Nephilim, Anakim, and Why We Care image

Nephilim, Anakim, and Why We Care

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I take it as read that the Nephilim (Gen 6:1-4) were the results of sexual relations between angels and women. Many don't, and I used not to, but I now find the Jewish and early Christian witness compelling, the alternatives (Sethites and Cainites? Kings and harems?) quite unconvincing, and the best counterargument something of a tangent. (For those who are counting, the best counterargument is that Jesus says in Matthew 22:30 that it is impossible for angels to have sex. The obvious response to which is simply: no, he doesn't.)

I also take it as read that the Anakim, the sons of Anak whom we meet in the book of Numbers, Deuteronomy and Joshua, are descended from the Nephilim: “And there we saw the Nephilim (the sons of Anak, who come from the Nephilim), and we seemed to ourselves like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them” (Num 13:33). Which is to say that, when Israel first spied out and then conquered the Land, there were very large individuals milling around, who could trace their lineage back to sexual relations between angels and women. Bizarre, admittedly. But biblical.

The question is: why do we care? Besides being an intriguing sideshow that raises smirking questions on training courses, why does it matter? Let me suggest two reasons, both of them apologetic in nature.

The first is that they provide a biblical basis for biological continuity between antediluvians and postdiluvians. (Or, in English: they demonstrate that some people on earth, besides Noah’s family, survived the flood.) If everyone on earth apart from Noah’s family had died, then there would be nobody left who was descended from (min) the Nephilim—but the Anakim show that this is not the case. Therefore it is likely that, even from the perspective of Israelites in the Bronze Age, the cataclysmic flood did not wipe out every single person on planet earth outside the ark. Rather, it suggests that the scope of phrases like “the whole land” (qol erets) and “all mankind” (qol adam) is limited to the ancient Near East. Which, given that this was the entire world known to the writers at the time, is exactly what we would expect. It also indicates that attempts to demonstrate geologically that the flood covered the Himalayas are, at least, unnecessary.

The second is that they provide vital context for the kherem warfare that took place in Canaan under Joshua. This is a point I had never seen until I read Michael Heiser’s The Unseen Realm recently, and in particular his description of the “Deuteronomy 32 worldview,” in which Yahweh has disinherited the nations and assigned them to the rule of lesser gods (Deut 32:8 etc). Heiser explains:

Israel is Yahweh’s elect portion of humanity, and the land of Canaan is the geography that Yahweh, as owner, specifically allotted to his people. In the view of the biblical writers, Israel is at war with enemies spawned by rival divine beings. The Nephilim bloodlines were not like the peoples of the disinherited nations ... the target of kherem was the Anakim.

Heiser offers a number of clues that he is right about this. (1) The emphasis on giantism in the initial spying mission (for all that this has since been domesticated in contemporary preaching, the point is not just that the people are large, but that they are descended from rival deities). (2) The explicit statement that the Israelite spies had seen the Nephilim in the Land (Num 13:33). The giant-like descriptions of enemies of God who live in the land, from Og (Deut 3:11) to Goliath (1 Sam 17) and beyond (2 Sam 21; 1 Chr 20). (4) The way in which the summary of Joshua’s kherem conquests (Josh 11:21-23) focuses on the obliteration of the Anakim: “And Joshua came at that time and cut off the Anakim from the hill country, from Hebron, from Debir, from Anab, and from all the hill country of Judah, and from all the hill country of Israel. Joshua devoted them to destruction with their cities. There was none of the Anakim left in the land of the people of Israel.” (5) The fact that the very next verse points forward to the ongoing presence of giants in the land of the Philistines, who of course will be the key enemy for Samson, Samuel, Saul and David for the next couple of centuries: “Only in Gaza, in Gath, and in Ashdod did some [Anakim] remain. So Joshua took the whole land, according to all that the Lord had spoken to Moses” (Josh 11:22b-23). If Heiser is right here, then the motive for kherem warfare in Joshua was not merely the cleansing of God’s dwelling place, as we know, but the removal of the giant-like offspring of specific divinities.

So why should we care about the Nephilim and the Anakim? Partly because they help us think through the question of the global/local flood, and partly because they provide crucial context for our understanding of kherem warfare, which is one of the most pressing biblical challenges of our generation. And, of course, we should care about things that are in the Bible. There’s always that.

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