Genesis 6 – Who were the Nephilim?

Following on from the Cain and Abel tale of blood-stained misadventure, here is an even more ambiguous, if not totally obscure, story. It concerns dubious goings-on involving, of all people, the “sons of God”. The phrase בְנֵי־הָאֱלֹהִים (beney haʾelohim) is found only here and in the Book of Job, but occurs outside the Hebrew Bible in the contemporaneous mythology of fellow-Canaanite Ugarit on the Mediterranean coast. 

In Ugaritic mythology, the ‘sons of god’ are the lesser deities who make up the ‘divine assembly’ of El, the chief God. In Job, Yahweh also has a ‘divine council’, although its members are probably regarded not as gods, but as supernatural beings otherwise known as angels. The idea of supernatural beings becoming attracted to, then taking human (or other) form, and having sex with, human women is a widespread theme in world, never mind Greek, mythology. The innumerable erotic adventures of Zeus outstrip even those of some of our own ‘this-worldly’ presidents and prime ministers! 

We ought always to keep in mind that the world-view of those who produced the Hebrew Bible was very different from ours, we who live many hundreds of years later. Back in New Testament times, lots of Roman pagans might well swallow the idea that the mother of the Emperor Augustus had been impregnated by the god Apollo, and that Augustus could rightly be called, on his coinage, divi filius, the “Son of God”. The Virgin Mary was very far from being ‘out on her own’. Such ideas did not, then, fall foul of rational and scientific scrutiny which, depending on one’s point of view, may or may not be a good thing. 

At any rate, these angelic beings, presumably having fully taken human form, also took wives for themselves and produced children. What Yahweh thought about this, judging by verse 3, is hard to unravel from the obscure Hebrew text. One of its main verbs occurs only there, so that its meaning requires guesswork, and another word seems be a preposition, relative pronoun and particle all squashed into one. If God wrote the Hebrew Bible, he didn’t do too well in this particular verse. If his reference to “120 years” is a new time-limit on extended human life-spans, succeeding genealogies indicate that it wan’t adhered to. More likely, perhaps, is that, being displeased with what’s going on, he’s giving 120 years for things to improve, or there is a Flood to surpass all other floods in the offing.

It’s neither clear in verse 4 what the name “Nephilim” means, nor whether they are offspring resulting from the erotic antics in verses 1 to 3. It may well be that fragments of different, yet related, myths have been cobbled together. If so, this second fragment seems to look more kindly on what is going on ‘down below’. The offspring of these ‘mixed marriages’ are said to be “the mighty heroes of old, the famous men”. This sits untidily with what seems to be the main message arising from these verses, that what is going on is unacceptable in the eyes of Yahweh, and leads to his judgement that “the wickedness of humankind has become great on the earth”.

The upshot is that the whole jingbang must now be got rid of – the errant “sons of God”, the “daughters of men”, the “Nephilim”, and even “the mighty heroes” and “famous men”. A supposedly all-seeing God apparently failed to see what was coming, and can now see the only solution being a genocidal wipe-out of all humanity and every other living thing. If the buck stopped at the top, God should have ‘considered his own position’, but that’s not what usually happens, as we well know.

But anyway, now I’m going to leave you to draw your own conclusions from this far-fetched farrago of fascinating fantasy …..

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