The Sons of God in Genesis 6:1-4 (Part 2)

Dear Reader,

This is part two of what looks to be a continuing series. You should read part 1 first; you can find it here.

In part 1, I talked cleverly deflected the question of who the Nephilim in Genesis 6:1-4 are and talked instead about who the sons of God in this passage are. So far what I have told you is not too radical. There are two main options on the issue, that they are human or that they are not. I came down on the side of the latter. But there are still a lot of questions which these few verses raise so I’d like to move it along and tackle the next one. Here it is: if they are not some subset of humanity, who are the “sons of God” who mate with “the daughters of men”?

Let’s bring up the passage again, just so we have it before us:

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.” (Gen. 6:1-4; ESV)

I’d also like to look again at the two other OT passages which mention the sons of God; here they are:

“Give to the LORD, sons of God, give to the Lord glory and strength.” (Ps. 29:1; my translation)

“And it happened one day when the sons of God came to stand before the LORD, that Satan also came amongst them.” (Job 1:6; also my translation)

One of my arguments for coming down on the side of the non-human for the sons of God is how the term is used in these two passages. I want to add to that now. Look at them again — who are the sons of God in these passages? Well, they stand before God and they give Him glory and praise. Who does that sound like? It sure sounds like some sort of angel or heavenly being to me. Notice in the Job passage that though Satan is among (read: with) them, he is not one of them.

Here is where I am going to depart from what is usually said (there is nothing new under the sun, and I am sure that is true here too, but I have not read this idea elsewhere). Most people who identify the Sons of God as divine beings of some sort say they are fallen angels, i.e. those who were cast out of the heavenly realms with Satan when he rebelled and fell. I don’t think this is the case. I think these are good angels. First of all, it would be very weird to call those who have rebelled and been cast out “sons of God.” Secondly, this is how the term is used in Psalms and Job, for the angels who are God’s ministers and stand before Him and praise Him.

Now you are probably saying how can that be? How can good angels come down and mate with human women? That doesn’t make any sense. Well, why doesn’t it? We assume these are fallen angels because we assume the action is a bad one. I don’t think that need be the case.

The Hebrew Bible tends to be very reticent about passing judgment. It often tells us what characters do without saying whether they should or shouldn’t have. This passage is no exception. Look back at it. The one possible negative I see is in God’s response, that He limits human lifespans. But I don’t think it is at all clear that this is a punishment for sin. It strikes me as a lot more like His reaction to the Tower of Babel. While in the case of Babel it does seem like the people are too focused on their own reputation, God’s response is not “they are prideful and need punished” but rather “this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them” (Gen. 11:6; ESV). In other words, God is limiting humanity because He sees what they otherwise might have been capable of. So too I would propose that in the first verses of Genesis 6, God is not punishing something sin but limiting humanity lest by continuing to mate with angelic beings they try to achieve immortality or close to it.

This might seem a bit hard to swallow. I am going to come back to this idea and discuss what I think is going on in all of Genesis 1-11, probably in the final post in this series. For now I’d like to focus on the issue of whether what the sons of God did was sinful. On the side of non-sinful, I’d also like to point out the character of their offspring. Whether or not the Nephilim are the product of these unions (I will get back to that, I promise), their children are called “the mighty men who were of old, the men of renown” (Gen 6:4; ESV). That does not sound like a bad thing to me. It sounds rather like a blessing or at least a very good thing to have such descendants.

But on the other side there are a couple of other reasons why people have assumed that what happened here is bad. The first is the obvious one that this passage comes right before the flood. In fact I have often read that God sent the flood to wipe out the hybrid offspring and to punish this sin. But that is not what the biblical text says. It says:

The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the Lord regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.” (Gen. 6:5-6; ESV)

Now admittedly these verses come right after the ones we have been looking at so I suppose it is natural for us to make a connection. But there is no inherent reason to do so. The English Bible I am looking at makes a break between verses 8 and 9, thus placing verses 5-8 with what comes before. But we must remember that such divisions are editorial decisions; they were not in the original text. For that matter, even the chapter and verse divisions were not original.

Furthermore, the punishments God decides in verses 5 and 6 do not really make sense if they are to apply to what came before in verses 1-4. If, as I have argued, the sons of God were not human, then it makes to sense to connect what they did to, as it says in v. 5, “the wickedness of man” being great on the earth. They are not man so it can’t apply to them. If I am wrong and the sons of God are human, we are no better off for the text still says “the wickedness of man” is being punished but whose wickedness its it? The “sons of God” who are usually identified as the holy line of Seth? The daughters of men? I don’t think we can blame the women for any of this; they can’t have had much choice in the matter either way. But perhaps it is not the parents but the offspring who are being punished. They indeed are called men; the word is used for them twice (an issue I will also return to). They are again “the mighty men who were of old, the men of renown” (Gen 6:4; ESV). But they don’t sound evil, do they? In Bible terms being mighty is usually a good thing. So is having renown. I really don’t see that there is any way to connect verses 5-6 with what came before and to make the flood a reasonable punishment for what has happened. I think it is actually all much simpler if we think that there is a break between verses 4 and 5.

One last issue: I think part of the reason we have tended to view Genesis 6:1-4 negatively is the presence of our old friend, that word “Nephilim.” You see, Nephilim in Hebrew appears to be from the verbal root npl meaning to fall. So when we see heavenly beings linked to this root we think “Aha! fallen angels.” There are a few problems with this. First of all, we are not sure that Nephilim comes form this root (we’ll get to that in part 3). But even if it does, it does not have to mean fallen in the sense we use it when we speak of fallen angels (again: see part 3). Lastly, and I have not yet done the research on this; it is just a hunch, I am not sure that the idea of “fallen” angels, I mean describing them with that particular adjective was customary when this text would have been written. It strikes me as a modern way of speaking,and it may be  anachronistic to see it here.

What I hope I have done in this installment is to create at least a shadow of a doubt in your mind that what is happening in Genesis 6:1-4 is a bad or sinful thing. I know the arguments here are not rock-solid. What I hope I am showing is that we are bringing our preconceived notions of what is good or bad and reading them into the text. If we step back and look at it afresh, I at least find it a lot more convincing that the “sons of God” are neither humans nor fallen angels but the angels who stand before God and serve Him.  I realize this is still a big theological problem. We do not like to think this is so, but I do have some ideas on what is going on in this passage and why it is going on and actually what the whole point of Genesis 1-11 is. But you’ll have to wait because next time, as promised, I am going to discuss those pesky Nephilim.

Until then

Nebby

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4 responses to this post.

  1. Interesting stuff! I have wondered about this over the years, but I’ve never heard this viewpoint before. Thanks for sharing!

    Reply

  2. […] « The Sons of God in Genesis 6:1-4 (Part 2) […]

    Reply

  3. […] and this will not be the last! You can and should read them in order. Here are the links: Part 1, Part 2, Part […]

    Reply

  4. […] on Genesis 6:1-4. I recommend reading them in order; the earlier parts can be found here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part […]

    Reply

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