The Nephilim: The Angels Who Left Their First Estate
Verses: Genesis Chapter 6, verses 1 - 4.
This story is one of the most mythic parts of the Bible. The entire episode seems like a fairy-tale. Sure, we find love/lust stories between angels and human women in other religions but in our Bible? Many find this hard to swallow. For many reasons, it raises an eyebrow or two. But it's an important story so let's tackle it.
Moses tells us that when humanity began to populate the earth, the Sons of God looked down upon the Daughters of Men and saw that they were beautiful. These "sons of God" took these daughters of men as wives..."as many as they chose." The children born of these unions were called the Nephilim, (the "destroyers" or "the Fellers"). The story is short but powerful. But it will not be believed by anyone who isn't comfortable with the supernatural. It will also make a priggish reader a bit uncomfortable. After all, how are angels and humans to have sexual intercourse? The discomfort with this passage is the reason why there are many different ideas about this verse.
Let us begin with the meaning of the phrase, "The Sons of God." This is what causes most of the problems. For most people, this is the first time angels are specifically mentioned in the Bible. But for others, these "Sons of God" aren't angels at all. Readers of these verses divide into two camps. One group understands the phrase "the sons of God" to mean angels or supernatural beings. This is by far the most traditional and popular view. Throughout the rest of the Bible -- and in the writings of many cultures-- the phrase, "sons of God," is often used to describe angelic beings.
But another group prefers to believe that the phrase, "sons of God" refers to the "good" descendants of Adam and Eve. According to this group, the Sons of God are the children of Seth; the daughters of men are women belonging to the Cain tribe. In order to believe this theory, a Bible reader would have to believe that although all the children of Eve were now fallen, that somehow the children of Cain were more evil than the children of Seth. (I've often wondered if this Cain/Seth theory isn't a subtle racist indictment against mixed marriages.) Moses makes it plain that one act of disobedience has affected both sets of descendants.
The descendants of the first parents are all sinners because of the fruit the First Parents ate. Cain's act of Murder, although a terrible sin, is not enough to separate his descendants from God. And neither is Seth's goodness enough to make his descendants a "good" tribe. Everyone is already "fallen." But there is something even stranger about this story: these marriages are giants. Why would the children of two human tribes be giants?
As a parent, you can easily guess why some interpreters feel comfortable with the Cain/Seth theory. We have ideas of angels that are sweet and simple. Who wants to think of angels having sexual intercourse? With human females no less? Let's see how complicated the conversation might get if you tried explaining it to your child? Let's ponder the implication that the angels have the creative ability to make their bodies suitable to the bodies of human females. This would mean that angels had some creative power. And when we ponder the descendants of these angels, we would have to think about an angels' "genetic" code. After all, these "sons of God" had descendants.
Moses tells us that there were giants in the earth "in those days and also after that."
Giants, children of angel/human relationships-- existed even after the flood. These race of giants are discussed by Moses, by the writer of the Book of Joshua, and by the writers of the Samuel, Chronicles and Kings. Remember Goliath? In the New Testament, Paul, Peter and Jude all seemed to have believed this Genesis story. Jude compares the angels who "left their first estate and went after strange flesh" to the Sodomites.
Saint Peter and Saint Jude tell us that some angels who left their proper place and went after strange flesh are now bound in everlasting chains under the earth. Who are these angels chained in the earth? Why are they chained? Especially if Satan and the other demons are supposedly allowed to roam free? Paul, a rabbi and scholar, went far as to say that women must cover their heads when they pray "because of the angels." Surely the rabbis and people of Jesus' time believed that these "sons of God" were angels.
As a parent, you will also have to discuss the fact that the The Nephilim giants are somewhat different from the giants found in fairy tales. What does the verse say about giants? Now how are we going to get your child to understand this? And why is this story so important?
You might begin by telling your child that the many myths of mankind are full of Gods and half-Gods. This is not such a big deal. In fact, it shows that the Bible is like a lot of other religious literature. Every TV viewer knows that Hercules is a half-God. The Norse and Greek myths tell stories of gods and humans, gods and animals, and humans and animals. Centaurs (horse/man), minotaurs (man/bull) and mermaids (fish/women) abound. If your child is capable of hearing it, you can simply say, "Obviously, where there is smoke there is fire. It would be strange indeed if other scriptures from ancient cultures depicted these strange beings and our Bible did not. It is possible that the world was different back then and different species could interbreed with each other until God put a stop to it. It is possible that in the future, humanity will understand how cross-breeding can take place. Before the days of cloning, it was difficult to understand the story about God making Eve from Adam's rib. Not in any scientific manner. Now, it is much easier. Although the creation of Eve was much more complicated than a mere human cloning. (A little bit of biology here. Men are XY Chromosome. Women are XX. In a world without men, one would be hard-put to find a Y chromosome. Women can come from men, but men cannot come from women. Or to paraphrase St Paul hints, the man comes from the woman through birth. The woman comes from man through creation.)
But it is necessary for you to emphasize that, unlike other Scriptures, the Bible-writers are not in awe or worshipful of these half-gods. Anything less than the One God of gods is not worthy of worship as far as Moses is concerned.
Your child might ask you why God was so angry...after all these angels were only in love? My child asked me. Please think through your answer carefully. Remember, it's okay to say you don't know. I simply told my son that Moses didn't make any moral comment on the marriage themselves. He does not say that God argued with the sons of God about their marriages. Nor does Moses, who was married to an Ethiopian woman, give his own opinion of these matches. Scripture simply records the consequences of these relationships.
Some Bible scholars have said that this entire episode was a satanic plot to muddy up mankind's genetic make-up and to prevent the coming of the promised deliverer, the "seed of the woman." But Moses seems to blame everything on lust/love; and so does Saint Paul. Moses writes that angels were so enamored of the beauty of the daughters of men, they took "as many as they wanted."
My son once asked me: "Did the Nephilim set out to destroy? Did God hate them as babies?" I could only answer that the Nephilim were descendants of angels: more powerful, stronger and taller than the rest of humanity.
The sinfulness of humanity added to the supernatural powers of the angels was bound to create beings that had no control over themselves. You might bring in some historical or social discussion. How do powerful nations treat less industrial nations? We exploit them. The sad fact is that the powerful often take advantage of the weak. The Nephilim were, in fact, quite bad....so bad that they had to be destroyed. They kept showing up in various regions in the land of Canaan. The world was already violent, selfish and cursed. The Nephilim, the Fellers, the Destroyers were the last straw.
A good concordance is needed at this point. A Bible study on the word "giants" might be in order. The ancient Greeks used the "taur" ending for creatures who were half man and half-animal. The Bible also has a special ending for angels: "im." The most famous classes of angels are called the Cherubim and the Seraphim. God is sometimes called Elohim, the Lord of Hosts, the King of Angels and Men. Have your child search through the concordance. These semi-human giants appear throughout the Bible and are called Nephilim, Rephaim, Ashteroth Karnaim, Shaveh Kiriathaim, Horim, Zamzummim, Avim, Anakim, Emim and Mizraim (Egypt) among others. These words are sometimes translated Destroyers, Giants or the dead. In later Scriptures, these giants exist primarily among the Canaanite nations. Readers of the Bible can hardly fail to notice that God is relentless in wanting the children of Israel to destroy the Canaanites and the Phillistines. Perhaps this story holds a clue. Often, children's imagination are sparked by these stories. When my son noticed that Egypt, the father of the Egyptians, was also called Mizraim (Genesis 10:13), he said, he knew how the pyramids were built: the giants lifted those heavy stones. That's what my son thinks. But what does God say about the situation?
Moses tells us that God said, "I will not allow My Spirit to stay in or strive with humans forever. People will live only one-hundred and twenty years." Your child might ask you: "What does God mean by that?" Well, what exactly does God mean? There are usually three interpretations of God's comment.
1. I will not allow people to live as long as they are now living. From now on, they will only live to one hundred and twenty years.
2. I will not allow any human being to be immortal... even if they are part angels. This might have been a tough thing for the angels –with their mortal wives-- to take.
3. I will not allow these humans to live on like this. Humanity will be finished in one hundred and twenty years. (The flood did occur about 120 years later.
4. Any combination of the above. Bible prophecies are notorious for being fulfilled in two ways.
A little about angels
This is a good point to tell you a little about angels. Moses writes about them without giving them a formal introduction. No Bible writer ever stopped in mid composition to say, "Here is what I know about angels." In the Bible, our knowledge of angels is usually gleaned. We know more of them, the more we read.
The word angel means "messenger". That's our word for these creatures whose purpose are to minister to the sons of God. One of the more dramatic images of angels is found in the description of Jacob's dream in which he saw a ladder ascending from heaven to earth with angels walking up and down on it. Angels are active in the interaction between heaven and earth. They seem to activated by prayer. They have names which they may or may not disclose. They help good people and are often ruthless towards evil people, slaying evil people whenever they deem necessary. They follow God's will and yet seem to have a great amount of free will in how they will deal with humanity. They have territories beneath them. They have kings and princes. They have different languages. We know that angels do not marry. They seem to be primarily male. They are many and varied. There are seraphim, cherubim, angels, archangels, dominions, powers, principalities. My favorite angels are the cherubim. The cherubim is an angel who represents within himself all the living creatures on the earth. They stand beside the throne of God. As shown in the book of Ezekiel, they are a terrifying sight.
In addition, there are angels who live outside of heaven. Scripture tells us that once there was a great war in heaven. One third of the angels rebelled against God. Many myths have stories about wars among the gods. The Judeo-Christian scripture tells us that the fall of these angels was similar to the fall of mankind. The chief angel wanted to be like God. There seem to be many kinds of fallen angels. Some are able to roam the earth and visit heaven from time to time. Others are chained in everlasting chains in the center of the earth or at the bottom of the Great River. And there are still others whom God's people will judge. Fallen and Demonic angles also have their hierarchies and principalities and dominions.
It is possible that angels are not as they used to be. According to Scripture, both human and angelic life have changed since the beginning of time. Once angels were free to do whatever they wanted. But it now appears as if good angels are now made unable to sin. Nor can I conceive of a bad angel suddenly deciding to go straight.
The plain matter is humanity, and animals are not the only beings in the universe; other beings have existed or do exist. They have cultures and societies the Bible only hints at. The history of humanity is not solely in the hands of God and/or man; other entities are intertwined in mankind's fate.
Some thoughts to ponder: Feminists might be offended at the idea of women being "used" by angels. Don't let the offense keep you from reading the Bible. The Book of Hebrews makes the point of saying that Jesus was born a Man because Man was promised a redeemer. It says that angles have sought to look into it but no angel ever given a redeemer. We are also told that we will judge angels. This is an interesting thought.
Other references to this story can be found in 1 Corinthians 11:10 , 2 Peter 2:4, Jude: 1:6 So why do many Christians --who say they love the Bible-- have trouble with this episode? We must be honest students of the Bible. The story is there: let's repent from our selfish needs to interpret the Bible as we see it and live with what we find.
The choice to believe it isn't really ours. If you search the scripture, you will find that the ancient tradition is true that this intermingling of different types of creation actually did happen. C.S. Lewis tells us that the Bible doesn't tell us everything about how God's universe. It tells us only about man's fall, redemtion, and salvation. The questions to ask ourselves are these:
1. How does this verse affect us today?
2. What about stories of UFO's and Extraterrestrials?
3. Do we know everything?
4. Why do we think we know everything?
5. Why do we want to think we know everything?
The curious thing about this verse, "the angels who left their verse estate" is that Jude uses it to describe the sexually licentious Christians in the last days who will also in their own way "go after strange flesh" with unnatural lusts. And this time, they will fight against the Bible.
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Read more articles by Carole McDonnell or search for articles on the same topic or others.
Good job Carole. This is a troublesome and unpopular subject that has bothered me for years. You obviously put much time and research into this article. You have made me rethink this issue and provided me with new insight. Thank you.