The Nephilim are mentioned twice throughout scripture. The first time is in Genesis 6. The introduction of the Nephilim leads to the story of Noah and the flood that destroys life on earth. The way that scripture is interpreted, the Nephilim seem to be the children from when the “sons of God” or heavenly beings, take human wives and have children. Scripture then describes the Nephilim as warriors of renown or heroes of old.
When I was younger and I read Genesis 6, I was confused as to what was happening with the Nephilim. Were they good or bad? One of the thoughts that came to my mind was Greek Mythology and the story of heroes like Hercules, the son of the god Zeus and a human mother Alcmene. Growing up, I had watched some of the TV series “Hercules: The Legendary Journeys” which describes the adventures of a super strong hero doing good by helping the weak and stopping powerful evil doers. So, were the Nephilim people like Hercules? There are similarities in their stories because it’s about children of gods and humans, but there are big differences on how scripture writers interpret their stories.
The Hebrew word for Nephilim is also translated as giant and also as tyrant. The Nephilim were likely giants and tyrants. Genesis 6 does not paint a nice picture for the Nephilim, a very different picture than the Hercules TV series. The spiritual beings, or “sons of God” that took human wives are doing something that they should not be doing. The scripture writers intentionally use similar language to that found in Genesis chapter 3. In Genesis 3, it is the snake convincing the woman to take the “good looking” fruit from the tree of knowing good and evil, something she should not do. Now it’s the spiritual beings taking the beautiful women as wives and so the story is a continuation and amplification of the rebellion against God that started in Genesis 3.
Why are these “sons of God” doing this, what are they hoping to achieve? It’s not quite clear. It is possible that they are trying to find a way to change humanity. Humans no longer had access to the tree of life and so we couldn’t live forever. Perhaps they were trying to change that? Whatever the reason, it is a further act of rebellion and it is not good for humanity. The Nephilim become the tyrants of the ancient world causing evil to increase which leads to the story of Noah and the flood.
When people began to multiply on the face of the ground, and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that they were fair; and they took wives for themselves of all that they chose. Then the LORD said, “My spirit shall not abide in mortals forever, for they are flesh; their days shall be one hundred twenty years.” The Nephilim were on the earth in those days—and also afterward— when the sons of God went in to the daughters of humans, who bore children to them. These were the heroes that were of old, warriors of renown. The LORD saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And the LORD was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.Genesis 6:1-6 NRSV
Why does scripture mention Nephilim if they play such a small and almost ignorable part in scripture? The Nephilim represent a new kind of human at this point in Genesis, a kind of human that continues to exist after the flood. Humanity, in Genesis 1 are created in the image of God, but now the Nephilim represent a new human that is born of a spirit of rebellion, like the spiritual beings that are in rebellion against God.
In John 8, Jesus has a confrontation with a crowd of Jews and they get into an argument about spiritual heritage. The crowd claims first that Abraham is their father and then they claim God as their Father.
Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I have come here from God. I have not come on my own; God sent me. Why is my language not clear to you? Because you are unable to hear what I say. You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies.John 8:42-44 NIV
The Nephilim represent a new kind of human whose spiritual father is the devil and the fallen spiritual beings who are in rebellion against God.
The word idol in our modern language refers to a statue that represents a god. If you go to India, you will see many idols. The Hebrew word “Idol” literally translates to the word “image”. They are the same thing.
In Genesis 1 and again later in Genesis 9, it says that all of humanity, women and men, are made in the image of God, quite literally, we are living, moving and breathing “idols” of God our creator. The reason that God never wanted to have images of gods or “idols” made and worshiped was because humans are the “idols” already. We are images of God, but we are images of God not so that we can worship ourselves, but as images we are able to properly worship God who is unseen.
Since you saw no form when the LORD spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire, take care and watch yourselves closely, so that you do not act corruptly by making an idol for yourselves, in the form of any figure—the likeness of male or female, the likeness of any animal that is on the earth, …. And when you look up to the heavens and see the sun, the moon, and the stars, all the host of heaven, do not be led astray and bow down to them and serve them, things that the LORD your God has allotted to all the peoples everywhere under heaven. But the LORD has taken you and brought you out of the iron-smelter, out of Egypt, to become a people of his very own possession, as you are now.Deuteronomy 4:15-20 NRSV
This scripture tells us that our likeness to God is not in our good looks, but something else because God had no form at Horeb. This scripture also talks about the sun, moon and stars, the host of heaven and warns the people of Israel not to worship them. Moses is referring to a story in Genesis 10 and 11 where humanity is scattered around the earth after the Tower of Babel story. The story in Genesis doesn’t talk about the gods or the host of heaven, but what becomes evident is that each of these scattered groups of people end up having their own language, their own territory and their own set of gods that they worship which are represented by images. The people of Israel are set apart as a people with a God that is not confined by a territory and also a God who has no image, except for humanity itself.
More importantly, the gods of the nations represented a way of life, one that was an image of the spiritual heritage of the spiritual beings that rebelled in Genesis 6. To worship their images would lead to a way of life like the Nephilim, mighty people, but tyrants. Israel was not supposed to be like those people.
Nimrod, the mighty hunter before the Lord
Nimrod doesn’t have a story, but he gets mentioned in Genesis 10. He is a mighty hunter before the Lord and when we read this we wonder: Was he a good guy or bad guy? When it says he was a mighty hunter before the Lord, it makes it sound like God appreciated his mighty hunting ability. On the other hand, the scripture writers might be saying that he put himself “before” the Lord, kind of like the commandment: Deuteronomy 5:7 “You shall have no other gods before Me”. It is more likely that Nimrod’s mighty hunting put himself ahead of God.
Nimrod was the founder of many cities in the ancient world including Nineveh and Babylon, two cities that play a very big part as enemies of Israel. Nimrod follows in the same template as the Nephilim. The tower of Babel was made out of brick and it was likely made using slave labor, the work of a tyrant. The goal of the tower of Babel was to make a way to heaven apart from God so that they could make a name for themselves, or, to borrow the words from Genesis 6, to become mighty on the earth and to become people of renown. Even at it’s founding, God found it necessary to hinder Babylon’s growth.
One of the themes that I am becoming aware of as I’ve studied this topic is that of being “mighty” or “strong” or “powerful”. It is repeated in many places. God is mighty and powerful and often this characteristic is emphasized as a defining characteristic of God, but humans that become mighty are also often tyrants who live by a set of laws or rules different from regular human beings.
Sons of gods and gods incarnate
I’m not a student of ancient history, but I’ve listened to a number of scholars talk about ancient Babylon, ancient Egypt and the Roman Empire. Roman Emperors and Babylonian kings have historically made the claim that they are children of the gods, or that one of their ancestors was a child born of a god, kind of like Nephilim. In the case of Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, he was the son of the god Ra and the incarnation of the god Horus, that is, the Pharaoh would be the god Horus in human form and worthy of worship as a god.
Why would leaders make such wild claims? It is suspected that these stories of a privileged heritage were created so that they could rule in a fashion that was above the law of regular humans. The laws that applied to humans did not apply to demigods. Regular humans must serve the gods and their representatives.
Interestingly, the stories that follow in scripture don’t paint a black and white picture. Not all these demigods were tyrants and some repent of their arrogance. Not only that, but many of the kings of Israel become tyrants themselves. The Nephilim provide a kind of template of what humans can become, mighty but tyrants, but not all leaders choose that path and it’s interesting to see how God works in these stories. I’ll take a look at 4 stories: Joseph and Pharaoh, Daniel and Nebuchadnezzar, king Saul and king David.
Joseph and Pharaoh
Pharaoh was the king of Egypt, a son of the god Ra. Egypt is likely among the most powerful nations of that era, definitely the most powerful in that area. The Pharaoh definitely fits the template of the Nephilim.
Joseph was sold by his brothers into slavery. He was a slave, who was later thrown unjustly into jail. While in jail, he worked as a faithful slave. It says that God was with him in all that he did and so he was given charge over the prison. Joseph, of course, doesn’t want to be in jail even if he has good position there and he doesn’t want to be a slave.
While in jail, Joseph interprets the dreams of two royal officials, both of which come true. The cupbearer is one of the officials. Later when the Pharaoh has a dream that he can’t interpret, the cupbearer remembers Joseph and tells the Pharaoh about him. So Pharaoh elevates Joseph, a slave that is stuck in the pit of jail to come and speak to him, a god.
Pharaoh said to Joseph, “I had a dream, and no one can interpret it. But I have heard it said of you that when you hear a dream you can interpret it.” “I cannot do it,” Joseph replied to Pharaoh, “but God will give Pharaoh the answer he desires.”Genesis 41:15-16 NIV
God gives Joseph the interpretation, that Egypt will have 7 years of plenty followed by 7 years of famine so severe that it will wipe out Egypt. Joseph recommends that the Pharaoh find a wise person to govern over the country to collect a 20% tax to preserve the country through the famine. The Pharaoh chooses Joseph, because he recognizes God’s work in Joseph. This is a humble moment for the Pharaoh to recognize someone greater than him.
Joseph, a lowly suffering slave, unjustly thrown in jail, is raised to a new life out of the pit of jail and given a position above all in Egypt. In Joseph’s presence, every knee in Egypt will bow. Only the Pharaoh, with respect to the throne, is greater than Joseph. The Pharaoh’s recognition of God working in Joseph and his ability to humble himself to allow Joseph to rule in his place makes it so that Egypt is spared this disaster and not only that, but Joseph’s own family is spared the disaster too.
While this Pharaoh was able to humble himself, this doesn’t continue in future generations.
Then a new king, to whom Joseph meant nothing, came to power in Egypt. “Look,” he said to his people, “the Israelites have become far too numerous for us. Come, we must deal shrewdly with them or they will become even more numerous and, if war breaks out, will join our enemies, fight against us and leave the country.” So they put slave masters over them to oppress them with forced labor, and they built Pithom and Rameses as store cities for Pharaoh. … They made their lives bitter with harsh labor in brick and mortar and with all kinds of work in the fields; in all their harsh labor the Egyptians worked them ruthlessly.Exodus 1:8-14 NIV
The pattern of the tyrant reemerges in Egypt. This leads to the confrontation between God through Moses against Pharaoh and Egypt’s gods which ends with the release of all the Israelite slaves and the destruction of Egypt’s army.
Daniel and Nebuchadnezzar
A similar, yet different, story happens much later with a young Jew named Daniel. The people of Jerusalem have been conquered by Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. Babylon is a city originally founded by Nimrod. Their kings have also made the claim of being descended from the gods. Another nation led by a Nephilim like king. What will he become?
Daniel and his friends are exiles from Jerusalem and are being reeducated in Babylonian culture, given new names and expected to fit in with Babylonian worship. While they aren’t treated like slave labor, they don’t exactly have the freedom to return to Jerusalem.
Nebuchadnezzar has a dream but he doesn’t trust his wise men to interpret it properly so he doesn’t tell them the dream. He decides, very irrationally, to kill them all unless they can guess his dream. This includes Daniel and his friends. So Daniel and his friends pray and ask God for help and the next day, before the execution, they convince their master to bring them to the king.
The king asked Daniel (also called Belteshazzar), “Are you able to tell me what I saw in my dream and interpret it?” Daniel replied, “No wise man, enchanter, magician or diviner can explain to the king the mystery he has asked about, but there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries.Daniel 2:26-28, NIV
Daniel proceeds to tell Nebuchadnezzar his dream and give it’s interpretation. Nebuchadnezzar accepts it.
The king said to Daniel, “Surely your God is the God of gods and the Lord of kings and a revealer of mysteries, for you were able to reveal this mystery.” Then the king placed Daniel in a high position and lavished many gifts on him. He made him ruler over the entire province of Babylon and placed him in charge of all its wise men.Daniel 2:47-48 NIV
In a similar fashion to the story of Joseph, Nebuchadnezzar recognizes God’s work in Daniel. Daniel and his friends lost everything when they were exiled from Jerusalem and while they got royal positions they were about to die for no good reason. And now, they are exalted to positions of greatness in the kingdom.
Nebuchadnezzar’s story has a few more ups and downs, but it ends fairly well for him. Nebuchadnezzar humbles himself before God in the end and so he avoids becoming a tyrant, but like in the story of Egypt, the generations that follow Nebuchadnezzar don’t follow the humbled path of their father.
King Belshazzar had a banquet where he took the gold goblets that had belonged to the Temple of Jerusalem and used them for a party praising the gods of gold and silver. Fingers of a human hand suddenly appear and wrote on a plaster wall the words MENE, MENE, TEKEL, PARSIN. Daniel is brought in to interpret. Daniel tells Belshazzar that he should’ve remembered the story of his father Nebuchadnezzar, where he had been stripped of his glory when he became proud. And that his glory only had been restored after he acknowledged God as Lord. Now Belshazzar’s own arrogance had crossed a line.
“Here is what these words mean: Mene: God has numbered the days of your reign and brought it to an end. Tekel: You have been weighed on the scales and found wanting. Peres: Your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians.” That very night Belshazzar, king of the Babylonians, was slain, and Darius the Mede took over the kingdom, at the age of sixty-two.Daniel 5:26-31 NIV
King Saul and King David
King Saul is the first king of Israel and David is the second. Both have a somewhat humble beginning in their life. King Saul is tall and impressive and the prophet Samuel likes him. Saul is a promising leader, but his story takes a turn when fails to trust God and later when he takes what he should not have taken. Saul is never fully repentant and God gives up on Saul and asks the prophet Samuel to anoint David as the next king, despite the fact that David is only a boy.
It’s at this point that you get a sense that Saul has become a tyrant because Samuel is worried that Saul will kill him when he finds out that he’s traveling around with anointing oil.
David begins as a humble shepherd boy and one of his great achievements happens as a boy when he challenges the giant Goliath to combat. The Philistines are facing off against the Israelites, but there is a stalemate and so the Philistines pull out their champion the giant Goliath who then taunts the Israelites and God to provoke them to send down their champion to face Goliath in single combat. Goliath is likely a descendant of the Anakites that are descendants from the Nephilim. This is an epic confrontation of cosmic per-portions.
The story of David vs Goliath is often considered an underdog story where Goliath seems to have all the advantages and God gives the underdog David the victory. The army of Israel is too scared to fight, but David has no fear to take on someone who is openly mocking God. There is a very interesting TED talk on YouTube by Malcolm Gladwell where he describes how David was not in fact the underdog and that rather he had all the advantages in this battle. I recommend watching it because it is very insightful.
What is really important in this story is what Goliath represents. He is like the Nephilim, a mighty giant in defiance against God. Here comes David, God’s humble representative, a boy, already anointed at this point, to answer the challenge without fear because of God. David’s victory makes him a hero, a mighty warrior and gives him renown. In many ways David becomes like a Nephilim, but yet, he is not because he is a small shepherd boy and not yet king.
Eventually king Saul becomes suspicious of David’s ambitions and Saul becomes increasingly evil, trying to kill David on numerous occasions despite the fact that David has done nothing wrong. Saul also kills a group of priests. Eventually Saul dies in battle and David becomes king.
David’s rule is marked by significant victories, but there is a lot going on in David’s life. As David increases in power and fame he reaches a point where he has his very own Genesis 6 moment where he begins to imitate the rebellious sons of God when he sees the beautiful woman Bathsheba and takes her for his own. He then contrives the death one of his own “mighty” men, Uriah the Hittite, who is Bathsheba’s husband, in an attempt to hide his affair.
It’s when the prophet Nathan confronts David that we have the final moment of decision: Will David choose the way of Nephilim and become the very Goliath that he destroyed earlier in battle? Will he kill the prophet Nathan and reject God and follow the path of king Saul? David humbles himself and accepts God’s punishment. David’s life is spared and he keeps the kingdom, but his family falls apart in the years that follow and he spends some years in exile.
Dictators, tyrants, strong man and narcissists
Narcissists are people who basically see the world as revolving around them. An easy problem to have if you think you’re a demigod. It’s a trait found in many well known leaders that have been tyrants.
There are of course many good examples of modern and historical people that follow the template set by the Nephilim: Kim Jong-un, Stalin, Vladimir Putin, Napoleon, Genghis Khan. This is actually not a surprise because it is the pattern that has been most common throughout human history. What is interesting is when one of these tyrants changes and humbles themselves. When was the last time that happened?
Something else that is unexpected is how often we find the pattern of Nephilim within churches. Even within LMC there was a time when Bishops were considered heavy handed, a kind of strong man.
There are a number of high profile churches and leaders that have demonstrated unrepentant use of power. Ravi Zacharias, an internationally famous apologist, Bill Hybles a former pastor of the mega church Willow Creek and author of many books, and John Howard Yoder, a Mennonite theologian and author. All of these have used their positions to sexually abuse or harass women a pattern given to us in Genesis 6, taking what was not theirs because of their might and renown.
In the past year, I had listened to a pod-cast series from Christianity Today titled “The rise and fall of Mars Hill”, a mega church in the Seattle area that was led by Mark Driscoll. The church was multi-site and had a weekly attendance of over 15,000 and his online audience was equally large. What caught my attention in this documentary podcast was how Mark’s story, the story that he told his church about himself, evolved over the years. They even had audio clips of him as young leader. As a young leader, there was nothing spectacular about his story. As the church grew and his prominence grew and his messages became more popular, his own story about himself and how the church started evolved into a narrative that placed him in the center and became much more epic.
The podcast series caused me to think about my time in leadership here at Millersville. Over the years, I have had many other leaders tell me what I should do if I want to attract more people to Sunday services, most of which was about making worship singing more exciting. There is a part of me that would like to make a name for myself. I can tell, because on occasion I’ll go to the church YouTube channel and see how many views our services get and I’m often disappointed when I see that Millie’s messages get more views than mine. What I’ve come to realize is that God did not ask me to make Sunday worship better and he never asked me to make a name for myself or to attract more people to Millersville Mennonite. If God wanted that, he would’ve made me a better speaker, with better looks and a better singing voice. And so I wonder, what is God looking for in a leader?
The suffering servant
He grew up before him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of dry ground. He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem. Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed…. He was assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death, though he had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth. Yet it was the LORD’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and though the LORD makes his life an offering for sin, he will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the LORD will prosper in his hand. After he has suffered, he will see the light of life and be satisfied; by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities. Therefore I will give him a portion among the great, and he will divide the spoils with the strong, because he poured out his life unto death, and was numbered with the transgressors. For he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.Isaiah 53:2-5,9-12 NIV
The prophet Isaiah looks into Israel’s past, the people like Joseph and Daniel, and can see into the future and he sees a leader unlike any the world has ever known: Unattractive, weak, disliked which can be summed up in one word: Loser. His only strength and might comes in the form of bearing the unbearable weight of human sin.
When Jesus comes, he is the Son of God and also God in human form. Like other kings, pharaohs and emperors, Jesus makes a claim about himself of greatness that puts him on par with the great people of humanity, but instead of ruling with strength and renown, he becomes the suffering servant that Isaiah sees.
When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. “You call me ‘Teacher ’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet.John 13:12-14 NIV
Genesis 6 presents us with a new kind of human, the Nephilim, a template for humanity that many world leaders have chosen throughout history. It is a pattern whose spiritual heritage belongs to the father of lies. Jesus shows the way to be the renewed human, made in the image of Christ, the one and only Son of God.
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.Philippians 2:5-11 NRSV