Genesis 6: Sons of God, Nephilim, and Watchers?

1ibju9wGenesis 6 is baffling.  Many scholars would argue that the story about “sons of God” procreating with the “daughters of man” needs to be demythologized.  Others, Darren Aronofsky for example, would argue that we need to embrace the mythology of Genesis.  They claim it is a story from an epoch when the mind of mankind intermingled the supernatural and natural–an epoch when men believed in demigods, monsters, and watchers.

What are we as believers to do with the puzzling story in Genesis 6:1-8?

I can tell you two things we shouldn’t do with it.  (1) Demythologize it. (2) Mythologize it.  Genesis does not present itself in the form of myth.  Speaking about Genesis 6 as though it were cloaked in mythical language does injustice to the author who clearly sees his narrative as a part of linear history, not episodic mythology.  The approach that treats Genesis 6 as though it were shrouded in the mythical language is flawed from the beginning.

In the Beginning…

I am a firm believer in allowing the authors of Scripture to tell their own story [I believe Moses wrote Genesis, so I will refer to him as its author from here on out–if you don’t like that, take it up with Jesus (John 5:36; 7:19,22; Luke 20:37; Mark 7:10; etc.)].  Moses is not a mere collector of ancient pericopes or a redactor of disparate, conflicting, mythical episodes.  He is a writer who is developing a story–the story of God’s people.  Just six chapters into his first book, several course-altering events have been narrated, and they are essential for understanding chapter 6.

In Chapters 1 and 2, Moses begins with a dual composite narrative of Creation.  The first account zooms in on God as the Orderly Creator.  The second zooms in on man as his chief creature.  However, in Chapter 3, God’s order is turned upside down, as Man who was created to subdue the creation takes orders from a creature–the serpent, and ‘the helper’ helps her husband to disobey God.  Led astray by her eyes, she is tempted into eating of the forbidden fruit after the serpent promises, “When you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen. 3:5)

Mankind falls into sin, but Moses holds out hope for mankind in a promise God makes in verse 15: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.”  Moses intends for us to read the rest of Genesis in anticipation.  Who will this seed be?

The Two Seeds.

Right away, the first two offspring of Eve display the emerging enmity: Cain and Abel.  When Abel offers the acceptable sacrifice to God in Genesis 4, we hope he might be the promised seed of the woman.  However, Cain slaughters Abel and our hopes for redemption through his lineage.  After God curses Cain, chapter 4 tells us about the offspring of Cain.  The genealogy concludes with a man named Lamech, who boasts to his two wives about being 70 times more violent than his murderous forefather Cain.

However, a new seed of the woman emerges: Seth.  Eve’s hopes are revived: “God has appointed for me another seed in place of Abel, for Cain killed him.”  As Seth’s line begins, we are told, “At that time people began to call upon the name of the LORD” (Genesis 4:26).  All of chapter 5 narratives the lineage of this seed of the woman, the righteous seed through which we hope redemption might come.  Seth’s line also concludes with a man named Lamech.  However, unlike the violent Lamech of Cain’s lineage, this one shares our hope for peace.  He names his son Noah, saying, “Out of the ground that the LORD has cursed this one shall bring us rest from our work and from the painful toil of our hands” (Gen. 5:29).

In chapters 4 and 5, Moses juxtaposes two seeds–the seed of the serpent and the seed of the woman, one wicked and one righteous.  However, in chapter 6 something terrible happens.

Two become One.

Intermarriage.  Genesis 6 is not about demi-gods, rock monsters, or fallen angels.  Nowhere in Scripture are we told that angels can have sexual intercourse or reproduce; in fact, Jesus states that angels are unmarriageable (Matthew 22:30).  Angels are spiritual beings, and sex is by definition physical.  [I do not agree that 2 Peter 2:1-11 and Jude 1:4-8 are speaking about angels coming down in this passage to have relations with human women, but that is for another article another day.]  As I was saying, this passage is about the disastrous intermarriage of the two seeds.

In verse 2, the structure of the text clearly contrasts “the sons of God” with “the daugthers of Man”.  These are the two lines: the men from the line of Seth who called upon the name of the LORD and were faithful to God vs. the daughters of wicked Man.  Once two separate lines, they now become one polluted lineage through intermarriage: “The sons of God saw that the daughters of Man were attractive.  And they took as their wives any they chose.”

Just as Eve was drawn into sin by her eyes, now we have the sons of God polluting the promised seed because of their eyes.  Verse 3 is a prophecy about the flood: “My Spirit will not strive with Man forever, for he is flesh: his days shall be 120 years.”  This is a pronouncement of the coming judgment on all of mankind.  Why?  Because all of mankind has together become completely sinful.  In verse 4, the Nephilim are fallen and wicked warriors, men like Lamech who become famous through violent exploits.  It is possible that they became mighty through physical prowess.  [The word Nephilim only appears here and in the bad report of the spies in Numbers 13:33.  I would argue that the connection the spies make between the sons of Anak and the Nephilim is a falsehood meant to scare the people.]  The key is that the earth has been overrun by wicked, violent, and infamous men.

Pure Evil.

At one time the world had hope for the promised seed.   After intermarriage the earth looks like this: “The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great upon the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.”  That’s three superlatives in one sentence.  Where once we had a holy lineage and a wicked lineage, now we have a world completely trenched in wickedness.

The beautiful and good world God created was polluted through and through with sin: “And the LORD was sorrowful that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart” (Gen. 6:6).  God went forward with his plan to wipe the face of the earth clean of everything, man, beast, bird, bug, everything…

…except Noah.  Remember Lamech’s prophecy back in Genesis 5:29?  This saddening tale ends with one hope, the chosen seed: “But Noah found favor in the eyes of the LORD.”

When man’s eyes led to wickedness and the destruction of the righteous seed, the LORD’s eyes gave mankind one last hope…

(photo credit)

Published by Chad C. Ashby

Instructor of Literature, Math, and Theology at Greenville Classical Academy Greenville, SC