Thursday, June 12, 2008

Yahweh's War Against the Nephilim

Hello Bloggers and Bloggerettes,

Sorry it's been awhile. Been very busy la la la la.

In this post I’d like to review a forthcoming book by my friend Michael Heiser. It's entitled The Myth That is True and Michael was kind enough to send me several chapters that deal with the topic of the Nephilim. (My thanks to Michael!) Heiser’s arguments are often complex and nuanced and I obviously can’t begin to do justice to them in a short (or even long) post. So I encourage readers to get his book when it comes out. Though Heiser often relies on his technical expertise in Ancient Near Eastern studies (he’s an Old Testament scholar), he communicates his material in a very readable and even entertaining way. His book reads something like a detective novel. I think a lot of you would enjoy it. In the meantime you can visit Michael's website here.

As with my previous post on the Nephilim, buckle your seat belt. We're going to get into some pretty bizarre stuff.

The seed of "the shiny one"
The lynch-pin of Heiser’s thesis is Genesis 3:15 in which the Lord says that, because of Adam and Eve’s rebellion, there would be on-going enmity between the offspring of the serpent (ha nachash) and the descendants of Eve. Yet, the Lord says, in the end a descendant of Eve will crush the head of ha nachash. Heiser (who has a impressive command of Ancient Near Eastern languages) argues that ha nachash shouldn’t be translated as a noun (“serpent”) but as an adjective, in which case it means “the shiny one” (cf. Isa. 14:12 and Ezek. 28:14 where Satan is spoken of in similar terms). According to Heiser, therefore, the prophesy of Genesis 3:15 isn’t about the enmity that sometimes exists between snakes and people but between the seed of the shining one -- Satan -- and humans.

This concept of the “seed of ha nachash” has a spiritual application, such as when people are described in the Bible as children of the devil (e.g. Jn 8:44). But, Heiser argues, it also has a more literal application. We first find this literal application in the Genesis 6 account of the “sons of God” taking wives from the “daughters of human beings” and begetting Nephilim (giants).

Heiser marshals a number of convincing arguments against those who try to argue that the “sons of God” in this passage refer to the righteous lineage of Seth and that the “daughters of men” refer to the unrighteous lineage of Cain. Making use of his expertise in Ancient Near Eastern languages, he also refutes those who attempt to argue that the word Nephilim means “fallen ones” (as in fallen people) rather than supernaturally conceived giants. He thus defends the uniform ancient Jewish and early Christian understanding of this passage as a report of angelic beings (called "Watchers") who took on flesh, had intercourse with women and beget hybrid, quasi-divine creatures who were extraordinarily tall, strong and violent. According to Heisner, these Nephilim are the offspring of ha nachash that Yahweh had earlier prophesied would war against humans. Satan’s strategy, presumably, was to pollute the human gene pool in order to prevent the arrival of the fully human descendant of Eve (Jesus) who would overthrow Satan’s reign on earth.

Humans were apparently willing participants in this rebellion, for the Genesis account says the “sons of God” took “wives.” In other words, they didn’t rape women. According to I Enoch (which Heiser thinks is passing on reliable traditions), this unnatural intermingling began in the “days of Jared,” who is referenced in Genesis 5:18. This means this rebellious angelic activity had been going on for centuries before God decided it was time to judge humanity, the fallen angels and their hybrid children in Noah’s day. Moreover, Heiser argues that by telling us that only Noah and his immediate family were unsullied at this time, the Genesis author was showing that the seed of the woman “had nearly been eclipsed.” The purpose for the author inserting this strange episode at this point in the narrative was to justify God’s drastic action in flooding the land.

But the flood didn’t permanently solve the problem, Heiser argues. The Genesis author himself notes that the Nephilim existed not only before the flood but also afterwards (vs. 4) and we find descendants of the Nephilim all over the place in the land of Canaan. How is this possible? Heiser suggests that perhaps the flood was local, not global. (It’s important to remember that the word “earth” (eretz) in the Bible doesn’t refer to a planet [they had no such concept] but to whatever land a given writer had in mind when he or she wrote). On the other hand, if the flood was in fact global, perhaps the rebel gods resumed their project of creating hybrid-creatures once again after the flood. In support of this, Heiser notes that Genesis 6:4 could be translated: “The Nephilim were on the earth in those days – and also afterward – whenever (not simply when) the sons of God went to the daughters of humans beings and had children by them.”

The Nephilim and the Population of Canaan
Like a detective following a hot trail, Heiser then sets about piecing together evidence and marshaling arguments that the various tribes mentioned in the conquest accounts were directly or indirectly related to the Nephilim. In his view, the seed of ha nachash had infected the entire land. The reason God ordered these groups exterminated, Heiser argues, was because he needed to ensure that his people, from whom the Messiah would come, would not be polluted with what Heiser refers to as “demon seed.” The warfare for the promised land was a continuation of the prophecied war between the seed of Eve and the seed of ha nachash.

Here are just a few of the arguments I found most intriguing.

1) In Numbers 13:32-33 the spies report that “all the people that we saw in it are of great height. And there we saw the Nephilim (the sons of Anak, who come from the Nephilim), and we seemed to ourselves like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them" (emphasis added). Heiser argues that, while it seems only the Anakites were direct descendants of the Nephilim, this passage suggests that the demonically-caused genetic propensity toward great height was very widespread. In other words, it suggests that many if not all Canaanites were at least indirectly related to the Nephilim.

2) In Joshua 11:21-22 the military campaign of Joshua is summarized and, significantly enough, the focus is squarely on the Anakites. “At that time Joshua went and destroyed the Anakites from the hill country: from Hebron, Debir and Anab, from all the hill country of Judah, and from all the hill country of Israel. Joshua totally destroyed them and their towns. No Anakites were left in Israelite territory; only in Gaza, Gath and Ashdod did any survive.” According to Heiser, this passage explicitly states that the main objective of the military campaign was to clear the land of the seed of ha nachash so the Israelites could dwell there.

Yet the campaign wasn’t altogether successful since Joshua grew old and died before the Anakites in Gaza, Gath and Ashdod could be killed (Josh. 13:1-7). These were Philistine cities, and this explains why giants show up when the Israelites later engaged them in battle. For example, I Chronicles 20 mentions Sippai who was a descendant of the giants (Heb. raphaim) (vs.4) as well as Lahmi the brother of the giant Goliath the Gittite (that is, from Gath), “who had a spear with a shaft like [the size of?] a weaver’s rod”(vs.5). It also mentions another “huge man” who was a descendant of giants (Heb. rapha) who had six fingers on each hand and six toes on each foot. He was killed by David’s nephew in a battle that took place at Gath (vs. 6).

3) A tribe that is singled out for mention when Yahweh first announces his plan to bring Abraham’s descendants into the promised land are the Amorites. The Lord tells Abraham that after four generations in Egypt the sin of the Amorites will have reached “its full measure” and thus warrants God’s judgment as he brings Abraham’s descendants (the Israelites) back to this land (Gen. 15:16). Centuries later the Lord reminded the Israelites that he had destroyed the Amorites, “whose height was like the height of the cedars and who was as strong as the oaks" (Amos 2:9-10). The Amorites were apparently giants. Related to this, when the Israelites first encountered the Amorites, they were chased out of the land “like a swarm of bees…all the way to Hormah” (Deut 1:44). The metaphor seems to signify how small the Israelites were compared to the Amorites.

4) According to Heiser, Mount Hermon in the Transjordan is particularly significant to understanding Yahweh’s war against the Nephilim. According to I Enoch the rebel gods (the “Watchers”) descended “in the days of Jared” on Mount Hermon. Mount Hermon is associated with giants in a number of ways. It was within the territory of the Amorites, who we’ve seen were giants (Deut. 3:8-9). King Og of Bashan who was one of the Raphaim (giants) and whose bed was at least thirteen and a half feet long ruled this area (Deut. 3:11). Other passages also associate Mount Hermon with the giant clan of the Raphaim (Josh 12:1-5). On top of this, Heiser points out that Mount Hermon was associated with a number of demonic practices in Scripture and the ancient Jewish tradition.

Heiser notes that the word “Hermon” (kh-r-m) in Hebrew means “cursed.” According to I Enoch it got its name because here is where Yahweh cursed the Watchers for their rebellion. But this is also the word used for the Hebrew practice of Holy War (usually transliterated herem). It's usually translated "ban" and signifies consecrating something to Yahweh as a sacrifice (that is, for destruction). Heiser seems to suggest this connection may not be coincidental. If I understand Heiser right, he's suggesting that in ordering the destruction of the Canaanites, God was trying to complete his curse on the Watchers and their hybrid descendants. If correct, this association of Mt. Hermon with "the ban" would strongly support a connection between the Canaanites and the Nephilim.

5) In Joshua 12:1-5 the Raphiam are associated not only with the infamous Mount Hermon but also with the cities of Ashtaroth and Edrie. Heiser notes that Ancient Ugarit literature also associates these two places with rapiuma, the Ugaritic word for Raphaim, and it describes them as “divine” and as the descendants of great warrior kings who now inhabit the underworld.

6) Heiser offers other circumstantial pieces of evidence suggesting various tribes among the Canaanites were giants. For example, one tribe is called the “Jebusites,” and their name means “those who trample.” Another tribe is the Perizzites and they are mentioned in close connection with the Raphaim (e.g. Josh 17:15).

If Heiser is correct, then in waging war against the Canaanites Yahweh was not really fighting against other humans. He was actually fighting for the human race against the seed of "the shiny one," Satan. God was protecting the bloodline that would eventually give rise to the savior who would crush the head of Satan, end his reign on earth and liberate humans to be his viceroys on the earth, as he always intended them to be.

I’m in total agreement with Heiser’s reading of Genesis 6 (I offered my own defense of this view in God at War). But I’m somewhat hesitant to accept that many if not all the Canaanites were infected with the seed of ha nachash. It’s not that Heiser’s arguments aren’t compelling. Many of them are (though I would need to do quite a bit of research to solidly confirm or deny some of his particular arguments that are rooted in his command of Ancient Near Eastern language and literature). My hesitancy is rather due to a number of questions that remain floating around in my mind. Here’s a few off the top of my head (given in no particular order).

1) If these giants were as widespread as Heiser’s "seed of ha nachash" hypothesis supposes, why don’t we have archeological evidence of giant skeletons, buildings, tools, weapons, etc.? (In my research on the Nephilim I found some who claim they have evidence of this -- even supplying photos! But I found no scholarly confirmation of any of this. In fact, I couldn't find any reputable scholar who even bothers to refute it).

2) Many of Heiser’s arguments are circumstantial and sometimes quite speculative. To be sure, they're often very clever and compelling, but circumstantial and speculative nonetheless. If the seed of ha nachash was as central to the biblical story-line as Heiser supposes, wouldn’t it be a bit more obvious?

3) Genesis 3:15 suggests an on-going animosity between the seed of the serpent (or shiny one) and the seed of Eve until a descendant of Eve crushes the serpent's (or shiny one's) head. But if the seed of ha nachash is the Nephilim, then the battle seems to have ended pretty much with the invasion of the promised land (with a few lingering giants among the Philistines to be slain later on).

4) Because there’s so little in Scripture about the rebellious gods begetting Nephilim, Heiser has to rely quite a bit on certain non-canonical writings to flesh out his thesis, especially 1 Enoch. But what warrants this level of confidence in this and other non-canonical books? It certainly goes against the scholarly consensus to accept that I Enoch and other apocalyptic books pass on a substantial amount of reliable historical information. The claim would therefore need a good deal of supporting evidence and argumentation.

5) If the Canaanites were as infected with the seed of ha nachash as Heiser suggests, why were some spared and even taken as wives? And if the fully human Canaanites could be clearly distinguished from the hybrids, why did Yahweh often command slaughtering everybody? Why not simply command the slaughter of only the Nephilim or the Anakites or “people over eight feet tall,” or something of the sort? Even if we accept something like the Nephilim thesis, in other words, it doesn’t remove the problem of why God had the Israelites slaughter humans.

6) If many (or all) of the Canaanites were not fully human, why do the narratives consistently refer to them simply as humans? Yahweh commands his people to slaughter “men, women and children.” This seems odd if some (or all) of these people were not really people.

7) While some of Heiser's exegetical arguments were compelling and insightful (he certainly caused me to notice some things I'd never noticed in the text before!), others struck me as a bit stretched. Most importantly, his reading of Genesis 3 left me unconvinced. For example, he argues that Yahweh’s curse on ha nachash that forced him to crawl on his belly and eat dust (Gen.3:15) was a metaphor for his being cast out of the divine council down to earth. I personally don’t know of any scholars who agree with this perspective, and it struck me as forced. It seems to me (along with the majority of scholars) that the passage is referring to a snake. This beast was "more crafty than any of the wild animals the LORD God had made" (3:1) and when he was judged the Lord said: "Cursed are you above all livestock and all wild animals!" (3:15). In the context of this narrative, it seems clear we're talking about a literal snake.

Now, many regard this narrative to be a folktale depicting the primordial rebellion of humans. Others take this to be a historical event that nevertheless employs allegorical elements (the snake, the two trees) to make its point. And still others interpret the whole thing literally. But Heiser's attempt to argue that ha nachash is not a snake or serpent but a reference to "the shiny one" just doesn't seem supported by the narrative itself. This would be a relatively minor point hardly worth mentioning except for the fact that a good deal of Heiser’s “seed of ha nachash” theory seems to hang on his particular interpretation.

8) Against the church tradition, Heiser argues that Satan first fell when humans fell – in Genesis 3. He is correct in noting that the Bible doesn’t explicitly teach that Satan fell prior to the human fall. But I think we have other sound reasons for thinking he did. For example, as I’ve argued elsewhere, it strikes me that we have a much harder time accounting for why nature is so violent millions of years prior to the arrival of humans unless we accept that a corrupting influence was operating in the world prior to the creation of humans.

In light of these and other questions, I’m presently not convinced of Heiser’s thesis. It could be that for some genetically odd reason certain tribes of the Canaanites simply were unusually tall. It could be that they’re referred to as Nephilim simply because this had become a standard word for giants. I grant that this conflicts with Numbers 13:33 where it explicitly states the Anakites were descendants of the Nephilim. If these “Nephilim” aren’t the Nephilim referred to in Genesis 6, who are they? A different well-known tribe of giants? I think this is Heiser’s strongest argument. But I'm hesitant to put too much weight on this one verse, which I feel I'd be doing if I accepted that the Anakites and other groups in the land of Canaan were hybrid creatures on this basis.

Yet, I can't deny it is possible. For all who are intrigued by this possibility, I heartily recommend getting a hold of Heiser’s fascinating book when it comes out as well as checking out his website.

One final point: even if we were to accept that the slaughtered Canaanites were not fully human, this hardly solves our bigger problem of reconciling the violent-tending God of the Old Testament with the self-sacrificial God of the New Testament, for there are plenty of other violent episodes Yahweh engages in against people, often using his people as warriors. This is the very sort of behavior Jesus forbids. So…let's keep reading and thinking.