Tuesday, February 6, 2018

The Bible and the Supernatural: The Nephilim, Part 1

Scripture: Genesis 6:1-4

A somewhat mysterious and often disputed passage, this tiny paragraph, wedged between Noah’s genealogy and the account of the Flood, has two common interpretations.

In the first, “the sons of God” refer to the descendents of Seth. These men of godly heritage then took wives from “the daughters of men,” that is, from the descendents of Cain. The result, it seems, were children of mixed spiritual heritage, at least some of whom became known as the Nephilim.

The second interpretation takes a decidedly supernatural bent. “The sons of God” can also refer to a supernatural race that we generally term angels. If this is the case, angels mated with human women, causing them to become pregnant with half-human, half-angel children.

Digging Deeper: Arguments can be made for both interpretations, and this passage is enough ambiguous, the matter can never be definitively decided. Nonetheless, I see several reasons to at least consider the second interpretation, as strange as it seems. I have broken down these reasons into three general areas: Angelic procreation, external evidence, and internal evidence.

Angelic Procreation
1. Spirit beings can cause pregnancies. The primary argument against the angel theory is that angels are spirit and therefore don’t procreate. But there is a big difference between don’t/shouldn’t and can’t. Just because angels are immortal spirits and therefore don’t need to procreate doesn’t mean they can’t procreate.  Let’s face it. God is spirit. Yet He was able to impregnate a human woman, such that the Child would be fully human and fully God. If this is true, can we completely eliminate the possibility that angels could do the same?

2. The natural order can be defied. Yes, God did not create angel to procreate. However, this again doesn’t mean they can’t. Humans weren’t created to have sexual intercourse with animals either. Yet humans can do just that; otherwise God wouldn’t have issued commands concerning that very thing (e.g. Leviticus 18:23). So if we can defy the natural order, how much more a supernatural being?

3. The marriages are one-directional. If both the sons of God and the daughters of men are human, why don’t the marriages go both ways? Why don’t the sons of men also take the daughters of God as wives? But if these are angels and women, then this makes sense. Angels weren’t created to procreate. Humans were. So in order for angels to procreate, it would make senses that they would need women to procreate.

External Evidence
1. The ancients believed this term referred to angels. Just because a view is old doesn’t mean that it is correct. However, there is also something to be said for the original interpretation of a passage derived close to the event, especially when that view is long-held. For alternative interpretations that don’t show up until centuries or millennia afterward often seem to reflect less a search for truth and more a refusal to believe the truth, hence creating the need for an alternative interpretation. In this case, the view that “the sons of men” refer to something other than angels didn’t seem to occur until at least the fourth century A.D. Until that point, this phrase was commonly believed to refer to angels both by Jews and Christians, as witnessed by the Apocrypha, Jewish historian Josephus, and early Christian theologians Tertullian, Ambrose, and Clement of Alexandria. (https://www.blueletterbible.org/faq/don_stewart/don_stewart_724.cfm, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sons_of_God)

2. Mythology supports this idea of intermixing the human and the supernatural. In many mythologies from around the world, there are stories of powerful, supernatural beings, usually called “gods,” impregnating a female human, which then results in a supernaturally gifted human: the Greek’s Hercules (along with dozens of others), the Māori’s Māui, Cú Chulainn in Celtic lore, and the Pandara brothers in Hindu traditions. Since these are myths, we cannot expect that they got the facts 100% straight. But many myths came into existence due to a fact; that is, there is a seed of truth underlying the myth. And when a particular motif is found in the myths of multiple, unrelated cultures, the more likely the myth is founded on a truth. Indeed, this is even one of the proofs cited for the reality of Noah’s Flood—nearly every culture has a story about a catastrophic flood. So if this consistency provides credence for Noah’s Flood, why wouldn’t the same apply here?

3 .The Bible itself defines “sons of God” as angels. This is especially seen in Job (1:6, 2:1, and 38:7). Moreover, the book Job is believed to occur about the same time as Abraham, only a short time after this passage. So it would make sense the same phrase would refer to the same object.

Internal Evidence
1. The sons of God are powerful. The phrase “took wives for themselves, whomever they chose” (v. 2, emphasis mine) implies an irresistible force—the marriages were forced, and possibly polygamous. This idea of forced marriages and polygamy doesn’t fit well with the ways of the godly (which is what the sons of God are, if they refer to humans). Moreover, if the godly are forcing these marriages, that implies they are more powerful than the ungodly. This doesn’t fit with the historical balance of power between the godly and ungodly; usually the ungodly dominates the godly because they are not restricted in the ways the godly are. However, if the “sons of God” refer to angles, this idea of irresistible force makes perfect sense as angels have supernatural power. 

2. God limits the length of life. In verse 3, God declares that humans would have a shortened lifespan. Why did He make this declaration here? It could be due to man’s evilness, but unlike in verse 5 where man’s wickedness is specifically cited as the reason for the Flood, the context here is the intermarriage. Moreover, God emphasizes that man is flesh, an emphasis that would seem unnecessary if only humans were involved. On the other hand, since angels are immortal, it would make sense their mixing with humans would increase the life expectancy of humans. This increased length of life would then logically prompt God’s declaration in verse 3.

3. Finally, the Nephilim were mighty and of renown. If humans were merely marrying humans, why would it create this superhero race? After all, both Cain and Seth descended from Adam and Eve. Why would their descendents intermarrying create the Nephilim? But the endowing of an angel’s supernatural ability on a human would definitely create an abnormally powerful people. 

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