Genesis 6:1-4 fascinates many Bible readers because of the mysterious identity of both the “sons of God” and the Nephilim. Sadly, many modern theologians pay little attention to this passage because they hold the pedestrian view that the “sons of God” refers to the godly line of Seth. Other modern scholars have argued that the “sons of God” refers to a kingly line.
However, the traditional view of both pre-Christian Judaism and the early church was that the “sons of God” were spirit beings/angels who took human wives and produced giants known as the Nephilim. This view has become less popular today, probably due to our modern aversion to the supernatural. While the modern Christian may reluctantly embrace the Bible’s teaching about Christ’s virgin birth and resurrection, the idea of human and spirit-bred giants is just too far-fetched. Even John Calvin called this view “absurd”! However, there are strong textual reasons for adopting the traditional view. Here is the passage:
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 Yahweh said, “My Spirit shall not abide in man forever, for he is flesh: his days shall be 120 years.” 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 (Genesis 6:1-4).
This passage leads into the story of the flood (Genesis 6:9–9:17), as God saw that “the wickedness of man was great” and that “the earth was filled with violence.” God therefore decided to send a flood to wipe out humanity (Genesis 6:5, 11). But why were men all of a sudden so violent? Was it because the godly line mixed with the ungodly line? Or was it, at least in part, because humanity had mixed with spirit beings? I would like to argue for the latter.
Seven Arguments For the Traditional View
Here are seven arguments in support of the traditional view that the “sons of God” were spirit beings who mated with human women and produced the Nephilim:
The phrase “sons of God” elsewhere in the Old Testament refers to spirit beings/angels. The “sons of God” (Genesis 6:2, 4) is a phrase used three other times in the Bible outside of Genesis 6—Job 1:6; 2:1; 38:7. In all three of these instances the “sons of God” are spirit/angelic beings, including Satan himself. The use of the phrase in Job suggests that Genesis 6 is speaking of spirits/angels.
Genesis 6:1-2 contrasts the “sons of God” with “man,” implying that these are non-human beings. Genesis 6:1 says that “man began to multiply” and “daughters were born to them.” The Hebrew word for “man” (adam) is the generic term for mankind, as used in Genesis 5:1-2. Nothing in the text suggests that only “some” men (either ungodly men or kings) were having children in Genesis 6:1. Rather, the “sons of God” (v. 2) are contrasted with “man”—thus the “sons of God” were distinct from “man” and were marrying daughters of all mankind. The “sons of God” must therefore be non-human beings of some sort.
The view that the “sons of God” refers to the godly line requires the unlikely explanation that the ungodly women were far more “attractive” than the godly women. Genesis 6:1 only mentions the pursuit of human “daughters” and not sons—“When man began to multiply on the face of the land and daughters were born to them.” The “sons of God” then saw that these women were “attractive” (tovot) and thus took them as their wives (Genesis 6:2). If Genesis 6 is about the intermarriage between the godly line (the Sethites) and the ungodly line (the Cainites), it is odd that only godly men were marrying ungodly women and not ungodly men marrying godly women. Were the godly women just that unattractive? The traditional view offers a much better explanation—as humanity began to multiply, the spirit beings found these human women to be sexually “attractive.”
Immediately following the reference to intermarriage, God says He will judge man because he is “flesh” (Genesis 6:3), implying that humans were trying to become more than normal “flesh” by marrying spirit beings. In Genesis 6:3, God says, “My Spirit shall not abide in man forever, for he is flesh: his days shall be 120 years.” This suggests vv. 1-2 refer to humans trying to become more than normal human “flesh” and live “forever.” Humans were going along with the intermarriage with spirit beings in the quest for immortality. God says He will not put up with this because humans are mortal (“flesh”), and He therefore decreases their maximum lifespan to 120 years. (This could also mean He will wipe them out with a flood in 120 years.) Ages steadily decline in Genesis 11, and it becomes rare that anyone exceeds 120 years of age.
The context implies that the Nephilim were the resulting offspring of spirit beings and humans. The Nephilim (Hebrew נְּפִלִ֞ים, “fallen ones;” the Greek LXX has γίγαντες, “giants”) in Genesis 6:4 are mysterious characters—“the mighty men who were of old, the men of renown.” The text does not explicate how the Nephilim got there. It simply says, “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.” But why are the Nephilim mentioned in the same passage as the intermarriage of the “sons of God” and “daughters of man” here in Genesis 6? It is unclear how these mighty men of renown came about if they were not the product of intermarriage between spirit beings and humans.
Jude likely understands Genesis 6:1-4 to refer to the intermarriage between spirit beings and humans. Jude 6 speaks of “angels who did not stay within their own position of authority, but left their proper dwelling.” Unless Jude is speaking of an unknown event, he seems to be referencing the angels of Genesis 6:1-4 who left heaven to live on earth. (Jude seems to be adopting the view of the Apocryphal 1 Enoch 7, which references Genesis 6:1-4 and makes the angel explanation explicit.) This becomes even clearer when Jude compares these angels to the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, “which likewise indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural desire" [literally “other flesh”] (Jude 7). We know that Sodom and Gomorrah sexually pursued “other flesh” in that they practiced homosexuality (Genesis 19:5). (Though “men” in the passage were angels, which could also explain the “other flesh.”) What “other flesh” did angels “likewise” pursue? This only makes sense if Jude is referring to the angels of Genesis 6:1-4 pursuing sexual relations with humans. (Recall Genesis 6:3, where God calls man “flesh.”)
The Bible never rules out the sexual capabilities of spirit beings/angels. The primary objection to the traditional interpretation of Genesis 6:1-4 is that Jesus teaches that angels do not marry. While Jesus does imply that angels do not marry or have sexual relations, notice that Jesus only speaks of angels in heaven and not of fallen angels on earth—“For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven” (Matthew 22:30). Jesus says nothing about the sexual capabilities of angels, leaving open the possibility that they are capable of sexual relations but refrain from such in heaven. Further, the Sodom and Gomorrah story implies that angels have such sexual capabilities. They were at least perceived by the Sodomites as beings that could be raped (Genesis 19:5).
These arguments form a strong case for the traditional view that the “sons of God” mated with human women and produced the Nephilim. Though this sounds odd to our modern ears, the same could be said for the entire Bible. Truth is stranger than fiction, and the world God has created is far different from what we often think.
For those wanting to study this issue further, Michael Heiser has helpful discussion in his interesting book The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible. You can read my review here.
A Note on the Nephilim
 The Nephilim are only mentioned once outside of Genesis 6:1-4, and that is in Numbers 13:33, where the Israelite spies were describing the people in 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.” The Anakim that were in Canaan are described elsewhere as a tall people (Deuteronomy 2:10, 21; 9:2). Here in Numbers 13:33 the Israelites not only describe the Anakim as descendants of Nephilim but call them Nephilim. How do the Nephilim show up again a thousand years after Genesis 6:1-4? There are four possibilities:
The “Nephilim” in Numbers 13:33 were not really Nephilim. Either the Israelite spies mistakenly thought the tall people of Canaan were Nephilim, or the spies were seeking to exaggerate things by identifying the Canaanites as Nephilim.
The flood was only local, and the Nephilim survived in the area beyond the flood.
The same event transpired later in history, as angels again bred with women and produced more Nephilim.
Nephilim genes were passed down through Noah’s daughter-in-law. These wives of Ham, Shem, and Japheth were not descended from Noah and thus potentially had Nephilim genes in them.
Option (1) seems most appealing, but Genesis 6:4 suggests that the Nephilim were on the earth at a later time—“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.” If Genesis 6:4 refers to Nephilim existing post-flood (and it may be referring to Numbers 13:33), then it must be option (2), (3), or (4). This would also better explain Numbers 13:33, for if the Anakim were actually descendants of the Nephilim, it makes sense why they were so tall and why the Israelites were so fearful of them. Option (2) seems unlikely because this would mean the flood did not actually wipe out those who helped stir up God's judgment in the first place. Option (3) and (4) are both possible, though (3) seems more likely.
This is still a problem for those who hold that the Nephilim in Genesis 6:4 were not the offspring of the “sons of God” and the “daughters of man” (which is textually possible). If the Nephilim were fully human, there is still the problem that Genesis 6:4 says they were around “afterward,” implying that the Nephilim were around after the flood. In this case, one could argue that the later Nephilim of Numbers 13:33 were unrelated to the Nephilim of Genesis 6:4—they only resembled them. Another possibility is that the genetic material of the Nephilim was passed on through Noah or his daughters-in-law.
Regardless, the association of the Nephilim with tall people in Numbers 13:33 suggests that the Nephilim were in fact giants, as the LXX translates the term.