Noah, the Nephilim and the Descendants of Seth

My son Brenden and I both saw the movie Noah separately. So when we finally got to talk about the movie we spent a lot of time talking about the Watchers and the Nephilim. We also talked a lot about the tensions in the movie between the descendants of Seth and Cain.

A lot of conservative Christians have been offended by Noah, thinking that the movie takes too many liberties with the biblical story.

But the biblical story is really weird, and a lot of the plotlines in the movie are true to various streams of interpretation.

For example, the movie made Brenden and I revisit a post I wrote about the Nephilim and the descendants of Seth:
Genesis 6.1-4 (NIV)
When human beings began to increase in number on the earth and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that the daughters of humans were beautiful, and they married any of them they chose. Then the Lord said, “My Spirit will not contend with humans forever, for they are mortal; their days will be a hundred and twenty years.”

The Nephilim were on the earth in those days—and also afterward—when the sons of God went to the daughters of humans and had children by them. They were the heroes of old, men of renown. 
Who were the Nephilim?

Genesis 6 say that the Nephilim were the offspring of "the sons of God" and the "daughters of men." Children who go on to become "the heroes of old, men of renown." Along these lines, some think the Nephilim were giants as the only other appearance of the word Nephilim occurs in Numbers in the description the spies bring back about the people in the land of Canaan:
Numbers 13.32-33
And they spread among the Israelites a bad report about the land they had explored. They said, “The land we explored devours those living in it. All the people we saw there are of great size. We saw the Nephilim there (the descendants of Anak come from the Nephilim). We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we looked the same to them.”
As to the etymology of the word Nephilim the consensus seems to be that it comes from the root npl (נָפַל) "to fall" suggesting that Nephilim means "the fallen" or "the fallen ones."

There are many curious things about the Nephilim in Genesis 6, but perhaps the most curious thing has to do with their origins. What's going on with all this business about "sons of God" having sex with "daughters of men"?

There have been two schools of thought about this: the fallen angel theory and the descendants of Seth theory.

I think most are familiar with the fallen angel theory. In this view the "sons of God" refer to angelic beings who lust after human women and have sex with them. The children of these unions are the Nephilim who seem to be like demigods. This view gains some support from various noncanonical sources like the book of Enoch where we also read about the Watchers.

The second theory has to do with marriage between the descendants of Seth and the descendants of Cain.

In Genesis 5 we begin to transition out of material related to the first family and into the story of Noah and the flood. To mark this transition there are some genealogies given in Genesis 5. One of the things you notice in these genealogies is that it seems that Seth is contrasted with Cain, with Seth being good and Cain being bad. The descendants of Seth are the good bloodline and the descendants of Cain are the bad bloodline.

One sign you get of this has to do with the 7th descendent in each line. The 7th descendant on Seth's side is Enoch who we are told "walked with God" and who did not die but was "taken away by God."

By contrast, the 7th descendant on Cain's side is Lamech who comes across as a general badass, a sort of super-duper Cain as I've written about before.

All fine and dandy, but why would human descendants of Seth be called "sons of God"?

The idea goes back to how Seth seems to be the "image bearer" of God as his father Adam was:
Genesis 5.1-3
This is the written account of Adam’s family line.

When God created mankind, he made them in the likeness of God. He created them male and female and blessed them. And he named them “Mankind” when they were created.

When Adam had lived 130 years, he had a son in his own likeness, in his own image; and he named him Seth. 
The argument here is that the "image of God" is carried through the line of Seth.

So the problem in Genesis 6 is that these "sons of God"--the descendants of Seth--"fall" when they begin to intermarry with the descendants of Cain ("the daughters of men").

In Noah we don't see this intermarrying, but in the movie we do see the worry emerge in Noah's resistance to find wives for his sons from among the daughters of Cain.

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10 thoughts on “Noah, the Nephilim and the Descendants of Seth”

  1. I've heard this used as an argument for predestination. The line of Seth are the ones predestined for heaven, and all others are predestined for hell.

  2. For if God spared not the angels that sinned, but cast them down to hell
    [Tartarus], and delivered them into chains of darkness, to be reserved
    unto judgment; And spared not the old world, but saved Noah the eighth
    person, a preacher of righteousness, bringing in the flood upon the
    world of the ungodly; 2 Peter 2:4-5

    Some would say that this passage in Peter alludes to the fallen angel theory. What would you say to such an interpretation?

  3. First, the religious mind, and the more conservative the more so, has always seen a distinct line between those of God and those who are not. Now, that is not to denigrate religion. I believe that the human mind is as wired for religion as it is for art. But like art that can be so lifeless that it seeks to recreate everything in a literal form, so can religion that tries to recreate existence into an "either/or" universe.

    Secondly, I cannot help but see the the Patriarchal view behind "the Sons of God" and "the daughters of men".

    Does this mean that we learn nothing from the story? Not at all. I believe we have to see where humanity has been, the limitations of its understanding, as well as its small and narrow embrace, that we are able to witness the growth in the awareness of being children of God that Christ, and those with the spirit of, awakens. One of my favorite religious writers who was active from the early nineteen fifties until the late sixties experienced tremendous growth and progress through his religious and writing years. So, I keep all his books in chronological order and read them so. It helps me, when I have my moments of regret that I was not what I should have been as a young man, see that neither was he, and in this case, nor the entire world.

  4. It seems as though the Nephilim are somehow physically/racially different, something sets them apart from the rest of humanity. If intermarriage leads to a fallen state in the eyes of humanity, why are they still feared as heroes of renown and feared as occupiers of the promised land if they are simply a fallen bloodline? This makes me think that there is something physically superior about this people, and yet neither interpretation fully satisfies. Have any authors dealt with the Nephilim as pure Jewish mythology, rather than an actual occurence?

  5. I don't really want to know what Jesus means when he says "as in the days of Noah, so it will be with the coming of the Son of Man." Okay I do. I do badly. Modern day Nephilim? Sons of not-God? Wheat and Tares? Sheep and Goats?

    I guess I will live in the question.

  6. I had reservations about the Watchers - not for theological reasons, but because I thought they looked like a rock-y version of Transformers, which was a little distracting.

    Overall, though, I loved Noah (although my husband hated it), even though it's not my usual sort of movie. I think what I liked about it was that it WAS weird and dark. One of my biggest issues growing up fundagelical was being told that everything in the Bible was literally and historically true, that God was love, and that there was no contradiction or tension between those two things (the Nephilim situation was mostly glossed over, because no one has a clue that that was all about.) Instead, the story got turned into Noah's ark playsets and this perky little song we sang in Sunday School about the arky-arky built out of gopher barky-barky and the animals coming in two-by-twosies, like it's a happy little story with a happy little ending, instead of a tale of the massive destruction of the entire planet. To my thinking, Noah the movie is WAY closer to what's actually in the Bible than Noah the flannelgraph and children's song.

  7. Last year I read through the Book of Enoch, starting with the Book of the Watchers, as I was going through apocalyptic literature and trying to figure out hell for myself. There is an incredible line in chapter 9 where the great angels see the destruction caused by the Nephilim (and others) and petition God:
    "...and this groaning does not cease to emerge from the presence of the iniquities that have come upon the earth. You know all things before they come to pass, and you see these things and you permit them. And you do not tell us what we ought to do with regard to them on account of these things."

    I can't stop thinking that, in this story at least, the archangels Michael and Gabriel have exactly the same issues with God that I often do.

  8. I think the second explanation makes some sense, with the line of Seth being image-bearers. After all, Jesus who was the perfect image-bearer of God, was referred to as the Son of God.
    The nephilim-giant thing is just weird, though. Perhaps that somehow had something to do with the mark of Cain.

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