The Meaning of Genesis 6:1-4 (and Genesis 1-11)

Dear Reader,

This is the fifth and final part of my series 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 4.

First a review of what I have said thus far:

  • The Nephilim mentioned in the first verses of Genesis 6 are not necessarily the offspring of the sons of God and the daughters of men. I rather think they are not.
  • There is no good evidence that the Nephilim survived much beyond the time they are mentioned (i.e. the flood).
  • The Nephilim were notable in some way and may have been giants. They were certainly thought to be so by later peoples.
  • The sons of God mentioned in Genesis 6 are God’s holy angels. They are not fallen angels. They did mate with human women who bore them children.
  • This is not a bad or a sinful action. It is not condemned by the biblical text.
  • The offspring of these unions were human but were remarkable. They are called “mighty men” and “men of renown.”

I realize that this last point, the nature of the offspring, is not one I have spent much time on. I do not have a whole lot to add about them. I have said previously that they seem to be described favorably; being mighty and renowned are good things in the Bible. I would add that though their parentage was mixed, the Bible implies that the offspring were human by calling them “men of renown.”

While I feel that my interpretation makes the most sense in terms of how the phrase “sons of God” is used and what it can mean biblically, I know that this can pose some difficulties for us. Why, we may wonder, did God allow this mating to happen? And how can they possibly fit into His plan?

To begin to answer those questions, I’d like to turn to Genesis 11, the story of the Tower of Babel. Hopefully, you are familiar with this story. Mankind decides to all work together to build a tower to reach the heavens. God looks at them, sees their pride and their intentions, says that if they have thus begin to work together nothing will be impossible for them, and then He confuses their languages and scatters them through the earth.

I think there are a lot of similarities between Genesis 11 and our few verses of Genesis 6. In both humanity aspires to something too high for it (there does not actually seem to be a lot of choice in the matter on humanity’s part in Genesis 6 but I think the parallel is still there) and God’s reaction is to further limit mankind in some way. In Genesis 11 He confuses their language and scatters them, and in Genesis 6 He limits their lifespan. Both these stories also make us uncomfortable because they seem to imply that God was not in complete control or that He was threatened by what His creatures did.

What I’d like to suggest is that in Genesis 1-11 we are in somewhat of a different era. If I say these texts are mythological, I hope you will not misunderstand me. I do not mean that they are not true, but that they serve the role of myth in a society which is to speak of origins and to show how things came to be the way they are. We tend to think that humanity becoming what we know it to be all happened within Genesis 1-3—there was creation and then there was the fall and that’s how we got to be the way we are. But while there was a moment when mankind in Adam fell, I think the fall is in some ways a longer descent. There were immediate consequences (Adam and Eve knew they were naked, for instance) and there were almost immediate consequences (God’s curses happen soon but not immediately after), but I think there are also some consequences which took a little while. For example, we see in Genesis 4 with the Cain and Abel story a deepening of the sin and a further movement away from the Garden. There is no denying that with lifespans of up to 969 years that the people of Genesis 5 were not quite like us. So my basic idea is just this: that the first chapters of the Bible are there to tell us how the world and we, its inhabitants and caretakers, came to be the way we are. It’s really a prologue to all that comes later. But while many of the questions of “why are things the way they are?” get answered in Genesis 1-3, it is really the whole first chunk of Genesis through chapter 11 that answers this question. And there are questions to be answered and issues to be resolved after Genesis 3.

But there is a little more to it as well. It is not just that our questions don’t all get answered until Genesis 11 is complete. There is also a fluidity to the world until then. It is not fully established as we know it until after Babel. Things happen in Genesis 1-11 that can’t happen later. God goes for strolls on the earth. Adam and Eve see Him face to face (after they have sinned!) and are not struck dead or otherwise affected. Angels mate with humans. People live extraordinary lifespans. People build towers to heaven. There are (possibly) giants about. While I believe God knew the end from the beginning, from our human perspective at least, not everything was decided yet in these early days of creation. And a lot of what is not decided is about who mankind is and what he is capable of.

Let me tell you the story in another way: In the beginning, God created a beautiful and good world. As the pinnacle of His creation He made something called Man. This Man was very good, but he was also somewhat ambiguous; it was not yet clear what he would be. Would he be immortal? Would he be wise? Would he continue to be morally good? God also made a companion for Man whom he names Woman (Genesis 1-2). Sadly, Man did not remain morally good. He gained a kind of knowledge — the knowledge of good and evil, but at the same time he lost his hope of immortality. His life and the tasks he had been assigned (tending the earth and being fruitful) also got a lot harder (Genesis 3). And from there things just got worse; his offspring became even more sinful, if that were possible, and moved further from their original home (Genesis 4). But there was still positive growth too. Though sin increased, so did knowledge. Man’s descendants learned to farm and herd animals, to make music and to work with metals. Though not immortal, they lived really long periods of time (Genesis 5).

So at this point in our story we can say that there were good things, but there was also this one overwhelming problem: Man had fallen into sin, become subject to death, and been separated from his Creator. So we begin to ask how can this problem be solved? Is there an antidote to Adam’s sin? In Genesis 6:1-4, we get one of the first attempts to solve this problem. Man is separated from God, but what if he can get back a little of that divine-ness? What if earthly man intermarries with heavenly beings? Can he become immortal again? Can he become good again? For us this may not seem a  huge question but remember in almost every other ancient culture, there are stories of gods and men intermarrying and of demi-gods being born. So it might seem more natural to ancient peoples than to us to ask if we can get back to perfection by intermarrying with heavenly beings. The biblical answer is, of course, no. The offspring of these unions, while impressive, are still human. And not only are they mortal, God uses this opportunity to shorten human lifespans even further, setting their limit at 120 years. And, last but certainly not least, Man is still sinful (Genesis 6:5-6).

The first attempt having failed, other methods are tried. Maybe if God wipes out everyone who is not righteous and starts over, maybe Man can do better this time. He tries this in the rest of Genesis 6 through Genesis 9. But I almost think the main point of the story is what we get at the end of Genesis 9 — have been called righteous and brought through the flood, having seen the power of God, what is the first thing Noah does? He gets drunk and indecent. The aftermath of the flood is often called a recreation, but this creation and this Man are not better than the first ones. Starting over is clearly not the answer either.

But what if all the people work together and try really hard? What if they cooperate and pour al their energies in one direction? Surely then they can reach to heaven? Nope. Genesis 11 tells us that this also is not the answer. (This, by the way, is what it seems many modern people think; if we could just get along, if we could just come up with the right program, then we can solve all our problems.)

At this point our story does not have  a very happy ending. But this is not the ending; it is only the beginning. Genesis 1-11 have got us to the point where mankind is as we know him — his life is short, his language is confused and he is scattered. He is also fallen, sinful and at a distance from his Creator. God  has shown us through the events of Genesis 1-11 all the things that will not work — we can’t marry into holiness; we can’t start over; we can’t try harder and work together. The answer has to come not from “we” doing anything but from God Himself, and that is what He’s just about to do. Starting in Genesis 12, we see God’s plan of salvation begin. It’s a long one. It takes all through the rest of the Old Testament and then through the gospels.

The point then of Genesis 1-11 is to show us what we should have had, to show us how we lost it, and to show us how we can’t get it back by ourselves.

To return to our main text, Genesis 6:1-4, the point of this very brief and obscure episode seems to be to show us that we can’t just remarry into perfection and immortality. While the Babel story in Genesis 11 tells us that human efforts are not enough, this story tells us that no one else can come from outside and help us either. Angels can’t do it. Aliens can’t do it. The gods of the nations can’t do it.  My feeling is that God not only limited human lifespans at this time but that He also put an end to any future mixing between His heavenly and earthly creatures. He allowed it once just to show us that it was not the answer, but what happened in Genesis 6:1-4 could not happen again.

On final thought: you have probably heard that the confusion engendered by Babel was undone at Pentecost when people from all nations heard the gospel in their own languages. I would add that after Pentecost, what was not possible at Babel became possible. Through the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit, people of different nations and tongues did manage to work together and to form one people which spans national boundaries. But what about our text, Genesis 6:1-4? When heaven and earth first came together an offspring were born, the results were, if you will pardon the term, somewhat abortive. While the offspring were impressive, they were mere men and the end of the whole episode was a shortening of human life and a further divide between the heavenly and earthly realms. But later on in history, we see this undone as well — Heaven and earth once again come together and have an Offspring. And while He is human, He is also divine and He brings with Him not just long days but eternal life. The curtain which had been coming down throughout Genesis 1-11 between the heavenly and the earthly has been lifted. Once again we don’t see all the results of that right away; 2000 years later we still don’t see them completely, but they are nonetheless real.

Nebby

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