Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The Nephilim

6 When man began to multiply on the face of the land and daughters were born to them, 2 the sons of God saw that the daughters of man were attractive. And they took as their wives any they chose. 3 Then the Lord said, “My Spirit shall not abide in man forever, for he is flesh: his days shall be 120 years.” 4 The Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of man and they bore children to them. These were the mighty men who were of old, the men of renown (Gen 6:1-4).
According to one commentator, 
What is entirely unnatural is the attraction these fair creatures held for the sons of God and the resultant marriages and births of superhuman warriors, the Nephilim. Interpreters have made every effort to explain this text in some way other than the plain and obvious meaning of the words before us. Such interpretive efforts have included theories of human marriages between the faithful Sethites and the wicked Cainites, or dynastic rules and their polygamous marriages and ruthless offspring, or otherwise demonic and/or angelic interpretations. However, the clear sense of the text is simply that of preternatural beings (i.e., not entirely supernatural creatures but certainly not wholly natural either) fathering semi-human offspring of great exceptional military strength, and perhaps of great stature. Such divine-human unions are attested in other cultures of the world, including Babylonian, Egyptian, Ugaritic, Hittite, and Greek. The Gilgamesh Epic attributes Gilgamesh's prodigious energy and power to his parentage, and the fact that he is two-thirds divine (Arnold 2009).
This is a useful foil. I'll use his set-up to contrast his interpretation with my own.
1) That's easy for Arnold to say. Given his liberal view of Scripture, it doesn't cost him anything to impute to Scripture an interpretation which he considers factually false or even preposterous. But for Christians who take the authority of Scripture seriously, we can't be so cavalier. Of course, Arnold pays a price. He just doesn't know it, given his compartmentalized faith.
2) It's antecedently unlikely that the narrator would suddenly endorse pagan mythology, given his polemical theology–which often skewers pagan mythology. 
3) If you use something like the Epic of Gilgamesh or Hesiod's Theogony as your frame of reference, then, of course, Gen 6:1-4 is mythological. But that's a reference frame you're bringing to the text, not reference frame you're getting from the text. That interpretation is the artifact of what you read into the text, not what you read out of the text.
4) Moreover, v2 isn't even consistent with Arnold's pagan comparisons. In that literature, high gods and low gods don't marry women. Rather, they seize them by force, then dump them. 
5) The fallen angelic interpretation is just as extraordinary as the mythological interpretation. So why would that avoid the "plain and obvious" sense of the text? It's not like that's a rationalistic or naturalistic interpretation. 
6) Notice the implicit premises in Arnold's argument:
i) The bene ha elohim are low gods.
ii) The Nephilim are demigods sired by low gods. 
But syllogism is dubious:
7) First of all, there's the identity of the bene ha elohim
i) This is the only occurrence of that phrase in the Pentateuch. So, frankly, we're at a loss to know for sure what the narrator meant by that. Commentators turn to Job and the Psalms for linguistic parallels. But is that reliable? Job's Hebrew is idiosyncratic. And the Psalms are poetic. 
ii) In the OT, "son" can be used abstractly or figuratively, viz. "sons of Belial" (Deut 13:13), "sons of valor" (Judg 18:2), "sons of fire" (Job 5:7), "son of the dawn" (Isa 14:12).
8) Conversely, elohim can sometimes be used as an adjective as well as a noun. Indeed, it's striking that commentators who render bene ha elohim in Gen 6:2 as "divine beings" are also inclined to render ruach elohim in Gen 1:2 as "awesome wind," or el gibbor in Isa 9:6 as "great hero." They translate the terminology down when they wish to demote orthodox interpretations, and translate the terminology up when they wish to promote heterodox interpretations. 
9) It's unclear from the syntax if the Nephilim are offspring of these unions. They could be contemporaries of the "sons of God(s)." 
10) Moreover, Arnold is using Num 13:33 to gloss the Nephilim in Gen 6:4. But that identification is dubious. For one thing, the Nephilim in 6:4 would perish in the flood. Since the Pentateuch is a literary unit, with the same narrator, their postdiluvian survival would be inconsistent with his storyline.
11) Furthermore, the description of the Nephilim in Num 13:33 comes from the spies who are looking for an excuse to retreat. So their description is hyperbolic. 
12) There's also the question of whether this pericope goes with the preceding genealogy or the succeeding flood account. If it goes with the genealogy, then there's less reason to think anything extraordinary is in view.
13) For many scholars, "mythical" is a synonym for whatever they deem to be impossible or unbelievable. "Mythical" is the measure of their secular education and experience. If nothing out of the ordinary has ever happened to them, then anything miraculous or paranormal is "mythical." 
14) There's nothing prima facie mythical about "heroes of old" or "men of renown." That hardly selects for demigods. 
To me, that suggests someone like Nimrod (Gen 10:8-12). Indeed, both passages employ the same designation (gibbor [10:8-9]; gibborim [6:4]). Of course he's postdiluvial, but he's the type of individual that 6:4 is referring to. Explorers. Conquerors. Warrior-kings. Founders of ancient empires. 
In a sense, Arnold is half-right. It's a familiar theme. But Arnold has the order wrong. Historical figures can morph into legendary figures, then mythical figures. Ambitious, ruthless, adventurous young men who are bent on conquering the world. Making a deathless name for themselves. 
A modern counterpart would be the Conquistadors. In relation to the New World (i.e. Latin America), they were the "heroes of old." Don't let the positive connotations of the English word "hero" throw you. It doesn't mean the good guy. It means heroic. Rapacious men can do heroic deeds. 
15) This, in turn, might throw light on the "sons of God(s)." Let's assume (ex hypothesi) that the "sons of God(s)" fathered the "heroes of old." 
If a son has a famous father, the son is known in association with his well-known father. Likewise, if your father is a king, that makes you a prince. You are born into a socially high status (unless you're the bastard son of a royal mistress).
But it can work in reverse. A famous son will retroactively elevate the social status of his father. No one would remember who Jesse was if his son hadn't been a great king of Israel. 
Assuming that the "sons of God(s)" in 6:2 are fathers of the "heroes of old" in 6:4, they might come by that honorific title after the fact. They could be ordinary men who fathered extraordinary sons. Sons whose fame confers status on their fathers. 
The prediluvian world was waiting to be explored and colonized. An opportunity for prediluvian counterparts to Napoleon, Alexander, Tamerlane, Cortés, Pizarro, and Genghis Khan to make their mark on a wide-open world. 
And for their insolence, God either reduces their lifespan or expedites the flood (depending on how we construe Gen 6:3). 

16) One scholar thinks this may be a polemic against cult prostitution, where men had sex with a priestess who represented a goddess (Wenham 2003).

That's interesting, but it doesn't seem to fit the wording of the text:

i) The text uses stock marital terminology. 

ii) If it was alluding to cult prostitution, we might expect it to refer the "sons of Adam" and the "daughters of goddesses" rather than the "sons of gods" and and "daughters of Adam." 

iii) The wording is too generic to specify cult prostitution. If that's the subtextual target, it's pretty oblique. 
17) Finally:

i) There's nothing in Gen 6:1-4 about the "sons of God" coming down from the sky, much less their banishment from heaven. No descent. No heaven/earth contrast. That's reading 1 Enoch back into Genesis. 

ii) In Pentateuchal usage, divine fatherhood/sonship is employed metaphorically (e. g. Exod 4:22-23; Deut 14:1; cf. 1:31; 8:5; 32:6). I think it best to construe Gen 6:2,4 in the same figurative sense. 
Arnold, B. Genesis (Cambridge 2009), 89-90.

Wenham, G. Exploring the Old Testament, Volume 1: A Guide to the Pentateuch (IVP 2003), 27.