Giants in the Earth

  Jerome Shea       November 25, 2011      Weekend Wonk

While I was writing about the Neanderthals, something else kept flitting through my mind: that mysterious and startling line in Genesis 6:4. “There were giants in the earth in those days.”

What’s up with that? Well, just a few hours’ research shows the Neanderthal story to be simple and straightforward compared to this particular tangled web.

Let me back up. Here (KJV) are verses 1 through 4:

And it came to pass, when men began to multiply on the face of the earth and daughters were born unto them, [T]hat the sons of God saw the daughters of men that they were fair; and they took them wives of all which they chose. [A]nd the Lord said, “My spirit shall not always strive with man, for that he also is flesh; yet his days shall be an hundred and twenty years. [T]here were giants in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare children to them, the same became mighty men which were of old, men of renown.

A couple of points in passing. This meant the end of the age of the long-lived (cf. Adam, Methuselah, Mahalaleel, et. al.). And these giants—whoever they were—were “men of renown.” And the very next verse announces God’s furious displeasure and resolve to wipe the slate clean. Enter Noah, whose story we all know.

But the Flood did not spell the end of these giants. A couple of more times later in the Old Testament they are alluded to, most notably in Numbers 13:33—“And then we saw the giants, the sons of Anak, which come of the giants: and we were in our own sight as grasshoppers [said the terrified Israelite spies], and so we were in their sight.” And let us not forget that notable fall guy Goliath, somewhere between seven and ten feet tall by all reports.

Please meet the Nephilim, the offspring of those sons of God and daughters of men. But wait a minute. Who are these “sons of God’? One school holds that they were fallen angels. But if you propose that to the wrong crowd you will get a fat lip for your trouble. Another tradition holds that they were the sons of Seth, who had kept a faithful covenant with God. At any rate, nephilim keep cropping up in the Old Testament. The nephilim are also known as the Watchers, a name that, like it or not, brings the angelic element in again. Some see the nephilim as benign, others not. Were they, in the cliché, “gentle giants,” or not? We will never know.

Or did they exist at all, except for biblical literalists? If they didn’t, then surely they must stand for something, have some symbolic value.

And it’s not just the Bible. Stories of giants abound in all cultures. From the Greeks we have the Titans, (not to be confused with those other giants, the Tritons) and the Cyclopes. We have the Cimbri in Gaul, and Quetzlcoatl and Votan and Kukulcan in South America. We have Albion in England and Iberius in Spain and Cuculainn in Ireland. And that’s just a short list. If a people couldn’t claim some gigantic hero in their past, they were small potatoes indeed. As for discovering the actual remains of giants, the 19th century here in America was a godsend for excavators. You could scarcely dig a well or a foundation for a building or go poking into a burial mound without unearthing the bones of one giant or another. In one Ohio burial mound was discovered the skeleton of a giant in full copper armor. At his side was the skeleton of a proportionally massive woman, “probably his wife.” (Well, one would hope so.) These physical discoveries put the giant hunters one up on the Yeti and Sasquatch hunters, but in case after case the carefully stored skeletons somehow went missing. Darn and double darn.

Are there really giants? Well, it depends upon where we set the bar. If we set the bar at, say, eight feet, then we do have a giant of unassailable credentials: Robert Wadlow (1918-1940) of Alton, Illinois, and a hair under nine feet, was the tallest man for whom we have reliable records. He was the tallest of about a dozen modern specimens over eight feet. Had he not died so young, he would likely have surpassed the nine-foot mark. But in Wadlow’s case, as in others, his gigantism was simply the result of a pituitary gland gone haywire, pumping out growth hormones at a prodigious rate. No nephilim here.

The human race has always been conflicted. On the one hand, we have this myth of progress over time. Onward and upward and all that, each generation carrying the torch to new heights (no pun intended). On the other hand, we are beset with nostalgia, a requiem for a lost greatness, a heroic age before we fell so short of our promise. Our folk wisdom supports this in a kind of demotic way: maybe we didn’t have electricity and penicillin and indoor plumbing in the Good Old Days, but, by golly, we were more generous, more virtuous, more honest—you name it. Writ larger and stretched over eons, this becomes the myth of a Golden Age, an age now irretrievably lost.

We feel woefully, perhaps justly, diminished. “There were giants in the earth in those days” may simply be the Bible’s version of that same retro-longing.

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