The Nephilim fossil of upstate New York

I’m not trying to jump the gun on the upcoming Patheos book club on this book, but I wanted to share this anecdote from W. Scott Poole’s fascinating Monsters in America. It’s the story of what happens when someone discovers a mastodon tooth before anyone knew what a mastodon was:

In 1705 a farmer discovered a giant tooth near Albany, New York. Puritan divine Cotton Mather, a hunter of witches as well as monsters, wrote a series of letters about the discovery to the secretary of the Royal Society of London, the premier association of scientific thinking in the early 18th century. Mather had no difficulty explaining, to his own satisfaction, the origin and meaning of the fossil. The tooth, Mather declared, represented a “wonderful confirmation of Mosaic history,” empirical proof of the ancient Near Eastern legend of the Nephilim, found in Genesis chapter 6. This strange tale of giants walking the earth before Noah’s flood and mating with human women now had, Mather believed, empirical confirmation. The fossil discovery proved that these horny giants had once stamped around western New York.

That passage in Genesis 6 is one of the strangest things in the Bible (and that’s saying a lot). You’re reading along there in Genesis through a series of origin stories and then you take this weird turn into something that reads like a fragment of The Silmarillion.

It’s a bewildering little four-verse hiccup before the story of Noah begins:

When people began to multiply on the face of the ground, and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that they were fair; and they took wives for themselves of all that they chose. Then the Lord said, ‘My spirit shall not abide in mortals for ever, for they are flesh; their days shall be one hundred and twenty years.’ The Nephilim were on the earth in those days — and also afterwards — when the sons of God went in to the daughters of humans, who bore children to them. These were the heroes that were of old, warriors of renown.

Here it is in the King James Version, which translates that strange word, “Nephilim,” as “giants”:

And it came to pass, when men began to multiply on the face of the earth, and daughters were born unto them, That the sons of God saw the daughters of men that they were fair; and they took them wives of all which they chose. And the Lord said, My spirit shall not always strive with man, for that he also is flesh: yet his days shall be an hundred and twenty years. There were giants in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare children to them, the same became mighty men which were of old, men of renown.

My take on this passage is that the final sentence — “These were the heroes that were of old, warriors of renown” — explains the rest of it. This is just one more origin story here in the early chapters of Genesis — the origin story of legendary heroes. (The traditional reading — apart from just ignoring this weird interlude and pretending it’s not there — sees this as a passage about the descendants of Seth intermarrying with the descendants of Cain.)

Later in the 18th century, more strange bones were found near Niagara Falls and in Kentucky, generating great interest and casting doubt on Mather’s initial conclusion that his giant tooth was a giant’s tooth and therefore a “wonderful confirmation” of the literal historicity of Genesis 6:1-4.

Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin were, of course, fascinated by these discoveries and by the fuller picture of the mastodon that began to emerge. Even George Washington took a side trip — during a break in fighting the Revolution — to visit a fossil site in New York. Poole picks up the story:

Some American thinkers saw the fossil finds as further proof of the biblical account of Noahic giants. … Ezra Stiles, president of Yale University from 1778 to 1795, at first refused to accept the contention that gigantic teeth unearthed in America belonged to a creature anything like a mastodon. Stiles instead embraced what he called the “Doctrine of Monsters,” the belief that anomalies like gigantic fossils proved that the biblical world of wonders existed on the American landscape. Writing about Washington’s visit to view fossils in New York, Stiles admitted that most natural scientists “take these bones to belong to Quadrupeds.” He insisted, to the contrary, that they belonged to giant humans, “like the bones and teeth at Claverack” that had fascinated Mather. Stiles, a major intellectual celebrity in the early American republic, shows that Mather still had plenty of disciples for this view, bringing together as it did the biblical history and the history of the new nation.

Charles Darwin hadn’t even been born yet and already Stiles is offering a preview of what would become, for 20th-century American evangelicals, the template for their rejection of evolution. Dismissal of the opinions of “natural scientists”? Check. Evaluation of evidence based solely on how it might best provide imaginary “confirmation” of strange new doctrines based loosely on an inscrutable Bible story? Check.

Stiles ultimately strayed from this template by allowing himself to be persuaded by overwhelming evidence presented to him in a long correspondence with Jefferson. That separates him from contemporary evangelicals like, say, Al Mohler or Ken Ham. They’re not willing to examine the evidence supporting other views. Nor are they open to the possibility of persuasion.

The initial reaction by Mather and Stiles in this story reminds me of a recent ChristianNewsWire press release announcing another, more recent scientific discovery portrayed as a “wonderful confirmation” of a literal reading of Genesis. “Hubble Discovery Confirms God Created the Universe,” the press release announces:

Since Biblical times, people have put their trust in the Genesis account of creation. In recent years however, some have challenged the account and say there is no scientific evidence to support Genesis. It appears now that discoveries made by NASA’s scientist are confirming that the Genesis account is scientifically accurate. The idea of no scientific evidence to support it is now being turned upside-down by the very findings made in 2004 by NASA’s Hubble and Spitzer Telescopes of proto-planetary disc that surround infant stars. According to NASA scientist, data from these two telescopes is revealing that planets like the Earth are formed in the exact same fashion as described at Genesis 1:2, 3.

The press release even links to this video from NASA’s site for the Spitzer Space Telescope. The video is very, very cool. The self-published book touted by the press release — Hubble Reveals Creation by an Awe-Inspiring Power — not so much.

  • Anonymous

    At least Ninjas use smoke-bombs to disappear. Fundies tend to use smoke-bombs (and mainly rhetorical ones at that!) to either obscure fact or pass their opinion off as such — or both — while not having the decency to do the disappearing part.

  • Consumer Unit 5012

    and no one is going to argue that the Devil could be saved.

    CHALLENGE ACCEPTED.

    Well, why not?  Presumably, God could if He wanted to. 

  • Consumer Unit 5012

    and no one is going to argue that the Devil could be saved.

    CHALLENGE ACCEPTED.

    Well, why not?  Presumably, God could if He wanted to. 

  • Consumer Unit 5012

    I’m fairly sure spontaneous generation was disproved at least a century before the theory of evolution started gaining traction, and quite sure Louis Pasteur made a thorough disproof of it not too long before. Do they think that evolutionary theory also involves the Four Humours?

    Don’t give them any ideas!

    No, it’s because they think that abiogenesis (the presumed origin of life when chemicals first became self-reproducing, then organized into cells) is every bit as implausible as the hypothetical tornado in a junkyard that spontaneously assembles a (fully loaded?) 747.

  • Consumer Unit 5012

    I’m fairly sure spontaneous generation was disproved at least a century before the theory of evolution started gaining traction, and quite sure Louis Pasteur made a thorough disproof of it not too long before. Do they think that evolutionary theory also involves the Four Humours?

    Don’t give them any ideas!

    No, it’s because they think that abiogenesis (the presumed origin of life when chemicals first became self-reproducing, then organized into cells) is every bit as implausible as the hypothetical tornado in a junkyard that spontaneously assembles a (fully loaded?) 747.

  • chris the cynic

    and no one is going to argue that the Devil could be saved.

    I’ve argued that, unless we’re assuming that the problem is on God’s end instead of the Devil’s, it doesn’t make sense to argue that the Devil couldn’t be saved if you assume that he was responsible for his decision to rebel in the first place.  I haven’t argued it in any kind of detail, but I have made that argument.

    Does that count?

    -

    I suppose that if you take the thing about a certain sin not being forgivable in this age or the next, assume that there are only two ages, and operationalize that sin as denying the holy spirit with full knowledge that it is the holy spirit you are denying, then I guess I can kind of see how you might argue that the devil and his angels blew it, but I don’t see their unsavability as being in any way a foregone conclusion.  It seems like if you’re going to claim that they can’t be saved that’s a claim that needs to be backed up with an argument.

    Consider, for example, the context I pulled that out of.  What if the Devil started feeding the hungry, giving drinks to the thirsty, clothing the naked, housing the homeless, and visiting those sick and in prison?

    -

    I guess what I’m really saying here is that “could” is probably the wrong word.  Especially since your point really doesn’t seem to be about what could happen as what is happening, it seems to me that to make your point it is sufficient to say that in this belief system that the Devil currently believes but has not proven to be worthy of redemption, or something to that effect.  I don’t know if that would be universally agreed with, but it would seem to fit better than “could”.

  • http://stealingcommas.blogspot.com/ chris the cynic

    and no one is going to argue that the Devil could be saved.

    I’ve argued that, unless we’re assuming that the problem is on God’s end instead of the Devil’s, it doesn’t make sense to argue that the Devil couldn’t be saved if you assume that he was responsible for his decision to rebel in the first place.  I haven’t argued it in any kind of detail, but I have made that argument.

    Does that count?

    -

    I suppose that if you take the thing about a certain sin not being forgivable in this age or the next, assume that there are only two ages, and operationalize that sin as denying the holy spirit with full knowledge that it is the holy spirit you are denying, then I guess I can kind of see how you might argue that the devil and his angels blew it, but I don’t see their unsavability as being in any way a foregone conclusion.  It seems like if you’re going to claim that they can’t be saved that’s a claim that needs to be backed up with an argument.

    Consider, for example, the context I pulled that out of.  What if the Devil started feeding the hungry, giving drinks to the thirsty, clothing the naked, housing the homeless, and visiting those sick and in prison?

    -

    I guess what I’m really saying here is that “could” is probably the wrong word.  Especially since your point really doesn’t seem to be about what could happen as what is happening, it seems to me that to make your point it is sufficient to say that in this belief system that the Devil currently believes but has not proven to be worthy of redemption, or something to that effect.  I don’t know if that would be universally agreed with, but it would seem to fit better than “could”.

  • Hawker40

    And I was trying to increase the absurdity, by using the naval nickname as opposed to the army one, then adding in the presidential helicopter nickname…

    IOW, I got the joke, tried to top it, and failed.  Sorry.

  • Hawker40

    And I was trying to increase the absurdity, by using the naval nickname as opposed to the army one, then adding in the presidential helicopter nickname…

    IOW, I got the joke, tried to top it, and failed.  Sorry.

  • Randall M

    It is an “alternative” to the Theory of Evolution the same way a railway
    spike through the neck is an alternative to cough medicine.

    “I guarantee you’ll never cough again.  Now hold still.”

  • Randall M

    It is an “alternative” to the Theory of Evolution the same way a railway
    spike through the neck is an alternative to cough medicine.

    “I guarantee you’ll never cough again.  Now hold still.”

  • Ross

     Believing Jesus exists without obeying him is not good enough–so does the Devil, after all, and no one is going to argue that the Devil could be saved.

    Origen did. And St Clement before him.

  • Ross

     Believing Jesus exists without obeying him is not good enough–so does the Devil, after all, and no one is going to argue that the Devil could be saved.

    Origen did. And St Clement before him.

  • Headless Unicorn Guy

    The real challenge would be finding a creation story, anywhere in the world, that modern astronomy doesn’t confirm using CNW’s “standard” of proof. I’m confident you could use the Hubble to prove Ymir, the Ogdoad, the Tenchikaibyaku, Frith, and Princess Celestia if you were so inclined.
    While it was common fanon Celestia was Equestria’s creator, the S2 opener would seem to contradict that. Who or what actually did create Equestria, we don’t know, which makes it a bit hard to prove them as of right now.

    “Once upon a time,
    In the magical land of Equestria…”
    (Brohoof to Narm00)

    I have never thought of Celestia as a creator-god; she’s primarily a Sun Goddess with another aspect as Mother/Alpha Mare to Her Little Ponies, and her sister is a Moon Goddess fanonically credited with the aspects of Night, Sleep, and Dreams as well.  She’s a Vala of Equestria, not Iluvatar.

    And contrasting with the TurboJesus of Left Behind, Celestia is a benevolent, approachable, and even playful pop-culture god-figure who prefers to work indirectly, maneuvering mortal ponies into the right place at the right time instead of galloping in directly.   (And who takes a lot of crap in various “Trollestia/Molestia/Celestia The Impaler” fanfics by fanwriters who seem to have a real problem with any authority figure.)   It’s really saying something when My Little Pony has a more benevolent and approachable god-figure than a lot of RTCs.

  • Headless Unicorn Guy

    The real challenge would be finding a creation story, anywhere in the world, that modern astronomy doesn’t confirm using CNW’s “standard” of proof. I’m confident you could use the Hubble to prove Ymir, the Ogdoad, the Tenchikaibyaku, Frith, and Princess Celestia if you were so inclined.
    While it was common fanon Celestia was Equestria’s creator, the S2 opener would seem to contradict that. Who or what actually did create Equestria, we don’t know, which makes it a bit hard to prove them as of right now.

    “Once upon a time,
    In the magical land of Equestria…”
    (Brohoof to Narm00)

    I have never thought of Celestia as a creator-god; she’s primarily a Sun Goddess with another aspect as Mother/Alpha Mare to Her Little Ponies, and her sister is a Moon Goddess fanonically credited with the aspects of Night, Sleep, and Dreams as well.  She’s a Vala of Equestria, not Iluvatar.

    And contrasting with the TurboJesus of Left Behind, Celestia is a benevolent, approachable, and even playful pop-culture god-figure who prefers to work indirectly, maneuvering mortal ponies into the right place at the right time instead of galloping in directly.   (And who takes a lot of crap in various “Trollestia/Molestia/Celestia The Impaler” fanfics by fanwriters who seem to have a real problem with any authority figure.)   It’s really saying something when My Little Pony has a more benevolent and approachable god-figure than a lot of RTCs.

  • Headless Unicorn Guy

    You know, if Discord created Equestria, and he made it a swirling chaos of dust, and the influence of Princess Celestia gradually led to the formation of order and making the environment more liveable, bringing sunlight and solid ground to walk on, then NASA has just completely proven the existence of Equestria!

    DOUBLE BROHOOF TO AKO!

  • Headless Unicorn Guy

    You know, if Discord created Equestria, and he made it a swirling chaos of dust, and the influence of Princess Celestia gradually led to the formation of order and making the environment more liveable, bringing sunlight and solid ground to walk on, then NASA has just completely proven the existence of Equestria!

    DOUBLE BROHOOF TO AKO!

  • http://twitter.com/FearlessSon FearlessSon

    No, it’s because they think that abiogenesis (the presumed origin of life when chemicals first became self-reproducing, then organized into cells) is every bit as implausible as the hypothetical tornado in a junkyard that spontaneously assembles a (fully loaded?) 747.

    What they keep missing is that this kind of logic is only plausible if you assume that evolution has a particular pre-determined end-point that it deliberately tries to eventually produce.  I.E., the tornado will generate a 747 as opposed to, say, a bunch of other scrap randomly mish-mashed together.  Enough tornados over a long enough period of time will eventually produce some kind of scrap chimera that actually functions, but that is not necessarily of a form any of us would recognize.  

    Evolution has no end point.  It is a process, not a deliberate planned progression. That seems to be what creationists have a difficult time grasping.  If you take intent out of creation, evolution becomes so much easier to understand.  Of course, that implies that any creator deity has no particular plan in mind, and it goes against their dogma to believe that a creator deity would treat our would like some kind of petri dish in a experiment mixing and growing live cultures.  

  • http://twitter.com/FearlessSon FearlessSon

    No, it’s because they think that abiogenesis (the presumed origin of life when chemicals first became self-reproducing, then organized into cells) is every bit as implausible as the hypothetical tornado in a junkyard that spontaneously assembles a (fully loaded?) 747.

    What they keep missing is that this kind of logic is only plausible if you assume that evolution has a particular pre-determined end-point that it deliberately tries to eventually produce.  I.E., the tornado will generate a 747 as opposed to, say, a bunch of other scrap randomly mish-mashed together.  Enough tornados over a long enough period of time will eventually produce some kind of scrap chimera that actually functions, but that is not necessarily of a form any of us would recognize.  

    Evolution has no end point.  It is a process, not a deliberate planned progression. That seems to be what creationists have a difficult time grasping.  If you take intent out of creation, evolution becomes so much easier to understand.  Of course, that implies that any creator deity has no particular plan in mind, and it goes against their dogma to believe that a creator deity would treat our would like some kind of petri dish in a experiment mixing and growing live cultures.  

  • Orion Anderson

    Re: El Shaddai

    Actually, they’re cleaving pretty damn close to the source material.  

    “Lucifer” isn’t a named angel in any of the Hebrew scriptures of apocrypha (to my knowledge.)  It’s a Latin translation of a Hebrew title (Heilel) that is used once in Isaiah to refer to a king and maybe obliquely to some kind of angel, god, or demon who is never mentioned again.  There is a Satan in the Hebrew scripture but that’s not the same thing. The apocryphal books which present the Nephilim explicitly as the children of fallen angels generally give the name of the angels’ leader as Semyaza or some variant there of.  The description of how and why they fell is also nothing like most Christian ideas about Lucifer/Satan’s fall.  
    What all this adds up to is that you can mix up some Christian and some Jewish beliefs to get a consistent timeline that does what we need it to.  I’ll be labeling premises with a (C) or a (J) based on which interpretive tradition they’re sourced from.

    J: Sometime in prehistory, Semyaza and his angels go or are sent to earth to observe the humans.  They offend God by setting themself up as rulers over humans, corrupting human society, and fathering the Nephilim.  
    C: The Christian Devil is an angel named Lucifer who sought to overthrow God out of pride.  (Or hated and shunned humans, out of pride).  
    Therefore: There were two separate fallen angel movements.  One ignored god and tried to control, the other despised God and tried to control heaven.

    C: the character “Satan” from the Old Testament is Lucifer, the Christian devil
    J: “Satan” in the Tanakh is a loyal servant of God who tests and punishes the unworthy.  
    Therefore: During pre-Christian times, Lucifer had not yet fallen.  

    Put it together and you get Lucifel as god’s chief enforcer who spent pre-history cracking down on lawless angels before eventually being corrupted by power or by disgust engendered by constant exposure to the least attractive aspects of God’s creation.  Lucifer ultimately rebels some time around the Roman conquest of Israel and begins spiritual warfare against the chosen people.  Hell was created for him at that time which explains why you don’t hear about it in Judaic texts.  Christ comes in 0 AD and not before because his Incarnation is a direct response to the chaos caused by Lucifer’s disobedience.  (And the end of Lucifer’s term as God’s right-hand man coincides with the end of the dispensation of law and the beginning of the dispensation of grace.)  

    The only real problem from a “can we fit everything in” standpoint is that the snake in the garden of Eden is now just a snake.  And that this story trades in uncharitable christian tropes about Judaism, but that’s what I have to work with.  

  • Orion Anderson

    Re: El Shaddai

    Actually, they’re cleaving pretty damn close to the source material.  

    “Lucifer” isn’t a named angel in any of the Hebrew scriptures of apocrypha (to my knowledge.)  It’s a Latin translation of a Hebrew title (Heilel) that is used once in Isaiah to refer to a king and maybe obliquely to some kind of angel, god, or demon who is never mentioned again.  There is a Satan in the Hebrew scripture but that’s not the same thing. The apocryphal books which present the Nephilim explicitly as the children of fallen angels generally give the name of the angels’ leader as Semyaza or some variant there of.  The description of how and why they fell is also nothing like most Christian ideas about Lucifer/Satan’s fall.  
    What all this adds up to is that you can mix up some Christian and some Jewish beliefs to get a consistent timeline that does what we need it to.  I’ll be labeling premises with a (C) or a (J) based on which interpretive tradition they’re sourced from.

    J: Sometime in prehistory, Semyaza and his angels go or are sent to earth to observe the humans.  They offend God by setting themself up as rulers over humans, corrupting human society, and fathering the Nephilim.  
    C: The Christian Devil is an angel named Lucifer who sought to overthrow God out of pride.  (Or hated and shunned humans, out of pride).  
    Therefore: There were two separate fallen angel movements.  One ignored god and tried to control, the other despised God and tried to control heaven.

    C: the character “Satan” from the Old Testament is Lucifer, the Christian devil
    J: “Satan” in the Tanakh is a loyal servant of God who tests and punishes the unworthy.  
    Therefore: During pre-Christian times, Lucifer had not yet fallen.  

    Put it together and you get Lucifel as god’s chief enforcer who spent pre-history cracking down on lawless angels before eventually being corrupted by power or by disgust engendered by constant exposure to the least attractive aspects of God’s creation.  Lucifer ultimately rebels some time around the Roman conquest of Israel and begins spiritual warfare against the chosen people.  Hell was created for him at that time which explains why you don’t hear about it in Judaic texts.  Christ comes in 0 AD and not before because his Incarnation is a direct response to the chaos caused by Lucifer’s disobedience.  (And the end of Lucifer’s term as God’s right-hand man coincides with the end of the dispensation of law and the beginning of the dispensation of grace.)  

    The only real problem from a “can we fit everything in” standpoint is that the snake in the garden of Eden is now just a snake.  And that this story trades in uncharitable christian tropes about Judaism, but that’s what I have to work with.  

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Patrick-McGraw/100001988854074 Patrick McGraw

    The only real problem from a “can we fit everything in” standpoint is that the snake in the garden of Eden is now just a snake.

    In Genesis, it IS just a snake. So that’s not really a problem.

    I’m working on my own cosmology and timeline for some fiction, my ideas are along somewhat similar lines to yours, in that their is a distinction between Fallen (disgraced) and angels and Rebel (demon) angels. In this cosmology, Hell is just the place where the rebel angels are imprisoned and contains no human souls. It’s a crappy place because the rebel angels are jerks.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Patrick-McGraw/100001988854074 Patrick McGraw

    The only real problem from a “can we fit everything in” standpoint is that the snake in the garden of Eden is now just a snake.

    In Genesis, it IS just a snake. So that’s not really a problem.

    I’m working on my own cosmology and timeline for some fiction, my ideas are along somewhat similar lines to yours, in that their is a distinction between Fallen (disgraced) and angels and Rebel (demon) angels. In this cosmology, Hell is just the place where the rebel angels are imprisoned and contains no human souls. It’s a crappy place because the rebel angels are jerks.

  • Iceecclesiastes

    whats with all the strawman arguements, and attack after attack ad hominem?


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