In Genesis 6, we read of the “sons of God” intermarrying with the “daughters of man,” as well as characters called the “Nephilim” who lived in the land. Today, John Tweeddale considers the identities of these three groups in Scripture.
NATHAN W. BINGHAM: This week, I’m joined by the vice president of academics and professor of theology at Reformation Bible College, Dr. John Tweeddale. Dr. Tweeddale, who were the Nephilim in the Bible?
DR. JOHN TWEEDDALE: I haven’t the foggiest clue, Nathan. This is a really tough question. And it’s a good test case for us because some things aren’t always clear in Scripture. And yet, there are some principles of biblical interpretation that we can apply to help us gain a better understanding of Genesis 6 and the Nephilim. Genesis 6:1–4 is actually one of the most difficult portions of God’s Word, and there are as many interpretations of this passage as there are commentaries on Genesis. And there are a ton of commentaries on Genesis. The context of Genesis 6 is absolutely clear. And we get a clue in verse 5, where we see that the spread of the wickedness of man really is the prelude to God’s judgment in the flood narrative. And so, you have this fall narrative in Genesis 1–11. And in Genesis 6, we see that wickedness is spreading throughout all of the land.
And that sets up the context for the flood narrative and the story of Noah in the subsequent chapters. So whatever Genesis 6 means in terms of the Nephilim, I think it has something to do with the spread of wickedness and God’s judgment on the land. Now, when we come to the question of the Nephilim, we actually have to divide the question. The first, we have to answer the question “Who are the sons of God and the daughters of men?” And secondly, “Who are the Nephilim?” And so, let’s try to take both of these questions.
First, who are the sons of God that intermarried with the daughters of man? Now, there are three lines of interpretation throughout the history of the church. The oldest line of interpretation we might call the angelic line. So, people believe that the sons of God are angels who intermarry with the daughters of men. The problem with this is that Jesus seems to indicate in Luke 20 that angels are neither married nor given in marriage. And so, that is problematic with other portions of Scripture. And as a good principle, we want Scripture to be interpreted in light of Scripture. Next, there is something called the royal line. Some scholars suggest that the sons of God really represent ancient rulers who marry commoners. And that might be the case, and that certainly makes sense, but there’s no textual evidence here in Genesis 6 that would cause us to conclude that’s what’s going on. Then, a very popular interpretation, and probably the one I hold, is the godly line interpretation. That is, the sons of God equal the line of Seth, or the Seed of the woman. In contrast, the daughters of man represent the line of Cain and the seed of the serpent.
And so, when the sons of God intermarry with the daughters of man, you have the mixture of the line of Seth and the line of Canaan. And so, I think that much is basically clear. But then in verse 4, we have the introduction of the Nephilim. And who are these strange characters? Well, in many ways we just don’t have a lot of information. This is the first time that we meet them on the pages of Scripture. And if you pay close attention to verse 4, we actually learn that they are already on the stage of world history when the sons of God and the daughters of man are intermarrying. So, I don’t believe it’s necessarily the case that the Nephilim are the result of this intermarriage.
The word Nephilim comes from the Hebrew “to fall,” and we meet them in one other place, and that’s in Numbers 13 where spies from Israel go into the land of Canaan to really suss out the promised land. And they meet these giant figures, and it makes them feel like grasshoppers. And it really illustrates how important it is for Israel to trust in the promise of God as they go into the promised land. So, both in Genesis 6 and in Numbers 13, it appears that the Nephilim are really evidence of wickedness in the land. And the question really comes for God’s people, are they going to trust in the promises of God? Are they going to trust in the Promised Seed of the woman, or are they going to capitulate and follow after the ways of wicked men like the Nephilim? I think at the end of the day, that’s the heart of Genesis 6.
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