Here There Be Giants

In recent times, the rediscovery of the original ancient context of Genesis 6:1-4 has led to a fascination with the subject of the ‘Nephilim’, who are here said to be produced through sexual immorality involving angelic beings and human women.  In some quarters, this has been developed into full-fledged conspiracy theories regarding these ‘Nephilim’ still existing in our world today.  Those fascinated by crypto-archaeology produce doctored photos of what they hold to be gigantic human skeletons, the remains of these people.  This near obsession has exploded as a counter to a re-reading of the Genesis and later texts, begun by St. Augustine, which reads these texts in a de-mythologized way, seeing all involved parties as human.  The interpretation of these few verses in Genesis leading into the flood of Noah seems to be primarily a subject of literary curiosity.  Understanding this text, and the traditions which lie behind this text, however, is critical to understanding later narratives within the Torah, the entire arc of the book of Joshua and his conquest, and even the early history of monarchic Israel in the books of Samuel.

The word ‘Nephilim’, sometimes left untranslated in English translations of 6:4, does indeed refer to ‘giants’.  Some have sought its origin in the Hebrew word ‘naphal’, arguing for a translation of ‘fallen ones’, connected to the fall of the angelic beings involved.  The verb, however, would be the wrong conjugation, and be something closer to ‘those fallen upon’.  Some have advanced that translation, arguing that it is referring to the fact that the descendants of these being were attacked and slain by Israel.  All of this is seen to be special pleading, however, in light of the fact that the Aramaic word ‘nephilin’ means ‘giants’.  This is certainly the understanding taken by the Septuagint translators, who render the word ‘gigantes’.  Like the English word ‘giant’ this is often a reference to physical size, but it is important to note that it can also be used to describe a tyrant, or what we in modern times would call a bully or a thug.  It includes both size and demeanor.  By placing this word in parallel in the text with a reference to the ‘gibborim’, the mighty men, the heroes, the men of great renown, Genesis 6 recasts these figures from ancient traditions in the Near East as something darker, more wicked, and more brutal.

Later Second Temple Jewish literature such as 1 Enoch and the Book of the Giants discovered among the Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran preserve the ancient Babylonian traditions which formed the background for the genealogies and narratives of Genesis 4-6.  In Babylonian tradition, there were a group of seven gods called the ‘apkallu’.  In king lists tracing the succession of their dynasties, the six kings who reigned before the flood are listed with the name of the ‘apkallu’ who served as his advisor.  These gods were considered by the Mesopotamians to have communicated various advances of technology, art, and culture to humanity through these kings, which is what enabled them to rule.  It is not coincidence that these are the same advances described in the genealogy of Cain in Genesis 4:17-24.  The first post-flood king likewise has an apkallu listed as his advisor, and then the following kings, such as the hero Gilgamesh, are said to be ‘2/3 apkallu’, or the product of divine and human coupling.  The Sumerian King List which lists Gilgamesh among the kings of Uruk identifies him as being ‘the son of a spirit’ or ‘ghost’.  The Book of the Giants from the Dead Sea Scrolls identifies Gilgamesh as one of the Nephilim.  Genesis can therefore be seen to be interpreting what was, for its original hearers, the historical record of gods and kings through a very different theological lens.  Similar elements are found in cultures throughout the ancient world, including for example the Greek story of the ‘Gigantomachy’, or war with the giants, and the stories of heroes like Herakles or Achilles with divine and human parents.

The perspective, then, of the Biblical writers, as well as later Jewish and Christian interpreters, is that these so called ‘gods’ were in fact demonic spirits (Deut 32:16-17), the wisdom which they taught was actually depravity and corruption, and that these heroes were petty tyrants produced by demonic fornication.  As Genesis 6 communicates, these ‘giants’ were present on the earth not only in the time of the flood of Noah, but also after (Gen 6:4).  They will continue to appear in the early history of Israel as recounted in the latter part of the Torah, the book of Joshua, and Samuel in the form of multiple tribes.  Just as at the time of the flood, these demonically wicked ‘heroes’ of the nations are under God’s judgment, and it is Israel which will serve as the means by which that judgment is brought to bear.  Israel will expressly be sent by God to annihilate the giants, and only the giants, as a distinction will be made between these, and Canaanite foreigners per se.

Likely the most famous of these giants in Israel’s early history is Og, the king of Bashan.  The narrative of the defeat of Og is decidedly spare, representing only five verses in Numbers 21:31-35, and retold in eleven verses in Deuteronomy 3:1-11.  Much of the latter is a description of the land, rather than of Og or the battle.  Og is identified as a giant in Deuteronomy 3:11, in which his gigantic iron bed is described.  It is not merely the size of the bed suggesting Og to be a giant, but the fact that this bed exactly matches the dimensions and description of a ritual bed found in excavations of the ziggurat at Etemenanki, which was used for pagan sexual rituals.  Og is therefore here depicted as the product of demonic fornication.  Like his neighboring king, Sihon, Og is not given a chance to allow Israel to pass, nor is the result of war with Israel merely the loss of land.  Rather Og and his people are completely eradicated from the land due to his origins.  Despite the brevity of the description of his defeat, the defeat of Og is treated later in the Old Testament as being a particularly spectacular moment of triumph in the history of Israel (cf. Psalms 135 and 136, sung as the polyeleos in the Orthodox Church, and Amos 2:9).  We are told (Deut 3:11) in tandem with the reference to his bed, and his demonic origin, that Og is the last of the ‘Rephaim’.  Bashan, the territory over which Og ruled, now in the Golan Heights, is the site of many megalithic tombs which were hundreds, and in some cases thousands of years old by the time the Israelites would have encountered Og.  ‘Rephaim’ seems to be derived from a Ugaritic root, ‘rph’, which refers to ancient (dead) kings in several funerary and religious texts.  Og is therefore presented not only as a giant, but as the last of a race of these kings who are extinguished once Og and all of his sons are slain.

Though the ‘Rephaim’ as a line of kings meet their end with Og, this is not the last time that they are seen in the scriptures.  In Isaiah 14:9, as Babylon’s destruction is prophesied, it is said that as they sink down to Sheol, the realm of the dead, the ‘Rephaim’ rise up to meet them.  In Isaiah 26:14, the false gods who Judah sinned in worshipping in the past are now ‘Rephaim’ in the grave.  In Psalm 88:10, the Psalmist questions whether God works wonders for the dead, and whether the ‘Rephaim’ rise up to praise him?  This is paralleled in verse 11 placing the ‘Rephaim’ in the place of destruction.  In many other passages, the ‘Rephaim’ are described as the denizens of Sheol or Hades (cf. Proverbs 2:18, 9:18, 21:16, Job 26:5-6).  To go to dwell among them is not merely to share their fate, but being among them is a threat in and of itself.  This understanding generated in Second Temple Judaism the idea that many if not most of the demonic beings encountered, for example, possessing individuals are in fact the spirits of these ancient kings, dead Nephilim (cf. 1 Enoch 15:8-12).

The other major Biblical ‘tribe’ of giants is the ‘Anakim’, sometimes called the ‘Sons of Anak’ in English translations.  In Arabic traditions, Og himself is referred to as ‘Uj ibn-Anaq’.   In Numbers 13, 12 spies are sent to scout out the land as the people of Israel draw near to Canaan.  The spies return and report that they have seen the ‘Anakim’ in the land, in the south, near Hebron, and that the ‘Anakim’ are Nephilim (Num 13:22, 28, 33).  This news causes most of the spies, and the majority of the people, to refuse to enter the land for fear of the ‘Anakim’.  This rebellion is punished by forty years wandering in the wilderness.  Deuteronomy identifies the ‘Anakim’ as related to the ‘Rephaim’, and with a third group of giants whom the Moabites referred to as the ‘Emim’, or ‘feared ones’ (Deut 2:10-11).  Throughout the narratives of the conquest beginning in Numbers and Deuteronomy and continuing in Joshua, it has been noted that in some cities and locations, God commands complete and total destruction of the residents, and in others, the people in the land are merely dispossessed and their land given by God to Israel.  A careful reading of the text reveals that those places where total destruction is mandated are the places in which the ‘Anakim’ dwell, while those where ‘Anakim’ have not been cited are spared total annihilation.  This is made especially clear by the summary of Joshua’s conquest in Joshua 11, which culminates with the statement that the mission has been accomplished because Joshua had cut off all the ‘Anakim’ from the land and had devoted their cities to destruction (v. 21).  We are told in verse 22 that the only ‘Anakim’ who survived judgment at the hands of Israel had done so by fleeing to three Philistine cities, Gaza, Gath, and Ashdod. Goliath, the giant slain by the Prophet David, came to oppose Israel from Gath (1 Sam 17), marking him out as one of these surviving ‘Anakim’.  David, as king of Israel, completed the task of the conquest and unification of the land, conquering the city which would become Jerusalem, for example.  One of these tasks which fell to David and his military lieutenants was the final eradication of the giants who had escaped to the Philistine lands.  These battles are described, with details concerning the size and power of these giants, in 2 Samuel 21:15-22.

The text of Numbers, Deuteronomy, and Joshua do not describe a ‘holy war’ or genocide directed at a particular ethnicity of human beings, but of a war waged by the worshippers of Yahweh, the God of Israel, against his spiritual enemies, demonic powers that had come to dominate the region of Canaan and the Transjordan.  It is important to remember, as we read these texts as modern people, that ancient peoples did not have a concept of a secular space.  People, places, and even objects were not spiritually neutral.  People, places, and objects either existed within a sphere which had been consecrated to Yahweh, the God of Israel, or they existed outside of that space, under the control of dark spiritual powers.  At Christ’s ascension into heaven and enthronement, Christ’s kingdom is established in the heavens, and breaks in to expand upon the earth (hence the Lord’s Prayer).  The Church by her ministry brings people, territory, and the things of this world into the kingdom, purifying and restoring them, through her many blessings of people, places, and objects.  Outside of the Church, however, ancient people made no distinction between a person with great material and spiritual power, such as a king or Caesar, and the spiritual powers which Jew, Christian, and pagan alike all understood to stand behind and empower that person.  The pagan considered these spirits, such as the genius of the emperor, gods to be worshipped.  Jews and Christians considered them to be demons, in continuity with the ancient kings described in scripture.  It is for this reason that St. Paul can say that, “our struggle is not with blood and flesh, but with the rulers, with the powers, with the cosmic powers of the darkness of this age, with the evil spirits in the heavens” (Eph 6:12).

15 comments:

  1. Father Stephen,

    According to Orthodox tradition then, are these Nephilim a half-man, half-demonic race of peoples or are they men who received great powers (both physical and technological) from being in cohorts with demonic powers?

    If it is the former rather than the latter, then could this be a lens through which we can look at the Anti-Christ and the Beast in Revelation? The Anti-Christ and the Beast would be the ultimate and last of the Nephilim who is destroyed by Christ – the salvation of God (Joshua) and the King of Israel (David).

    I am probably wrong but I wanted to think out loud and get some feedback.

    1. Nailing down exactly what the giants were historically is difficult for a couple of reasons. First, ancient peoples didn’t understand biological hybridization in the way that we do. The fact that these individuals were seen as 2/3 god and 1/3 man would serve to indicate that. Their understanding of human reproduction was that nearly everything about a child was contributed by the father, with the mother merely providing a fertile place for seed to grow. Obviously, they had no concept of DNA or chromosomes or anything similar. Second, ancient peoples didn’t distinguish between humans and the spiritual powers that they might represent. So, in this instance, the ritual beds found in ziggurats were places where priests engaged in ritual intercourse with temple prostitutes. But when the rituals were described by the ancient pagans, they said that Baal and Asherah or Marduk and Sarpanittum who were engaging in sexual acts during those rituals.

      All this is to say that we aren’t going to get an answer to this question that follows our modern scientific categories and understandings from the ancient sources. But the giants described in scripture are said to be the product of demonic sexual immorality, and to be demonic beings who were nonetheless born from a human woman.

      Vis a vis Orthodox tradition, this understanding of the giants is attested in the New Testament in the epistles of Ss. Peter and Jude, directly. It is also directly taught by St. Justin Martyr, St. Irenaeus (at some length), St. Ambrose of Milan, and by writers such as Origen, Tertullian, and Lactantius. It is arguably alluded to by St. John Chrysostom and St. Gregory the Theologian. There are no Fathers before the 5th century that teaching something counter to this understanding, most simply don’t directly comment on the issue in extant texts. The first Father to offer another interpretation of these things was St. Augustine. I do not believe that this was a case of St. Augustine rejecting previous Orthodoxy. I believe it is more related to his inability to read languages other than Latin, which cut him off from being able to read many of the traditional texts discussing this issue, so he had to come to his own understanding. For historical reasons, however, St. Augustine’s understanding came to predominate. Its only been in the last two centuries that the rediscovery of texts such as 1 Enoch, the Book of Jubilees, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and St. Irenaeus’ On the Apostolic Preaching, that the understanding of Second Temple Judaism and early Christianity has become clear once again.

  2. Often when Orthodox expounded on the conquest narratives, taking a symbolic/allegorical approach, that we are commanded to dash our passions on the rocks – I see the application, but sometimes they seemed to de-historicize the events. But, if there is truth to a race of men, who are somehow in existence due to demonic activity however that worked out, then there exists an analogy that really makes sense and maybe some of them knew this, some of the fathers who were aware of the second temple worldview and who had embraced it.

    Again, if Joshua was dealing with real demonic beings, and if our passions are aroused through demons, then it is by analogy that Joshua has a Christian application instead of by allegory. The baptismal liturgy with it’s exorcism prayers, following Jesus’ example, and an understanding like you said, of how sacred space was now to spread outside Israel, could move into geographically occupied territory of Satan with no need to conquer them physically (not that the Nephilim would have still been in existence) but with repentance, faith, baptism/exoricism. The Christus Victor theme is only reasonable/Biblical – not an optional take on atonement.

    1. I think you’re tracking with this correctly. As an example, Origen, the prime example of allegorical interpretation, says at the beginning of his commentary on Joshua that the teaching of the book would be horrible if it did not ‘have the figure (figura) of spiritual warfare’. Figure here is often understood in line with the English word ‘figurative’, as if Origen is saying that essentially Joshua is worthwhile because he’s found a way to interpret it ahistorically. However, elsewhere Origen makes it clear that he accepts the existence of the giants and the traditions discussed in this blog post. So the Latin ‘figura‘ would probably be better translated as ‘character’; that the narratives of Joshua have the character of spiritual warfare. So, you are correct, the Fathers in these instances are using something more akin to an analogy than to allegory.

  3. Father Bless.

    Thank you…a lot to digest here, or as you use the word, recast, from the conspiracy theory version to the Orthodox. Nevertheless, I am grateful.

    In your previous post you say God assigned the various nations to the sons of God (His angels), and the nations began to worship them as gods and became enslaved to them. I am not entirely clear on who these sons of God are. I was under the impression that because they are God’s angels, that they are “good” angels or messengers of God who know they are not worthy of worship, therefore would not allow it, and there is another group, the fallen angels who are messengers of Satan who want to be worshiped in the place of God. I take it that the apkallu are an example such gods. Would you comment on this please? There is this disconnect that I keep on going back to…

    The story of Joshua and the conquest of Canaan has to be one of the most difficult things to reconcile in light of a good and merciful God. But it was not so anymore after your final point in the last paragraph that explains the concepts of the ancients and their purpose in fighting these wars. That was really very helpful Father.

    1. I think part of the confusion might be because of the idea that all of the angels that fell fell along with Satan himself at a single event before the creation of the world. This idea developed relatively late in the history of Christianity. The perspective of scripture, echoed by the early Fathers, is that there were several groups of angelic beings who fell. The fall of Satan happened in Genesis 3, as further described by Isaiah and Ezekiel. Another group of angelic beings falls in Genesis 4-6, and is punished with imprisonment in the abyss as described by Ss. Peter and Jude.. A third group, from the ‘sons of God’ to whom the nations are allotted in Deuteronomy 32 then also fall, and become liable to judgment as described in Psalm 82. And what we really mean by ‘fall’ here is that they rebel against the God who created them, and each time seek to lead humanity to join them in that rebellion.

  4. Well that clears up a lot, Father. You are correct, I was thinking in terms of “one” fall. Thanks so much….for the scripture references too.

  5. I’ve always thought that since the angels and demons are incorporeal, the question would arise as to how the demons could spawn children. Your description of the ritual beds for the ceremonial acts by the priests with women, perhaps clears that up. In many pagan cults, the priests (or laymen) can become possessed by the spirits or “gods” and have no recollection of what they said or did during the possession. Alexander the Great’s mother claimed Alexander was the child of Zeus by this means (not that Zeus appeared to her as in the myths, but through King Philip of Macedon, a possession as it were).

    Could one look at it that way: as the result of demonic possession and occultic ritual, rather than a direct fallen angel with human interaction? In an oral culture one could see how the latter could get passed down, rather than saying a person was the son of a possessed priest, he would simply say he was the son of the possessing “god” (demon) directly.

  6. Fr. Stephen,
    many thanks for your work in biblical studies. I have been greatly aided by your efforts. In the context of the conquest narratives being spiritual in nature as well as physical, what do we as Orthodox Christians make of the Biblical injunctions to take the women as spoils of war, such as Numbers 31:18 and Deuteronomy 20:14? Also, what of the children whom God said to kill? I am struggling to understand that in this context.

    thank you,
    A

    1. The two examples you give are two different examples, so I’ll talk about each of them. The issue in Numbers 31 is closely related to the issues discussed in this post. The two most heinous sins in the Torah, which have the effect of tainting the land itself, of corrupting God’s creation, are idolatry and sexual immorality. So when these two are fused together, it represents the most abominable thing possible. So in Numbers 31, there has been such an incident, in which the men of Israel have allowed them to be seduced into sexual worship of Baal with the Midianites at Peor. This has brought a plague upon the whole people. Beginning with the actions of Phinehas, all of the Israelite men involved have been put to death. So the section you reference is dealing with the punishment of the Midianites who had been involved (not all of the Midianites). The men are executed for their sins in this matter, the women who participated in this sexual immorality are executed. The young women who are virgins and did not participate in these sins are spared. So this is an instance of sin being directly punished.

      Deuteronomy 20 is a little bit of a different case, in that it is placing limitations on warfare. It is important to understand that other nations in the world at this time had no such rules. War was total. And so a differentiation is made between the particular tribes and people groups associated with the Anakim, who are to be destroyed entirely, and those nations with whom Israel will go to (defensive) war in the future. Even in such a war, the Israelites are required to allow the enemy a chance to make peace and give tribute. If that is refused, then all of the military-aged men can be killed in battle, but the women and children are to be spared. While the text can be read as lumping them in with spoils, there are very specific rules, for example, in Deuteronomy 21:10-14 about how women so taken are to be treated when made a wife. Ritually, they are made Israelites and then can be married. They are not to be taken as sex slaves, which is what would typically happen to any women who weren’t massacred in war at that time.

      One of the key differences between Israel and the other nations in the Old Covenant is that Israel was disciplined actively for her sins. St. Paul is referencing this when he speaks of God disciplining every son whom he loves (Heb 12:6). The other nations he allowed to go their own way, until the cup of their iniquity is full, and then he brought his wrath down upon them. This judgment took various forms. For Sodom and Gomorrah, it was fire from heaven. For Egypt it was plagues and military defeat in the Red Sea. For the Anakim and the tribes with whom they had made common cause, it was Israel’s armies. For Israel, it was the Assyrians. For Judah, it was Babylon. The last was different only in that the wrath and destruction were chastening, rather than total. This distinction has changed in the New Covenant to no longer be on a national basis (Acts 17:30-31), but while God chastens those within the Church by repentance, those outside he deals with patiently until the day of judgment arrives. While no one should delight in the killing of anyone, let alone children, there were surely children, even infants, consumed in the flood, or in Sodom and Gomorrah. The Assyrians and Babylonians did not exercise the restraint in warfare that the Israelites were commanded to practice. Additionally, even though this judgment is directed by God, that does not justify it. Assyria and Babylon are both promised that when their sins have reached their full measure, wrath will befall them as well. After these battles, though they were commanded, the men involved in the killing had to undergo purification rituals outside of the camp before they could re-enter. David lost the privilege of building the temple through killing.

      Israel was commanded to conduct herself in war differently than every other nation on earth, with reticence and with uncharacteristic mercy.

      1. Fr. Stephen,
        Thank you for this well-researched and excellent reply. I appreciate your time and efforts greatly.
        If I may, in your examples of Sodom and Gomorrah and the Flood, would these be examples of punishing the children for the sins of their fathers? It is a tough pill to swallow indeed to think of the Israelites putting children and infants to death by the sword, even by the command of God. Thank you again for your time and interaction.

        1. This would be a case of what is meant by children suffering for the sins of their fathers. This is a reality in our sinful world, the sins of one person don’t only affect them, but affect those around them, their communities, and in extreme cases such as this, the natural world itself around them. But its important to remember that the core of the Biblical concept of judgment at the resurrection is the correction of such inequities. There are people who suffer in various, sometimes extreme ways due to the sinfulness of others as righteous people, and they are rewarded in the judgment. There are those who prosper in this world through their own wickedness who are punished in the judgment. So many who are last will be first, and many who are first will be last.

  7. Father! Thank you for your blog, it’s fascinating!
    Still I find some things not so clear for me.
    1) where is it written that the number of nations ( or their angels) was SEVENTY?
    2) where it is written about the fall of the angels of the nations?
    3) where in Psalm 82 is written about the future jugment of the angels?

    1. 1) The table of nations in Genesis 10 lists 70 nations. Deuteronomy 32 says that God separated the nations according to the number of the sons of God (angels in the Septuagint).
      2 and 3) Its in Psalm 82 (81 LXX). 82 is the number in most English Bibles, 81 in Bibles based on the Septuagint.

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