The identity of the Nephilim has long troubled interpreters. The word “Nephilim,” a transliteration of the Hebrew, is often understood to mean “fallen ones” (related to the Hebrew root naphal), and then perhaps associated with the fallen angels of Gen 6:2. But its etymology is uncertain. There are two primary explanations for the Nephilim in Gen 6:4. The dominant view, held by Sarna and Waltke, is that they are the offspring of the union between the sons of God and the daughters of humankind, and thus they are also the “mighty men” or “heroes” (gibborim) of Gen 6:4. This interpretation finds support in the Septuagint, which translates the word nephilim as “giants.” The difficulty with the view is that the syntax of the text does not directly link Gen 6:4 to Gen 6:2, so it is unclear that the Nephilim resulted from the commingling of the sons of God and daughters of humankind.
Mathews and Sailhamer represent a second interpretation: The Nephilim are not directly related to the sons of God and daughters of humankind in Gen 6:2, but they were on the earth contemporaneously. The narrator mentions them parenthetically in the text. In favor of this view is the ambiguous and even tenuous connection between the events of Gen 6:2 and the mention of the Nephilim in Gen 6:4. The placement of Gen 6:3—God’s judgment on the commingling—is a curious interruption.
A further difficulty with the Nephilim is their mention in the post-flood events of Num 13:33. When the spies return from Canaan, they report seeing giants in the land—the Anakim, descendants of the Nephilim. Presumably, the Nephilim would have been destroyed in the flood.
- Hamilton argues that the Nephilim are the mighty men of Gen 6:4, but they are not the same as the offspring of the sons of God. Their mention in the text is an editorial aside like those found in Deut 2:10–12; 2:20–23; 3:11.
“Genesis 6:4” The New International Commentary on the Old Testament: The Book of Genesis 1–17
- Mathews holds that the Nephilim were contemporaries with the offspring of the sons of
God, who were the mighty men of Gen 6:4. Thus, he argues for a distinction between the Nephilim and the mighty men. The purpose for the parenthetical reference to the Nephilim, famous for their fearsome violence (Num 13:33), is to provide further evidence for the corrupt state of the world before the flood.
“Genesis 6:4” The New American Commentary: Genesis 1–11:26
- Sailhamer thinks the Nephilim are contemporaries with the offspring of the sons of God, but he equates them with the mighty men of Gen 6:4. He provides no explanation for their parenthetical inclusion in the text.
“Genesis 6:4” The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Volume 2: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers
- Sarna equates the Nephilim with the mighty men, the offspring of the sons of God and daughters of humankind. He explains the mention of the Nephilim in Num 13:33 as a rhetorical device in which the spies draw on the reputation of the violent warriors to scare the Israelites.
“Genesis 6:4” The JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis
- Waltke favors reading the Nephilim as the offspring of the sons of God and daughters of humankind (Gen 6:2). In this case, the Nephilim are also the mighty men of Gen 6:4.
“Genesis 6:4” Genesis: A Commentary
- Wenham contends that the context of Gen 6:1–4 favors understanding the Nephilim as the offspring of the sons of God. Thus, they are also the mighty men of Gen 6:4.
“Genesis 6:4” Word Biblical Commentary: Genesis 1–15
Mangum, Douglas, Miles Custis, and Wendy Widder. 2012. Genesis 1–11. Lexham Research Commentaries. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.