A sermon preached by Canon Dr Tom Clammer, Precentor
The Final Sermon in a five-week sermon series on Old Testament passages:
The Nephilim: Angels and Giants
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
If you have been worshipping with us regularly through the Sundays of this summer season you will know that we have taken the opportunity to divert from the readings suggested by the Church of England nationally for Sunday mornings, in order to spend a bit of time exploring the Old Testament. We began back at the end of July with a look at the story of the Tower of Babel, we then explored the nature of the Land as an important theological symbol for the Jewish people, we explored the life of Esther - the Old Testament prophet just to be clear, not my cat! - and last week the Acting Dean explored the theology of Nehemiah, one of the very last of the historical books of the Bible, and we had a look at that quite tricky final bit of the story of the people of Israel at the end of their exile, and the beginning of their defining themselves as a people conquered and governed by other, more powerful nations. As an aside last week, we explored through our hymns, the rather uncomfortable and unsettling martial and military language which has at times been used to describe the Christian journey.
We’re going to go back to almost the beginning this morning, back into the opening chapters of Genesis, to look at that frankly bizarre and rather unbelievable passage that we had read this morning. It’s worth just recapping what we find at the beginning of the book of Genesis. Actually, when someone asks me (which doesn’t happen often but does occasionally) whether it’s a good idea to read the Bible in order from front to back, I always say no, and this morning’s Old Testament passage is a good example of why.
So back to 1st principles: the first five books of the Christian Bible are the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. They are what the Jewish tradition refers to as the Torah, or the law. They tell a story of the people of God from creation right up until the moment where the people who have escaped from Egypt and have been wandering about in the wilderness for 40 years are about to cross over into the land of Canaan, into what is referred to as the Promised Land. Within those five books of the Bible the chronology, and particularly the timescales, are not consistent. There is huge elasticity in terms of how time passes in these books. Something approaching a chronology begins from the 12th chapter of Genesis, but the first 11 chapters are completely different to everything else. They tell the stories of creation (there are two accounts of that), the Fall (the sinning in the Garden of Eden that leads to Adam and Eve being cast out), the story of Cain and Abel, the story of the Flood, and the story of the Tower of Babel. And nestled right in the middle of it, after Cain and Abel, but before the Flood, come these extraordinary verses at the beginning of chapter 6.
I wouldn’t be surprised if some of us here have never read these eight verses from Genesis. What a curious set of stuff is going on here. “When people began to multiply on the face of 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… When the sons of God went into the daughters of humans, who bore children to them. These were the heroes that were of old, warriors of renown.”
Blimey! Here is a section of the Bible which seems to have in it Giants, Angels and humans not only having physical relationships, but also conceiving and bearing children, and some kind of race of warriors, heroes, which brings into my mind images of he-man, or Conan the barbarian or something.
Now I chose to preach on this passage, which if nothing else displays my rashness, so when I found myself away on retreat with some clergy friends last week I did what I usually do when I’m not sure what on earth is going on, and I asked people who were cleverer than me. We spent a bit of time kicking this passage around, and I think it is actually a really important passage for helping us understand what these first few chapters of Genesis are there to do.
I’m going to be quite clear with you at this point and say that I do not read this passage as historical narrative: it is allegory, it is myth, it’s there to try to explain, or at least give some framework for explaining, the nature of the world in which the people of God found themselves. You know, the people at the time of the writing of this passage, which might be as early as 800 or so BC, or maybe a bit later than that, looking around the world in which they lived, seeing other nations and cultures around them, seeing perhaps evidence of prehistoric civilisations, experiencing the confusion and complexity of their lives, and trying to make sense of it in a framework where there is a God, and this is one of the stories, one of the bits of theology which help to do that explaining. Exactly the same with the Tower of Babel, or the Flood, or indeed the story of creation. So my advice when reading the earlier parts of Genesis particularly, is to read them with the question in your mind: “what is it that this passage provides in order to help us understand the questions being asked by the people for whom the text was written?” And indeed, those questions are almost certainly questions which we are still asking today.
And if we apply that kind of lens to reading this passage, what do we find? Well we find questions about the relationship between heaven and earth. Or at least between the realm of the supernatural, the angelic, the eternal; and our existence as mortal. We find questions about where wickedness comes from; from whence comes evil, and badness? We might find also here questions about the existence of other races, other nations: how does the life of other people fit in with ours?
And it is also of course always important to read the Bible in context, so bear in mind that the very next story is the story of Noah’s Ark.
There is a problem with evil. There is a problem with sin. What is wrong with the world, that allows wickedness to not only exist, but to be so strong, to be so powerful? And why doesn’t God just stop it?
So in these eight short verses, we get the kind of mythological explanation for the fact that the world isn’t perfect. It’s framed here in the context of immoral, or sinful relationships between angels and humans. You can read this literally, and some Christian theology does. And indeed Jesus himself talks at one point in Luke’s gospel about seeing Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning. So this is a way of understanding why the relationship between God and people has become dysfunctional. You don’t have to read it literally. This idea of Angels inappropriately interacting with human beings works as a metaphor as well for a broken relationship. And what it does is it gives us a spiritual dimension to sin, or evil. It means that from very very early on in the relationship between God and his people, evil is almost a sickness that has the power to corrupt and abuse and cheapen lives. So these mythological figures, these giants, or Nephilim, these warriors come to represent for the Jewish people the product of dysfunctional relationships. And actually they turn up in other books in the Bible, particularly in Numbers, and Joshua, where they crop up as symbols against which the people of Israel have to contend, have to struggle as they try to move into the Promised Land. The giant of course symbolising opposition to the gentle love of God in the story of David and Goliath as well.
I suspect we carry with ourselves our own symbols of the darkness. What are the shadowy creatures, or powers that lurk on the edges of our lives, what are the things that haunt us in our dreams? What are the images that scare us and encourage us to despair and give up? The Nephilim are there to symbolise power which comes from corruption, power which comes from a less than perfect relationship between heaven and earth.
Well the world was still evil 800 years later when Jesus spoke to the crowds in our gospel reading, and he gives them an image that represents the light: the sign of Jonah. The sign of Jonah of course being the sign of a man sealed into the darkness for three days, and then bursting into the light. Take up that symbol of resurrection, and by faith let it challenge and defeat the Giants in your own darkness.