Nefilim: The mythology of fallen people.

by K.W. Leslie, 17 October 2018
NAFAL nɔ'fɔl verb (Hebrew ‏נָפַל, Strong’s 5307) To fall down, fall prostrate, fall into, be thrown down, be removed.
[Nefil nɛ'fil noun, nefilim nɛ.fil'im]

Every once in a while I get asked about the Nefilim (NIV “Nephilim,” KJV “giants”). And folks, it’s not “a Nefilim,” ’cause it’s a plural noun. One Nefil, many Nefilim. Understandable mistake though; most English speakers can’t get our own plurals right, much less Hebrew nouns.

I don’t pry into why people wanna know about Nefilim, although when they explain, it nearly always has to do with some mythological garbage about half-human half-angel beings. They hear about that, then hear, “And it’s in the bible!” so they check out their bible and find this weird little story. It comes right before the flood story in Genesis 6, so you’d think they’d have read it, but you know people don’t read their bibles. But even when people aren’t checking up on weird myths, they read this story, scratch their heads, and go, “Huh?”

Genesis 6.1-5 KWL
1 It happened that the Adamites began to be many over the face of the earth.
Daughters were fathered by them.
2 God’s children saw the Adamite daughters—that they were good.
They took them for wives—all whom they chose.
3 The LORD said, “My Spirit won’t remain with Adam forever.
Plus he’s flesh. His days are 120 years.”
4 Nefilim were in the land in those days, and also afterward:
God’s children mated with Adam’s daughters, and begat from them
the powerful men who, from antiquity, were men of name.
5 But the LORD saw the Adamites were a great evil in the land.
Every intention and thought in their minds was only evil, all day.

Okay. Lemme start by bluntily saying nobody knows what this passage means. I need to make this crystal clear from the very beginning. NOBODY.

I know; you may think you do, ’cause the myths told you what went down. Or you heard some interpretation which makes sense to you. Or you actually heard or read some bible scholar’s theory, and figure bible scholars are smart people who must know what they’re talking about. But unless they’re really arrogant people, scholars are the first to tell you our theories are nothing but good guesses. ’Cause nobody knows what this passage means. Like I said.

Yeah, this fact bugs people. Since the scriptures are God-inspired, and meant for our instruction and correction and growth, 2Ti 3.16 how can there be such things as scriptures which no one understands? And since we Christians are indwelt by the Holy Spirit—the same Spirit who inspired the writer of Genesis to drop this story in the book—shouldn’t he have clued us in on what it means?

Fair questions. And there are people who claim the Spirit has told ’em what this passage means. I might even believe ’em… if they weren’t so arrogant about it, and if their interpretations lined up. But they don’t. So I don’t.

True, we can always ask the Spirit what a bible passage means. Sometimes he tells us. And sometimes he doesn’t. It’s up to him how much he cares to divulge, and (as is the case with apocalypses) sometimes he doesn’t care to divulge stuff at all. If he doesn’t see any good coming out of it, he’s not sharing. And we have to learn to be okay with that. We answer to him, remember?

If you don’t like not knowing, join the club. And work on your humility: The Holy Spirit’s under no obligation to tell us all. He’s the LORD. We’re not.

Biblical prehistory.

Popular Christian culture imagines the writer of Genesis was Moses, but we’ve no proof of that. No really, we don’t. The bible doesn’t say who wrote it. It’s one of the “books of Moses,” but only because it’s one of the books of the Law, and the other books have Moses in ’em. But for convenience, I’m gonna call the writer of Genesis “Moe.”

Moe wanted to explain where humanity’s 120-year lifespan came from. After all, Genesis 5 described a world where humans lived way longer than that… yet today, the world’s oldest people rarely make it to their 120s. (Few even make it to 100. That may change in a decade, but we’ll see.) Anyway Moe knew a story about how that came to be. So here it is.

The story comes from prehistory. Prehistory means “before history was properly recorded”: Before humans began to write down their current events, which over time becomes history. ’Cause the problem with writing down non-current events, is it’s gonna lack details and context. We kinda need these details to help us interpret the story.

Fr’instance: What on earth does binéy ha-Elohím/“God’s children” mean? God has kids? Well of course he has kids; we’re God’s kids; he adopted us. But is that what’s going on in this story?—are these humans whom God adopted like he adopted us? Or are they some other kind of being?

In Job we also read about God’s children:

Job 1.6 KWL
The day came when God’s children came to stand before the LORD,
and Satan also came among them.

Then Satan and the LORD get into this conversation… but as far as what “God’s children” means, the writer of Job never says, and just leaves us hanging. Why are they standing before God? Are these God-followers who died, and are standing before God for judgment, and Satan’s there to accuse them, ’cause that was its job in the Old Testament?

But a popular interpretation—which is a really strange one, ’cause we Christians only believe in one God—is “God’s children” are other gods. Well, not literally other gods: Lesser gods. Powerful spirit beings which humans regularly confuse with gods, ’cause they’re more powerful than we. Or pretend to be more powerful, and in so doing convince us they’re gods. But really they’re just some sort of angel. The Pharisees really took this idea and ran with it; I’ll get into their idea in just a moment.

Okay, then there are the Adamite daughters. Literally it’s benót ha-Adám/“daughters of Adam.” The KJV went with “daughters of men,” because adám also means “human”; I went with “Adamite” because adám also means “humanity.” But which was it? Does this simply mean human women? Or literal daughters of Adam—the first generation from Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel and Seth’s sisters? Except this story comes after the genealogy list from Adam to Noah, Ge 5 so probably not. Or is “daughters of Adam” a special term for some group which called themselves that, or were called that? We could be talking about prehistoric gangs, for all we know.

Yeah, historical context would really help us out here. But we don’t have it. ’Cause prehistory. So as a result we don’t know where this story fits in the timeline, who it addresses, or the meanings of the words in it. ’Cause I defined Nefil’s root-word, nafál, in the beginning of this piece… but historical context might’ve changed the definition. Just like “driver” no longer means “one who drives a horse forward,” nafál might’ve meant something different when this story originated. Or something different for a brief time in Moe’s day. There might be a lost meaning in there somewhere. We don’t know. ’Cause prehistory.

I know; you were probably hoping for definite answers. Sorry.

Enoch and the watchers.

When humans have gaps in our knowledge, we fill in the blanks with theories. Some of these theories are totally valid explanations, backed by lots of scientific evidence, like the theory of relativity. Some are wishful thinking, like karma or social Darwinism. Some are full-on deception, like the idea Satan used to be a mighty being.

In history we call these theories myths. They’re not necessarily fiction: Some myths probably happened! We speculate humans figured out how to make alcohol by accidentally leaving fruit juice out too long, and it’s entirely likely that’s just what happened. (Some Christians speculate that’s why Noah got drunk, Ge 9.20-21 ’cause their hangups with alcohol won’t let ’em imagine a good man intentionally making wine.) But most of us figure myth means fiction, and most of the time that’s exactly how I use the word.

The Pharisees’ interpretation of this story goes like yea: “God’s children” refers to an iyr/“eye-opener,” an Aramaic word describing a spirit being or angel—which we only read of in Daniel, ’cause it’s one of the few books of the bible with passages in Aramaic. The KJV translates it as “watcher.” The Pharisees believed God sent these iyrín/“eye-openers” to the Adamites because they didn’t know the Law; the LORD hadn’t yet given it to Moses, remember? So the Pharisees claimed he gave it to the Adamites through the watchers.

This story trickled into the popular culture of Jesus and the apostles’ day. It’s why the New Testament refers to the Law being handed down by the ministry of angels.

Acts 7.53 KWL
“You, who received the Law through angels’ ministry, and don’t keep it!”
Galatians 3.18 KWL
So why the Law? Because we went astray.
It was handed down until the seed who was promised could come,
through angels’ ministry, in a mediator’s hand.

If you actually read the Law, you’d notice Moses didn’t get the Law from angels; he got it directly from the LORD himself. So where in the bible do we see angels giving or ministering the Law? We don’t. The idea comes solely from Pharisee myth: The Adamites needed to learn the Law, so God sent ’em angels.

And if you challenged a Pharisee on this theory, they’d point you to this verse:

Genesis 7.2 KWL
Take every clean animal with you, seven by seven, male and female;
and of animals which aren’t clean, only two: Male and female.

How’d Noah know which animals were ritually clean and unclean, since God hadn’t yet spelled it out in the Law, and wouldn’t yet hand it down for thousands of years?

Yeah, I’d probably answer special revelation: God must’ve personally explained it to Noah, much like he let Cain and Abel know how he liked his sacrifices. Ge 4.4-5 But the Pharisees insisted watchers taught Cain and Abel how to do sacrifices, and watchers taught Noah what’s clean and what’s not: The watchers taught the Law to the Adamites. So that’s why God eventually had to flood the planet: The Adamites violated the Law like crazy, and God had to judge ’em.

Not that the watchers were all that righteous either: They’re the very same “God’s children” who “saw the Adamite daughters” and “took them for wives.” Even though Jesus teaches us angels don’t marry, Mk 12.25 the Pharisees claimed these angels could and did. And weren’t supposed to. Breeding creatures of different species violates the Law, y’know. Lv 19.19 So these watchers sinned. Adamite women were just so enticing.

So, explained the Pharisees, the prophet Enoch found out about it, and told God on them. (I’ve no idea how God didn’t know already.) The naughty watchers were thrown into the Abyss, and as a reward, Enoch “was not,” Ge 5.24 instead of having an ordinary lifespan and dying, like the other Adamites. Other Pharisee myths claim Enoch went the highest heaven, not merely Paradise; that he was turned into Metatrón, the angel who speaks for God to us, because God’s literal voice would obliterate mortal beings. (Even though God’s voice didn’t vaporize Adam and Eve, who heard him just fine even after they sinned. Ge 3.10)

Most Christians have never even heard of the myths about Enoch and the watchers, so they don’t know what to make of any of this. And are a little horrified to discover it gets referenced in Jude too—what in the world was Jesus’s brother doing, referring to a myth as if it actually happened? But I remind you plenty of preachers refer to popular fiction, like books and movies, in their sermons and podcasts. There’s nothing wrong with this. We know they’re talking about fiction.

Jude’s readers probably knew this too… although just as there are people who think the events in certain historical movies literally happened like that, I’m sure there were people in the first century who also thought the Enoch and watchers myths literally happened too. Whether they believed it or not, it doesn’t really matter when it comes to biblical interpretation. The scriptures don’t confirm the Enoch myths. They don’t deny ’em either: They’re not really worth taking a stand on. I personally don’t believe they happened, but meh. Believe what you like.

Anyway, the Pharisees also claimed Noah’s flood was God’s way of making sure the watchers’ progeny, the Nefilim, were wiped out once and for all.

Oh yes; Nefilim also come up in the book of Numbers:

Numbers 13.30-33 KWL
30 Caleb silenced the people for Moses and said, “Go up, go up!
We take the land! We’re able to take the land!”
31 The men who went up with Caleb said, “We’re not able to go up to those people.
For they’re stronger than us!”
32 Slander went out to Israel’s descendants about the land which they explored, saying,
“The land which we passed over to explore—the land eats those who live in it!
All the people we saw in its midst were huge men!
33 We saw Nefilim there! Anak’s descendants come from Nefilim!
We’re like locusts in our own eyes; we’re like gnats in their eyes!”

But this doesn’t necessarily mean Nefilim survived the flood. Remember, this was a false report, spread to discourage the Israelis from invading Palestine.

Lastly, Greek mythology. When the Septuagint was translated, the Pharisees translated “Nefilim” with the Greek word Ghígantes, a creature from Greek mythology. The Ghígantes were sons of Gaia, looked like savage massive humans, tried to overthrow Olympus, and were defeated and destroyed. The Pharisees must’ve figured Ghígantes sounded a lot like Nefilim, so they used the word. (To my mind, “Titans” might’ve been better, but whatever. It’s a bad translation either way.) Anyway, the KJV borrowed that idea, and translated “Nefilim” as “giants.”

Okay, but what were they really?

I know what popular culture’s myths claim: Half angel, half human. Since Christianity doesn’t have demigods (’cause Jesus is fully God, and God doesn’t go committing incest with humans like Zeus) they’re the next best thing. Many an author has loved to retell the very old yarn of a young man or woman who discovers their mysterious parentage has granted ’em special powers. Pity it’s an angel gone wrong.

But I gotta burst your bubble: Angels aren’t physical beings. Humans are. So we can’t breed. Period.

Other than the Holy Spirit, a spirit can’t make a human. Or a half-human, or a demigod. The biology doesn’t work like that. Don’t care what the myths claim. Therefore any of the theories which say the “God’s children” of Genesis 6 are angels or spirits, don’t work at all. Whatever they were, they were physical beings.

Now yes, the mythmakers wanna speculate that watchers were a special case—that God gave these angels a physical form specifically so the Adamites, and the rest of humanity, can interact with them. And yeah, when angels show up in the bible, most of the time the angels look and act human, and physically interact with the world, so it’s not a completely implausible theory: Maybe they are granted physical forms sometimes. It’s a bit of a leap to assume they’re also granted working reproductive systems, and the hormones necessary to work ’em. (If true, from what we know of puberty, no wonder they’d wanna make babies right away!) But the only reason we’d make these leaps is because we want Nefilim to be demi-angels. Not because it makes any sense at all for God to give an angel testicles.

I’ve also heard the theory the watchers were space aliens. I think it’s a silly theory… but then again, y’realize it’s not like angels are from Earth.

Well, regardless of how they were parented. As I stated in the beginning of this piece, the verb nafál means “to fall down.” The related noun nefíl means “one who fell down.” So the original meaning of nefilim is “fallen people.” I’ve heard Christians claim this therefore means the “God’s children” must be fallen angels, but their connect-the-dots thinking has skipped a dot: “Fallen people” describes the offspring, not their parents.

In what way were Nefilim fallen? My guess: If you’re familiar with mythology, you notice nearly all mythological heroes, mixed in among their great deeds, nearly all did something stupid, and had to suffer the consequences of their hubris. (That’s how karma works, remember?) Heroes regularly fell. Maybe “Nefilim” refers to the fact heroes regularly fall.

If Nefilim are the heroes of myth, they’d be what we (and the Greco-Roman myths) call demigods. Like Heracles, Theseus, Perseus, Achilles, Aeneas, and all the other god/human hybrids, who turned out to become great figures in other religions’ mythologies. And of course a lot of them suffered tragic circumstances, or endings. But since the bible doesn’t single out any Nefil in particular, we don’t know their stories. That’s the problem with prehistory: That lack of context again. Maybe Heracles was a Nefil whose stories got passed around till finally the Greeks got ahold of him. I sincerely doubt it, but once again: We don’t know. These famous people were lost in prehistory.

So, finding a practical application for this story becomes really difficult. We don’t have any solid interpretation of it. All we know is this is the reason Moe gives us for why humans no longer live 900-plus years: People had sex who shouldn’t have, so God decided to trim our lifespan down to something less immortal.

But no Christian can claim, “Here’s what a ‘God’s child’ is,” nor “Here’s what a Nefil is,” and demand others see it the same way as we. Demanding our fellow Christians must believe Nefilim are demigods, or that “God’s children” are lesser gods—or even that this is a pagan story which somehow got mixed into the bible!—isn’t wise, and isn’t valid.

William Shakespeare put in the mouth of Hamlet, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Hamlet 1.5 Apparently God’s universe includes “God’s children” and Nefilim, and we know next to nothing about them. The solution isn’t to guess at what they are, then get dogmatic about our guesses. It’s to accept our universe has more weirdness in it than we’re aware of.

What ultimately matters is we follow Jesus, and let the rest sort itself out whenever God decides it needs sorting. Till then let’s stick to what’s relevant.