Barry Newman's Blog

September 21, 2012

Sciuence and Genesis 5: 1 – 6: 8 (part VI)

Filed under: Genesis,Science — barrynewman @ 11:24 pm

The wickedness of man (6: 5 – 8)

Then Yahweh, this deeply personal God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth upon which he had been placed and that every imagination (yester) of his thoughts (the framework for his thinking) was only evil all the day long.  With such words as “every”, “only” and “all” the reader is meant to realise that what God saw was all encompassing, all pervading and all extensive wickedness.  As Walton points out[1] the text here makes no reference to the worship of false gods or hybrid creatures created by angels cohabitating with men or that even that the concept of God has been distorted.  Whatever such men were like in other respects, their wickedness was great.

“And Yahweh was grieved (nacham) that he had made (asah) men on the earth and his heart was filled with pain.”  Walton recognises that there are various ways to understand “nacham”.  One way is to see the language used of God as simply anthropomorphic.  It describes God as though he were a human being.  Walton considers the various meanings of “nacham” that people consider possible and suggests another way how the word should be understood. He lists various categories that lexicographers recognise for the word such as, “grieve, repent, console, relent, be comforted, and change one’s mind”.  He then offers what he considers to be a cohesive concept which embraces all of these categories.  His suggestion is that the word is best understood in accounting terms – that essentially the word should be understood “in terms of acting to keep personal, national or cosmic ‘ledgers’ in balance.”.  He refers to Judges 21: 6 where various tribal leaders seek to balance the ledger for Benjamin, the tribe having been decimated. Consequently he sees the text in Genesis describing not Yahweh as regretting, grieving or being sorry but Yahweh as seeking to address the situation of the extensive wickedness of man. “His course of action entails wiping almost the entire population from the earth.”  Such a procedure will redress the terrible imbalance that has arisen. Of course God’s heart was filled with pain that he would have to so act. Walton writes, “his heart tormented him [i.e. he was distressed]”).  I take it that Walton sees the idea that God experienced torment as anthropomorphic in character even though he has not approached the “grieving that he had made man” as anthropomorphic. Walton’s approach is indeed novel and perhaps correct although one could argue that from the point of view of consistency, an anthropomorphic viewpoint would have been more acceptable.  It is also interesting that when referring to “nacham” in 5: 29, Walton is quite at ease with the translation of the verb being “comfort”. Whatever we make of God’s reaction to the situation it still seems to convey the idea of God feeling as well as acting as though he were a human being. Perhaps Walton’s approach is in the end anthropomorphic anyway.

With all apologies to Walton and others who know far more than I will ever know, an appeal to a cohesive concept may be very useful for setting boundaries to what a word can and cannot mean.  However in a specific text, the meaning to be supplied is determined very much by the context, though the meaning decided upon has to lie within certain boundaries.  Given that many Hebrew words have to do a lot of work, the meaning of a particular word in a particular context is only sometimes, perhaps rarely, likely to amount to a cohesive meaning incorporating somehow or another all possible meanings.  With respect to “nacham” I suspect that in 5: 29 the sense is something like “bringing about change to” and that in 6: 6 and 6: 7 it is something like “changing the mind with respect to”.  My suggestion for the overriding cohesive character of “nacham” or, put in another way, its underlying character, has to do with the notion of “change”. This is not too dissimilar to Walton’s overarching concept of “acting to keep things in balance” though it is less restrictive.

Yahweh’s decision was to wipe from the face of the earth man whom he had created (barah) – that is, he whom God had in a very personal fashion brought into being in the first place.  But not only is mankind to be destroyed but also animals, things that crawl and birds of the sky, for he repented (nacham) that he had made (asah) them.  (The Hebrew word translated “animals” (behemah), though a probable reference to domesticated animals in Genesis 1: 24 and 2: 20 is probably here a reference to animals wild or domesticated.) Again the same word, “nacham”, translated here as “repented” is used as in the previous verse.  From Walton’s point of view it again has the sense of God seeking to redress the situation but this time the focus seems to be upon the animals, crawling things and birds as well as man.  

Are these other creatures involved not simply because by the method that God will adopt they also must suffer, but because their existence is somehow linked with mankind’s existence? Perhaps we need to be reminded that in Genesis 1: 26, mankind was to “rule over” the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the sky and over cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing.  (The fish of the sea are not mentioned in 6: 7 for obvious reasons.)  Again in the garden, the man gave names to all the cattle (behemah), and to the birds of the sky and to every animal of the field (Genesis 2: 20)[2] (but not the fish of the sea). To a significant extent, the various creatures that are to be destroyed are here on earth because of man.  The destruction of mankind will mean that they have to be destroyed as well.  If they are left upon the earth, their basic function cannot be fulfilled.  Only a few will survive the flood and those few will accompany a man – Noah.

At the same time that such destruction is brought to the attention of the reader, a note of hope is given.  “And Noah found grace (chen) in the eyes of the Lord (Yahweh)”.  We wait for the next “toledoth” before receiving more information on Noah.  However, at this point in the unfolding drama, one man stands out as the object of God’s kindness.  Because we are not given any further information at this juncture, that Yahweh has looked with favour upon this one man, focuses our attention again upon this God.  He will almost utterly destroy but not this man. This man is the one to whom he shows extraordinary kindness. And this is the man named “rest” – Noah.  And rest he personally will have one day, though difficult and turbulent times lie ahead.

So ends this “toledoth” – this accounting of things.

[1] Walton has some discussion on vv. 5 – 7 in his commentary referred to in Note 1, pp. 307 -311

[2] What might be understood by the various terms used to describe various living creatures and the notions of “ruling over” and “naming” was discussed in an earlier series.


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