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Stress-testing the
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Where a recovering ex-atheist rams the Bible into other worldviews to see what breaks (note: Scripture cannot be broken)


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What is Genesis 6:1-4 talking about?

Some hermeneutical and exegetical thoughts about the sons of God and the Nephilim.

In asking the question, is Genesis 6:1-4 about ETs?, Steve Hays makes the following observation:

To me, the text invites a far more mundane explanation. Isn’t this a familiar scenario? Raiding parties to abduct women from a neighboring tribe or village. That happens in lots of primitive cultures. An invading army where officers have the pick of the women. Sex-starved sailors who discover the Polynesian islands and help themselves to the bounty, including–or especially–native women.

If it weren’t for one or two enigmatic designations (nephilim; “sons of god[s]), surely we wouldn’t take it any other way.

For the sake of reference, here’s the passage in question from the LEB:

And it happened that, when humankind began to multiply on the face of the ground, daughters were born to them. 2 Then the sons of God saw the daughters of humankind, that they were beautiful. And they took for themselves wives from all that they chose. 3 And Yahweh said, “My Spirit shall not abide with humankind forever in that he is also flesh. And his days shall be one hundred and twenty years.” 4 The Nephilim were upon the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God went into the daughters of humankind, and they bore children to them.

Now, it should go without saying that I think the ancient aliens thesis is pure garbage. Entertaining, but utter tripe. You need to have a few screws loose or be deliberately misinformed to take it seriously. So Steve and I agree at least on that much. But I think his reasoning about this passage in general is poor. And it’s a pretty interesting passage; so now seems as good a time as any to make some hermeneutical and exegetical observations. I’m not going to fully develop my view here, but I will try to explain why I think the sons of God are not human, and why this passage is teaching something which has been widely depopularized in modern evangelicalism due to it being “kooky”, “unscientific”, or a bit too reminiscent of ancient aliens conspiracy theories:

1. Some initial hermeneutical observations

(a)

To quote Michael Heiser, “if it’s weird, it’s important”. This is not to make our subjective credulity or lack of understanding a benchmark for deciding which passages to hang doctrines off; but rather to suggest that when there is something in Scripture which strikes us as weird, often it is because we have lost the background information that makes it sensible. And often that information turns out to shape the biblical worldview in surprising ways. So enigmatic references might well be important.

(b)

We also have to be quite careful not to impose our experience of the world onto Scripture as a normative principle. Just because we do not have experience of the spirit world—with possession or demonic activity or hauntings for example—does not mean the spirit world doesn’t exist, or that these events are inherently implausible. It takes very little reading of missionary reports from any time period at all to realize that the spiritual realm is much wilder and more active than we typically experience in the West.

(c)

There’s also the question of how much is experienced in the West. How many credible reports are dismissed as kooky on the basis of scientific modernism—which needless to say is not a Christian worldview—or hard cessationism—which needless to say is not a Christian theology?

2. “Enigmatic designations” in Genesis 6:1-4

Steve’s comment that if it weren’t for the enigmatic designations, we wouldn’t take the passage in a supernatural way, seems decidedly odd, since it is precisely because of these designations that people like me do take it that way. Now, I get that Steve is reacting against the ancient aliens theory, which mutilates the terms in question. But the fact that some people leap to bizarre conclusions about these “enigmatic designations” doesn’t imply that sensible people should conclude that they indicate nothing. They are enigmatic and seem to demand explanation.

So, about those terms…

2.1. With regard to the “sons of God” (beney ha-elohim)

(a)

This precise term only appears three times in Moses’ writings: Genesis 6:2; Genesis 6:4 and Deuteronomy 32:8.* In the LXX, Deuteronomy 32:8 reads “angels of God” rather than “sons of God”, illustrating the understanding that spiritual beings are in view. That is also certainly how the term is understood in Job 1:6; 2:1; 38:7. Now, you can argue that Job’s Hebrew is idiosyncratic, which it is—but “sons of God” was a common religious term in Hebrew and in Canaanite usage. It referred to the divine beings who comprised the family of the sovereign God. This is evident in the extremely similar usage in Psalms 29:1; 82:6; 89:6. Obviously Canaanite religion diverged from Hebrew religion because it was largely based on false, man-made monistic philosophy rather than God’s revealed word. But the basic idea with respect to the sons of God was the same.

(b)

You can argue that God calls both Israel and its king his son (Exodus 4:22; Jeremiah 31:9; Psalm 2:7 etc). But obviously Israel does not exist in Genesis 6. Moreover, while ancient Near Eastern cultures often considered kings divine or semi-divine, there are no known parallels for the term “sons of God” referring to human rulers; the closest parallel terms refer to divine beings. And taking the sons of God to be human kings also fails to account for their apparently unusual offspring, the Nephilim. (More on that below.)

(c)

Augustine first proposed that the sons of God were not human kings, but rather the line of Seth. So Genesis 6:1 is describing the propagation of the line of Cain, and 6:2 how the line of Seth found their daughters attractive. But aside from the same criticisms as ad (b), notice also:

  1. Not only does the text not imply this, but it implies the opposite; verse 1 does not draw such a differentiation. It simply speaks of mankind in general. But in that case, verse 2 is naturally understood to refer to the daughters of mankind in general also.
  2. Nowhere does the Bible speak of the Sethites as the sons of God; this simply has to be assumed in the teeth of the competing evidence for the sons of God being angelic.
  3. In the previous chapter, Genesis 5, it is daughters born to Seth who are mentioned. This puts tension on the theory in terms of the thought sequence Moses is creating. We would expect him to mention the daughters of Cain, if they are the characters in Genesis 6:1-4. But if the daughters of man are just human women generally—even those descended from Seth—this tension is resolved.
  4. The Augustinian view seems to make the text imply that the sons of Seth shouldn’t have been interbreeding with the daughters of Cain. But why? Jews and Christians have such obligations because of their covenant relationship with God. But there’s no indication that God had covenanted with a particular line of people at this point.
  5. Apropos (iv), this theory then seems to imply some sort of genetic distinction between the godly line and the ungodly one. Seth’s line only produced “sons of God” (ie, godly people), while Cain’s only produced ungodly “daughters of men”. But again, not only is this absent from the text, but it makes no sense whatsoever in view of the Bible’s clear teaching that salvation is not based on who your parents are (John 1:13; Romans 9:16 etc).
  6. Apropos (v), the fact that Noah is noted for being godly militates against thinking that all Sethites were godly. Indeed, this view makes no sense of how Steve says we would read the text absent the “enigmatic designations”. If the sons of God are so-called because they are godly, they would hardly be making a widescale and concerted effort to “help themselves” to the “bounty” of evil men’s wives. So there is an internal contradiction here.
  7. You can relieve this contradiction by saying that “sons of God” is a designation of God’s favor, rather than of individual holiness. But if God’s favor doesn’t result in individual holiness, it has to be something like a covenant loyalty based on lineage. And again, this runs aground by basically reading God’s covenantal activity with Israel back into the antediluvian world with utterly no biblical warrant whatsoever. It is not until Babel, well after the flood, that God disinherits the nations and chooses just one line to covenant with for himself (cf Deuteronomy 32:8).

(d)

On top of this is the odd contrast between the sons of God and the daughters of man. The LEB I think rightly emphasizes this by translating “man” (adam) as “humankind”. The point of verse 1 is that mankind, generally, is multiplying and having daughters. Obviously they were having sons too, but the daughters are the focus because they become an object of desire. For whom? Well, apparently not for the sons of humans, since that would merely reiterate what verse 1 has already indicated! It’s a no-brainer that people multiplying happens when sons of men find daughters of men attractive. If there was nothing more going on in verse 2 than human males finding human females attractive, it’s hard to make sense of the passage at all.

2.2. With regard to the “Nephilim”

Steve also observes:

The syntax is ambiguous. It doesn’t say the Nephilim were the offspring of union between the “sons of god[s]” and human females.

(a)

Again, strictly speaking this is true—but although the text can be read otherwise, it certainly implies very strongly that the Nephilim were the offspring of a union between the sons of God and daughters of man. It could be simply marking a chronological correlation—ie, “the Nephilim were on the earth at the time that the sons of God went into the daughters of man who bore them children”—but it seems much more plausibly to be offering a causal explanation—ie, “the Nephilim were on the earth due to the sons of God going into the daughters of man who bore them children”.

(b)

When I teach writing, one of the key points I emphasize is the connectivity of ideas. How thought sequences work. One idea relates to another nearby. When we write, we link ideas in various ways—but usually at least by proximity. Sometimes when we link ideas only by proximity, our reasoning seems clear to us, but not as obvious to our readers (or at least our readers 3,500 years later). But even if the exact link between two ideas in proximity isn’t clear, the reader can certainly infer that there is a link intended. So the question is, what is the probable link that Moses intended between the Nephilim being on the earth in those days, and the sons of God going into the daughters of men? Why mention those two things together? The only likely reason I can see is that the Nephilim are the product of this union.

(c)

Numbers 13:33 and the Septuagint rendering of Genesis 6:4 take the Nephilim to be giants. Even allowing for exaggeration from the spies in Numbers 13 (which is not indicated in the text), clearly the Nephilim were intimidating people of unusual stature and skill in warfare. They were, according to Numbers 13:33, the sons of Anak—namely, a people “great and tall” (Deuteronomy 9:2). Now, how big a “giant” was is up for grabs—the average height of a man in the ancient Near East, to my understanding, was around 1.5 meters (5′). So the Nephilim might not have been taller than some modern basketball players. Nonetheless, they were physically unusual.

(d)

The evidence for the sons of God being divine beings meshes naturally with the evidence for the Nephilim being giants. A seamless picture emerges of spiritual beings taking on bodily form, cohabiting with human women, and producing unusually mighty children. The picture that emerges from competing theories is either ad hoc, or ends up denying biblical data.

(e)

An interesting sidenote is that the Jews believed demons (as found in the New Testament) to be the spirits of dead Nephilim. While I wouldn’t dogmatically assert this, it certainly makes sense, given that the rebellious sons of God seem limited in number, and are either imprisoned (see below) or in charge of political realms (cf Deuteronomy 32:8; Ephesians 6:12 etc). Inhabiting people to cause trouble seems beneath them given that they are described as gods (Psalm 82:6 etc); and demons seem to be legion (pun intended).

3. The pedigree of the various views

(a)

Apropos (2.2d), 2 Peter 2:4-11 and Jude 1:6-7 mesh seamlessly with the traditional “divine beings” understanding of Genesis 6:1-4. 2 Peter 2:4 refers to the angels who sinned; verse 5 places this in the context of the flood; verse 6 gives Sodom as an example of judgment for the kind of sin in question; verse 10 names the sins as the lusts of defiling passion and despising authority; Jude 1:6 elaborates that these angels did not stay within their own position of authority, but left their proper dwelling. Moreover, there is also the intriguing reference to the “glorious ones” in 2 Peter 2:11 and Jude 1:8—which illustrate a distinction between glorious ones, angels, the Lord, and possibly also archangels. Because of the broad way that the term “angels” is used in the New Testament, it’s hard to be sure what is going on here, but it is at least plausible to suppose that the glorious ones are the angels who left their proper dwelling; ie, they are spiritual beings greater than “typical” angels—what we might call archangels, and what the Old Testament would call the sons of God.

(b)

Understanding the sons of God to be divine beings is not a fringe view, nor a modern one. In fact, it was the exclusive view until about the second century AD. It is reflected in 1 Enoch 6, Jubilees 5, the Septuagint, Philo (De Gigant 2:358), Josephus (Ant. 1.31), the Dead Sea Scrolls (1QapGen 2:1; CD 2:17–19), Justin, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, and Origen, among others. This is not to say that these sources cannot err; rather, that this is a venerable understanding of the text. It wasn’t until theologians started to take Matthew 22:30 as normative for what angels cannot do rather than how they naturally are (an obviously unjustified equivocation denied by Old Testament examples), that competing views began to arise.

For an evangelical, the only reason I can see to discount the traditional view is non-textual—ie, Western incredulity.

This exchange continues

* Deuteronomy 32:8 in the medieval Hebrew Masoretic Text reads “sons of Israel”. This is obviously a late corruption, since there was no Israel at the time of the event it describes (Babel). The correct reading is preserved in the LXX and Dead Sea Scrolls, as reflected in the ESV, NET and others.

9 comments

  1. steve hays

    Keep in mind that my post wasn’t attempting to exegete the passage. Here are a couple of posts in which I address exegetical issues:

    http://butthesethingsarewritten.blogspot.com/2013/08/the-nephilim.html

    http://triablogue.blogspot.com/2014/04/new-frontiers-in-exobiology.html

  2. steve hays

    A related post:

    http://triablogue.blogspot.com/2014/04/wayward-angels.html

  3. steve hays

    “If the sons of God are so-called because they are godly, they would hardly be making a widescale and concerted effort to ‘help themselves’ to the ‘bounty’ of evil men’s wives. So there is an internal contradiction here.”

    Since I never suggested that the “sons of god[s] were pious Sethites who intermarried with impious Cainites, that doesn’t contradict my own interpretation.

    “If there was nothing more going on in verse 2 than human males finding human females attractive, it’s hard to make sense of the passage at all.”

    Once again, I never suggestion there was nothing more going on than that.

    “When I teach writing, one of the key points I emphasize is the connectivity of ideas. How thought sequences work.”

    Back in college I used to have one-on-one sessions with the Classics prof. in which I’d read and translate a Greek text. One time it was the Iliad. The syntax in one sentence simply laid two ideas side by side. In translating it, I used English prepositions which subordinated one thing to another in a causal or logical sequence. However, the Classics prof. objected that I was making the connection more tightly logical than the author may have intended.

    “It wasn’t until theologians started to take Matthew 22:30 as normative for what angels cannot do rather than how they naturally are (an obviously unjustified equivocation denied by Old Testament examples), that competing views began to arise.”

    Once more, I’d simply point out that I didn’t use that argument.

  4. Craig

    Reading Calvin on Genesis 6 is incredibly helpful, though he is not where I started.

    I used to think the nephilim were the byproduct fallen angels as well. It wasn’t “Western incredulity” that led me to abandon that interpretation. I looked at the chapter and asked myself if such a reading was necessary. I realized it wasn’t a necessary reading. Why are the nephilim refereed to as men, after all? Either reading, upon first glance, seem plausible…but one reading is better than another. Clearly that’s what you’re shooting for, but you come up short.

    The translated words are not without ambiguity. Were the nephilim giants, or were these warriors who “fall upon” others in battle? Whether they were giants or not is actually immaterial to their being the offspring of the fallen angels. What is a giant, after all? At what point is someone considered “giant”? Do those of Nordic decent meet the criteria? If so, they are simply human. Why would a giant (whatever height that means) necessitate a union of humans with fallen angels? If the nephilim is a specific race, why are they said to exist after the flood as well (v4)? The bloodline was wiped out at the flood, right?

    Further, Genesis 6 does not necessarily read that the nephilim were the exclusive product of a union between the sons of God and daughters of men. It says there were nephilim in those days *when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men*. It seems this is saying a number of things: 1) the sons of God co-existed with nephilim. 2) the sons of God took daughters of men for wives. 3) these same produced offspring which also became mighty men of renown – essentially, they became nephilim. No longer did they identify with God, rather, they identified with mighty warriors and became like them. 4) violence was increasing…which is something which is precisely emphasized in the chapter.

    One response would be the supposed connection with Jude…the problem being, it would have to pattern precisely the sin of Sodom. If these were fallen angels copulating with women, their sin would be unlike Sodom’s since they were reproducing. Further, if they were fallen angels, it would also be unlike Sodom in that these are different beings at every level – one angelic, the other human. Perhaps that would make it more or less like Sodom’s sin since it’s going after strange flesh…possibly.

    Why not see a teleological rebellion which has similarity with the sin of Sodom? God has established lines His creatures are not to cross – man’s is centrally tied to his sex and reproduction. This is not the case with angels. However, angels do have lines not to cross…since angels are not sexual (Mark 12:25), the lines they must keep within are according to their created order.

    The angelic armies know order, and rank. Jude bares this out. The fallen angels did not keep their “domain” – they were deserters. They were mutinous. Within the same context, Michael the Archangel is set up as the prototype against the antitype backdrop: he would not rebuke the devil since the devil was the greater of the two, but instead appealed to his superior – the Lord (Jude 1:9). One puzzles over the reference to Michael if what preceded was exclusively about sexual sin.

    This incident (Michael the Archangel) is important because it further elaborates that the point of Jude’s reference was to liken the rebellion of rank and order to the sin of sodomy. Michael the Archangel was set up as a prototype against the antitype’s backdrop – he knew rank and order and he maintained. He was not mutinous. These sins, while different in kind, share a creational structural rebellion.

    A reading of Jude may *seem* to imply the nephilim were the product of fallen angels having sex with human women, but that rests on baggage brought to the text. It only becomes “necessary” insofar that one has committed himself to such a reading of Genesis 6.

    I have not even gotten into the theological and systematic problems a scifi reading of Genesis 6 introduces. Interpreting the text as I have shows no gymnastics and no “explaining away.” In fact, it would serve to deepen one’s understanding and application of the text. You can’t do that with a Tor-inspired reading. Tor-inspired readings only serve to titillate.

    Here are just a few theological problems after considering the above:
    1. God created all things to reproduce after their own kind. Angels are of a different kind (and order) than man. Was God lying in Genesis 1?
    1a. Was Jesus mistaken re: angelic inability to reproduce? One might say marriage does not necessitate an inability to reproduce, but marriage is for reproduction…why create a capacity and desire that was forbidden?
    2. The flood narrative would cease focusing on the sin of man qua man and turn to a judgment of God against a metaphysical mixture – something that has more in common with a pagan order of being than a biblical one.
    3. Did fallen angels stop reproducing with human women? If they existed after the flood, what makes you think they stopped?
    4. Since we should assume they have not stopped reproducing, perhaps our battle is, in fact, against flesh and blood contra what the Apostle Paul says (Ephesians 6:12)?

    I could go on…

  5. Tim Bulkeley

    Thanks for a careful and interesting post. You say there is no ANE evidence for the use of “sons of God” for kings, but what about the sort of thing Day collects here https://books.google.co.nz/books?id=PepGAQAAQBAJ&pg=PA82&dq=%22son+of+God%22+king+ancient+near+east&hl=en&sa=X&ei=dhH2VJ_KOMHCmQWXvoI4&ved=0CCIQ6AEwAQ#v=onepage&q=%22son%20of%20God%22%20king%20ancient%20near%20east&f=false ?

  6. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Steve, if you didn’t intend to promote the view I quote you suggesting, perhaps you could explain what your view of the passage is?

  7. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Craig, I have interacted with your points here: http://bnonn.com/was-moses-the-first-asimov/.

    Tim, there are a couple of problems with the kind of evidence you cite:

    (1)

    There is no exact parallel for “sons of God” being used collectively in this way to refer to kings. Indeed, that specific phrase seems to be reserved for the spirit-family of God. So in terms of matching the phrase to the referent, the best evidence is still in favor of my interpretation.

    (2)

    We have to be careful with imputing pagan ideas to the Bible. The fact that kings were seen as divine in the ancient Near East doesn’t mean the Bible sees them as divine. But if “sons of God” in Genesis 6 is referring to human kings, the natural interpretation would be that the Bible is seeing those kings as divine.

    This gets into the issue of understanding pagan terminology appropriated by the Bible. There’s no doubt that there is some in there (the cloud-rider language in Daniel, for instance, is cribbed directly from Ba’al). But is the Bible endorsing the pagan understanding, or correcting it? I can’t see how Genesis 6 referring to human kings as the sons of God would function polemically; it would seem, rather, to reinforce the false pagan belief.

  8. Tim Bulkeley

    On 1, I tend to agree in principle, though I find it difficult to imagine many places where the plural “sons of gods” might have been used that way even though “son of [a god]” was used.

    On 2. I’d see Gen 6 as precisely polemic against the pretensions of human kings who called themselves “son of [a god]” and claimed as right the property of others including their wives and children.

    Though I confess I was unconvinced until I listened to a recording of the passage preceded by Star Wars type music and an intro about the pretensions of ancient kings… heard like that it does seem to fit well as preparation for the story of the Exodus. (In particular Moses conflict with Pharaoh about whether Pharaoh or YHWH is to be served.)

  9. Tim Bulkeley

    PS the recording is here http://bigbible.org/blog/pics/Gen6.mp3

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