One confusing story, two stories confused, and three versions of 10 commandments

Richard Beck is teaching through the book of Genesis and, like most readers, trips over the very weird bit at the beginning of chapter 6 on “the Nephilim.”

Nifty photoshop fake via Snopes.com.

I’ve never figured out what to make of that, or how this odd fragment from the Silmarillion wound up in the Hebrew scriptures. But it is one of the big flashing signals that these early chapters of Genesis do not invite or allow a “literal” reading in the style of modern-day American fundies.

I don’t just mean because giants and talk of “heroes of old” are huge screaming clues that this is a bit of legendary narrative. There’s also the problem that this bit defies the anachronistic journalistic reading that is referred to as “literalism.” Consider that these inexplicable “Nephilim” show up again later, in Numbers 13, when the Hebrew spies returning from Canaan say, “We saw Nephilim there” and the text says, parenthetically, “the descendants of Anak come from the Nephilim.”

A creationist-style “literal” reading says that’s impossible — the Nephilim all died in Noah’s flood. (Somewhere, I’m sure, some “scientific creationist” crypto-archaeologist — Ron Wyatt, perhaps — is collecting money for an expedition to search for Nephilim fossils.)

If you want to take a trip through the looking glass, Google around to read some of the more imaginative things written by those who insist that this story is a “literal,” historical account. It’s entertaining, and somehow appropriate, to see folks like Ken Ham and Henry M. Morris cited alongside Erich von Daniken and Zecharia Sitchin.

So what does this weird little passage mean? I have no idea. Beck guesses that “this strange text” expresses some early “concern over illicit mixing” — going on to note that such concern is something later prophets, Jesus and Paul took pains to condemn.

Beck is teaching through Genesis at a prison Bible study. The next book is Exodus. The idea of studying Exodus in a prison reminds me of that scene from Shawshank where they’re sorting books for the prison library and come across The Count of Monte Cristo:

ANDY: You know what it’s about? You’ll like it, it’s about a prison break.

RED: We oughta file that under “Educational” too, oughten we?

* * * * * * * * *

In another discussion of the early chapters of Genesis, Scot McKnight writes: “I heard Tom Wright say election is at work in God choosing Adam and Eve from others to be the ones with the image of God.”

Wright seems to have his chapters mixed up. The bit about the “image of God” is not part of the story of Adam and Eve, it’s from the previous story and applies to all of humanity — to adam but not to “Adam.”

“God choosing Adam and Eve from others to be the ones with the image of God” is something that never happens in the Bible. That’s the opposite of what happens in the Bible. The first story says that all of humanity is made in the image of God, and we can apply that to the second story to infer that, because Adam and Eve are humans, that is also true of them. But these two stories cannot be made to say that Adam and Eve bear the image never attributed to them in their story while “others” do not bear the image attributed to them in theirs.

Any attempt to explain why “God [chose] Adam and Eve from others to be the ones with the image of God” is bound to be as helpful and insightful as trying to explain why God chose Adam and Eve to build an ark, or why God chose Adam and Eve to face Goliath armed only with a sling. Wrong story.

* * * * * * * * *

At Internet Monk, Chaplain Mike looks at the three main different ways of numbering the Ten Commandments. He picks a favorite, preferring the Talmudic approach of regarding the Decalog as the “Ten Words.”

That’s a different numbering than the one used by Lutherans and Roman Catholics, and it’s also different from the numbering preferred by most Protestants, Greek Orthodox and some Jews.

The fact that different branches of Christianity and Judaism number these commandments differently isn’t a big deal. The text itself doesn’t number them, and regardless of how they’re numbered, the content of the Ten Commandments doesn’t change. How you prefer to number them only matters if, say, you wanted to make a plaque or a monument with the commandments engraved on it.

Uh-oh …

This point is largely ignored by those who imagine they can put such a plaque or monument in a public building without establishing anything more than a vaguely non-sectarian “Judeo-Christian” form of ceremonial civil religion.

Nope. If you want to hang the Ten Commandments in a courtroom, you’re going to have to pick sides — privileging one Christian sect over another. Before you commission such a plaque or monument you first have to decide if it’s going to hang in a Lutheran courtroom or in a Methodist courtroom.

Does the First Amendment allow for such a thing as a sectarian courtroom? No, it really does not.

  • markedward

    I noticed, in my own studies, that the post-exodus narratives have a weird web of references to the nephilim, that guy Anak and his descendents (anakim), and other untranslated labels (rephaim, emim, etc.), and conveniently that these tribes always happen to be described as huge guys, while living in the same towns that Goliath would later come from. My thought from this is that the little story in Genesis 6 was given as an explanation for why those tribes had such gigantic men: their ancestral fathers were the sons of God (i.e. angels). This sort of assumes the story was written post-exodus (perhaps even post-exile), but I’m just speculating.

    I always did find it ironic that so-called ‘literal’ interpreters jumped through hoops to avoid the idea that the ‘sons of God’ were angels, while so-called ‘liberal’ interpreters took that approach as the most natural one. That ‘literalists’ drop their literalism as soon as it becomes theologically (read: personally) uncomfortable for them.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=30319652 Tim Lehnerer

    In the prop bible in The Shawshank Redemption the first page of Exodus is the top page with the “I kept the hammer in here” cutout. But undoubtedly you knew that.

  • John Magnum

    Not that Fred is endorsing the position, but I’d like to push back against the notion that if something is vaguely Judeo-Christian but not concrete enough to be identified as a specific sect of Christianity, then it’s a-okay and doesn’t run afoul of the establishment clause. It’s not. Endorsing Judeo-Christianity over all other religions and over the absence of religion is still incorrect, even if you really are promoting this vague abstract Judeo-Christianity and not just using it as a codeword for “my particular sect of Christianity.”

  • Carstonio

    I never knew who the Nephilim were supposed to be until a fellow Slacktivite explained it – I had assumed they were a neighboring tribe like the Canaanites.

    If you want to hang the Ten Commandments in a courtroom, you’re going to have to pick sides — privileging one Christian sect over another.

    Even if all Christian denominations and all of Judaism used a single version of the Commandments, they would still be sectarian, because of the first five Commandments. One can’t get any more sectarian than “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.”

  • Twig

    And Jesus walked among the people and said “give to the poor and hungry and be kind and free with your compassion and come on seriously, don’t be an asshole.  Seriously.”

    And the people said,  “Oh Lord, that sounds like a great idea, now we’d like to talk about this really old towel with your face on it instead.”

    And lo, Jesus did facepalm.  Amen.

  • Tricksterson

    If “the sons of God” weren’t angels then what were they? 

    The bit about Goliath was probably where a book about King David (Forget exact title but the author’s last name was Martin (No, not that one)) that basically had Goliath as the last of the Nephilim.  I also like the idea in L. A. Banks Neteru series (basically an urban demographic, more theistic version of Buffy.  Derivative yes but still very good) that the Nephilim were all the non-Christian “gods” and other mythical beings,, some good, some evil.

  • markedward

    I didn’t; awesome catch.

  • swbarnes2

    I don’t just mean because giants and talk of “heroes of old” are huge screaming clues that this is a bit of legendary narrative.

    But a person being being born of a virgin, and then executed and returning from the dead in 3 days, that doesn’t scream “legendary narrative”? 

  • Darkrose

    As a writer, I am fascinated by the Nephilim. There’s so much potential there, and so little solid canon that you can go in a dozen different places and come up with good story fodder.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_2CUJHSQSQYTYT4DPZSKTVESYNQ B

     Which is the problem with reading the Bible as though it were a single, unitary document with a single viewpoint (God’s) that arrived (to quote Dan Brown) “by fax from heaven.”  Because that’s not what happened, and if you act like it did, you miss what the Bible is *actually* saying.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    Didn’t God end up getting rid of all the angels who lived on earth plus any of the “half-blood” angel/human hybrids?

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_2CUJHSQSQYTYT4DPZSKTVESYNQ B

    Having been spending too much time playing Diablo 3 recently, I assume that’s where the term “Nephalem” (very powerful ancient humans that were the result of unions between demons and angels) came from.

    That’s the new thing I learned today.  :-) I knew there was a verse in Genesis about the sons of God and the daughters of men breeding, but I’d forgotten what they were called.

  • GDwarf

    Didn’t God end up getting rid of all the angels who lived on earth plus any of the “half-blood” angel/human hybrids?

    Well, if you take the books of Enoch as canon then that was the purpose of the great flood. Otherwise I don’t think any mention is made of what happened to them.

  • Jim Roberts

    And people talk about retconning and fanfic like they’re recent developments.

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

    Greek Mythology would like a word with those people.

  • Docsabato

    Did Fred say that it doesn’t?

  • VMink

    The Book of Enoch is trippy and makes fascinating reading.  Not content to merely say ‘Some angels did snugglebunnies with humans and OMG GIANTS!’  the Book of Enoch names names and lays shame.  It also goes in amazing directions besides.  It doesn’t just talk about the Watchers, who had sired the Nephilim.  It’s a travelogue of Heaven, an angeliary, a treatise on astronomy, a book of parables, and an apocalypse all in one.  It’s also fairly opaque reading and not easy to get through even in reader-friendly translations.

    Interestingly, the Book of Enoch also formed the basis of the equally trippy game “El Shaddai” which was produced by the same guy who did the equally-equally trippy “Okami.”

  • Loquat

    El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron! I recommend this game to anyone who enjoys weirdness and doesn’t hate 3d platforming. For a game with a cell-phone-addicted “Lucifel” character and a motorcycle level, it’s extraordinarily faithful to the original Book of Enoch plot.

  • http://www.facebook.com/j.alex.harman John Alexander Harman

    Madeleine L’Engle featured the Nephilim in Many Waters, one of the later, less well-known sequels to A Wrinkle in Time, A Wind in the Door, and A Swiftly Tilting Planet. An accident related to their father’s research in teleportation (or “tessering,” which was the mcguffen in the first novel of the series) sends Sandy and Dennys Murry, the twin older brothers of Meg and Charles Wallace, back in time to shortly before the flood, where they encounter Noah and his sons, some of their less virtuous neighbors, and both Nephilim and Seraphim. The former have been interbreeding with humans, the latter have been… well, not doing much of anything, really. There’s a reason the book is less popular than the earlier ones in the series.

  • rm

     swb: But a person being being born of a virgin, and then executed and
    returning from the dead in 3 days, that doesn’t scream “legendary
    narrative”?

    You’re missing the point — the point is about literary genre, not whether or not you believe in the truth of the text. A legendary narrative is a genre. It delivers a different kind of truth than the type who think they are “literal” readers discover through their mis-readings.

    The gospels don’t claim to be a legendary narrative, they claim to be an account of what happened several decades ago as the writers heard it or witnessed it. You do not have to accept the allegorical truths of legend, or the semi-historical truths of personal narrative. But you should recognize which type of text is which. The kinds of Christians who insist on “literalism” are not good enough readers to see the difference.

  • connorboone

    My personal favorite way to shut down people who go on about the Ten Commandments being the foundation of law – I ask them how many of the Ten Commandments are actually a part of the law.

    The answer, of course, is three.

  • Victor

    (((One confusing story, two stories confused, and three versions of 10 commandments)))
     

    Although Fred is a lot more educated, I’m just speculating along with Fred folks; (((If you want to hang the Ten Commandments in a courtroom, you’re going to have to pick sides — privileging one Christian sect over another. Before you commission such a plaque or monument you first have to decide if it’s going to hang in a Lutheran courtroom or in a Methodist courtroom.)))
     

    The above comments could be a reason why I don`t read `The Bible` (and yes that too) plus; (((Any attempt to explain why “God [chose] Adam and Eve from others to be the ones with the image of God” is bound to be as helpful and insightful as trying to explain why God chose Adam and Eve to build an ark, or why God chose Adam and Eve to face Goliath armed only with a sling. Wrong story.)))
     

    Seems to me friends and enemies, that humans have been teaming UP with gods, I mean GOD (Good Old Dad) in wars since the beginning of time. Right or wrong, this post seems to remind me of when I was a child and our property line ended in the middle of a rock and our brothers and sisters would stand on our side of the rock and brag to our cousins in so many words that our dad was stronger than their dad and we better not CROSS The Line if we knew what was good for us! 
     

    I hear ya folks! We oughta file this comment under “Educational” too, oughten we Victor? or is “IT” simply sinner vic and his so called imaginary friends who are trying to sneek into our reality world with his so called 7% “Jesus Cells” ? :)
     
    Go Figure! :(
     

    Peace

  • GDwarf

    Interestingly, the Book of Enoch also formed the basis of the equally
    trippy game “El Shaddai” which was produced by the same guy who did the
    equally-equally trippy “Okami.”

    Yep, that was my introduction to the book, actually. :B

    It’s far trippier than Okami, but so much fun. It’s the sort of game Dali would’ve made.

    (For those who don’t know: The game plays around with art styles and post-modernism to a ludicrous degree. The opening credits are one of the levels, for example. You get levels with perspective tricks, and ones where you interact with the background, and there’s time-travel, or something, and Lucifer and Enoch wear designer jeans and Nephilim are adorable stoat-things and just…yeah. I’ve never done acid, but I’m pretty sure this is what it’d be like).

    I do find it interesting that, apparently, the books of Enoch have the Watchers teaching humanity…pretty much everything, from metal working to prophecy to cosmetics, which is why God gets fed up with them. It’s a fairly standard mythological-thingy, but one largely absent from the Bible, where humanity seems to discover most of this stuff themselves, to the annoyance of God.

  • Darkrose

    Huh; I never read that one. Maybe I’ll pick up the Kindle version. 

  • Stone_Monkey

    The nephilim also show up in Tim Powers “The Stress of Her Regard”. And everyone should read Tim Powers, he’s brilliant.

    To be fair, some Christians have historically been pretty down on that whole “mixing of bloods” thing too. Maybe they got it from that, as well as the whole “Children of Ham” thing.

    As a not very on topic aside, attitudes to race from different cultures can be quite interesting. My partner, who is Croatian and grew up in the old Yugoslavia, has very different and quite surprising ideas on race from her upbringing. She’s never been able to get her head around racism based on skin colour. While she’s still wrestling with her ingrained attitudes to Serbians and Bosnians as a result of the War, she’s probably one of the few truly colour blind people I’ve ever met. It does seem to be a quality you find in people from Eastern Europe and the old Soviet Bloc, I’ve never quite figured out why.

    I had a very interesting conversation with her a while ago about black women’s experience of Western beauty standards, after she read an article in the Economist. She found it very difficult to understand the Western European and US cultural biases against black standards of physical beauty and how its possible for black people themselves to have bought into the idea that they aren’t beautiful. To explain to the USians, I would say African American but I regard myself as black and certainly not African American, as a) my family came from Jamaica, which is a whole other cultural identity that’s very distinct from the African American one and b) I’m British.

  • Tricksterson

    Thou shalt not steal, kill or bear false witness?  Which principals I’m pretty sure you can find in just about any religion.

  • EllieMurasaki

    All three of those require one to define one’s terms. Killing’s legal, murder’s not. Lying’s legal, lying while testifying’s not. Stealing’s illegal unless one does it in a manner only available to someone who has immense resources already.

    Blasphemy, adultery, and certain behaviors on Sunday were illegal in the US for a long time. Might still be in places, I don’t know. I’m not sure being a different religion has ever been illegal in the US, but there’s no shortage of places where someone preaching something the local religious leaders didn’t want preached got run out of town. See also the founding of Rhode Island. And that covers the whole Decalogue except for honoring one’s parents and coveting one’s neighbor’s property, and have fun banning the latter and there’s probably at least one US jurisdiction that had a law on the books mandating the former.

  • connorboone

    Precisely my point.

  • P J Evans

    I ‘m not sure being a different religion has ever been illegal in the US

    In most of the colonies, including Rhode Island, it was illegal to be Catholic (at least publicly). I don’t know how thoroughly that law was enforced, though.

  • http://www.oliviareviews.com/ PepperjackCandy

    Am I the only person out there who thought (hoped, maybe, even) that Giles and his ilk were going to turn out to be the Watchers of the Book of Enoch?

  • Joshua

    If “the sons of God” weren’t angels then what were they?

    Demigods? Like Gilgamesh.

    Two thirds mortal and one third divine, take that biologists.

  • Joshua
  • Jessica_R

    Rather fond of Andy’s inscription on the fly leaf too, “You were right, salvation lay within…” 

  • http://dumas1.livejournal.com/ Winter

    I think you have the proportions backwards. I remember it being 2/3 divine, 1/3 mortal.

     I played around with some numbers when I was bored. His mother is a goddess, so that’s 50% divinity to start with. Now we need a 1/3 divine father to supply that missing 1/6.

     A demigod grandfather and a quarter-god grandmother (or vice-versa) would make Gilgamesh’s father 37.5% divine and Gilgamesh 68.75%. Bit high, but close.

    If we keep one demigod grandparent, but make the other one one-eighth divine, Gilgamesh’s father would be 31.25% devine and Gilgamesh would be 65.625%. This is a bit low, but either number would be close enough for government work in an age where pi was “three and a bit.”

    Or, given some of the strange things once believed about paternity, Gilgamesh had a very short-lived twin who is 2/3 mortal and 1/3 divine, and his mother had a very interesting period in her life.

  • Graeme from BC

    Only ever knew about the Nephilim from an X-files episode. It was one of those ones where the supernatural event was christianity related so Scully briefly became the believer and Mulder the sceptic.

  • GDwarf

     I’ve always suspected that the epic of Gilgamesh simply proves that the divine are subject to telegony and so he had two fathers, literally.

  • Joshua

    Yeah, no doubt I misremembered. A 1/3 divine father is easy if Gilgamesh was his own grandfather, and married a mortal woman.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    Speaking of the ten commandments, one translation is “thou shalt not murder” rather than “kill” and since murder carries the notion of malicious intent, while to kill does not (since you can be a soldier and kill someone else without wishing them harm), it makes more sense as a commandment.

  • http://twitter.com/mcclure111 mcc

    What’s interesting to me is that I wound up hearing the word Nephilim a *lot* hanging around in Pagan / Wiccan communities. (The word “starchildren” also seemed to show up interchangeably.) I don’t know what it was about this one word from Christian esoterica that made this get sucked up like this; it didn’t even seem to consistently overlap with Qabala interest. The other two things I noticed– just in my experience– were (1) the pagans who used the word “Nephilim” were usually the ones espousing really out-there religious ideas and usually claiming they were the reincarnation of something/someone improbable, and (2) no two people who I asked “so, what *are* the Nephilim?” ever gave me the same answer. It was like trying to watch people explain what “emo music” was.

    I have no idea if any part of my experience described above is representative.

  • http://loosviews.livejournal.com BringTheNoise

    I say this as pedantry rather than arguing against your point, but I thought “sectarianism” only applied to intrareligious disputes. So while the first five Commandments are still exlcusionary and definitely not something that should be codified into law, they aren’t sectarian as they apply to all Christians.

  • Carstonio

     Fred has used the term more broadly than that, but you may be right. What would be a better term for interreligious disputes? From the standpoint of the First Amendment, the distinction between inter- and intra- disputes may not be relevant. Congress putting “under God” in the Pledge was unconstitutional because only some citizens believe in a single god, and the phrase excludes not just atheists but also members of non-monotheistic religions.

  • Lonespark

    On the subject of banned/illegal religion, Native American religious practice was illegal for a long time in the USA.

  • vsm

    Genesis seems to imply (and the apocryphal Book of Giants states) that Gilgamesh, being a hero of old, was actually one of the Nephilim. The man’s own epic says he came after the flood, though he does meet Mesopotamian Noah.

  • The_L1985

     Yes, but one could still make the argument that they weren’t the U.S. yet.

  • wendy

    I think Social Security and Medicare fall under honoring one’s parents. For some values of “one’s”. 

  • http://twitter.com/merusdraconis Matt Cramp

    The recent video game Darksiders expands on Nephilim quite heavily. Sadly, the writing is not very good, but at least it looks dramatic.

  • Wednesday

    @ Lonespark — It’s technically still illegal (by a 100+ -year-old act of Congress) for any of the Dakota people to enter Minnesota.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_KN6U2KRJKSTB7EQR4XCIDRC4LM Bardi Jonssen

    About the  Nephilim.  Was it not here, I thought was explained, that the reason for the Islamic  stricture about women wearing head scarves was so that the demigods would not be tempted to mate with human women, which always led to giants.

  • Tricksterson

    So the Nephilim are descendants of emo angels?

  • Ethics Gradient

    The one section of the Bible that actually mentions “ten commandments” in the text, rather than some heading put in later by an editor, is Exodus 34:11-28:

     Observe what I command you today. See, I will drive out before you the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. 1 Take care not to make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land to which you are going, or it will become a snare among you. You shall tear down their altars, break their pillars, and cut down their sacred poles (for you shall worship no other god, because the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God). You shall not make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land, for when they prostitute themselves to their gods and sacrifice to their gods, someone among them will invite you, and you will eat of the sacrifice. And you will take wives from among their daughters for your sons, and their daughters who prostitute themselves to their gods will make your sons also prostitute themselves to their gods.

    2 You shall not make cast idols.

    3 You shall keep the festival of unleavened bread. For seven days you shall eat unleavened bread, as I commanded you, at the time appointed in the month of Abib; for in the month of Abib you came out from Egypt.

    4 All that first opens the womb is mine, all your male livestock, the firstborn of cow and sheep. The firstborn of a donkey you shall redeem with a lamb, or if you will not redeem it you shall break its neck. All the firstborn of your sons you shall redeem.

    5 No one shall appear before me empty-handed.

    6 For six days you shall work, but on the seventh day you shall rest; even in ploughing time and in harvest time you shall rest. 7You shall observe the festival of weeks, the first fruits of wheat harvest, and the festival of ingathering at the turn of the year. Three times in the year all your males shall appear before the Lord God, the God of Israel. For I will cast out nations before you, and enlarge your borders; no one shall covet your land when you go up to appear before the Lord your God three times in the year.

    8 You shall not offer the blood of my sacrifice with leaven, and the sacrifice of the festival of the passover shall not be left until the morning.

    9 The best of the first fruits of your ground you shall bring to the house of the Lord your God.

    10 You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.

     The Lord said to Moses: Write these words; in accordance with these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel. He was there with the Lord for forty days and forty nights; he neither ate bread nor drank water. And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the ten commandments.

    So we can sum those up as:
    Attack other religions, and no fraternising
    No idols
    Observe a festival
    Sacrifice all firstborn animals
    Always donate to the temple
    Observe the Sabbath
    Observe more festivals and win fabulous prizes of other people’s possessions!
    Don’t mix blood and yeast
    Remember fruit forms part of a healthy, balanced sacrifice
    Give a goat a break – it’s bad enough you killed her kid


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