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Sunday, July 16, 2017
Scripture: Colossians 1:15-20 & Genesis 6:1-8
Rev. Troy Hauser Brydon
I took Hebrew during my second year at Princeton Seminary. I loved the class. The professor, Dr. Seow, not only wrote the book teaching us how to learn Hebrew but also made working through Hebrew grammar feel so consequential to the interpreting of God’s Word. He could keep us on the edge of our seats for the whole class while he basically talked about a single word or even letter and why it mattered. The class was captivating.
Of course, the class wasn’t just about hearing these amazing lectures. We had lots of actual work to do, and that included some pretty difficult tests. Each test had an in-class portion and a take-home portion. For the take-home part we worked with a partner. For the entirety of that class, I worked with Tim Marvil, who has been the Pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Homer, MI, since we finished seminary. We’ve actually caught up with each other now that we’re back in the same presbytery.
Tim was a great partner to work with. He lived one building over from us, and since his family was still living in their home in northern New Jersey, we could talk, laugh, and struggle over our Hebrew translations without worrying about interrupting naps like we would have in my apartment. Generally we did just fine on our work, but there was one passage that just had us stumped. All of our work just led to frustration because the words we translated just didn’t fit together. One word in particular really confused us: ha nephilim.
We wrestled with this passage and this word for hours. We eventually figured out that the word was a participle. I’m sure you remember from your grammar lessons that a participle is a word formed from a verb that is used as an adjective or noun. Roughly speaking, ha nephilim translates into “the ones who have fallen.” Sadly, this translation gave us no clue where this passage came from in the Bible or if we were on the right track.
Frustrated, we decided to take a break. Tim came over to our apartment, where Jess was doing her own studying. We started telling her our war stories and our distress over this one passage that we just couldn’t get. I finally said, “Jess, there was this word that was really confusing us. We can translate it, but we just don’t know where this passage exists. We know that ha nephilim means ‘the one who have fallen…’” and Jess just cuts me off.
“The Nephilim, you said?”
“Yes. Nephilim is the word.”
“Oh, that’s Genesis 6, Troy. It’s a story about fallen angels, giants really, who come to earth from heaven in disobedience to God. You didn’t know about the Nephilim?”
I just stared at her.
Now, you know me. I love the Bible. I’ve read it all many times. I’d like to think that I’d fare pretty well in a game of Bible trivia. Yet, I had no clue this was even in the Bible. I grabbed my Bible and looked up the passage, and, sure enough, it was right there. One of the strangest bits in all of Scripture tucked right into the midst of the Noah story in Genesis.
After finding the passage, I turned again to Jess and asked, “How in the world did you know this?”
“Troy,” she said, “I grew up in a Bible church. We learned it all.”
Tim and I finished our translation work. We got our “A” on the assignment – Bible church for the win! And ever since then the word “Nephilim” has been a running joke in our family. And ever since then I’ve been fascinated by these few verses and I’ve wondered if preaching on them could actually work.
Maybe I’m crazy, but I believe that the whole Bible – even the strangest parts – can speak truth into our lives, so here we go. I’m preaching on the Nephilim.
Why do this? Well, because we all have come across stuff in the Bible that is weird or challenges us in new ways. What do we do when we encounter the weird? Well, I think we press into the Word that much more, seeking the mind of Christ even in the weirdest corners of Scripture and also of life.
So, let’s start with this question: Who are the Nephilim?
There isn’t an easy answer to this, but there are some loose ends worth trying to tie together because they do give us some answers and because they actually relate to some stories we still tell today.
First of all, they show up concretely in only two passages in the Bible – today’s and in Numbers 13. Now I’ve already mentioned my personal difficulty trying to translate the word “Nephilim,” but one of the curiosities about these creatures is that in both Greek and Latin the word is rendered into “giants.” The connections that we saw in Genesis between the Nephilim being warriors and being sizable are made clearer in the passage in Numbers, which tells about the Israelites spying out the Promised Land, “30 But Caleb quieted the people before Moses, and said, “Let us go up at once and occupy it, for we are well able to overcome it.” 31 Then the men who had gone up with him said, “We are not able to go up against this people, for they are stronger than we.” 32 So they brought to the Israelites an unfavorable report of the land that they had spied out, saying, “The land that we have gone through as spies is a land that devours its inhabitants; and all the people that we saw in it are of great size. 33 There we saw the Nephilim (the Anakites come from the Nephilim); and to ourselves we seemed like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them.”
So, at this point in time the Nephilim have been a part of the traditions and stories of Israel for hundreds of years, and these Israelite spies even try to use them as an excuse not to do what God commanded them to do. Clearly these tales held enough sway among the people that there was a chance that they could persuade Moses to change course.
The stories of the Nephilim get a lot more details in Jewish writings that are not in the Bible, particularly in 1-2 Enoch, which is also known as the “Book of the Watchers,” and in Jubilees. These writings emerge between the third and second centuries before Christ, and they are vivid in their detail about these fallen angels.
I know this is getting heavy and really strange, so let me pause in unpacking this to show you a brief clip from the 2014 movie “Noah,” which actually uses the Nephilim as major characters in the story. They even help Noah build the ark. Here it is….
There are even two references in the New Testament that continue this storyline. One is in 2 Peter 2, “4 For if God did not spare the angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to chains of deepest darkness to be kept until the judgment; 5 and if he did not spare the ancient world, even though he saved Noah, a herald of righteousness, with seven others, when he brought a flood on a world of the ungodly…9 then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trial.” The other is in Jude, “6 And the angels who did not keep their own position, but left their proper dwelling, he has kept in eternal chains in deepest darkness for the judgment of the great day.” Interestingly the connection between judgment, Noah, and these fallen angels continues for thousands of years and still contains the promise of God’s vindication of those who suffer for being righteous.
This line of thinking carries on into John Milton’s epic poem, Paradise Lost, which was published in the 17th century in England. For such an obscure part of the Bible, it sure has sustainability, right?
Alright, it’s time to get out of the weeds and into something that gives us all reason to believe that I didn’t just waste 10 minutes of your life (or hours of mine researching it!). I’d like to offer a couple of takeaways and conclude with a challenge from the pages of the New Testament.
First, human sin has cosmic consequences. Here we are only six chapters into the whole Bible, only three chapters after Adam and Eve disobey God, and only two chapters after Cain murders his brother Abel, and human wickedness has gotten so awful that God has decided to start over. Noah and his family are the only ones left upon the earth who could restart this project, and, of course, we learn that they fail at that too. What is more, rebellion has not just infected humans. It’s everywhere on the earth, and it has made it’s way into the heavens. It is there that angels decide to disobey God, and God sends them out of heaven.
Paul in the heart of his letter Romans describes this so clearly, so I’ve put it on the front of your bulletin today. “18 I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. 19 For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; 20 for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; 23 and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.” The whole creation has been affected by rebellion. The whole creation groans with labor pains, awaiting the birth of God’s new thing in and through Jesus Christ. Do you ever feel that yearning in your heart that God would make something right that went wrong? That’s a part of what Paul is describing here.
Which brings me to the second point – this brief story is connected to another shortcut to immortality. You may recall last week that I talked about how God sent Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden because the Tree of Life was there. In this passage today, God limits the lifespan of humans, largely because what they were doing with their lives was so wicked and awful for the creation. You may also recall that I said that these were not so much punishments as they were protection for the creation. I think the same point holds true here. We do not believe that God is just making things up as he goes or that God is surprised that this all has happened. Rather, before there was time God was making a way to fix the mess we made. As Paul writes in Galatians, “4 But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, 5 in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.” God in Christ made a way to eternal life – the right way and not the one we would have designed for ourselves.
A final point that is worth making, I think, is that the world is far weirder and more complex than we like to admit. No matter how advanced we get scientifically, no matter how much we come to understand psychologically, no matter how hard we strive to plumb the depths of theology, we continually encounter things that challenge what we thought we knew. We get to the edge of one galaxy and discover there’s another one out there. We think we’ve seen all the parts of the atom and discover there are more parts that do things that are completely inexplicable.
I think it’s worth us approaching life, the universe, and everything with a great deal of humility. We’re human. We’re finite. We’re all wrestling with things that are infinite, and so we’ll find as we go on in Genesis that when we wrestle with the divine there may be blessing but we also leave with a limp. The Bible talks a lot about a realm that is invisible to the human eye and that the invisible and the visible interact with and affect one another. We’ve just encountered that this morning, and now I want to leave you with one final image from Scripture.
In Colossians 1, we encounter one of the earliest Christian writings describing who Christ is. It goes like this, “15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; 16 for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”
In Christ, the visible and the invisible collide. In Christ, we see the person and character of the God who created everything, who from the beginning made a plan to rescue this world from wickedness, and who sustains everything up to this very minute. I know that whenever I encounter something that challenges what I believe about the world or about God, I go back to Christ. He is the image of the invisible God, and he is the one who puts flesh and bone to all of this – from the most basic to even a passage as weird as this one.
Friends, it may be weird, but it’s in the Bible, so we must wrestle with it. The more you dive into God’s Word – and I really want you to! – the more questions you will have. It’s OK to be stumped by a passage. How can you study the infinite Creator of everything and not be mystified by something? But there is grace to be had and a good Word to all of us. The Bible is worth the effort. Its ancient words still speak truth into today. So, whether you never want to hear the word “Nephilim” again or whether you’re ready to enroll in a Ph.D. program for the Bible, know that God’s Word is for you and that God can make something beautiful out of all the stuff of life, including you.