One of the benefits of theological education is that you often become your friends’ and family’s official phone-a-friend for all things theological. It was not surprising, then, to receive more than the occasional request to discuss the “Watchers” as depicted in Darren Aronofky’s Noah.
The film depicts the Watchers as fallen angels – heavenly spirits thrown down from heaven to earth, entrapped in the very rock into which they crashed. Hitflix columnist Drew McWeeny describes them as, “eleven-foot-tall fallen angels with six arms and no wings.” This depiction of fallen angels has caught many movie-goers by surprise and left them wondering, “Is that in the Bible? Is that what the Nephilim were?”
Short Answer: No.
Long Answer: Let’s look at Genesis 6:1-4
When man began to multiply on the face of the land and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that the daughters of man were attractive. And they took as their wives any they chose. Then the Lord said, “My Spirit shall not abide in man forever, for he is flesh: his days shall be 120 years.” The Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of man and they bore children to them. These were the mighty men who were of old, the men of renown. (ESV)
This passage helps us to understand what motivated Aronofsky to depict his watchers in the manner he chose (besides simply being big-screen eye candy). Who are these “Sons of God?” Who are the “daughters of man?” And what in the world are the Nephilim?
Option 1: There is a stream of Christianity that understands the “sons of God” in this sense – as fallen angels. In defense of this view, it is the oldest opinion recorded (as indicated by third-century BC 1 Enoch.) According to the argument, angels (a la Nicholas Cage in City of Angels) fall in love with beautiful human women. Their bi-species, hybrid children, then, are the Nephilim. The Nephilim are giant half-angel, half-human warriors. In this interpretation, God sends a flood, at least partially, in order to wipe out this half-breed race. I was initially very skeptical of this position, but virtually every Biblical reference to “sons of God” refers to divine beings and angels. As strange as it may appear, this seems to have some validity, but still raises more questions than it answers.
Option 2: The majority of conservative evangelicals, however, would describe the text much differently. They would understand the “sons of God” as the righteous line of Seth. The previous chapters leading into this narrative contrast two lineages: those of Seth (the godly) and those of Cain (the ungodly). With this interpretation, we see the godly line of Seth enticed by the beauty of the women of ungodly descent. Rather than maintaining strict division as would be commanded of Israel in the Old Testament (and Christians in the New), they chose to intermarry, thereby blurring the lines delineating those obedient to God and those in defiance. This was not an uncommon practice in the Old Testament, and is repeated throughout Israel’s history as God’s chosen nation chose intermarriage rather than fidelity to their covenant Lord. In every single circumstance, this practice leads to rampant national sin, covenant infidelity, and idol-worship. Taking that into consideration, then, it is not surprising that this practice would lead to God’s judgment upon humanity resulting in the flood.
Option 3: There is, however, another possibility. Much in the same manner that the Pharaohs of Egypt and the Caesars of Rome believed themselves to be sons of the gods, it is believed that the earliest rulers of city-states may have been described as the “sons of God.” If this is true, then the picture alters even more. If this be the case, Genesis 6 may contain the first reference to the practice of rulers gathering a harem of wives, for they “took as their wives any they chose.” This is an intriguing possibility, but though there is evidence of individual kings taking upon themselves the mantle, “Son of God,” there has been zero evidence that kings as a group were referred to in such a manner. Also, by taking upon themselves the mantle of “Son of God,” these rulers weren’t merely applying divine language to themselves as a mere human; they were placing themselves in the category of divine beings.
I think that we’re looking at the intermarriage of the godly with the ungodly. But then, what are we to do with the Nephilim? Are these the children of the godly and ungodly?
Short Answer: No
Long Answer: The word nephilim is a plural noun derived from the verb meaning “to fall.” The Nephilim are an interesting problem to wrestle with. Are they fallen ones? Are they just clumsy? Do they cause others to stumble? Does it even matter?
Though it may seem expeditious to translate Nephilim as “Fallen Ones,” and simply equate them to fallen angels, it is not sufficient to do so. “Fallen” could refer to their estate after being thrown down from heaven, but it could just as easily refer to their moral shortcomings – they may be morally fallen. Based upon Numbers 13:33, which says, “And there we saw the Nephilim (the sons of Anak, who come from the Nephilim), and we seemed to ourselves like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them,” the Latin translation of the Bible uses the term gigantes for the Hebrew Nephilim. Early English translations followed the Latin on this and translated them both as “giants.” (Of course, this doesn’t event take the fact that this report came from cowardly spies hoping to convince Israel to abandon all hope of entering the land. Could this be the use of exaggeration in referring to great warriors?)
The Nephilim were (apparently) very large, but does that necessarily imply that they were cosmic half-breeds? It would seem that if the flood’s purpose was to wipe out the hybrid race of the Nephilim, God’s plan failed. The Numbers account describes a continued lineage from the Nephilim. But if the reference to the Nephilim here has nothing to do with the “sons of God” and the “daughters of man” other than to serve as a time-stamp, things begin to make much more sense.
Many scholars believe that the reference to the Nephilim in this passage has nothing to do with the results of the intermarriage of species (or even family lineages), but is instead a time marker indicating when this occurred. These intermarriages occurred when the Nephilim were on the earth. You see this clearly in the English translation above: “The Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of man and they bore children to them.”
Maybe I’m being too simplistic, but if something exists at the same time of conception, it cannot actually be the result of conception. Can it?
Further, the Hebrew supports the conclusion that this is a parenthetical statement. Rather than beginning with a verb (the common Hebrew sentence form), the sentence begins with the plural noun. While this does not necessarily imply that this is a disjunctive, it certainly calls the reader to pay attention that this is not merely continuing the line of thought – this is either a “secondary gloss” or a “parenthetical aside.” I favor the latter option.
So, who are the “sons of God” in Gen 6? I think the sons of God were the godly line of Seth who opted to intermarry with the ungodly (yet physically attractive) line of Cain.
Who are the Nephilim? I think the Nephilim were a very large race of humans who fared well in battle. I do not think that they were the offspring of intermarriage between angels and humans, nor do I think the text of holy Scripture refers to them in this manner. I believe that the reference to the Nephilim in this passage is a time-marker, rather than an explanation of the origins of the Nephilim.
That took far longer to write than I anticipated, and I’m almost certain to have left something out. Feel free to interact with this in the comments. As always, I’m willing to be proven wrong – just show it to me in the Scriptures. That’s the authoritative text. That’s what I’m submitted to. That’s what I hope to faithfully teach.
One More Thing
Some have referred to Aronofsky’s reliance upon 1 Enoch for his depiction of the Nephilim. I’ll try to be brief. The Apocrypha contains fascinating stories that do not carry the authority of the canon of Scripture. Much of it has been shown to have been penned under false names and false pretenses (sometimes centuries after it claims to have been written). But even those who give more credit to the Apocrypha (lit. “hidden, or secret, things”) than I might, dismiss 1 Enoch as an authoritative text. They refer to it in order to provide helpful insight to Jewish thought during the inter-testamental period, and the terms in which many Jews were thinking during that time. 1 Enoch may create interesting big-screen eye-candy and anxious questions, but it simply does not provide a Biblical means of understanding the Nephilim.