The Enigmatic Passage
Finally, after our long journey through Genesis 4 and 5, we are entering the story of the Flood. In chapter 6, we see the total moral failure of the human race. For many readers, however, the beginning of this chapter presents one of the most enigmatic passages of the Bible:
The sons of God saw that the daughters of humans were beautiful, and they married any of them they chose… The Nephilim were on the earth in those days—and also afterward—when the sons of God went to the daughters of humans and had children by them. They were the heroes of old, men of renown.
Remarkably, some translations (beginning with the King James Bible) have here the word ‘giants’, instead of ‘Nephilim’: There were giants in the earth in those days.
As if to make this story even more complicated, Scripture also mentions Nephilim after the Flood: in the well-known story in Numbers 13 Moses sent twelve spies to scout out the land, and all the spies, except Caleb and Joshua, brought up an evil report of the land which they had searched, saying:
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.
Once again, the King James Version translates the word “Nephilim” here as “giants”:
And there we saw the giants, the sons of Anak, which come of the giants: and we were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so we were in their sight.
For centuries, students of the Bible have debated who these Nephilim/giants were. As with many stories in Scripture, this story also gains much more clarity when read in Hebrew.
The Sons of God
First, let us try to understand who “the sons of God” were. The Hebrew words translated “the sons of God” are b’nai ha Elohim, בְנֵי־הָֽאֱלֹהִים֙. Does the Torah mean angels, or just “the sons of rulers”, or “the sons of the nobles”, as some Jewish translations translate b’nai ha Elohim here? The “angelic interpretation” (that “the sons of God” were angels, or some kind of divine beings) is almost non-existent in Judaism: we have “the sons of the princes” in Targumim, and “the sons of the Judges” in Midrashim. Many of you probably know that the noun הָֽאֱלֹהִים֙ (Elohim) is in a plural form, and it can be read not only as “God”, but also as “gods” or even “lords, rulers” – and this is exactly how the Jewish commentaries choose to read this word in this particular verse.
However, if we study the use of this expression בְנֵי־הָֽאֱלֹהִים֙ in Tanach (Hebrew Bible), we see a completely different picture. There is no better commentary to the Bible than the Bible itself, and for that reason, we will compare our passage here with other similar passages.
The expression “sons of God” doesn’t occur many times in Tanach. The next time we encounter this expression is in Job 1:6: Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan came also among them. We have the same expression again in Job 2:1: Again there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the LORD, and Satan came also among them to present himself before the LORD.
Nobody questions the meaning of “the sons of God” here: these verses describe the Divine Council – the meeting in Heaven – therefore, the “sons of God” here are obviously not humans, but angels, who are meeting with God. Notice that the words in Hebrew translated as “the sons of God” here, are exactly the same as in Genesis 6:2: בְּנֵ֣י הָאֱלֹהִ֔ים – b’nai ha Elohim.
The next (and the last, at least in this exact form) reference to “the sons of God” in Tanach is again in the book of Job, in chapter 38. Speaking about the creation of the universe, God is saying: I laid the foundations of the earth… When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy.
From this verse, we can clearly see that the sons of God existed even before the earth itself was created. It means that the term: b’nai ha Elohim or b’nai Elohim in the Old Testament, is in fact a reference to angelic beings. Thus, we can conclude that “the sons of God” in Genesis 6 refers to angels.
Now that we’ve established that “the sons of God” were heavenly beings, we can try to understand the story of the Nephilim. The group of angels in rebellion against the Lord came to Earth and took human women as wives to have illicit relations. The offspring from this ungodly union between angels and human women were Nephilim – giants, ‘men’ of superhuman ability and strength.
The fact that Nephilim were giants is itself a proof that their parentage was superhuman. But these giants were also evil. How do we know that? It is precisely at this point that the Hebrew will help us. The word Nephilim probably comes from the word נפל, fall; a suffix ‘im’ simply adds plurality, hence they were “fallen ones”. Having been born of corrupted, fallen, Satanic angels, Nephilim dominated the Earth and filled it with violence.
You may be aware that this “angelic interpretation” is not very popular in modern Christianity. I mentioned already that it is almost non-existent in modern Judaism. However, it was completely different in Second Temple Judaism. Second Temple Judaism saw in Genesis 6:1-4, not only the story of a supernatural rebellion, but one of the most important passages in biblical theology. While in Genesis it occupies just a few verses, during the Second Temple Period it receives great attention, as we can see from the First Book of Enoch, one of the most important texts of this period. Next time, we will try to see this story through the lens of Second Temple Judaism – and then we will dive together into the deep waters of the Flood.
 Gen.6:2,4, NIV
 Gen.6:4, KJV
 Num.13:33, NIV
 Num.13:33, KJV
 Gen. Rabbah 26:5
 In Ps 29:1, we have B’nai Elim (בְּנֵי אֵלִים) – sons of elim.
 Job 38:4,7
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