Sunday, April 13, 2014

They Might Be Giants

The pious Iowa revivalist found himself in a discussion with a skeptic.  “You don’t really believe all those stories in the Bible about giants and such, do you?” the fellow scoffed.  The minister vehemently asserted that he did, and pointed to a verse in Genesis to support him:  “There were giants in the earth in those days.”

Some of the most tantalizing stories in the Bible are the untold ones; the passages that make a passing reference to something but never tells us any more.  Of these untold stories, perhaps the most intriguing is the introduction we get to the story of Noah:

And it came to pass, when men began to multiply on the face of the earth, and daughters were born unto them, that the sons of God saw the daughters of men that they were fair; and they took them wives of all which they chose.  ... There were giants in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare children to them, the same became mighty men which were of old, men of renown.  (Genesis 6:1-2, 4 King James Version)

This passage presents us with two mysteries:  Who are these “sons of God” and who are the giants they begat?

Well, if you grew up in the ‘70s as I did, the first question has only one answer.  They were space aliens obviously.  At least that’s what Erich von Däniken used to say.

The phrase translated as “sons of God” literally means “sons of the powers”, and in some places, such as Job 1:6 and Jude 6-7, it refers to angels.  In this particular context it certainly sounds like the text is referring to some kind of demigods or semi-divine beings, especially since the offspring of these beings are described as giants.  This interpretation doesn't fit so well with the traditional Jewish and Christian views of God.  Perhaps this passage, like a few others in Genesis, might be cultural relics of a time before the Hebrews adopted monotheism which the writer who compiled the Book of Genesis neglected to fix.  If that’s the case, the Holy Spirit could have used a better copy editor.

Orthodox Judaism interprets the phrase differently; as “sons of nobles“.  Similarly, an ancient Christian tradition holds that “sons of God” refers to the godly descendants of Seth, Adam and Eve’s third son, those who had a Covenant Relationship with God; and that the “daughters of men” belonged to the line of Cain.  This seems possible, but doesn't capture the imagination quite like the notion of angelic space aliens getting it on with sexy earth girls.

The apocryphal Books of Enoch, written between the 3rd and 1st Centuries BC, expands considerably on the Genesis 6 passage.  Ostensibly written by the patriarch Enoch before the Flood, it identifies the “sons of God” with angels called Watchers, whose job was to watch over humanity. Uatu the Watcher from Marvel Comics is probably related to them.

Some of these Watchers were the ones who began fooling around with human women and who also taught humans forbidden knowledge like astrology, weapon-making, and cartooning; (well, “the art of writing with ink and paper“). The movie Noah plays around with this idea and represents the Watchers as huge creatures whose angelic forms are encased in rock and earth, embodying their fallen state.

Which brings us to the children of the sons of God and the daughters of men.  King James follows many ancient translations and calls them “giants”, but the Hebrew word used in the passage is “nephilim”, which means, depending on your point of view, either “fallen ones” or “those causing others to fall.”  (Or, it could be related to the Aramaic word “Nephila” for the constellation of Orion, which brings us back to space aliens.)

But were they giants?  A more prosaic interpretation suggests that the Nephilim of Genesis were giants in a metaphorical way rather than a literal one; that they were simply “mighty men of renown”, the same way we might call a corporate CEO a Titan of Industry, or a mathematical genius a Colossus of Intellect, or a college football star the Big Man on Campus.

I suspect that the identification of the Nephilim with giants comes from the only other place in the Bible where they are mentioned.  In the Book of Numbers there is a story in which Moses sends twelve spies into the land of Canaan to do reconnaissance.  Their initial report was not promising:

But the men who had gone up with him said, “We can’t attack those people; they are stronger than we are.” And they spread among the Israelites a bad report about the land they had explored. They said, “The land we explored devours those living in it. All the people we saw there are of great size. We saw the Nephilim there (the descendants of Anak come from the Nephilim). We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes and we looked the same to them.” (Numbers 13: 31-33 NIV)

Are these the same Nephilim from Genesis? The reference to Anak, who was one of the Canaanite kings, would suggest that they were, or at least were descended from them.  Then how did these ancestors of Anak survive the Deluge that wiped out the rest of humanity?  I don’t know.

But another strong possibility is that the spies were exaggerating.  “These guys were huge, man!  They were like freakin’ King Kong!”  It’s not all that implausible to suppose that the Canaanites, living as they did in a Land Flowing with Milk and Honey, had a better overall diet than the nomadic Israelites and were on average taller; but all that stuff about looking like grasshoppers?  I don’t think so.

That’s the last mention we get in Scriptures of the Nephilim.  Maybe the writer who compiled Genesis didn't know any more about them than a name passed down in oral tradition.  Or maybe the writer was more interested in recording the history of Abraham and his ancestry, and that he regarded these half-mythical beings as peripheral to his story.

Either way, the giants of those days stuck in people’s minds.  In 1869, when a farmer in upstate New York digging a well uncovered what seemed to be the petrified remains of one of these giants, it seemed vindication at last for the Genesis account.  The “Cardiff Giant”, of course, was a hoax, perpetrated by the same scoffer who had argued with the Iowa revivalist, and who decided that if people wanted to believe in such things, he would give it to them.

And so, for a time at least, there really were giants in the earth.

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