The Nephilim were 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 were the mighty men that were of old, the men of renown (Genesis 6:4).
It seemed that everyone in the ancient world looked back to the heroes of their past for inspiration and direction. The Egyptians considered the gods Osiris, Isis, Seth, and Horus to have once ruled the land, and every generation would recreate the story. Assyrians and Babylonians looked back to Gilgamesh, Sargon, and other great kings of the past. Homer and others told the stories of what the Greeks deemed the Golden Age, the age of the heroes, Hercules, Jason, Theseus, Achilles, Agamemnon, Hector, Ajax, and the rest. Roman orators constantly appealed to their countrymen to return to the days of humble civic virtue embodied by Cincinnatus and others.
All of these cultures and societies venerated and highly esteemed their heroes and ancestors, often considering them worthy of emulation. For most the code of conduct by which the heroes of the past lived persevered without question or doubt. When the contemporary world could not sustain the contradictions and difficulties of living by a mythic standard (which the ancient “heroes” themselves no doubt failed to embody!), it would prove to men and women of old just how far civilization and culture had fallen from those glorious days in the past.
Ancient Israelites were well-acquainted with these stories from these other cultures. The Genesis author spoke of the mighty men of old, men of renown; he spoke of them as the Nephilim (Genesis 6:4).
Few things provoke as much contention and disputation as the Nephilim. The Nephilim were the offspring of the “sons of God” and the “daughters of men,” interpreted either as certain angels who consorted with women or the descendants of Seth who comingled with the daughters of Cain. The Nephilim lived before the Flood and also afterward. In Numbers 13:33 the Israelite spies of the fifteenth century BCE testified to the existence of the Anakim in the land of Canaan, described as the descendants of the Nephilim. The Anakim all those years later were still reckoned as giants; they would be exterminated from the land of Israel in the days of Joshua (Joshua 11:21-22), and only a few remained in what would become the land of the Philistines, which might explain the height of Goliath four centuries later (1 Samuel 17:4-7).
We could endlessly speculate regarding the nature of the Nephilim and what made them the “mighty men of renown,” but to no avail, for we know nothing else about them from Scripture beyond what has been described above. Whoever they were, and whatever the nature of their power, the Genesis author’s ambivalence toward them is evident: the conjoining of the “sons of God” and the “daughters of men” led God to limit human life to 120 years, and they flourished in the days when the heart of man was only evil continually (Genesis 6:3, 5).
Much has been made of the parallels between Genesis and Mesopotamian narratives such as Enuma Elish and The Epic of Gilgamesh, generally attempting to diminish what is written in Genesis as a second-rate adaptation of these older stories. Yes, these stories all relate to the distant past and prove parallel, flowing from some sort of shared remembrance. Yet the Genesis author is very consciously standing against the Mesopotamian traditions in many ways; and very much so in terms of the understanding of the “heroic past.”
The Genesis author does not deny the existence of these men in the past who are hailed as “heroes” and “men of renown.” Instead, he contextualizes their situation: they did mighty things because of their origins. Their mighty deeds did not redeem them, however; their origin was not good. It should not have happened. They stand apart from the generations of men and women who followed. Their story is not one to emulate; it is a warning to heed.
What we see with the Nephilim remains consistent throughout the Hebrew Bible. The prophetic retelling of Israel’s story is a warning for future generations to avoid the idolatry and rebellion which led to judgment and exile. The faith of many men and women are held up as exemplary, yet all manifest significant character flaws which cause great distress and grief. The only unalloyed “hero” in the Hebrew Bible is YHWH.
Today Christians live in societies profoundly shaped or influenced by the cultures mentioned above; we may not honor their heroes, but the impulse to find men of some renown and to esteem them as larger than life remains. What the Greeks did to the Mycenaean warriors of the late Bronze Age Americans tend to do with their “Founding Fathers” and other exemplary leaders of the past: their virtues are extolled and magnified beyond historical reality, their vices diminished, and a divine hand is reckoned to have guided them in ways they may not have even understood. Many wish to return to the virtues of a former age and in the process turn the past into a myth, magnifying what may have been good while suppressing what was less than pleasant. Everyone seems convinced today is worse than yesterday.
Christians must look upon such narratives with a skeptical eye, understanding their own past as the Genesis author understood humanity’s shared past. Yes, there were men of renown; yet many of them may not have come from a good place, and even the most exemplary manifested tragic flaws. One man’s “golden age” is another man’s age of decrepitude and decadence. The only unalloyed hero in history is Jesus of Nazareth, the image of the invisible God, the embodiment of the Godhead (Colossians 1:15, 2:9). The things He said and did which have earned Him renown stand in strong contrast against what most “heroes” do in order to gain fame and prominence.
It is good to aspire to virtue in character; despite what the modern world may imagine, it is good to be part of a story involving a people in which one finds his or her place. As Christians, however, we will not be able to find the most compelling such story and find such virtues in any individual society; we find them embodied in Jesus of Nazareth, and ought to seek to be part of the eternal purpose God has purposed in Him. May we follow Jesus the Christ and not the hero narratives of our culture and find salvation in Him!
Ethan R. Longhenry