Masthead header

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

With the movie “Noah” coming out in a couple weeks’ 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.   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.

I love geeking out about Scripture, and it seems like no time like the present to dip into the Flood narrative, so let’s dive in.  We’ll plan on finishing the entire story of Noah and the Flood a couple days before the movie comes out at the end of the month.  For an even more detailed and geekier discussion on topics brought up here, click on over to the geeky version here.



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 interpret 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 according to God.


(1) Who are the ‘sons of God?’

There is a lot of disagreement about these 4 verses in Gen 6 in particular.  One group argues that the ‘sons of God’ are not angels or divine beings at all, but rather ‘tyrant kings’.  There is limited support for this in theory, since several passages describe judges, kings, and other mortals in divine language (judges are even called ‘gods’ in Ex 22:8-9).  However, the phrase ‘sons of God’ is never used in the OT of mortal people, kings or not.

This view, supported by such popular modern commentaries as the NIVAC, see the ‘taking of wives’ by these ‘kings called sons of God’ as the enacting of the ancient ‘right of the first night’, by which kings could have sex with brides on their wedding night, before the brides could have sex with their newly wedded husbands.  For those who support this view, the limitation of mortal life to ‘120 years’ is a kind of punishment for kings (‘sons of God’) practicing this right.

Another variation on the view that that ‘sons of God’ refers to men saw the sons of God as ‘Sethites’ or ‘sons of Seth’.  This view is largely abandoned today.

The reason why I don’t like the interpretation of sons of God as being human kings, comes down very simply to the fact that ‘sons of God’ is defined in its other uses in the Bible, namely in Job 1:6, Job 2:1, and Job 38:7.  In these passages (especially the first two), ‘sons of God’ are described as supernatural beings who ‘wait on God’ and do his bidding.

Nephilim, Sons of God, Noah, Flood

Divine Council from Greece (500 BCE). Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Divine_Council

The background requires a bit of detail (which is discussed in the geeky version of this post), but in a nutshell, the ‘divine council’ that meets in the prologue to Job is akin to ancient near east religions where the gods met in court-like settings to judge and talk about the world (think ‘Mount Olympus’ in Greek mythology).  These gods had divine beings who did their bidding (think ‘Hermes/Mercury’ in Greek mythology) and acted out their ‘court decisions’ in the mortal world.  For example, they could punish humankind by sending a flood, and they would send divine beings or ‘lesser gods’ to enact their decisions.

Job 1-2 reflects this ancient world view, but since the Bible testifies to one Creator God only, the authors of Job and Genesis–the only books where the phrase ‘sons of God’ appears–saw God as the only divine being presiding over the ‘heavenly tribunal’ or ‘court’.  So, God would send his ‘sons of God’ or ‘court attendants’ to act out his will and decisions.  Job 1-2 acts out this process for us.

The phrase ‘sons of God’ appears in its exact wording only in Job and Gen 6:1-4  It is defined as supernatural beings in Job, and for me that’s enough without any need to resort to theories external to the Bible.  Note that both Moses and the author of Job knew the word for ‘angel’, but chose instead to use ‘sons of God’, so we should understand the two terms as distinct from each other.

The phrase is confusing because after Job and Genesis, arguably the two oldest books in the Bible, the phrase ‘sons of God’ is never again used.  It is clearly, therefore, a very ancient understanding of the Biblical world that for reasons unknown to us, never again needed to be mentioned in the rest of the Bible.

Nephilim, Sons of God, Noah, Flood

Divine Council from 900 BCE (Babylonian). Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Divine_Council




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

The words used, their order, and the grammar and even punctuation in Hebrew of Gen 6:2 is nearly a quote of Gen 1:4 and other phrases in Gen 1, about God creating something, seeing it, and calling it good.

In no other passage in Gen 6:1-8, which includes many references to undoing Creation because God saw something and it was evil, does the Hebrew ever follow so closely God’s good creation.

In other words, Moses, writing Genesis, deliberately calls the reader’s mind back to how ‘God created the world and it was good’ to describe how ‘the sons of God saw the daughters of men, and they were good’.  If Moses didn’t mean this event of the sons of God seeing the daughters of men to be used positively, as something God approved of, then it would be strange for him to so deliberately mirror the grammar and word order, where in passages where he ‘undoes Creation’ he only hints at the idea of Creation, without mirroring the grammar and word order (where he could do so perfectly well if he wished to).


(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: https://www.brooklynmuseum.org/opencollection/ 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

The Nephilim have a very complicated history of interpretation.  Again, however, just like the Bible defined ‘sons of God’ for us, so too it defines Nephilim.  We do not need to go looking for definitions external to the text itself.

The Nephilim are defined in Gen 6:1-4.  They are not giants–a tradition external to the Hebrew text, but which many older English versions state, and which many Sunday School presentations of the story tell us.  Instead, the Nephilim are “mighty heroes of old, famous men” (Gen 6:4).  That is, they are legendary heroes from ancient times, even for Moses’ generation.  They are in essence the “Hercules” and the “Achilles” for the ancient Israelites.  They are legendary heroes of the past for whom songs and stories were written and retold.

Nephilim, Sons of God, Noah, Flood

‘Legendary hero of old’ – A hero kills a lion, between 1900-1500 BCE (Mesopotamian). Source: http://www.themorgan.org/collections/collections.asp?id=638

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 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

Genesis is structurally divided into distinct sections called ‘toledot‘, after the Hebrew term for ‘These are the generations of‘.  This phrase appears multiple times in Genesis and mark off different sections.  The cycle of Genesis’ repetitive theme is contained within each toledot in Genesis, leading to its widespread acceptance by so many scholars as to its divisions.  That theme is four-fold: (a) God desires covenant relationship with us, (b) we sin and break that covenant, (c) God responds with either instructional punishment or grace, (d) God reaffirms his covenant promises to us.

Nephilim, Sons of God, Noah, Flood

Marker in Bible of ‘end of idea/paragraph’

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.  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

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.


What do you think?  Comment below or, if you want to dig into the details deeper, check out the geeky version of this post here and comment in that section instead.

Next post, we see how the New Testament understanding of this passage changes things considerably!