4 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.
Not an easy few verses to comment on…more questions than answers.
Questions of identity are most obvious.
Who are the ‘Sons of God’? Ransacking a few commentaries in my former studies of Genesis, I’ve noted down three suggestions:
1) they were angels – or fallen angels / demons / spirits – i.e. not human
2) a reference to kings, pharoahs or rulers, which were, in ANE* culture sometimes referred to as ‘son of god’ or ‘son of the gods’
3) they are godly men, the descendants of Seth rather than murderous Cain
I have to say I don’t find the third one particularly convincing. The second one is attractive – although whether it is what is meant here I hardly feel equipped to say. The first may well have been what the author intended; it simply is very alien to our culture and therefore seems a little ‘out there’ to our understanding.
Mixed marriage, later forbidden for Israel in the Old Testament, takes on the strongest possible form here if we take the first as a possibility – the heavenly mixing with the earthly.
At the same time, the Nephilim were ‘on the earth’. Who were the Nephilim? Are they the offspring of these unions? They could be, but the text doesn’t make it clear – but it does describe them as ‘men’, not gods or demi-gods. They feel like legendary figures stepping out of the mist of the text…evocative, powerful…and baffling. (And I did mean ‘mist’ not ‘midst’. A kind of atmospheric fog. Perhaps.)
Numbers 13:33 is the other biblical reference to the Nephilim, when a group of Israelite leaders are given the task of checking out the Promised Land and reporting back to the rest:
33 “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.”
It seems they were tall, overpowering figures…the descendants of Anak, implied the Israelite spies, were huge, making them feel like ‘grasshoppers’. It seems from the way the men phrase it that ‘Nephilim’ is how they refer to those they see as ‘giants’, a descriptive word. Perhaps.
Again, far more questions than answers.
Why is Yahweh recorded as saying what he does here? His Spirit shall not contend with humans – sometimes translated ‘remain in humans’ – forever. Again it is underlined that life everlasting is not innate to humanity but dependent on God’s Spirit. This is not new, but here a limit is introduced – apparently on lifespan. If this is the case, it does not take immediate effect in the chronology of the story – after all, Noah lived ‘500 years’.
*Ancient Near East