Distorted purpose

So far, we’ve seen how God made humanity in his image to: reflect his glory, to fill (multiply and populate) and to subdue (rule over/steward) his creation.  Man and woman are together made in God’s image to complement one another. God blesses them by providing for them and protecting them.  At the same time, he commissions man to provide and to protect. This dual theme of provision and protection mean that there are limits.  Provision is to be by the means set out by God and protection means that there are boundaries to be policed in order to keep out evil.  This is represented in Genesis 2-3 by the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.  Adam and Eve breech the boundaries, refuse God’s provision and protection so that evil enters paradise and sin enters the world.  With sin comes death as Adam and Eve bear the punishment for their wrongdoing.  Death also accompanies sin as their son becomes a murderer.

By Genesis 6, time has moved on and we may be invited to look again at creation in order to see how the human race are getting on with their commission to fill and subdue creation in order to reflect God’s glory.

What happens?

V1 Humanity begins to multiply and to fill the earth – this is a fulfilment of the creation mandate.  However, the temporal introduction “when” means that the focus is on something happening in conjunction with this fulfilment suggesting that things might not be quite as they should be.  Multiplying means having children and Genesis focuses our attention on the daughters. As Wenham notes: “unusually for Hebrew word order, the subject of this clause, ‘daughters,’ here precedes the verb and so throws it into prominence.”[1]

V2 The daughters of man are watched and observed.  Notice the contrasting language here “daughters of man/Adam” and “sons of God.” We are meant to pick up on that and so will come back to discuss who the sons of God might be later but at this stage observe that the distinction is made.  The women are seen by these sons of God and evaluated.  The sons of God see that they are “good”, in other words, attractive.  Just as God himself observes and evaluates, seeing that his creation is good, so too do the sons of God. 

There is a positive dynamic to the evaluation of goodness but also a negative connotation too. Just as we are reminded of God’s evaluation of his creation in Genesis 1, so too we are reminded that Eve saw and evaluated the goodness of the tree of The Knowledge of Good and Evil in Genesis 3.  Eve saw that the fruit of the tree was pleasing to the eye and this is the same thought here, her descendants are pleasing to the eye.  Just as Eve reached out to  the fruit from the tree, so too, the sons of God reach out and take from the daughters of man, choosing wives from among them.

V3 God sees and evaluates too. Whilst we are not told what it is that God specifically evaluates as not good, the implication of his response is that the situation in verse 2 is not as it should be. God chooses to put a limit on human life. Either God decides that his spirit will not dwell in humans for ever or he determines that his spirit will not wrestle and contend with theirs in perpetuity.  The consequence is that God sets a limit for humanity at 120 years. It is possible that this is a limit on mortal life that people will not be expected to live beyond 120 before dying or that God is setting a deadline for future judgement, that all humanity has 120 years before God’s judgement will come.

Goldingay assumes the latter option, that God is indicating when judgement will come and I tend to agree with his assessment.

“The rest of Genesis does not suggest that 120 years is a cap to be placed on a human lifetime, nor does the 120 year figure feature elsewhere in the First Testament as such a limit, though Deut 34:7 might allude to it.  More likely it is a cap to be placed on how long Yahweh intends John to allow human life on earth to continue. The LXX makes the point explicit by translating ‘abide among these people’.”[2]

V4 The Nephilim were also around at that time.  The writer seems to associate these with mythological heroes, perhaps a reference to some of the prominent people in the family line of Adam. It may also be that the writer wants us to see these as the origin of some of the pagan stories about gods that often seem closer to superhuman mortals than deities.  Some conclude that these heroic strongmen and giants were the result of the intermarriage of the sons of God to the daughters of men.[3]

V5-6 Now we are  told more about what God sees. In Genesis 1 “God saw that it (creation) was good. Now he sees something that is not good. If humanity is multiplying and filling the earth, it is sadly humanity in sinful rebellion so that as well as them filling the earth, something that shouldn’t does also, evil. This is grievous to God and expressed in strong terms as sorrow that he even created the world. So God announces that he will bring judgement. The creation he has made will be blotted out.

V7 Finally God sees Noah. Noah finds grace or favour in God’s eyes. There is something different about this man.

What is going on

This passage has stumped many and caused a lot of debate over the years. Alongside questions about the identity of the Nephilim (see discussion in the footnotes) and the 120 limit, the central question concerns the identity of the Sons of God, what it meant for them to take the daughters of men and why this was so problematic.  We might assume that the original recipients of Genesis would have been alert to who the author had in mind as Hamilton comments.

“They enter without fanfare or explanation. The narrator’s assumption is that they are readily identifiable by his audience. But if his audience knew their identity, it has been long lost to subsequent readers.”[4]

Throughout history, a variety of possible explanations have been offered. Wenham explains:

“Three main kinds of interpretation are offered by modern exegetes. First, ‘the sons of the gods are nonhuman godlike beings such as angels, demons or spirits. Second, ‘the sons of the gods’ are superior men such as kings or other rulers. Third ‘the sons of the gods’ are godly men, the descendants of Seth as opposed to the godless descendants of Cain.” [5]

He tends towards the first of these options which probably has both the oldest pedigree and the strongest support amongst contemporary scholars. [6]    It would fit with wider Biblical context in terms of how such language is employed (e.g. Psalm 29:1, Job 1:6) and it would also make sense of the sharp contrast with “daughters of man.” [7]

Hamilton tends towards this view too although recognising that such an interpretation isn’t without its problems. He asks:

“If the angels are the culpable ones, why is God’s judgement not directed against them?  Why do the innocent suffer for the sins of the guilty, and why do the guilty go unjudged?”[8]

However, he still takes the view that:

“This is not a conclusive argument, for in the very next event recorded in Scripture, the Flood, we are told that the sin of man (6:5) results in the divine annihilation of not only man but of beast, creeping thing and birds (6:7).” [9]

A further problem with this approach is  Jesus’ insistence that angels do not marry or engage in sexual activity.[10]  If the “sons of god” were the descendants of Seth this would fit with Luke’s reference to Jesus as “Son of God” by way of his humanity through Adam.  It would also fit with a Biblical Theology perspective whereby we often see two lines of descent at work, one concerned with godliness and the other with curse. Indeed, the pattern of a young son (Seth) being the heir of God’s promises and the older son (Cain) forsaking the blessing is a pattern that is echoed by Esau and Jacob. 

If we stick with the older theory of angelical/demonic sexual union and assume that such beings took on temporary physical form then the specific problem is a crossing of boundaries between created species.  Hamilton says:

“Genesis 1-11 abounds with illustrations of human beings who were not content with being merely human. Accordingly, they reached for divine status and attempted to overstep the boundaries that had been imposed upon them. This story, with this approach, supplies another illustration of such transgression, albeit in the opposite direction. Here the divine or angelic world illegitimately impinges on the human world.” [11]

In other words, whilst creation is being filled through population, it is not being subdued because rather than the order and distinction we see in Genesis 1 where all creation reproduces “after its kind” there is a merger of kinds risking a return to chaos.  Additionally, the union of spiritual beings and humans may be seen as an attempt to create an alliance between the Serpent’s followers and Adam’s descendants to thwart God’s judgement of death and rival his rightful rule. 

Whilst the crossing of boundaries may not be so overt in those interpretations that see the sons of god and daughters of men as references to Seth and Cain’s line, there is still a theme of unhealthy alliances between those who should follow God and those who are resisting his reign.

In the end I think we must agree with Hamilton that “it is impossible to be dogmatic about the identification of ‘Sons of God’ here.” [12] However, whatever the correct and illusive interpretation is, I think that most options point us towards the fact that somehow in this act, creation in general and humanity in particular are seen as out of line with God’s purpose. Boundaries are crossed, dependence upon God is rejected in favour of unhelpful alliances. Life and identity is pursued outside of God’s means.

The Consequences

The result of these things is that whilst on one level God’s purpose for humanity is being fulfilled, it is at the same time distorted. Yes, humanity is multiplying and filling creation, however, mankind is multiplying through an unsanctioned method and instead of creation being filled with the glory of God has men and women subdue it, we discover in verse 6 that it is being filled with evil.  This is what prompts God to send the flood. However, even at this grim point, we are not left without hope. God is not without his representative on earth. There is one man Noah and he has found favour with God.

[1] Wenham, Genesis 1-15, 139.

[2] John Goldingay, Genesis (Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Pentateuch, Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Academic, 2020), 123. 

[3] Note there is some discussion amongst scholars about who the Nephilim are and whether they are the same as the heroes -see Hamilton, Genesis 1-17 270. The word “Nephilim has its roots in the Hebrew for “fallen ones” and so it could be that this is a reference to the fallen angels. Goldingay, Genesis, 124. See also Hamilton, Genesis 1-17 270. If so the use of the same term to describe some of the inhabitants of Canaan in Numbers may have an analogical or metaphorical echo -that the strength of the inhabitants reminded the spies of the Genesis 6 account. Wenham however disagrees with the new that the Nephilim were fallen angels and seems to identify them with the offspring of the relationship between the sons of God and daughters of men. “Despite their origin and fame, the Nephilim were only human.” Wenham, Genesis 1-15, 141

[4] Victor P Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, chapters 1-17 (NICOT, Grand Rapids MI.: Eerdmans, 1990), 262.

[5] Wenham, Genesis 1-15, 139.

[6] Wenham, Genesis 1-15, 139.

[7] Wenham, Genesis 1-15, 139.

[8] Hamilton, Genesis 1-17, 263.

[9] Hamilton, Genesis 1-17, 263.

[10] Wenham, Genesis 1-15, 140.

[11] Hamilton, Genesis 1-17, 263.

[12] Hamilton, Genesis 1-17, 265.

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