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The sons of God and Nephilim in the NT (2 of 2) – Geeky Version

Part 2 of 2: Why the NT argues for Gen 6:1-4 as part of Noah’s story

This is the second post in an extended series on Noah and the Flood (Gen 6-9).  For the first post:

1) Click here for a discussion on the Nephilim and sons of God in Gen 6:1-4

This series is a detailed and extensive series that focusses on details and geeks out!  For a more ‘user friendly’, shorter, and friendly version of the same information, see the “Coffee Break Version” of this series over here.

(1) Historical interpretations of Gen 6:1-4: 2 Peter 2:4 and Jude 1:6

The view that Gen 6:1-4 describes something that is favorable–or at least not disapproved of–by God, comes into tension and contradiction with the NT understanding of this passage.

While this would seem to overrule or disprove the notion that Gen 6:1-4 contains no sinful elements, the fact is that the NT understanding of the story of the sons of God and Nephilim is very different from that recorded in Genesis.  In other words, while both Genesis and 2 Peter/Jude refer to the same history, they refer to different textual traditions and understandings of that history.

This is much like how John’s gospel and the other three gospels differ considerably on how Jesus called the disciples, or how Samuel mentions nothing of David planning or even thinking about the Temple but Chronicles spends considerable time on how the Temple was designed and funded by David.  In this case, however, the contrast and tension is between Gen and 2 Peter/Jude.

Nephilim, Sons of God, Noah, Flood

‘Sons of God’ as angels–Later understandings

To show that the history of the sons of God and Nephilim recounted in 2 Peter and Jude come from a different textual tradition than that recorded in Gen 6, we must reference this non-Biblical version.  It is found in many sources, going back as far as 600 BCE.  In fact, it appears to be a far more popular view of the history than Gen 6:1-4, which appears only in the Bible, not in all of these external sources, of which 2 Peter and Jude refer to.

The most succinct summary of this story, found in sources such as Jubilees 5:11Jubilees 10:1-92Josephus Ant. 1:733Philo Giants 64 (who directly attributes the lingering spirits of the Nephilim to very origin and source of demons themselves), Philo QG 1:92, CD 2:18, and 1 Enoch 7:1-25, is provided by the WBC recounting of the story in its commentary on Jude.

For those unfamiliar, 1 Enoch is a book that is quoted in Jude 1:12-14 (the only non-Canonical book quoted by the NT), and which Jude refers to in the same high view of divinity that OT Scripture is viewed in.  The ‘Watchers’ that you read about in the following quote is the most common Greek and Aramaic term used for what in both the Hebrew and the Greek translation of the OT are called ‘sons of God’.  In this alternate textual tradition, they are not ‘sons of God’ at all but either angels, or more commonly, ‘Watchers’.

“Jude’s reference is directly dependent on 1 Enoch 6- 19, which is the earliest extant account of the fall of the Watchers (from the early second century B. C. at the latest…), and he shows himself closely familiar with those chapters. They tell how, in the days of Jared (Gen 5:18), two hundred angels under the leadership of Šemiḥazah and ˓Aśa’el, filled with lust for the beautiful daughters of men, descended on Mount Hermon and took human wives. Their children, the giants, ravaged the earth, and the fallen angels taught men forbidden knowledge and all kinds of sin. They were therefore responsible for the total corruption of the world on account of which God sent the Flood. The Watchers were punished by being bound under the earth until the Day of Judgment, when they will be cast into Gehenna. Their children, the giants, were condemned to destroy each other in battle (10:9), but their spirits became the evil spirits responsible for all evil in the world between the Flood and the Day of Judgment (15:8- 16:1). It is clear that for the author of these chapters the judgment of the Watchers and men at the time of the Flood prefigured the final elimination of all evil at the Last Judgment. The parallel will also have been in Jude’s mind when he used the Watchers as a type of the false teachers of the last days” (WBC, Comments, Jude 1:6).

Nephilim, Sons of God, Noah, Flood

The popular notion of Nephilim as ‘giants’. Source:

What a contrast this story is to the one told in Gen 6!  In Gen 6:1-4, there is no mincing of words in the Biblical text, and the sons of God and Nephilim are described in glowing terms (Nephilim) and moral terms (sons of God marrying).

But in the extra-Biblical textual tradition that Jude references, there is also no mincing of  words, and the sons of God are described as Watchers or ‘fallen angels’6, while the Nephilim are described as giants who killed each other in an ancient pre-Flood battle, but whose spirits still roam the world as the very origins of demons themselves.

That is, the spirits of the now deceased Nephilim are where all demons came from (at least originally), and they are responsible for all sin, including our own, between the Flood and the second coming of Christ.

Noah and the Flood - Nephilim - Giants in the Bible - Jude - 2 Peter

The ‘ultimate evil’ textual tradition of Jude/2 Peter

Our OT minimized the Nephilim and sons of God, and mentions them in the entire OT in a mere 4 verses, as an aside at the end of a genealogical list.  But for the Judaism of several centuries before and during the writing of the NT, the Nephilim and sons of God are figures of immense importance, the very origins of demons themselves, active in our daily lives, leading us astray, responsible, ultimately, for our temptations and sin, and who will figure prominently in the Apocalypse.

Jude and 2 Peter don’t just reference a different telling of the history told in Gen 6:1-4, but in fact they both reference it in the context of a triple reference to both the desert wanderings of Moses and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, and even in the same order.

That is, when we read Jude and 2 Peter’s account of the angels and Nephilim, we are actually reading the story as it travelled in a collection of ‘other stories of great sin’ in Jewish circles in the first century, as seen in the chart below, taken from the WBC commentary on Jude:

Noah and the Flood - Nephilim - Giants in the Bible - Jude - 2 Peter

The ‘ultimate evil’ textual tradition of Jude/2 Peter

As can be seen in the above chart, the books above all contain passages that list the history of the Nephilim and Watchers with the Flood, Sodom and Gomorrah, and the Hebrews wandering in the desert.  That is, it is missing the mark to say that Jude is referencing either Gen 6:1-4 or the alternate history of it as seen in books like 1 Enoch.  Instead, it is more accurate to say that Jude and 2 Peter are referencing a list of 3 events stemming from Scripture, all of which were examples in the time of the NT of ‘ultimate evil’.

For Jude and Peter, there was a textual tradition of citing these 3 ‘ultra-sinful’ episodes in Israelite history as one unit that was so widespread, not only do we have this list in more than 8 sources between 200 BCE and 100 CE, but it was so well known that Jude could preface his reference of the list with these words in Jude 1:5:

Now I desire to remind you (even though you have been fully informed of these facts once for all) that…[the list of 3 sinful events]

Jude is referencing a common understanding of these 3 events being tied together.  Jude goes on in Jude 1:8 to make a reference to another non-Biblical book, the Testament of Moses, and then in Jude 1:14-15 he not only references but explicitly quotes 1 Enoch 1:9.  Clearly, Jude and 2 Peter testify to traditions at home in the world of the Bible, but not part of the Bible, and do so assuming the common knowledge of these traditions by their [Jewish Christian] audience.

Both the Testament of Moses and 1 Enoch contain many passages at odds with both Judaism and Christianity in their modern form, but for Jude and Peter, this was not the case.  What this means given that the NT views Jude and 2 Peter as God-breathed and infallible, is a complicated discussion for another day.  Suffice to say, the story of the sons of God and Nephilim as told in Gen 6:1-4, and the story of the Watchers/angels and Nephilim as alluded to in 2 Peter and Jude, are two different traditions referring to the same history, with very different interpretations of the significance of this history.

Stronger than the more famous 2 Peter and Jude references, however, are the more prosaic asides of 1 Peter 3:19-20, and perhaps even 1 Cor 11:10, which likely refer to the same Second Temple ‘additional’ understanding of Gen 6:1-4.  Without taking place in the context of warring angels, demons, chains, Tartarus, and other concepts alien to most modern Christians, these additional passages reference the same understanding of 2 Peter and Jude (the later story, not the original, Biblical one), and so we can be very confident that the NT sees Gen 6:1-4 through the prism of the narrative told above–and not the one we know now in Gen 6:1-4, and that through that prism, the Flood was caused by these Watchers/angels teaching humanity evil.  The fact that neither the MT nor the LXX supports this extra-Biblical story is rather moot, since the NT supports it regardless of it’s traceability.  We are only left with the ‘uncomfortable’ discrepancy, and the need to deal with it in tension, if we are to maintain a high view of Scripture.

Adding more to this is the fact that Jude explicitly uses the word ἐκπορνεύω (from πορνεύω), which means ‘illicit’ or ‘immoral’ sexuality (and in number, almost always refers to extramarital sex of some form or another), whereas Gen 6 specifically uses the word for wife (in both Hebrew and LXX Greek (γυνή)), essentially disallowing any mention of immoral sexuality when it is between a man and a woman (the Biblical world did not make the distinctions the modern world, including Christians, now do about immoral sexuality within the confines of marriage, such as a husband raping his wife).

Here’s a summary comparison of the history of the sons of God and Nephilim as told in Gen 6:1-4, and the reference to a different version of that same history in Jude and 2 Peter:

Nephilim, Sons of God, Noah, Flood

Contrasts between the good of Gen 6 and the evil of Jude/2 Peter

Importantly, the differences are not simply accounted for by translation issues.  The Greek translation of the OT Bible that is most often quoted by both Jesus and the NT writers, faithfully translates the Hebrew ‘sons of God’, and the marriage between them and mortal women, into Greek.  Jude and Peter would have been aware of this Greek translation of Genesis.  For reasons unknown to us, they instead chose to reference in their God-breathed works an alternate tradition of this history.

Even if we say that the OT tradition should be viewed in the light of the NT tradition as ‘ultimate evil’ and the ’cause of the Flood’, it still doesn’t account for Jude’s changing of the history from ‘marital sex to extramarital sex’, or of Nephilim before and after the Flood with Nephilim destroyed before the Flood, their spirits now demons, or of the sons of God as those who act out God’s wishes with fallen angels chained in utter darkness, in a hell below hell, awaiting judgment during the Apocalypse.

(2) What’s the answer?

What a challenging problem.  I’m torn and, quite frankly, don’t know where I sit on this one.  The two traditions clearly refer to the same event, and clearly differ in how they see it.  If we adopt the NT view of Jude and 2 Peter, we must view the angels as committing extramarital sex with mortal women, and these sons of God must be envisioned not just in Gehenna, but specifically Tartarus.  Instead of the Nephilim being “mighty heroes of old, men of fame”, the Nephilim instead destroyed each other in battle, presumably before the Flood, and their evil spirits (no longer heroic or famous) now roam the earth as the very cause and origins of demons, causing, and being responsible, for all of the evil from the time of the Flood to the second coming of Christ.

The account of Jude and 2 Peter is a lot to handle for an evangelical protestant, seeming more at home in the world of Catholicism than the common view of angels and demons found in protestant Christianity.  Perhaps a resolution can be met by viewing Gen 6:1-4 as, after all, being a description of evil events, despite all of the indications we’ve just read that they aren’t.  Then at least both Jude/2 Peter and Genesis would agree with each other on the meaning of Gen 6:1-4.  This would be my preferred solution, because then both OT and NT would agree in the meaning of the passage.  But, even if they agreed with each other in meaning, the details are still not only different in what Gen is silent on and Jude, in its clear reference to Enoch, is explicit on, but they even differ in what details they have in common.

Nephilim, Sons of God, Noah, Flood

Biblical and extra-biblical version of the sons of God and Nephilim

Modern evangelical commentaries:

Let’s close this section on the ‘non-prologue’ of the Flood narrative by taking stock of where the major evangelical commentaries of the modern world (not decades old ones, which are quite likely to view the Flood in terms of divine punishment for [sexual] wickedness).

Nephilim, Sons of God, Noah, Flood

Positions of the Major Modern Commentaries on this Topic

As can clearly be seen above, the majority of modern commentaries favour the view that sons of God are mortal tyrant kings, and many of these commentaries supplement this with the view, largely taken from the Gilgamesh Epic, that these kings were exercising their ‘right of first night’ rights, and therefore committing polygamous sexual sins.  This puts the view suggested in this post certainly in the minority in modern views.  However, while I strongly question my position (being an amateur theologian taking a minority opinion is probably a bad idea almost all of the time), I cannot gel the clear fact that ‘sons of God’ are defined as divine court attendants in the only other passages they appear in Scripture, and I cannot simply ignore this and apply an extra-Biblical definition that relies in my opinion too heavily on things like the Gilgamesh Epic.  I take some solace in the fact that the ‘most popular modern commentary on Genesis’, (according to this site which compiles reviews and ratings on these things), the WBC, also takes the minority view that sons of God are divine.  Unfortunately (for my amateur self) the WBC takes the position that the sons of God are still committing evil.  I can only say that having gone through the arguments in the WBC, and compared it to my understanding of the Hebrew text and context, I disagree.

For my part, I’m torn, but currently leaning in this tension within Scripture towards what seems to me to be the plainest exegesis of Genesis.  But I can’t deny that the NT speaks to this issue, and in a strange and, for me, uncomfortable way, tells a very different story.  That the NT references are so fleeting, and at the same time so clear in their reference makes them confusing accounts at the least, and were it not for their Canonicity, I wouldn’t hesitate to discard them altogether.

But as a Christian with an infallible view of Scripture–albeit not an inerrant one–I’m forced to take 2 Peter and Jude’s references seriously and sacredly.  The contradictions between the accounts (marriage vs. extra-marital) are not unique, but the tension here is difficult.  On top of that, the world of human-angel sex is hardly one that impacts me on a practical level, to say the least, nor for that matter do Jesus or Paul speak at all on the topic in general or in specifics–so the matter is clearly not of salvational importance, despite Jude and perhaps Peter’s apparent belief that it is of paramount importance.  I guess my personal problem with this issue is that viewing Gen 6:1-4 through the lens of Jude and 2 Peter–that it is a description of ‘ultimate evil’ (or for that matter, even a scrap of evil) doesn’t actually resolve the contradictions in the details.

I’m certainly confused, and will have to file this one away as ‘unsure and unfinished’.  From what the major modern commentaries say on the issue, I’m apparently not alone in that (EBC sees the passage as positive, WBC as negative but as supernatural, NIVAC and NICOT see it as negative with the sons of God being mortal tyrant kings, and thus our at even worse odds with the NT).

What do you think?  Comment below.

By the way, for a good laugh, type in ‘Nephilim’ into Google images.  Yeesh.

Next post, we get a lot simpler as the story of the Flood leaves this controversial, unsettled issue and delves into more straightforward material.  Whew.

This is the second post in an extended series on Noah and the Flood (Gen 6-9).  For the first post:

1) Click here for a discussion on the Nephilim and sons of God in Gen 6:1-4

This series is a detailed and extensive series that focusses on details and geeks out!  For a more ‘user friendly’, shorter, and friendly version of the same information, see the “Coffee Break Version” of this series over here.