The theme of my last few posts has been on achieving clear, open-minded thinking and freedom from conditioning. On that note, let’s do an interesting experiment. Let’s take a controversial Bible passage and try to interpret it in its proper context, on its own terms, without bringing along all the baggage of a pre-defined theology. The passage I have in mind is … cue drum roll … Genesis 6:1-4.
 Now it came about, when men began to multiply on the face of the land, and daughters were born to them,
 that the sons of God saw that the daughters of men were beautiful; and they took wives for themselves, whomever they chose.
 Then the LORD said, “My Spirit shall not strive with man forever, because he also is flesh; nevertheless his days shall be one hundred and twenty years.”
 The Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of men, and they bore children to them. Those were the mighty men who were of old, men of renown.
Getting the right meaning out of this should be pretty straightforward: Find out what happened before these verses. Find out the meaning of any ambiguous or difficult words. And then just let it say what it’s saying.
We’re pretty close to the beginning of the Bible, and this first book of the Bible, Genesis, tells of man’s origins from the Garden of Eden right through to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph – the beginnings of the nation of Israel. From the beginning up to chapter 6, in summary: the world is created, man falls from grace by disobeying God, Cain murders Abel, various other sons and daughters are born, industries begin. Several generations (and little detail) later, we read this strange little account. Okay, it’s clear to me we’re reading Bible history at this point. Not some methphor or vision or whatever. This is an event in our history that the author expects the reader to interpret literally.
What are the problem words? “Sons of God” and “Nephilim” jump out. Let’s tackle them. “Sons of God” first. I’m no scholar, but a little research shows me that there are only a couple of other references to the terms in the Old Testament, in the books of Job and Daniel.
Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the LORD, and Satan also came among them. (Job 1:6; see also 2:1 and and 38:7)
He [King Nebucadnezzar] said, “Look! I see four men loosed and walking about in the midst of the fire without harm, and the appearance of the fourth is like a son of the gods!” (Daniel 3:25)
Technically, the Daniel reference is a slightly different expression, but we’re splitting hairs. These references are clearly to otherworldly beings. I see no reason to interpret the Genesis 6 passage differently. In fact, the view is strengthened by the “of God” (the sons) being place in direct contrast to the “of men” (the daughters). I’m happy that we’re clearly dealing with angelic beings of one kind or another. (For those still on the fence, a study of 1 Peter 3:18-22, 2 Peter 2:4-5, and Jude 6-7, lends further confirmation of this interpretation.) If you read the New International Version, you’ll notice “sons of God” is confidently translated as “angels,” although that’s actually a little disappointing, as you lose the richness of meaning in the original term.
Moving on. Now what does “Nephilim” mean? It’s tricky. There’s seems to be no clear opinion on the origin of the word, only several suggestions. But speculation doesn’t count. Helpfully, the word is used later in the Bible (as well as qualified), in Numbers 13:33:
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.”
So, with the difficult words now understood, what is Genesis 6:1-4 saying to us. Simple. A non-human species bred with mankind, creating a hybrid species with giant characteristics. Yes, whatever the Sons of God were, we are talking about actual physical, biological creatures with DNA – with sperm, for goodness sake. There’s just no getting around that.
“Stop, Sloan!” says a little voice in my head. “That’s crazy! Take it back now, before you get laughed at. Angels don’t breed, even evil ones. They’re spirit beings. Man is made in the image of God. It’s monstrous! Impossible!”
Okay, the way I see it, you can do one of several things when you encounter a passage like this (i.e. a passage that has a clear, obvious meaning, but it’s one you don’t like).
Reaction 1: “I’m scared. Don’t make me think about it, and certainly don’t expect me to talk about it.”
Reaction 2: “Maybe something’s missing from the way I’m looking at this. Why don’t I just shelve it for now. Good idea. Phew!”
Reaction 3: “This just doesn’t fit with my existing set-in-stone beliefs. Perhaps there’s another interpretation? No? Well, can I make one up? And can I make this word mean this. Ah-ha! I’m happy now.”
Reaction 4: “Wow. I am learning bizarre and wonderful things here. I don’t know exactly what to do with this info, but it’s exciting.”
Reaction 1 is outright cowardice, from the sort of person who worries about what other people think of him. 2 demonstrates a slightly dishonest attitude to truth-seeking. 3 is the guy who says, “‘Sons of god’ means descendents of Seth. Yes, I know the term isn’t used that way in any other Bible verse, but I need to pull that explanation out of my arse, because the alternative is something insane … What about the giants? Oh, yes, well if we forget about what it says in Numbers and view Nephilim as ‘fallen ones’ instead of ‘giants’ …” Oh boy. Even if I conceded to this mishandling of the words, when you re-read the passage, watch the mental gymnastics your brain has to perform in order to make any kind of proper sense of it.
Yes, I know that the New Testament states that angels neither marry nor are given in marriage. But let’s not forget, we’ve heard about Seraphim and Cherubim, but who knows how many kinds of “angels” there are. And who knows what other business God gets up to in this vast universe, that we are not privy to.
If you want some interesting reading, Google the term “Nephilim” and read through the mix of good and bad interpretations of the passage. With the bad ones, you can almost sense how the writer’s brain is ticking. They aren’t the words of someone whose thinking, “This is mind-blowing stuff!” He’s thinking, “I don’t like this. How can I force it to fit what I already believe?”
Whether Christian or athiest, let’s be aware of cowardly and deceitful tendenies in our own minds, reject the rigidity of our existing beliefs, and be open to all possibility, regardless of where it may take us. I think it’s the only truly honest way to reason.
(Further study: For several in-depth and scholarly treatments of Genesis 6:1-4, follow this link.)