Dear Straight Dope:
Who or what were the giant sons of God (Nephilim) mentioned in the Bible and what happened to them? Depending on the author, they are refered to as sons of Seth, angels, aliens, monsters, and "weird hybrid offspring" that may have been wiped out in the flood. Were the ancient scribes jealous because they were just the big guys that got the good looking daughters?
Let’s quote the text from Genesis 6. This is my own translation, combined from several sources, trying to retain the literal text. I’m telling you, at the Straight Dope you’re dealing with professionals:
When men began to increase on earth and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw how beautiful the daughters of men were and took wives from among those that pleased them. The Lord said, “My breath shall not abide in man forever, since he too is flesh; let the days allowed him be one hundred and twenty years.” The Nephilim were on the earth in those days and also after that, when the sons of God cohabited with the daughters of men, who bore them offspring. They were the heroes of old, the men of renown.
This is one of the strangest accounts in Genesis, and there is no certain explanation. The Hebrew text is obscure, possibly deliberately so, to downgrade any mythic tone. In the first chapters of Genesis, human beings strive to become divine, and God intervenes, so that mankind cannot be immortal. Here, the reverse happens, divine beings lower themselves to the level of humans, and again God intervenes.
It is very likely that the passages are only a fragment of what was once a longer narrative, or commonly told tale. Presumably, the Nephilim were described as “heroes of old” based on popular stories and tales. Depending on who you think wrote the text, either the longer story was lost by the time the Redactor got to editing the various texts centuries later, or Moses left out popular and well-known stories about ancient times and just referenced them in a way that appears cryptic to us.
Almost all pagan mythologies abound with legends about intercourse between gods and mortal women, and between goddesses and mortal men, producing demigods or heroes as children. There is also a common mythology that there once existed a race of men of gigantic stature of strength. The story here seems similar, but is still consistent with the overriding theme of monotheism: there is only one God who makes decisions. The offspring of such unions may have been heroic, but they are not divine, they are flesh and blood like all humans (“since he too is flesh”). The one God controls the breath of life.
So, for a start, who are the “sons of God”? The most popular interpretation is that they are divine beings, the angelic host, the celestial court, a poetic image taken from the analogy of human kings surrounded by their entourage. The term “the host of heaven” is also sometimes used in the Bible to mean the same thing.
Some translators use “sons of the great," since the term elohim in the Psalms often means “mighty.” It would also be possible to read it as “sons of the gods,” but that would be inconsistent with the monotheism of the text. On the other hand, “sons of God” may simply mean those who serve and love God. One interpretation is that the children of Seth are sometimes called “sons of God," and then the “daughters of men” might imply the daughters of Cain.
So, I repeat, the text is extremely unclear. By the way, note the implication that the sons of God are driven by lust (they are attracted to the mortal women by their beauty rather than their personalities or moral character). And, lest your mind wander in the gutters, the term is definitely “took wives," meaning were married–there is no implication of rape or coercion.
And, now, who were these Nephilim? The plain reading of the text indicates that they are the offspring of the misalliances between the divine beings and the daughters of men. The term “The Nephilim were in the earth in those days” would thus mean that the union of the sons of God and daughters of man gave birth to them. However, it is possible that the Nephilim existed separate from the intermarriages, and the term “were in the earth in those days” just sets the time-frame as antediluvian. (Hah! I’ve always wanted to use that word in context!)
The word Nephilim itself unclear; the obvious root N-F-L would imply they are “fallen ones," that is, fallen angels. The Septuagint (Greek translation of the Torah, from about 200 BC) translates Nephilim as "giants," likely based on the reference in Numbers 13:33 (see below) that Nephilim were “of great size.” Thus, the term is commonly translated as giants or heroes.
I don’t know if this helps you much. Who the Nephilim and the “sons of God” were is a matter of conjecture and interpretation, and there are lots of different interpretations. As to what happened to them, at least here we have consensus: they did not survive the Flood. The Flood story comes hot on the heels of these verses, and so the conjunction of the two stories implies the Nephilim and the marriage of the divine and mortal beings was part of the wickedness that was destroyed by the Flood.
As a footnote, the word Nephilim appears significantly only one other time in the Bible.
In Numbers 13:32-33, the Israelites send advance spies to scout out the land of Canaan. The spies report that “All the people we saw in it are men of great size; we saw the Nephilim there–the Anakites are part of the Nephilim–and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.” Now, the problem with this description is that, if the biblical narrative is consistent, then the Nephilim would not have survived the Flood, so how would they have been around for the spies to see? The answer is that the spies were trying to instill fear in the hearts of the people, to discourage them from invading the land, and so they used poetic exaggeration. The term Nephilim was used for dramatic effect, as the term “Huns” was used to indicate Germans during the World Wars, centuries after there were no longer true Huns.
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