses’ intention, this ‘toledot’ line would be the equivalent of a ‘heading’ to a new section of Genesis).   The argument is strong, and in it, Gen 5-6:8 is one toledot, and Gen 6:9-9:28 is another).  Where they disagree is the meaning.  None dispute that Gen 6:5-8 serves as a prologue to the Flood account, which is in the next toledot.  So while some (i.e. EBC) see Gen 6:1-4 as a positive account summarizing the ‘age of heroes’ recounted in Gen 5, with Gen 6:5-8 as both closing and opening for the next toledot (this is standard practice, so the end of one toledot ushering in the next is standard in Genesis–lending more credence to the separation of Gen 6:1-4 and 6:5-8), others (i.e. WBC) see Gen 6:1-8 as a negative account, ending the description of the ‘age of heroes’ with it’s own ‘Fall’, leading to the Flood.  I agree with the EBC here, that just like Gen 2:24 being an ‘aside’ on the theme of marriage before moving on to the Fall, so too Gen 6:1-4 is an ‘aside’ on the theme of marriage before moving on to the Flood.  As makes the connection clearer, the ‘point’ of Gen 6:1-4 is the limitation of mortals to 120 years, and for any of Moses’ audience, ourselves sand the originals, the ‘point’ of the genealogy is indeed their epically long lifespans.  (Also, there is nothing in the Hebrew that limits us from viewing Gen 6:1-4 as synchronous with Gen 5, meaning that the sons of God marrying the daughters of women might be current with all of the generations of Gen 5).

Moses’ toledot structure in Genesis uses a repetitive format of bookending starting with a retrospect at the beginning of each toledot, followed by the new material, and then summed up and including a prospect or foreshadowing of the next toledot at the end.  As such, Gen 6:5-8, which is indisputably part of the Flood story, is the ‘prospect’ or foreshadowing of the next toledot (Gen 6:9), while Gen 6:1-4 is a summary of the toledot Gen 5:1-6:8.  Further separation between Gen 6:1-4 and Gen 6:5-8 is seen in the ‘peh‘ marker (פ) at the end of Gen 6:1-4 in the Hebrew text, a marker in Hebrew of the end of a passage (somewhat akin to a paragraph ending marker, but more flexible and including the end of an ‘idea’, so that the next verse is a new one).

Indeed, the ‘point’ of Gen 5 is the incredibly long lifespans of people from Adam to Noah, and Gen 6:1-4 is a summary conclusion of why that came to an end, containing no Flood reference, nor any negative connotations.  Gen 6:5-8, the ‘prospective’ last part of the toledot, points towards the next section, which is marked by evil and judgment.

(6) Gen 6:1-4 contains many positive words and ideas, and no negative words or ideas

The last remaining points are that Gen 6:5-8, which describes the evil of humankind, is full to the brim with various descriptions of how evil humankind is, and how the Flood was sent to answer humankind’s utter evilness.  By stark contrast–indeed the contrast is almost certainly intentional, Gen 6:1-4 contains not a single negative word or nuance, but instead only positive words.  Consider this contrast:

Nephilim, Sons of God, Noah, Flood
Contrasts between the good of v1-4 and the evil of v5-8

(7) Gen 6:1-4 is probably not about the sinful cause of the Flood

Marked off as a self-contained unit grammatically, using a phrase (“sons of God”) that is only used positively in its other appearances in the Bible, containing no censure against any of the characters or the events (unlike Gen 6:5-8, which contains many negative words used against humanity, Gen 6:1-4 contains no negative words), and in contrast to saying nothing negative, actually heaping on praise and saying positive things about the offspring of the positive “sons of God” with mortal women–the “mighty heroes of old”, the “famous men”, we are left with a self-contained unit that serves a purpose of answering the question of why God ‘capped’ our mortal lifespan, as well as secondary answers of who the Nephilim, encountered by the Israelites as they made their way to the Promised Land, were, and how the “heroes of old” fit into the picture.

Exegesis (reading what the text says, instead of reading into the text what we [want to] see) of Gen 6:1-4 only leads us to a positive–indeed the last positive–narrative story before the Flood, the story of which begins at Gen 6:5, when the text switches from positive things to say into negative things–a lot of negative things in four short verses (Gen 6:5-8), to say.  The Hebrew grammar and words, quite frankly force us to the view the Nephilim positively.  Not only are the ‘positively viewed’ “sons of God” involved, and not only are the descendants, the Nephilim, praised, but Moses goes out of his way to say that the Nephilim pre-date and post-date the Flood–meaning the sons of God were permitted to continue their union with mortal women after the Flood, otherwise there would be no ‘modern’ (to Moses) Nephilim, nor would Moses mention that they “were in the earth in those days, and also after those days”.

And yet, we are put in an awkward position, first because the majority of the pre-Christian, non-canonical writings viewed Gen 6:1-4 as a negative description of horrendous, immoral sexual offensiveness to God, and second, and more challenging, because one book in the NT, also canonical, specifically speaks on this passage, and views Gen 6:1-4 in the same way (a product of it’s time), as sexual immorality.  This is one of thousands of so-called ‘tensions’ in the Bible, where a ‘tug of war’ between opposing notions plays out and the truth is almost always somewhere in the middle.

We can’t ignore Jude’s midrash (sermon or discussion) on Gen 6:1-4, and it’s viewing of it’s events in a negative light, but neither can we ignore that exegesis of Gen 6:1-4 must see it, by it’s own Hebrew words, grammar, and context, as a positive description that sees good things (“sons of God”) producing good things (“heroes of old, men of fame”), in phraseology deliberately mirroring, to the point of almost quoting, the phrase “God saw it, and it was good” (“the sons of God saw them, and they were good”).

Gen 6:1-4 is not alone in being an OT passage whose meaning shifts, even to the point of contradiction, in later passages.  Believing evangelical scholars have wrestled with these ‘problems’ for a long time, and the broad consensus is to explore both ‘truths’.  Evangelical scholarship will often first make an exegetical analysis of the text in its context.  Secondarily, it will apply Biblical hermeneutics to the passage, seeing it in the light of the Bible as a whole.  However, in doing so, it never dismisses the first, exegetical, analysis.

For our purposes the evidence is too hefty towards Gen 6:1-4 being separate in narrative and context from the story of the Flood.  Since Flood stories often open with this as a prologue, even a reason for the Flood, so that the Flood is seen in the context of sexual immorality–something never stated in the text, and something that actually takes us away from the exegesis of the reason for the Flood.  The reason for the Flood is clear exegetically–the wickedness of humanity is the wickedness of the Garden of Eden–we choose not to trust God and we live lives our own way.  This is the definition of sin and the entire theology behind why Christ is eventually sent to us, to be scarified for our sins and to show us the “trust of Christ”.  By twisting Gen 6:1-4 to be the prologue of the Flood, we risk turning the Flood’s theological exegesis and meaning from one of failing to trust God, into an unhealthy obsession on a sexual immorality we don’t even engage in anymore (unless you know someone who’s having sex with an angel or demon?).  In modern Christianity, which already has a penchant for over-sexualizing sin, seeing the sexual sins as sinful because their sexual, rather than sinful because the particular type of sex leads us towards selfishness and temptation, and away from God and trusting in him–the real issue, this view of the Flood can even make it’s way into children’s versions of the Flood story, a somewhat disturbing topic to force upon a text that doesn’t naturally have it, not to mention put our gaze away from the real issue (failing to trust in God) so that we can obsess on a ‘sub-cause’ of that failure, that, in this case, and in some others in the Bible, might not actually be present in the text (i.e. the tendency to view Paul’s sermons on ‘flesh’ in a sexual light when, in many uses of the word by Paul, he is not speaking about sex at all).

By contrast to this view, the WBC (Wenham) views Gen 6:1-8 as actually being inclusive with Gen 5 as one distinct section, and as such an epilogue to the genealogy tracing Adam (perhaps even God, as in Lk 3:38) to Noah.  Wenham sees a repetition of seven words (man, YHWH, God/gods, sons, daughters, make, and create), each appearing 6, 7, or 12 times as repeating throughout not only Gen 5 but also Gen 6:1-8.  He also agrees with others that Gen 5:1’s introductory formula “This is the family history of…’ is repeated at Gen 6:9, and therefore that everything inclusive is one section.  I’m not particularly convinced by this argument myself (especially the math on ‘make/create’, as well as it’s supposed meaning), but Wenham’s commentary is considered by many the best current commentary on Genesis, so he should certainly be taken seriously.  His argument that Gen 5:1-3 and Gen 6:5-8 bookend the section, and that this format of bookending (“retrospect-new material-prospect”) is used throughout Genesis, for example, is intriguing2.

To sum up:

English versions put these 4 verses under the same subject heading as Gen 6:5-8, which describes the wickedness of humanity and the cause of the Flood.  This leads most Christians to read Gen 6:1-4 as also containing great sins that anger God and lead to the Flood.

But this flies in the face of the actual words of the Bible, and these verses should probably not be put with Gen 6:5-8 under headings like “The wickedness of humankind”, etc.  Instead, they should be under their own subject heading, such as “Why the ancients lived longer than us”.

The proof for this is:

(1) The subject headings that are actually in the ‘real Bible’, the ones inspired by God, place Gen 6:1-8 not with Noah and the Flood, but instead with the generations from Adam to Noah in Genesis 5.  Furthermore, the device used by Moses, the author of Genesis, for each section under his own subject headings always concludes with a summary of this section (Gen 6:1-4–which is about why the lifespans in Gen 5 are so long), and then moves to a ‘foreshadowing’ of the next section (Gen 6:5-8–which is about the evilness of humankind).

(2) The ‘sons of God’ appear only in the most ancient parts of the Bible (Job and Genesis), and in both passages they are described only positively (favourable in God’s eyes).  They are ‘attendants of God’ who do his bidding and act out his commands.

(3) The ‘Nephilim’ appear only in Moses’ early writings in the entire Bible (Genesis and Numbers), and in both passages they are described only positively (favourable in God’s eyes).  They are ‘mighty heroes of old, famous men’.  They are also the offspring of the divine ‘sons of God’ with human women.

(4) The union of the ‘sons of God’ with ‘human women’ is described using the Hebrew phrase for ‘marriage’ (‘taking wives’).  It is described in the best and only way sexual union is sanctioned by God in the Bible.

(5) The entire section of Gen 6:1-4 contains no words with connotations or meanings of ‘evil’ or ‘bad’.  Instead, only positive words and ideas that are approved by God are included in this section.  This includes the closest phrase to a direct quote of God’s creation phrase (“God saw it and it was good”) that we find in the Flood narrative, which hints at this phrase a lot, but only in this section uses it positively and closely.

One last note, in the next part we will discuss how the New Testament understanding of this history will change our perception.  Until then, however, what do you think?  Please comment below!