Monday, March 31, 2014

Who were the Nephilim?

Since the question is back on the table with this weekend's release of the Noah flop film, here is an answer deep from the archives.

As it turns out, the Nephilim have everything to do with Christian boys who lust after the Emma Watsons of the world and nothing to do with fantastic CGI rock giants or prurient alien angel-demons.

An exegetical study of Genesis 6.


According to the O and NT’s, Moses was the author of the Torah[1].  His audience was a post-Exodus, pre-conquest Israel.  His main spiritual concerns would have been: 
A. education – Israelite [and Canaanite] history and that of the land she was to inhabit; 
B. Faith in God through hardship and uncertainty [grumbling vs perseverance - especially while traveling; trusting God as He works in time and processes; being subverted by the temptations of food, idolatry, and compromise with powerful empire-builders]; 
and C. Purity through separation [ethical and marital; being subverted by women].  

All three of these themes are nearly omnipresent subtexts undergirding every portion of Genesis.  They explain the content and emphasis of nearly everything contained therein. 

To answer the question at hand, I would like to key in on the third concern – spiritual purity and marriage.  At the risk of overstating my case, if Genesis were written today as a sensational political paperback, it would be called something like: “Setting the Record Straight: The true history of the Israelite Nation: how women, paganism, and faithless compromise almost destroyed God’s people, why Canaan is rightfully theirs and why the bloodthirsty, idolaters must be driven from it.” 

The entirety of Torah disparages intermingling w/ Heathens [particularly Heathen women].  Let’s look at a basic outline of the stories[2] in Genesis.  For the sake of argument, we’ll limit our focus to Genesis, not spending any time to pick up on the theme throughout Exodus [the great separation] or countless legal reinforcements of this principle [not being able to wear clothing w/ intermingled fibers, eat animals w/ intermingled characteristics, even the borders of their beards and fields were to be untrimmed and unfaded.  Distinctions, edges, borders, fences, peculiarities ARE GOOD in the law!].  The narrative’s outline looks something like this:


Let’s look at how this theme is highlighted in each section of the book. 

Risking gross redundancy from the very beginning, the author of the creation account taught this central principle by thematic wording and repetition from the first page of his narrative.  Each act of creation is described in the vocabulary of separation and contrast.  [Light vs dark, land vs sea, heavens vs earth, birds vs fish, winter vs summer, Sabbath vs work week, man vs woman, etc. ]
Each of the plants and animals is said to have reproduced ‘after his own kind’.  These things are repeated again and again, often boring or perplexing modern readers: ‘Who cares?!’  At the pinnacle of God’s creating, we see an amazing thing: God declares His chief creation [man] to be “not good”!  Why was he not good?  Because there wasn’t found a matching, similar, or suitable companion for him.  Not having a suitable companion is bad. 

This is a theme the author continues.  How often does he tell us about a man being undermined or undone by a wily woman?  Perhaps it would be easier to list [or even name a single] female character who does not end up subverting or inadvertently stumbling her husband.  From Eve onward, we hear story after story of how men were tempted or undermined by their female counterparts.  This isn’t misogynistic rhetoric.  This is carefully thematic pastoral thread-weaving. 

To focus on the fall itself, the act of sin was one of intermingling.  Eve failed to regard this tree as separate from the others.  Eve failed to resist the temptation to intermingle and become ‘like God’ in eating the fruit.  As a punishment, the serpent is altered and made distinct from the other creatures so as to be easily identified.  The same is true with Cain after murdering his brother in a rage over God’s discrimination between his offering versus his brother’s. 

In the next section we’ll look more closely at the Flood passage.  So moving on to Babel, the author informs his readers that it was in fact God, Himself, Who was responsible for separating the peoples of the earth into distinct nations and tongues.  It was their desire to build a central city w/ a monument that would blur the distinction between land and sky. 

Then God breaks through the silence to pull Abram out of his homeland and separate him.  Lot errs by intermingling and to disastrous consequences.  His wife and daughters supplant him further as the narrative unfolds.  The beauty of Abram’s wife becomes a hindrance twice when he intermingles with the Heathens [Isaac also repeats this error].  Her laughter upsets God, and her machinations with Hagar give birth to perpetual strife in the middle east.  It is also in the story of Abraham where we are introduced to the central practice of circumcision – the bloody cutting[3]/separation of the member of conjugal union and offspring.

Next [surprise, surprise] Abraham critical concern before dying is that his rapidly-aging and still unmarried son Isaac NOT take a pagan wife.  After a great deal of difficulty he is found a wife who, eventually, works behind his back.  Again we see within his family, twin boys, between whom God discriminates.  Esau solidifies his rejection by intermarrying with the Ishmaelites. 

Moving on to Jacob, again, he is dramatically undone by marriage and then his life is constantly burdened by his wives’ quarreling.  He separates from Laban. 

Before Joseph, we are told two incidental stories with little apparent connection to the rest of the narrative except in this one regard, both Dinah and Tamar are trouble for their male counterparts[4]. 

Joseph’s life is one of repeated separation.  He is sold into slavery and manages to do well for himself until the heathen wife of Potiphar betrays him.  After discerning between two dreamers, Joseph ascends to power and his family eventually migrates to Egypt, but only upon Jacob’s insistence that his bones be separated from this foreign land. 

Bottom Line: every female character in the book is portrayed in a dubious light except for Joseph’s wife [whom he married in Egypt, where he was enslaved, imprisoned, and then enlisted as Pharoah’s adviser – extenuating circumstances], and the godly wives of Noah and his sons - none of whom have active or ‘speaking’ parts in the narrative.  With that in mind, let’s look at Genesis 6.


Having viewed the book as a whole from 30k feet, let’s consider our specific passage in closer detail. Because it wasn’t originally written with chapter splits, we gain a sense of context by starting in chapter 4. There we find the graphic portrayal of our theme: contrast, distinction, separation; in a word: enmity.

God’s war declaration had polarized mankind [something that will continue until the last pages of Scripture where we find a sword coming from Christ’s open mouth – His Word divides. It did so during His earthly ministry and has continued thus ever since. This is a relevant theme for today – God’s Word divides. It did so at creation; it did so at Calvary; and it does so today – particularly His commands – they divide light from darkness - His children from His enemies.]
Cain slew his enemy, righteous Abel. Then the storyteller describes the offspring of Cain. They were geniuses of culture, artistry, husbandry, and industry. They were also sons of their father Cain, known for their rage and bloodshed.
Lamech, who could be argued to be the father of gangsta’ rap, poetically boasts [note he is linked w/ women, particularly two women – as the father of polygamy] that he has multiplied the brash violence of Cain. We are also told that when innocent blood has been spilled, it cries out loudly to Heaven, filling the ears of God with its noise [interesting parallel note Atrahasis].

We are also told that contrary to the genius and cultural developments of the Cainites, the Sethites were known for primarily one thing – their Godliness [they first began to ‘call upon the name of the Lord’ or perhaps ‘be called by God’s name’ – either way denoting their relationship as God’s peculiar people.] The latter translation is quite compelling though, as it would mean that verse 26 would be restated: “ … and this is when men began to be called God’s sons”.

Chapter 5 proceeds with yet another genealogy – this time telling us, not about the wicked offspring of Cain – the enemies of God – but about God’s people – the righteous line of Sethite men including Godly Enoch and Noah. We might anticipate the wording of chapter 6 and paraphrase Heb 11 by stating: ‘these were righteous heroes, men of good renown’. These served as a contrast to the Cainites. So the line has been drawn. God has declared war and 2 sides are formed on each side a vast army of white hats versus black.

But no sooner have we gotten to chapter 6 than the whole earth is so full of evil violence and bloodshed that only a single righteous man and his family can be found. How in the world did that happen [More pertinent to the Author's concerns is the question 'Why are the Nephilim' as opposed to 'Who are the Nephilim']? We are given 3 verses at the outset by way of explanation. The ‘sons of God’ took the ‘daughters of men’ as wives and filled the earth with their offspring.
So the real question of interest isn’t ‘Who were the Nephilim’, but ‘Who were the “sons of God”?’
Please note that these ‘sons of God’ took wives.  They didn’t merely rape females.  Marriage is in focus here, not angels or demons!

In keeping with the theme of the entire book it is abundantly clear that the ‘sons of God’ were Sethite men [please also note how frequently the terms ‘men’ and ‘man’ appear in these few short verses. The very next verse proves that the focal object of God’s wrath is clearly humankind. The angelic realm is the farthest thing from the author’s mind at this point.] seduced by the beauty of Cainite women and their intermarriage produced corrupted children who became known as the Nephilim.


The word Nephilim is often translated ‘giants’. A literal rendition would be “fallen ones” while other scholars prefer ‘ones who fall upon’.  So it is understandable how this might portray ‘giants’ in one sense. This is furthered by the comments of the Israelites who described themselves as ‘locust in their sight’ [Num 13].
But another understanding of the word would include different connotations: raiders, [land pirates, guerilla soldiers, or ambushers] warriors who fall upon their prey. This is a very common use of the root word naphal in the OT, and one that is reinforced by the further description provided for us in the final words of this same verse: “these were ‘valiant men’ of ‘renown’”.
Though this sounds rather positive in the English, it is clear that God’s opinion of these characters is less upbeat in the verses just before and afterward. The word ‘gibbor’ means literally ‘mighty or skilled warrior’ [I should know, I chose to name my firstborn ‘gibbor-El’ or Gabriel, mighty warrior of God].

The word for ‘renown’ is simply ‘shem’ meaning literally ‘name’ [which incidentally carries quite negative connotations in this context, as it was the exact word the author used earlier to explain the sinful rationale of the people of Babel.  They were seeking to make “a name” for themselves in defiance of God’s will. They would make themselves famous by their ungodly deeds.]


To suggest that the Nephilim were the supernatural offspring of demonic rape is not only bizarre and distracting, but positively detrimental to understanding one of the central themes of the book.  It’s like claiming that the Russian boxer in Rocky 4 was an alien. It is first of all ridiculous, secondly unnecessary, and thirdly, misses the point entirely! Rocky 4, like most of the Stallone films of my adolescent fascination, was pro-American Cold War propaganda. Rocky’s enemy wasn’t an alien!  He was a Communist and that was the point!
The Sons of God weren’t fallen angels.  They were believers whose unequally yoked marriages ruined the world! That’s the point!* Don’t miss Moses’ message to his original audience as well as its strong and clear practical applications for believers today. 

[1] For the purposes of this paper, I reject JEDP source approaches and proceed under the simple Biblical assumption that, as a whole, the Pentateuch was written by a single author, namely, Moses.

[2] It is important to note that I am outlining the stories of Genesis because the content of Genesis is actually built around genealogies.  This is another key ‘clue’ into the mind and intentions of the author when attempting to answer the question at hand.  This is also very relevant to our discussion, as keeping this in mind would incline us toward a natural, familial understanding of the sons of God, rather than a supernatural one. 
[3] Acts of separation are such a prevalent element of covenant making that the process of establishing a covenant is often referred to as ‘cutting a covenant’. 
[4] Please understand that I’m not blaming women for all the trouble.  Quite often the men were at fault and an essential aspect of male headship is the personal assumption of covenant responsibility.  I’m merely pointing out the theme.  Throughout the book we see reckless men who were themselves to be blamed for their troubles, though – in keeping with the theme - the object of their downfall was often a woman.  There is a similar theme surrounding food, though is an amoral thing, not at all evil in itself.  In fact, as the rest of Scripture demonstrates, it is a good gift from the Father’s Hand to be received with thanksgiving.  And so are - for the record - our wives and daughters.

*The interpretation that I am arguing against here - that the 'sons of God' were angels - does admittedly have ancient roots.  In the earliest copies we have of Greek retranslations of Genesis from Sinaiticus and Vaticanus, one translates the phrase as 'sons of God', while the other uses the Greek phrase 'angels of God'! Rabbinic and Apocryphal sources also favor this fantastic reading.  It is my contention that this is a pollution from Heathen mythology, rather than an authentic reading born from a proper understanding of the text itself.

No comments: