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?
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