What are the Nephilim and how much does it matter?

In many ways, Genesis is a book that is easy to read because it’s a narrative. It tells about people and places, and though those names and locations may be a bit foreign to us, we have heard many of the stories throughout at various times in our lives. There’s a certain familiarity about it. However, Genesis is also a tough read because we may not know what exactly we are supposed to get out of it. Reading through Genesis can make us uncomfortable as we come across sections like chapter 6, where the “Nephilim” are introduced and there’s something about the “sons of God” and the “daughters of man.” These terms are  confusing, and perhaps we’ve not encountered this part of the narrative very often in a sermon or Sunday school lesson. 

A question came in this week about what we make of this section of chapter 6 (v. 1-4). Who are the “sons of God”? Are they angels? Are they people? Who are the “daughters of men”? Why weren’t these two groups supposed to intermarry? 

First, let it be said that these questions have baffled readers and scholars (both Jewish and Christian) for centuries. So, if you’ve asked these questions, you’re in excellent company! It helps to know that these are tough questions that many others have sought to answer, but don’t let the fact that it’s difficult stop us from seeking to at least understand it better (even if we can’t understand completely). 

Scholars, as you may imagine, are not all in agreement as to the meaning of the term “sons of God.” The fact is, those who wrote it and were the original readers almost certainly understood what it meant, but the full meaning has been lost to us. So, the most honest answer is that we don’t know. 

What I’ll do is offer a few suggestions offered by people who know much more than I do! 

One view is that “sons of God” refers to angels that were having relationships with human women. While the term “son of God” is used in other books (Job, for example) to refer to an angelic being, it’s not the only way to understand the term. Furthermore, the Genesis narrative at this point is focused on the continuing rebellion of humans and their advancement in sin. This being the case, it is much more likely that “sons of God” refer to some human creatures, and this is an example of humanity’s continuing spiral downward in sin. 

Hieronymus Bosch - The Fall of the Rebel Angels, c. 1510
Hieronymus Bosch – The Fall of the Rebel Angels, c. 1510

So, what are some other possibilities? John Walton, an Old Testament professor at Wheaton College, suggests that the term (“sons of God”) refers to the kings of the Ancient Near East. These rulers, often regarded as sons of God by the people they rule, may have been not just intermarrying, but involved in some sort of sexual perversion with the “daughters of men.” In this interpretation, the daughters of men would have been God’s people. Interestingly, these Ancient Near East rulers were very concerned with immortality and long life, so the limiting of their days to 120 years would be an appropriate consequence.  

A third possibility is that the lines of Seth and Cain are represented by “sons of God” and “daughters of men.” Remember, Cain was the firstborn son of Adam and Eve- the one who murdered his brother, Abel. Later on, Eve has another son whom she called Seth. Because of what he had done, Cain was driven away from the Lord’s presence. Seth was considered the “child of promise,” and it was his family line that “began to call upon the name of the Lord” (Genesis 4:26). So, in this interpretation, the sons of God are the line of Seth (the line of promise) and the daughters of men are the descendants of Cain. The children of the promise were intermixing with those who had been cursed. Those who worshipped God were not to live like the rest of humankind, marrying whomever they wanted; rather they were to live as a distinct people. 

Given that this section of Genesis is fixed on the theme of humanity’s plunge into disorder, it seems much more likely that the term “sons of God” refers to a group of human beings. Saint Augustine and John Calvin are two examples from history who believed the “sons of God” to be human creatures. 

Both the second and third possibilities have their interesting points of support, and of course there are other variations out there. Even without knowing with certainty the identity of the groups of people in this text, we can understand the point of the text is to show us that human beings were choosing their own way. What had begun in the garden, when Adam and Eve ate of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil is continuing to have its impact. Human beings want to be the determiners of good and evil, and are trying to usurp God from his rightful place. And it’s not going well. 

Hope this helps, and please bring us more of your questions, because it’s very likely that others are asking the same ones!

Also: Here’s a short video on the identity of the “nephilim” and how much weight we should give any particular interpretation of that term. 

Reading and rereading the Bible in light of Jesus

Van Gogh - Starry Night
Van Gogh – Starry Night

I’m no expert on the book of Psalms. Poetry is not generally what I’m grabbing off the bookshelf, but there is great beauty when I find the patience to sit and read slowly.

Today I was reading through Psalm 8 and I appreciated the thought that I am by no means the first person to read this. Rather I fall in a very long line of God’s people who have sat and read, or heard, this Psalm.

O LORD, our Lord,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!

I confess this is not a very deep insight. What really struck me though is how much the coming of Jesus casts a new light on the whole world, including this book and this psalm. There were people who unrolled the Psalms and reread these words about God’s creation.

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,
what is man that you are mindful of him,
and the son of man that you care for him?

As David continues on, it calls to mind the account in Genesis where God creates this wondrous place and places humans as the crowning piece of his creation. He made man and woman in his image and set them apart to have dominion and to rule. But now, in rereading, it calls to mind Jesus.

Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings
and crowned him with glory and honor.
You have given him dominion over the works of your hands;
you have put all things under his feet,

What was true in one way for the humans that God placed in this creation is even more true for Jesus. This perfect human who can rightfully take the place over creation, who deserves to wear the crown and receive all glory and honor! I can just imagine the author of Hebrews, who quotes this in chapter 2, sitting there with Psalm 8 and having such joy in rereading it; in seeing it almost brand new in light of Jesus.

Like I said, it isn’t a unique insight to remember that other people have read Scripture. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t helpful. I’m encouraged when I picture the saints that have gone before me, being blessed by the Psalms, just like we are today. And I’m encouraged to know that the history goes back even further, even before history, to when God already had a plan for his son to come and fulfill this and so many other passages.

Are we only learning about the Bible, or really reading it? Let’s take a look at Genesis and creation.

I was not always the best student when I was in school. There are plenty of times where I was assigned a reading, such as in English classes, and instead I just “learned about” the book. I read a bit, but more so found summaries and essays that were helpful and were ultimately shortcuts to the reading.

I could get through school easily enough like this with minor consequences, such as I was 36 when I finally read the Great Gatsby, rather than a teenager. But that sort of reading creates a bad pattern. A pattern that I think many of us can follow when it comes to the Bible. We may learn about it, while not really reading it. And we miss things.

Take for example this week’s reading from Genesis. We are doing the first five chapters, and even if you tried to read the Bible before and only got a few chapters in, you’d already have read the creation account.

But are we really reading? You’ve likely learned about it and it is even a point of controversy in and outside the church. There are arguments about creation theories and many wonder if the Bible conflicts with science. So we are familiar with the Biblical account of creation, but are we reading it? For instance, have you noticed the way that there are two creation accounts? That chapter 1 (and a bit of 2) speaks of creation one way, then chapter 2 goes over it some of it again, with a different style? Why is that? What is the purpose of these two chapters? Those are great questions to dig in as you read! What does God want us to learn from these opening chapters? Are we seeing God’s omnipotence? The goodness and beauty of creation? His purpose? Our purpose?

I don’t point this out to scold anyone for not noticing something in Scripture! Rather it is an exciting invitation to read. God’s Word is full and it is rich. It can be unexpected and comforting and challenging. Even in the familiar opening chapters of Genesis there can be a new word that God will bring to us by his Spirit.

Not to end with a contradiction to what I began with, but here are some resources to help us learn. A video introduction to Genesis and an article that tries to tease out the differences in those chapters of Genesis, just to get you thinking. I offer them not as a replacement to read, nor as something that is on par with the Bible, but as a help and invitation to read the Bible more deeply.

What is the Relationship Between the Creation Accounts in Genesis 1 and 2?

The Bible Project – Genesis 1-11

Here we go!

We’ve now begun our new reading plan that will take us through July. We’ll cover both Old and New Testaments, with plenty of variety along the way. But one thing will be constant–the Psalms. Each week we’ll have Psalms to read and reflect on.

But does that sounds difficult? Or maybe you already love the Psalms and want to go even deeper? Either way, this short video from the wonderful Bible Project will help you get going.

Just one of many great videos from The Bible Project.

Starting Something New

After quite a long hiatus, we’re starting something new. Not quite the whole Bible in a year that we started with. Not quite a deep dive into one book like with 1 Corinthians. And a little more than The Bible in 10 Weeks. It’s a whole season (or two) of reading broadly through Scripture, starting this month and taking us through July. What better time to recommit and reconnect by reading God’s Word?

Watch for more info or check out the Reading Plan section.