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Sons of God and Giants
Cultural and Historical Context in Genesis 6:1-4

Dennis Bratcher

There are many terms and concepts used in Scripture that are difficult for moderns to understand so far removed from the cultural and historical context in which Scripture was written and preserved. Two of these are the "sons of God" and the "Nephilim" mentioned in Genesis 6:1-4.

These are both difficult concepts for us as we read this material from our modern context 2,000 or 3,000 years removed from these texts. It is too easy just to assume that the text is talking about something that we would automatically understand. However, this text is drawing on the cultural background of the ancient world, a world with which we are not at all familiar either in the details of the culture or the world view that supports it. That simply means that we will have to work a little harder to understand this text within the context of that ancient world in which it was written.

Of course, that means that we will have to lay aside some of our common, and misleading, assumptions that the Bible was written in timeless truths that can be appropriated without any interpretation no matter when the person is living who reads it. That assumption is built on a certain view of Scripture that says God is basically the sole author of the Bible. Yet, unless one accepts some form of a dictation or a verbal inspiration theory of the origin of Scripture (which I do not), such an assumption does not reflect what is actually in the biblical material, let alone providing us with tools to understand the text.

A better perspective with which to begin is that the biblical authors were writing what they understood about God as he enabled them to understand him through inspiration. That is why we can confess that Scripture is "God’s word" (see Revelation and Inspiration of Scripture). And yet at the same time they were expressing what they understood about God in terms of their own culture and their own historical context, in "human words." They were not writing for 21st century Americans, or for that matter 21st century anybody. They were writing for "BC" Israelites, in the language, metaphors, figures of speech, and literary style that they would understand in that culture. It is that gap between where we are culturally and historically and where they were culturally and historically that makes it necessary for us to interpret Scripture in terms of that context. It is only in attempting to bridge that gap and understand the context of the ancient biblical text that we can gain insight into the meaning of texts like this one.

First is the concept of "sons of God" in the ancient world and the biblical text. The phrase here is benei ha-elohim, "sons of the gods" or "sons of God." This phrase has three layers of historical background.

It originates from a particular cultural and historical setting of the ancient Near East, that of the royal court. Near Eastern Kings sat in court on thrones surrounded by royal officials and servants. Some were simply messengers who carried out the king's orders (the term malak often translated in older versions as "angels" simply means "messenger," without any divine overtones; rf. Gen 32:3, cf. Num 22:5), while others were princes or high ranking royal officials, each in charge of some aspect of the Kingdom (cf. 1 Kings 4).

In some Near Eastern cultures, the King, who was understood to rule for a particular deity, was sometimes called the "son of Horus" or "son of El" or simply "son of god." This was not quite the total deification of kings that would emerge in Mesopotamia or with the Caesars, but was a cultural way of identifying the King as a patron of a particular deity. There are a few places in Scripture where Israelite kings were actually referenced with this language (2 Sam 7:14 Psa 2:7, 45:6; 89:26-27). The king’s officials were sometimes likewise called the "sons" of the king, basically meaning committed and loyal servants (cf. 1 Chron 29:24). It was not a biological designation, but a title.

On a secondary level, this cultural setting was adopted into Canaanite religious practices as a metaphor for describing the pantheon of gods associated with their animistic, polytheistic religion. The gods were conceived in terms of a king and his royal court (see The Enuma Elish). The chief deity, the high god, was El. In the myths of the ancient Near Eastern cultures of Canaan, El is the father of the other gods serving much the same function as Zeus in later Greek mythology. The lesser deities, such as Ba’al, served particular functions in the world and comprised the royal court of the deity (see Ba'al Worship in the Old Testament).

It is from this cultural background that the Israelites adapted some of their metaphorical language to describe Yahweh. Just as they adapted the "language of Canaan" as a metaphorical base to describe other aspects of their theology, so they infrequently adapted this conceptualization of Yahweh as a king presiding over a royal court with officials to carry out his bidding (see Speaking the Language of Canaan). This imagery was, no doubt, used infrequently because of the great temptation to corrupt it into actual polytheistic thinking and worship, a problem that plagued Israel until the time of Ezra (c. 440 BC).

But while that imagery is infrequent, it is there in a few places. In the first chapter of Job, the "sons of God" are rather clearly this heavenly court, a way to describe God as Lord of the earth. We might need to remind ourselves at this point that this is a metaphorical expression by the Israelites, a way of conceptualizing God in terms of a culture that they understood. It is not a description of how "things really are" in heaven.

Another clear example is in 1 Kings 22:19-22:

19 And Micaiah said, "Therefore hear the word of the LORD: I saw the LORD sitting on his throne, and all the host of heaven standing beside him on his right hand and on his left; 20 and the LORD said, ‘Who will entice Ahab, that he may go up and fall at Ramoth-gilead?’ And one said one thing, and another said another. 21 Then a spirit came forward and stood before the LORD, saying, ‘I will entice him.’ 22 And the LORD said to him, ‘By what means?’ And he said, ‘I will go forth, and will be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets.’ And he said, ‘You are to entice him, and you shall succeed; go forth and do so.’

The "host of heaven" here is the same idea communicated by "the sons of God" in the first chapter of Job (cf. Psa 80:14, Hag 2:6). Notice that this "lying spirit," however we grapple with the ethical implications of the story, is in the service of God, is not condemned for his actions, and is not portrayed as evil himself.  In fact, he carries out God’s purposes in the world. He is not given a name or a title in this story, but most scholars understand this role to be the same role fulfilled by the satan in Job. This same imagery of the royal court lies behind the plural references in Genesis (1:6, 3:22) and Isaiah (6:8). It is this background of the "sons of God" as members of the heavenly court or as attendant deities serving the chief gods that lie behind the reference in Genesis 6.

The first four verses of Genesis 6 are probably the four most difficult verses to interpret in the entire Bible. They are unlike anything else anywhere else in scripture. We may have to move out of some of our categories here to think about this because they are difficult from our frame of reference.

Let me first reveal the theological conclusion of this passage and then come back and discuss the details. Theologically, these verses are a demonstration or an example of the continuing effects of sin in the world. Sin had been characterized in the narrative flow of the story from the very beginning of Genesis as a disruption or a disorder in God's creation.  God created an orderly world and set boundaries for human existence in that order.  But then human beings crossed the boundaries that God had set and introduced a disruption into the orderliness of God's creation. That disorder and chaos of sin had continued to spread throughout the world like ripples on a pond (See The "Fall": A Second Look).

We know that the Noah story begins by observing how wicked and evil the world has become, even to the point that God can no longer tolerate its wickedness and resolves to do something about it (Gen 6:5 ff). These verses are simply a way to introduce that story by showing just how bad the crossing of boundaries, the disruption of God's world, had become because of human sin. It is illustrative of the disruption that violation of boundaries introduces into the world. Theologically, that is how these four verses function.

Now, what they are in content is much more difficult. These four verses are really mythological in nature. These are the only four verses anywhere in Scripture that have a direct origin in ancient myth and yet have not been radically reworked to distance themselves from that mythical background. The term "myth" here, as I am using it, refers to a way to talk about the physical world, not in terms of scientific explanations, but in terms of how the ancient people conceptualized the physical world. That was frequently done in terms of story and narrative, poetic ways of talking about things that they had no way to understand on any other level (see Speaking the Language of Canaan).

Here, the myth is dealing with why there are certain kinds of "giants" that live in the earth. Now, we do not know exactly who these giants were. We do know that there were some very tall people recorded in ancient memory. Remember Goliath and his kin?  There were actually several giants killed by various Israelites in the time of David (2 Sam 21:15-22, 1 Chron 20:4-8). There is a clear memory in Israel of this ancient race of very tall people that died out about the time of David. Goliath and his brothers were some of the last of their kind. But the memories of these people are clear in Scripture.

They went by several different names among the various people of the Ancient Near East: Zamzumin, Zumin, Rephaim, Nephilim, Emim, and Anakim (Deut 1:28, 2:10-11, 20-21, 3:11, etc.). We are not sure of their height, but it was probably well over seven feet, with perhaps some much taller (the bed of King Og of Bashan, a Rephaim, was preserved as a memory of these people; it was nine cubits long, over 14 feet; Deut 3:11).  The great height of these giants made quite an impression upon people who were probably around five feet in most cases (from archaeological excavations, we know that the Israelites, as Semitic people in general, were not very tall). That was out of the ordinary of their experience of the world, and did not "fit" with their understanding of how the world ought to be as ordered by God.

So, the Israelites saw the giants as a disruption in the world. People weren’t supposed to be that tall, in their experience.  Somehow this is a corruption or disturbance in how God created the world. We might today call this a bias or a prejudice, and our politically correct culture would certainly not allow people who were "different" physically to be used as symbols of evil in the world. Yet, the ancient Israelites were not modern politically correct Americans! And those very tall people were always enemies of the Israelites, which made it easier to see them in negative terms. The early Israelites had fought against the Anakim when they first entered the land, and their surviving descendants had settled in the Philistine territory and continued to fight with the Philistines against Israel (Josh 11:21-22). So, the Israelites saw these abnormally (to them) tall people as part of the disruption that sin had introduced into the world.

In that ancient historical era, there were myths from the ancient Canaanites as well as from the other ancient Near Eastern cultures that explained from where the giants came. Myth is not something that is necessarily false. A myth is a story to explain how things are in the world based on observation, but without much understanding about the actual causes. So the way the ancient people explained where the giants came from was in the form of story, a myth.

In Canaanite mythology the giants came from intermarriage between human beings and the gods. That is the mythical aspect of the story here in Genesis, adopted from the cultural context of the ancient world. This story would enter later Jewish tradition in modified form as an explanation of the origin of evil (1 Enoch 6-19, 21; Jubilees 4:15, 22, 5:1; Apoc. Bar 56:10-14; note Jude 1:6).

Now, whether or not Israel believed in the other gods about which the myths told the stories is not the point here. The point is that they took this particular section of myth, that these giants were the result of intermarriage between the gods and human beings, and used that to illustrate the depths to which the disruption in the world had reached, how bad the crossing of boundaries had become. It was a way to describe how bad the world had become because the divine realm and the human realm had started to mix. This example of the magnitude of disruption in the world implies that it would continue to cause problems in creation.

The significance of this particular illustration of that disruption relates to an important aspect of the earlier Eden story. The narrator had already made the theological statement in the Eden story that part of the danger of sin in the world was that human beings would become like gods. That is part of the danger of the disruption of eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Part of the consequences of their decision to eat of the tree was that they had further boundaries imposed on them. They had to leave the garden lest they "become like one of us" and become gods (Gen 3:22-24).

This is simply a way to say that this is happening with these giants. It is not a physical or a biological statement but an interpretative theological statement. If God doesn’t do something, the whole world would likely become totally chaotic because human beings would continue to erase all the boundaries set by God in his creation, even the boundaries between the human and divine. There is some sense here that there needs to be some boundaries reestablished, that God needs to do something to contain the disruption of sin and its effects in the world.

So, we need to read this text with all this in mind. When people begin to multiply on the face of the earth and daughters were born to them the "sons of God" saw they were fair. The sons of God in Canaanite mythology were the lesser deities, the gods of rain and storm, etc. In the Israelite adaptation of the metaphor they are the members of God’s heavenly council, just a reference to divine beings or another way to say "God."

These sons of God are conceptualized as members of God’s heavenly council. Yet they actually contribute to the disruption in the world by taking wives from among the daughters of men (human women). The result was this race of giants, an example of the result of mixing that which should not be mixed, or, in our terms, the consequences of sin. So in verse three God imposes a new boundary because there needs to be some limits placed on how far human beings can disrupt the world. In verse three, the word "spirit" (Heb: ruach) probably should be translated as "breath."  My breath shall not always abide in mortals forever. They are flesh, mortal, they will die. Their days shall be 120 years. There is a limitation placed here on the time span of life to place limits on how bad the world can become because of human sin.

Israelites used this mythological fragment recounting the origin of the giants to express theology. The giants were the sinful results of an ever increasing erasing of the boundaries of creation. Today, we could not say that anyone more than seven feet tall is the result of sin. That would not make sense in our way of understanding the world today since we have other means to explain such unusual features. But this is a theological statement from an ancient culture. This isn’t a statement of biological fact or a statement of history but a theological confession. We must leave this story against that ancient background, and understand what it is doing as a theological statement. It is a way to introduce the idea that the world is deteriorating and getting even worse, which is the setting for the flood narrative that begins in the following verses.

Part of our difficulty in thinking about some of this is that we are so used to simply thinking historical timeline and viewing this as unfolding history. We are so used to thinking in terms of the historical Jesus, or the historical Isaiah that it's very easy to assume that we are also talking about the same kind of historical characters here that we are in other contexts. I am suggesting that this it is not the same kind of historical characters here as it is there. It says far more to us as theology than it will ever say to us as history or biology.

-Dennis Bratcher, Copyright © 2018, Dennis Bratcher, All Rights Reserved
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