Who Are the “Men of Renown” in Genesis 6? (Part 1)

History records the names and accomplishments of famous people: “men (and women) of renown.” Genesis 6 refers to “men of renown” – but their names do not appear in the Bible or any secular history. Who were they, and why do we know nothing about them?

The men of renown in Genesis 6 exalted themselves as powerful leaders of the people, but in the end, they were brought down in ignominy. They were humiliated so totally that their names are erased from history. By contrast, a humble nobody named Noah is exalted and became renown throughout the ages. Jesus’s words in Matthew 23:12 come to mind: “Those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (NIV).

What caused such reversal in fortunes? Genesis 6 sets the scene:

When human beings began to increase in number on the earth and daughters were born to them, the sons of god [bene elohim] saw that the daughters of humans were beautiful, and they married any of them they chose. Then the LORD said, “My Spirit will not contend with humans forever, for they are mortal; their days will be a hundred and twenty years.” The Nephilim were on the earth in those days—and also afterward—when the sons of God went to the daughters of humans and had children by them. They were the heroes [gibbôr] of old, men of renown [shêm].

The NIV translates the Hebrew word gibbôr as “heroes,” but this is misleading. The KJV, NASB, and ESV all translate it more precisely as “mighty men.” This is important because a “hero” is good, but a “mighty man” can be good or evil. These gibbôr were evil—so evil that they caused wickedness to permeate humanity:

The LORD saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time (Genesis 6:5, NIV).

The Hebrew word rendered “renown” is shêm, commonly translated as “name.” So, again, we wonder why none of these “men of name” are named. They were exalted rulers, but in Genesis 6, they are identified only by the Hebrew word Nephilim.

The ancient Hebrews did not leave a lexicon. Who were the Nephilim? What about them was so wicked and evil?

Identifying the Nephilim

Let’s start with the Nephilim’s identity. First, their parents are described as the “sons of god” and “daughters of humans.” Keil and Delitzsch’s Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament details the “three different views [which] have been entertained from the very earliest times.”1

  1. An article in Biblical Archaeological Review claims the Nephilim “were the product of copulation between the divine beings (lit. sons of god) and human women (lit. daughters of Adam).” Hugh Ross suggests they were the result of human involvement with fallen angels or demons “in such a way as to alter the genes.”
  2. The sons were related to corrupt, powerful human rulers, and the daughters were commoners taken at will by the sovereign. Old Testament scholar Meredith Klein, for example, cites the “pagan ideology of divine kingship.”2
  3. The sons were godly men who took ungodly wives. Under this interpretation, the godly are usually associated with the line of Seth who “began to call upon the name of the LORD” (Genesis 4:26),3 and the wicked daughters with the line of men such as Lamech, who was a murderer (Genesis 4:23) like his ancestor Cain (Genesis 4:8).

Biblical support for the angel-human view is debated. Jude 1:6–7 suggests rebellious angels “abandoned their proper dwelling” and may have been involved in “sexual immorality and perversion.” The term “sons of god” [bene elohim] appears only in Genesis 6 and in Job 1:6, 2:1, and 38:7. Some scholars believe the usages in Job refer to angels, but others believe Job refers to righteous people. By contrast, Psalm 82:6 appears to refer to humans as “sons of the Most High,”4 but this, too, is debated. Since all these passages are controversial, they do not confirm or falsify the angel-human theory.

The pseudepigraphal Book of Enoch (as we have it today) claims that “angels, the sons of heaven,” copulated with human women to produce giants 4500 feet tall. The Book of Enoch is not part of the canonical Apocrypha,5 but it is referenced in Jude 1:14–15. Nevertheless, giants this size are not plausible physiologically; and in general, some stories in the Book of Enoch contradict authoritative scripture, rather than elaborate upon it.

To further muddle the discussion, Keil and Delitzsch also point out that one reading of the Hebrew text of Genesis 6:4 suggests the Nephilim may have already been on Earth when unions of the “sons of god” and “daughters of humans” occurred. It is clear Nephilim resulted from these unions, but if they were also present beforehand, then the term Nephilim may refer to physical and/or behavioral characteristics rather than race.

The presence of Nephilim in the Numbers 13 narrative also suggests the word is a descriptive term. All the Nephilim in Genesis 6 died in the flood, so those in Numbers 13 cannot be their descendants.

Nephilim as Agents of Evil

Now, let’s consider what evil the Nephilim committed. Genesis 6:2 shows that human society at the time of the Nephilim was characterized by tyranny and oppression and debauchery, including rampant, forced polygamy. God intended marriage to be between one man and one woman (Genesis 2:24). Prior to Genesis 6, only Lamech—of the line of Cain—is recorded as practicing polygamy. Yet in Genesis 6, the powerful “married any of them [human women] they chose” by force. This behavior was sinful on two levels and destroyed the family structure that God ordained; Genesis 6:3 reveals it was especially displeasing to God. Moreover, “like father, like son,” Genesis 6:5 shows that the offspring of those in Genesis 6:2 continued the wickedness, perhaps even increasing the depravity. These Nephilim exalted themselves with absolute power over others – including sexual licentiousness as an especially vile exercise of power.

In part 2, we’ll identify the characteristics of the Nephilim of Numbers 13 and combine them with Genesis 6 to answer our questions about these mysterious figures.

  1. F. Keil and F. Delitzsch, Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament, trans. by J. Martin, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1959), 137–39.
  2. G. Kline, “Divine Kingship and Genesis 6:1–4,” Westminster Theological Journal 24, no. 2 (1962): 192.
  3. Genesis 4:26 has also been translated that “men began to corrupt the calling of God’s name.”
  4. “Most High” =‛elyôn, a name of God.
  5. The Ethiopian and Eritrean Orthodox Churches accept the Book of Enoch.