Who Were the Nephilim, the Bible's Mysterious Race of Giants?

By: Dave Roos  | 

Nephilim
While the giant Nephilim are barely mentioned in the Genesis narrative, they were the subject of great fascination in later apocalyptic literature. FollyMedia/Getty Images

The book of Genesis contains some of the most famous origin myths in Western culture: God's creation of the heavens and Earth, Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden, and God commanding Noah to collect two of every animal to survive the great flood.

But hidden among these better-known stories is an intriguing and somewhat confounding account of fallen angels and a race of superhuman giants roaming the Earth. The whole wild story is contained in just three verses at the start of Genesis, chapter six. The King James Version goes like this:

And it came to pass, when men began to multiply on the face of the earth, and daughters were born unto them, that the sons of God saw the daughters of men that they were fair; and they took them wives of all which they chose... There were giants in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bore children to them, the same became mighty men which were of old, men of renown.

In the original Hebrew, the term for these giants and "mighty men" is Nephilim, which is derived from the Hebrew naphal meaning "to fall." In that sense, this race of giants, born of unholy unions between divine "sons of God" (i.e., angels) and mortal "daughters of men," are better translated as "the fallen ones."

While the giant Nephilim are barely mentioned in the Genesis narrative, they were the subject of great fascination in later apocalyptic literature, especially the Book of Enoch. In that text, which didn't make it into the Bible, a group of lusting angels conspires to sleep with human women, giving birth to a race of giants that spoil God's creation so completely that he has no choice but to send the floodwaters and wipe Earth clean.

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God-Human Hybrids in the Ancient World

Scholars say there are two possible reasons why the Genesis account of the Nephilim is so short.

"It's either a much longer story that got truncated in the text, or it was so common of a story that the authors of Genesis didn't bother to write down the whole thing," says Kevin Sullivan, a religion professor at Illinois Wesleyan University who specializes in ancient Jewish and Christian mysticism with a focus on angels and demons.

Across the Ancient Near East and Mediterranean world, there were longstanding myths of gods falling in love (or lust) with human women and spawning "god-men" of superhuman size, strength and power. In Ancient Greek mythology, for example, Zeus fathered the hero Heracles (Hercules in Roman myth) from a tryst with the beautiful human Alcmene.

Those demi-god figures, well-known to the ancient authors and readers of the Hebrew Bible, were the "mighty men of old" and "men of renown" referred to in Genesis. And this short text provides a passing explanation of how they came to be.

"They're superhuman because what they represent is something God never designed," says Sullivan. "They're a hybrid between beings that should have stayed in heaven and beings that should be on Earth. The Nephilim are not divine in the sense that they're heading back to heaven, so they kind of trundle around the Earth as this weird mix."

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Introducing 'The Watchers'

The three-verse Genesis account of the Nephilim only hints at the notion that the unions between the "sons of God" and the "daughters of men" were a transgression. But later Jewish writers ran with that idea and expanded the cast of characters to include a rebellious and sinful band of angels called "the Watchers."

The Sons of God Saw the Daughters of Men That They Were Fair
"The Sons of God Saw the Daughters of Men That They Were Fair" sculpture by Daniel Chester French depicts the beginning of the Nephilim.
Daderot/Wikipedia/CC0 1.0

In the text known as the "Book of Enoch," likely written between 300 and 200 B.C.E., a group of 200 angels led by the angel Semjaza hatch a plot to take wives from the "beautiful and comely" daughters of men. They know that what they're doing is a "great sin," so they make a pact to follow through with it at all costs and suffer the consequences together.

The rebellious angels are called by the Aramaic word iyrin, which is derived from a word meaning "awake." Therefore, iryin has sometimes been translated as "the awakened ones," but more often they're called "the Watchers," because their job as angels was to remain vigilant and watch over mankind. Later in the Book of Enoch, even the loyal angels are called Watchers, but the name is mostly associated with the bad guys.

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The Watchers and Nephilim Corrupt the World

In the "Book of Enoch," the Nephilim begat by the Watchers and human women aren't the heroic "men of renown" of Genesis, but "great giants whose height was three thousand ells," which is more than 3,000 meters (~9,840 feet) tall. In their insatiable hunger, the monstrous Nephilim eat all of mankind's food, and when the food runs out, they start eating the men themselves.

Not only do the Watchers bring these blood-thirsty giants into the world, but some of the fallen angels teach the women "charms and enchantments," how use roots and plants for sorcery, as well as how to make jewelry and makeup for the "beautifying of the eyelids." To the men, the Watchers teach metallurgy and how to fashion "swords, and knives, and shields, and breastplates."

"And there arose much godlessness, and [mankind] committed fornication, and they were led astray, and became corrupt in all their ways... And as men perished, they cried, and their cry went up to heaven," The Book of Enoch says.

It is only then that God intervenes and tells the angels to warn Noah of the coming flood, intended to "heal the earth that the angels have corrupted." God further commands his loyal angels to "destroy all the spirits of the reprobate and the children of the Watchers, because they have wronged mankind. Destroy all wrong from the face of the earth and let every evil work come to an end."

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Two Competing Explanations of the Origins of Sin

In Genesis, chapter three, Adam and Eve are blamed for introducing sin into the world when they eat the forbidden fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Later in Genesis, God decides to destroy his creation with the flood because of the "wickedness of man" and repents that he ever made man at all. Noah is the only righteous man on Earth, so God spares him and his family.

But the Book of Enoch paints a very different origin story for sin. Here, it isn't mankind that screws everything up, but the Watchers and their heinous offspring. Sullivan says that this version of the creation story dates to the Second Temple Period of Judaism, when there was a prevailing belief in a cosmic struggle between the forces of good and the forces of evil, represented here by the Watchers.

"There's this huge amount of literature during the Second Temple Period that provided a pretty significant competing narrative to Genesis," says Sullivan. "It says that God created humans in His image and they were good, but it was the angels that messed it all up. The reason there's evil in the world is because of these divine beings."

Sullivan says that these two competing narratives around the origin of sin existed simultaneously within Judaism for hundreds of years, with different Jewish sects latching on to both stories. Fragments of the Book of Enoch, for example, were among the Dead Sea Scrolls alongside other apocalyptic texts that foretold a final war between the divine forces of good and evil.

When we get into the first centuries C.E., though, Judeo-Christian thinkers like Paul help to develop a Christian theology that centers on Adam and Eve's transgression as the "original sin" for which all of mankind needs to be saved. In the emerging Christian orthodoxy, humans are the sinners and only Jesus Christ can make them whole through his saving grace.

The saga of the Watchers and the Nephilim took a back seat, and the "Book of Enoch" was relegated to the pseudepigrapha, non-canonical literature of questionable authorship.

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