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Sons of God and Giants
Cultural and Historical Context in Genesis 6:1-4
There are many terms and concepts used in Scripture that are difficult
for moderns to understand so far removed from the cultural and historical
context in which Scripture was written and preserved. Two of these are the
"sons of God" and the "Nephilim" mentioned in Genesis 6:1-4.
These are both difficult concepts for us as we read this material from
our modern context 2,000 or 3,000 years removed from these texts. It is
too easy just to assume that the text is talking about something that we
would automatically understand. However, this text is drawing on the
cultural background of the ancient world, a world with which we are not at
all familiar either in the details of the culture or the world view that
supports it. That simply means that we will have to work a little harder
to understand this text within the context of that ancient world in which
it was written.
Of course, that means that we will have to lay aside some of our
common, and misleading, assumptions that the Bible was written in timeless
truths that can be appropriated without any interpretation no matter when
the person is living who reads it. That assumption is built on a certain
view of Scripture that says God is basically the sole author of the Bible.
Yet, unless one accepts some form of a dictation or a verbal inspiration
theory of the origin of Scripture (which I do not), such an assumption
does not reflect what is actually in the biblical material, let alone
providing us with tools to understand the text.
A better perspective with which to begin is that the biblical authors
were writing what they understood about God as he enabled them to
understand him through inspiration. That is why we can confess that
Scripture is "God’s word" (see Revelation and
Inspiration of Scripture). And yet at the same time they were
expressing what they understood about God in terms of their own culture
and their own historical context, in "human words." They were not writing
for 21st century Americans, or for that matter 21st century anybody. They
were writing for "BC" Israelites, in the language, metaphors, figures of
speech, and literary style that they would understand in that
culture. It is that gap between where we are culturally and historically
and where they were culturally and historically that makes it necessary
for us to interpret Scripture in terms of that context. It is only in
attempting to bridge that gap and understand the context of the ancient
biblical text that we can gain insight into the meaning of texts like this
First is the concept of "sons of God" in the ancient world and the
biblical text. The phrase here is benei ha-elohim, "sons of the
gods" or "sons of God." This phrase has three layers of historical
It originates from a particular cultural and historical setting of the
ancient Near East, that of the royal court. Near Eastern Kings sat in
court on thrones surrounded by royal officials and servants. Some were
simply messengers who carried out the king's orders (the term malak
often translated in older versions as "angels" simply means "messenger,"
without any divine overtones; rf. Gen 32:3, cf. Num 22:5), while others
were princes or high ranking royal officials, each in charge of some
aspect of the Kingdom (cf. 1 Kings 4).
In some Near Eastern cultures, the King, who was understood to rule for
a particular deity, was sometimes called the "son of Horus" or "son of El"
or simply "son of god." This was not quite the total deification of kings
that would emerge in Mesopotamia or with the Caesars, but was a cultural
way of identifying the King as a patron of a particular deity. There are a
few places in Scripture where Israelite kings were actually referenced
with this language (2 Sam 7:14 Psa 2:7, 45:6; 89:26-27). The king’s
officials were sometimes likewise called the "sons" of the king, basically
meaning committed and loyal servants (cf. 1 Chron 29:24). It was not a
biological designation, but a title.
On a secondary level, this cultural setting was adopted into Canaanite
religious practices as a metaphor for describing the pantheon of gods
associated with their animistic, polytheistic religion. The gods were
conceived in terms of a king and his royal court (see
The Enuma Elish). The chief deity, the high god, was El. In the
myths of the ancient Near Eastern cultures of Canaan, El is the father of
the other gods serving much the same function as Zeus in later Greek
mythology. The lesser deities, such as Ba’al, served particular functions
in the world and comprised the royal court of the deity (see
Ba'al Worship in the Old Testament).
It is from this cultural background that the Israelites adapted some of
their metaphorical language to describe Yahweh. Just as they adapted the
"language of Canaan" as a metaphorical base to describe other aspects of
their theology, so they infrequently adapted this conceptualization of
Yahweh as a king presiding over a royal court with officials to carry out
his bidding (see Speaking the Language of Canaan).
This imagery was, no doubt, used infrequently because of the great
temptation to corrupt it into actual polytheistic thinking and worship, a
problem that plagued Israel until the time of Ezra (c. 440 BC).
But while that imagery is infrequent, it is there in a few places. In
the first chapter of Job, the "sons of God" are rather clearly this
heavenly court, a way to describe God as Lord of the earth. We might need
to remind ourselves at this point that this is a metaphorical expression
by the Israelites, a way of conceptualizing God in terms of a culture that
they understood. It is not a description of how "things really are" in
Another clear example is in 1 Kings 22:19-22:
19 And Micaiah said, "Therefore hear
the word of the LORD: I saw the LORD sitting on his throne, and all the
host of heaven standing beside him on his right hand and on his left; 20
and the LORD said, ‘Who will entice Ahab, that he may go up and fall at
Ramoth-gilead?’ And one said one thing, and another said another. 21
Then a spirit came forward and stood before the LORD, saying, ‘I will
entice him.’ 22 And the LORD said to him, ‘By what means?’ And he said,
‘I will go forth, and will be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his
prophets.’ And he said, ‘You are to entice him, and you shall succeed;
go forth and do so.’
The "host of heaven" here is the same idea communicated by "the sons of
God" in the first chapter of Job (cf. Psa 80:14, Hag 2:6). Notice that
this "lying spirit," however we grapple with the ethical implications of
the story, is in the service of God, is not condemned for his actions, and
is not portrayed as evil himself. In fact, he carries out God’s
purposes in the world. He is not given a name or a title in this story,
but most scholars understand this role to be the same role fulfilled by
the satan in Job. This same imagery of the royal court lies behind
the plural references in Genesis (1:6, 3:22) and Isaiah (6:8). It is this background of the "sons of God" as members of the heavenly
court or as attendant deities serving the chief gods that lie behind the
reference in Genesis 6.
The first four verses of Genesis 6 are probably the four most difficult
verses to interpret in the entire Bible. They are unlike anything else
anywhere else in scripture. We may have to move out of some of our
categories here to think about this because they are difficult from our
frame of reference.
Let me first reveal the theological conclusion of this passage and then
come back and discuss the details. Theologically, these verses are a
demonstration or an example of the continuing effects of sin in the world.
Sin had been characterized in the narrative flow of the story from the
very beginning of Genesis as a disruption or a disorder in God's creation.
God created an orderly world and set boundaries for human existence in
that order. But then human beings crossed the boundaries that God
had set and introduced a disruption into the orderliness of God's
creation. That disorder and chaos of sin had continued to spread
throughout the world like ripples on a pond (See The
"Fall": A Second Look).
We know that the Noah story begins by observing how wicked and evil the
world has become, even to the point that God can no longer tolerate its
wickedness and resolves to do something about it (Gen 6:5 ff). These
verses are simply a way to introduce that story by showing just how bad
the crossing of boundaries, the disruption of God's world, had become
because of human sin. It is illustrative of the disruption that violation
of boundaries introduces into the world. Theologically, that is how these
four verses function.
Now, what they are in content is much more difficult. These four verses
are really mythological in nature. These are the only four verses anywhere
in Scripture that have a direct origin in ancient myth and yet have not
been radically reworked to distance themselves from that mythical
background. The term "myth" here, as I am using it, refers to a way to
talk about the physical world, not in terms of scientific explanations,
but in terms of how the ancient people conceptualized the physical world.
That was frequently done in terms of story and narrative, poetic ways of
talking about things that they had no way to understand on any other level
(see Speaking the Language of Canaan).
Here, the myth is dealing with why there are certain kinds of "giants"
that live in the earth. Now, we do not know exactly who these giants were.
We do know that there were some very tall people recorded in ancient
memory. Remember Goliath and his kin? There were actually several
giants killed by various Israelites in the time of David (2 Sam 21:15-22,
1 Chron 20:4-8). There is a clear memory in Israel of this ancient race of
very tall people that died out about the time of David. Goliath and his
brothers were some of the last of their kind. But the memories of these
people are clear in Scripture.
They went by several different names among the various people of the
Ancient Near East: Zamzumin, Zumin, Rephaim, Nephilim, Emim, and Anakim
(Deut 1:28, 2:10-11, 20-21, 3:11, etc.). We are not sure of their height,
but it was probably well over seven feet, with perhaps some much taller (the bed
of King Og of Bashan, a Rephaim, was preserved as a memory of these
people; it was nine cubits long, over 14 feet; Deut 3:11). The great
height of these giants made quite an impression upon people who were
probably around five feet in most cases (from archaeological excavations,
we know that the Israelites, as Semitic people in general, were not very
tall). That was out of the ordinary of their experience of the world, and
did not "fit" with their understanding of how the world ought to be as
ordered by God.
So, the Israelites saw the giants as a disruption in the world. People
weren’t supposed to be that tall, in their experience. Somehow
this is a corruption or disturbance in how God created the world. We might
today call this a bias or a prejudice, and our politically correct culture
would certainly not allow people who were "different" physically to be
used as symbols of evil in the world. Yet, the ancient Israelites were not
modern politically correct Americans! And those very tall people were
always enemies of the Israelites, which made it easier to see them in
negative terms. The early Israelites had fought against the Anakim when
they first entered the land, and their surviving descendants had settled
in the Philistine territory and continued to fight with the Philistines
against Israel (Josh 11:21-22). So, the Israelites saw these abnormally
(to them) tall people as part of the disruption that sin had introduced into the
In that ancient historical era, there were myths from the ancient
Canaanites as well as from the other ancient Near Eastern cultures that
explained from where the giants came. Myth is not something that is
necessarily false. A myth is a story to explain how things are in the
world based on observation, but without much understanding about the
actual causes. So the way the ancient people explained where the giants
came from was in the form of story, a myth.
In Canaanite mythology the giants came from intermarriage between human
beings and the gods. That is the mythical aspect of the story here in
Genesis, adopted from the cultural context of the ancient world. Now,
whether or not Israel believed in the other gods about which the myths
told the stories is not the point here. The point is that they took this
particular section of myth, that these giants were the result of
intermarriage between the gods and human beings, and used that to
illustrate the depths to which the disruption in the world had reached,
how bad the crossing of boundaries had become. It was a way to describe
how bad the world had become because the divine realm and the human realm
had started to mix. This example of the magnitude of disruption in the
world implies that it would continue to cause problems in creation.
The significance of this particular illustration of that disruption
relates to an important aspect of the earlier Eden story. The narrator had
already made the theological statement in the Eden story that part of the
danger of sin in the world was that human beings would become like gods.
That is part of the danger of the disruption of eating of the tree of the
knowledge of good and evil. Part of the consequences of their decision to
eat of the tree was that they had further boundaries imposed on them. They
had to leave the garden lest they "become like one of us" and become gods
This is simply a way to say that this is happening with these giants.
It is not a physical or a biological statement but an interpretative
theological statement. If God doesn’t do something, the whole world would
likely become totally chaotic because human beings would continue to erase
all the boundaries set by God in his creation, even the boundaries between
the human and divine. There is some sense here that there needs to be some
boundaries reestablished, that God needs to do something to contain the
disruption of sin and its effects in the world.
So, we need to read this text with all this in mind. When people begin
to multiply on the face of the earth and daughters were born to them the
"sons of God" saw they were fair. The sons of God in Canaanite mythology
were the lesser deities, the gods of rain and storm, etc. In the Israelite
adaptation of the metaphor they are the members of God’s heavenly council,
just a reference to divine beings or another way to say "God."
These sons of God are conceptualized as members of God’s heavenly
council. Yet they actually contribute to the disruption in the world by
taking wives from among the daughters of men (human women). The result was
this race of giants, an example of the result of mixing that which should
not be mixed, or, in our terms, the consequences of sin. So in verse three
God imposes a new boundary because there needs to be some limits placed on
how far human beings can disrupt the world. In verse three, the word "spirit"
(Heb: ruach) probably should be translated as "breath." My
breath shall not always abide in mortals forever. They are flesh,
mortal, they will die. Their days shall be 120 years. There is a
limitation placed here on the time span of life to place limits on how bad
the world can become because of human sin.
Israelites used this mythological fragment recounting the origin of the
giants to express theology. The giants were the sinful results of an ever
increasing erasing of the boundaries of creation. Today, we could not say that
anyone more than seven feet tall is the result of sin. That
would not make sense in our way of understanding the world today since we
have other means to explain such unusual features. But this is a
theological statement from an ancient culture. This isn’t a statement of
biological fact or a statement of history but a theological confession. We
must leave this story against that ancient background, and understand what
it is doing as a theological statement. It is a way to introduce the idea
that the world is deteriorating and getting even worse, which is the
setting for the flood narrative that begins in the following verses.
Part of our difficulty in thinking about some of this is that we are so
used to simply thinking historical timeline and viewing this as unfolding
history. We are so used to thinking in terms of the historical Jesus, or
the historical Isaiah that it's very easy to assume that we are also
talking about the same kind of historical characters here that we are in
other contexts. I am suggesting that this it is not the same kind of
historical characters here as it is there. It says far more to us as
theology than it will ever say to us as history or biology.
Issues in Interpretation
Baal Worship in the OT
Speaking the Language of Canaan