Tuesday, August 30, 2005

The sons of God (Gen 6:1-5)

The "sons of God" is an understandably confusing phrase. It occurs five times in the O.T., and six times in the N.T., and in many of the places it appears, it's clear what it's referring to. Unfortunately, this is not really one of those times. In those appearances in the N.T., it's really a reference to our (Christians') relationship status to God due to our response to the person of Jesus Christ. I think we can pretty much rule out that interpretation here. All O.T. instances of the phrase outside of this chapter occur in the book of Job, where it is pretty much universally accepted that it is referring to the Heavenly spirit beings that we call "angels". Now, some people have tried the suggestion that "the sons of God" and "the daughters of men" refer to the descendants of Seth and Cain respectively, but I'm not sure there's good evidence for it. Whatever is going on, though, the fact that it's mentioned in two verses sandwiching a verse in which God says He's not happy with what's going on seems suggestive that it's not good.

Oh, but to answer the question that the SAB poses regarding the number of "sons" God has, you have to look at the subtleties of the language and the theology. Note that the verses calling Jesus God's only son actually say "only begotten son," and that word is important. Every other being called the "son" of God was either created by God ex nihilo, or was "adopted" into His family. In a sense, all human beings are God's children, but this terminology is talking about a special relationship, as is the relationship we find a few chapters from here between Abraham and Isaac, where I'll probably talk a little bit more about this.

Back to God's actual words in that sandwiched verse, He says of mankind that "yet his days shall be an hundred and twenty years." The SAB points this out as a possible contradiction to a verse in the Psalms claiming that men live to be only seventy. There's a lot that can be said about this. One thing is that of course either number being thought of as an estimate of how long a person might live is clearly an average. Not every man is going to live to be exactly 70, many will die young, some will live to be well over a hundred, so any specific counterexamples to this number are hardly breaking the general rule. It may very well be that the life expectancy at the time around the flood was quite different. Before the flood, we see the average life span of those people whose ages are given is right around 900 years old, while after the flood, the life span seems to quickly drop to about half of that, and continues dropping, tending towards the lower 100s (although admittedly never quite getting there). But lifespans aside, there is another possible meaning to this verse, and I think it's a likely one. When God says "yet his days shall be an hundred and twenty years," what He may in fact mean is that the flood is going to come 120 years after the events being talked about here. Note that in the end of chapter 5, Noah is 500 years old, and the flood comes when he's 600, so it may be that the story is saying, "Around the same time that Noah was raising Shem, Ham, and Japheth, there was some stuff going on in the world that was making God very unhappy."

So what was making God so unhappy? I'll engage in some slightly wild speculation aided by verse 4. We've got giants, we've got "sons of God", and we've got some notable sexual unions happening. What is this all about? Believe it or not, it's a fairly commonly accepted concept that what's happening is procreation between human females and fallen angels. There is a theological doctrine that says that before the world was created, some of the angels in Heaven decided to rebel against God, and God kicked them out. (As some have pointed out to me, a lot of this we owe to Milton's "Paradise Lost" more than the Bible, but there is some Biblical basis for it.) After the fall, these creatures managed to gain free access to earth. The whole idea related to this short passage is that some of them figured out how to have sex with humans, and eventually, they somehow had children that, for whatever reason, were giants. (In the Hebrew, the word nephilim, translated "giants" actually comes from a root word meaning "fallen" or "cast down". It's also used in Numbers 13:33, where it's much more clearly referring to giants.) This was apparently an important part of the whole problem of the earth that led to God causing the flood.

Let me finish today's post with a look at verse 5, and what the SAB says concerning it. I think it's odd that in comparing this verse to 8:21, it's cited as an absurdity rather than a contradiction, but I guess sometimes it's a personal judgment call. Here, God says He's going to destroy every living thing because of the evil of men's imaginations, in the later verse, God says He's going to be nicer because of the same thing. I think you have to look at 8:21 more carefully.
And the LORD smelled a sweet savour; and the LORD said in his heart, I will not again curse the ground any more for man's sake; for the imagination of man's heart is evil from his youth; neither will I again smite any more every thing living, as I have done.
Note that God doesn't say that He won't destroy the world because of this evil in men's hearts initially; He first says He won't "curse the ground". I think this primarily hearkens back to the curse from chapter 3, which given this verse, may in fact show to be more of a punitive thing than I had said in my commentary there, but it's hard to say. In any case, I think the point that God may be making here is that the world keeps growing steadily more and more evil, and in the end, evil is largely its own punishment. Why does God need to add any more of a burden on to the life of man to remind him of the fallen state of the world, when mankind has to live with itself day after day? Not that things will be rosy and cheery and all good, but that things are just going to be largely left to their natural processes. Furthermore, in the case of the flood, which is tacked on as an ending clause to this verse, I think God is saying that once is enough.

17 comments:

Steve Wells said...

Ben,

So you believe that angels (sons of God) had sex with human females (daughters of men)? And that the angels successfully impregnated the woman who produced giant offspring?

You say that "believe it or not, it's a fairly commonly accepted concept" that all this happened "for whatever reason." Well, I don't believe that such nonsense is accepted by anyone, except for those who will believe anything for no reason at all.

Brucker said...

Actually, I don't really know what this passage is saying, I'm only saying that given the way it reads, this seems like the most likely intention of the author.

It's obviously one of the more bizarre concepts in the Bible, and there's clearly no scientific basis for it other than the trivial fact that giants do exist, even today. (Note that it's not neccessarily giants in the fairy-tale, "Jack and the Beanstock"-type sense, only that the other instance of the Hebrew word being used gives evidence of the idea that these are larger-than-normal people.)

Add to that the fact that we don't really know what the word means anyway...? But we're sticking with the KJV, aren't we? Well, we don't know the true nature of angels, other than the fact that they generally look a lot like humans when they appear. Perhaps they're a lot more like humans than we commonly think. I obviously don't know, as I have never met one as far as I am aware.

In the end, I don't know of too many people who claim to know conclusively what this passage is talking about. Jesus says that Angels don't marry, but one can certainly avoid marrying and still have sex and children. Jude says something about angels getting in trouble and in the next verse mentions "strange flesh" and some have drawn a parallel, but it's iffy. So there's a tad of evidence both ways, and I don't think the story of Genesis as a whole fully depends on the specific interpretation, other than the fact that God considered whatever it was to be highly immoral.

Steve Wells said...

So you “don't really know what this passage is saying.” But you believe whatever it is saying is that right? If it says that angels had sex with women and had giants for offspring, then you believe it. Is that right?

If it said that dogs had sex with women and that angels were the offspring, you’d believe that too, right? Is there anything you wouldn’t believe?

(Btw, feel free to use whatever translation you’d like to use. It is the Bible that’s important, not the translation.)

Brucker said...

Sort of, but it's not that simple. If, as you say, "it said that dogs had sex with women and that angels were the offspring", I would be inclined to disbelieve. Why? Because I know enough about dogs and women to know that this is not the norm. When it comes to angels, I have no idea what they are like, so anything's possible. Reversing your statement, if the Bible said that angels had sex with women and that dogs were the offspring, then it would sound weird, but I'd have no solid reason to disbelieve other than that it sounds bizarre.

Note that there are a few notable exceptions to this general rule. In Numbers 22, I see a situation of a talking donkey. While I know that donkeys don't generally talk, it seems clear from the wording of verse 28 that this is a miraculous occurence allowed by God.

As I said in the comments earlier, when I work through the story of Noah and the ark, I'm going to have to appeal to this viewpoint an awful lot, since the story of the ark does turn out to be ridiculous on many scientific levels, but God is also clearly involved throughout.

Brucker said...

I almost forgot that I just wanted to add on to my comments about angels, women and dogs. I want to make it clear that I'd be much more skeptical of the claim that women who slept with angels gave birth to dogs than giants. After all, giants, as I have said, do actually exist, and are essentially very big humans. Giving birth to a completely separate species would be much more suspect.

People interbreed Lions and tigers to make "ligers" and "tigons", but you don't interbreed them to make horses.

Anonymous said...

I knew a fellow once who was 6 feet 10 inches and that was without the use of any growth hormone. Also heard of (but have not met) a woman who topped 8 feet.

Noone said anything about angelic parents, tho

marauder said...

If I can butt in here somewhat belatedly, I'd like to do so.

While admitting up front that the notion of angelic beings having giant children with human women seems to have more in common with cheap fantasy novels than a reasoned faith, I have to point out that one could make similar arguments about the absurdity of lions and tigers producing giant offspring (ligers), or horses and donkeys producing viable if infertile offspring (mules). Yet we bat not an eye at these odd things, and mules are even an easily recognized form of draft animal.

As to angels and humans -- I note again that it sounds ridiculous -- but our image of angels as immaterial beings of pure intelligence is not an idea found in the Bible, where angels, when they do appear, interact with humans with such facility that the humans don't realize until the end of the encounter that they were talking with angels.

So, angels having sex with people? Sounds pretty odd, but since the whole point of this discussion is whether there are internally consistent interpretations of the Scripture that don't require grossly distorting the meaning of one passage to reconcile it with another, I don't think the Nephilim are enough to settle the issue.

Brucker said...

Yes, it's internally consistent and also, in a manner of speaking, scientifically acceptable, as we cannot say for sure that it's outright impossible, since we don't know much about the nature of angels. If they can pass for human to the eye, then they might even pass for human on a biological level.

Steve Wells said...

Brucker and Marauder,

You seem to agree then that angels can have sex and produce giants as offspring. It is, as Brucker said, “internally consistent” and “scientifically acceptable”. But, of course, it is neither.

It is not “internally consistent”, at least not if you mean consistent with the rest of the bible. Here is what Jesus said about it in Mark 12:25:

“For when they shall rise from the dead, they neither marry, nor are given in marriage; but are as the angels which are in heaven.”

Now, I suppose you could (and probably will) say that he was talking about marriage, not sex – that the angels have sex, but don’t get married. I suppose it’s possible. There are wars in heaven every now and then, there might be a bit of fornication going on between angels and especially good looking women.

It is not “scientifically acceptable” since an idea in science must be testable to be acceptable. Angels having sex with women producing giants – isn’t.

So what do you think? Do angels have sex?

Brucker said...

Jesus said that angels in Heaven don't marry, yes, and there is that distinction between marrying and having sex, but I think it's less impoartant than the distinction of being in Heaven. Who knows what angels not in Heaven will do?

As for "scientifically acceptable", perhaps some clarification is needed. What I mean to say is that there's no scientific basis to say it's not possible, but indeed, there's also no scientific basis to accept it. A scientist could hold this idea as a religious belief without compromising her academic principals.

Steve Wells said...

So angels have sex when they get out of heaven, but not when they're there. Like sailors on shore leave, is that the idea?

But if they can’t control themselves when they leave heaven, why would they when they are there? I bet they behave on earth as they do in heaven. If they fornicate with human females while on earth they probably try to do it with whatever the hell they can find in heaven. Right there in front of God and everybody.

Maybe heaven isn’t such a drag after all.

Brucker said...

You have to remember that the theory here is that these are fallen angels. My point about the distiction between "Angels in Heaven" and these angels is that these are angels that are doing something that they're not supposed to be doing. Just about everything they're doing is intentional perversion of the natural order of things.

Steve Wells said...

Brucker: "You have to remember that the theory here is that these are fallen angels."

And where does this "theory" come from? The angels (if that's what they were) are called "sons of God". How do you get "fallen" out of that?

No, if these were angels, they were just doing what angels like to do – go in unto the daughters of men. Now you can’t blame them for that, now can you?

Basilides said...

the nephellim idea stems from the book of enoch, a scripture written in OT times that also contained prophecies of a messiah, and is therefore considered by most to fit more with the new testament. it was left out of the bible in the end, however, despite many blatant quotes from it found in other books that were kept.

Anonymous said...

Regardless of who the "Sons of God" and "daughters of men" are it is clear that that the fruit of the union (nephilim/giants) were were famous and/or admired by the people of the world (6:4 "heroes of old, men of renown"), but that God clearly did not approve (v.5). Now maybe he didn't approve of them because they were giants or because the were the mixing of an unholy alliance (whether with fallen angels or Cain's bloodline) and maybe not--I'm rather doubtful it matters in the bigger picture of what is going on. Knowing might clear up the those verses but they really don't undo or change what follows so it seems a moot focus, but to each his own I suppose...

The 'heroes/renown' talk does make it pretty clear that some idolatry is going down here, and verse 5 seems pretty clear that God has issue both with those who have let themselves become idols and those who are doing the idolizing...hence his plan to wipe them all out.

Why spare Noah? Maybe the more logical answer, than this wild speculating that he was of pure seed and untouched by this rank mixing that produced the giants, is that he was not participating in the idolization as the coming Chapters demonstrate his dedication to and trust in God.

Brucker said...

I didn't realize that I'd never responded to Steve's last comment. The phrase "sons of God" in the O.T. seems to often (if not always) be referring to supernatural/angelic beings. For instance, in the book of Job, Satan is among the "sons of God".

Brucker said...

As for the theory about idolatry, I think there is certainly a possibility that the theory is correct. A big plus for such a theory is the fact that it needs no appeal to the supernatural to exaplain the story. Indeed, the idea that Noah being "perfect in his generation" means that he and his family were clean from any idolatrous practices makes sense in light of other issues such as generational sin. Perhaps I just like my view because it sounds cooler, but you've got a very reasonable perspective on the matter.