The Pursuit of God

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Genesis 6 in Context: Demystifying the Nephilim

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Today it is commonly taught that Genesis 6 describes male angels having sexual relations with human females, the outcome of which is a generation of angel-human hybrids called Nephilim.  So is this really what is going on in Genesis 6?  No, it’s not.

There are many translations of the Bible, and each translation is working towards a certain set of goals (see Bible Study Help: Which translation should you use?).  When the goal is to convey the general idea of a passage as simply as possible, translators end up taking a lot of liberties with the text.  Now suppose you are a Bible translator.  Once you decide in your mind that angels are being described in Genesis 6, then you might put the word “angel” or “supernatural being” in your translation of that chapter, even though that’s really not what the text says.  In your mind, you’re making the passage more clear to others, but in reality what you’re doing is shifting the language to reflect your own interpretation of words which could be interpreted multiple ways.  When people come along and read your revised version of the passage, they don’t see the other options you had to choose from, because by not translating the original language more accurately, you make your interpretation sound like the only one that’s possible.  This happens with Bible translations all the time, which is why it’s very helpful to compare different translations of the passage you’re studying.

If you read Genesis 6 in more literal Bible translations (such as the NASB) you’ll notice that it doesn’t say “angels” slept with humans.  Instead, the author describes “sons of God” sleeping with “daughters of men.”  It is the phrase “sons of God” which everyone is tripping over and mistakenly interpreting as “angels.”  If we’re going to learn something useful from Genesis 6 and not just get hung up on ridiculous theories about the sexual activities of angels, we need to start by understanding some cultural context.

Just as Christians today refer to themselves as “the children of God,” ancient Jews did the same.  Male Yahweh followers commonly referred to themselves as “sons of God” with “God” meaning only Yahweh (not a Triune God).  Because this was such a common practice, there was nothing unusual about Jesus calling Himself the Son of God.  Jesus looked like an ethnic Jew, and He claimed to be a follower of Yahweh, so it was expected that He’d use the title Son of God (see Understanding Jesus’ Use of Titles: Son of God, Son of Man, I AM).

Now if a Christian today refers to the children of God, would you instantly assume he’s talking about angels?  No, you would assume he’s referring to other Christians because that’s the more common application of that phrase. It was the same with ancient Yahweh followers.

Genesis was written by Moses–a Yahweh follower who considered himself to be a son of God.  So when Moses describes “sons of God” having sex with women in Genesis 6, should you suddenly leap to the wild conclusion that Moses is hinting that angelic beings were getting it on with humans?  No, you shouldn’t.  Happily for all of us, Moses’ purpose for writing Genesis 6 was not to just start rumors about the mating compatibility of humans and angels.  But if we’re going to understand what the point of Genesis 6 is, we need to step back and look at the broader context of the text.

The early chapters of Genesis are giving background for the Flood–they’re explaining how the human race became so corrupt that a God as gracious as Yahweh would decide to drown everyone and start over with Noah.  If you start with the account of Adam and Eve, you’ll notice that both of them act like rebellious snarkers.  Contrary to what Christians say today, the text never states that the fruit sampling was the original sin.  Instead, Adam and Eve’s response to Yahweh and Yahweh’s response to them makes it quite clear that the fruit sampling was the last straw–it was one more in a long line of rebellious acts which resulted in Yahweh finally cracking down hard on humans with the famous curse.  So nothing “fell” in that moment–the first two humans were already entrenched in rebellion, and we find no evidence in the text to suggest that Adam or Eve ever repented out of their rotten attitudes (see Debunking The Fall: The Many Lies Christians Tell About Genesis 3).

Cain and Abel are the first kids we hear about Adam and Eve having.  Cain is a rebellious twerp like his parents.  Abel cares about pleasing God.  Cain kills Abel, and we find ourselves left with three spiritual rebels: Adam, Eve, and Cain.  At this point, things are looking very bad for the human race.  But then Eve has Seth.  Like Abel, Seth cares about pleasing God.

After Seth is introduced, Moses starts flying through time as he rattles off brief genealogies of Seth and Cain.  Adam had many other kids besides those two, but Moses focuses only on those two.  Why?  Because he’s setting up a pattern: Cain’s descendants sound like a bunch of spiritual rebels, whereas Seth’s descendants sound much more God-fearing.  So now we have a “good” line of God-fearing folks growing alongside a “bad” line of defiant rebels.  If you’re a Hebrew like Moses, you’d call the good line “sons of God” to indicate that they cared about pleasing Yahweh.  The women from the bad line (Cain’s line) are just called “daughters of men,” not “daughters of God” to indicate that they aren’t making wise spiritual choices.

Now by the time we get to Genesis 6, Moses has shown us a pattern of evil trumping good.  The rebels keep finding ways to silence, snuff out, and corrupt the God-fearing humans.  Eventually this happens again as Cain’s line of rebels starts mixing with Seth’s line of God-fearing men.  What happens when a man starts sleeping with a spiritual rebel?  He tends to align with her spiritual attitudes.  This is a pattern we find over and over in the Bible: Jewish men get in the sack with idol worshiping women, and soon they are also worshiping those false gods.  This is what happens with Seth’s line: they start mixing it up with Cain’s group and the influence of God-fearing humans on earth rapidly dies out.

Nephilim is a plural Hebrew word which is commonly translated”giants.”  Some also translate it as “fallen ones.”  The fact that translators intentionally leave one Hebrew word untranslated in Genesis 6 makes the passage sound more mysterious than it is.  This business of trying to add mysticism to an English Bible passage by intentionally leaving one word in a foreign language is a game Bible translators like to play.  If you don’t think such games have an effect on how people think, realize that it was one untranslated Latin word in Isaiah 14 which resulted in Christians inventing a totally fictional being named Lucifer who was supposed to be the good alter ego of Satan.  Does the Bible ever introduce Lucifer as a supernatural being?  No, the Latin word lucifer isn’t even a personal name–it’s a noun that means morning star.  Isaiah 14 has nothing to do with Satan or angels–it’s a passage in which Yahweh is talking to a human king.  But by intentionally leaving one Latin word untranslated in an English passage, Bible translators have us all marveling over Satan’s previous personality.  And by leaving the Hebrew word nephilim untranslated in Genesis 6, translators are helping to perpetuate the rumor that ancient superhumans once walked the earth.  What shady games our leaders play (see Downgrading the Devil: Debunking the Myth of Lucifer).

By calling the offspring of God-fearing men sleeping with defiant women nephilim, Moses could be making a comment about those offspring spiritually falling away from God, or he could be making a comment about how some of those offspring became famous for being extra strong in battle.  The word is hard to translate well because it’s so old and only used 3 times in the OT.  But trying to suggest that Moses was saying that angels were sleeping with human women is utterly ludicrous.  The context of Genesis 6 makes the main purpose of Moses’ writing clear: he’s helping us understand what caused the Flood to happen in Genesis 7.

Prior to using the word nephilim in verse 4, Moses writes:

Now it came about, when men began to multiply on the face of the land, and daughters were born to them, that the sons of God saw that the daughters of men were beautiful; and they took wives for themselves, whomever they chose. (Gen 6:1-2)

What’s happening here?  Seth’s line of men are being attracted to Cain’s line of women because they think the women are babes.  But aren’t there babes in Seth’s line?  Of course there are, but when something is off limits, humans find it extra intriguing.  What’s likely going on here is that the God followers knew they should stay away from the spiritually rebellious women, but the very fact that those women were “forbidden fruit” made them seem all the more desirable.  We find this pattern throughout the OT: Jewish men who have plenty of beautiful Jewish women to choose from end up going for women who Yahweh has commanded His people to stay away from–women who are actively worshiping false gods and pressuring their lovers to do the same.

Now in the very next verse, we read:

Then Yahweh said, “My Spirit will not struggle with humans forever, because they are flesh and blood. They will live 120 years.” (Gen. 6:3)

This is a negative comment.  God is saying He’s going to shorten the average lifespan of humans, thus giving each individual less time to rebel against Him in this world.  God is expressing His patience growing short with the constant rebellion of humans–and this line comes as God’s response to the “sons of God” turning away from God to go mix it up with rebellious women.

These comments make it clear that God perceives this intermingling as a negative thing, and that once again, the human race is losing all interest in pleasing God. Now we come to verse 4:

 The nephilim (or “giants” or “fallen ones”) were on the earth in those days, as well as later, when the sons of God slept with the daughters of men and had children by them. Those were the mighty men who were of old, men of renown. (Gen. 6:4)

While humans are being impressed with the physical abilities of the first generation of offspring after Cain’s line merged with Seth’s, what does God say?

Yahweh saw how evil humans had become on the earth. All day long their deepest thoughts were nothing but evil. (Gen. 6:5)

While humans judge the outside, God looks on the heart.  Seth’s line initially merged with Cain’s because men were lusting after external appearances, and pretending those appearances were more important than soul attitudes.  Then we hear about how the first generations of offspring from the merger had some impressive battle skills. Later on in the Old Testament, when you read about King David, you’ll find that he also had a band of “mighty men” who the Jews were particularly impressed by–so much so that they preserved lists of who “David’s mighty men” were.  And yet what a foolish thing to be wowed by.  Who cares how fast a man can run or how well he can use his sword or how many other men he’s killed when he has no respect for God?  While humans in Genesis 6 were focusing on irrelevant things, Yahweh was judging people by their soul attitudes and finding the whole human race to be steeped in rebellion. Genesis 6 has nothing to do with angels getting sexual with humans. Instead, it teaches us the great importance of soul attitudes.  The great Flood was Yahweh’s angry response to spiritual rebellion, and if any nephilim were around when those waters started rising, they would have drowned along with everyone else.

FURTHER READING:
Know Your Bible Lesson 3: Before Israel
Aligning with a God of Extremes: How should we respond to spiritual rebellion?
Jacob Wrestles with an Angel
Angels in the Book of Daniel
Angel Q&A

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