The following is Part 2 of the material I submitted for “Transformed.” (See here for the explanation.)
In Part 1 of this post, we saw the timeliness of the need for work done on theologies of heroism and began our look at the theme in primeval Genesis with its first projection in the judgment of the serpent in chapter 3. Now we will follow by observing the second and third projections to come to some conclusions on the theme in this introductory part of the Bible.
The second projection of the theme of heroism comes as part of the pericope of Genesis 6:1-8, which is mostly devoted to explaining the conditions that give rise to the flood. Here are the first fiver verses of the pericope:
Now it happened that, as man began to multiply on the face of the earth, daughters were born to them. 2 And the sons of God saw the daughters of man—that they were good, and they took for themselves wives from all around, whomever they chose. 3 So YHWH said, “My Spirit shall not remain with man forever, inasmuch as he is flesh too. Thus, his days will be one hundred and twenty years.”
4 The Nephilim were in the land in those days—and so also afterward (whenever the sons of God went to the daughters of man so that they gave birth for them); they were the heroes of antiquity, men of name. 5 And YHWH saw that the evil of man was abundant in the land, and that the entire framework of the thoughts of his heart was only evil every day.
— Genesis 6:1-5
Here we find that humanity has perverted its way on the land, not least in the areas of sexuality, matrimony and procreation. Following the pattern of the woman in the garden, who “saw… good… and took” (3:6), men have turned sex and marriage into matters of indiscriminate personal preference.
But that is not all. We also learn that “the Nephilim were in the land in those days… they were the heroes of antiquity, men of name” (v. 4). This is the Bible’s first use of the term gibbôr, “mighty man” or “hero,” and it refers to a big problem. Quite simply, that there are Nephilim-heroes in the land is a major cause of the flood.
It is significant that the presence of these heroes in the land is a major reason for God to wipe out all of humanity (except for Noah and family). Why does He not simply wipe out the Nephilim, if they are the problem? The clear implication of the text is that the Nephilim problem is one that is shared by all people. Indeed, the verse portrays women as the willing partners of men, as they give birth for them. Whatever element of faith may have been part of human child-bearing for the likes of Eve and Lamech (4:1,25; 5:29), it has now all but vanished. Human beings are making their own heroes. Rather than calling on the name of YHWH, they seek to find hope (salvation), and greatness (glory) in the celebrity of their own names or in those of their Nephilim-heroes.
By perverting their child-bearing, human beings are effectively showing contempt for the first part of God’s creation blessing, “be fruitful and multiply.” And apparently, these twistings of sex, marriage and child-bearing into idolatrous hero-making leads to the corruption of the second part of the blessing, the enjoinment to “fill the land,” as well. For humanity is filling the land with violence. This is a state of affairs that grieves the heart of God, such that He observes of man “that the entire framework of the thoughts of his heart was only every day” (v.5).
Once God has renovated creation with the flood, we find that the same two parts of the blessing, fruitful multiplying and the filling of the land, are once again major concerns of the text. Chapters 10 and 11 are entirely taken up with genealogies (multiplying) and a brief little narrative about man’s refusal to “scatter” (filling the land).
Standing out as unique among all those in the table of nations (ch. 10), is a particular character who is the Bible’s first individually named gibbôr.
“And Cush Begat Nimrod. He began to be a hero in the land. He was a hero of hunting before YHWH. Therefore, it is said, ‘Like Nimrod,’ that is, a hero of hunting before YHWH” (10:8-9).
That Nimrod is a “hero of hunting” probably means that he is a great provider and, thereby, a civic leader. He is the first person in the Bible specifically said to have a kingdom. In fact, he has two. The first will eventually become Babylon, and the second, Assyria. He it is who leads the people to unify as one and to build a city with a tower to reach the heavens. Much is debated among scholars regarding Nimrod, but there is virtually universal agreement that the text of Genesis 10-11 casts him as the leader of the building project at Shinar.
There is much irony involved here. Nimrod’s is the only non-eponymous name in the table of nations; there will be no nation of Nimrod. Nor does his name appear at all in the pericope of 11:1-9. Though he is the leader of the people, his identity is completely lost in the collective. The chief concerns of the people in building the city are to keep from being scattered and to make a name for themselves. Yet they will be scattered, and the only name in the episode (other than Shinar and YHWH) is “Babel,” which, far from being a badge of pride, is a mockery of the people and their project.
The most basic and straightforward way to understand Nimrod’s name is to see it as a form of the verb marad, meaning “we will rebel.” The form is 1st-person plural, which fits perfectly with his identification with the people in 11:1-9. But the message of the name is an odd one. Until the scattering, the people he leads are the whole human race. Who, then, is left to be the object of their rebellion? God? Certainly, but we need not understand the author’s point as direct and artless as that. The truth is that people will follow any hero who will provide for them, especially if he can instill in them a sense of heroic triumph over even a vague sense of authoritative restraint –read: rebellion against God and His true Hero-King along the lines of Psalm 2:3.
Heroism, Then and Now
Not much has changed since the Primeval Age. Or, at least, we may clearly observe that the one in which we now find ourselves is much like that first age of the world.
Human beings are still desperate for a sense of hope for restoration and greatness. We are still treating sexuality, marriage and childbearing as matters of indiscriminate personal choice. We are still finding in ourselves and one another heroes on whom we pin our hopes. We are still looking to heroes “of hunting” whom we hope to be “like.” We still look to heroes who can give us a sense of civic pride in our own name while affording us a sense of pluck and cool as “rebels” (against whom or what we are rarely sure).
The echo of God’s promise to send a Hero to right all the wrongs of the world still resounds in the human heart. There is a yearning for the messianic Hero, but even after His first coming, we, like the people of the Primeval Age, prefer heroes of our own making. We will make a name for ourselves, if we can. If we can’t, we will sign on to the names of our favorite Nephilim-heroes.
Better Than Heroes
Meanwhile, God repeatedly replaces the graspers after fame with His own people. Cain is replaced by Seth (4:25). The Nephilim are replaced by Noah, who is preserved through the flood (6:9ff.). And the Babel scene serves to introduce Abram, to whom God promises, “I will… make your name great” (12:1-2). At least within the confines of primeval Genesis, God allows the label of “hero” (gibbôr) to be the province of the proud who parade around in their self-made greatness, establishing cities and kingdoms. But He claims as His own the comparatively quiet souls who walk with Him in simple obedience, trusting Him as they occupy boats and tents.
These are they who call on the name of YHWH and believe that there is salvation in no one else.