A truncated story
It is only four verses long, just a paragraph in modern Bibles, which conveniently arrange the text into paragraphs instead of stacking one verse above another.
Genesis 6 is about Noah’s flood, but this paragraph comes first and it brings me up short. I read that “sons of God” took “daughters of man,” that the children born to them were “Nephilim”—warriors of great renown, and that at this time God shortened the potential life of humans to 120 years.
This paragraph is just a fragment. I don’t know what to do with it. It looks like an introduction to the story of Noah, yet it seems to have nothing to do with Noah or the flood. The relationship between these “sons of God” and the “daughters of man” is unclear. Was it good or bad? And what is meant by “sons of God”? The verse about God shortening the life span of humans makes me think it was a punishment for something, but I don’t know what.
Some folks talk about the plain meaning of scripture. And, truly some verses are plain enough. But many more times I find no clarity in my reading. Even the verses that are “plain” seem to hint at depths I cannot see.
Serious Bible study, I remember, was never intended to be an individual task. It is something best done in a community. And my community includes the vast conversation about the Bible done by interpreters, commentators, and scholars over the past two thousand years.
Cyril and purity
Cyril was archbishop of Alexandria from 412 to 444. He wrote that these “sons of God” were people descended from Seth, Adam’s third son. The “daughters of men,” he said, were from the line of Cain. When the story is understood this way, it becomes a plea for ethnic or religious purity.
Cyril was a bit of a fanatic about religious purity. That is probably why he hounded John, archbishop of Antioch, and Nestorius, archbishop of Constantinople, with such venom and violence. Cyril was also responsible for the murder of Hypatia, the brilliant female scholar and head of the Neoplatonic school in Alexandria.
Cyril was not the first to see these verses describing compromise with “worldly values.” In fact, a majority of Christian interpreters in the first centuries believed these verses represented a blurring of the distinction between the ungodly “line of Cain” and the godly “line of Seth.”
Matthew Henry, a prolific biblical commentator, followed Cyril’s interpretation. He wrote that the sons of God are good Christian believers and the daughters of men are unbelievers. He says, “Believers must not choose a spouse on the basis of looks alone, and not without counsel of others, and not among unbelievers.” It sounds like good advice, but remembering what Cyril of Alexandria did with that kind of interpretation makes me look for another approach.
Rashi and power
Rashi is the nickname for Rabbi Shlomo ben Itzhaq, an 11th century scholar. His commentaries on scripture had a powerful influence on both Jewish and Christian interpreters in the late Middle Ages. He found several times in scripture where the phrase “sons of God” meant powerful kings or other human “movers and shakers” of society. They were people whose power often made them think of themselves as practically divine.
Rashi’s interpretation of our four verses in Genesis 6 suggests that the women had no power to resist forceful abduction by those powerful men. The powerful simply took whomever they wanted even when, as Rashi said, “they were already married.” In this understanding, the flood was preceded by the subjugation of the weak by the powerful.
Now that is an interpretation that seems relevant today. I can see the abuse of power in one example after another. I can accept this interpretation, but perhaps there is even a deeper one that I can add to it.
Good things gone wrong
Josephus was a Jewish writer who lived about the same time as Jesus. His interpretation was that the phrase “sons of God” refers to angelic beings of some kind. About 200 years before Josephus, the anonymous writer of a book called The Book of Jubilees said that God sent to earth a group of angelic beings called “The Watchers.” Their job was “to instruct the children of men that they should do judgment and uprightness upon the earth.”
These heavenly beings had responsibility to help humanity. They were to teach humanity about political organization, social justice, regard for the poor, fairness in judgment, and all those qualities needed for harmonious living. But, says Jubilees, the angelic powers themselves were seduced by humans and they turned evil.
Of all the interpretations, this one speaks the most powerfully to me. In this interpretation, the “sons of God” represent the spiritual dimensions of those social, political, commercial, religious, and psychic powers that dominate our earthly existence. These social forces, in purest form, are intended for our good, but they have been broken. Human greed, lust, arrogance, and self-centeredness have seduced the very systems established to save. Institutions and systems ordained by God for the benefit of humans actually end up enslaving and destroying humans. Even churches are not immune.
I have wondered why institutions that began with the purest of motives often end up creating havoc, chaos, and evil. I also wonder at how many things I do with the best of intentions fall far short of my aim, and sometimes even pervert my intentions. At least, this most ancient interpretation of Genesis 6:1-4 is a good reminder of our responsibility to help repair the world.
An ordained minister, Bob Bowman is professor emeritus of religion at Manchester University, North Manchester, Indiana.