Who were the Nephilim?

October 25th, 2017 Posted by Ask the Rabbi 21 comments

Genesis 6:2-4 talks about the sons of God taking the daughters of men in marriage. If I am understanding the passage correctly it would seem that the Nephilim were the progeny of these relationships, and that they were the “heroes of old, men of renown.” 

I have heard various interpretations of these passages. Recently a friend of mine brought up these passages to support the theory that there were extra terrestrial or heavenly beings on the earth during this time. 

What is the most widely accepted interpretation of this passage?

Nathan S.

Dear Nathan,

Funnily enough, I (Rabbi, not Susan) spoke about this very section as the guest rabbi in a synagogue in Montreal this past Shabbat. I was given insufficient time to address that teaching fully and, here too, we have limited space in our Ask the Rabbi section. All we can do is give the beginning of an approach.

Starting from the last point in your letter, we aren’t very interested in “the most widely accepted interpretation of this passage.” Biblical understanding isn’t a popularity contest. While we’re sure you mean “interpretation” by worthy people, there are so many depths to the Torah that what appear to be different approaches are actually complementary ways of viewing the Bible.  This is reminiscent of the fable of the blind men and the elephant. Each man feels a different part of the beast. So, one describes thick poles (the legs), another a rope (the tail) and yet another a trumpet (the trunk). They are all actually describing the same creature. Similarly, when there are many different pieces of ancient Jewish wisdom on one verse, as disparate as they seem, they each provide one window into the truth.

Having said that, we discuss this section of Genesis in depth in the audio recording The Gathering Storm: Decoding the Secrets of Noah. To start you off, the word “nephillim” can describe aborted fetuses or unwanted children. The word itself translates as “the fallen ones.”

The “sons of gods,” can describe aristocratic men – somewhat like the phrase, “the House of Lords,” in England doesn’t describe extraterrestrial beings, but very real and powerful human beings.

Also worth knowing is that nowhere in the Torah is there any supernatural discussion.  No ghosts or goblins.  Even Jacob’s angels were part of his dream.  This is one way we can be sure that Nephilim means something that you and we can experience.

The passage under discussion comes in the lead up to the Flood and the destruction of most of humanity. As such, the unGodly behavior of humans makes much more sense than an other-worldly visitation.

Hope this gives you food for thought,

Rabbi Daniel and Susan Lapin

 

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21 comments

Tim Hentschel says:

I find it difficult to separate the Torah from the Tenach, and David definitely saw an angel, that was not in his dream.

Rabbi Daniel Lapin says:

Dear Tim–
I am sorry you have difficulty distinguishing one thing from another. The Torah is part of the Tanach but hardly the same thing.
After all, you wouldn’t say you have difficulty separating Manhattan from the State of New York, right? Plattsburgh NY is hardly Times Square; and the Tanach is not the same as the Torah or Five Books of Moses.
What we wrote was: “…Also worth knowing is that nowhere in the Torah is there any supernatural discussion….”
And we stand by that!
Cordially
RDL

Lisa Parrish says:

Dear Rabbi Lapin, I bought and listened to The Gathering Storm. It really was great and I recommend it highly! I don’t want to be guilty of any spoiler alerts so I will ask my question carefully.
I am glad Nathan asked this because I had a similar question. While I appreciate your knowledge of Hebrew shedding light on what Jewish wisdom says who the Nephilim were, on Christian shows like Prophecy Watchers and Sky Watch TV, they put forward the theory that the Nephilim are the progeny of fallen angels (those that followed Satan in his fall) mating with human women which may have given rise to the giants spoken of in the Bible. Does Hebrew shed any light on the giants (Og of Beshan for example) spoken about in the Bible? Perhaps humans’ DNA (seed) got corrupted and this was the impetus for God’s flood (Noah’s DNA was not corrupted) as a sort of reset button for humanity. Is it possible that both interpretations of Genesis 6 Could be true? It does say that even after the flood, some of the Nephilim persisted. I am Christian, don’t believe in extraterrestrials (or “ancient alien astronauts” as the History channel refers to aliens so as to indoctrinate viewers into believing only in a secular explanation- LoL!) but do believe what pop culture never offers as a theory – that the Bible is true and there is a realm or a dimension (estate) which humans cannot access that belongs to angels and to our God. Respectfully yours,

Rabbi Daniel Lapin says:

Dear Lisa
So nice to hear from you and thank you for your study of our “The Gathering Storm-Decoding The Secrets of Noah” and your kind comments.
As to what Prophecy Watchers and Sky Watch TV say, I want to respond cautiously and respectfully.
We are, after all, exploring beliefs not facts. If Prophecy Watchers claimed that Mt Rainier towers over Seattle at a height of 28,000 feet, I would have little hesitation correcting them and reminding them that Everest is only a bit more than that and Rainier is a bit higher than 14,000 feet. Simple! If Sky Watch claims retail brick and mortar stores are doing well currently in the US, I would unhesitatingly refute them by showing figures from Sears, Radio Shack, Macy’s and many others. Facts are easy to establish.
With beliefs, it is another matter. All we can do with two sets of beliefs that clash is take a look, often over a period of time, to see which matches reality more closely. Western civilization to which the almost the entire world wishes to immigrate was the result of Judeo-Christian Biblical thinking. It holds up in terms of human society and culture better than every other belief system.
Now you are asking me about what two ministries say regarding ‘nephilim’ which is in conflict with my teachings in Gathering Storm-Decoding The Secrets of Noah. (Please read about it carefully on the store section of this website)
I would never tell you I am right and they are wrong or the other way around. I merely suggest you read the sections, contemplate the world around you, and decide for yourself which approach more closely aligns with your understanding of the Bible as God’s message to humanity.
Cordially
RDL

Daniel Miller says:

I hear,different. Where the passages of Ps 58, & 82 were tie into the Gen passage. Plus with their size, each nation that had them Moses was told to destroy completely. And that is why there are demons. That fallen angels are the evil spirits, spirits of wickness in high places,(Ep6/Rom8:38-39,etc). That demons are the souls of those half breed, (can’t go to God, stuck on earth), why demons want to enter bodies, spirits don’t (Dan9–prince of P. wasn’t needing a body. JESUS when dealing with demons they wanted a body to live in, and no metion of demons in bible before death of the gaints. And one last thing spies stated we were grasshoppers in their eyes. Back then people ate grasshoppers (john batp, Elijah), gaints were known to be cannibalism. Most groups that do such are worshipers of satan, evil spirits etc
Thks
Daniel Miller

Rabbi Daniel Lapin says:

Thanks for taking the time to write Daniel–
Please see above my response to Lisa.
Cordially
RDL

Kent Jerome Nauman says:

There is an invisible spirit world that surrounds the material world. 2 Kings 6:17  And Elisha prayed, and said, LORD, I pray thee, open his eyes, that he may see. And the LORD opened the eyes of the young man; and he saw: and, behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire round about Elisha. Ecclesiastes 12:6  Or ever the silver cord be loosed…(by dying).Ecclesiastes 12:7  … and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it. Ecclesiastes 12:8  Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher; all is vanity. (the temporal material world is a simulation from the eternal spirit world) Psalms 90:10  … yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away. Ecclesiastes 3:21  Who knoweth the spirit of man that goeth upward, and the spirit of the beast that goeth downward to the earth?  Isaiah 26:19  Thy dead men shall live, together with my dead body shall they arise. Awake and sing, ye that dwell in dust: for thy dew is as the dew of herbs, and the earth shall cast out the dead (H7496 רָפָא Rapha). The full saying is the GIANTS of wickedness, DEAD in trespasses and sins. Who also used hybrid bodies fit for neither man nor beast. Jasher4:18 And their judges and rulers went to the daughters of men and took their wives by force from their husbands according to their choice, and the sons of men in those days took from the cattle of the earth, the beasts of the field and the fowls of the air, and taught the mixture of animals of one species with the other, in order therewith to provoke the Lord; and God saw the whole earth and it was corrupt, for all flesh had corrupted its ways upon earth, all men and all animals. 2 Samuel 23:20  And Benaiah the son of Jehoiada, the son of a valiant man, of Kabzeel, who had done many acts, he slew two lionlike men (H739 אֲרִאֵל lion-men hybrids ) of Moab… Therefore the Giants of Genesis 6 are reincarnating fallen angels who used bodies of Giants and man-beast hybrids which the kings of Israel had to extirpate by killing all humans and animals of some cities. Also, note the Orthodox teaching of reincarnation is correct. John 9:2  And his disciples asked him, saying, Master, who did sin, this man (karma), or his parents (gonococcal conjunctivitis), that he was born blind? Matthew 16:14  And they said, Some say that thou art John the Baptist: some, Elias; and others, Jeremias, or one of the prophets. (An unreproved reincarnation discussion) Therefore the traditional Christian idea of infinity damnation is wrong.

Rabbi Daniel Lapin says:

Dear Kent–
I don’t know what to say…
Cordially
RDL

Now if there was ever a great segue to your CD describing in detail this subject….THAT WAS IT. I can’t remember which one off the top of my head so I will pressure you to respond with it. It is an awesome CD. Thanks, as always for your diligent work.

Rabbi Daniel Lapin says:

Thank you Louis–
yes, it was The Gathering Storm-Decoding The Secrets of Noah and of course readers can learn about it at the Store pages of our site here.
Thank you for writing and for your very welcome and encouraging comments
Cordially
RDL

joan cassidy says:

I Corinthians 2:13-15 And this is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom, but in words taught by the Holy Spirit, expressing spiritual truths in spiritual words. 14The natural man (wise in the things of natural things) does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God. For they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned. 15The spiritual man judges all things, but he himself is not subject to anyone’s judgment.…

Steve says:

Rabbi,

Why then the distinction sons of God daughters of men, when the men were just sons of men ? It seems odd to give such a title to aristocrats and why was this description only used once.

Steve

Rabbi Daniel Lapin says:

Actually, dear Steve,
it is not used only once. The Hebrew word “Elohim” is used often to mean men in authority, such as judges or powerful leaders as, for instance, Exodus 21:6 “….. his master shall bring him to the JUDGES, and he shall bring him to the door or to the doorpost….”
The word JUDGES is the translation of the Hebrew “Elohim” which often does mean God but not always.
In our instance, we see the sons of powerful men misbehaving. To witness the contemporary relevance just watch how today’s male show biz celebrities behave towards the daughters of ordinary men….
Cordially
RDL

Steve says:

One explanation I was given was these indeed were fallen angels, part of those who revolted. The intent was to foil Gods plan of redemption .

Rabbi Daniel Lapin says:

Dear Steve–
Either God is all powerful or He isn’t. If He is all powerful, as we know, then angels have no option but to do His will. Even Satan is only an angel God set up to try, test, and tempt, certain humans who merit the test. Most of us aren’t even on that level. The carpenter doesn’t even test the weak chair-there’s no point. He only tests the strong and well-built chair. I am sorry but I have no knowledge at all of any angels revolting against God neither do I see how it is possible. But I am coming perilously close here to violating my approach of not getting involved in endless and pointless theological discussions. Thanks for writing
Cordially
RDL

celesta says:

Dearest Rabbi Lapin,

Wow, what an outpouring of comments! I too have heard both/multiple interpretations of this. But I think my interest is most piqued by what you wrote, which someone else also mentioned, when you said, “…Also worth knowing is that nowhere in the Torah is there any supernatural discussion. No ghosts or goblins. Even Jacob’s angels were part of his dream…” May I respectfully ask, and not in any contention, but just earnestly wondering how would Ancient/even current Jewish wisdom interpret a few accounts in the Bible, such as – the Cherubim put outside the Garden of Eden with the flaming sword? If Jacob’s angel(s) in his dream were just a dream, why did he then walk with a (real) limp after his wrestling match [so much so that the children of Israel didn’t eat of that sinew afterwards]? Moses’ face aglow after coming back down from Mt. Sinai? I definitely take the Bible very literally, and also recognize that there are many other levels of interpretation that are also quite valid [and I think intended by our Creator], but that they would not negate each other, only enhance. Anyway, of course you do not have to answer this at all, and maybe I didn’t understand what you meant by “supernatural discussion” correctly, and you probably have a book or CD that explains all of the Jewish perspective with clarity and depth. I find that learning and applying God’s brilliant & myriad lessons built into His Word AND His Language (and many other things too), which you bring out so faithfully, is one [of a few] surefire way[s] that make me examine, inspect, challenge, change, and refine my character and walk…make me walk with even more introspection and care and humility and reverence…and I really do eagerly drink in, and value, your and Mrs. Lapin’s insights every time you put them out. {that said I guess I will have to one day throw a grudging olive branch to Surfing Mark, who was so inaccurate and rude to you a few months back, but I do hope he still reads your thought tools and wasn’t pushed away by my retorts to him. Plus, I did it in the month of Elul, so I guess I blew my teshuvah. 🙁 But I really did hold my tongue if that counts for any good, as I was going to point out that Philistines always dwelt on the coastlines.}

Rabbi Daniel Lapin says:

Dear Celesta–
Ah yes, I had forgotten all about ‘Surfin’ Mark’–we certainly do elicit some wonderful correspondents on these pages and Susan and I love reading them.
Please don’t confuse Jacob’s dream of the ladder of angels on his way to go to his uncle Laban with his encounter, fourteen years later, with a man in Genesis 32:25. “…And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a MAN with him until the breaking of the day.” While we later realize that this MAN must have been a messenger of God, to Jacob he presented as a man. Similar to the 3 angels who visited Abraham appearing as men. The 2 Cherubim in the Garden of Eden were never seen by any man and, as we point out in an earlier Thought Tool, since the Tabernacle is meant to replicate the Garden of Eden, the two cherubim on the ark of the covenant duplicated the two cherubim in the Garden. But enough of that for now. The point is that humans in the Torah do not experience encounters with supernatural beings and in our discussion, neither do the daughters of man. In fact, they become victimized by powerful men, the sons of powerful men, established hierarchies of power that abuse and mistreat women. Heard of this ever happening?
In order to be a true Message to Mankind, God’s Torah has to be a blueprint of how the world REALLY works, and our lives are shaped by how we interact with other humans not by how we interact with angels, or other supernatural beings. Hence, the Torah confines itself to scenarios that are ‘real-life’.
Hope this helps. Thanks for writing a note so beautiful in both content and style.
Cordially
RDL

Pat says:

Dear Rabbi,
I find this post very interesting. Like other Christians who have posted their thoughts here , I too have heard the same types of strange interpretations . I believe God is supreme and all powerful and nothing happens unless he says so. Sometimes as Christians we tend to forget that “good angels or fallen angels” both are created being and although they are spiritual, they have no free will. They can only do exactly what they have been commanded to do by their Creator. Further more angels are metaphysical beings and don’t have bodies or physical parts.

Rabbi it’s refreshing to hear the Jewish perspective (after all the Bible is a Jewish book ) and not the Greco-Roman perspective.

Shalom

Ryan says:

Rabbi,
When Jesus cast out unclean spirits from people, what is the origin of those unclean spirits?

Rabbi Daniel Lapin says:

Dear Ryan-
Outside my area of expertise. Sorry.
Cordially
RDL

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