A listener posted a good question on our Land and the Book Facebook page: "What's your take on the Nephilim theory? My husband and I have different opinions on it so I like to hear other people's thoughts."
Let me first share just a little background for those who might not be familiar with the issue. There are two major passages in the Bible that mention a group known as the Nephilim. The primary passage is Genesis 6, and the second is Numbers 13. I believe the Nephilim in these passages must refer to two different groups, so let me deal with the second passage first.
In Numbers 13:33 ten of the spies sent by Moses to check out the Promised Land were delivering their findings...and it was a discouraging report indeed! They noted that the land, though good, was occupied by "the descendants of Anak" who would be "too strong for us" (vv. 28, 31). They ended their report by comparing themselves to the foe they would have to defeat to occupy the land. "There also we saw the Nephilim (the sons of Anak are part of the Nephilim); and we became like grasshoppers in our own sight, and so we were in their sight."
The spies compared the inhabitants of Canaan to the Nephilim. Though it looks from the text as if they were saying these inhabitants were physical descendants of the Nephilim, I don't believe that's possible. The Nephilim mentioned in the Book of Genesis (see below) were destroyed in the flood that God sent on the earth. The only humans to survive the flood were Noah and his family, and they were not part of the Nephilim. So I believe we need to take this passage as a descriptive comparison. To these frightened spies the Canaanites looked as physically strong and powerful as the Nephilim of old...while the spies felt as small as grasshoppers in comparison. It's an exaggeration for effect, and it had the intended results by getting the people to grumble against Moses and disobey God.
So then, who are the Nephilim of Genesis 6 to whom the spies compared the inhabitants of Canaan? Here's what the biblical text says. "The sons of God saw that the daughters of men were beautiful; and they took wives for themselves, whomever they chose....The Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of men, and they bore children to them. Those were the mighty men who were of old, men of renown" (Genesis 6:2–4).
From the text, it appears that the Nephilim are the result of the intermarriage between the "sons of God" and the "daughters of man." And two major explanations have been advanced...so let's evaluate each one.
The two chapters preceding this passage describe the descendants of the wicked line of Cain (Genesis 4) and the godly line of Seth (Genesis 5). In the "human explanation," chapter 6 is then picturing the intermingling of the godly line of Seth with the ungodly line of Cain, resulting in a corrupted human line that now had to be judged by God through the flood.
This explanation does fit within the larger context since it immediately follows the genealogies of these two parallel lines of human ancestry that descended from Adam. And the interpretation is supported historically by a fragment from Qumran that refers to the "children of Seth" as well as by relatively early Jewish and Christian writings. For example, this is the view supported by Augustine.
But there are also some problems with this view. The first problem is the theological reality that every child born to Adam had a sin nature. It seems to be an oversimplification to refer to all the descendants from Seth as "sons of God" and all those from Cain as "daughters of men" when they were all born with the same Adamic nature. The second problem is that, if taken literally, the text is saying that only males from the line of Seth intermarried with females from the line of Cain. (One would expect men and women from both lines to intermarry.) And the third problem is that this view doesn't really explain the origin of the Nephilim since they are still the offspring of two humans. One could assume they are the product of some genetic mutation, but such a view seems foreign to the text.
The second possible explanation is that the phrase "sons of God" refers to angels cohabiting with humans ("daughters of men"). In this explanation the Nephilim (giants/mighty men) are the product of this angelic/human cohabitation.
This explanation also seems to have some historic support in the Dead Sea Scrolls and in the pseudepigraphal Book of Enoch. And it could also help explain a passage in the Book of Jude that describes a special judgment on a certain group of fallen angels "who did not keep their own domain, but abandoned their proper abode" (Jude 6). These angels were those confined to a place call "the Abyss"--a place to which even Satan was not sent following his rebellion against God. So what could these angels have done to bring such severe judgment on themselves? Since Jesus said that the angels of heaven "neither marry nor are given in marriage" (Matthew 22:30), this type of cohabitation with humans could indeed fit the special nature of the sin pictured by Jude. One final reference in support of this explanation is that in the Book of Job angels are described as "sons of God" (Job 1:6; 2:1; 38:7).
This position is not without its problems, however, First, it requires us to interject angels into the Genesis 6 account in a somewhat unnatural way. While the serpent/tempter has been mentioned (Genesis 3), Moses has presented nothing about the supernatural realm of angels up to this point in his account. As a result, the sudden appearance of angels--purely to explain the rise of Nephilim--seems rather abrupt. And Jude doesn't tell us specifically what the sin of these angels was that brought on their judgment, so there is a certain degree of speculation in saying it was cohabitation with humans.
Sorry for the long explanation! But I needed to share all of that before actually answering the initial question. So what's my take on the Nephilim in Genesis 6? I believe they were the product of angelic/human cohabitation...and that the product of this cohabitation is one of the key reasons God sought to destroy the earth through the flood. But I also believe the Bible isn't absolutely clear on this point, so I hold my position loosely. As I like to say to my students, "This is something I wouldn't start a new church over!"
And I hope I also haven't caused any problems between you and your husband with my answer!