THE NEPHILIM: The Legend of Yahweh verses Zeus, Part I.
March 2, 2010
A Spiritual and Literary Comparison of Biblical and Classical Literature.
“In those days as well as later, when the sons of the gods had intercourse with the daughters of mortals and children were born to them, the Nephilim were on the earth; they were the heroes of old, people of renown.” Genesis 6:4 (Revised English Bible)
I. WHO ARE THE NEPHILIM?
Genesis Chapter Six begins the famous story of Noah’s Ark in which God destroyed the earth by flood because of man’s wickedness. Only Noah’s family and a remnant of all the animals God had created survived. Not nearly as famous; however, is the introduction of Noah’s story in this chapter: the account of the Nephilim.
Genesis 6:1-4 tells us that “sons of the gods” took daughters of men and had intercourse with them, producing the Nephilim, “the heroes of old, people of renown.” Legend tells us the Nephilim were giants, they were something super-human. Some modern scholars, like Michael Esses, claim they were really just the wicked people who were the cause of the flood (35). However, it is clear the authors of the Bible held the former opinion. This little passage plays an important role when taken in context with the whole of the books of the Bible, and it provides a basis for a comparison of Biblical literature to early Greek literature. The author of Genesis Chapter Six is expressing his assurance that his God has authority over all other gods. We must keep in mind that the writers of both the Hebrew and Greek cultures believed their words were divinely inspired. In the article, “Literary Forms of the Bible,” the authors state, “The biblical writers…were writing for religious communities which they sought to address as effectively as possible” (Keck and Tucker 14), and in Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, a book that summarizes most of the major Greco-Roman Myths into one volume, she states that “Not the priest, but the poet, had influence with heaven” (11).
This story is the Bible’s first specific mention of supernatural beings opposed to God’s will, and the author is quick to establish God’s authority by relating them to man’s wickedness and our punishment through the flood. What does this have to do with Greek mythology? I believe the legend of the Nephilim was passed down to the Biblical authors by Noah’s son Shem, who settled in Mesopotamia. Shem was the father of the Semites and was a direct ancestor of Abraham, the father of the nation of Israel. I believe this legend is the same story that inspired the Greek legends of their gods and the children they sired with mortals as it was passed down from Shem’s brother Japheth who settled west of Mesopotamia. Genesis 10:5 says that Japheth’s son Javan became the peoples of the coasts and islands; Javan is the father of the clans of Greece. As legends were passed down through descendants of these two emerging cultures, each would undoubtedly choose different aspects of the legend to emphasize and to remember according the emerging values and beliefs in each culture to form the literature that survives today. The Greeks, who also have a similar account of the flood, preferred the stories celebrating the accomplishments of very human heroes who were in some way a descendant of one of their many gods and goddesses, if not the direct son or daughter of one. The Biblical authors formed their history based on the action of their Almighty God, Jehovah, who they believed was the Creator of the universe.
Most translations of the Bible begin Genesis 6:2 with “the sons of God” rather than the Revised English Bible’s translation, “the sons of the gods.” In contrast to Jesus, the Son of God, this indicates these beings were simply created by God and, like Him, spiritual in nature. Not surprisingly, there are a number of non-biblical Hebrew legends about the sons of God and the daughters of men. Most of these hold the common link that the sons of God were the fallen angels who rebelled against God with Satan. These angels preferred the lusts of man to the supernatural righteousness of God and they took mortal women as they willed to satisfy themselves. The offspring became the Nephilim. In some legends, the fallen angels are attributed to teaching man how to live in greater excess and rebellion towards God (Graves 100-107).
Mention of fallen angels, or evil spirits, are brief and vague in the Old Testament, but the God of the Israelites (whose name is most often translated as Yahweh) consistently finds himself proving his power and authority over the gods of other nations and punishing His chosen people for worshiping these other gods. These gods emerge in the New Testament as demons and “rulers and authorities of heavenly realms” (Ephesians 3:10). They are clearly the enemy of Yahweh and all that is good. The Apostle Paul writes of them in his letter to the Ephesian church: “Our struggle is not against human foes, but against cosmic powers and the authorities and potentates of this dark age, against the superhuman forces of evil in heavenly realms” (6:12).
In Greek mythology, the gods are immortal, they have supernatural powers, and they possess special authority over certain aspects of the universe (i.e. Zeus, god of heaven; Poseidon, god of the sea; Ares, god of war; Athena, goddess of wisdom, etc.). They act as judges of mankind, but their characters leave something to be desired when it comes to justice. Hamilton says “they often acted in a way no decent man or woman would” (11), and “a very limited sense of right and wrong prevailed in Homer’s heaven [Homer is the earliest known poet of Greek mythology], and for a long time after” (12). The gods spread their seed among mankind with almost every inclination of lust they had for mortal women, and even a few goddesses had children from mortal men. Sometimes they took the time to seduce their objects of desire, but they would just as often rape an unsuspecting mortal. These gods acted upon their own self-interest and selfish gain rather than working events out for the greater good of mankind. The purpose of sacrificing to these gods was more like a bribe to get him or her to work on one’s particular side, as opposed to the Old Testament where sacrifices were offered as atonement for sin. The Greek gods were more like bullies with immortal powers as they took on human characteristics and natural desires just as the sons of God did when they lusted after and took for themselves the daughters of men.
Next week: “Part II, Yahweh versus Zeus”
Peter L Richardson
Avalos, Hector Ignacio. “Satan.” The Oxford Companion to the Bible. Ed. Bruce M. Metzger and Michael D. Coogan. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993. 678-679.
Esses, D.H.L., Michael. Jesus in Genesis. Plainfield: Logos International, 1974.
Graves, Robert and Raphael Patai. Hebrew Myths, The Book of Genesis. Garden City : Doubleday & Co. , 1964.
Hamilton, Edith. Mythology. Boston : Little, Brown and Co. , 1942.
Keck, Leander E. and Gene M. Tucker. “Literary Forms of the Bible .” The Oxford Study Bible. New York : Oxford University Press , 1992. 12-31.
Ovid. The Metamorphoses. Trans. Horace Gregory. New York: Mentor, 1960.
Sacks, Robert D. A Commentary on the Book of Genesis. Lewiston : Edwin Mellen Press, 1990.
“The Hebrew-Greek Key Study Bible.” New American Standard Bible. Ed. Spiros Zodhiates. Chattanooga: AMG Press, 1990.
“The Oxford Study Bible.” Revised English Bible with the Apocrypha. Ed. M. Jack Suggs, Katherine Doob Sakenfeld and James R. Mueller. New York : Oxford University Press , 1992.
Thompson, Steve. “The Astounding Authority of a Believer.” The Morning Star Journal 7.1, 1997.