We come to one of the strangest passages in the entire Bible. Every commentator has struggled with what this passage meant for Israel and, even more so, for our day. Genesis 6:1-4 has no connection with any of the preceding stories or materials. If we take this story as a historical, literal account of something which actually happened, we encounter a multitude of problems. These verses come as close to the mythological stories of the ancient world as any part of Scripture. In fact, we can say that they probably had their origin in the mythology of the ancient world. The phrase “sons of God” refers not to angels (who were asexual according to the biblical tradition) but to the lesser gods in a polytheistic understanding of the world. With the exception of later Israel (after the Exile), the ancient world was polytheistic. People believed in many gods and had countless stories about these deities. Israel did not become strictly monotheistic until late in her history. Originally, her faith demanded that she serve only one God but did not necessarily question the existence of other gods. It simply required Israel to serve the God Yahweh and Yahweh alone. (“You shall have no other gods before me.”)
What we are dealing with in these verses is the remnant of an ancient myth. The word “myth” in the strictest, most accurate sense refers to stories about the gods of the ancient world. For example, Greek mythology was all about the exploits of Zeus, his wife Hera, Apollo and his sister Artemis, Athena, Aphrodite, and so on. And in some of the myths of the ancient world we have stories about gods coming to earth and having sexual relations with mortals. Sometimes goddesses had relations with mortal men, but most of the time it’s the male deities who were playing the field. For example, the king of the Greek gods, Zeus, was notoriously unfaithful to his wife Hera. Most of his lovers were mortal women he seduced or, in some cases, raped. Some of these women became pregnant by the gods who ravished them, and their children were considered demigods—half god and half human. Hercules was such a creature as was Perseus. They were not immortal, but they had special, superhuman characteristics.
Some kind of story about divine beings intermingling with mortals is the distant background to our passage. Originally, this story explained the presence of giants on earth. We are told that the progeny of these sons of god and daughters of men were called the Nephilim. Nephilim were thought to be gigantic people who lived on the earth way back in the ancient mists of yesteryear. Do you remember when Caleb sent spies into Canaan before the Hebrews invaded the land? The spies came back reporting how rich and productive the land was, but they also said that there are giants in that land, people so big that “we seem like grasshoppers compared to them.” The word used in this tradition for giants is Nephilim. Numbers 13:33 claims that the Anakites who inhabited the land were descended from the Nephilim.
We might wonder why in the world so many cultures in the ancient world had stories about giants who were the children of divine beings and mortal women. Let me offer two possible suggestions. First of all, every society has “giants”—people who are disproportionately bigger and taller than those around them. Sometimes these giants are the result of genetics, and sometimes they are the result of a malfunction of the pituitary gland. If you don’t know about genetics or the effect of the pituitary gland on growth, you might think there was something extraordinary and supernatural about such people.
Another possibility was the discovery by ancient people of the bones and fossils of pre-historical creatures. Paleontologists have found such fossils, and occasionally these fossils just appear because of erosion, an earthquake, or a flood. Because of these discoveries and the research of scientists, we know about dinosaurs, mammoths, saber-tooth tigers, and many other such creatures. We understand that the earth has been around for billions of years and that incredible, amazing life forms walked this earth before humans came into existence. But ancient people didn’t have such knowledge. So, when they found a bone which looked like a femur which was ten feet long, they assumed at some point on this planet people lived who were much larger than they were. So, where did these giants come from? What made sense given their religion and understanding of the world was that the gods who were infinitely bigger than humans had relations with mortal women, and the children born to those women were supernatural in size and ability. That may have been the distant background to these first four verses in Genesis 6.
But that does not mean that the authors of Genesis literally believed that gods from heaven came down and had sexual relations with women? The writers of Genesis were aware of a form of a story found throughout the ancient world. They simply used the story to make a point. Let me refer you to another example of the use of an ancient myth by another writer of the Bible. In Isaiah 14, the writer used the ancient Canaanite myth of the morning star (Venus) and applied it to the king of Babylon. Just like the morning star out of pride and arrogance overstepped his place and was cast down from the Mount of Assembly, so the king of Babylon has overstepped his place and will be thrown down from his throne and perish like an animal, not even granted a decent burial. (The king referred to in this passage is Nebuchadnezzar who destroyed Jerusalem along with many other cities in the ancient Near East.) Does this passage mean that the writer believed in the Canaanite gods and the story about the morning star? No. He simply used a well-known tale to make his point. I suggest the writers of Genesis were doing the same thing.
So, what was their point? We were told in Genesis 1 that God created the heavens above and the earth below, and ordained a separation between the two. There is a balance, distinction, and difference which must be respected. But in our verses for today we find that balance, distinction, and difference have been violated. It is possible that these verses were intended to set the background for the reference to the great wickedness of humankind in verse 5 which prepares us for the Flood Story? Such may well have been the intention of the writers, but if it was, a host of other questions are raised. In the story of the sons of God and the daughters of men, who was at fault? It was the powers of heaven which violated the boundary, not the human community. Just like with that lecher Zeus who ravished whom he pleased, the gods are at fault, not the women they seduced and ravished. I think there is something more going on here.
Notice that immediately after we are told of the escapades of the sons of God, God says, “My spirit shall not abide in mortals forever, for they are flesh; their days shall be one hundred and twenty years.” God has set a limit to the length of human life. We shall not live forever. God reasserts God’s sovereignty over creation—both heaven and earth. The breath of life given to Adam in Genesis and referred to in the Psalms remains God’s possession, and it is the Lord’s to give and to recall. This passage asserts the sovereignty of Yahweh who alone presides over the gift of life. We see early on in Genesis this profound truth: life is a gift from God—it is not our possession. We do not own life, much less God. Any attempt to play God, be God, or circumvent God will fail tragically. Not even the powers of heaven, whatever they may be, can usurp the place, sovereignty, and finality of God.
We can see how this would relate to the mythological story behind this tradition. What is the nature of those born of gods and humans? Are they immortal? Will they live forever? That certainly was an issue in the mythological stories of Greece and other places in the ancient world. The Greeks answered the question by saying that these demigods could live forever only if the gods who were inherently immortal granted these heroes immortality. Do you remember the Gilgamesh Story I told you at the beginning of this series of sermons? Gilgamesh was half god and half man. His best friend died, and Gilgamesh became troubled about his own mortality. He did not want to die. So, he traveled to find a man named Utnapishtim who was said to live forever. Once he found the man, he was told that the immortality of Utnapishtim was unique. Utnapishtim was the Mesopotamian Noah—he too built an ark, took some of every creature on earth on the boat and survived the flood. As a reward the gods granted Utnapishtim and his wife immortality. So, Gilgamesh learns that he cannot attain his deepest desire which is immortality.
Notice that what follows Genesis 6:1-4 (the story of the sons of God and the daughters of men) is the Hebrew Flood Story which takes up three chapters and is the longest story in the prehistory of Israel. And who is the hero of that story? Noah. According to the flood story well known throughout the ancient Near East, what should be the reward for Noah after the flood? Immortality. But according to the Hebrew faith, only God is immortal. No creature can live forever on this earth. So, before the Flood Story even begins, we have in place a limitation on the lifespan of humans. In the Hebrew version of this flood, the hero is not granted immortality because God has already set limits as to how long humans can live.
We may wonder about the intention of this limitation. But perhaps we should ask this question: Would we really want to live forever? I suggest that upon reflection, most people would say “no.” How long would you live if you could choose the hour and day to die? None of us may want to live forever, but few of us are ready to take the plunge and die this very minute. Could you imagine how tedious life would become if we lived forever on this earth as it is and as we are? The limits set by God in Genesis are not just to protect God’s sovereignty; they are also to protect our well-being. Life is a gift from God, and only God can ultimately give and recall that spirit of life. One of the overall themes of Genesis 1-11 is that we live within limits/boundaries, but most, if not all, of these are meant to be a blessing.
But I want to end this sermon with an observation from chapter 5 of Genesis which is encouraging, challenging, and instructive. Here we have a record of the ancestry of ancient Israel. Other cultures like Babylon had similar lists of ancestors, but with an important difference. Whereas Genesis lists ancestors who lived hundreds of years, the Babylonian records list their ancestors as living tens of thousands of years. In other words, the ancient world had the idea that the closer one was to the beginning of time, the better life and the world were. As time progressed, the world and life became less desirable and more evil. This demise was reflected in the shorter lifespans of individuals compared to those ancestors who lived closer to the beginning of creation.
I think two ideas are at work here: 1) There is a natural tendency for all of us to look back to the past and remember the good and forget the bad and to assume that things were better than they are in our day. As Clarence Jordan said, “We love to sit around and talk about how good it used to was.” 2) But there is also the recognition as we said in our last sermon, that the more advanced a culture becomes, the more evil it can do because it has more resources at its disposal. If our wisdom does not keep pace with our knowledge and know-how, then the depths of evil and sin have no limits.
At any rate, we have a long chapter of “begets” as the KJV puts it. Name after name, generation after generation, century after century. But one name–one single individual–is highlighted in this ancestry. In Genesis 5:24, we are told that “Enoch walked with God; then he was no more, because God took him.” Even this verse is dependent on older stories from other cultures. The Babylonian tradition also reports that Enmeduranki, the seventh hero prior to the great flood, was taken by the gods.
But I think the writers of Genesis have something more profound in mind with these words. Once again, we see these writers taking a well-known story in the ancient world and adapting that story to communicate a truth unique to their faith. We come into being, we live our few decades on this earth, and then we die. That has been the destiny of human beings for hundreds of thousands of years. We’re born, we live a short while, and we die. No matter what our accomplishments, what our wealth, what our pedigree, we all come to the same fate. And before too many years have passed, no one will ever know we once walked this earth.
When you look at our existence that way, life seems so futile—unless there is a Creator who transcends time and space—unless there is a God who is the ultimate Giver of life—unless there is a Being beyond all beings who alone decides what matters and what does not matter. Genesis says that Enoch walked with God. What does that mean? He was in fellowship with God (Remember God coming to walk with Adam and Eve in the cool of the evening before “the Fall?”). Enoch walked the way of God (“Walking” is a metaphor for “living” throughout the Bible.) The prophet Micah writes that what God requires of us is to “do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God” (Micah 6:8) That’s also why the Jesus of John’s Gospel says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” As Brian McLaren says, “We make the road by walking.”
Enoch lived as though God was his constant companion. God and God’s ways were not strange to him. He didn’t just know about God. He knew God. I love the way an African-American preacher put it: Enoch and God walked together every day. They enjoyed one another’s company. One day they walked longer and farther than they had planned because they were lost in their conversation and sharing. So, God said to Enoch, “Enoch, we’re closer to my house than yours. Why don’t you come home with me?” “And Enoch walked with God; then he was no more, because God took him.”
The most important legacy we shall leave on this earth has nothing to do with possessions, achievements, or pedigree. The most important legacy we can leave our world is our own unique walk with God. When the last star has flickered into oblivion and time is no more, what matters will be what God says matters. May not a one us of be a stranger to this God who is more than willing to slow down the divine pace and walk with us.
[This article reflects the biblical perspective that God gives and takes away life. What is behind this assumption is the belief that God is the Source and Sustainer of all life and of creation itself. I can affirm this assumption but not the belief that God “takes away life.” There are numerous problems with the idea many have that God “takes us” when God decides our time of death has come. If one reflects deeply on this belief, one is left with the conclusion that God is the biggest murderer in all of history. Can we really believe that when a child is killed or dies of a disease, or that when six million Jewish men, women, and children died in the Holocaust, or that when thousands of human beings die each day of hunger and malnutrition that God has “decided to call them home?” After decades of hearing such nonsense, I have no patience with those who still hold to this absurd notion. I do believe that God receives us all into a loving embrace and an eternal destiny when we die. However, I refuse to accept any suggestion that God chooses when or how we die. Theology is an evolving process of reflection and discovery. By now we should know better than to believe and promote “sick religion.”]