by Fr. Jonathan Tobias
Who are the Nephilim?
Come with me, and let’s solve an ancient Bible mystery. This will be an adventure worthy of Indiana Jones.
Who in the world are these strange people, the “Nephilim”?
Here are two passages in Scripture that mention them:
Genesis 6.4: 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 bore children to them; the same were the mighty men that were of old, the men of renown.
Numbers 13.33 And there we saw the Nephilim, the sons of Anak, who come of the Nephilim; and we were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so we were in their sight.’
In our Liturgy of the Pre-Sanctified Gifts last Friday evening, we heard about these mysterious people right before the account of Noah’s Flood. Remember that after Cain slew his brother Abel, he wandered into the chaotic space called the land “East of Eden.” If this reminds you of the story of the Prodigal Son, you’re right: sin always takes the direction of Cain, and that is why his script crops up over and over again. There, east of Eden, he established human culture as we know it today: clever, technological, but also God-rejecting, supposedly totally self-reliant. Cain is the proper father of secular culture that so many people want today.
Meanwhile, Adam and Eve produced a third son, whose name was Seth. The Bible says that he was different from Cain. He called upon the Name of the Lord, and
“put his hope in God.”
Thus in these early times before the Flood there were two directions that humanity was taking — the way of Seth, which was the way of humility and seeking God in the heart. Then there was the way of Cain, which was the way of self-centeredness, the way of rejecting God. The people of Cain soon found that there is no way that God could be known if the self is not first sacrificed in love. Seeking God in the heart requires pouring oneself out: that is exactly what God is like … after all, this is God’s name, His personality, or — as St Gregory Palamas would say thousands of years later, this is is “energy,” or uncreated Light of Grace.
Life was different back then. Seth’s family, at least, lived a very, very long time. Some lived almost a thousand years. The Fathers say that they still benefited from the human nature so close to Eden and its creation. And, it could be that the Earth itself was different. Before the Flood, it is possible that nature was a lot friendlier to life worldwide. Of course, there is no scientific proof for this (but then again, there is a lot of reality that science has no explanation for, so that doesn’t bother me).
Things would have been better if Seth’s people would have stuck to themselves. But they didn’t. The sixth chapter of Genesis recounts that the “sons of God saw that the daughters of men were fair; and they took to wife such of them that they chose.” The “sons of God” are the people of Seth. And the “daughters of men” are those of Cain. This verse describes, in a short symbolic way, the tragedy of how Seth’s culture got mixed up with Cain’s culture. People not only intermarried, but more importantly, they gave up their belief. Seth’s people — or most of them — no longer sought God in their heart. They no longer prayed the old prayer of Adam and Eve that they prayed as soon as they left Eden:
“Lord, have mercy on me.”
Instead, Seth’s people started living the self-centered life of comfort, technology, power, greatness … and violence.
Thus we hear of the appearance of the “Nephilim” in that mysterious, ancient age before the Flood. Most of the time, that word “Nephilim” is translated as the English word “giants.” But “giant” does not come close to the full meaning of the term. “Nephil” carries the meaning of “superiority,” “great and powerful,” and also “violent.”
And also “fallen” — as in apostasy. As in, the people of Seth who had first believed in God, had “fallen away” from belief into the egocentric rejection of God of the culture of Cain.
The Nephilim were the people of the time before the Flood. They were far, far greater in intelligence, strength, attractiveness and skill than we humans are today. They are not “fallen angels” or space aliens (there are a lot of trashy TV pseudo-documentaries and blathering articles that suggest this).
Instead, the Nephilim were the original aristocrats. It could be that memories of them survived the Flood and have passed into legend: and thus we have stories of Hercules, Thor, perhaps the pagan gods in general. Later on, when people of great height and strength appeared, like Goliath (the Philistine who fought David), they were called “Nephilim,” because they reminded people of the old memories.
It is possible that the civilization of the Nephilim was more advanced than ours. There is no proof of this. And certainly, not a single paragraph of this essay would ever see daylight in school. It is an altogether “alternate” history, or story of the past.
But here is the main thing. The Nephilim were exactly what people, nowadays, want to become. They were beautiful, in an alluring way. They were strong and powerful, many times more than we are. They were long-lived, seemingly immortal. They were great, feared by the weak and the meek. They were important.
I imagine that the philosophy of the Nephilim could be summed up by the last two lines of a horrid little poem (called “Invictus”) that too many people have memorized, to their embarrassment: “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.” This piece of ugliness is certainly something that the Nephilim would have endorsed, enthusiastically.
Because whatever they wanted, they went out and got. Immediately.
Which is always an evil thing, and always involves the “collateral” pain and suffering of the weak.
The Nephilim were therefore violent and God-rejecting.
They had become demonic.
The rest of Creation — from the sky to the seas, from the mountains to the green fields, from the blue whale to the lambs — depended from the beginning of time on mankind to bring the grace of Christ to it:
“Creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God” (Romans 8.19).
Creation has always needed the true culture, the ethos, of Seth and his people.
But now, instead of God-seekers, they who sought the uncreated light of grace in their hearts … now, instead of Seth’s children, Creation was afflicted by a human population that had become dark, violent, and not human at all, but demonic instead.
Creation is allergic to the demonic. Remember the story of the Gadarene demonic, when the Lord permitted a thousand demons to enter into a herd of pigs. They had the sense to stampede off a cliff and dive into the sea. Remember, more importantly, the fact that the sun itself darkened at the sight of the Artist of Creation raised to the dark sky on Golgotha.
Creation waits for the “sons of God,” the descendants of Seth. It reacts to the violent, demonic God-rejection of Cain with utter revulsion.
And thus, the floods came.
* * *
Better to go the ethos, the way of Seth, which is now even better, more beautifully formed, better known, as the Way of the Cross. Since the Incarnation, now the old prayer of Adam and Eve —
“Have mercy on me”
— has been improved:
“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
Now the way of Seth has been expanded into the fullness of beauty and peace.
It is known, today, as Orthodoxy, which is a lifestyle of Christ making you shine like Him, having given us the “power to become children of God” (John 1.12), receiving and living in His uncreated light of Grace, and broadcasting it to our neighborhood and the universe.
This is what Creation waits for.
Not in the horrible demonic form of the grotesque Nephilim.
But only you as cross-bearing, self-sacrificing, in the likeness of Christ. You as meek, not violent. You as peace-making, not self-worshiping. You as truly beautiful, not vulgar. You as cruciform, not egocentric.
You, only as deified, not demonic.
The only way you were meant to be.