23. Genesis 6:1-8

I.  C. continued

6.  The End of the Beginning (Genesis 6:1-8)

To understand the conditions on the earth immediately before the Flood, I think we should note that the specific evil that is mentioned, and the only specific evil mentioned, is violence. The mercy shown to Cain had not stopped the spread of violence. Here “violence” does not simply mean one man murdering another for insulting him. Random acts of individual violence were not what was in view. Throughout human history it is when some few men become strong enough to force their will on those who are weaker that the worst violence is done. The violence of one against one had been with the human race from the first opportunity; it was nothing new. What distressed God in the days of Noah was not the quantity of the violence, lots of individuals killing other individuals, but the quality of the violence, the ruthless few who became strong and dominated and exploited the many who were weak, on an unprecedented scale.

It was this extreme corruption of violent oppression that moved God to grief. The prophecy of Lamech, the father of Noah, can be understood most easily as a reference to this pervasive violence. The most common form of such violence is the enslavement of the weak to do the hard work; the division of the world into the owners and the owned, the nobles and the serfs, the masters and the slaves, those who give the orders and those who do the manual labor of growing the necessary food and then are kept impoverished rather than rewarded. Even today this is still the most common form of violence worldwide. Lamech’s prophecy can be understood as saying that with Noah there would be an end to the widespread misery that such violence produces.

The decision to destroy all living things might seem to be an extreme reaction, an over reaction. If you are thinking on a small scale, this may be true. But try to picture a world built on the model of the Nazis or the Khmer Rouge or Stalin, with nowhere to go to escape, no respite, no hope. Such a picture would be nearer to what this passage paints as the world before the Flood. But it was much worse than that. In such modern examples there have always been some few who stood against the evil, but this was a world filled with violence. It was not just oppression of the poor by the rich as if the poor were merely the victims. This was a world in which the poor were themselves practicing violence against each other. It was a brutal world, a dog-eat-dog world, in which violence permeated every level of society, in which the subtle line between human and animal had virtually disappeared. There were no “good guys”. A world filled with such violence is a world that needs to be ended on any terms. Death, after all, is not the worst that befalls us. Long life in such a world as that, long life in a world of constant fear and hatred, is far worse than death. Physical death would be a mercy in such a world.

The passage says that the Lord was sorry that He had made man and grieved in His heart. Some have taken this, in spite of the rest of the scripture, to indicate that either God was surprised by the course of events to this point, or that God’s attitude had changed. There are two things at least that should be taken into account when we read passages like this, besides the testimony of the rest of Scripture. One is that time matters. God respects time and does not violate it. Time is one of those good parts of creation which has been stained by the Fall, and changed in nature, but is still valued by God and is being redeemed by Him. God respects the integrity of time and that means that when He interacts with His creation, He interacts with it at particular times. It is irrelevant whether or not He knew that the world would degenerate as it did before the Flood. His grief over the violence that filled the earth would be expressed at the time of the violence, not before it had occurred. No doubt He could have told Adam and Eve before or after the eating of the fruit that He was grieved by what things would be like in a few thousand years, but it would have been an inappropriate and confusing and even disrespectful thing to do.

Secondly, God was expressing Himself in human terms and human terms require the use of language from inside of time. God was sorry that He had made man; this sounds like He had changed His opinions, that at one time He thought everything was going to be OK but by the time of the Flood He was ready to give up. However what this passage was really doing was expressing an eternal reaction to a condition in time to people who lived in time and had to understand things in a temporal way. God made it very clear later that He never changes; He said so outright. Nonetheless, He uses language that we can understand to explain to us what He feels, and He couches His feelings in terms of time to make them explicable to us.

It also needs to be pointed out that God’s feelings toward the world before Noah were those of grief and not those of anger. We should not think of the coming Flood as God’s wrath against the evil in the world, an outburst of fury against a human race which had become disgusting to Him. Rather His feelings were feelings of grief, and that means they were feelings of compassion toward people and the misery they had brought on themselves. It may seem hard to think of the Flood as expressing compassion, but I believe that is exactly the case. The Flood was the first mercy killing. It is possible that death and pain and misery can become so acute and so inescapable that physical death is the only merciful end. We can see it every day in the nations ravaged by drought and war; we can see it every day in the hospitals in our own neighborhoods. Before the Flood the whole world had been brought that low. God simply could not let the suffering and misery go on, so He ended it, and I think the suffering that was common in the world at that time was beyond our present experience, as horrible as that is.

The idea of the wrath of God, as we usually think of it, is not present in Scripture up to this point. There is another sense in which wrath is portrayed here, but I must put that off to a later discussion. Of course this absence does not mean that God did not feel anger. It is impossible for me to imagine the world I am trying to describe without also feeling anger, outrage of the kind that the stories of the Nazis inspire, or the stories of brutality in American history or in the other genocides of the present day. “Every intent of the thoughts of his [mankind’s] heart was only evil continually,” it says in 6:5 and we all know what that looks like on a small scale, and we all know what a deep sense of grief and shame and fear and disgust and hatred it fills even us with. Such emotions, I think, are an echo of the sorts of emotions God feels. And yet with Him it is different. Our anger is not like His, just as our ways are not like His, and we have only an echo in our hearts of what He is thinking in His heart so that the sound is muffled and distorted. It is easy to imagine that God feels as we do, that His anger is just like ours but bigger, but it would be a mistake to do so. To understand what His anger is like requires more revelation than we have had so far in these six chapters.

There are some final loose ends to consider before we go on to the Flood. As mentioned above, no one knows who the “sons of God” were in 6:2. It is unlikely that these sons of God were angels or demons, as some have suggested; Luther understood the “sons of God” as great rulers and tyrants, which is in line with what I have just said about the nature of the violence on the earth. Besides the sons of God there were the Nephilim.  “Nephilim” is just the Hebrew word for giant, but it is not at all clear what is being referred to, whether this was a tribe of giants or merely individual giants or giants in a metaphorical sense, another name for the “great men”. Later Goliath is said to be a vestige of the Nephilim so my inclination is to believe that there were a race of very large people from some unknown source. No one has found any fossils of such giants but that should not lead us to think too quickly that the Nephilim are merely fictional. The world is a big place and so much of the ancient world has been lost.

It might seem that giants would be most likely to come from some kind of hybrid human/angel, the offspring of the sons of God and the daughters of men, but it seems highly unlikely that that kind of creature is biologically possible. There is nothing intrinsically impossible that there was a race of men that were giants like Goliath, ten feet tall or so, and that we have just not found their remains yet. Such a size would not be a survival trait, biologically, and it would be no wonder that they became extinct, just as lions are too large to be competitive and are also becoming extinct even without human help.

Another possibility is that the sons of God were the half of the human race that was at war with the children of the serpent, and they were here committing apostasy with the daughters of men, the seed of the serpent. The inter-marriage and resulting corruption of the people of God with pagan peoples is a constant theme through the Bible. This interpretation of the sons of God as opponents of the serpent fits well with that one theme, but otherwise seems unlikely on the face of it.

An intriguing possibility is that it was these Nephilim, whoever they were, that gave rise in the course of time to the pagan myths of gods and goddesses and that the myths of the ancient world had some historical basis. There is no way to be sure. The most ancient mythology of the Sumerians told of the gods being the first builders of the cities in Mesopotamia. The myths say that it was these gods that invented the plow and other technology, and gave it to men to make them better slaves for the gods. On the whole, the Sumerian gods do sound a bit like the descendants of Cain, and the Sumerian myths describe a world roughly like the picture I tried to paint of the world before the Flood. The Sumerian gods were pictured as living in the cities and mingling with people in their ordinary lives; then the gods went away to some other place. It is interesting that the Bible may lend some credence to those myths; it does not help much in answering who or what the Nephilim/Sumerian gods were, but it does suggest that the ancient myths were based on something other than mere imagination. The Sumerian myths said that these gods created the human race to be slaves for themselves. It is not hard to imagine a society built on oppression by the powerful, in which the rulers invented such myths to keep the peasants subjugated.

It would certainly be a mistake to run too far or too fast with such speculations as I have just made, as if they mattered. You may find some comfort in being frustrated with the Spirit and complaining to Him about the gaps in the revelation He gave us. If He was going to mention the Nephilim why not give us enough information to quench our curiosity a bit? Or, if that would have been too complicated, why not just leave them out of the revelation entirely? Ultimately, it is His fault that His revelation contains what it contains and did not give us all the answers we want; but then He never promised that He would tell us everything. Indeed, perhaps the Spirit’s point in including a reference to the sons of God with no explanation is to underline the fact that we don’t know much. Perhaps it is a desirable thing for us to know how little we know. Humility is always in short supply, if we can just be wise enough to let the Scripture make us more humble.

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