Of Giants and Grasshoppers

When the spies that Joshua sent out to reconnoitre the land returned to camp, they came with bad news: “The people who live in the land are strong and the cities are fortified and very large; and moreover we saw the descendants of Anak there. We are not able to go up against the people, for they are too strong for us.” The spies were quite rattled: “There we also saw the Nephilim and we became like grasshoppers in our own sight, and so we were in their sight!” (Numbers 13:28f) The people were impressed, alarmed, and disheartened at this news. Giants in the land! “Would that we had died in Egypt!” they cried. They instantly re-thought the whole Promised Land project and were all for going back to Egypt. Granted that the spies’ report was rife with fear-driven hyperbole (“small as grasshoppers” by comparison? Really?), we may still ask: what about those giants?

The first question is: how big were the giants? Well, Goliath of Gath in the time of David was possibly six cubits and a span tall—i.e. about nine feet (1 Samuel 17:4). I say “possibly” six cubits tall because that was his height according to the Masoretic text. The Septuagint puts him at four cubits and a span—just over six feet tall. This might be the more accurate, since it is also the reading of the text of 4QSam found among the Dead Sea scrolls. This would not involve anything supernatural or weird (like the rock giants of the 2014 Noah movie). People significantly larger than the rest of the population would get a reputation as giants. A thirteenth century B.C. Egyptian papyrus refers to the Bedouin of Canaan “some of whom are of four cubits or five cubits from their nose to their foot, and have fierce faces” (quoted in the Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible, p. 489). Fierce people whose genes made them tall would leave their cultural mark far and wide.

And Canaan apparently had its share of them. The Israelites called them “the Anakim” (Numbers 13:33). A neighbouring clan were called the “Emim” (Deuteronomy 2:10-11). What seems to have been their parent clan was called the “Rephaim”, and they were also around (Deuteronomy 2:11, 3:11, Joshua 12:4). Given that the term “rephaim” was later used to describe anyone who had died and was in Sheol (the word for such rephaim is usually translated “shades” in Psalm 88:10; Isaiah 14:9, 26:14, 19; Proverbs 2:18), one commentator thinks the term here means “the defunct ones” (Craigie in his NICNT commentary on Deuteronomy, p. 111), meaning that the clan was then dying out. But the Anakim were not then dying out, and their presence in Canaan made a lasting impression on the spies. They described them as “Nephilim”.

So then who were the Nephilim that made such an impression on the spies that they used this term to describe the present occupants of Canaan? The word comes from the Hebrew naphal, to fall. They are briefly mentioned in Genesis 6: 1-4, probably as an illustration of just how bad things got before the Flood. The text reads as follows.

“When man began to multiply on the face of the earth 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.) Whenever the sons of God came in to the daughters of man, they bore children to them. These were the warriors of old, men of renown.” The text has occasioned the spilling of much exegetical ink throughout the Church’s history. These few verses bristle with difficulty and have produced many questions.

First of all, who were “the sons of God” [Hebrew bene elohim]? The word is used elsewhere in the Old Testament to refer to the angels (Job 1:6; 38:7; Psalm 89:6). According to the obvious meaning of the text, the story here declares that angels found human women attractive, came down, and married them. (The Hebrew verb laqach, here rendered “took” is the usual word used for anyone taking a wife; no coercion is implied.) The children produced by this angelic-human marriages grew up to be warriors [Hebrew gibborim], men of renown. The text also says—parenthetically I suggest—that the Nephilim, giants, were also on the earth. The text does not say that the Nephilim were result of the angelic-human unions; that result is mentioned in the next sentence.

The word “Nephilim” is here used to denote giants—which is how it was translated by the Septuagint. The text says that such giants were on the earth in the days prior to the Flood “and also afterward”. It is clear, however, that the text cannot be understood as saying that the same race of Nephilim were on the earth afterwards, for nothing survived the Flood except Noah and his family (Genesis 7:22). Whatever Nephilim existed prior to the Flood were wiped out in the deluge. Therefore the term “Nephilim” must here generically denote gigantically tall people. But, we may still ask, what does the term “fallen ones” actually mean? If the sons of God were likened to stars in the sky, one commentator suggested that Nephilim denotes meteors, stars falling to the earth (thus Unger’s Bible Dictionary, p. 402).

It is important to situate these verses in the culture of their time. No one then thought that angels or gods could not breed with human beings. This was morally disallowed, but not physiologically impossible. The pagan world knew of a number of beings who were the product of such unions, and who were half-human, half-divine. Such unions were not proper, it was felt, but they were possible. The Hebrews had a horror of mixing—which included a ban on wearing a garment of mixed cloth (Leviticus 19:19)—and the notion of angels mixing with women revealed that all moral order had been overthrown.

The Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible (p. 18) suggests that the Nephilim are to be identified with the apkallu, semi-divine beings who marry human women and produced mixed classes. If this is true, what we have here in Genesis is not history, but polemic. The author of Genesis takes the heroes of the pagan world and paints them as the villains. The picture of giants prowling the earth and of angels mixing with women is intended as a statement that the culture of the pagans of their day was as bad as the sin which provoked the Flood.

Much later these few verses formed the basis of the mythological backstory contained in such inter-testamental pseudepigrapha as the Book of Enoch and Jubilees—a kind of “Nephilim: the Prequel”. It takes the story (one may say, “rips the story”) from its original polemical context and uses it in the service of a raging nationalistic apocalypticism. It was heady and exciting stuff (like an early Dan Brown), even though it had little actual basis in the Biblical narrative.

It is also dramatically weird, and at times feels like a kind of Jewish Gnosticism, as if Valentinus had gotten himself circumcised and kept on writing. In particular the Book of the Courses of the Heavenly Luminaries (chapters72-82) is full of astrological esoterica. It details all the secret paths of the sun, the moon, and the stars, and the angels who rule over them and therefore over mankind, and includes convoluted calendrical calculations. Like other bits of Enoch, it also details the names of the sun and the various angels, as if knowing and reciting their names gave one a kind of magic power. Thus we learn of the names of the sun: Orjares, Tomas; and of the moon: Asonja, Ebla, Benase, Erae. We learn the names of the angelic leaders who divide the four parts of the year: Milki’el, Hel’emmelek, Mel’ejal, Narel, and of those who lead them: Adnar’el, Ijasusa’el, Elome’el. It is to angels that God has subjected everyone and who have the power over night and day and over all created forces.

It sure is exciting, and has absolutely nothing to do with apostolic Christianity, since the angels seemed to have effectively elbowed God out of the way. St. Paul warned the Colossians about a Jewish Gnosticism with its worship of angels (Colossians 2:18), and he warned Timothy and Titus to avoid “Jewish myths” (1 Timothy 1:4; Titus 1:14). One suspects that he was thinking of stuff like this.

Oblique and passing references to such pseudepigraphal material found their way into the New Testament (e.g. 2 Peter 2:4; Jude 6), but only as literary examples of sin and punishment (along with Noah’s flood and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah). Such references do not constitute endorsement of the lurid apocalyptic mythology of Enoch or Jubilees any more than the reference to Michael arguing with Satan in Jude 9 constitutes a theological endorsement of the Assumption of Moses in which that story is found. The references are therefore more literary than theological, and simply illustrate that the apostles were happy to draw from many sources to promote their central Gospel message. They kept the notion that all sin will be punished (and therefore should be avoided); they took a pass on the lurid mythological backstory.

Fast forward to the later exegetes of the Church. Early Fathers like Justin Martyr (in his Second Apology), and Irenaeus (in his Apostolic Preaching) accepted the Genesis story at literal face value. But eventually the Fathers began asking what to us is the obvious question, “How can a bodiless power like an angel have sex with a woman so that she conceives?”—especially since it was understood that angels do not marry (i.e. are not sexual beings; see Matthew 22:30). As St. John of Damascus wrote, “They [the angels] are above us for they are incorporeal, and are free of all bodily passion” (Exact Exposition, Book 2, chapter 3). By this time, the Church’s theological sophistication had grown, so that the idea of angels being sexually attracted to human women, settling down with them in marriage, and having babies made no sense.

But the idea of situating the early Genesis stories in the culture of their day and viewing them as a polemic against pagan mythology was not yet on the exegetical table. So it was that thoughtful commentators like St. Augustine cast about for other explanations. One was that the phrase “sons of God” meant not the angels, but the godly line of Seth. This eventually became the standard interpretation of the Church, given the fact that Genesis cannot be discarded by the Church and that angels cannot impregnate women.

So, what is the lasting significance for Christians today of the Nephilim and the other giants? Theologically and exegetically, precisely nothing. The spies found clans of immensely tall and fierce Canaanites in the land and took fright. Joshua and others were not daunted, but successfully waged war against them along with the other inhabitants of Canaan and drove them out so that Israel might settle in their places. Those giants, though tall and scary, were no different than other Canaanites of their day, and anyway, they are all gone now.

But if the giants have nothing to say to us theologically, they have plenty to say allegorically. The spies feared the Anakim because they did not trust God enough. We also face giants in our day—giants of disease, pandemic, poverty, war, suffering, sin, and death—and we also are tempted to quake and quail before them as the spies did when faced with their own giants. The answer, for them and for us, is trust in God. The spies may have trembled before reports of new Nephilim in Canaan, but Caleb did not: “We should by all means go up and take possession of the land, for we shall surely overcome” (Numbers 13:30). Caleb was right. With God going before us, we have nothing to fear. The giants we face cannot frighten us, or cause us to return to Egypt. With God we have the victory. We are marching on into the Promised Land.

 

 

 

 

 

28 comments:

  1. For what it’s worth, it has long seemed to me that Genesis 6:1-4 is riffing on a broader set of beliefs, common to many cultures at that time in that part of the world, regarding gods and humans mating and producing gigangtic hybrid offspring.

    At least some of the pagan Greeks, for example, believed that the demigod heroes of their own mythology were taller than average. Cimon is said to have recognized the bones of Theseus on the isle of Scyros by their enormous size (Plutarch, Theseus 36). If memory serves, the Iliad also sometimes contrasts the size and strength of its heroes with the weakness of those who live today.

    Ronald Hendel and others have argued that, at one point, Greek and Hebrew mythology both posited that the Flood was sent by God or the gods primarily because of these hybrid beings (the Nephilim, the demigods), whose existence was an affront to the sharp distinction that needed to be kept between divinity and humanity. In Greek mythology, this earlier Flood story was eventually largely displaced by the Trojan War, which killed off many of the Greek heroes, though traces of the Flood narrative remain in the Iliad — or so the argument goes.

    1. Interesting! Thank you for the Greek angle. The Babylonian mythology said that the flood was sent because mankind was too noisy and the gods couldn’t sleep properly.

      1. There is a polemic going on for sure, because the Babylonians/others, see good coming out of this hybrid setup – whereas the Scripture and Enoch see this as a cause for depravity and evil. That’s the polemic side, but it’s not negating the event, whatever it was.

  2. With so many Giants …Big Pharma, Big Tech, Mega Financial Monopolies, Mega Cities controlled by non-Christian Majorities, many Environmentalists and many Christians denouncing the Black Rock and Oil that comes out of the Black Rock…it is no wonder many Christians are indeed feeling like the Spies reporting back to Joshua, spreading fear. So you say, “the Giants can’t frighten or cause us to return to Egypt…We are Marching on into the Promised Land.” Well we are indeed marching in the Light of God …and as long as the Light of God has enough oil in her lamp and enough air to keep her wick burning, we will get to the Promised Land. Thanks for posting Father Lawrence.

  3. What I don’t understand is why theologians are so quick to dismiss Nephilim and giants as exaggeration. If demons came down to earth and mated with human women, creating hybrid giant offspring, why is that a problem? Wouldn’t the corruption of human DNA be the ‘corruption’ of the world that caused God to flood the earth and start over? Perhaps the evil ones are still here, trying to inject us with DNA-altering medicines, foods and chemicals, trying to corrupt God’s nature. Our DNA is God-breathed; let’s take that seriously, and not be so flippant about biblical history. It was told for a reason.

    1. Theologians like St. Augustine and those who have followed him over the centuries do not dismiss the Nephilim as an exaggeration, nor were they being flippant about Biblical history; they merely offer a different exegesis. Part of this alternative exegesis is based on the fact that angels cannot impregnate human women.

      1. Matthew 22/Luke 20 doesn’t say anything about mating or reproduction, Jesus only says that we will not marry. If anything, wouldn’t that very act of the angels taking wives and mating be THE cause of God’s severe punishment on them? That would have been quite the flagrant foul if angels weren’t meant to reproduce.

        1. Theologians like St. John of Damascus are clear that angels have no bodies, and no passions. The notion that they therefore lusted after human women is meta-historical, not historical.

          1. “…angels have no bodies, and no passions.”

            We are, I believe, talking here about demons who were created angelic by nature but whose corruption in turning from God seems rather evident. Are you quite certain about the ” no passions” part of your assertion?

          2. Yes. The text says “angels” (literally “sons of God”), not demons. One needs to take the text as it is and not read into it to make it part of a larger foreign narrative. The Genesis author assumed angels, using the same phrase as found in Job 1:6 and 38:7. There is nothing in the text to suggest that those sons of God had a different nature than other sons of God.

          3. Whatever was going on, the outcome was bad, and it is evident in the NT’s quotations from Enoch, that they also saw whatever it was, as very bad, and part of the work of Christ to undo. Reducing it to human evil destroys the reason for quotation. St. Cyril of Jerusalem in his catechetical homilies refers to the giants – almost in passing – as if everyone would have already known this story.

            Again, to me, this is very much about why our soteriology is different.

            I ask my Protestant friends this question when they raise some objection to Orthodoxy, “What change would it make in your soteriology if Satan never existed?” And I know the answer, none. he would make no difference, and to be honest, for them, removing him would alleviate many soteriological problems. So, when you remove the stories told in the Bible of how Satan first desired man’s death, then led the peoples into rebellion at Babel, then inspired the fall of more angels who were assigned over the nations, which becomes the cause for all of the religions in the world/paganism, and in Gen 6 successfully brought in the flood – this is the devil/demonic Christ comes to defeat. If this is true, and we deny the stories, we lose Christus Victor in large part and get plagued by the same questions Catholic and Protestant theologians have dealt with for a very long time. All for what? To scrub the Bible of a wrongly perceived polytheism? That’s already out because Christ and His Father with the Holy Spirit created out of nothing, everything that exists.

          4. You are reading a lot into the text that is not there. The text says nothing about Satan leading the peoples into rebellion at Babel. This is the problem with people like Heiser–they take bits out of context to construct their own narrative.

          5. Sorry, St. John of Damascus’ opinion has as much worth as mine. If the Scriptures say they found the human women beautiful, and took them for wives, I believe it.

            It takes mental gymnastics to think otherwise. Occam’s razor.

          6. Well, your opinion can’t be faulted for its candour. Though no Father is infallible, no Orthodox would state that their own opinion is worth as much as a Father’s opinion. For us, exegesis is the work of generations, as each builds on the work that came before, not the work of a sovereign individual.

    2. I think, we don’t have to dogmatically say how the Nephilim were produced, but just affirm the reality that as a result of a major transgression, they are the result.

      But, I do think this, if we are able to genetically modify people, why would a superior not be able to?

  4. The Transfiguration takes place on the same mountain where the transgression occurs in Enoch/Genesis 6, so, I don’t think it’s of no significance. Really, it is a reinforcement of Christus Victor. The plan of Satan to kill man by any means possible, which happens in the Flood, Christ comes to undo Satan in this respect.

    Losing Enoch/Genesis 6 to Seth interpretations, loses much persuasive power to the theme of Christus Victor in my opinion. After the Transfiguration, and I believe this to be the “bait” moment the Fathers speak of, things move very rapidly towards the Passion. It seems, very much, to be the bait, at least in part. I think there’s more at stake than you realize.

    1. One reply to your three comments: 1. The text does not speak of genetically modifying people, but of settling down to marriage and having babies with your wife. This is clearly not historical. 2. I might have missed it, but where does it say that the Transfiguration took place on the same mountain as the angelic transgression occurred? And the Genesis text does not refer to a single transgression on a single occasion, but of a sin happening over and over again, presumably with many angels and many women. Do we imagine that all the angels settled down with their human wives in the same place?

      1. There is a strong case to be made that Mt. Tabor got confused with Mt. Hermon, which is where the transgression takes place in the Enoch material. If so, Jesus is being quite intentional it would seem about where He would reveal His glory, and if the Fathers are right, and they are, that Jesus baited Satan, this would be an ideal place.

        It’s just like, when St. Peter is told, “Upon this rock…” – they were literally on the temple complex to Pan. The rock was literally, the rock under their feet. A Byzantine Church was recently excavated there with pieces from the altar for Pan in the foundation.

        I started researching this and Pan is the only Greek god said to have ever died in Greek Mythology – in the same time period as Tiberius – interesting, no?

        I won’t give full length essays here, but the combination of lack of Original Sin in the Garden, Adam meant for theosis, Babel and the allotment of the nations to “angelic” powers who fall via Psalm 82, Genesis 6 and the Enoch material, these themes are all over the place in the NT, in the early Fathers, and St. Augustine largely dismisses this.

        Adam fails to become, Christ learns/becomes everything Adam never became
        Babel results in the allotment to 70, Christ has the 12, and the 70
        Babel gives us the Table of Nations, they are listed in the same order in the NT
        Enoch/Watchers on Mt. Hermon, Christ on Tabor/Hermon – look at some liturgical texts and they are always mentioned together
        Paul has women cover their heads to prevent another Genesis 6 debacle

        I never said they have to necessarily produce some genetic thing, I don’t really care how to define the result, just that the OT paints it in a very bad light.

        Thanks!
        Matthew Lyon

        But all of these themes connect to theosis and to Christus Victor.

        1. Not to go too far into a side discussion, but the traditional location of the Transfiguration on Mount Tabor is almost certainly correct. The Synoptics say that the morning after the Transfiguration Jesus met with the other disciples in a village of Galilee where He performed an exorcism. Mount Hermon is something like 40 miles away from the Galilean villages–rather too far to reach in a hour or two. The impression given is that the village was quite close to the mount of Transfiguration. Tabor fits the bill admirably; Hermon does not. Also, the Transfiguration took place about a week after the confession at Caesarea Philippi in the Hermon area. Do we imagine that the Lord stayed in that area for a week until the Transfiguration? It is more likely that after the confession He returned to Galilee.

  5. Some recent information I’ve been learning about re: giants, demonic beings, angels as stars, and such has made me a tad uncomfortable. So much so, I’ve turned away from the source. When anyone becomes more focused on this type of thing, even in jest, it seems like attention is drawn away from the right focus. I appreciate your article which brings a balance back to the topic.

    1. Thank you for your comments. There is much nonsense currently circulating about this topic, based more upon creative eisegesis than sound exegesis.

      1. Father, one of the beautiful things about Orthodoxy is that we don’t need to rely on ‘personality cults’ or even a single Church Father, but a consensus being formed by the guidance of the Holy Spirit. With that in mind, could you comment on the recent book by Fr. DeYoung and his very different exegesis on these matters? Your view seems to be a much more ‘unenchanted’ one, yet, perhaps Fr DeYoung has swung too far the other direction? Many of these comments seem to be “subtweets” in that direction. Help me find the via media! Respectfully,

        1. I am reluctant to publicly criticize a fellow priest like Fr. DeYoung, for whom I have immense respect. I would prefer to state my views in positive form. With a few exceptions, I prefer teaching over debating.

    2. It’s giving the backdrop for Orthodox soteriology. It’s not the main thing, it gives a partial explanation for why our “main thing” – Christ the Logos, with His Father, and the Holy Spirit – staying “righteous” in keeping Covenant – keeping the Edenic plan alive. I think the practical aspects are not easy to see right off the bat. For me, coming from a Calvinistic background, they led me to Orthodoxy. I understand the problems now much differently that are being addressed in Scripture and in the work of Christ, such that, I really believe more than ever in the reality of the devil, of Saints, of angels, of Pascha, of theosis, of a New Earth. The whole picture I had became very Orthodoxy, but it was through learning this material first. After I learned it, I have been mostly done with it except to show my Protestant brothers that they’re missing the story of the Bible. If it were me, and I like the Podcast by Fr DeYoung, I’d familiarize yourself with Michael Heiser instead with a watchful eye for inconsistencies he brings due to his Protestant bias. Heiser led me to Orthodoxy more than anyone. I appreciate the Lord of Spirits, but really only because I spent so much time with Heiser first.

  6. Thank you Fr. Farley for bringing some sense to all this nonsense.
    When I see people becoming so interested in such themes, it looks a lot like distraction to me from what should be our main focus: Repentance

    God bless you!

    1. Amen!
      The devil and his demons do all they can to DISTRACT us FROM The Way, The Truth, and The Life. May any of us who are focusing more on “ratings” (eisegesis) repent and ask our Lord to show us what He wants us to do to draw EVERY Christian closer to Him. May we NOT use the bountiful resources He has provided to PREVENT us from giving our FULL attention to Him – He who ransomed us from death, hell, and the grave.

      Thank you Lord for the truth You provide. You are so merciful to EVERYONE.

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