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Bedford, Texas, United States
Pastor of Woodland Heights Baptist Church in Bedford, Texas and former Professor of Old Testament. But mostly I am a husband of an amazing wife, father of gifted children, and servant of an AWESOME God.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

What would you do to win an argument? The Nephilim in Numbers 13

So they brought to the people of Israel a bad report of the land that they had spied out, saying, “The land, through which we have gone to spy it out, is a land that devours its inhabitants, and all the people that we saw in it are of great height. And there we saw the Nephilim (the sons of Anak, who come from the Nephilim), and we seemed to ourselves like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them.” (Numbers 13:32-33, ESV)

What would you do to win an argument? I don’t like to be wrong…I don’t imagine most people do. And so, at times, when I have realized that I was losing an argument, I have entered into what I like to call “creative discourse.” That is, if I can’t win, perhaps I can at least “limit the damage” by taking the discussion in an entirely different direction or introduce something that clouds the waters enough that I can back out gracefully. I am not proud of this and I believe God is really helping me to mature out of this practice…but more on that below.

Last week I introduced the subject of the sons of God and the daughters of man in Genesis 6:1-4. I mentioned that the Nephilim’s purpose in that particular passage seemed to me to be to accentuate the dark times in which the events preceding the Flood took place. I also noted that I believed the phrase “in those days, and also afterward” all refers to eras before the Flood…that is, that there is no indication in Genesis 6 that the Nephilim as an actual creature survived the Flood. Now, I intend to revisit these Nephilim to discuss their possible identity and to better understand their use in Genesis 6 and in their other mention – Numbers 13.

First, what/who are the Nephilim? The term probably means “fallen ones,” but that really doesn’t help us much – fallen from what; into what? The KJV translators translated the word nephilim as “giants.” This is primarily because the Septuagint (LXX), a Greek translation of the Old Testament dating to just before the time of Christ, chose the Greek word gigantes as the translation for nephilim. But the problem here is that there is no linguistic reason to interpret the word as meaning “giants.” The word itself doesn’t break down to mean that (etymology). It is not related to, or similar to, words in other languages that mean “giant” (cognates). The only reason the LXX translators made this connection was because they understood Numbers 13:33 to be equating nephilim with the people who were of great height and their apparent link with the sons of Anak. I would argue, however, that there are several problems with such a connection:

1) The sons of Anak, for all their size, were still human. To understand them as the physical descendents of the Nephilim (in this theory also humans) is to suggest that a race of men survived the Flood besides Noah and his family.

2) The Nephilim are not listed in any genealogical context in the Bible as a people group or nation.

3) The reference to the sons of Anak seems to be a later gloss by copyists as it is not present in the earliest or the best manuscripts.

4) Even if we accept the reference to the sons of Anak as original, the phrase translated “who come from” in the ESV is not a necessary translation. There is just one word behind the phrase in the Hebrew, and it is a preposition (notoriously difficult to translate in ANY language). This word can mean “from”, but can also just as properly mean “are a part of.”

Therefore, the translation “giant” is not something we can have much confidence in as there is no linguistic argument in its favor and the one contextual argument in that direction has many holes in it. Also, it may be possible to link them to the mention of other similar creatures/persons in Ancient Near Eastern Texts, such as the Sumerian Annunaki, but there is simply too little evidence to be able to do so.

What we can unequivocally say about the nephilim is that though we are not given any specifics about their appearance, we can tell from both contexts in which they are mentioned that they are clearly frightful and evil.

Who exactly were the nephilim? I don’t know. And that is a part of the problem. Scholars want to be able to speak with authority, so they will buy into a theory sometimes simply to avoid saying they don’t know. Believers want clear answers about the Bible because we for some reason feel insecure if we don’t have ALL of them. The situation is further complicated by the reality that people of all stripes are attracted to the unknown and the possibility of possessing special hidden knowledge that others have missed (there are no shortages of conspiracy theories and urban legends in all walks of life). All of this, I believe, has led to a lot of conclusions not supported by the Scriptures and to a lot of confusion about the nephilim and their role in the two places they appear (and even to some bizarre theories trying to link them to extra-terrestrials).

What I believe I can say about them is they were actual creatures (or persons) of some sort who developed a terrifying reputation prior to the Flood. I don’t believe the biblical evidence anywhere demands that they survived the Flood. I believe both these realities led to the term nephilim being used in two distinct ways in ancient Israel – both of which appear in Numbers 13:33.

The first way of using the term is in the symbolic or representative sense. In this usage, the memory of the nephilim carried on in the post-flood era so that the term became synonymous with any type of terrifying creature or persons (quite similar to how Hitler has become a term we apply to any type of evil tyrant). I believe this is expressed in the parenthetical explanation given by the biblical writer concerning the relationship of the sons of Anak to the nephilim. I would translate that phrase something like “the sons of Anak are a part of the Nephilim.” In other words, the writer is telling us the sons of Anak (who were giants) are of a class of creature or person who in their day would have been understood as a modern day Nephilim (all giants [int this case, the sons of Anak] are Nephilim, but not all Nephilim are giants).

The second way of using the term is in the superstitious or popular sense. In this usage, the term refers to frightening hidden or unseen creatures or persons that the culture as a whole assumed the continued existence of (something similar to how we would use “the bogeyman”). To simply mention the presence of the nephilim was to instill an irrational fear in people – especially if one is talking about an unknown realm. This is what I believe is happening in the spies' speech of Numbers 13. If you look at the discourse preceding the mention of the nephilim, you notice that there is an argument going on. The twelve spies have returned and are giving their report. On one side, ten spies say Israel won’t be able to take the land. On the other side, Joshua and Caleb say that Israel can take the land. They both agree the land is overflowing with good things and that the opposition present is significant (Numbers 13:27-29). But Caleb (and Joshua) argues the land can be taken, while the other spies say it cannot (Numbers 13:30-31). As the argument continues, the other spies’ report changes: the presence of the giant sons of Anak switches to ALL the people being large and the good land suddenly becomes a land that devours its inhabitants (Numbers 13:32). Then to seal the deal, the spies say, “And oh yeah, the nephilim are there too!" Not surprisingly, the passage reports that on hearing this all the people cried and wept and would not go up (Numbers 13:32-14:1).

It’s a classic arguing position; the “ace in the hole” so to speak…that concept or argument that when used correctly, wins every time. I believe it was dishonest… maybe not technically, since the sons of Anak were considered a type of nephilim. But in every way that really matters it was. The spies knew, given the people's fear of the nephilim, that using the term would sway the people and all they cared about was winning the argument.

So back to the original question…what would you do to win an argument? We like to play semantics and to operate under technicalities when it suits us…especially if it means winning an argument. But such an approach to arguments dishonors God and undermines our credibility and integrity.

As I said, God has been really dealing with me in this area of my life and has shown me that my commitment to winning arguments is really a result of insecurity in who I am and a lack of faith in who He is. I have learned that I need to grow in my trust of Him so that the outcomes are not something I need to worry myself with. I understand that I need to humble myself so that the threat of losing is seen for the inconsequential outcome that it really is. And I have seen that I need to control myself so that my integrity and God’s reputation is not undermined in the eyes of others by my careless excess.

Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. (Galatians 5:19-24, ESV)

1 comment:

Joe D said...

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