Liam O’Toole, The Catholic University of America
“Now giants were upon the earth in those days.” This scripture passage, from the Douay-Rheims translation of Genesis 6:4, has always struck me, an eyebrow-raising passage that seems to abruptly come out over nowhere. This is one example of the value of reading some more traditional translations of scripture (the King James Version reads the same way); while some modern translations instead use the more accurate translation– Nephilim– it is the word “giants” which jumps out at readers who are paying attention and immediately piques their interest. Certainly that was the case for me when I first read this translation for the first time; previously, I had sort of skipped over the part about the “Nephilim”, whoever they were. But this version is useful primarily because it emphasizes the strangeness of this passage– the opening section of Genesis 6, verses 1-4, which precedes the more straightforward flood narrative. Lest anyone think that “Giants” is the only odd part of this passage, the narrative covers apparent divine-human breeding, and (after the giants are mentioned) talks of great heroes and warriors. This is juxtaposed, intentionally or unintentionally, with the flood narrative as earlier mentioned, a story which is built on the wickedness of mankind, of which Noah and his family are an exception. While it is easy to pass over this passage, it warrants a deeper look, and I sought to take a look at the reason for this juxtaposition, operating under the assumption that there is one to be found. I hope to discover some greater meaning that could illuminate both texts: the flood, and the mythical story of sons of Gods and giants.
First, it is worth taking a deeper look into this passage, which is only four verses long but deserves some unpacking. The passage follows a genealogy of the family of Noah and speaks about the daughters born to men as they began to multiply on the earth. The passage then speaks of “sons of God” who, seeing the fairness of these daughters of men, took them for themselves as wives. God declares that His spirit cannot “abide” in humans forever, and that their life span will hence be limited to one-hundred twenty years. That glorious climax of the passage arrives– as the giants (Nephilim in the more accurate New Revised Standard Version) were on the earth in the days in which the sons of God had relations with daughters of men, who bore children who were “heroes that were of old, warriors of renown.” I read this passage with interest, expecting to hear a story of one of those heroes of old and the giants he encountered. Of course, what follows instead is the Lord’s observation of the wickedness of mankind, which leads into the well known flood narrative. This shift has always struck me as jarring, and these four verses appear to be out of place. After all, it comes right before the flood narrative, which has led to problems in interpreting this passage, as many Christian and Jewish interpreters have looked to find something gravely evil that would justify the destruction of mankind. Certainly, the passage is ambiguous and has many difficulties– for one, what distinction is created by the translations of Giants or Nephilim? That, and other difficulties may be resolved by examining the way in which the passage has historically been interpreted, by major Christian and Jewish interpreters.
The Church Fathers were the closest Christians to the Bible– so looking at the way in which these saints have interpreted the difficult passage in question may yield some fruit (the sort of which is not forbidden to eat, I hope.) Perhaps there is some consensus amongst them what these terms might mean and how this passage could be understood. Unfortunately– and to put it bluntly– there is no consensus. In regards to those sons of God, there were differing views. Athanasius interpreted the sons of God to be human sons of Seth, the third son of Adam, reasoning that from Seth was born Enosh who wished to be called “Lord and God”, and so his offspring were called “sons of God.” Julius Africanus agreed with Athanasius (as did several other church fathers); and they also saw eye to eye that the daughters of men were the “descendants of Cain… as having nothing divine in them, on account of the wickedness of their race.” This is of course related to the mark of Cain which he received following the murder of his brother Abel; hence, his whole line was said to be cursed, and thus the descendants of Seth were said to have sinned in having relations with this wicked race. However, others have disagreed and have postulated that the sons of God refer to fallen angels. Tertullian, for example, writes that there were angels who had “fallen from God on account of concupiscence after females.” On the issue of the lifespan of humans, John Chrysostom, Jerome, and Ephrem the Syrian are in agreement that this referred to a period of one-hundred twenty years that God gave to these people for repentance for their sins, not of an actual limiting of lifespan, as several afterwards would live longer afterwards. Fairly straightforward, it seems. However, there are real discrepancies when the giants come into the picture. Augustine seemed to think that the giants were merely those born of men who were large and strong, because such humans existed even after the flood, and even in his own day there could be found individual humans, men and women, of incredible stature. Jerome translated the Hebrew annaphilim as falling ones, reiterating that these referred to fallen angels and their offspring, distinguished for being falling or even violent as opposed to being giants, strictly speaking. Theodoret of Cyrus believed that there were literal giants, based on multiple references to men of great stature throughout the Bible. Diodore viewed the “giants” as those who lived many years, equating them with the famous men of old in that same verse (it should be noted here that the translation used in this source, an earlier translation of scripture, uses “giants” to refer to the heroes as well as the Nephilim, conflating the two). It is clear that the Church Fathers had different and diverging interpretations of this elusive passage.
Examining different traditions may help to shed some light on this passage. One place that might be helpful is Jewish interpretation, which of course proceeds Christian interpretation. Jewish views on this passage have relied heavily on the apocryphal Book of Enoch– this was the earliest Jewish account that interpreted this passage. According to the 1st Book of Enoch, which recounts the same narrative, the Watchers– the sons of heaven– saw the “comely” daughters of men and took them as they wanted for themselves, despite protestations from their chief that he would be the one to pay the price for this “sin.” This account is notable for being the first to claim that the sons of God referred to angels who were fallen, and also explicitly affirmed that their actions were sinful, something not mentioned in the Biblical text, though assumed given the context. Different Christian traditions have also tended to interpret this passage differently– notably, the Jesuits in their missions in Ethiopia had disputes with the Ethiopian Orthodox clergymen over what the sons of God referred to. The Jesuits took the approach that the sons of God were the sons of Seth, whose offspring with the daughters descended from Cain “gave themselves completely to their appetites.” The Ethopians had a different view: the sons of God were angels who mated with the daughters of men, and produced great giants who could apparently reach the sea with their arms and thus ate all of the fish; when they were finished with the fish, they ate all of the animals; upon finishing the animals, they would begin to eat the humans, which caused God to finally put a stop to it by destroying them completely in the flood. Clearly the mythological nature of the passage allows for some outlandish and entertaining interpretations. As outlandish as it sounds, however, this interpretation identifying the sons of God with angels was the dominant Jewish interpretation for three centuries; it was based on the aforementioned book of Enoch. Interestingly, this passage became quite popular in medieval Europe as many loved to speculate about a possible race of giants; the Jesuits likely falsely equated the Ethiopian interpretation with European mythology falsely, when in reality the Ethiopian interpretation has its basis in Judeo-Christian interpretation as well.
It may be worth taking a step back here to see what, if anything, has been learned here. The meaning of this passage is not much clearer now that interpretations from early Christians and Jews have been elucidated upon. So the question remains: what is the meaning of this elusive passage? These interpretations point not to a unified view from Christian or Jewish tradition but rather a divergence of opinion on the topic of this odd passage. Perhaps, in order to find the answer, a different approach is needed. Most of these interpretations took the text at face value, presuming, as was the traditional view, that it was written by Moses, along with the rest of the Pentateuch. However, if we consider another source written around the same time and from a similar culture, the answer may become clear. Perhaps we must look at one of these mythological texts about one of these great heroes of old if we wish to find out the truth.
The Epic of Gilgamesh seems to contain several parallels with this passage of Genesis. The story itself could be the oldest extant story on Earth, originating with Ancient Sumeria in Mesopotamia. The Epic of Gilgamesh, discovered in 1853, is notable for containing a number of parallels to Genesis 6:1-4. Both texts are written in the style of diegesis, telling their respective stories through narration and recounting of events; they both use certain terms, such as “kopher” and “mabbul”, the latter of which is used in both places for a flood and which may have Akkadian origin. Similar narratives are contained within each, including a flood narrative with a hero set apart by a god who is instructed to build an arc. There are enough similarities here that audiences at the time would see the text of Genesis as a mythological reference– after all, alliances between gods and men are present within Canaanite mythological religions and are also present within this account, it seems, which refers to the sons of God. So it is clear that the texts are related in some way, and looking at similar mythology may shed some light on the passage in question.
The Epic of Gilgamesh introduces the eponymous hero with glowing terms, making him out to be a truly legendary figure, the sort these stories are meant to be about. He is described as being two-thirds god and one-third human; as such he is similar to those sons of God and their offspring mentioned in Genesis. As the King, he “struts his power over the people like a wild bull” and as the “mightiest in the land” and the strongest. The parallels here are clear, and Gilgamesh clearly epitomizes one of these “heroes” and “men of renown” that Genesis 6:4 talks about. Both Gilgamesh and his enemy-turned-friend Enkidu are described as being incredibly tall; Gilgamesh “towering up to the battlements over the wall” and Enkidu being “twice as tall” as normal men. As such, they could very well be the legendary giants of Genesis 6:4 as well; if the passage is meant to describe anyone, it is surely an apt description of these mythic legends. These two set off to battle Humbaba the Terrible, a great monster who guards the Cedar Forest, for the purposes of winning them “fame for eternity.”; here, they wish to become “men of renown.” The story seems entirely focused on recounting the legendary exploits of Gilgamesh and Enkidu, however, the story changes halfway through when Enkidu dies of a disease as punishment for his role in killing Humbaba as well as a great boar of the gods; from this point on, the story follows a saddened Gilgamesh as he attempts to find the solution to eternal life, crossing deserts and oceans to do so. He eventually gains the secret– a plant which, if eaten repeatedly, will keep Gilgamesh young, though a serpent later steals the plant while Gilgamesh is resting. Thus there seems to be a preoccupation in both texts about living eternally; this is a theme in both texts, but in both cases, those who desire it are deprived of it.
Having just gone over the many similarities in both texts, a creeping question may emerge: what does this mean? That the narrative of Genesis is not wholly original and may draw on other, earlier sources, may be disheartening for committed Christians or Jews. These are, after all, the sacred texts– could they be plagiarized? This could be interpreted as damning to these traditions, rendering them as obsolete as a Sumerian cuneiform tablet. Whether or not it is damning (and it might be), the similarities with the Epic of Gilgamesh broach an important aspect of scripture: that it is constructed. It was not written by Moses on top of Mount Sinai, fresh from receiving the Ten Commandments– rather, this seems to indicate that the text was compiled from different sources and thus drew on its cultural context.
Certainly, we will go down that rabbit hole of what this might mean, as we need to be honest about what we are studying if we are to discover a greater truth about this passage (if any, indeed, exists). To be clear, this is not surprising at all to those who have studied it, as Biblical scholars have known for quite some time that Moses was not the sole author of the Pentateuch. Rather, the book of Genesis can be split up into two sources: the Yahwist and the Elohist source, identified by their differing styles which inform their purposes. These sources are distinguished for the terms they use for God, as the Yahwist uses Yahweh while the Elohist uses Elohim; the former represents more of a ritualistic theme or motif of an ethical order, while the latter is more relational. These sources, the Yahwist and the Elohist, are intermingled to produce the text of Genesis. So it is clear that the text was constructed, and while this is not anything new for Biblical scholars, the fullest extent to what this means is not always explored. So we will journey to the bottom of the rabbit hole and see what we find. Certainly, the text seems much less sacred in its construction. Kugel goes even further, arguing that the texts were far less fixed in their construction than we might think; the various books of the Bible were modified repeatedly before they became canonical, such that there once existed multiple versions of the same book. There was ongoing supplementation and rearrangement of the texts before they became canonical: as such, Kugel asks, how sacred really were these texts, if they could be (and were) arranged and rearranged, edited and revised?
Based on this deconstruction of the Biblical text, Kugel offers his own interpretation of the passage in question; one that is based on the constructed nature of the Bible. Plainly, there is no reference at all to sinful action in Genesis 6:1-4; rather, the figures mentioned here are only described in positive terms as heroes and men of renown. What, then, is the role of the passage? What purpose does it serve? Kugel reasons that it was merely a continuation of the genealogy that preceded it. The point is to add a note about these great figures, heroes and giants, that were said to exist, and to explain why they were not there anymore– as such, the narrative was placed right before the flood such that audiences would understand them to have perished in the flood with nearly everyone else. The odd passage, then, provides a window into the construction of the text of Genesis as the passage seems jarring as if it does not fit– because it simply does not. It was merely placed there, divorced from its original context. It would seem, then, that the Bible is demythologized. A recent movement of deconstruction has found the Bible, and it will not survive. The text is a flawed compilation of different texts containing ancient mythology we now know to be superstition. The Bible will go the way of The Epic of Gilgamesh and that is the end of the story.
But is that where the story ends? What if there is more to this story? Perhaps there is a new interpretation which recognizes the constructed character of the Biblical text while maintaining its sacred nature. Paul Ricoeur writes of the loss of naivete following an understanding of the construction of the text in which the reader is no longer able to take it at face value– but there is room for a second naivete, in which the reader sees the value of interpretation. Thus, by engaging critically with the text, we can begin to hear again and gain a new appreciation for what the text is truly trying to say. So perhaps this critical dive into the passage can yield a truly fruitful answer that increases our understanding of the text. Perhaps after deconstructing the text we can reconstruct it again to a greater whole.
So there is a possible solution. But how do we reach it? Partially, from a Christian perspective, operating under the notion that the Bible is, indeed, divinely inspired. As such, if this fragment of four verses about the sons of God and the daughters of men, giants and men of renown, happens to be placed before the flood narrative, it must be placed there for a specific reason. As Benno Jacob wrote, the passage here serves the context, and those who speak of this passage as merely a foreign importation admit that they do not understand what that context is. Since the passage comes before the flood, we must look for the culprits for the flood within the passage itself. Given this, perhaps the description of heroes of renown juxtaposed with the flood narrative is meant to show that these heroes were not that great after all. Indeed, the reference to mythology in the passage seems to have been done purposefully– the mythology is referenced but kept at bay by quotation. Moreover, the use of mythology may reflect a shift from the polytheistic religions common to the Ancient Near East to a new monotheistic religion centered around one God– and the juxtaposition of sons of God with wickedness and destruction through the flood could be a way to tear down that old paradigm. Perhaps this is also intended to replace these mythic heroes with a new standard of goodness. This means the tearing down of these heroes– of whom Gilgamesh most certainly belongs. Thus, the meaning is quite subversive and iconoclastic: that these men such as Gilgamesh who sought to make their names great and eternal in their actions were actually wicked. And these relations they had with the daughters of men point to wickedness on their part: that they took those whom they wanted, with a connotation of polygamy given the plural of wives. This results in the birth of these new hybrids who are “sons of confusion” who follow in the footsteps of their fathers in taking what they want to make their own names great.
And what of the distinction between the giants and the great heroes– the Nephilim and Gibborim, respectively, as they are referred to in the original Hebrew? Whether or not there were literal giants seems not to be the point here. Rather, the point to emphasize is that the Nephilim were indeed fallen ones, angels or not, and they had fallen into decadence. The Gibborim, on the other hand, are referred to as being powerful beings. However, this power comes from transgressive violence, as they are the children of confusion. As the reformed theologian writes: “And they were men of renown, that is, famous all over the world, because they did tyrannize their neighbors, and brought them in subjection.” This in particular recalls Gilgamesh, who ruled over his people and was even said to oppress them. And so, it seems that God wished to destroy these men of great renown, these heroes of old, the ones whom stories were written about. The one who finds favor with the Lord, on the other hand, is Noah, a humble man who does not seek his own glory, but rather obeys God. Those who try to augment themselves and their own names are destroyed, while those who humbly obey the Lord are saved.
The passage of Genesis 6:1-4 is certainly an odd one, one we can sort of skip over, but is definitely jarring if we engage with it. As such interpreters have had trouble with it and sought justification for its inclusion as it lies next to the flood narrative. The solution lies in its parallels with the Epic of Gilgamesh, mythology, and that it is a constructed text. But it is constructed a certain way for a reason and we find a greater meaning in the way that it is constructed. Thus, in engaging with this passage truly and diving into it, we find the reason why Noah– and not the heroes of renown– found favor with God: because of his humility, something greater than the most renowned heroes and the largest of giants.
Carnahan, Wolf. “The Epic of Gilgamesh.” Epic of Gilgamesh: Tablet I, http://www.ancienttexts.org/library/mesopotamian/gilgamesh/tab1.htm.
Cohen, Leonardo. “WHO ARE THE «SONS OF GOD»? A JESUIT-ETHIOPIAN CONTROVERSY ON GENESIS 6:2.” Scrinium, vol. 1, no. 1, Mar. 2005, pp. 35–42, doi:10.1163/18177565-90000125.
De Launay, Marc. “Les Fils Du Texte : Genèse 6, 1-4.” Archives De Sciences Sociales Des Religions, vol. 54, no. 147, 2009, pp. 41–59. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/40386524.
“The Epic of Gilgamesh.” History, 2 July 2018, https://www.historyonthenet.com/the-epic-of-gilgamesh.
“Genesis 6.” Patristic Bible Commentaries, 11 June 2017, https://litteraldotorg.wordpress.com/genesis-6/.
The Holy Bible: Douay-Rheims Version. Saint Benedict Press, 2009.
Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. HarperCollins, 1997.
Kugel, James. The Call of Abraham: Essays on the Election of Israel in Honor of Jon D. Levenson. University of Nore Dame Press, 2013.
Ricoeur, Paul. The Symbolism of Evil. Beacon Press, 2006.
Willet, Andrew, 1562-1621. Hexapla in Exodum: That is, A Sixfold Commentary Vpon the Second Booke of Moses Called Exodus Wherein, According to the Method Propounded in Hexapla Vpon Genesis, these Sixe Things are Obserued in Euery Chapter: 1. the Argument and Method. 2. the Diuers Readings. 3. the Questions Discussed. 4. Doctrines Noted. 5. Controuersies Handled. 6. Morall Common Places Applied. Wherein in the Diuers Readings these Translations are Compared Together: 1. the Chalde. 2. the Septuagint. 3. the Vulgar Latine. 4. Pagnine. 5. Montanus. 6. Iunius. 7. Vatablus. 8. the Great English Bible. 9. the Geneua Edition. 10. and the Hebrew Originall Maketh the Tenth. and in the Same there are Well Nie Two Thousand Theologicall Questions Handled … Diuided into Two Parts … by Andrew Willet, Professor of Divinitie. the First Part Or Tome. London, Imprinted by Felix Kyngston, for Thomas Man and Iohn Norton, 1608. ProQuest, http://proxycu.wrlc.org/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/2240940145?accountid=9940.