Book of Genesis Chapter 6:4: Who were the Nephilim?

John Calvin
Genesis 6:4
4.There were giants in the earth. Among the innumerable kinds of corruptions with which the earth was filled, Moses especially records one in this place; namely that giants practiced great violence and tyranny. I do not, however, suppose, that he speaks of all the men of this age; but of certain individuals, who, being stronger than the rest, and relying on their own might and power, exalted themselves unlawfully, and without measure. As to the Hebrew noun, נפלים (nefilim,) its origin is known to be from the verb נפל (naphal,) which is to fall; but grammarians do not agree concerning its etymology. Some think that they were so called because they exceeded the common stature; others, because the countenance of men fell at the sight of them, on account of the enormous size of their body; or, because all fell prostrate through terror of their magnitude. To me there seems more truth in the opinion of those who say, that a similitude is taken from a torrent, or an impetuous tempest; for as a storm and torrent, violently falling, lays waste and destroys the fields, so these robbers brought destruction and desolation into the world. Moses does not indeed say, that they were of extraordinary stature, but only that they were robust. Elsewhere, I acknowledge, the same word denotes vastness of stature, which was formidable to those who explored the land of Canaan, (Jos_13:33.) But Moses does not distinguish those of whom he speaks in this place, from other men, so much by the size of their bodies, as by their robberies and their lust of dominion. In the context, the particle וגם (vegam,) which is interposed, is emphatical. Jerome, after whom certain other interpreters have blundered, has rendered this passage in the worst possible manner. (266) For it is literally rendered thus, ‘And even after the sons of God had gone in to the daughters of men;’ as if he had said, Moreover, or, ‘And at this time.’ For in the first place, Moses relates that there were giants; then he subjoins, that there were also others from among that promiscuous offspring, which was produced when the sons of God mingled themselves with the daughters of men. It would not have been wonderful if such outrage had prevailed among the posterity of Cain; but the universal pollution is more clearly evident from this, that the holy seed was defiled by the same corruption. That a contagion so great should have spread through the few families which ought to have constituted the sanctuary of God, is no slight aggravation of the evil. The giants, then, had a prior origin; but afterwards those who were born of promiscuous marriages imitated their example.

The same became mighty men which were of old The word ‘age’ is commonly understood to mean antiquity: as if Moses had said, that they who first exercised tyranny or power in the world, together with an excessive licentiousness and an unbridled lust of dominion, had begun from this race. Yet there are those who expound the expression, ‘from the age,’ to mean, in the presence of the world: for the Hebrew word עולם (olam,) has also this signification. Some think that this was spoken proverbially; because the age immediately posterior to the deluge had produced none like them. The first exposition is the more simple; the sum of the whole, however, is, that they were ferocious tyrants, who separated themselves from the common rank. Their first fault was pride; because, relying on their own strength, they arrogated to themselves more than was due. Pride produced contempt of God, because, being inflated by arrogance, they began to shake off every yoke. At the same time, they were also disdainful and cruel towards men; because it is not possible that they, who would not bear to yield obedience to God, should have acted with moderation towards men. Moses adds they were “men of renown;” by which he intimates that they boasted of their wickedness, and were what are called, honorable robbers. Nor is it to be doubted, that they had something more excellent than the common people, which procured for them favor and glory in the world. Nevertheless, under the magnificent title of heroes, they cruelly exercised dominion, and acquired power and fame for themselves, by injuring and oppressing their brethren. And this was the first nobility of the world. Lest any one should too greatly delight himself in a long and dingy line of ancestry; this, I repeat, was the nobility, which raised itself on high, by pouring contempt and disgrace on others. Celebrity of name is not in itself condemned; since it is necessary that they whom the Lord has adorned with peculiar gifts should be preeminent among others; and it is advantageous that there should be distinction of ranks in the world. But as ambition is always vicious and more especially so when joined with a tyrannical ferocity, which causes the more powerful to insult the weak, the evil becomes intolerable. It is, however, much worse, when wicked men gain honor by their crimes; and when, the more audacious any one is in doing injury, the more insolently he boasts of the empty smoke of titles. Moreover, as Satan is an ingenious contriver of falsehoods, by which he would corrupt the truth of God, and in this manner render it suspected, the poets have invented many fables concerning the giants; who are called by them the sons of the Earth, for this reason, as it appears to me, because they rushed forward to acquire dominions without any example of their ancestors.

Adam Clarke
Genesis 6:4
There were giants in the earth – נפלים nephilim, from נפל naphal, “he fell.” Those who had apostatized or fallen from the true religion. The Septuagint translate the original word by γιγαντες, which literally signifies earth-born, and which we, following them, term giants, without having any reference to the meaning of the word, which we generally conceive to signify persons of enormous stature. But the word when properly understood makes a very just distinction between the sons of men and the sons of God; those were the nephilim, the fallen earth-born men, with the animal and devilish mind. These were the sons of God, who were born from above; children of the kingdom, because children of God. Hence we may suppose originated the different appellatives given to sinners and saints; the former were termed γιγαντες, earth-born, and the latter, ἁγιοι, i.e. saints, persons not of the earth, or separated from the earth.

The same became mighty men – men of renown – גברים gibborim, which we render mighty men, signifies properly conquerors, heroes, from גבר gabar, “he prevailed, was victorious.” and אנשי השם anshey hashshem, “men of the name,” ανθρωποι ονομαστοι, Septuagint; the same as we render men of renown, renominati, twice named, as the word implies, having one name which they derived from their fathers, and another which they acquired by their daring exploits and enterprises.

It may be necessary to remark here that our translators have rendered seven different Hebrew words by the one term giants, viz., nephilim, gibborim, enachim, rephaim, emim, and zamzummim; by which appellatives are probably meant in general persons of great knowledge, piety, courage, wickedness, etc., and not men of enormous stature, as is generally conjectured.

Keil & Delitzsch
Gen_6:4
“The Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare children to them: these are the heroes (הַגִּבֹּרִים) who from the olden time (מֵעֹולָם, as in Psa_25:6; 1Sa_27:8) are the men of name” (i.e., noted, renowned or notorious men). נְפִילִים, from נָפַל to fall upon (Job_1:15; Jos_11:7), signifies the invaders (ἐπιπίπτοντες Aq., βιαῖοι Sym.). Luther gives the correct meaning, “tyrants:” they were called Nephilim because they fell upon the people and oppressed them.

(Note: The notion that the Nephilim were giants, to which the Sept. rendering γίγαντες has given rise, was rejected even by Luther as fabulous. He bases his view upon Jos_11:7 : “Nephilim non dictos a magnitudine corporum, sicut Rabbini putant, sed a tyrannide et oppressione quod vi grassati sint, nulla habita ratione legum aut honestatis, sed simpliciter indulgentes suis voluptatibus et cupiditatibus.” The opinion that giants are intended derives no support from Num_13:32-33. When the spies describe the land of Canaan as “a land that eateth up the inhabitants thereof,” and then add (Num_13:33), “and there we saw the Nephilim, the sons of Anak among (מִן lit., from, out of, in a partitive sense) the Nephilim,” by the side of whom they were as grasshoppers; the term Nephilim cannot signify giants, since the spies not only mention them especially along with the inhabitants of the land, who are described as people of great stature, but single out only a portion of the Nephilim as “sons of Anak” עֲנָק בְּנֵי), i.e., long-necked people or giants. The explanation “fallen from heaven” needs no refutation; inasmuch as the main element, “from heaven,” is a purely arbitrary addition.)

The meaning of the verse is a subject of dispute. To an unprejudiced mind, the words, as they stand, represent the Nephilim, who were on the earth in those days, as existing before the sons of God began to marry the daughters of men, and clearly distinguish them from the fruits of these marriages. הָיוּ can no more be rendered “they became, or arose,” in this connection, than הָיָה in Gen_1:2. וַיִּהְיוּ would have been the proper word. The expression “in those days” refers most naturally to the time when God pronounced the sentence upon the degenerate race; but it is so general and comprehensive a term, that it must not be confined exclusively to that time, not merely because the divine sentence was first pronounced after these marriages were contracted, and the marriages, if they did not produce the corruption, raised it to that fulness of iniquity which was ripe for the judgment, but still more because the words “after that” represent the marriages which drew down the judgment as an event that followed the appearance of the Nephilim. “The same were mighty men:” this might point back to the Nephilim; but it is a more natural supposition, that it refers to the children born to the sons of God. “These,” i.e., the sons sprung from those marriages, “are the heroes, those renowned heroes of old.”

Now if, according to the simple meaning of the passage, the Nephilim were in existence at the very time when the sons of God came in to the daughters of men, the appearance of the Nephilim cannot afford the slightest evidence that the “sons of God” were angels, by whom a family of monsters were begotten, whether demigods, daemons, or angel-men.

(Note: How thoroughly irreconcilable the contents of this verse are with the angel-hypothesis is evident from the strenuous efforts of its supporters to bring them into harmony with it. Thus, in Reuter’s Repert., p. 7, Del. observes that the verse cannot be rendered in any but the following manner: “The giants were on the earth in those days, and also afterwards, when the sons of God went in to the daughters of men, these they bare to them, or rather, and these bare to them;” but, for all that, he gives this as the meaning of the words, “At the time of the divine determination to inflict punishment the giants arose, and also afterwards, when this unnatural connection between super-terrestrial and human beings continued, there arose such giants;” not only substituting “arose” for “were,” but changing “when they connected themselves with them” into “when this connection continued.” Nevertheless he is obliged to confess that “it is strange that this unnatural connection, which I also suppose to be the intermediate cause of the origin of the giants, should not be mentioned in the first clause of Gen_6:4.” This is an admission that the text says nothing about the origin of the giants being traceable to the marriages of the sons of God, but that the commentators have been obliged to insert it in the text to save their angel marriages. Kurtz has tried three different explanations of this verse but they are all opposed to the rules of the language.

(1) In the History of the Old Covenant he gives this rendering: “Nephilim were on earth in these days, and that even after the sons of God had formed connections with the daughters of men;” in which he not only gives to גַּם the unsupportable meaning, “even, just,” but takes the imperfect יָבֹאוּ in the sense of the perfect בָּאוּ.

2) In his Ehen der Sφhne Gottes (p. 80) he gives the choice of this and the following rendering: “The Nephilim were on earth in those days, and also after this had happened, that the sons of God came to the daughters of men and begat children,” were the ungrammatical rendering of the imperfect as the perfect is artfully concealed by the interpolation of “after this had happened.”

(3) In “die Sφhne Gottes,” p. 85: “In these days and also afterwards, when the sons of God came (continued to come) to the daughters of men, they bare to them (sc., Nephilim),” where יָבֹאוּ, they came, is arbitrarily altered into לָבֹוא יֹוסִיפוּ, they continued to come. But when he observes in defence of this quid pro quo, that “the imperfect denotes here, as Hengstenberg has correctly affirmed, and as so often is the case, an action frequently repeated in past times,” this remark only shows that he has neither understood the nature of the usage to which H. refers, nor what Ewald has said (§136) concerning the force and use of the imperfect.)

Pulpit Commentary
Gen_6:4
There were. Not became, or arose, as if the giants were the fruit of the previously-mentioned misalliances; but already existed contemporaneously with the sons of God (cf. Keil, Havernick, and Lange).

Giants. Nephilim, from naphal, to fall; hence supposed to describe the offspring of the daughters of men and the fallen angels (Hoffman, Delitzsch). The LXX, translate by γιìγαντες; whence the “giants” of the A.V. and Vulgate, which Luther rejects as fabulous; but Kalisch, on the strength of Num_13:33, accepts as the certain import of the term. More probable is the interpretation which understands them as men of violence, roving, lawless gallants, “who fall on others;” robbers, or tyrants (Aquila, Rosenmüller, Gesenius, Luther, Calvin, Kurtz, Keil,. Murphy, ‘Speaker’s Commentary’). That they were “monsters, prodigies” (Tueh, Knobel), may be rejected, though it is not unlikely they were men of large physical stature, like the Anakim, Rephaim, and others (cf. Num_13:33).

In the earth. Not merely on it, but largely occupying the populated region. In those days. Previously referred to, i.e. of the mixed marriages. And also—i.e. in addition to these nephilim—after that,—i.e. after their up-rising—when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare children to them, the same became mighty men. Ha’gibborim, literally, the strong, impetuous, heroes (cf. Gen_10:8). “They were probably more refined in manners and exalted in thought than their predecessors of pure Cainite descent” (Murphy).

Which were of old. Not “of the world,” as a note of character, taking olam as equivalent αἰωÌν to but a note of time, the narrator reporting from his own standpoint. Men of renown. Literally, men of the name; “the first nobility of the world, honorable robbers, who boasted of their wickedness” (Calvin) or gallants, whose names were often in men’s mouths (Murphy). For contrary phrase, “men of no name,” see Job_30:8.

Albert Barnes
Gen_6:4
Two classes of men, with strong hand and strong will, are here described. “The giants,” the well-known men of great stature, physical force, and violent will, who were enabled by these qualities to claim and secure the supremacy over their fellow-men. “Had been in the land in those days.” In the days when those intermarriages were beginning to take place, the warriors were asserting the claim of might. Violence and rapine were becoming rampant in the land. “And after that.” The progeny of the mixed marriages were the second and subsequent class of leading men. “The sons of God” are here contradistinguished from the “nephilim, or giants,” who appear therefore to have belonged to the Cainites. The offspring of these unhallowed unions were the heroes, the gallants, the mighty men, the men of renown. They were probably more refined in manners and exalted in thought than their predecessors of pure Cainite descent. “Men of name,” whose names are often in men’s mouths, because they either deserved or required to be named frequently on account of their influential or representative character. Being distinguished from the common herd by prominent qualities or memorable exploits, they were also frequently marked out by a special name or surname, derived from such trait of character or deed of notoriety. “Of old” (מעולם mē’ôlām). This has been sometimes explained “of the world,” in the sense of αἰών aiōn; but the meaning is too late for the present passage. The phrase uniformly means “of old,” covering a more or less extensive length of time. This note of time implies a writer probably after the deluge, who could speak of antediluvian affairs, as happening of old.

It is remarkable that we have no hint of any kind of government in the antediluvian world. It is open to us to suppose that the patriarchal polity would make its appearance, as it is an order based upon natural relations. But it is possible that God himself, being still present and manifest, was recognized as the governor. To him offerings were brought, and he deals with Cain on his first and second transgression. In that case the lawless violence of the strong and willful is to be regarded as rebellion, not only against the patriarchal rule, but the divine supremacy. A notice of civil law and government would not of course affect the authority of the book. But the absence of such notice is in favor of its divine origin. It is obvious that higher things than these have the attention of the sacred writer.

Cambridge Bible
4. The Nephilim] i.e. giants. It is natural to refer to Num. 13:33, “And there we saw the Nephilim (Or, giants), the sons of Anak, which come of the Nephilim; and we were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so we were in their sight.” The tradition that the Nephilim existed at the time of the Exodus was therefore quite strongly held. The precise meaning of the name has been lost. The passage in Numbers shews clearly that it denoted men of gigantic stature. The etymology very probably goes back to primitive times; and its origin is lost with the dialects that disappeared when the Israelites finally occupied Palestine. It was natural to connect the word with the Hebrew naphal, “to fall”; hence arose the renderings of Aquila, οἱ ἐπιπίπτοντες, “the assailants,” and of Symmachus, οἱ βιαῖοι, “the violent,” while among Patristic commentators the word was connected with “the fallen angels.” But these are merely guesses; and we must be content to leave the etymology of “the Nephilim,” like that of “the Rephaim” and “the Anakim,” unexplained.

and also after that] These words are introduced very awkwardly; and were very probably added as a gloss, in order to shew that the Nephilim existed not only in primitive ages, but also at the time of the Exodus from Egypt, as would be implied by Num. 13:33. The continuance of the Nephilim in later times seems to contradict the account of the destruction of all the dwellers on the earth by the Flood. This contradiction is to be explained on the supposition, mentioned above, that the present passage is a fragment of a tradition in which the Flood was not recorded.

the mighty men, &c.] That is to say, “the well-known giants of old-world time,” familiar personages in Israelite folk-lore. To this class belong such names as “Nimrod,” 10:8, and “Og,” Deut. 3:11.

the men of renown] Literally, “the men of name,” as in Num. 16:2, “men of renown,” Lat. viri famosi, viz. famous for deeds of prowess and audacity.

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