Gender and the Nephilim

Tony Baker writes the following in his ill-considered post on gender:

Let me attempt to bring my gender constructions out of the subflooring of the argument and into the proper living space. The fall narratives, from Eden to Babel to the origin of the Nephilim, are about the disorder than comes of too much taking. In the latter case, the Sons of God find the daughters of men desirable, and “take” them as wives (Gen 6). The “Sons” are pure activity here, and the “daughters” are so passive that the text implies a Sabine-like rape.

There is here, as in my Prometheus reading, an association of boundary transgression and gender. Masculinity is associated with active violating of “kinds,” and the feminine is a pure receiving. The important thing to notice, though, is that this is precisely what invokes God’s displeasure, and becomes the set-up for the flood cycle. Archetypal gender bifurcation (though not gender itself) belongs only to the fallen form, for Christianity, not to our proto- and eschatological versions. If both woman and creation are “feminized” in the narrative while the earthly and heavenly “sons” are masculinized (Cain, Nimrod, David’s “taking” of Bathsheba), this is a split archetype that belongs to our broken form.

I have written frequently in comments that I find it disturbing that he uses what he regards as a rape scene as the paradigm for masculinity and femininity, which supposedly contains a grain of truth that is revealed through the parallels with the consensual passivity of the Virgin Mary (immediately after the passage I quote). That is a core point that I simply cannot let go — if your account of the meaning of masculinity and femininity is derived from a rape scene, something has gone badly wrong, something that requires not “clarification,” but repentance and conversion.

Yet there are a lot more questions to ask about his use of this passage. First, it’s highly questionable to use it as a paradigm of intra-human relations, given that both the Jewish and Christian traditions have almost unanimously regarded the “Sons of God” as being angels (or some form of supernatural being). Hence the link between this scene and the Flood is God’s displeasure over cross-breeding that produces a scrambling of hierarchy, with an implied parallel to Eve’s submission to the advice of the “lower” creature represented by the serpent.

Second, why would you jump to the conclusion that something like rape is involved? Presumably the “Sons of God” would be attractive beings for all kinds of reasons, and the Hebrew Bible is very frank about women’s sexual desire (Song of Songs, provisions in the Levitical code requiring soldiers at the front to return home for their conjugal duties, etc.). We know from elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible that the tradition can unambiguously present rape, with considerable outrage, so why not assume the human women were flattered by the attention of such powerful beings? The supposed passivity of Bathsheba is equally puzzling — given the scheming nature we see later in the stories, I believe it’s totally plausible to read her as a more or less conscious seductress who wants to “trade up” (and then aggressively positions her son as the heir, etc.). In any case, her behavior certainly doesn’t match up with that of a traumatized prisoner.

So I’d propose that the post is actually even worse than it appears at first glance, in that Tony is reading an active-passive rape-like dynamic into stories where there’s no reason to believe that is going on.

11 thoughts on “Gender and the Nephilim

  1. Wait… why are the divine beings in Genesis 6 representative of, and normative for, human males? “Bne Elohim” doesn’t mean “sons of God” as in “biologically male” — the word translated “sons” often means “members of a particular group.” It’s just saying they are divine beings, and not humans (“members of the god-class.”) Relatedly, this is why the phrase “sons of Israel” is now commonly translated “Israelites”; it’s not a gender-inclusive modern alteration of the text — it’s just a better translation. So it doesn’t make any sense why these divine beings, who the text goes to great lengths to set apart as radically un-human, should be in any way normative for human men. It’s a small point, but it’s important to note that theologians making prescriptions for all people based on an ancient text should learn to work closely with the grammar of that ancient language. A larger and more important point is Adam’s gesture to the complexity and multivocality of the conceptions of gender throughout the Bible.

  2. To clarify: I know they take human daughters as their companions, so they are male-ish in gender, but my point is that they are explicitly non-human and so should not be used to consider the identity of human masculinity, *even if* you accept the idea that Genesis’ gender norms are normative for us.

  3. Thanks for that further clarification, Brennan. Some sweet day, I will finally sit down and learn Hebrew — I have all the books necessary on my shelf, plus the text of the HB, but life keeps intervening…

  4. That wasn’t a knock on you — I was mainly saying that theologians who want to prescribe “the meaning of male-ness” should only hang their hat on texts that they know inside and out (and it’s better to respect the plurality of perspectives in the biblical text anyway). Though it would be great for you to learn Hebrew, because once you have that, it would be like catching fish in a barrel. There’s so much that someone with a background in philosophical and political theology can bring to Hebrew Bible studies that you’d have to pick which field-changing intervention you’d want to make first.

  5. The TB post is horrendous, but the Bible is not much better. My general sense from the Bible is the Nephilim are a pretty bad bunch. In the interpretive tradition, sometimes they are referred to political authorities and sometimes as angels (the word “elohim” can mean God or judges). But their act is almost always seen as a violent and corrupting one.

  6. What do you mean when you say that “the Bible is not much better”? Are you understanding the book of Genesis to approve of the actions of the divine beings in Genesis 6? I agree that there are plenty of places in the Bible where atrocious actions *are* condoned, and moreover all ancient Israelite texts are imbued with a general tenor of patriarchy, etc., but this text in particular is a polemic against coitus with divine beings, which I imagine just doesn’t register at all in any modern ethical system whatsoever. I may be misunderstanding your point, though.

  7. Perhaps that’s a bit much to call it a polemic against divine/human coitus, but it certainly does cast that action in a very negative light — like a “this is so bad God chooses to destroy the world” sort of negative light.

  8. I believe that it’s Brueggemann who quips that the investment to return ratio on the Nephilim text is highly unfavorable to the interpreter. Best to note that the pericope is an outlier and move on. Building a theological anthropology on it seems really, really questionable.

    I don’t know this guy, but it seems like he’s trying to work within a Christian Complimentarian framework to say something non-complimentarian about the coolness of men being receptive. It wound up horribly backfiring.

    Why not stick with the ear (“Hear O Israel”) rather than the vagina as the orifice of receptivity? Then you don’t reinscribe the gender stereotypes and violence that you’re cleverly trying to undo.

  9. That Brueggemann sounds like a right killjoy. Sounds just like what my pastor uncle told me when I quizzed him on it as a kid … best to think about more important things. Which led me to develop my own little litmus test: only trust the religious instincts of those who are discomfited or captivated by Gen 6:4.

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