In parts 1 and 2 I gave my reasons for accepting the traditional view of what “Sons of God” means in Genesis 6:2 and 4. In part 1 I put forth the deconstructive side of the argument by showing how the other views come up lacking because they:
1.) Fail to effectively elucidate the level of depravity (the cause) that demanded the scale of the flood (the effect).
2.) Don’t fit with the language like the traditional view does.
In part 2 I defended the traditional view by offering a few ways the chief weakness (that supernatural beings can procreate) can be avoided.
Now, before I finish this three-part survey with an overview of the interpretive possibilities for the Nephilim, I will offer two additional “loopholes” that may help one avoid the “theological discomfort” of the traditional view’s chief weakness.
We can’t explain the Virgin Birth, the Resurrection, speaking in tongues, the teleportation of Philip, or the parting of the Red Sea, but if one believes that our epistemological limitations doesn’t invalidate the metaphysical possibilities of a supernatural God, it’s not hard to trust these “unbelievable” occurrences to be possible.
Likewise, just because non-Divine supernatural beings (SB) aren’t God doesn’t necessarily mean we must conform their abilities to our rigid parameters of what we think is possible. In other words, even if an angel or some other SB can’t “come in to” a human woman, it doesn’t necessarily follow that the text of Genesis is nonfactual if we view the act as symbolical or transcendental.
From a materialistic perspective, the act of copulation is straightforward and the covenant of marriage is seen as a mere social convention. Yet with a supernatural perspective, a transcendental union is formed between sexual partners during copulation and the covenant of marriage is meant to be the official “seal” of this union.
It’s possible, albeit speculative, that a transcendental reality is described in Genesis 6:1-4. The “sons of God (being supernatural themselves) can indeed marry and copulate with human women, but only to the capacity that their supernatural abilities allow. Jesus offers a bit of credence to this possibility when he speaks about lust and adultery: the faculty of the mind to lust is equivalent to using the body to commit adultery (Matt. 5:27-28). Perhaps, like the iceberg, there’s more going on “under the surface” than what would seem, physically.
Perhaps Moses (or whoever wrote Genesis 6) used the terms “marry” and “come in to” to describe an idea of what happened simply because he couldn’t describe the verbatim facts of what was really going on with the sons of God and human women. To describe it in the way that he did was the best way he could describe it; it was like symbolism, in a way.
Think about it this way: God desired his created order to operate according to his design, and as long as its inhabitants (both heavenly and earthly) lived according to this design, they would have no trouble. But trouble comes when the created order attempts to usurp God; for whenever a free-willed creature desires to live outside of its Creator’s design, it’s essentially asserting (either subconsciously or consciously) that it can do a better than the Creator at his own job.
Once the created order has fallen from its perfect state, it’s only natural to descend into depravity. A little leaven leavens the whole lump; once the first domino is bumped, the whole thing falls. By the time we get to Genesis 6, we read that “every thought of humanity was only evil continually” (6:5). The created order was completely turned over; the heavenly trespassed to the earthly and the earthly trespassed to the heavenly (compare with Gen. 11:1-9). With the juxtaposition of a corrupted image (the SB marrying human women) inside a beautiful frame (sex, marriage), then, the author wanted to drive the idea of depravity home, symbolically. What better way to illustrate total depravity than describing it as the abomination of the most beautiful image of the created order?
In the author’s mind, whatever the sons of God were doing with the daughters of men was worth describing it as “marriage,” “sexual intercourse” and “procreation.” God’s original design had husband and wife being “one” and procreating according to his design; likewise, and in total contradiction with the Creator’s intent, the abominable (sons of God) had become “one” with the fallen (daughters of man) during this antediluvian time period in such a way that the only way to stop it was through judgment.
Still, this is speculative. The text is far too limited to favor a transcendental or symbolic view with certainty.
In summary, then, whatever interpretation one takes regarding “sons of God,” something has to bend. The best option is to interpret “sons of God” as supernatural beings based on the cumulative amount of evidence for it:
1. It fits the language the best
2. It fits the context the best (what made the world require universal judgment?)
3. Majority of scholars across the theological spectrum favor it
4. Bulk of Jewish tradition favors it (we couldn’t cover this in the article; see Davies & Allison, 229-230)
5. Its chief weakness is defensible (given the Christian worldview)
Genesis 6:4 reads: “The Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of man and they bore children to them. These were the mighty men who were of old, the men of renown.”
How do the Nephilim relate to the “sons of God”? Are they the hybrids of the “sons of God” and the “daughters of men”? Or are they just a cultural frame of reference (hence, “in those days”)? Who were the “men of renown”?
Although satisfying answers cannot be given to these questions, it is quite clear that the ancient people knew exactly what Nephilim signified, since little description is given about them in the text. Indeed, imagine members of a dystopian Earth 6,000 years from now that find some mention about Nazis in a surviving artifact. We simply need to hear the word in 2016 to know exactly what it’s referring to, but in 8016, things might be a little different.
The only other reference (there are variations of the word, Nephilim, that appear in Ezekiel 32, but for the sake of space and relevance, I’ll leave this discussion out) to Nephilim in the Old Testament is in Numbers 13:33 when the twelve spies return from scouting the land of Canaan: “And there we saw the Nephilim (the sons of Anak, who come from the Nephilim), and we seemed to ourselves like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them.”
Based on this verse, the word is often understood to mean “giants,” but this is mainly an assumption based on the use of “grasshoppers.” To call oneself a grasshopper compared to someone else doesn’t mean it’s referring to its size; it could be referring to military power in general.
The parenthetical phrase in Numbers 13:33, “the sons of Anak, who come from the Nephilim,” offers continuity with Genesis 6:4 in that it agrees with the latter’s assertion that the Nephilim were “on the earth…also afterward.” That is, the Nephilim, whoever they were, were apparently still around after the flood.
But weren’t there only eight on the Ark (Noah, his wife, their three sons and three daughters-law; Gen. 7:7)? How would the Nephilim survive the flood if it is true that only these eight survived?
Well, it could be through genetics. If the “sons of God” created hybrids with humans, then perhaps some of that genetic material was present in Noah’s family (think of the in-laws). Or, if one holds to the view that the flood was local, perhaps there were Nephilim in other parts of the world that wasn’t flooded.
However, if one finds merit in a symbolic or supernatural interpretation, this is answered easily. If the Nephilim were simply a label for a certain type of group, the same way one would classify Nazis, then its designation is broad enough to span generations without losing meaning. In this way, then, the Nephilim could “survive” to the time of Moses even when the original individuals perished in the flood.
But how do they relate to the “sons of God”?
Based on the proximity in context (“the N were on the earth in those days when the sons of God came in to the Daughters of men”), most assume the Nephilim were the hybrid children of the supernatural beings and human women. This is a safe assumption, though, for why else would the author lump two rare titles together in the same verse if they weren’t closely related? Nephilim is built on the Hebrew verb naphal (“to fall”), so it’s not a stretch to see how Nephilim got their name if they’re intertwined with the “son of God” in some way.
Who were the “mighty men of renown”? Were they the Nephilim or simply independent?
The context and grammar indicate the Nephilim were indeed these “men of renown.”
So in closing, then, I must ask: what would make men “mighty” enough to warrant describing them as renowned?
“No one could bind him anymore, not even with a chain, for he had often been bound with shackles and chains, but he wrenched the chains apart, and he broke the shackles in pieces. No one had the strength to subdue him.”
This is quite a feat for an ordinary man…but was he ordinary? For those not familiar with this passage, I’ll add the previous verse to fill in the essential information: “when Jesus had stepped out of the boat, immediately there met him out of the tombs a man with an unclean spirit.”
This passage is from Mark 5, where Jesus casts out 1,000 demons (who call themselves Legion) from a single man.
Now imagine a whole community of these “mighty men”? Maybe this isn’t far from what the Nephilim were: supernaturally charged men produces by the abominable activities of the depraved “sons of God” and the “daughters of men.”
If all these movies and shows with concepts like the “Matrix,” “Upside-Down,” and “Parallel Universes” are even remotely true to reality (as Christians obviously believe), it might be wise to consider the possibility of supernatural powers at work in the natural world when coming to a conclusion about Genesis 6:1-4.
“For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” (Eph. 6:12)
If there’s anything Genesis 6:1-4 tells us, it’s that Biblical Studies is an incredibly nuanced science. There are so many variables and factors to consider when interpreting these ancient texts. It’s wise to be cautious, which is why I can only be moderately certain of my conclusion about these verses.
In addition to writing at A Clear Lens, Alex Aili (B.A. in Biblical Studies) writes short stories and offers his musings about God’s hand in the world at Covert God: Redemption in Shadows. He is a novelist-in-progress who lives in northern MN with his wife and two sons. He thrives on coffee, good pipe tobacco and longs walks in the woods. See what he’s up to on Twitter.
Sources (for Parts 1, 2 & 3):
Davies, W.D. And D.C. Allison. Matthew 19-28 International Critical Commentary. London, UK: T&T Clark International, 1997.
Hamilton, Victor P. The Book of Genesis: Chapters 1-17 The New International Commentary on the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1990.
Koukl, Greg. “Dr. Hugh Ross – Living on the Autism Spectrum and Navigating Genesis.” Stand to Reason. http://www.str.org/podcasts/weekly-audio/dr-hugh-ross-–-living-on-the-autism-spectrum-and-navigating-genesis-february-5-2016#.V6JE0l46410 (accessed February 19, 2016)
Morris, Henry M. The Genesis Record. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1976.
Paun, Owen and Tyler Vela. “The Nephilim and Andy Stanley on Small Churches.” Ask A Millennial Christian. http://www.stitcher.com/podcast/owen-paun/ask-a-millennial-christian/e/the-nephilim-and-andy-stanley-on-small-churches-43097573 (accessed February 15, 2016).
Twelftree, G.H. “Spiritual Powers.” In New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, edited by T. Desmond Alexander and Brian S. Rosner, 796-802. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000.
Wenham, Gordon J. Genesis 1-15 Word Biblical Commentary. Waco, TX: Word, Incorporated, 1987.