Mysterious creatures known as Nephilim are mentioned in the books of Genesis and Numbers. Little is said about these beings in the Bible. But in later tradition they came to play a giant role in the myth of the Watchers, which reflects influential early Jewish understandings of the origins of evil and the nature of divine justice.
Who are the Nephilim and what does the Bible say about them?
Nephilim (literally “fallen ones”) are first mentioned in Gen 6:1–4, a famously difficult passage that tells of an apparent breach in the boundary between the divine and the human realms in primordial times. The “sons of God” noticed how beautiful the “daughters of humans” were and took some of them as wives. According to Gen 6:4, “The Nephilim were on the earth in those days—and also afterwards—when the sons of God went in to the daughters of humans, who bore children to them. These were the heroes that were of old, warriors of renown.” While the offspring of this union are clearly identified as the mighty “heroes” of old, the origins of the Nephilim, who are mentioned separately, remain notoriously vague.
Many early interpreters assumed that the different terms refer to the same group of children. This is reflected both in the Greek Septuagint translation, which uses the word “giants” to refer to both of them, and in the Aramaic translation of Targum Onkelos. The understanding of the Nephilim as an ancient race of giants is in line with the only other biblical passage to mention them clearly. In Num 13:32–33, the Nephilim are described as terrifying “people of great size” who dwelled in the land of Canaan before the Israelite conquest. The Israelite scouts who encountered them felt as small as “grasshoppers” before them.
How did the Nephilim legend grow in later tradition?
The terseness of Gen 6:1–4 inspired a series of questions of interest to early interpreters. Who are the “sons of God”? Are they and their progeny somehow connected to the spread of wickedness and corruption that provoked God to destroy the earth with a flood in the ensuing narrative of Gen 6–9? Did the destruction of “all flesh” in that flood include the Nephilim, or did these creatures survive somehow?
Such questions are addressed in the influential early Jewish tradition known today as the myth of the Watchers (often called “fallen angels”), which developed over centuries and is reflected in a diversity of forms and versions in early Jewish and Christian texts. The earliest account derives from the part of the book of 1 Enoch known as The Book of the Watchers, parts of which date as early as the fourth century BCE. According to this work, the biblical “sons of God” are rebellious angels called Watchers, who descended to earth to satisfy their lust for beautiful human women. This unnatural union produced a hybrid race of monstrous giants (including the Nephilim), who proceeded to terrorize the world, devouring human beings, sinning against animals, and even cannibalizing one another.
In opposition to the biblical account, the great flood of the generation of Noah is understood as God’s intervention against this evil threat to creation. In some versions of the story, the giants are annihilated completely by the floodwaters. In others, they are drowned, but their disembodied spirits survive as demonic forces that continue to afflict humanity until the final judgement. In either case, however, the judgment of the giants/Nephilim is emblematic of the belief in God’s ultimate victory over rebellious supernatural forces of evil that is central to apocalyptic strands of early Jewish and Christian tradition.
- Doak, Brian R. The Last of the Rephaim: Conquest and Cataclysm in the Heroic Ages of Ancient Israel. Boston: Ilex Foundation; Washington DC: Center for Hellenic Studies, 2012.
- Coblentz Bautch, K., John C. Endres, and Angela Kim Harkins, eds. The Watchers in Jewish and Christian Traditions. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2014.