Monday, January 22, 2024

Accounting for the Nephilim Verses in Genesis (Aliens Need Not Apply)

"And the Sons of God Saw the Daughers of Men That They Were Fair," Daniel Chester French, 1923

In 1950, faced with the odd fact that we still had no solid evidence of alien life, physicist Enrico Fermi famously asked: “Where is everybody?” His question became the basis of “the Fermi paradox”. In brief: Given the size and age of the universe, there should be intelligent life out there, yet we’d found not a trace. Why not?

Belatedly responding to Fermi’s question, Mary Harrington writes in UnHerd that we’ve likely been having encounters with intelligent alien life all along. Her reading is that many encounters which in other cultures have been interpreted as religious experiences were likely examples of what we moderns would call “alien encounters”. So were the beings in question spirits, gods, or aliens? Harrington doesn’t come down on one side or another. How to define beings that seem to come from another dimension is for Harrington largely a matter of semantics.

Harrington here engages in a brand of conjecture now common among writers. After former intelligence official and “whistleblower” David Grusch last year claimed the US possesses partially intact alien craft, there’s been an explosion of such online speculation.

Orthodox Christian writer Rod Dreher has taken up studying these questions, and points out repeatedly in his recent posts that some of the most sophisticated tech specialists in the US now consider UAP/UFO phenomena to be evidence not of physical aliens, but of spiritual beings of some sort. Dreher thinks they may be onto something. In a Substack post last week he addresses the now nagging frequency of alien abduction reports, quoting one researcher's thoughts on victim reports of alien/human hybrids. He hints that the famously troubling Nephilim verses in the biblical book of Genesis may be recording similar phenomena, taking the "sons of God" in that passage to be fallen angels.

A few questions immediately arise: Is there any orthodox Christian tradition that would assert that angels, fallen or not, can physically interbreed with humans? Are angels physical creatures? On the other hand, thinking of Grusch's claims on the US possessing debris of alien craft, do fallen angels require physical vehicles to move about? Is this perhaps part of their punishment?

These are just a few of the hurdles that arise when one seeks to read contemporary alien reports through a Christian lens, or when one applies the alien lens to biblical texts.

I respect both these writers, especially Dreher, whose books have helped us Christians navigate the postmodern Flood. But in my view Dreher’s new speculations go overboard in a way that isn’t helpful. The real problem is not that stories of alien encounters are somehow pulpy or low brow, but that there are much more plausible ways to interpret the Nephilim verses in Genesis. There’s simply no need for recourse to this kind of “interbreeding” with current cultural fixations. It ultimately does damage to the integrity of Scripture.

Before getting to the Nephilim verses, I should indicate where I’m coming from. I’m Catholic. I recognize Scripture as the inspired word of God. I believe it contains revealed truths, the essentials of our relations to God. Nonetheless I also recognize that all the biblical texts were written by humans, in human languages, and that one can trace from the Old to the New Testament an unfolding and developing understanding as regards what it means to believe in one God. I consider this theological unfolding to be part and parcel of revelation. It is not in my mind at all problematic.

On the question of intelligent alien life, I’m agnostic. I understand that, statistically speaking and according to current scientific understanding, life elsewhere in the universe is extremely likely. The search for evidence of such life is a valid scientific endeavor. That said, our culture’s framing of this endeavor, the mass enthusiasm, doesn’t inspire confidence. Such mass enthusiam can be exploited. Smart observers will thus remain skeptical of revelations or leaks from the US government, especially in the current political climate.

But that's a matter for a different time. We’ve already one thorny problem to wrestle with.

The key Nephilim verses appear in Genesis chapter 6:

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. … The Nephilim were on the earth in those days—and also afterward—when the sons of God went in to the daughters of men, who bore children to them. These were the heroes that were of old, warriors of renown.

The Hebrew term Nephilim itself is a matter of debate among scholars. It's often been translated “giants”, though the word contains a suggestion of fallenness. The immediate theological problem posed by the verses, however, should be obvious to any Christian or indeed any believing Jew. As follows: If there is one God, who are the “sons of God”? Are they in fact gods? If so, there isn't only one God. So what, finally, can the verses refer to?

The Nephilim verses are mysterious, but not all that mysterious. There’s a very plausible interpretation, one that poses no threat to revealed Christian dogma or lessens the sacred character of Scripture. Still, in order to understand this interpretation, we need to put ourselves outside the modern western frame of mind.

We modern Christians are monotheists, and when we begin to do theology, we are inevitably philosophical monotheists, which means that our understanding of God comes down to us inflected through a particular philosophical tradition, the Greek metaphysics of Plato and Aristotle. This is true for all of us, whether we know it or not.

And the ancient Israelites, those who wrote the Hebrew scriptures? They wrote well before any such philosophical monotheism had developed. Further, it is clear to anyone who studies the texts carefully that rigorous monotheism, as a belief, was rather late among them.

Yes, I do mean the Israelite scribes and inspired men who wrote the texts of our Bible. Many of the earliest texts indicate monolatry (a stress on the worship of one God) rather than strict monotheism in anything like our sense.

So for these ancient Israelites, what was the status of other gods? It was in fact unclear. It was only later, among the prophets, that the assertion appears: "These gods don't exist in any sense." We first find this assertion in the prophetic critique of idolatry: the claim that those worshiping Canaanite or other deities (which was, uh, disastrously common among the Israelites) were worshiping mere objects of wood or stone. But this assertion--that the other gods have no existence at all--is not there from the beginning.

Now consider these writers of the text of Genesis. They are culturally surrounded by various polytheisms, they are in fact culturally intermingled with these polytheisms, to the extent that their extended families include those who worship these gods. And consider that in documented polytheistic religions from Sumer to the Levant and into the Mediterranean, the belief in demigods is integral to tribal history. Certain of the ancient heroes of the people were considered the offspring of gods. Among the Greeks, who left us a more complete textual record, we have Heracles, Minos, Achilles, many others. The ancient Israelites all knew similar tales of epic heroes or founders who were demigods, and these tales were the sacred history of the peoples the Israelites regularly interacted with.

So in the earliest stages, for an Israelite committed to the worship of God, what was the status of these other gods and their offspring? The Nephilim tale presents one possible answer, a way for the Israelite to both assert the greatness and centrality of God while explaining the fact of all these violent heroes of old, descended from divine/human intercourse. Quite simply: "These gods were somehow sons of the True God, the Creator, but they were wayward sons. They were seduced by women, and their offspring were violent and destructive. Which is why the True God put an end to it."

Yes, the claim that these gods existed at all, that they were somehow "sons of God", that's heretical nonsense according to philosophical monotheism. But like it or not, it's there in the text, a text that is easily explained by cultural context: first, that the Israelites were much more monolatrous than truly monotheistic; second, that they were in conflict and perilously intermingled with polytheists that believed in demigods.

The evidence of Scripture is clear enough on this point. Monotheism developed slowly and against much opposition from all classes of God's chosen people. Up through the divided monarchy and the fall of Judah in 587 BC, those loyal to Israel's God struggled to establish a more rigorous monolatry in the face of a generalized polytheistic practice. This was struggle enough. Scriptural texts record a wide range of positions on what Canaananite and other gods were: whether they were nonexistent, some kind of demonic beings, or simply gods that Israel's God would defeat, one finds a range of hints as to the writer's understanding.

Scandalized by the mention of "sons of God" as potentially divine beings, certain Church Fathers offered an alternative reading of the Nephilim verses. They insisted that "sons of God" referred to the Sethites (the good descendants of Seth) who were seduced by the daughters of the Cainites, thus begetting evil offspring of great power. But in my view, we have no reason not to face what is a more persuasive reading of what the Nephilim verses actually say. I accept that Scripture is inspired by the Holy Spirit, but also can see that human understanding (and lack of understanding) shows itself. How could it be otherwise? Scripture is not a .PDF downloaded directly from the Divine Mind. It is the result of an unfolding revelation and slowly developing relationship between God and humanity. Again, this aspect of a slow unfolding, of things seen "in a glass darkly", is an integral part of the meaning of revelation. It's part of what makes the Old Testament crucial.

This is why I see no reason for recourse to the Nephilim verses when looking at alien abduction reports. These are modern cultural phenomena, and don't relate to my religious understanding as a Christian. More, I don’t think they relate to any sensible scholarly approach to Genesis. On both counts, to read biblical texts in this direction is an affront to the integrity of the Bible.

This integrity should be seen in two complementary registers. Scriptural texts are to be respected beyond all others because they contain divine relevation, but they also are to be respected because they trace the fits and starts of our human understanding of the one God who reveals himself to us.

Regarding the Nephilim verses, a grasp of the cultural context and the difference between early Israelite monolatry and our later monotheism are enough to make sense of the evidence. The writers of Genesis were certainly not recording reports of abduction or attempts at interbreeding. They were responding polemically to the religious and historical claims of the peoples around them, recasting their pagan demigod founders as misbegotten offspring and an offense against the one true God.

Conclusion: Why did I post this?

Mary Harrington and Rod Dreher are both supremely sharp readers of the contemporary mess. Harrington is a Christian, though I believe her commitment as Christian is relatively new. She calls herself a “mildly heretical Anglican”. Dreher is not a new convert by any means. I’m mostly concerned here with Dreher’s work, as it’s his sense of the cultural stakes of emerging movements that’s proved so keen for so long. He’s finishing a new book, and I know he intends a chapter on what he predicts is a rising new religion of sorts, one deeply informed by developments in AI and hopes of contact with superior intelligences. I think he may well be right about this emergent religious movement in our tech-heavy, transhumanist West. But the risk I see this time is that some of Dreher’s own formulations begin to overlap with claims being made by the very techie cultists he hopes to warn against. Thus indirectly validating the cult. To the point that myself and at least a few other readers have been near gobsmacked.

This risk is again clear in Dreher’s speculative take on the Nephilim verses. The cultist can read it and say: “See? Even important Christian writers acknowledge these aliens may be divine beings. Even Christians finally recognize they’ve always been making contact with us!” Which to me is a regrettable outcome because 1) it isn’t a sensible reading of the scriptural text, and 2) the alien worshippers are only encouraged.

So aside from the problem of integrity of Scripture, there's this other, more immediate problem of how one may end up indirectly feeding a movement one set out to starve.

On both the uncanny phenomena we’re already seeing from AI and the new “revelations” we’re likely to get on the alien intelligence front, it is crucial to tread very very carefully. Whenever there are plausible explanations for A, B, or C, there’s no reason to feed spiritual cocaine to kids who are already lost in addiction. And yes, by “kids” I mean everyone from billionaire Silicon Valley gurus down to … the teenager next door. Our prominent techies have precisely ZERO to teach us on spiritual realities. Their backgrounds, their techno-gnosticism, their transhumanist principles confirm their irrelevance.

Rod Dreher’s speculations on Substack are one thing, I know, and his published work another. So perhaps some of my dismay is overdone. But the issues are serious, and his work is important. If he reads this post, I’m hoping he takes it in the spirit offered.

[NB: The interpretation of the Nephilim verses I sketch out above (i.e. that they represent an Israelite polemic against polytheistic hero/demigod beliefs) is largely my own, based on study of Scripture and ancient Near-Eastern religion and literature. The polemical force of the Genesis passage has long seemed obvious to me. Still, I'm glad to find my reading buttressed by Prof. Brian R. Doak's arguments in his 2011 dissertation "The Last of the Rephaim: Conquest and Cataclysm in the Heroic Ages of Ancient Israel". Downloadable as dissertation and also published as a book.]

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