Reader Questions Answered
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What are your thoughts on Genesis 6:1-4 as it relates to the “sons of God/angelic beings” and “Nephilim/giants”?
Is the Hebrew that is translated into “sons of God” clearly referring to something “angelic” or some other non-human form? Or is this simply the best interpretation that can be made from the minimal detail provided in these short verses? The implication is so significant to how we view the interaction between man and “heavenly beings” that I find it particularly interesting. (10/3/2009)
First. I was afraid somebody was going to ask about this.
Second. If you normally prefer to take each verse in the Bible as literal fact, you are probably uncomfortable with these verses, and you are going to be more uncomfortable with today’s supplement. You might want to stop here and play solitaire. One person dropped out of our study the day after I reported that the Hebrew doesn’t say that Moses parted the body of water we call the Red Sea. Maybe the timing was a coincidence.
On the other hand, people who think I’m all wet shouldn’t support this study, so it’s perfectly appropriate to drop out. Read on!
Third. I don’t know for sure what Genesis 6:1-4 is talking about. Nobody
knows for sure! Scholars are divided about these verses primarily for the reasons implied by our fellow-reader’s question: if the translation is correct, then who are these heavenly beings who are impregnating human women and producing giants?
Our fellow-reader states the interpretive problem with Genesis 6:1-4 very clearly. Therefore, I will divide this question into two parts:
- Is there a translational problem?; and
- What are we supposed to make of these verses?
Is there a translational problem?
Not really. One clue to ambiguity or interpretive difficulty in the original Greek or Hebrew is that different translations have different key words in them, so let’s look at vss. 2 and 4, here from the Good News:
2. some of the heavenly beings saw that these young women were beautiful, so they took the ones they liked. … 4. In those days, and even later, there were giants on the earth who were descendants of human women and the heavenly beings. They were the great heroes and famous men of long ago.
Two words or phrases are of interest: “heavenly beings” and “giants.” I looked at the Hebrew, the
Greek, and a number of translations.
BDB = Brown Driver Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon
|Hebrew OT||b’nai ha-Elohim|
literally “sons of God”
|Greek OT||hweoi tou theou|
literally “sons of God”
|JPS||sons of God||Nephilim|
|KJV||sons of God||giants|
|ESV||sons of God||Nephilim||Darby||sons of God||giants
|ASV||sons of God||Nephilim|
|Jerusalem||sons of God||Nephilim|
|NEV||sons of God||Nephilim|
|Good News||heavenly beings||giants|
|American||sons of the gods||giants|
OT = Old Testament; the Greek OT, or Septuagint, is a rabbinical translation from about 300 B.C.
JPS = Jewish Publication Society Bible [Jewish-sponsored translation]
KJV = King James Version
ESV = English Standard Version
ASV = American Standar Version
Jerusalem = The Jerusalem Bible [modern, Catholic-sponsored translation]
NEV = New English Version
Schocken = The Schocken Bible, Volume 1 [modern, Jewish-sponsored translation]
CEV = Contemporary English Version
American = The Bible, An American Translation
Both the Hebrew and the Greek say literally, “sons of God.” Sons of X
is a very well understood Hebrew idiom (remember our discussion of idioms
?) that most definitely means people or beings with some characteristics of X
. (Except, of course, when it means “sons of so-and so who lives down the street.” Nothing is ever simple.)
So as a matter of fact, all but the very last one of the translations listed above are saying the same thing about b’nai ha-Elohim
. The first seven say “sons of God” and expect you to know that it is an idiom; the next three are giving you an idiomatic translation, “beings with some characteristics of God.”
Only one of the Bibles I looked at, American, actually gives an alternative translation of the Hebrew/Greek text: “sons of the gods.” Way back on January 12 of this year, in our study The Many Names of God, we looked at Elohim
. This Hebrew word is plural, and when used as a name for God, it emphasizes his greatness and majesty, like the Royal We in English. When used as a word to talk about idols, it just means gods
. It is my understanding that with the “the,” ha-
in front, it virtually always means God
, and you see that our text has ha-Elohim
. So the American Translation goes against the vast majority of scholarly opinion, although that doesn’t absolutely positively mean that it is wrong. Even if it’s right, do we feel any better about “sons of the gods” impregnating human women and producing giants? No.
“Sons of God” is what the Hebrew and Greek texts say, and scholars are almost unanimous in taking its idiomatic usage of “beings with the characteristics of God” as what it means.
I think it’s interesting that both the “sons of God” group and the “idiomatic” group of translations use both Nephilim
. This suggests that the translations we are getting are not a matter of ideology, which is good.
comes from the Hebrew verb “to fall,” and in the most literal way it means “fellers,” like “fellers of trees.” Think “Paul Bunyon,” who we all know was a giant. The Greek has gigantes
, so clearly the rabbis who translated the Greek OT took that as its meaning.
Just as clearly, some translators aren’t 100% comfortable with giants
, because 6 out of 11 don’t translate the word at all. Nephilim
is used only twice in the Bible, here and in Numbers 13:33. Giants
makes sense in both places, but that could be just because we’re used to it.
The derivation of the word – not always a reliable guide to meaning – is “feller,” and ancient interpretation says it means giants
What are we supposed to make of these verses?
Who these guys are is a much more difficult question. Back in Genesis, we saw that God created light, dark, heaven, earth, plants, animals, and people. No specific mention was made of any sentient beings other than God and people. Although we learn later about another class of created sentient beings – angels – this is the first mention in the Bible of anyone other than God and people. Furthermore, we never hear of angels (even fallen angels) engaging in sex with human women.
Here’s a selection of comments that show, in my opinion, that scholars don’t know, any more than you or I do, quite what to make of these verses (bold italics added):
Jerusalem Bible footnotes: “An obscure passage.… The author uses a popular story of a race of giants … born of the union between gods and mortals. The author does not present this episode as a myth nor, on the other hand, does he deliver judgement on its actual occurrence; he records the anecdote of a race of supermen simply to serve as an example of the increasing human malice that is to provoke the Deluge.”
NEV, Oxford Study Edition: “…an ancient fragment, a folk explanation for a race of giants. It is used here to illustrate man’s growing wickedness, to explain the decreasing life span, and to set the stage for the deluge.”
Interpreter’s Bible [one sentence from a long and opinionated discussion]: “No one can say surely what these verses mean.”
Schocken: “The final pre-Flood section of the text includes a theme common to other ancient tales: the biological mixing of gods and men…. Perhaps this fragment … has been retained here to round out a picture familiar to ancient readers…. It is also possible that the episode serves as another example of a world that has become disordered….”
I don’t know who these guys were. Neither does anybody else. But I think it’s interesting that three of the four comments reported above agree that the story serves to illustrate humanity’s increasing estrangement from God.
So you are perfectly free to decide what you think. I have been asked for my thoughts, however, so here they are. Just remember, I could be wrong. Right or wrong, it’s not worth breaking communion over.
These four verses are an integral part of the story of “Noah’s Ark”:
- Noah is introduced in Genesis 5:29-32,
- Gen. 6:1-4 talks about the sons of God and the Nephilim/giants,
- God is unhappy about wickedness in Gen. 6:5-7, and
- Noah is selected as the sole satisfactory human being in Gen. 6:8.
Thus, I think there are two choices.
- If we accept as fact the story of a world-wide flood that God sent to destroy all of humanity except one family, we are forced to accept as fact miscegenation between supernatural beings and human women, with the resulting offspring being a race of giants.
- If on the other hand we decide that the gods, miscegenation, and giants are a myth, we are forced to conclude that the flood is also a myth.
Now. “Myth” is not a bad word, but it’s a misunderstood word. It’s typically thought to mean “lie,” or “fairy tale,” or “somebody else’s false theological story.” But this is not what it means in theological writing.
One definition of “myth” is “a traditional story of unknown authorship, ostensibly with a historical basis, but serving usually to explain some phenomenon of nature, the origin of man, or the customs, institutions, religious rites, etc. of a people.” This is close to what theologians mean by “myth.” Myth is writing that tells us who we are by telling us a story about how we got to be who we are.
The story of “Noah’s Ark” says that who we are as human beings is sinful creatures who got way far away from our Creator. We committed all sorts of forbidden and unacceptable acts. Our Creator was disappointed in how we turned out, so disappointed that he wished he’d gone a different direction entirely. But – and this is important – our Creator decided to give us another chance. As Genesis puts it: “But Noah found grace in the eyes of the LORD. … Noah was a just man and perfect in his generations, and Noah walked with God.”
I personally think the story of “Noah’s Ark,” including the sons of God and the giants, and the associated stories in Genesis 3 – 11 are a series of myths, in the absolute best sense of the word. They directly address several questions:
- Have we human beings sinned so badly that God had to step into history to save us?
- Can we, who have been such a great disappointment to our Creator through our manifold sins, be saved?
- Can we find grace in the eyes of the LORD?
“Noah’s Ark” and the other ancient stories in Genesis 3 – 11 are unanimous in answering, “Yes.”
Copyright 2009, 2011 by Regina L. Hunter. All rights reserved.
Opinions expressed on this page are solely those of the
author, Regina Hunter, and may or may not be shared by the sponsors or the
Bible-study participants. Thanks to the
Holy Spirit for any useful ideas presented here, and thanks to all the readers
for their support and enthusiasm. All
errors are, of course, the sole responsibility of the author.
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