Monday, July 18, 2011

Lessons from obscure Questions: Who Were the Nephilim?

Preached July 17, 2011

Q&A: Who were the Nephilim? (Genesis 6:4)

Scripture readings: Genesis 6:1-8; Hebrews 13:1-2; John 20:30-31; Deuteronomy 29:29

It is said that the great poet Robert Browning gave a public reading of his works and, afterwards, one of the members of the audience raised their hand and asked about the meaning of one of the more difficult lines. The poet smiled and said, “When I wrote that poem, many years ago, only God and I knew what those lines meant. Now only God knows.”

One of the questions you gave me was this. “Who were the Nephilim, in Genesis 6:4?” And Genesis 6:4 goes like this. “The Nephilim were on the earth in those days – and also afterward – when the sons of God went to the daughters of men and had children by them. They were the heroes of old, men of renown.”

The only simple, definitive answer to the question, “Who were the Nephilim?” is: only God knows. There are lengthy, scholarly answers to this question (really there are only two serious answers to this question), but an honest and thoughtful scholar will conclude any list of the possible theories about who the Nephilim were by saying: really only God knows.

The truth is there are a lot of people, and groups of people, named in the Bible about whom we know essentially nothing. Centuries in the future, scholars may come upon a list of people in the dim past called the Kahlotusim, and the Hooperim, and the Ralstonim, and the Washtucnaim (all our own little tribes) who were upon the earth in those days. People will ask: “Who were they?” And the scholars will come up with their learned answers and end up saying: only God knows.

All we know about the Nephilim is that the world seemed to be becoming a darker and darker place to live, and to marry, and to raise families. Terrible things were happening in the world, and the Nephilim seem to have been the result and the cause of many of those terrible things.

But some people were not a part of it. Noah and his family were not a part of the growing darkness.

Even the story of Noah and his family, up to the time of the flood, is not really known. We only read that, “Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord.” (Genesis 6:8) Eugene Peterson’s “The Message” paraphrases it like this. He says, “But Noah was different. God liked what he saw in Noah.”

If we read the story of Noah and his family through to the end, in the peace after the flood, we see that they were far from perfect. I am not sure we would have liked them much. But there was something God saw in them that was different from the world at large. They were different from the world around them, and God liked what he saw.

But, as I said, it is mostly an unknown story. Only God knows. It’s the same with us. Great, and terrible, and wonderful things are happening around us every day. The human world and the world of nature around us seem to be going through unthinkable changes toward an unforeseeable future; except that we know that God holds the future in his hand.

Only our part in this story seems very small and unmemorable. Who will tell our story? Who will hold our story in their heart for all time? And the answer is God will. God: the God of the tiny baby hidden in a stable in Bethlehem, the God of the wanderer on the road, the God of the lonely man on the cross, the God of the empty tomb will always tell our story. God holds the meaning of our lives in his birth, and his cross, and his resurrection.

He will tell the story to us, and the story of the part he played in it all, and we will have eternity to be like children listening to a bedtime story, only this will be a waking up story. And we will hear God tell all the stories of all the people that God only knows and holds in his heart.

I thought, for a while, that this is what we could learn from the Nephilim, even though we don’t really know who they were.

But there is more to it than that. Who were the Nephilim? There are basically two ancient ideas about who they were. Both ideas go back thousands of years. If you want to know the scholarly details, look up Nephilim in a really thick Bible dictionary.

The Nephilim lived so much closer to the beginning of things than we do. They lived closer to the time of Adam and Eve, and the time when Satan tempted the first humans to declare their independence from God.

The forbidden fruit that Adam and Eve ate was some kind of conduit to the knowledge of good, and evil, and everything. Crossing the line to that fruit would make them smart enough to take care of themselves and not depend on God.

When they did the rebellious deed, they changed the nature of the human heart and mind and will that has been handed down to us. The whole machinery of what we love, and what we choose, and why, was twisted just enough to make it go wrong. Human nature became compulsively self-motivated and stubbornly inclined to see good or evil in terms of whatever suits us and our plans.

When Adam and Eve had done the deed that has caused the world (and us) so much harm and misery, God made a promise so that they (and we) would have something to hold onto. God promised that there would someday be born a child who would grow up to be hurt by Satan and, in being hurt, would crush Satan’s head. (Genesis 3:15)

This promise was about Jesus. This was the promise God fulfilled by coming into our world in the child Christ, so long after Adam, and Eve, and their children, and their children’s children, and the Nephilim, and Noah lived and passed from this world.

In the time when the Nephilim were on the earth, this promise was still in people’s minds, but it was beginning to waver. It was beginning to grow stale. Some of the descendents of Adam and Eve held onto this promise in hope. And some of their descendents wanted to hold onto their independence from God at all costs.

There were families who held onto the tradition of faith. According to this theory, these were the sons of God. There were families who were happy in their self-will. And these were the daughters of men.

The time had come when the promise began to grow old and shaky. The world was changing. Faith, and holding onto old promises began to seem like a disadvantage. It wasn’t any fun. It was inconvenient. It got in the way of getting ahead. If the world was becoming a darker place, why not just go with the flow?

So those who were faithful to God compromised and blended in. They didn’t care if they found spouses for their children from families that had no faith and no relation with God.

It also might be that good people were even attracted by the naughtiness this involved, and the adventure of breaking the rules. In fact it may be that the rules had become nothing but rules to them, because they had lost their love and their passion for the beauty of God, and the beauty of truth, and the beauty of goodness.

Their children became heroes in a world that had forgotten how to love God, and truth, and goodness. They became people of renown, because they built a world where people made their own rules and got as far ahead of others as they could before they got caught, or others got even. They got ahead in an increasingly shallow, and aggressive, and valueless world. The Nephilim are the result of what happens when God’s people go too far in their effort to blend into the world as it is

They teach us that families play an important part in the great issues of nations and of the whole world. Families that teach their children the beauty of the God of promises, the God of the crushing of Satan’s head, the God who was wounded and died on the cross: families that teach their children to hold onto these; such families hold back the darkness.

Families play a central role in the great contest between good and evil. Families are part of God’s plan for restoring heaven and earth to unity in Christ. God built the foundation of this plan on the family of Abraham, who would become the ancestor of the people of Israel, who would become the people among whom Christ was born and raised.

Long before Christ, long before Abraham, God started with the family of Noah. But this is a message to our families, and it is a message to the family of God which is the Church. Don’t be too anxious to blend in.

That is one idea.

The other idea is that the daughters of men were simply the humans on the earth at the time. The sons of God were the angels who left their fellowship with God in order to become part of our world and married into human families. If you want the details of this, look it up.

Angels are spiritual beings, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have bodies. They just have spiritual bodies. This is an old idea, and no one living five hundred years ago (or more) would have any problem with it. The lines we read in Hebrews about the possibility of humans entertaining angels without knowing it comes from this idea. (See also Psalm 104:4 in the King James Version)

There are only three places in the whole Bible where the word Nephilim is used. Nephilim is a Hebrew word, and it isn’t used in a way that we can clearly understand it from its context. Some translations translate it into the English language as giants.

The King James Version did this because that is the tradition handed down from the ancient Jewish rabbis. And there is one place in the Book of Numbers where it seems the right choice. (Numbers 13:33)

To call them giants doesn’t mean that they were the Jack in the Beanstalk sort of giant. Back in the 1980’s I met a retired National Football League player named Bill Glass, who had played for the Detroit Lions and the Cleveland Browns. He had been inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. Bill Glass is an evangelist who specialized in prison ministries. I met him when he led an evangelistic campaign on the Oregon coast.

All of this is just to say that Bill Glass was big. He was the biggest man I have ever seen in person. He seemed to be twice my size. His head was as big as my whole torso. His hand was as big as my head.

This isn’t true, but it felt true to me. I felt like a grasshopper in size compared to him. (See Numbers 13:33)

Giant just means really big. Bill Glass was twice my age and, if he had wanted to, I am sure he could have pounded me to a pulp. Actually about half the people in this room could at least do me some serious damage.

If the Nephilim were the offspring of humans and angels, physical size might not have been the most gigantic thing about them. Even little people can be big people. They can be heroes, and people of renown and fame.

If the Nephilim were the offspring of humans and angels they might have been giants of talent and intellect. They might have had the power to see, and hear, and know things that were beyond the grasp of mere humans.

This would give them great advantages. But what does it say to us? It simply gives us the ancient picture of a world where what we call the physical world is not separated from the spiritual world. It is all one thing.

The ancient Biblical title for the universe is “the heavens and the earth”. (Genesis 1:1) For ancient people heaven and earth, the spiritual world and the physical world, were all one thing.

This is the way all the people of the Bible saw our universe. It is the Bible’s view of the universe. I believe it is the true measure of the universe we live in.

The ancient view, the Bible view, is that we are surrounded by an unseen world, and that world is populated by angels who love and serve God, and by fallen and rebel angels who try to fight the love of God and defeat the plans and the power of his love. The angels who love God help us in ways we usually cannot know. The angels who have left the fellowship of God in order to mount their rebellion, try to enlist our allegiance. They try to infiltrate our defenses and deceive us. They try to vandalize and destroy God’s creation; which includes us. They try to destroy God’s salvation and wholeness working within us.

Personally, I have met both kinds of angels, but I am not going to tell those stories now. I am thankful for God’s good angels, but I know they are just doing their job and that their job includes not being the center of my interest and attention. Their job is to claim my interest and attention for God.

The bad angels like to hide themselves behind our own thoughts and feelings and temptations if they can, if that makes them more effective. They only like to get our attention if they can create an obsession or an unbalanced, unhealthy interest in them, if that will help them get their way. Or they will come out in the open to scare us and threaten us if they think that fear and oppression will overcome us, as if Jesus hadn’t already crushed their heads with his cross.

The Nephilim came about because there seemed to be the opportunity for people to plug into the spiritual world and tap into its power and knowledge. It was an extension of the same temptation that Adam and Eve met in the Garden of Eden. By ignoring the barriers set up by God in his wisdom, humans formed relations with spirits in the interest of gaining resources of knowledge and power that would render faith unnecessary. They did not want to live within the limitations of being creatures of God dependent on their Creator.

I have loved God for as long as I can remember. Well I can remember loving God when I was three or four. I made a commitment of my life to Christ about the time I was in the fifth grade, watching Billy Graham on the TV. But when I was a teenager, I got interested in what is called spiritualism and the occult. I got interested in contacting what is sometimes called “the spirit world”.

I did not know, and the church did not teach me, about the danger of doing this. I thought there was no real barrier or forbidden line to cross. I thought I could know more, and understand and improve my life by creating relationships of my own making with beings in that invisible world that surrounds us.

God’s angels don’t indulge in those contacts. They have a mission to do and contacts (of the kind I wanted) are forbidden to them. They are called to help us make contact with God as our real way of life. But forbidden contacts with us are welcomed by the angels who do not love God, and who do not have our true interest at heart.

The Nephilim are a lesson that we cannot create our own spiritual life; our own spirituality. We cannot dictate the terms for living life in touch with spiritual reality. God is the Lord of that spiritual world, just as God is the Lord of this world. There are laws that the relations between the heavens and the earth must obey; laws that are as real and demanding as the law of gravity.

Inventing your own spiritual reality is like diving into a pool of water where signs are posted that say, “No diving!” We live in a world where the growing darkness says, “Create your own highway to God,” as if God was not the Lord of the highways of heaven, and as if the signs on those highways were not written by him.

But in spiritual matters we are always tempted to be our own God, and build our own road, and weave our own network. It is a problem as old as Eden and as big as the world. And it was all written about for our benefit long ago.

John, in his gospel, writes us that he could have told us a lot more about Jesus than he did, but that he gave us the stories he chose so that we could have life in Christ. “These things are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”

Moses said that the revealed things were revealed, “That we may fulfill all the words of this law.” But Genesis is part of the law, it is part of the ancient Torah, and it gives us the promise of Christ. Christ is in the sacrifices of the law.

In a way, our desire to know for sure just who the Nephilim are is part of the old desire to know everything, and that desire has gotten this world in so much trouble. Sometimes, to have life, you have to choose to not want everything, but just one thing. You have to want that one thing enough, or else you will lose everything.

In life, when marriage is the core of your life, you have to want your spouse enough to say no to so many other things you may want. And if you don’t want that one thing you may lose everything. In the moral life you may have many things that you want, but if you don’t want the one thing called integrity deeply enough, you will lose everything else.

The Nephilim were the result of a world full of people who wanted everything more than they wanted the one thing above all other things. They did not want God and the Life that comes from God enough. In the end the darkness in their hearts grew upon the world, and the floods came, and the world they knew came to an end, and they lost everything.

It is a sad story. It was the end of a tired old world. But there is a new world that God has created in Christ. Noah pointed to it as an exception to his world; just as a beam of light is a contradiction to the darkness.

Christ is the ark and the voyage to that new world, a re-born world, and a new life. Our lives will become part of a new world in Christ that we can live, even now, in this world.

We will not be puny people who need to blend into our world in order to find life. The real life Christ gives is too big and too full to blend in.

We do not need to find a spiritual road for ourselves. If we are willing to see it, love itself, God himself, has built the road that has brought us Christ, and life through him.

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