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Bedford, Texas, United States
Pastor of Woodland Heights Baptist Church in Bedford, Texas and former Professor of Old Testament. But mostly I am a husband of an amazing wife, father of gifted children, and servant of an AWESOME God.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Genesis 6:1-4...A call to Holy lives!

When man began to multiply on the face of the land and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that the daughters of man were attractive. And they took as their wives any they chose. Then the Lord said, “My Spirit shall not abide in man forever, for he is flesh: his days shall be 120 years.” The Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of man and they bore children to them. These were the mighty men who were of old, the men of renown. (Genesis 6:1-4, ESV)

Invariably when people find out I have a doctorate in Old Testament studies, they have one question for me: “What on earth is going on in Genesis 6?” Therefore, because I want my blog to be not only devotionally helpful, but also to deal with theological questions that people have, I thought I would spend some time dealing with this matter this week.

Genesis 6 is the story immediately preceding the Flood narrative (or more appropriately, beginning the Flood narrative) in which the sons of God became attracted to the daughters of man and took them for their wives. The passage is indeed one that raises many questions. Bruce Metzger, noted conservative scholar, is said to have once observed that the passage is the closest thing to traditional mythology found anywhere in Scripture.

The primary difficulties in the passage are centered on the terms “sons of God” and “Nephilim.” I will deal with the Nephilim and their identity next week, but I want to point out at this point that the text does not state that the Nephilim are in any way related to these events other than that they were present in those days and also afterward. They are not the offspring of the union between the sons of God and the daughters of men (in fact the basic flow of the Hebrew suggests that the Nephilim were already around when the sons of God decided to pursue the daughters of men). They are not the antecedent to the “these” of verse 4 who were the mighty men of old/men of renown. Their role here simply serves to suggest that an evil class of being (lit. Nephilim means “fallen ones”) existed in the period well before and immediately leading up to the Flood (“in those days, and also afterward”). In other words, they serve to accentuate vividly the dark days in which all of this took place.

The term “sons of God” is somewhat more difficult and much more significant to understanding the passage and how it might be applied. In Hebrew, when two nouns are side by side they are in what is called a genitive relationship. Using the two nouns here “sons” and “God,” three of the ways this can be understood are: (1) possessive - “sons who belong to God;” (2) attributive - “sons who have the attributes of the divine” (3) quality - “sons who are godly.” If one of the first two is intended here, then the individuals in question are some sort of divine or other-worldly beings (viz. heavenly beings). If the third option is intended, then the individuals here are humans who had the qualities of godliness.

The arguments in favor of seeing the individuals as heavenly beings include: (1) potential cross references with 1 Peter 3:19-20; 2 Peter 2:4; and Jude 6, 14-15, largely based upon applying the understanding of 1 Enoch (a Jewish pseudepigraphal [has the name of a famous person, but was not really written by them] book from the inter-testamental period) to Genesis 6 and then suggesting Peter and Jude viewed it this way as well; (2) the most common usage of two nouns together in the Bible is either possessive or attributive; and (3) a potential cross reference with Job 1 where “sons of God” seem almost certainly to be heavenly creatures.

The arguments in favor of seeing the individuals as earthly godly men include: (1) chapters 4 and 5 of Genesis have just put alongside each other the godly line of Seth (Genesis 5) and the sinful line of Cain (Genesis 4). It makes sense that as one approaches the destruction of humanity, that one of the causes of there being only one righteous family (Noah) was that godly line of Seth (godly sons) had intermarried with the ungodly line of Cain (daughters of men), so that on the whole, humanity was now corrupted. (2) There is no biblical evidence of heavenly beings possessing the ability to procreate. In fact, there are verses that imply otherwise (Matthew 22:30). Furthermore, the notion of a spirit-being having physical relations with a human, resulting in a child, seems to go against the very definition of what it means to be spirit.* (3) Finally, the judgment expressed by God is explicitly against mankind and there is absolutely no mention of guilt and punishment of anyone except humanity.

Just judging from a contextual standpoint, there doesn’t seem to me to be any demand to go the more confusing and hard to fathom route of arguing that this story relates a union between the angelic and humanity. This is true because the New Testament passages have too many alternative options for understanding their purpose and intent for us to be able to syncretize them with this passage – especially since they don’t directly refer to the events related in Genesis 6. Also, this understanding is consistent with the grammar present and doesn’t in any way twist any Hebraic rules. Finally, a phrase is always understood firstly by its literary context, not by its usage elsewhere – that Job uses “sons of God” to refer to heavenly beings in no way demands that Genesis 6 is doing the same. Subsequently, the passage to me seems to simply be the recounting of how all of humanity had become so depraved that they were completely unconcerned with the things of God – thus giving justification for the Flood.

Since this is where I come out on this passage, what would I say are some important lessons to be taken away from Genesis 6:1-4?

- It amazes me how much we gravitate toward the fantastical and odd, especially when it supports some theme or understanding of God and our world we would like to believe. Christianity is indeed built of faith and there are some amazing realities that we are called on to accept as part of that faith (miracles and resurrection to name just two). We do ourselves and our witness no good by taking that which were never intended to express the miraculous and trying to turn them that direction.

- We need to be careful in actually arguing from what the Bible says, not what we assume it does. One common point that is made in arguing for the angelic understanding is, “How could the union of just men and women result in the birth of giants or creatures such as the Nephilim?” As I have already pointed out though, the text nowhere says that the Nephilim were the offspring. The interpreters in this case started with a presupposition then went back and bent the text to meet it. This is by no means an isolated case (see my arguments on systems such as Calvinism elsewhere in this blog). I am not arguing that those who take an angelic interpretation of this passage are irresponsible interpreters (some men and women I hold in the highest regard take that view). But what I am saying is that on the road to the conclusions we draw, let’s make certain we are actually arguing the evidence.

- We need to take personal responsibility for the choices we make. It is far too easy for us to attempt to push the blame of our sin off in some other direction (“Satan made me do it.”) This passage illustrates how devastating our decisions to not guard our hearts and to not maintain holiness can be to our future and to the future of our children.

I certainly don’t believe I have solved the issue satisfactorily for everyone involved…the debate on Genesis 6 will continue. But I hope I have answered some questions that some may have and that I have reminded us all (myself most of all) how important the decisions we make about the lives we live are.

Jesus prayed, “I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth. (John 17:14-19, ESV)”


* Alluding to Mary in the New Testament will not help in this case: God’s interaction with Mary is in no way described as intercourse (Mary is still a virgin according to the text), and God, unlike Angels, has creative power.

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