The Nephilim fossil of upstate New York

The Nephilim fossil of upstate New York October 6, 2011

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.

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