If you’ve seen the 2014 movie, Noah, currently raking in a fortune in box offices around the world, then you’ve seen the Rock Monsters (pictured on the screen in the photo below, behind one of the voice actors, Nick Nolte… kind of looks like Mr. Nolte actually!).
The film bases these Rock Monsters, called “The Watchers” on what the Bible calls, “nephilim” in Genesis 6:4. In the film, they are fallen angels, condemned to exist on Earth but trapped inside husks of rock. They’re not all bad, but they’re not all good either. Until later in the movie (spoiler) they assist Noah in building the Ark, defend his family from attackers, and earn their restoration to Heaven. This post is not about criticizing the movie Noah. You can read plenty of good and biblical reviews elsewhere. But I would like, in this post, to give a biblical answer to the question, “what are the nephilim?” There are probably four major answers to this question, more or less accepted within evangelical Christian circles. Exploration of each of these alternative answers can be found elsewhere (see the link above). I’m suggesting we look closely at the context in Genesis where the nephilim are first mentioned, and see what clues we can find and what those clues tell us about these mysterious beings.
The key Bible passage from which the movie took the idea for giant rock monsters is this:
“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.” (Gen 6:4 ESV)
And the word “nephilim” occurs once more in the book of Numbers:
“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.”” (Num 13:33 ESV)
The book of Numbers seems to indicate that the “sons of Anak”, descended from the “Nephilim” were very big. Intimidating. But notice that there is no suggestion here that they weren’t human. That should be a clue to what “nephilim” were. In fact, the Bible gives us several clues in the early chapters of Genesis.
The whole book of Genesis is structured around the stories of families. There are ten headings in Genesis, that introduce the story as it relates to a particular family. The headings are phrased similarly as “the generations of so-and-so”, for example, the second heading is about Adam’s family, in Gen 5:1, “this is the book of the generations of Adam”. And what follows is typically a genealogy tracing the family line down from that ancestor (e.g., Adam’s family genealogy follows in verses 3-32). Here are the ten headings of Genesis, listed by the “generations”…
of the Universe (Gen 2:4)
of Adam (Gen 5:1)
of Noah (Gen 6:9)
of the sons of Noah (Gen 10:1)
of Shem (Gen 11:10)
of Terah (Gen 11:27)
of Ishmael (Gen 25:12)
of Isaac (Gen 25:19)
of Esau (Gen 36:1)
of Jacob (Gen 37:2)
Take the first heading: it starts by pointing the reader to the fact that God created everything, and then in the story that follows, zooms in on the creation of Adam and then of the first woman, Eve. So the next heading is a narrowing of the focus of the story in Genesis to deal with primarily Adam’s family, chosen by God to be the special recipients of his grace from among all the things God created in the Universe. The rest of the headings work in a similar way, to zoom in on the main characters in the story. So then, after Adam, the story zooms in on Noah; then widens briefly to tell about his three sons’ families (Gen 10:1), then zooms in again more narrowly on Shem (Gen 11:10). Then Genesis zooms in on one of Shem’s descendents, Terah, father of Abraham (Gen 11:27). The following 12 chapters tell the story of Abraham waiting for God to give him a son to continue his family line until first Ishmael is born (to his wife’s servant), then Isaac is born (to Abraham’s own wife, Sarai). The headings briefly introduce Ishmael’s family line (Gen 25:12), before zooming in once more on one branch of the family tree from Abraham, through Isaac (Gen 25:19). Isaac has twin sons, Esau and Jacob. Genesis lists Esau’s family line (Gen 36:1) and then finally zooms in on Jacob’s heritage (Gen 37:2). Jacob is renamed, “Israel” (Gen 32:28) and the rest of the Bible zooms in on the history and heritage of that one family, as it grows into a nation of millions, enters and settles the “promised land”, suffers from attacks from neighbouring countries, becomes a unified Kingdom, splits into two Kingdoms, is reduced by conquest to one smaller Kingdom, loses that last Kingdom to Babylon and is taken into captivity, returns from captivity to settle again in there own country, and 4 1/2 centuries later, witnesses from their nation, the birth of the Saviour God promised to Adam and Eve, the God-Man, Jesus (whose lineage is proven a genealogy: Matthew 1:1-17).
So Genesis is about how God created the Universe, put it under the headship of Adam, who promptly subjected it to sin, then how God graciously chose to one day raise up a Saviour from one branch of Adam’s family tree: through Seth, through Noah, through Shem, through Terah, through Abraham, through Isaac, through Israel. Genesis is about setting the stage for the Gospel through the story of Israel in the entire rest of the Bible. That’s our first clue. The “nephilim” first show up in Noah’s story. But Noah’s story fits into a bigger story.
Here’s the passage that is the context for the first mention of the “nephilim”:
” 1 When man began to multiply on the face of the land and daughters were born to them, 2 the sons of God saw that the daughters of man were attractive. And they took as their wives any they chose. 3 Then the LORD said, “My Spirit shall not abide in man forever, for he is flesh: his days shall be 120 years.” 4 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.” (Gen 6:1-4 ESV)
The Nephilim are first mentioned in connection with one group, called the “sons of God”, having children with a second group, “the daughters of man”. What are these two groups? That will get us closer to identifying the Nephilim.
Daughters of Man
This group is easy to identify because just three verses before the Nephilim show up, verse 1 of chapter 4 says, “man began to multiply on the face of the land and daughters were born to them”. The word “man” there is the word “adam” in Hebrew: Adam’s race, “man-kind” is named for him. The daughters in question then are daughters born to humans of Adam’s race. I hope that’s not a shock to anyone! In the next verses, human females, from no particular family but just in general, are called “the daughters of man”.
Sons of God
This group is not quite as easy to pinpoint. On the surface, it looks like, if the “daughters of man” are human females, then the “sons of God” might be supernatural beings of some sort, right? I’m going to suggest a simpler, but less superficial, explanation.
In Luke 3:23-38, the writer traces Jesus’ family back to Adam in a slightly stylized genealogy. Jesus, is shown to have a very noble heritage indeed, by adoption, through Joseph. So he truly is the “Son of Man”—a child of the Human race, chosen to represent Adam’s race and inherit the rule Adam lost by his sin (c.f., Dan 7:13f). But, and the reason I mention this genealogy, this family tree is special. Notice the last phrase of Jesus’ genealogy in Luke 3:38, “the son of Adam, the son of God.” In keeping with the whole point of the story of Israel after Genesis, through all of the Old Testament Scriptures, Luke rightly fits the birth of Jesus into the one, narrow, family tree which is the conduit of God’s special grace to the whole world.
So, in the early chapters of Genesis, which of the families was this special “conduit of grace”? Which of the Genesis families can claim the right to share with Adam the title, “son of God”? Which Genesis family can rightly be honoured with the label, “sons of God”? The answer: the line from which Noah was born.
“This is the book of the generations of Adam… God created man… in the likeness of God… Adam…fathered Seth… Seth…fathered Enosh… (etc., etc.), …Lamech…fathered a son and called his name Noah, saying, ‘Out of the ground that the LORD has cursed, this one shall bring us relief…’,” (Gen 5:1-29).
The family tree from Noah back to Adam are not called “the sons of God” because they were necessarily more godly than other people. I’m fairly sure some of them were not! But they are called the “sons of God” because of a birthright, a heritage of being chosen, by grace alone, not because of their own merit, to be the conduits of grace through which God would raise up, millenia later, the Saviour of the World: Jesus the Messiah, the Son of Man and Son of God.
Inter-marriage and Noah
The significance, then, of the context of the Nephilim in Genesis 6:1-4 becomes more obvious: they have something to do with the opening words, “When man began to multiply on the face of the land…” (Gen 6:1). If the context of the whole, overarching story, indicated by the 10x repeated heading, “these are the generations of so-and-so,” is the preservation and survival of the family lineage from Adam, through Noah, to Abraham, Israel and one day to Jesus, then the population explosion on the Earth is a threat to the primary story of Genesis. Let me show you what I mean.
Notice the wording of Genesis 6:2-4a:
2 …the sons of God saw that the daughters of man were attractive. And they took as their wives any they chose. 3 Then the LORD said, “My Spirit shall not abide in man forever, for he is flesh: his days shall be 120 years.” 4 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. (Gen 6:2-4)
The importance here, to the whole story of Genesis, is that during the 20 or so centuries before God told Noah about the Flood, Adam’s family had spread so far and wide and become so wicked that God had determined to judge mankind: “My Spirit shall not contend with man forever, for he is flesh: his days shall be 120 years,” (Gen 6:3, italics mine—a literal translation of the Hebrew wordform, “yadon”). The human race was in peril. Adam’s chosen family line was in peril. But here the story of Genesis zooms in graciously on one branch of Adam’s family, in order to preserve and to save: God sets His favour, His grace, on Noah. Five verses after the 120-year deadline is set, Genesis announces a new heading, a new family to be a conduit of grace for the world: “These are the generations of Noah.” With these words, Genesis zooms in from the widespread corruption and wickedness of the Earth’s population, to the solitary family of Noah.
So leaving aside, for the moment, the identity of the Nephilim, the drift of these verses in Genesis 6:1-4 is about a doomed and multiplying population. Even the precise verse that mentions the Nephilim, verse 4, is about explaining the multiplication. Populations multiply because men and women have babies. This verse takes note that the population was swelling exponentially, by the normal means of marriage and procreation. In this case, Adam’s family line through Seth was mingling with other families, including very likely Cain’s line. It was time to get Noah’s family out of there before the last of Seth’s family was drowned in a sea of corrupt and wicked humanity.
Genesis is about families. Preserving a line of fathers and sons all the way from Adam to Abraham, Israel and one day a Saviour. Genesis 6 picks up that story when that chosen family line was increasingly in jeopardy due to intermarriage with women from other families. That leads to clue #3.
The word, “nephilim” is an easy word to translate from Hebrew: naphal is a Hebrew word meaning “to fall”. So Nephilim means, literally, “fallen ones”. The New Testament book of Jude tells of a prophecy by Noah’s great-grandfather, Enoch, in which he foretold that God would destroy the world (Jud 1:14) because of people who “walk in the way of Cain”(Jud 1:11). The Apostle John says that Cain was “of the evil one”: “We should not be like Cain, who was of the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own deeds were evil and his brother’s righteous.” (1Jo 3:12 ESV) Although all of Adam’s race suffers under “the Fall”, the corruption of sin and the penalty of death since Adam disobeyed God in the Garden, Cain’s line was particularly distinguished by violence and murder according to Genesis 4: Cain’s genealogy, listed just before Genesis zooms in from wide to narrow focus on the family of Seth in particular, is not pretty. Cain’s great-great-great-grandson, Lamech, goes down in history as the man who proudly asserted himself ten times the murderer that Cain was.
“Lamech said to his wives: “Adah and Zillah, hear my voice; you wives of Lamech, listen to what I say: I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me. 24 If Cain’s revenge is sevenfold, then Lamech’s is seventy-sevenfold.”” (Gen 4:23-24 ESV)
Moreover, it’s appropriate that the root word of “nephilim”, the verb, “naphal”, first shows up in the Bible (and only once before) when God was talking to Cain:
“So Cain was very angry, and his face fell. 6 The LORD said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? 7 If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.” 8 Cain spoke to Abel his brother. And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him.” (Gen 4:5-8 ESV)
The description of Cain’s descendents, then, who, like Lamech, are violent and proud, appropriately pictures their faces as “fallen” like Cain’s was in his anger and sin before God. The family tree was full of bad apples apparently. They walked in “the way of Cain” and it was about them that Enoch, Noah’s great-grandfather, prophesied judgement. I think the clues point us to the conclusion that these are the “fallen ones”, left untranslated in Gen 6:4 as “nephilim”.
But one last question then: Why does Genesis 6:4 bother mentioning that the “Nephilim were on the earth in those days…” that they were the “mighty men who were of old, the men of renown”? Gen 4 says that Cain departed from Eden, cursed to wander the Earth and settled in the land of Nod. Genesis immediately picks up the story of Adam’s family again, marking the birth of Seth and his line, and around the time Seth’s son was born, people “began to call upon the name of the LORD” (Gen 4:26). Although the text doesn’t make this clear, the impression I get is that Cain’s people and the rest of Adam’s people remained apart for some time. But as populations grew, as contact between the peoples increased, the violence and ferocity of Cain’s family line won them a certain infamy, a reputation. They were “renown” for their might in conflict and war (Gen 6:4). Moreover, Gen 6:4 implies that the practice of indiscriminate (Gen 6:2) intermarriage included Cain’s infamous clans and contributed to the population explosion. So Genesis zooms in on Noah as the last hope to be a conduit of grace, the family tree of the Saviour, because that slender thread of a family line faced the double threat of assimilation into a corrupt and massive population, and annhilation at the hands of the violent “mighty men” from Cain’s family of “fallen ones”.
Genesis is about families. It’s about one family tree in particular that extends from Adam to Israel, and one day to Jesus. Genesis calls that family, “the sons of God” and Luke supports that title in his genealogy of Jesus stretching back to “Adam, the son of God” (Luk 3:38). Cain’s family tree, on the other hand, followed in his footsteps and earned the name, “Fallen Ones”. As the population of the earth boomed, Jesus’ family tree was in danger of being drowned by a wicked society and killed off by Cain’s “Fallen Ones”. These three clues don’t prove that this is what Moses meant by the Hebrew word, “Nephilim”. But this explanation has the advantage of being less far-fetched than others, and of fitting well within the structure and plot not only of Genesis, but of the whole Bible. This explanation also highlights the fact that the central story of the Bible, even from the account of the Flood in chapter 6 of Genesis, is about the Gospel.