Like many others of my generation, I first learnt of the term 'Nephilim' via the superb English gothic rock group Fields of the Nephilim, formed in the mid-1980s, but when I began to investigate the origin of their unusual name I soon realised that there was far more to the Nephilim than I'd ever suspected.
Fields of the Nephilim - a superb English gothic rock band formed in the 1980s
Sometimes termed 'the sons of God', and said to have mated with 'the daughters of Man', who - or what - were the Nephilim, and were they truly one and the same as the sons of God? One of the most mystifying passages of the Bible appears in the Book of Genesis (6: 1-4), and reads in the Revised Standard Version (RSV) as follows:
When men began to multiply on the face of the ground, and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that the daughters of men were fair; and they took to wife such of them as they chose.
Then the Lord said, "My spirit shall not abide in man for ever, for he is flesh, but his days shall be a hundred and twenty years."
The Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of men, and they bore children to them. These were the mighty men that were of old, the men of renown.
As will be seen, several different identities have been offered during centuries of profound theological controversy and discussion regarding the Nephilim and the sons of God.
Before we can entertain any thoughts concerning these identities, however, it is important to examine the origin and meaning of this problematical Genesis passage (hereafter referred to for convenience as the Nephilim Passage).
Notwithstanding the tradition that Moses wrote the entire Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament), most modern-day biblical scholars believe, as noted by N.H. Snaith in The Century Bible (1967), that this quintet is a compilation of at least five different sources. The earliest is the Jehovist (Yahwist) document (designated as J), dating back to c.850 BC, of southern origin, and split by later scholars into J1 and J2. Next is the Elohist document (E), dating back to c.750 BC, of northern origin, and combined in c.700 BC with J to yield the JE document. They are the documents most relevant to the subject of the Nephilim.
In addition, there are numerous different translations of these, which means that the Nephilim Passage has appeared in a variety of forms, thereby yielding all manner of interpretations and speculation as to its precise meaning. For instance, in The Anchor Bible: Genesis (1964), E.A. Speiser offers the following version of verse 4:
It was then that the Nephilim appeared on earth - as well as later - after the divine beings [sons of God] had united with human daughters. Those were the heroes of old, men of renown.
In contrast to the earlier-quoted RSV version, which sets the Nephilim entirely apart from the sons of God, the Anchor Bible's wording indicates that the Nephilim were the offspring resulting from unions between the sons of God and mortal women. Indeed, according to George A. Buttrick et al., writing in The Interpreter's Bible (1972), verse 2 originally concluded with some such sentence as: "and they conceived and bare the Nephilim". Also, 'sons of God' and 'divine beings' as featured in versions of the Nephilim Passage are translations of the Hebrew Elohim, i.e. they have their own name, distinct from 'Nephilim'.
Yet Raymond E. Fowler notes in his book The Watchers (1991) that 'Nephilim' literally translates as the 'fallen-down-ones'. This indicates that these entities fell from the sky and were therefore celestial - in turn suggesting that they were one and the same as the sons of God.
So which, if any, of these three mutually-exclusive scenarios is the correct one?
Another weighty issue upon which to ponder is the precise moral significance of the Nephilim Passage. Were the unions between the sons of God and mortal women judged by the authors of Genesis to be normal or abnormal, good or bad?
Some scholars, such as Frank E. Gaebelein, editing The Expositor's Bible Commentary (1990), consider the Nephilim Passage to be nothing more than a summary of the previous chapter (fifth) of Genesis, thus merely reminding the reader that the offspring of Adam had greatly increased in number, had married, and had continued to have children, i.e. that it was nothing unusual. In contrast, many scholars down through the ages have considered this passage to be an introduction to the account of the Great Flood - deeming the union of divine and human beings to be sinful, and the Flood to be God's punishment for this sin.
Yet another area of contention, and one that is closely linked with the previous one, is verse 3's statement that man's days "...shall be a hundred and twenty years". Does this mean that hereafter man's lifespan will be limited to 120 years? (Prior to the Nephilim Passage, Genesis had contained details of humans living to ages far in excess of this.) Adherents of this viewpoint suggest that a 120-year age limit was imposed by God to ensure that children resulting from matings between the divine beings and human women did not inherit eternal life from their fathers. Or, as assumed by Luther, Calvin, and the Scofield Bible, is 120 years a period of reprieve, granted by God to humanity before the onset of the Flood? The attractiveness of this second option is that, unlike the first, it does not conflict with post-diluvial records in Genesis of people living far beyond 120 years of age.
As can be appreciated from the above selection of examples, the identities on offer for the Nephilim are greatly influenced by the range of interpretations for this passage's meaning.
THERE WERE GIANTS IN THE EARTH...
Perhaps the most familiar identity proposed for the Nephilim is that they were a race of giants. Indeed, in the Septuagint (the 3rd-2nd Century BC Greek translation of the Old Testament produced in Egypt) and also in the Authorised King James Version of the Bible (KJV), the word 'Nephilim' is replaced by 'giants'. This yields the oft-quoted phrase: "There were giants in the earth in those days".
The giant identity is substantiated to a degree by the second (and only other) RSV biblical mention of the Nephilim by this name - in the Book of Numbers (13: 33):
And there [in Canaan] we [the Israelites] 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 Nephilim mentioned in this passage from Numbers (hereafter referred to as the Second Nephilim Passage) comprised a tribe of pre-Israelite inhabitants of Canaan in the hill country (especially Hebron) west of the Jordan. Known as the Anakim, they were descended from a great warrior called Anak, whose father, Arba, was the greatest of them all. They had been sighted by twelve Israelite spies, who were struck with terror at the awesome spectacle of this people. And certainly, the Second Nephilim Passage makes it clear that these Nephilim were of great size, but it also poses a very sizeable problem.
According to Genesis, the only people who survived the Flood were Noah and his family. Yet if the Nephilim encountered by the Israelites were indeed bona fide Nephilim, i.e. descended via Anak and Arba from the same lineage as those mentioned in Genesis 6, this means that a race of giants had also survived the Flood - but how? Seeking to resolve this anomaly, some scholars, such as Speiser, suggest that the Anakim were not true Nephilim at all. Instead, they were merely giants (as described in the Septuagint and the Latin Vulgate in preference to Nephilim) who reminded the Israelites of the real, pre-diluvial Nephilim.
Also referred to as the Rephaim, the Anakim were known to the Moabites as the Emim, and to the Ammonites as the Zamzummim. Irrespective of their identity and names, however, and despite their huge size, the Anakim were ultimately overcome by the Israelites, led by Joshua, who drove them out of Hebron, Debir, and the hill country of Judah. A few seemingly lingered for a while in the Philistine regions of Ashdod, Gath, and Gaza.
'The Sons of God Saw the Daughters of Man That They Were Fair', Daniel Chester (1923), in the Corcoran Gallery (sandstead.com)
Returning to the original Nephilim, in Genesis: there is an etymological argument against identifying them as giants, because 'Nephilim' is distinct from the standard Hebrew term for giants, redupª’îm, which indicates that the Nephilim were something more than just giants.
Leading on from this is a recent, highly original idea, encapsulated in an online (Internet) research paper authored by John Denton in December 1996 (which can currently be accessed at http://www.ftech.net/~bric/rp.no38.html
Entitled 'Neanderthal=Nephilim?', Denton analysed the entertaining possibility that the Nephilim, whose biblical references date back around 4500 years, are synonymous with the Neanderthals. These hominids officially died out around 30,000 years ago but may well have lingered into more recent times, judging from folkloric and certain cryptozoological testimony, as well as recent palaeontological evidence.
Neanderthal skull (Dr Karl Shuker)
However, whereas the biblical account clearly describes the birth of Nephilim from matings between divine beings and mortal humans, new palaeontological and molecular researches have confirmed that the Neanderthals and modern humans are not descended one from the other, but are two wholly separate lineages that branched off from a common ancestor.
WHO - OR WHAT - WERE THE SONS OF GOD?
Today, the most popular theological views regarding the sons of God and the Nephilim are that they were one and the same, or that the Nephilim were giant monstrous progeny of the sons of God. But if either view is true, then who, or what, were the sons of God?
One popular idea is that they were pious men from the line of Seth, youngest brother of Cain, who were ultimately led astray by Cain's female descendants, or merely by unspecified immoral women. Alternatively, as suggested by Gaebelein, the Nephilim may simply be the ten great men of antiquity that had just been listed in Genesis (5: 3-32). However, there is etymological evidence to dispute both of these mortal, human-based interpretations.
According to Allen C. Myers, editing The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary (1987), the term Elohim, from which 'sons of God' is derived, refers to gods in general, and is also the most frequent Old Testament name for God. Similarly, a term sometimes employed in relation to the sons of God is 'the Watchers'. Derived from the Aramaic ‘îr, it appears in the Book of Daniel too, where it is taken to mean an angel, a messenger, or an agent of Yahweh (the covenant name of the God of Israel). Thus, it seems highly unlikely that such well-defined, divine-specific terms would be used to describe mortal (albeit righteous or renowned) men.
ANGELS OR DEMI-GODS?
This in turn leads to the inevitable conclusion that the sons of God were indeed divine, immortal beings, rather than mortal men, and down through the ages two different identities of this nature have been considered. Some scholars have proposed that these entities were angels, i.e. mediators between God and men. Others have considered them to be demi-gods, not descended from God in the literal sense of the term 'sons', but belonging to a lesser hierarchy of deities, analogous to the stratification of deities in classical Greek mythology.
For many centuries, however, the concept that the sons of God were divine entities who had nonetheless liaised sexually with mortal women was viewed as scandalous, and was vigorously suppressed by the early Christian Church fathers. After all, as stated in the RSV version of Matthew (22: 30): "For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven", thus emphasising the purity of angels.
Even so, there were certain controversial documents that not only supported this heretical scenario but also provided details not present in Genesis. Furthermore, they had once been well known to theological scholars. These were the Books of Enoch.
THE ENOCHIAN REVELATIONS
Descended from Seth, Enoch was a son of Jared and the father of Methuselah. He spent his relatively short life (by pre-diluvial standards), spanning a mere 365 years, in spiritual communion with God, as a result of which he did not die but was taken physically by God to Heaven, where he beheld the indescribable wonders of the seven heavens.
Little is said of Enoch in the Bible, as the pseudoepigraphical work (i.e. claiming to be authored by a biblical figure) known as the Book of Enoch, Ethiopian Enoch, or '1 Enoch' was not included in either the Hebrew or most Christian biblical canons. It was probably written by several different authors, and dates back to at least a century before the birth of Christ. Originally written in Aramaic, it was later translated into Greek and Latin, but was lost, seemingly irretrievably, by the 4th Century AD. In 1773, however, James Bruce, a Scottish explorer, returned home from Ethiopia with no less than three copies, all Ethiopic (Ge'ez) translations from Coptic monasteries, two of which are still retained in Oxford's Bodleian Library. Moreover, portions of this book's original Aramaic version have been discovered among the Dead Sea fragments in Qumran Cave 4.
There is also a Slavonic document variously termed the Slavonic Enoch, 2 Enoch, or 'The Book of the Secrets of Enoch'. This parallels the Ethiopian Enoch to some extent, and may have been written in Alexandria a couple of centuries after the latter was authored.
According to the Ethiopian Enoch, the sons of God were angels who became filled with lust and desire by the beauty of the daughters of men. Two hundred descended to earth on Mount Armon, led by Samyasa and also including Urakabrameel, Azibeel, Tamiel, Ramuel, Danel, Azkeel, Sarakuyal, Asael, Armers, and Batraal. Choosing wives from the daughters of men, they lived with them and eventually degenerated into unrestrained sexual abandon.
They also taught these mortal women secrets of sorcery, astronomy, cosmetics, and herbalism; and the women became pregnant by them, giving birth to immense giants, the Nephilim. So it was that magic, knowledge of the stars, moon, and planets, the sexual allure provided by cosmetics, and both the medical and hallucinogenic properties of plants became known to humanity; and numbers of semi-divine, half-breed giants walked the lands.
The profanation by the fallen angels of their divine arcane wisdom, which was ultimately harnessed to great evil by mankind, was so devastating that only a deluge, washing away humanity entirely from the face of the earth, could restore the equilibrium formerly existing between the immortal and mortal. Accordingly, God told Enoch to inform the fallen angels that He would show them no mercy, and would rid the world of their monstrous offspring. In response, they sent Enoch to Heaven to speak to God on their behalf, but to no avail. The fallen angels were duly imprisoned to await the Day of Judgement, and God sent the Great Flood to cleanse the world of sin, sparing only the righteous Noah and his family.
Inevitably, the Enochian documents were viewed with horror by the zealous early Christian Church fathers. Thus, once these manuscripts were lost (or deliberately hidden?), they and their successors were swift to sow doubt in the minds of future generations of scholars and worshippers as to whether such works had ever existed at all, thus facilitating their desire to deny any prospect of angelic fallibility. Indeed, so successful was their goal to eradicate the Enochian books from the minds of their acolytes that by the 4th Century AD, the scholar-monk St Jerome, author of the Vulgate, asserted that these works were truly apocryphal, never having existed in reality, only in rumour.
Notwithstanding this, sections of the Ethiopian Enoch were clearly alluded to in the Book of Jude (verses 14-15), possibly inspired a portion in the First Book of Peter (3: 19) too, and gained a whole new following after the rediscovery in 1773 by Bruce.
Like so much speculation arising from ancient documents, however, it is exceedingly unlikely that we shall ever uncover the truth concerning the Nephilim and the sons of God. Yet there are sufficient curiosities and anomalies associated with the Nephilim Passages to suggest that their words have indeed locked away a notable secret not deemed suitable by early religious figures to be made accessible to the masses. If only we could find the key...
Carl McCoy, from the gothic rock group Fields of the Nephilim
This Eclectarium blog post is excerpted and expanded from my book Mysteries of Planet Earth: An Encyclopedia of the Inexplicable (Carlton Books: London, 1999).