Welcome back! This is the third installment in our series on the Sons of God and Daughters of Men (Genesis 6:1-6). In Part 1, we looked at the text verse-by-verse to determine what the Bible says and does not say in this passage. In Part 2, we looked at a brief overview of the three mainstream interpretations of the passage. We also looked at all of the other Old Testament verses where, “sons of God” is used.
At the end of part 2, I asked you to read a little from the book of 1 Enoch and the writings of Josephus. I also asked you to have a look at the Apkallu mythos of Ancient Mesopotamia. We’ll be getting into that a little further down the post, so if you didn’t have the time or inclination to read the “homework” last week, have no fear. You can use the links at the bottom of Part 2 for access to everything I’ll be talking about.
Genesis 6 was not a personal hang-up for me. I had serious moral and faith-breaking struggles with several other parts of Genesis, but Chapter 6 wasn’t like that. Still, the story troubled me, so in this post, I want to share my personal issues with the passage and show you the sequence of studies that led me to my current view.
If you see something here and think, “Well, I don’t see it that way,” or, “Gee, I would’ve paid more attention to this other thing,” then that’s good! That’s you trying to love God with your heart and mind, and that’s really the whole reason we’re here.
Mrs. Nix’s Particular Issues With Genesis 6
Issue #1: It’s Weird…and I Don’t Handle Weird Very Well
I knew from popular culture references and the few friends of mine who love to watch YouTube videos about conspiracy theories and mystical codes that there was some general craziness in Genesis about giants and angels sleeping with humans. That’s how it had been framed up for me, so when I hit the actual verses, I was initially underwhelmed. I’d been expecting this epic freak show of supernatural and macabre fantasy land. That isn’t what I got, of course. The verses are relatively straightforward and they’re not very sensational. Because I went in expecting something really intense, I wasn’t thrown off or upset by the reality.
Even so, angels mating with human women to produce evil half-divine giants whose progeny would plague the earth for thousands of years? Y’all, that’s pretty extra.
I pulled my first study Bible off of the shelf this week to look back at my margin notes. As you can see, they weren’t very interesting. You could look at my apparent lack of enthusiasm here and be justified in thinking I just did what so many others do, which is skip over it and pretend it isn’t there. That isn’t what I was doing, though. I was still pretty new at all of this Bible stuff, and I hadn’t gotten to my miracle moment in Leviticus. I didn’t know Jesus, but I wanted to, and I was afraid I’d find something in the Bible that would make me want to stop reading. A crazy story like the sons of God? Well, that’s exactly the kind of thing I didn’t want to deal with. I wasn’t ready to confront something like that, yet.
By the by, an alternative idea like the Sethite View never occurred to me back then. I had never heard anyone suggest anything other than angels and human women at that time.
I highlighted the parts that stuck out and I made a note about the similarity to Greek demigod myths (I was thinking of Hercules and Theseus). I didn’t ignore the sons of God, but I didn’t dwell on them. I protected my shaky, agnostic heart by moving on. I kept going, but I returned to this passage several months later as I was studying the book of Numbers (where the nephilim come back into view).
Issue #2: A Lot of Christians Get Hostile and Insulting Over This Passage
I had my heart broken in 2017 as I studied the Bible and started to realize how divided Christians are from one another. I was churched as a child, and because I was raised in two separate denominations, I understood that there were varied beliefs and a measure of opposition between the traditions. I did not, however, understand how big and how hostile that division really was. I managed to make it to 40 without knowing that Protestants commonly and unapologetically insult Catholics by claiming they are not Christians. I didn’t know that Christian leaders frequently write the theological equivalent of a diss track against other Christian leaders. I didn’t know that women who taught the Bible were subject to venomous public hatred by hardline complementarians. I didn’t know that a word like complementarian existed, much less that people who claimed to love Jesus would gleefully rip each other to shreds over it. I could keep going. Oh my goodness, every new thing I learned (cessation v. continuist, reformed v. non-Calvinist, KJV-onlyism, ) just devastated me.
I never thought of myself as a particularly naive person until I met Jesus and then his church. I was shocked, and it knocked the joy of being a new convert right out of me. I didn’t love Jesus any less, but the euphoria was flat-out stolen from me by hostility and factionalism I saw in the body. It truly broke my heart (it still does).
Genesis 6 is one of the issues that Christians argue with each other about, and that made it a problem for me. I knew I’d have to deal with it at some point, and I dreaded the work.
What both of these issues had in common is that they led me to procrastinate in studying Genesis 6. Fortunately, that turned out to be a good thing. Two months after I scribbled those first margin notes, I found myself reading Leviticus, and I met Jesus there. In the same month (March), I discovered the Naked Bible Podcast from Dr. Michael S. Heiser. He had a series on Leviticus, and it was the only deep-dive series on Leviticus I could find. I listened to all of it (which is really saying something because it’s long and dry and occasionally tedious). I enjoyed Heiser’s approach, so I listened to his episodes on manuscript history and the formation of canon, too. I decided that I liked Dr. Mike.
So I bought his book.
The Unseen Realm changed my opinion of all things supernatural in the Bible. I had always been predisposed to dismiss any hint of supernatural forces at work as hokum, and my work as a history major in college only reinforced that. As seductive and mysterious as magic and angelic encounters may seem, I come from rational and very pragmatic German-American stock. We don’t gush over babies, we don’t shed public tears, and we don’t believe in fairy tales. It is what it is, and I am who I am, but Dr. Heiser made me rethink my entire worldview concerning the supernatural. That is no small thing. I was reading the book of Numbers as I finished up The Unseen Realm. The nephilim were back on my radar, so I returned to Genesis chapter 6.
In these next sections (and in Part 4), I’ll be talking about the extra-biblical sources that helped shape my understanding of what Genesis 6:1-6 means. I view these sources as witnesses to and commentary on the biblical events–not as scripture. These ancient documents show us what the nations around Israel believed about the sons of God. They show us what our New Testament authors believed about the sons of God. They show us what 2nd Temple period Jews believed about the sons of God. Knowing what they all thought can inform our understanding of Genesis 6.
When The Bible and Pagan Mythos Collide
This is a touchy subject for a lot of Christians, but it shouldn’t be. The Bible is a book. It was written in very specific times and places by very specific people. God chose those times and places. He chose those people. The people he chose were living, breathing human beings with a worldview, a pre-scientific set of ideas about how the physical world worked, and a culture. They were not little robots with no data in the hard drive until God came along and zapped them with inspiration. No, they were people, and they lived with a whole bunch of other people, just like we do.
In our own time, there are symbols, euphemisms, and allegorical references that everyone understands. If you curl your hand into a fist, extend the pinky and thumb, and hold that hand up to your ear, every human being on earth–with very few exceptions–will know you’re making the sign for a telephone. If you write a poem that references two towers on fire, every human being on earth–with very few exceptions–will know that your metaphor is calling up the September 11, 2001 attacks. Both the phone sign and the tower metaphor carry complex imagery and context. They don’t just mean one two-dimensional thing, but everyone living today understands them. These are the sorts of associations I’m talking about. It was no different in the Ancient Near East. Our ancient ancestors had common contexts with each other, and that is reflected in our Bible.
The greatest gift that Dr. Heiser’s work has given me as a Christian layman is this:
I no longer feel icky about discovering parts of the Bible that contain stories or ideas that are also present in non-biblical literature from the same period.
You shouldn’t, either.
It is a fact that the Bible contains stories–and a whole mess of them are in the book of Genesis–that run parallel to stories, myths, and ideas we will also find in non-biblical literature. There were several people groups that were active and literate during the days when our Old Testament was first being recorded. Those people groups shared a common history with the Ancient Hebrews, and they had a lot of overlapping ideas about a lot of things.
This should not surprise or threaten anyone. If huge, world-shattering events took place, we would expect everyone–not just our Bible’s authors–to talk about it in their stories.
In Mesopotamian mythology, we see stories of the Apkallu, who were lesser deities from the sea who came up to the human realm. The human kings of this region (which includes Babylon) would claim for generations that the reason they were so great and powerful was because the gods had shown them favor. The gods had mated with their ancestors to create heroes, and the gods had taught them the arts of warfare, sensuality, and technology. Sound like another story you’ve heard recently?
Don’t forget that I posted links to several free online copies of Apkallu stories in Part 2. Go to that post and scroll to the bottom if you want to read through them.
In the stories, the Apkallu cohabited with humanity right up to the Great Flood, which was a punishment from the bigger gods because mankind was now a noisy nuisance. These stories exist, and they are contemporary with our Old Testament books. They also mirror much of what we see in ancient literature from the Hebrews, including pieces of our Bible…like Genesis 6.
To dismiss this kind of literature, to pretend it isn’t there, or to ignore it because it isn’t from the Bible, is to miss out on crucial context. In the nations of Mesopotamia, they believed the Apkallu raised mankind and made them great. In Israel, they knew better. In Israel’s version of the story, the corruption brought on by these divine interlopers accelerated man’s self-destruction. It caused God to bring the Flood, to wipe out all of the wickedness and start over with Noah.
The biblical version of this story shows a contrast. It points the finger at Babylon and says, “You fools. The sons of God didn’t make you great. The sons of God were an abomination that brought ruin to mankind and the world. Your gods are corrupt and weak. Our God is the only true God. This gets borne out, too, doesn’t it? The Jews are still the Jews and their God is still God.
Where is Babylon?
Do you see it? The contrast is only visible with context, so the pagan literature is useful for that purpose. As a history geek, I could never–not ever–ignore this kind of parallel account. I don’t have to, and you don’t either.
Anyway, that’s what the pagan nations had to say about the events of Genesis 6.
I’m going to stop this post here and continue in Part 4, simply for length. I’ll come back in the next post (later today) to lay out what the New Testament authors and other 2nd Temple period Jewish literature had to say about the sons of God.
I’ll close out part 4 to finish this Issues in Genesis topic with a summary of what I think and believe about Genesis 6:1-6, what the story means and what value it has for me as a Christian today. As ever, I beg you to remember that I’m not an authority on any of this stuff. I’m just a lady who loves Jesus on the internet and does her best to read, study, and understand. I’ll get things wrong, sometimes. My purpose in all of this–all of it–is to share my love of bible study and to encourage others to dive into God’s Word with fearless enthusiasm. Never substitute my blogging scribbles for real study and real work and real discernment done on your own. Okay?
Many hugs. See you in Part 4.