October 20, 2017

Rethinking the Text: Genesis 6

By Chaplain Mike

Today I am following up on Jeff’s “Difficult Scriptures” post from last week on the first part of Genesis 6.

Though this text has a long history of interpretation with much imaginative speculation, I have come to the conclusion that the passage is relatively straightforward, and has been misunderstood primarily because of the way it has been read in relation to its context.

As John Sailhamer has noted in The Pentateuch as Narrative, most of the interpretations arise out of viewing this passage as introducing the story of the Flood. In our modern Bibles, this is even easier to do because of where the chapter division has been inserted. The assumption that this introduces the Flood story leads to a further assumption that verses 1-4 somehow explain the causes of the universal wickedness in verses 5-8.

I think these are both false assumptions.

I believe Gen. 6:1-4 is best read as an epilogue to the genealogy in ch. 5. When we read it as such, it comes across in an entirely different way. As John Sailhamer points out,

If we read 6:1-4 as a summary of chapter 5, however, there is little to arouse our suspicion that the events recounted are anything out of the ordinary. As a summary of the preceding chapter, this little patch of narrative is a reminder that the sons and daughters of Adam had greatly increased in number, had married, and had continued to have children. The impression it gives is that of an interlude before the storm.

Then he points to a text in the New Testament that looks back to this very passage and interprets it the same way:

For a brief moment we see a picture of human beings in the midst of their everyday affairs, “marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away” (Mt 24:38-39).

My View Summarized
Genesis 6:1-4 should be read as the summary of Genesis 5. “Sons of God” is simply a way to describe human males, and the marrying and reproducing that is described here is entirely normal. In spite of human sin, God continued to bless humankind, allowing them to “multiply” (Gen 1:28). At that time, God decreed that human life would be limited to 120 years in contrast to the extraordinary longevity the ten great men of ch. 5 enjoyed. From this point on in the Torah, length of life begins decreasing until the end, when Moses himself dies at 120 years of age, thus fulfilling God’s decree. The mention of the “Nephilim” here—used elsewhere in the Torah to refer to the great men who lived in the land at the time of the Exodus—simply tells the reader that such renowned figures were present at that time too. There is no implication that these great men, sometimes viewed as “giants” or extraordinary creatures, were the offspring of an unusual mating.

There is, however, one subtle troubling phrase in Genesis 6:1-4 that should lead the reader to suspect that all is not fine and dandy in this description of human life, marriage, and multiplying. Thus, in a way, this conclusion to ch. 5 does also lay the groundwork for what is to come in the following passages.

Genesis 6:2 says, literally, “the sons of God saw that the daughters of men were good, and took for themselves those they chose.” These words should take us back to the Garden, when Eve looked at the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. In like manner, she saw that the fruit was good, and took for herself that which she chose. Throughout Genesis, the author contrasts a life of trusting God, who sees to our good (as in Gen. 1), with a life of trying to see to our own good by choosing for ourselves apart from his Word and his wisdom.

Thus, as Adam and Eve sought wisdom for themselves, which led to sin and banishment from the Garden, so in the days of Adam’s heirs prior to Noah, people remained committed to seeking the good by trusting the wisdom of their own eyes rather than God’s Word.

And so, the lesson to us remains:

Trust in the Lord with a whole heart,
Do not lean on your own understanding.
In all your ways know him,
And he will lead you on straight paths. (Proverbs 3:5-6)

Comments

  1. Interesting and makes sense in a lot of ways. Why do you think there is a contrast (or wordplay?) in this passage as you have interpreted it: “the sons of God saw that the daughters of men…”? If these are simply “men”, it would seem that the writer is describing men being of God and women being of “man”. Would this be narrative that is parallelingl the creation story of Adam being created by God from dust while Eve came from the rib of Adam?

  2. ISTM that the Hebrew distinguishes between haAdam and his/their progeny and bnai Elohim such that’ the “sons of Elohim” refers to a different kind of being than humans. Where else in the OT are humans referred to as bnai Elohim?

    • 1 wayÉ™hî kî-hēḥēl hā’āḏām lārōḇ ‘al-pÉ™nê hā’ăḏāmâ ûḇānwōṯ yulləḏû lâem:

      2 wayyirə’û ḇənê-hā’ĕlōhîm ’eṯ-bənwōṯ hā’āḏām kî ṭōḇōṯ hēnnâ wayyiqəḥû lâem nāšîm mikōl ’ăšer bāḥārû:

      3 wayyō’mer yəhwâ lō’-yāḏwōn rûḥî ḇā’āḏām lə‘ōlām bəšagam hû’ ḇāśār wəhāyû yāmāyw mē’â wə‘eśərîm šānâ:

      4 hannəfilîm hāyû ḇā’āreṣ bayyāmîm hâēm wəḡam ’aḥărê-ḵēn ’ăšer yāḇō’û bənê hā’ĕlōhîm ’el-bənwōṯ hā’āḏām wəyāləḏû lâem hēmmâ hagibōrîm ’ăšer mē‘wōlām ’anəšê haššēm:

    • ‎1 ‏וַֽיְהִי֙ כִּֽי־הֵחֵ֣ל הָֽאָדָ֔ם לָרֹ֖ב עַל־פְּנֵ֣י הָֽאֲדָמָ֑ה וּבָנ֖וֹת יֻלְּד֥וּ לָהֶֽם׃

      ‎2 ‏וַיִּרְא֤וּ בְנֵי־הָֽאֱלֹהִים֙ אֶת־בְּנ֣וֹת הָֽאָדָ֔ם כִּ֥י טֹבֹ֖ת הֵ֑נָּה וַיִּקְח֤וּ לָהֶם֙ נָשִׁ֔ים מִכֹּ֖ל אֲשֶׁ֥ר בָּחָֽרוּ׃

      ‎3 ‏וַיֹּ֣אמֶר יְהוָ֗ה לֹֽא־יָד֨וֹן רוּחִ֤י בָֽאָדָם֙ לְעֹלָ֔ם בְּשַׁגַּ֖ם ה֣וּא בָשָׂ֑ר וְהָי֣וּ יָמָ֔יו מֵאָ֥ה וְעֶשְׂרִ֖ים שָׁנָֽה׃

      ‎4 ‏הַנְּפִלִ֞ים הָי֣וּ בָאָרֶץ֮ בַּיָּמִ֣ים הָהֵם֒ וְגַ֣ם אַֽחֲרֵי־כֵ֗ן אֲשֶׁ֨ר יָבֹ֜אוּ בְּנֵ֤י הָֽאֱלֹהִים֙ אֶל־בְּנ֣וֹת הָֽאָדָ֔ם וְיָלְד֖וּ לָהֶ֑ם הֵ֧מָּה הַגִּבֹּרִ֛ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר מֵעוֹלָ֖ם אַנְשֵׁ֥י הַשֵּֽׁם׃ פ

    • Eric it is an unusual term but if 6.1-4 is a conclusion to ch 5 it makes perfect sense as a bookend to 5.1-2 where the line of Adam is introduced as God’s offspring.

    • Nowhere else, at least in exactly those terms. However the idea that the godly are God’s sons or children is found in texts such as Deut. 32:5, Ps. 73:15, Hos. 1:10. I agree that by grammar alone “sons of God” appears to speak of angelic beings (the parallel with Job 1:6, 2:1, 38:7 is exact, and is close to Psalm 29:1, 89:7). However, there is nothing in the context before this passage about angels; it is all about mankind. So one question is this: does grammar trump context, or does context trump grammar? I would vote for the latter.

      • If we bow to grammar in so many other texts, why would we bow to context here?

        Personally, I would love Chaplain Mike’s explanation to be right because it is so much simpler than the can of worms opened by the other view.

        I’ve no answer on this one although I know there is a lot of stuff out there about the “Giants.”

        Love the way the post ends. My favorite verse.

        • I place context before word study or grammar for the following reasons:

          First, the text first has to make sense to its original readers. A good communicator does not usually introduce random ideas that do not fit into the story.

          Second, word study is only helpful if you examine how the word is used in other passages in the context of those passages. Etymology by itself is useless, since words change meanings so easily. Also, most words have a range of meaning, not a precise definition.

          Thirdly, word study becomes speculative unless you have good examples of how that particular biblical author used the word in question.

          Now, sometimes the context is not definitive, because it itself is in dispute. But if the context is clear, to me it is the first clue to understanding.

    • Craig H Robinson says:

      Not OT, but in Rev 21:7, the reward of the overcomer is to become a son of God. The reason this may be applicable in some way is because so much of Rev 21:1-22:5 looks back to creation, the garden of Eden, and early chapters of Genesis. John may be looking back to these verses. Similarly, John sees Cain as a descendant of the devil (the serpent) in I John 3.

      Also, it seems Luke sees Adam as a son of God in the ancestry of Jesus.

  3. I understand that the “sons of God” as opposed to “daughters of men” echos back to Gen. 4:26 where it is said that “men began to call themselves by the name of the LORD” or as most translations have it, “men began to call upon the name of the LORD”. The reason I think the correct translation should be the former is that the latter sounds as if men had NOT up until that time “called upon the name of the LORD” which would then exclude Adam and Abel. Therefore those who called themselves by the name of the LORD would be “sons of God” and those who did not identify themselves as such would be “sons of men” of which their daughters would be called “daughters of men”.

  4. Mike, I think your interpretation has simplicity and theological depth on its side; I’m ashamed to say I missed the obvious repitition of Eve’s “seeing” and “taking”. Good stuff.

    I’m not entirely convinced, however, that there is no causal connection between the intermarriage and the existence of the Nephilim. If verse four did not repeat the intermarriage motif in discussing the Nephilim (which seems out of place as verse 1 covered it) then I think I would agree. As it stands, though, I am left wondering.

    On the other hand, it seems to me the Nephilim mentioned in Numbers 13:33 must not be the literal descendents of those in Genesis 6 (since presumably even a limited flood would have destroyed the people of the middle east), but rather people who were somehow like them.

    What are your thoughts?

  5. I find Job 1:6 as helpful to understanding Genesis 6:2. I do believe that the “sons of God” refers to fallen angelic beings. The only problem with that view is that Jesus states that angels in heaven do not marry (Matthew 22:30).

    I also believe that the referrence to the “sons of God” marrying daughters of men can be seen as an interruption in the narrative to point us to the fact that as a result of the unnatural union between the angelic and human that the whole world became severely corrupted.

    I also reject the pernicious view of some so-called mainline naturalistic Christian scholars these days that reject the angelic view of Genesis 6:2 because it is ladened with the supernatural. The Bible is a supernatural book from beginning to end. It is one thing to argue that the angelic view is wrong from a solely exegetical point of view, it is entirely a different matter to reject the angelic view because it gives support to a supernatural perspective of the cosmos.

    • Maybe the angels “in heaven” do not marry… perhaps these “fallen” angels somehow changed.

    • I would have to say that the verse does not necessarily imply that angels do not marry. We have to consider the question that Sadducees ask, to understand the answer Jesus gives them. Perhaps, it should be the next difficult scripture that will be discussed.

    • If we are going to compare Scripture with Scripture, better to do it on the basis of a direct allusion to the passage than to a word study in another book in a far-removed context. In Matthew 24:38-39 Jesus refers directly to this passage and seems to hold the view of it advanced here–that people were marrying and giving in marriage and life seemed perfectly normal, so much so that they had no clue about the coming deluge.

      • That’s a relief to know that you reject the fallen angels view of Genesis 6 based on exegetical reasons. I was a bit nervous that you reject the angelic view because it does not square with a naturalistic view of the universe that modern reprobate biblical scholars embrace. I’m just glad that you have not overthrown the supernatural in the Christian faith.

  6. Chaplain Mike,

    Thanks for this post. I always find Sailhamer’s proposals to be thought-provoking.

    I think the “fallen angels” view of this passage sounds strange and leaves us with a number of unanswered questions, but the one thing that keeps me from dismissing it out of hand is the fact that Jude 6 seems to allude to this event as one of angelic rebellion. In fact, Bruce Waltke’s commentary proposes something of a “hybrid” view on the interpretation of this passage because he wants to incorporate Jude 6 into it.

    It may be that Jude 6 is talking about something else (in fact, that would be easier for my reading of Genesis if that were the case). But a number of New Testament scholars seem to think that Jude is alluding to the Book of Enoch, which itself offers a commentary on Genesis 6.

    What do you think about the role of Jude 6 in our interpretation of Genesis 6? For my part, I am committed to the Reformation principle that Scripture is its own best interpreter, so if it could ever be proven to me that Jude 6 is in fact a commentary on Genesis 6, that would settle the issue for me. The tricky thing is that I’m not entirely sure if that is what Jude is doing, and I would be open to hearing more on it.

    • Buford Hollis says:

      Neither Jesus nor Jude lived anywhere near the time of composition of this text. Let us avoid introducing considerations of piety into exegetical questions.

      That said, I am intrigued by this reading, which strikes me as quite plausible, though my mind is not made up. It would be just like biblical writers to misunderstand some ordinary sentence as hinting at grand cosmic narratives–same same projective reading that gave us a messiah / son of God born of a virgin, etc., as well as Satan and Lucifer (All details which grew from the seeds of more prosaic text.)

      By the way, in Muslim countries, Adam is thought to have been a giant.

      • Buford,

        My approach to the interpretation of Scripture is determined by my doctrine of Scripture. Theology cannot be divorced from hermeneutics. Because I believe all Scripture is given by inspiration of God, I also believe that God’s word is consistent with itself in every part. Jesus affirmed this view of the Bible (Matt. 5:17-20), and of all people, I will not assume that I have a better approach to the Bible than he does.

        Scripture is its own best interpreter. This was one of the central doctrines of the Reformation (contra Rome, which claimed that the Pope and the magisterium were the authoritative interpreters of Scripture). If I do not apply this principle when I interpret the Bible, my entire theology must change.

        With that said, I’m not sure exactly what Jude is talking about in Jude 6.

  7. Did any of the pre-Christian Jewish commentators on Genesis 6 say these were humans or the Godly sons of Seth? Or was that a later naturalistic Christian interpretation?

    I know it’s hard to date rabbinic/Talmudic statements – things which were said at some point in time were put in the mouths of sages centuries long dead, if I remember Neusner correctly on this. But we know from the Enoch literature that fallen angels/watchers were part of Jewish understanding at this time. As for angels in heaven not marrying, maybe that doesn’t refer to angels or spirit beings who “fall.”

    And I agree with Aaron – Jude seems to refer to this as such, and may be referring to the men of Sodom and Gomorrah going after strange/angelic flesh, not simply homosexuality.

    • I have also read somewhere that the “sons of God” were the decendants of Seth and the daughters of men were the “decendants of Cain”.

      As for Elohim I have read some books that make the assumption that there were two tradtions in the divided kingdom, the Elohist (Northern Kingdom) and the Yawist (Judah) and that eventually these were merged, hence some duplicate stories in Genesis and Exodos.

    • Enoch definitely equates the sons of God with fallen angels. That identity is an integral part of the narrative of the first section of that book. Not promoting the idea, just saying that that interpretation is spelled out explicity in Enoch.

  8. Tim Becker says:

    Nephilim also show up in Numbers 13. So how did any of them survive the flood?

  9. Josh Mueller says:

    If this interpretation is correct, then the very close parallel in 1 Enoch reflects a complete misunderstanding in apocalyptic literature of the original source, whether that source is Genesis 6 itself or an unknown source both texts draw from.

  10. Excellent article Chap Mike. I truly did not know anyone had ever articulated this theory except for me. I am positively not anti-supernatural in my reading. But, I do think that a reading of the text that is merely “normal” (IMO, untainted by the mythological and 100% speculative Giant Fallen Angels theories) reveals that nothing really unusual is afoot, except that the people of God are intermingling and being diluted by the people of the earth. Not two species, just two kinds of people.

    Let’s remember that the whole record of scripture is an account of the interaction of two categories of people on earth. All created by God, and none conceived by horny angels.

    I see there are learned people present, so can you clarify this? I understand “nephilim” etymologically to mean “fallen ones”, not “giants” or “fallen angels.” If this word can be taken in a generic sense, then we would naturally look to its grammatical referent, the “heroes of old, men of renown.” Looking back to chapter 4:17-24, this would naturally refer to the founders of civilization and the institutions of industry, government, agriculture and art.

    I will provoke some thought and debate here by pointing back to the sticky question of “Who was Cain’s wife?”

    The traditional view says it was an unnamed blood sister…oddly, on some unexplained principle, incest was not only permissible, but ideal for that first generation. It is a darned strange thing to leave unexplained, but there is really no other option IF we accept that Adam and ever were not only the first, but the ONLY humans God created on “Day 6”.

    But what if God made a whole race of people on Day 6? What if there were lands full of people? What if they were the people Cain feared would kill him? And the people from among whom he and Seth took a wives, and the people of whom Cain “was building a city” while he had only a family of 3?

    So, I wonder whether the “Sons of God” were actually the ones who went out from Adam-Land, bearing God’s image and ruach among the mere mortals who did not “go out from the Lord’s presence” in the manner of Cain and Seth. And I wonder whether they were specially endowed and equipped to carry out the mission God gave Adam: “Rule over the earth.” And perhaps they did. Perhaps they were the Nephilim, Fallen men, but superior in wisdom and calling, and were naturally “heroes and men of renown”, city-builders and architects of civilization. And just maybe they exploited their God-given advantage to “take for themselves” any and every cute little earth-girl they liked (6:2-5).

    Yes, it is speculative. But I think most people do not realize how much extra-textual speculation fleshes out the traditional view. Presumed giants. Angelic rapists lifted from kabbalah mythology. Eve’s 300 babies who all marry each other and have 300 more babies per sister who then become hostile bands roaming the neighboring land of Nod. Etc. Etc. Etc.

    Whatcha think? 🙂

    • I thought I read somewhere that genetics shows that present-day humans came from an initial group of 10,000 or so original homo sapiens. I.e., we can’t genetically be traced back to a single male-female pair; there was no “Adam” and “Eve,” but rather “Adams” and “Eves.”

      • Buford Hollis says:

        You and I know that, but did the editor of Genesis know that?

      • Sort of Eric. The best genetic evidence we have (in my understanding) is that the human population dropped to around 10,000 people ~50-100 thousand years ago, but that was from a seemingly larger previous population that we have evidence of. There is a popular theory that this is tied to the Toba volcanic eruption, which happened around 70,000 BC.

    • I agree Joe, I think you are right on. i have heard and seen so much of this topic of the “Nephilim” that is a sincere waste of time. Come on Angels having sex. The angels are a different order of creation, they do not reproduce. they are sexless.

      Now on the other hand some folks might think that way if they have ever dealt with demons who have names that fit their posture. Incubus and sucubus, They imitate these disgusting traits with ignorant and foolish peole, sad to say some christains.

      Investagating and talking about scripture is great, but do not disregard common sense.

    • Cedric Klein says:

      I posted a shorter but similar explanation. It really does make the best sense to me. It also explains the myths of Prometheus/Oannes/Quetzlcoatl- “we were ignorant & brutal, then a teacher arrived who taught us agriculture, fire-making, domestication of animals”. The “teachers” weren’t angels, aliens or Christophanies- they were our Adamic ancestors going out to our non-Adamic ancestors.

  11. I remember reading some commentary by Gleason Archer years ago. Archer was a great linguist and Old Testament Scholar. Anyway, the upshot of what he wrote was that it was possible that before Adam and Eve a line of primates of some sort had evolved into a manlike form, and that God took two of these “animals” and breathed His own breath or spirit (ruach) into them, which then endowed them with rationality, freedom, and moral choice. Under this scenario, Adam and Eve would be physically similiar to those primates, but completely different in thought, values and lifestyle. In other words, the creation of Adam and Eve would not be “from scratch”, but the impartation of God’s ruach to certain beings who had evolved enough to receive it. If so, then it would also be possible for Cain’s wife to be created in the same way (and it also provides the possiblity that what Cain feared was death from these others).

    I’m not advocating this viewpoint, just throwing it out for thought.

    If true, though, it could provide the distinction you allude to between the sons of God taking the daughters of men. Still, this leaves as many questions as it solves, especially what the fruit of their union would be like.

  12. hashavyahu says:

    A potential problem for this interpretation: Gen 5 is P; Gen 6:1-8 is J. Your argument could proceed on the level of the redaction of the Pentateuch, but not on a compositional level. In other words, I think it can be demonstrated source-critically that Gen 6:1-4 was not composed as a continuation of Gen 5. Another option would be to connect it to Gen 4 (J).

    • I think it wiser to deal with the final form of the text.

      • hashavyahu says:

        I disagree. An attempt to read a composite text as though it were not composite can run in to all kinds of problems. For your reading to work, either 6:1-8 was intentionally composed as a conclusion to Gen 5, or was placed there by the redactor to serve that purpose. The former possibility is ruled out by the documentary hypothesis, and you have not argued for the latter. In other words, a diachronic reading could falsify your interpretation of Gen 6:1-8 if 1) Gen 6:1-8 and Gen 5 were originally part of 2 different stories (which the documentary hypothesis suggests), and 2) it was placed were it was redactionally for a reason other than to serve as a conclusion to Gen 5. I don’t see how it is wise to ignore these issues when proposing a “solution” to a difficult text.

        • Assuming that the text does come from two different sources (by no means clear), then yes, I would say the author/editor of the Torah placed 6:1-4/5-8 where he has in order to (1) conclude the genealogy of ch. 5 and (2) prepare for the story of Noah and the flood. The fact is, we only have one text, and it has been “stitched” together in the form we read today. No matter the sources (and I do not think studying this is unimportant), it is the final form of the text that has come to us and someone meant it to be understandable in its present form.

  13. Just a question – how did the Jews interpret these?? Maybe we could learn something from their tradition

    • Does the Bible suggest that we could learn something from their tradition?

      • i guess.. just wondering what their interpretation of the passage is, since the jews were the first ones to read this stuff.

  14. Noted Jewish Biblical scholar James L. Kugel in The Bible As It Was (pp. 107-112) pretty much goes with the [fallen] angels understanding as being what the Jews have understood it to refer to.

  15. U. Cassuto in his A Commentary On The Book Of Genesis: Part One considers the objections to the “angels” explanation and refutes them. He, too, goes with the degraded angels explanation. He says “The sons of God mentioned here do not belong to the group of ministering angels, who do not propagate their species, but resemble in this respect human beings. It is not surprising, therefore, that they took wives unto themselves.” He gives a different interpretation to the fact that they “fell” than that they had “fallen” from heaven.

    He says the “sons of God” refers to “the members of the Divine household, to God’s ministers, more particularly to the lowest orders among them.”

  16. Per R. Aryeh Kaplan The Living Torah:

    sons of God
    According to some, these were the fallen angels (Josephus 1:3:1, see note on Genesis 6:4). Others translate this as ‘sons of the rulers’ or ‘judges’ (Targum, Rashi. See note on Genesis 3:5). Still others say that the ‘sons of God’ are the descendants of Seth, while the ‘sons of man’ are the descendants of Cain (Ibn Ezra).

    titans
    Nefilim in Hebrew, literally ‘fallen ones.’ They were called this because they were the sons of the fallen angels (Targum Yonathan). See Numbers 13:33.

    • Don’t know where I stand on this one, and I don’t know how important it is to know.

      However, I appreciate your research on the topic.

      Thank you for the information.

  17. The final outcome of the article is more interesting.
    Great research!