Aronofsky’s “Noah” and the Nephilim

Darren Aronofsky’s movie “Noah” hit theaters on the 28th of March and is making a big splash in evangelical circles.  Despite complaints, it was still number one on it’s opening weekend.  I have not yet seen the film myself, but several of my friends have and online reviews already abound.  News outlets like The Huffington Post, Washington Post, New York Times, Breitbart, and others have weighed in as well as many, many evangelicals.  Click here, here, or here to taste some of what the evangelical world has been saying.

I was surprised to hear that the “Nephilim” (or more humorously, the “rock monsters“) make a serious appearance in the movie.  Al Mohler, President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, wrote recently on his website:

[Aronofsky’s] oddest characterization, by the way, may well be the “fallen angels” called the “watchers,” based rather loosely on the Nephilim found in Genesis 6:4. They appear in the film as giant figures made of something like rock and asphalt. They first appear as enemies of humankind, but one, speaking with the voice of Nick Nolte, protects Noah and convinces others to do likewise. They appear as mighty cartoon figures in the movie, but they really belong in a science fiction film. 1

Since the Nephilim are in the lime-light now, I thought it might be worthwhile to talk a little about them.

Tabletalk magazine featured an article in April of 2013 by Dr. R. C. Sproul titled “The Son’s of God.” The article is a brief commentary on Genesis 6:1-4.  You can read the piece online here.

This passage is one of the most debated texts in all of the Old Testament.  Sproul writes:

In the twentieth century, the German biblical scholar Rudolf Bultmann gave a massive critique of the Scriptures, arguing that the Bible is filled with mythological references that must be removed if it is to have any significant application to our day. Bultmann’s major concern was with the New Testament narratives, particularly those that included records of miracles, which he deemed impossible. Other scholars, however, have claimed that there are mythological elements in the Old Testament as well. Exhibit A for this argument is usually a narrative that some believe parallels the ancient Greek and Roman myths about gods and goddesses occasionally mating with human beings.

The much debated text reads as follows:

When man began to multiply on the face of the land and daughters were born to them,  the sons of God saw that the daughters of man were attractive. And they took as their wives any they chose.  Then theLord said, “My Spirit shall not abide in man forever, for he is flesh: his days shall be 120 years.”  The Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of man and they bore children to them. These were the mighty men who were of old, the men of renown.

Sproul, like many folks in the traditional Reformed camp, takes the meaning of the phrase “sons of God” to be a reference to believers based on the fact that believers are mentioned as such a handful of times in the New Testament (Matt. 5:9; Rom. 8:14; Gal. 3:26).  In this scenario the phrase “daughters of men” I’m presuming would be a reference to unbelievers.  His second line of reasoning is contextual.  He writes:

Following the narrative of the fall in Genesis 3, the Bible traces the lines of two families, the descendents of Cain and of Seth. Cain’s line is recounted in Genesis 4, and this line displays proliferating wickedness, capped by Lamech, who was the first polygamist (v. 19) and who rejoiced in murderous, vengeful use of the sword (vv. 23–24). By contrast, the line of Seth, which is traced in Genesis 5, displays righteousness. This line includes Enoch, who “walked with God, and … was not, for God took him” (v. 24). In the line of Seth was born Noah, who was “a righteous man, blameless in his generation” (6:9). Thus, we see two lines, one obeying God and the other willfully disobeying Him.  Therefore, many Hebrew scholars believe that Genesis 6 is describing not the intermarriage of angels and human women but the intermarriage of the descendents of Cain and Seth. The two lines, one godly and one wicked, come together, and suddenly everyone is caught up in the pursuit of evil, such that “every intention of the thoughts of [man’s] heart was only evil continually” (v. 5). We do not need to surmise an invasion of the earth by angels in order to make sense of this chapter.

The more I look at this passage, however, the more I see evidence for the position Sproul is refuting.  Speaking of context, the Old Testament always uses the phrase “sons of God” in reference to angles, without exception (that I’m aware of, see Job 1:6; 21:1; Ps. 29:1).  To Sproul’s credit, he mentions these verses, though not in his discussion on context.

Another point I find confusing about his argument is why sons of God and daughters of men is a reference to believers and unbelievers respectively.  Why does the text put emphasis on gender here?  Is there anywhere else in the Bible where “daughters of men” is used to refer to unbelievers?  None that I’m aware of.  And if the problem was the fact that God’s people were having sexual relations with outsiders why does the writer draw a distinction between “sons” and “daughters”?  Surely we are not to believe that it was only the believing men who and the unbelieving women who were being naughty are we?

And what are we to make of these “mighty men,” “the men of renown”?  What about believers having relations with unbelievers produces “mighty men”?  To me, it seems much more straightforward to see this as implying somethingphysical and not spiritual in nature.

I’m not sure I have the answers to this text.  It’s a tricky one over which much ink has been spilled.  This budding theologian is not going to solve all the problems in a few paragraphs.  However, I don’t think we need to rescue the Bible from what appears on the surface to be a historical narrative about angels having relations with men (it’s definately not mythology).

But just because it’s not mythology doesn’t mean we need to strip the story of any meaning that might be hard for us to understand.

  1. See “Drowning in Distortion–Darren Aronofsky’s ‘Noah'”, AlbertMohler.com, http://www.albertmohler.com/2014/03/31/drowning-in-distortion-darren-aronofskys-noah/.  Accessed on 4/4/2014.
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