Barry Newman's Blog

September 18, 2012

Science and Genesis 5: 1 – 6: 8 (part V)

Filed under: Genesis,Science — barrynewman @ 9:22 pm

The Sons of God and the Nephilim (6: 1 – 4)

The first few verses of chapter 6 relate to what has gone before.  Chapter 5 makes it clear that over many generations, many sons and daughters have been born.  And so here the writer refers to a time when man began to multiply on the face of the earth (adamah) and when daughters were born to them. Perhaps daughters are mentioned because they are the ones who give birth to those who were increasing in number. (“Man” [adam] could be understood to refer to either males or mankind). The verses also lay a foundation for what is to follow in vv. 5 – 8 with vv. 1 – 8 as a whole being a lead in to the account of the great flood.

That the reference to “the sons of God marrying any of the daughters of men as they chose”, is followed by the statement that the Lord (Yahweh) said that his Spirit would not always contend with man, probably indicates that what the sons of God were doing was despicable in the sight of God.  

Walton[1] outlines how from earliest times the phrase, “the sons of God” was thought to refer to angels (see, for example, the understanding of Genesis 6 in 1 Enoch) then how in the 2nd and 3rd centuries A.D., Jewish commentators thought that it was a reference to “rulers”.  At the same time, Christian commentators thought it was a reference to men from the lineage of Seth, while believing that the phrase, “the daughters of men” was a reference to the line of Cain.  While arguing against the Jewish view that the rulers were engaged in polygamy, Walton suggests that the reference is indeed to rulers but rulers that exercised among other things, “the right of the first night”[2].  The practice involved an authority figure imposing “his will on his people by demanding and exercising the right to spend the first night with any woman who is being married.” Of course he would select those “daughters of men” whom he saw as “beautiful”. He cites the Gilgamesh Epic to indicate that this practice existed from ancient times. He also refers to the evidence that “at times kings were construed as sons of deity and … authorities were occasionally designated elohim when they were engaged in duties as representatives of God.”  Referring again to the Gilgamesh Epic, he cites how Gilgamesh is portrayed as two thirds god and one third man.

If sexual depravities of this sort are being referred to in the text, one can understand why God would decide that his relationship with men had to change.  Walton sees a progression of offenses beginning with the individuals Adam and Eve, extending to the family as in the case of Cain, then to society leaders as in the case of these rulers and then to everyone, just before the flood.  The way in which God decides to change this relationship at this point however, is to diminish their life spans. Yahweh says that his Spirit will not always strive (diyn) with man in his erring. Behind the word translated “strive” lies the idea of having to contend with, that is putting up with without making any changes. God will not simply go on and on putting up with erring mankind. There comes a point in time when he decides that he will now act. He will now bring about change. They are flesh. They are mortal and that mortality will now be made more evident.  They have been enjoying very long lives but now the length of those lives will be severely shortened.  Perhaps by referring to his Spirit (ruach), God is making a connection between himself and the spirit (the breath) they require in order to live.  Perhaps the reader is also meant to see a reference to the breath that God breathed into the man in the first place (Genesis 2: 7), though the Hebrew word used to describe breath on that occasion is “neshemah”.  Now their days will be reduced to 120 years – a reduction, on average, by about seven eighths! And it is Yahweh who decrees it.  He is the one who personally utters, “My Spirit shall not always strive with man in his erring”.  The days of man, who is actually flesh, shall now be reduced to 120 years.

The introduction of the “Nephilim” at first glance may seem odd.  In Numbers their existence is reported by the spies sent by Moses to spy out the land of Canaan. “All the people we saw in its midst were men of stature and we saw there the Nephilim, the sons of Anak of the Nephilim. We were in our own eyes as grasshoppers and so we were in their eyes.” (Numbers 13: 32, 33).  The Nephilim appear to be people of considerable physical height. Their size could have given them considerable advantages over others in battle and such prowess could have created for them a reputation of some note.  Indeed that is how Genesis 6: 4 concludes, if one understands the reference still to be to the Nephilim – “they were the warriors of old, the men of renown”.  But it would probably be a mistake to infer from the use of the word, “gibborim”, unhelpfully translated sometimes by the word “heroes”, that they were to be held in high esteem.  The writer seems to be simply drawing attention to men who were of large size, powerful in battle and having a considerable reputation, men who came into existence even before the sons of God behaved in the way they did but who persisted up unto at least those times. Indeed the text seems to suggest that such Nephilim were also the offspring of the union between the sons of God and the daughters of men. Perhaps such offspring were given positions of power and prestige and so because of this power became to be associated with those men of stature, powerful in battle and famous – the Nephilim. The text is not easy to understand. Etymologically, “nephilim” carries with it the notion of fallen ones.  The writer might have been seeing in their name, that as great as they were they were not invincible.

It is possible that given the existence of the Nephilim after the flood, a reader making sense of both the Genesis and Numbers accounts might have viewed the term, “Nephilim” as generic rather than genealogical in character.  The Nephilim might have been considered to be people of a particular type rather than people of a common biological line.

In vv. 1-4 the picture is being given of the existence of rulers of power behaving according to their fancy and of warriors who were renowned for their power.  And it is upon a world of men with such power that God will rain down (excuse the pun) judgment.  The rulers are not given the name “kings” and the warriors are described as Nephilim – the fallen ones.  In the final analysis, God alone is king, God alone rules. In the final analysis God alone is mighty, God alone cannot fall but others will.


[1]Walton deals with vv. 1 – 4 in the work mentioned in note 1, pp. 290-298.

[2] Walton recognises that 2 Peter 2: 4 and Jude 6 with their references to certain angels are considered by some to be reflecting on the Genesis passage, but argues against this understanding.

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