A lot of controversy exists concerning the meaning of the Hebrew word “Nephilim”, which appears in the Bible in Genesis 6:4 and Numbers 13:33. Although it doesn't exist in the English dictionary, it is found in the NIV and ASB versions.
According to philologists, that Hebrew word has its root in naphal, with many meanings around “falling” as, to overcome, to defeat, to cause to fall, all proper to violent men. In the King James version the word is translated as “giants”, as in Jerome’s Latin Vulgate. But the context of Genesis 6 doesn't reveal that they were of great physical stature, and possibly that translation was influenced by the context of Numbers 13:33 where the sons of Anak are called Nephilim because they “come of the Nephilim”: in Deuteronomy (1:28, 2:10,11,21, 9:2) and in Joshua (11:21,22, 14:12,15) we find mention of the Anakim, as a “great, numerous and tall people” (e.g. Deuteronomy 2:10). Modern translators cautiously avoid translating Nephilim into some English word.
This leads us to consider some ideas that have come up on the contexts in which that word has been used:
Let us see Genesis 6:1-5, as it appears in NIV: “When men began to increase in number on the earth and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that the daughters of men were beautiful, and they married any of them they chose. Then the LORD said ‘My Spirit will not contend with man for ever, for he is mortal; his days will be a hundred and twenty years.’ The Nephilim were on the earth in those days – and also afterwards – when the sons of God went to the daughters of men and had sons by them. They were the heroes of old, men of renown. The Lord saw how great man’s wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time.”
That is the punctuation chosen by the translators, because the old Hebrew manuscripts do not have punctuation. It results in a sequence of sentences, whose relationship is not, necessarily, progressive.
The first sentence informs us that humanity multiplied - which was the desire of God (Genesis 1:28). It also explains that the sons of God saw that the daughters of men were beautiful, and they married the ones they chose. It seems very natural that this should be so. But there is controversy about this: as in the following sentence the Lord punishes man because of his perversity, there must have been some perversity in such a marriage between the “sons of God” and the beautiful “daughters of men”! If this were so, the explanation ought to be found by discovering who the “sons of God” were, who were distinguished from the “daughters of men”, yet married them. The most divulgated theories as to who were the “sons of God” are:
1. The “sons of God” were perverse, so:
2. The “sons of God” were the saints of old:
The second sentence seems to tell us that, at that time (some time before the flood), the Lord determined that His Spirit would not contend with man for ever and that his life would be reduced to one hundred and twenty years. Many understand that this happened a hundred and twenty years before the flood, when He ordered Noah to make the ark, and that humanity had that period of time to repent.
The third sentence tells us about the Nephilim which were on earth: they existed as much before as after the mixed marriages, so it is incorrect to think that they resulted from them.
The fourth sentence explains that the Nephilim were the heroes of the past, famous men. At last we have a description, short but quite explanatory, about who they were. Added to what is known about the origin of the word, which we saw above, we conclude that the Nephilim would nowadays be a type of those called “barons” in politics, in industry, in trade, in drugs, etc. They were giants, not necessarily in physical stature, but in dominion, power, tyranny, leadership by force. Men as Napoleon, Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini, would be some of the most recent Nephilim.
The last sentence tells us that the Lord saw “how great man’s wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time.” So inveterate was humanity's situation that He destroyed it completely with the flood, only saving Noah and his family and specimens of the animals that were also destroyed.
The Nephilim of that time disappeared, but others appeared in Canaan: “We saw the Nephilim there (the descendants of Anak com from the Nephilim). We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we looked the same to them” (Numbers 13:33 – NIV). They could not be descendants of the pre-Flood Nephilim because none survived, unless Noah was one of them, which is most unlikely; besides, all humanity after Noah was descended from him and, like him, from Seth and Adam… The sceptic spies could have been exaggerating the size of the Anakim.
All Anakim were destroyed by the Israelites by order of the LORD, except some that were in Gaza, in Gath and in Ashdod (Joshua 11:22). Curiously Goliath, about three meters high, champion of the Philistines, came from Gath to combat the Israelites, and was killed by David.
This is a warning to believers against taking upon themselves an unequal yoke in marriage. They risk misfortune, of having the grief of seeing their children distant from the Lord, irreverent and disobedient. Even if they turn out to be powerful and influential as the Nephilim, they are destined to destruction as the Nefilim were. Humanity in our days is beginning to resemble that of the antediluvian times, with its wickedness, defiance to God… and Nephilims. The days of the Son of Man are approaching (Luke 17:26,27) and let us be vigilant and ready for His coming (Matthew 24:37-44).