This summer, our church has been doing a “summer Bible study” on Genesis 1-11. Interestingly, the sermons have skipped over the part about the Nephilim, in Genesis 6:1-4:
When man began to multiply on the face of the land and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that the daughters of man were attractive. And they took as their wives any they chose. Then the Lord said, “My Spirit shall not abide in man forever, for he is flesh: his days shall be 120 years.” 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 (ESV).
I can understand that there are good reasons for skipping this passage. First, this passage is … uh.. a bit… weird. Secondly, no one really has a clue as to what this really means…. That is right. No one really knows for sure what Genesis 6:1-4 is all about… and neither do I. Still, I think there is something we can still learn from the Nephilim passage.
Who were the Sons of God who were Attracted to the Daughters of Men?
I have covered a couple of possible ideas before about how to understand this passage. Could they be cavemen? What about the idea popularized by some Jews in Jesus’ day that the Nephilim were were “the Watchers” in the apocryphal Book of Enoch, a book that oddly enough was quoted in a positive way by the canonical Book of Jude (Jude 1:14)?
The oldest view held by Christians over the ages has been that the “sons of God” were fallen angels, which is the idea presented in the Book of Enoch (do not bother looking for the Book of Enoch in your Bible… you will not find it). The main problem with this view is that such a fantastic claim regarding angels marrying human women is out of step with the rest of the biblical narrative. As an alternative, another view, namely one referenced by the Dead Sea Scrolls, says that the “sons of God” were the “children of Seth” that married the “children of Cain” that were in rebellion against God. Yet another view, argues that these “sons of God” were earthly kings (see Meredith Kline’s essay).
Various scholars tie these “sons of God,” the Nephilim, to the reference to the “giants” that the Hebrew scouts saw in the Promised Land, while the Jews were still wandering around in the Sinai desert, after fleeing from Egypt (Numbers 13:33).
Maybe, even Goliath was a member of the Nephilim (1 Samuel 17:51).
A nice, helpful summary of these views can be found at this Patheos blog by Kermit Zarley (a somewhat eccentric and controversial Bible blogger, who doubles as a golf pro…go figure… but he is pretty accurate in his research on this particular issue of the Nephilim). Also, here is Southern California pastor John MacArthur giving the standard “fallen angels” view in more detail.
Now, I tell you all of this not to confuse you.
Instead, I do tell you all of this for two reasons. There are two dangers we should avoid: one on one side, and one on the other.
First, I tell you this because sometimes I think we expect the Bible to answer all of our questions. Unfortunately, when we do that, we risk misusing the Bible to try to make it do something that God never intended for it to do.
The human desire for answers is quite understandable. Clearly, all of these various interpretations about the Nephilim can not all be right.
At the same time, there are views of the Nephilim that are simply not anywhere in the ballpark. Sorry, but while Darren Aronofsky’s film Noah might have a provocatively, challenging environmentalist message, his idea of the Nephilim being rock-creatures that look too much like the tree-creatures in the Lord of the Rings movies is a bit way out there. Aronofsky’s Nephilim tell us more about himself than he does about the Bible.
When reading the Bible simply becomes an exercise of projecting one’s own spiritual autobiography, then merely voicing your own, uninformed opinion eventually becomes counter-productive. While it may come across as self-revealing, it is really only an excuse for elevating one’s self instead of God’s Word. Narcissism edifies no one. Eventually, throwing one’s hands up in the air in frustration, thinking, “What is the point? Everyone has their own interpretation!,” is not the “answer” either.
A better way to look at it is to consider some of the biblical themes that are touched on by the Nephilim story, and how it relates to other passages of the Bible that have a greater sense of clarity. Whether you hold to the “fallen angels” view or the “children of Seth” view, there are some common threads. For example, since the Nephilim are “giants” that are in rebellion to God, does it not give us some sense that God’s Word is introducing to us the theme that God will conquer the “giants” that stand in the way on our path towards Jesus? Will He not guarantee that “Promised Land” of His rest, despite the “giants” that are rumored to oppose us? Will He not slay the Goliaths that cause us to tremble in fear?
When it comes to difficult parts of the Bible, we do not need to know THE one and only answer. But in saying this, it does not give us license to say, “Hey, anything goes!”
So surely, there are lessons to learn from Genesis 6:1-4, even if the passage is rather obscure. This might be tricky for preachers to tackle from the pulpit, but we need not skip over these “tough passages” in our own personal study. We can still wrestle with them, seeking wisdom from other mature believers who have wrestled with them, too. You might see something that the Lord has taught you that I have not seen. Perhaps you can share it with me so that I can learn from you (but can we pledge not to go crazy over this? We do not need to make things up. You are only telling us something about yourself, and not God’s Word, when you do that!).
At the same time, do we always need to have the right answer? Can we be content to just let the Bible be the Bible, and to celebrate its mystery? Can there be any wisdom in saying, “Hey, I am willing to listen and learn, trusting that the Lord will have His own way here, but … I really do not know the answer?”