WHEN THE SONS OF GOD CAVORTED WITH THE DAUGHTERS OF MEN
~ Ron Hendel ~
If someone asked you to place the story about gods who take human wives and then give birth to a race of semidivine heroes, you might answer: It’s a Greek myth, or perhaps a Norse legend, or maybe a folktale from Africa or India. Surely this story couldn’t come from the sacred scriptures of Judaism and Christianity. Or could it?
In fact, it is one of the seldom-told stories in the Hebrew Bible. The passage from Genesis 6:1–4 is short enough to quote in full:
When mankind began to multiply on the face of the earth, and daughters were born to them, the Sons of God saw that the daughters of men were beautiful, and they took wives of them, from any whom they chose. And Yahweh said, ‘My spirit will not be strong in man forever, for indeed he is but flesh. His lifetime will be 120 years.’ The Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterwards, when the Sons of God mated with the daughters of men and they bore children for them: these were the heroes of old, the men of renown.
For thousands of years this story has scandalized readers of the Bible, and for good reason. The story appears to go against the grain of our traditional understanding of biblical religion.
But the story is there, and since it is, perhaps our traditional understanding is what’s wrong. Perhaps, to paraphrase Hamlet, there are more things in the Bible than are dreamt of in our philosophy: Let us look more closely.
In the past, many scholars have simply dismissed the story as a kind of biblical aberration. The reaction of the great 19th-century scholar Julius Wellhausen is typical; he characterized the story as “a cracked erratic boulder.” Like a cracked boulder, it might best be just hauled away.
Early Jewish and Christian commentators were also perplexed by the story. Since it was already anchored in the holy text, the only way to avoid the unpleasant implications of gods and humans marrying and having offspring was to provide an interpretation that would render it more palatable. The early rabbis therefore understood the term “Sons of God” to refer to righteous men. The Church fathers, on the other hand, interpreted the phrase as a reference to the descendants of Seth, who was born of Adam and Eve after Cain killed Abel (see Genesis 4:25). In this way both the early Jewish and the early Christian interpreters avoided the problem of the polytheistic implications suggested by “the Sons of God.” Neither of these early interpretations is supported by the evidence. They simply illustrate how early interpreters tried to tame this troublesome text.
How are we to understand the story? Amorous gods, beautiful women, sex, curses and fame. It has all the elements of a successful movie, with mythic motifs thrown in for good measure. Is there enough here to understand—or is the story too cryptic, too broken?
I believe the text can be understood, but only by following a trail of clues that will lead us to other texts in the Hebrew Bible and other ancient mythologies.
Who Were the Sons of God?
The first stop in our investigative trail is to ascertain the identity of “the Sons of God.” This is relatively easy. The Sons of God (Hebrew, בני האלהים, bene ha’elohim, and similar terms) are known from several texts in the Hebrew Bible. In Job 1:6 and 2:1, the Sons of God present themselves to God in the heavenly divine assembly. Later, in Job 38:7, we learn that the Sons of God were with God at the creation of the world; when they see what God created, “the Sons of God shout for joy.” The Sons of God again appear at God’s divine assembly in Psalm 89:7, where God’s incomparability among the gods is proclaimed. A similar scene is found in Psalm 29:1, where the Sons of God sing praises to God.
Perhaps the most intriguing reference to the Sons of God is in the famous Song of Moses in Deuteronomy 32, just before Moses ascends Mt. Nebo to die without entering the Promised Land. Deuteronomy 32:8 contains what is apparently an old mythological reference to the early history of humanity. The traditional Hebrew text reads: “When the Most High apportioned the nations, when he divided the sons of man, he established the borders of the peoples according to the number of the sons of Israel.”
The sense of this passage is fairly clear until one comes to the last phrase. How can the borders of the peoples (including non-Israelite nations) be established according to the number of the sons of Israel? Has Israel already been established? Not yet, according to the sense of the text. There is something wrong in this passage: the end contradicts the beginning.
The contradiction does not appear in all Bibles, however. Look at the Revised Standard Version (RSV), for example. There we read in Deuteronomy 32:8 that the borders of the peoples (or nations) are fixed, not according to the number of the sons of Israel, but “according to the number of the Sons of God.” This reading is based on the Greek Septuagint, a Bible translation made in the third century B.C. for Jews living in Alexandria who could not read Hebrew. The modern RSV translators decided that in this case the Septuagint, rather than the received Hebrew text (known as the Masoretic text), has preserved the original reading. Bible translations that adhere to the received Hebrew text, however, read “sons of Israel” instead of “Sons of God.”
Recently a fragmentary text from among the Dead Sea Scrolls was found to contain Deuteronomy 32:8. Written in late Herodian script (late first century B.C. to early first century A.D.), this fragment is now our earliest Hebrew text of Deuteronomy 32:8. The last phrase in the verse in this fragment clearly reads “the Sons of God,” not “the sons of Israel.” This reading, preserved in the Greek Septuagint but not in the received Hebrew text, seems rather clearly to be the authentic original reading.
Apparently, somewhere along the line in the transmission of the standard rabbinic Bible someone felt the need to clean up the text by literally rewriting it and substituting “sons of Israel” for the original “Sons of God” in Deuteronomy 32:8.
Now that we have established the correct text of Deuteronomy 32:8, we can use it to complete our portrait of the Sons of God. According to this passage in Deuteronomy, the Sons of God were not only present at the beginning of the world, but also figured importantly in the division of the nations. According to the following verse, Yahweh chose Israel as his own portion, implying that each of the other deities, the Sons of God, also received a nation to rule over. This would make sense of the division of the nations according to the number of the Sons of God. We can see in this passage an indication that the Sons of God at one time played a far more important role in the early history of humanity than is generally remembered in the biblical traditions.
For even earlier history of the Sons of God, we have to look outside the Hebrew Bible. As with many other elements of Israel’s religious traditions, the ancestry of the concept of the Sons of God can be traced to pre-Israelite Canaanite traditions. Especially valuable in this regard are 14th-century B.C. Canaanite texts written in cuneiform on clay tablets. Discovered in 1928 at the ancient city of Ugarit on the Syrian coast, these texts provide a wealth of information about the society, religion and narrative traditions of Canaan in the period before the emergence of Israel.
In the myths, epics and ritual texts from Ugarit, the phrase “the Sons of God” (banu ‘ili) occurs frequently. In the Canaanite pantheon, the chief god is El, whose name literally means “God.” He and his wife Asherah are the father and mother of the gods. The phrase “the Sons of God” can be translated literally as “the Sons of El.”
The Sons of El (“God”) are found not only in Ugaritic texts, but also in Phoenician inscriptions of the eighth to seventh centuries B.C. and in an Ammonite inscription of the ninth century found in Amman, Jordan. So the concept of the Sons of God pervades Canaanite lore over an extended period of time.
The Canaanite roots of the Sons of God allow us a glimpse into the antiquity of these figures and make it clear that these are indeed divine beings. The Israelite use of the term derives from the body of traditional lore inherited from the Canaanites. The concept of the Sons of God as well as the stories about them doubtless goes back to Canaanite time.
In Israelite tradition the Sons of God are the lesser deities who accompany Yahweh in his heavenly assembly. Their sphere of activity is restricted in comparison to that of their Canaanite forebears; this, of course, is due to the fact that in Israelite worship Yahweh had subsumed the essential functions of the other gods. Only in a few passages are the activities of the Sons of God prominent. These passages, especially Genesis 6:1–4 and Deuteronomy 32:8, reflect traditions that are quite early. Indeed, these two passages would be quite at home among the Ugaritic mythological texts, except that the chief god is Yahweh rather than El.
Amorous gods, beautiful women, sex, curses and fame. It has all the elements of a successful movie
Who were the Nephilim?
Let us turn now from the Sons of God to the offspring produced when they united with the daughters of men, as described in Genesis 6:1–4. Although the language of the text is a bit choppy, it nevertheless seems clear that the offspring are referred to as the Nephilim. These Nephilim are described as the “heroes of old, the men of renown.” Who are these ancient heroes?
Nephilim literally means “fallen ones.” In Hebrew the active form of this word is a common euphemism for “the dead.” For example, Jeremiah 6:15 tells us, “They will fall among the fallen ones.”
Elsewhere in the Bible the Nephilim are described as the giants who were native inhabitants of Canaan. In the report Moses’ advance scouts give of their foray into Canaan (Numbers 13:33), they advise Moses: “All the people whom we saw in its midst were people of great size; there we saw the Nephilim—the Anaqim are part of the Nephilim—and we seemed in our own eyes like grasshoppers, and so we must have seemed in their eyes.”
In Deuteronomy 2:11 the giant Anaqim—part of the Nephilim—are also called Rephaim, a more general term for the giant native inhabitants of Canaan. Two of the most famous of the Rephaim are King Og of Bashan, whose huge iron bed could still be seen on display in Rabbah of Ammon (Deuteronomy 3:11), and the giant warrior Goliath, who is described as descended from the Raphah in Gath (2 Samuel 21:19ff.).
The Nephilim thus appear to be a race of heroes who lived both before the Flood and in Canaan before the Israelites conquered the Promised Land. In these eras, the Nephilim end up, as their name suggests, as “fallen ones.” The Rephaim and Anaqim are said to have been wiped out by Joshua, Moses and Caleb, though some stragglers remained to be slain by David and his men. In Joshua 11:22, we are told that “No Anaqim remained in the land of Israel, but some remained in Gaza, Gath, and Ashdod.”
The function of the Nephilim and their compatriots (Rephaim and Anaqim) is constant in all these traditions. They exist in order to be wiped out: by the Flood, by Moses, by David and others. The function of the Nephilim in Israelite tradition is to die. As we have already noted, Nephilim means “the fallen ones.” The connection between death and the Nephilim appears to be basic to the several forms of the tradition. They are the mighty offspring of male gods and human women. As the fantastic offspring of illegitimate marriages, they are born to die. In Genesis, they die in the Flood.
The Primeval Cycle in Genesis is characterized by a series of mythological transgressions of boundaries that result in a range of divine responses. Slowly these responses build up to a new ordering of the cosmos. The mixing of gods and morals in Genesis 6:1–4 is mirrored by the mixing of the divine and the human in the Garden of Eden story, in which humans desire to “be as gods, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:5, 22), another cosmic imbalance. As a result Adam and Eve are expelled from the Garden. Similarly, in the Tower of Babel story, where humans want to build “a tower with its top in heaven” (Genesis 11:4), they are divinely punished by a confusion of tongues. In Genesis 6:1–4 the bounds between divine and human are also breached, and the result is the decree of the limit of man’s lifespan to one hundred and twenty years. The basic pattern persists.
The stories proceed in a dialectical fashion, generating oppositions and resolving them, all the while sketching a transition from a mythical “nature” to human “culture,” from an era when humans are naked and immortal to an era of clothing, mortality, hard labor and nations—the era of the present world. Genesis 6:1–4 makes sense in in this context—the repetition of mythological transgressions of boundaries and the slow building up of the limitations and possibilities of the human world.
This is a revised and abridged version of an article that appeared in Understanding the Dead Sea Scrolls: A Reader from the Biblical Archaeology Review, ed. H. Shanks (New York: Random House, 1992), pp. 167-77.