Addendum to Peter Gentry on the Nephilim, December 13, 2019 – MSH

I’m tempted to just tell readers to ignore what follows below (my original post) because it seems I have misunderstood Peter’s trajectory. But it’s there since it might be applicable to someone out there. I’m actually going to make this addendum a separate post so it isn’t missed by folks who follow the blog.

After the original post, Peter wrote to me that I had misunderstood his point. He wrote:

I am not at all uncomfortable with the idea that the Nephilim might well be the offspring of angels and human women. Nor do I argue for my view because the Nephilim are not mentioned in 2 Peter or Jude. So you misrepresent my exegetical method. My interpretation is based solely on syntactic details in Genesis 6:1-4. You do not respond to the syntactic evidence I provide. It is fully possible that the Nephilim were heroes like Gilgamesh who where quasi-divine. So I have no qualms about such an idea if that is what the text really means. I hope you will acknowledge misrepresenting me in your blog.

Yes, Peter, I acknowledge that!  The oversight is mine. I’m glad you pointed me in the right direction to understand your thinking. As I said in the original post, I love your work in general and want everyone to read it. So let me say a few words about the point you raise here in the correspondence.

I don’t see anything amiss with your analysis of the possibilities based on syntax. It’s just that only one of the options that are possible actually is consistent with respect to other contexts and considerations. In your book you wrote:

Two main possibilities exist for interpretation of the temporal expressions. If one interprets “those times” to be the times described in verses 1–3, then what is distinguished are the times before the flood from the times after the flood. The relative clause introduced by “afterwards” would seem to indicate that the cohabitation of angelic and human beings continued after the flood. One might conclude that the Nephilim were the product of such unions (cf. Num. 13:22, 28, 33).
Yet a different interpretation is possible. The expression “afterwards” (’aḥărê-kēn) usually occurs in the second of two verbal sentences: the first sentence says that event X did or will happen; the second says that subsequent to the event in the first sentence, event Y did or will happen. Here we must note that the expression ’aḥărê-kēn is modified by a relative sentence which refers specifically to the event in verse 2. Therefore one could assume that “those days” means before the cohabitation of divine and human beings. Verse 4 would then comment that the Nephilim were in the earth before the business of angelic and human beings cohabiting and also afterwards and therefore had nothing to do with these unions.

This latter interpretation is strengthened by considerations of discourse grammar. Verse 4 consists of two clauses or sentences, the first verbal, the second nominal. Both are marked by asyndeton (i.e., no conjunction or connector at the beginning of the clause/sentence). In the first, the verb is non-initial. This pattern marks a commentary or explanatory digression. The fact that the first sentence is subject-initial indicates a new topic. The relative sentence in verse 4 correlates this new topic with the events of verse 2. The nominal sentence is a further comment on the Nephilim. They were the heroes from the distant past. This may mean the distant past with reference to the writer, or it may indicate a period long past in reference to the event of 6:2. Therefore the writer would be demythologizing the Nephilim. These heroes of ancient times were there before and after the events of 6:2 and were not necessarily related to them at all. Thus, verse 1 describes an increase in female humans, verse 2 describes a cohabitation of angelic and human beings, verse 3 concludes that the result is still human and therefore under God’s judgement, and verse 4 states that all this has nothing to do with the well-known Nephilim. Since the word Nephilim is not otherwise explained, they must have been well known to the ancient (first) readers of this text.

What this digression shows, then, is that if one assumes that Genesis 6:1–4 is referring to a union of angelic and human beings, this may not be connected to the causes of the flood. In addition, according to 2 Peter 2:4 and Jude 6, the judgement of the angels was separate from the judgement of the flood.[1]

“May mean” (my emphasis) is appropriately cautious. I don’t find the second possibility persuasive for the following reasons:

  1. I don’t see 2 Peter and Jude 6 making an attempt to separate the judgment of the angels from the flood. I see no way to establish this in the Greek text of the relevant passages. There is no other supernatural group rebellion associated with Noah in the OT. If you’re trying to distance a supernatural rebellion from Noah and the flood, why bring them up in the same passage? Since the nephilim are not specifically mentioned by Peter and Jude, my mistaken impression was that you were using their absence as an argument. If you weren’t doing that at all, I misunderstood. If that’s a sub-argument you’d use, it’s still a flawed one for the reasons pointed out in the original post. But that doesn’t seem to be in the picture based on your correspondence, so we can set that aside. (Glad to hear what you said in your email, too).
  2. The second discourse option reading fails to cohere with the apkallu tradition from Mesopotamia, which Annus and others have conclusively demonstrated is the backdrop for Gen 6:1-4.  The DSS show a clear awareness of that tradition (book of Giants / Gilgamesh). It’s very hard to imagine how a point-for-point correspondence between the apkallu material and Gen 6:1-4 as well as a coherent polemic reason for their juxtaposition with Gen 6:5 can be found in the apkallu traditions is nothing more than a coincidence. I don’t believe that for a moment. Disconnecting (chronologically, based on syntax) the nephilim element from the sons of God element is completely inconsistent with the target of the biblical writer’s polemic — the “pro-Babylonian” theology extending from the apkallu story.
  3. Most (all?) Second Temple Jewish texts don’t separate the nephilim from the sons of God / Watchers incident (i.e., they don’t follow the second discourse trajectory). Peter and Jude are obviously aware of that material and re-purposing it here (“chains of gloomy darkness” comes right out of that material). I doubt very much if Second Temple writers misread the text, especially as a collective.
  4. Peter and Jude are also aware of, and utilize, the Titan material (“sent to Tartarus”) which also doesn’t really follow this second trajectory.
  5. I don’t see how the distancing option works with Num 13:32-33, which links the Anakim (who are referred to as Rephaim elsewhere) to the Rephaim. The Anakim Rephaim are obviously the referents of Amos 2:9-10. In other words, unusual individuals are part of other conquest accounts that ultimately trace those inhabitants back to the Nephilim.
  6. It would seem the phrase “in those days” could orient the Nephilim at precisely the time when the sons of God went into the daughters of men AND another period — i.e., perhaps there is merit to the temporal / continuative intepretation I noted in Unseen Realm. As I noted in the book, the relative clause Peter mentions may also be understood temporally. This doesn’t make Peter’s second trajectory impossible, but I include this here to point out that the second trajectory isn’t certain. From Unseen Realm:

A translation of “when” takes the ʾasher clause as temporal. According to Westermann, this is the view espoused by most commentators. He is, however, apathetic as to whether a temporal understanding or another possibility is more coherent: “It does not really matter whether אשׁר is understood as temporal (with most interpreters) or iterative (so E. König, W. H. Schmidt and others) or as causal (e.g., B. S. Childs; against, and correctly, W. H. Schmidt); אשׁר is an afterthought, its function being in fact only to link and so to subordinate” (Westermann, Genesis 1–11, 377). Wenham notes that some Hebrew scholars consider the use of the Hebrew imperfect in this clause to allow for repetition: “ ‘Whenever the sons of the gods went into the daughters of men, they bore them children.’ Though it is not impossible to translate this as a simple past event—‘When they went in …’—it is more natural (with Skinner, König, Gispen) to take the imperfect ‘went’ and perfect preceded by waw (‘bore … children’) as frequentative. To ‘go in to’ is a frequent euphemism for sexual intercourse (cf. Gen 30:16; 38:16)” (Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 1–15, Word Biblical Commentary 1 (Dallas: Word, 1998], 143. See also Friedrich Wilhelm Gesenius, Gesenius’ Hebrew Grammar, 2nd English ed. (ed. E. Kautzsch and Sir Arthur Ernest Cowley; Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1910), 315 (sec. 107e). Gesenius includes Gen 6:4 as an instance of this interpretive nuance.

Michael S. Heiser, The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible (First Edition.; Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2015), 189, note 16.

I would add here that, since the ʾasher clause can be temporal, the unusual insertion of ’aḥărê-kēn may actually have been intended to clarify the sequence: sons of God/cohabitation then nephilim. But we can’t be sure of that — but it would be consistent with all the above.

[1] Peter J. Gentry and Stephen J. Wellum, Kingdom through Covenant: A Biblical-Theological Understanding of the Covenants (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 150–151.

My thanks to Peter for chiming in and correcting me!  I just don’t see much coherence in the second trajectory. Though it’s possible from the syntax, the syntax doesn’t compel it — and that option doesn’t account for these other contextual items.


Original Post:

Several people have sent me a link to a video made by Dr. Peter Gentry about the Nephilim. Many of you will know that I know (and like) Peter. He’s a serious biblical scholar and good guy all around. You should all read his work. You’d learn something for sure. I have and do.

Peter accepts the supernatural view of the sons of God but is troubled by the matter of the Nephilim (taking them as giants at face value; i.e., as quasi-divine offspring). He doesn’t like the idea that they were the giant offspring of the sons of God. In an effort to put forth this objection, he argues that Peter and Jude don’t specifically mention the Nephilim in their “angels that sinned” comments (2 Pet 2:4; Jude 6). He presumes the absence of the Nephilim in Peter and Jude somehow warrants rejecting the giant offspring in Genesis 6.

I enjoy Peter, but this is an amazingly weak argument, especially coming from him. The reason is simple and straightforward: That a NT writer doesn’t give us all the details of an OT passage they cite or allude to does NOT mean that we are supposed to reject the parts in the OT passage that aren’t mentioned. In many (most?) instances where NT writers cite an OT passage they don’t do so with absolute, exhaustive precision. They cite part, or perhaps cite from memory, or a different text, or combine part of a passage with another part of a different passage, etc. Peter knows this well, as he is an expert on the use of the OT by NT writers. So it makes little sense to me why he would employ a method for Peter and Jude that would get him in serious trouble elsewhere.

As an example, take Jesus’s citation (via Luke) of Isaiah 61:1-2 in Luke 4:18-19. If you compare the two passages, one can see that Jesus / Luke omits this line from Luke 61:1:

“he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted”

Are we to conclude that we are free to disregard this part of the OT verse because the NT writer doesn’t include it? Of course not.

Another example, even more germane. Hebrews 11:17-19 reads as follows:

17 By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son, 18 of whom it was said, “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” 19 He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back.

This is the NT writer’s allusive citation of Genesis 22. But (O dear!) the writer of Hebrews doesn’t include the lines about the intervention of the angel of the Lord (Gen 22:10-12). Are we to conclude that there was no “real” angel on the scene when Abraham was prepared to offer Isaac? If we use Peter Gentry’s method, it would seem so.

I could cite numerous other analogous examples of how Peter’s approach and its underlying assumption aren’t workable.  I presume you all get the point.

The issue here is that Peter apparently thinks he has an argument against taking the Nephilim portion of Gen 6:4 at face value because Peter and Jude don’t include it in their description of the angels’ sin. This isn’t coherent. My response is that (a) the NT frequently doesn’t cite an OT passage with complete precision, and (b) employing this approach yields some demonstrably poor results in other places.

My guess is that Peter is just uncomfortable with quasi-divine Nephilim, perhaps because he can’t explain that to himself or someone else. I understand completely. He’s not alone there. But it’s time we face the reality of the biblical text in this regard. We also can’t (biologically) explain the incarnation (how God became man in Jesus), or the hypostatic union (how Jesus was 100% God and 100% man at the same time), or how we are filled with the Holy Spirit, or how the death of Jesus affects not only our sin, but the entire cosmos (Col 1:16-20). To be blunt, most of what the Bible affirms that is core to our faith cannot be explained in any scientific, materialist way. That doesn’t mean it isn’t intellectually coherent. These ideas are coherent, not because they conform to biology or any other science, but because they extend from theism itself (e.g., Is there a God? If so, can that God do anything? If he can, could that God create beings like himself who, like him, could assume flesh? Note that there is no scriptural statement in Scripture that forbids this ability to lesser spiritual beings).  Theism is demonstrably coherent in terms of logical analysis. That’s been born out by millennia of discussion. When the supernatural invades the natural, such things need to be weighed in light of the coherence of biblical theism. We do not need to abandon what the text says.