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The Giants of “Noah”

AP Photo/Paramount Pictures/Niko Tavernise

Daniel McInerny - published on 03/28/14

The giants who fight against Noah in Darren Aronofsky’s new film actually have a basis in Scripture, a fact more than one Catholic writer has also exploited.

“Now giants were upon the earth in those days. For after the sons of God went in to the daughters of men, and they brought forth children, these are the mighty men of old, men of renown.” (Genesis 6:4)

Darren Aronofsky, who co-wrote and directed the new film, Noah, starring Russell Crowe as the eponymous hero, is rumored to have taken quite a few liberties with the Biblical text. Not having yet had the opportunity to see the film, I take this claim on trust from A.O. Scott’s New York Times review of the film. As an example of Aronofsky’s creative expansion, Scott observes that “while the Bible does note that “there were giants in those days,” it does not specify that they were six-armed stone colossi with the voices of Nick Nolte and Frank Langella.”

True, no translation of Genesis of which I am aware mentions Nick Nolte and Frank Langella (though I’m sure God loves them all the same). But it is interesting, “giants” are mentioned in Genesis Chapter 6, verse 4. In the Vulgate version of the Bible (the Latin version), the word being translated is gigantes: gigantes autem erant super terram in diebus illis. As the Douhay-Rheims translation puts it, “Now giants were upon the earth in those days.”

The New American Bible translation reads, for the exclusively English reader, less colorfully: “The Nephilim appeared on earth in those days.” Why “Nephilim”? The word is transliterated from the original Hebrew text of Genesis. According to scholars, the word means “giants” but is derived from a root word meaning “fallen ones” or perhaps even “those that cause others to fall down.”

So who are these giants and where did they come from?

They appear in Genesis right before the story of Noah and the flood. We have been hearing about the two sons of Adam and Eve: Cain, the bad seed who murdered his brother Abel, and Seth, the good seed who replaced Abel. Cain’s descendants are the first to take two wives (Genesis 2:21-24), a perversion of the marital order established by God in the Garden of Eden (see the fascinating discussion of Genesis on the website of Scott Hahn’s St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology).

Seth’s descendants, by contrast, develop a prayerful relationship to God, calling upon him by name (Genesis 4:26). Yet even they are prone to rebellion. They begin to take as wives the beautiful daughters of Cain’s line, and even seem to follow their cousins in taking more than one wife (Genesis 6:1-4). It is from the unions of men from Seth’s line with women from Cain’s line that the giants appear, monsters born from the mixture of good and bad seed. From the calamities his creation has wrought, God repents of having made it (Genesis 6:6), and the story of Noah, the flood, and the ark takes off from there.

The giants, in fact, appear more than once in Scripture. In Wisdom 14:6, in an invocation of the story of Noah, we read: “from the beginning also when the proud giants [superbi gigantes] perished, the hope of the world fleeing to a vessel, which was governed by thy hand, left to the world seed of generation” (Douay-Rheims).  

And Baruch, meditating upon God’s creation, says: “here were the giants, those renowned men that were from the beginning, of great stature, expert in war. The Lord chose not them, neither did they find the way of knowledge: therefore did they perish. And because they had not wisdom, they perished through their folly” (Baruch 3:26-28, Douay-Rheims).  

These texts indicate that the giants were not called so only because of their “great stature.” As a note to the Douay-Rheims translation of Genesis 6:4 speculates: “it is likely the generality of men before the flood were of a gigantic stature in comparison with what men now are. But these here spoken of are called giants, as being not only tall in stature, but violent and savage in their dispositions, and mere monsters of cruelty and lust.”

A giant is thus principally a moral monster, not just a proto-lottery pick in the NBA draft.

The Catholic literary tradition has enjoyed making imaginative place for the giants of Genesis. I first came upon them in my study of the medieval epic poem, Beowulf, a story of a hero’s confrontations with three dreaded monsters. The first of these monsters, Grendel, is described by the Beowulf poet–whose name is lost to history but who assuredly was Christian and may have even been a monk–as a descendant of “Cain’s clan.” Here is how Grendel first comes on the scene, in the late Seamus Heaney’s masterful translation from the Old English:

So times were pleasant for the people there
until finally one, a fiend out of hell,
began to work his evil in the world.
Grendel was the name of this grim demon
haunting the marches, marauding round the heath
and the desolate fens; he had dwelt for a time
in misery among the banished monsters,
Cain’s clan, whom the Creator had outlawed
and condemned as outcasts. For the killing of Abel
the Eternal Lord had exacted a price:
Cain got no good from committing the murder
because the Almighty made him anathema
and out of the curse of his exile there sprang
ogres and elves and evil phantoms
and the giants too who strove with God
time and again until he gave them their reward (lines 99-114).  

The Beowulf poet precedes Darren Aronofsky in creatively elaborating upon the spare resources about the giants found in Scripture. Along with giants, the poet tells us that the issue of the unions between Cain’s descendants and Seth’s descendants include “ogres and elves and evil phantoms.” In reading this particular line it is worth taking a look at the Old English original, which in Heaney’s translation is happily reproduced on the facing page. For there we find, as the original of “ogres,” orcnēas. That is, transliterated, orcs–which name is given to the monsters who serve as the minions of Sauron and the evil wizard Saruman in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Although Tolkien’s myth makes no explicit reference to Genesis, his borrowing of the name “orc” from Beowulf imaginatively and morally links his myth, through Beowulf, to the story of Genesis. (Tolkien scholars can correct me, but I assume that the “elves” mentioned in Beowulf as part of Cain’s clan were “fallen” elves?)

So in developing the role of the giants in his Noah, Darren Aronofsky is only doing what some very famous Catholic writers have done: that is, make imaginative use of the giants of Genesis, both as physical monsters that serve as antagonists in their tales, and as metaphors for all those who have not wisdom and perish through their folly.

Daniel McInernyis editor of the English edition of Aleteia. He is also the author of the comic novel, High Concepts: A Hollywood Nightmare, as well as two books in the Kingdom of Patria children’s series, Stout Hearts & Whizzing Biscuits and Stoop of Mastodon Meadow. You are invited to contact him at daniel.mcinerny@aleteia.org, find him on Facebook, and follow him on Twitter @danielmcinerny. You can also visit his author blog, danielmcinerny.com.

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