Nephilim and Gibborim: Same Thing, or Greatly Different?

By Kerwin Holmes, Jr.

 

6 When man began to multiply on the face of the land and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that the daughters of man were attractive. And they took as their wives any they chose. Then the Lord said, “My Spirit shall not abide in man forever, for he is flesh: his days shall be 120 years.”The Nephilim (fallen ones) 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 (Gibborim) who were of old, the men of renown. The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.

Genesis 6:1-5, HCSB (with my notes to the original Hebrew added)

So…this will surely be one of the most theological posts I’ve written so far.  I do hope that it encourages all Christians to focus on God’s goodness no matter where we stand in answering the following question.  Because no matter how muddled the Biblical passage above becomes, the correct focus for all of Scripture is a focus fixed upon God.  Always.

A diversity of translations surround the Hebrew used in Genesis 6:1-5.  The translations differ upon the identities of the “Nephilim” and the “mighty men” in Genesis 6:4.  But interestingly, many translations have precious little to do with the actual Hebrew words and more to do with Jewish legends and the opinions of modern translators.  For years, the translations of these verses kept me in a perpetual theological loop searching for their true meaning.  Now, through the irony of consistently using other books of the Bible to decipher Genesis 6, I have found a conclusive answer to my dilemma.

In modern theology, professors who teach Judeo-Christian religion often tell their students that the Biblical concept of spiritual warfare between good angels and evil demons was borrowed from Zoroastrian religion when the Jews were exiled to Babylon in the 6th century BC.  Zoroastrianism is an ancient Persian religion that believes all existence hinges on a battle between the ultimate force of good (Ahura Mazda) and an ultimate force for evil (Angra Mainyu).  These two supernatural beings have spiritual armies who battle across the cosmos tipping the scales of power to their own favor.  Some modern theologians claim that the exiled Jews ran into Zoroastrians in Babylon and Persia and borrowed their cosmology in order to explain their exile.  This is the secular understanding for the origins of the Judeo-Christian spiritual conflict between God’s angels and Satan and his demons.

But, astute readers of the Bible (and Biblical historians) realize that the first specific appearance of angelic beings occurs in Genesis 3:24 when God places cherubs (four-winged angels) at the east of the Garden of Eden to block human access to the tree of life.  We know with historical certainty that the book of Genesis and the rest of the Torah predate the Babylonian exile by at least four centuries going back to the time of Davidic Israel.  The Torah contains the collection of Mosaic Law and some of the earliest historical literature of Judeo-Christian religion.  Since Jews and Christians believe that Moses wrote the Torah, the date for Genesis pushes back even further to around the 14th-15th centuries BC.   We can conclude that the earliest Judeo-Christian tradition already possessed belief in supernatural spirit-beings long before any contact with Zoroastrianism.

Despite this, Genesis 6 is where many Christian and Jewish scholars have fits of theological and historical schizophrenia.  A lot of the arguments in translating the Hebrew in Genesis 6 revolve around the idea that the term “sons of God” must be referring to either male humans who were particularly righteous, kings who claimed that they were gods, or males descending from the family of Seth.  These assertions make no theological or literal sense and its as if these scholars have bought into the secularist error.  For one, the descendants of Seth were very numerous according to Genesis 5, and yet it was only Noah’s family of 8 persons who qualified for God’s mercy.  That must mean that a considerable majority of Seth’s family were just as immoral as the rest of condemned humanity.  Another thing to consider is that no matter what our imagination of ourselves becomes, our natural biology is not supernaturally modified when we have sex.   The whole “self-deified king” explanation to the existence of the heroic offspring falls apart dramatically…even laughably.  I mean, it really borderlines being a sanctimonious Viagra commercial.

Besides, the flow of the story in Genesis 6 does not hold if readers believe that the “sons of God” were male humans who worshiped Yahweh.  The Biblical author (who I’m going to call Moses) expends considerable effort to mention how unusual the rare unions between the “sons of God” and the women really were.  In fact, Moses’ repetition and negativity influenced some theologians to develop a theory that the unions were particularly heinous because the “sons of God” were God-worshipers but that their wives were idolaters.  After all, the Torah abhors all marriages between worshipers of God and idolaters and it’d explain God’s anger in Genesis 6:5.

But…the last time that I checked…children born from a believer and a nonbeliever aren’t gifted with supernatural abilities.  The Bible never tells us any story of that occurring, nor do we ever witness it in our modern lives.  I mean, supernatural abilities would certainly come in handy for children with Christian dads and non-Christian mums, especially when Sunday worship comes along.  Sure, such a thing would make evangelizing a lot more attractive to some Christians…but come on people, really?

 There is a fourth option, one that makes much sense in all of this translation mess.  It only has one real rebuttal that, when analyzed, falls apart almost immediately.  The fourth option also keeps the Hebrew Scripture intact without changing the literal meaning of any word in the passage above.

The fourth option is: the “sons of God” are angels who took on human appearances to commit sinful lust with women.  The Bible is clear that angels are able to take on physical bodies, so the assertion of angels having physical sex isn’t ridiculous…it’s just downright perverted.  These sexual unions produced the offspring of humanity capable of the mighty feats they are described of doing in Genesis 6:4.  Of course, such unions were grossly unnatural and one of the direct results of God’s judgment on the Earth as stated in Genesis 6:5.

Whoa now, did the Bible just get all pagan mythology on us?  This stuff sounds more like a spin-off for the latest vampire-themed drama series than an actual Bible story.  Why is the case for this fourth option stronger compared with the other options?

Glad that you asked.

You see, angels are referred in Hebrew as the bnei ha’Elohim or “sons of God” in other books of the Bible.  Conveniently, most of the Bible’s usage of the term “sons of God” for reference to angels happen around the same cultural time-frame.  Job 1:6 and Job 38:1-7 use the phrase “sons of God” and Bible translators have no problem translating “sons of God” as “angels.”  If you look closely at Job 1:6, Satan receives specific mention by name, and Satan’s ability to interfere in human affairs is explicit in the entire book, showing that angels do interfere with humanity.  The events of the Book of Job take place contemporary to the time of Abraham.  Why do I say that?  Well, given the facts that Job’s wealth is measured in livestock and not in metal currency; the Flood is mentioned in Job; and after Job loses all of his adult children, Job lives 140 additional years to have more adult children (meaning that Job lived to at least 180 years); I see Job’s lifestyle and lifetime as consistent with persons living during Abraham’s time, maybe even before.

But with something as unusual as Genesis 6, additional Biblical confirmation should be sought.  If the “sons of God” in Genesis 6 are angels, then surely other Biblical authors verify it.  Enter, Jude 6.  Jude speaks of certain angels who abandoned their heavenly place in a mysterious manner, but God condemned them to be chained in eternal darkness until the final day of judgment.  This passage cannot be talking about the demons who are active upon the Earth because they are very much free to go as they please.  The Bible is also clear in Job that Satan is not excluded from that freedom.  The angels that Jude refers to are fallen angels culpable of a very particular sin that warranted their maximum confinement, confinement that the other fallen angels dread.  We receive clues to why these spirits were condemned in 1 Peter 3:17-20 , when Peter says that Jesus announced His victory over Death and sin to the imprisoned spirit-beings because they violated God’s trust in the days of Noah.  If that isn’t enough, Peter references the same spirit-beings more explicitly in 2 Peter 2:4-6.

This theme of angels abandoning their heavenly place or falling from God’s favor is directly related to the Hebrew word Nephilim that is found in Genesis 6:4.  Nephilim is the description for a person who commits the Hebrew word naphal, meaning “to abandon” or “to fall.”  Identifying nephilim as the generic Hebrew term for fallen angels means drawing direct revelation from Hebrew terminology, the understanding of the Biblical authors, and the unique nature of the rebellion in Genesis 6.  Like the Scripture says, the nephilim were upon the Earth then and afterwards, meaning that demons still influence earthly affairs today.

But as mentioned before, there is one rebuttal to the fourth option, and it comes in the book of Numbers which, like Genesis, is part of the Torah that Moses authored.

In Numbers 13 Moses sends out 12 spies to scout the land of Canaan in order to find a safe passage for the people of Israel to begin claiming the land as their own.  10 of the spies come back with a positive account of the land but a negative account of the Israelites’ ability to conquer the people in the land.  Their reasoning was that the most powerful Canaanite tribes and even the mighty Hittite Empire controlled Canaan, and the 12 tribes of Israel and their allies didn’t stand a chance.  Caleb, a Kenizzite Gentile adopted into the tribe of Judah, tried to persuade Israel that God was with them and that Israel would be victorious.  This totally outraged the 10 spies who received Caleb’s accusation of their cowardice as an insult to their manhood.  They began to grossly exaggerate their earlier testimony by saying that the land that they’d just testified to be a paradise was actually a hazardous jungle.  The 10 spies even began to say that everybody in the land was of monstrous size and that the Anakim were nephilim and nephilim descendants.

Now, some scholars take the contradictive exaggeration of the 10 spies seriously because they mention how tall the Anakim were.  The Bible confirms the fact that giants, or people of unnatural height and strength, did inhabit the land of Canaan.  But the giants of the Bible were very rare and often confined to strict familial lineages.  These giants, the ones who fought against Israel, were systematically killed by generations of Israelite warriors.  These are hardly the supernatural spirit-beings that Moses, Jude, and Peter refer to.  And given the cowardice of the 10 spies and the harsh judgment that God wrought on them and all of Israel because of their false report, it’s safe to believe that the mention of the Anakim being descendants of the Nephilim was part of the outright lie made to discourage Israel from reaching their destiny.

Coincidentally, Scripture also distinguishes the Nephilim from the Gibborim, or the “mighty men” mentioned in Genesis 6:4.   This confirms the nature of the “sons of God” aka Nephilim as distinct from humanity.  The Bible uses the term gibborim once again by referring to the mighty men of King David, so gibborim obviously refers to mortal men capable of spectacular feats.  And, given how Genesis 6 specifically states that the gibborim of that day were so called specifically due to their spectacular feats, the Hebrew distinction between nephilim and gibborim is consistent with the fourth option.

To put a final peg in the argument that I am making, I only appeal to the original Hebrew once more.  Various Bible translators have taken it upon themselves to substitute the Hebrew words nephilim and gibborim with their own notions of what each word means.  Thankfully, by the grace of God, their substitutions have not caused the Bible to become erroneous in its overarching story.  The Scripture states that there certainly existed humans of great physical abilities in the land during Noah’s time, and they most likely stood as giants among the rest of mankind.  And there certainly were rulers who placed themselves in positions of authority that only belong to God.  But, the original audience of Ancient Hebrew speakers would have understood the two terms as totally different from one another, just as English-speakers understand the word “demon” differently from the word “hero.”

It certainly is something to think about.  And it provides an example for how necessary personal, critical study of the Bible is.  Genesis 6 provides a degree of credulity to the mythical heroic tales that seem to exist in every human society.  Is it too much of a coincidence that human cultures all over the Earth contain ancient tales of supernatural beings cohabiting with humanity…and also tales of a global flood?  Well, if we all are descendants of those 8 extremely fortunate persons who emerged from the ark, then we shouldn’t be too surprised at our family’s ability to retain semblances of our broken past.  If anything, the fact that the stories still share similarities may point to just how horrifying the entire experience was for Noah’s family.  They did their best in making sure that none of their children would ever forget it.

For believers, the Bible points to the deeper truth that inspired all of these mythic tales.  Noah’s story survived throughout the millennia of time, just like the ark survived the waves of a planetary ocean.

And the truth leaves us with an even bigger question…just how precious are we to God for Him to go to such lengths in order to save us?

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7 thoughts on “Nephilim and Gibborim: Same Thing, or Greatly Different?

    1. I am in a very minute way glad that you posted this. It contains an hour long explanation of *every one of the views I have encountered over the past 6 years.

      But because it does this, I wonder if you really read what I wrote because I bring up the views this hour-long discussion covers by name and refute them all on basis of scripture, historical context, modern reality, and cultural context of the writers of the books I referenced.

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      1. Correct me if I’m wrong, but the four views laid out in your post are:
        1) this account reveals Zoroastrian influence on the text
        2) the sons of God means the God-worshipping descendants of Seth
        3) the sons of God were kings who claimed divinity
        4) the sons of God are angels

        If this list is correct, none of the views you addressed are the view promoted in the podcast. Yes, there are similarities, but the reason I brought it to your attention in the first place was its uniqueness.

        If it is actually unique, then you haven’t refuted it. Ms. Cefalu, the author of the article discussed on the podcast, also argues based on “Scripture, historical context, modern reality, and cultural context of the writers of the books.”

        For starters, here are a few points you did not address:
        a) The sinful leaders of Israel are called sons of God in Psalm 82.
        b) Throughout Genesis, angels are called “malak.” If the sons of God are angels, then this
        is the only place in Genesis their title changes. This needs an attempt at explanation.
        c) What about the thematic parallels between Lamech and the “sons of God” and the
        linguistic parallels between the Fall, Lamech, and the “sons of God?”
        d) How does your view fit into the context of the preceding genealogies of Cain and Adam,
        especially in light of the thematic and linguistic case Ms. Cefalu made?
        Lastly, my own:
        e) How does Matthew 22:30 figure into your analysis? (A Scripture reference, yay!)

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      2. Yay! Thank you man.
        Matthew 22:30. All angels are male, are eternal, and need not procreate among themselves because it would be homosexual in every case and they were made without sexuality as eternal celestial beings. They must take on human forms in order to have physical bodies as testified multiple times in Genesis.

        The views I mention and refute are
        1) sons of God being descendents of Seth
        2) sons of God being righteous human beings
        3)sons of God being kings who claimed divinity (notice how the mention of priestly kings having special connections to gods was based off of the divine lineage of the king…see Gilgamish and Hammurabi)
        4) sons of God being giants or heroes of great ability

        Note: I combined numbers 1 and 2 because they are often paired together (as Ms. Cefalu did in her final argument).

        I went over the Zoroastrian argument as a prerequisite before I revealed the preceding options.

        Psalm 82 came after the time of the patriarchs which means that language and terms culturally changed (as obviously seen by the lies of Israelite spies in Numbers). For example, even in Job “sons of God” obviously is angelic. And if you omit the genealogy in Genesis 5, you are left with God sending angels upon the Earth to guard Eden, Cain murdering Abel and fleeing further away from Eden, and then talk about the “sons of God being upon the Earth. My postulation isnt farfetched at all. I used contemporaries to Abraham because Moses was describing in Genesis histories contemporary with Abraham.
        This historical tactic is sound. Populism is still used today, but if we talk about the origins of American populism we cannot use Trump’s descriptors but we must use contextual populism from Tom E. Watson. Populism’s reliance upon fear mongering stays consistent.

        I also used New Testament writers’ understanding of the text as well. Their Jewish background and inspiration by the Spirit of God being my reasoning for such. It’s cool.

        I appreciate your desire for clarity.

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      3. Also, the sons of Lamech theory usually develops into the assertion that those men attempted to *deify themselves. Rather than go into the specifics of that entire theory, I gave an overview and soundly refuted them all at their conclusion of the men fathering the gibborim.

        * denotes where I misspelled a word and needed to correct it for clarity

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