What does “sons of God” (Gen 6:2) mean?

There are three theories, about what the “sons of God” are, that I want to consider: (1) they are angels, presumably fallen angels; (2) they are the faithful from the line of Seth, those who called on the name of the Lord or walked with the Lord; or (3) they are all men. Now, there is little evidence internal to the Bible that the phrase here meant demons or demonic spirits (fallen angels), whether embodied themselves or inhabiting the bodies of wicked men—though the phrase “sons of God” does sometimes mean angels. The famous but certainly pseudepigraphal (i.e., falsely attributed) Book of Enoch suggests it; but it was written in the 100s AD, not at all by Enoch, and represents a highly conjectural theory, not scripture. Observe, in support of the line of Seth theory, that the previous two chapters did explain and contrasted in detail the two different lines—and that these lines come at the end of the toledoth about the line of Seth. This then raises the question: did the lines intermarry? And if so, what was the result? We are told what the result was, and so we should perhaps settle the question in the context of the remarks about nephilim in Gen 6:4. As to the third theory, this is also intiguing, because, as Sailhamer has argued, the “sons of God” might well be all men, because Adam was created by God. In that case, the “daughters of men” would be women because Eve was made of Adam’s rib. Then the comments in Gen 6:1-2 regard the totality of the “multiplying” generations of man, of all men, who are shortly to be done away with for their wickedness.

What does “My spirit shall not always strive with man” (Gen 6:3) mean, and what does this have to do with limiting his years to 120?

This is another hard saying that is not made particularly clearer or more certain in other translations. The root of the Hebrew word that “strive” translates, דִּין or din, can mean variously judge, vindicate, or abide (at least).The context is essential to fixing the sense. So note that it is because man is flesh that the Lord’s spirit will not “strive” with man, and that, therefore, his days will be limited to 120 years. Moreover, what has changed is that man has become wicked, and so God is grieved (Gen 6:5-6). This seems fairly plainly to suggest that, because man is wicked, he should not live so long and his years should be cut short. Note the author is being very explicit here in passing about something readers often observe to themselves, namely, that the lifespans of the postdiluvian patriarchs became gradually shorter; while Noah, who was born and lived most of his days before the Flood, lived to be 950, Shem lived to 600, Abraham to 180, and Moses to 120. So a broad gloss of the thought being conveyed is something like this: “My spirit, the spirit of God which I blew into Adam and which gives man life, will not always abide with and govern man—and thus he is mortal—and thus also he will not merely die, as all but Enoch have done, but he will live only 120 years because of his wickedness which is indeed “from his youth” (Gen 8:21).

Who or what were the “giants in the earth in those days” (Gen 6:4)?

This is one of the most puzzling texts in the Bible. The KJV translation “giants” is from Septuagint translation, γίγαντες or gigantes, of the Hebrew word נְפִיל, nephilim. This word can also mean “the fallen [ones],” suggesting corrupt, wicked men, the word itself most likely from נָפַל, naphal, “to fall.” This is a very slender bit of linguistic evidence on which to build notions of demon-spawned giants, which is a common theory. The reason I personally find this theory unlikely is simply that there is no other evidence in the Bible suggesting either that demons can sire earthly offspring or that there were supernaturally large giants, and rarely if ever is there so slender evidence offered for such theologically consequential creatures. If the author wanted you to believe in demon-spawned giants, surely he would have said more. Besides, there are much more reasonable theories, associated with interpretations (2) and (3), above, of the “sons of God.” Here then is the summary case for another theory. Note first that Gen 6:1-8 comes at the end of two genealogies—not separated in the original by chapters—describing the corruption of Cain’s line and the comparative righteousness of Seth’s. These verses serve as a grim conclusion to two toledoth sections about men who, whether regardless how their family line began, mostly became wicked and all-too-mortal. Then we are told, by way of summarizing the outcome of it all, that men were fruitful and multiplied, and “the sons of Gods saw the daughters of men,” etc. These (so to speak) pregnant remarks, I propose, crucially advance the narrative by explaining how Seth’s line of Lord-callers and walkers-with-God were corrupted: basically, Seth’s line, dignified in the description as “sons of God,” did not abstain from marrying the beautiful but wicked women of Cain’s line. The implication of the verses is similar to the many instances of Israelites intermarrying with “strange women” and being corrupted thereby. Indeed, the offspring of such unions were “mighty men which were of old, men of renown” (6:4), but immediately we are told, “God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth” (6:5). One thinks of Gilgamesh and other kings who claimed divine blood (the epic says he was two-thirds god and one-third man); the wording in the text is winking at such myths, particularly considering that 6:4’s “and also after that,” i.e., after the Flood there would be similarly arrogant strongmen, supposedly demigods but really just corrupt and powerful men. Indeed, the text may suggest that all men were like the nephilim insofar as the more divine and righteous cultural features all but died due to intermarriage. So the cultural dominance of Cain’s line was total, and Noah’s family was therefore the last remnant of the Seth line.

In describing the the corruption of man, why focus on “every imagination of the thoughts of his heart” (Gen 6:5)? Why not focus on evil actions?

The word translated “imagination” is rendered “intent” by the NASB and “inclination” by the NIV; the Hebrew יֵצֶר, yetser, is glossed “a form, framing, purpose.” In any case, we are speaking of the intentions out of which actions begin. God could see into men’s thoughts, and they matter greatly in the OT and NT alike. One of the deep and easy-to-miss themes of the Bible is the crucial importance of having the right beliefs and attitudes; foolish and vicious thoughts are often said to result in evil acts, and even the Ten Commandments has a law governing emotions and motives (the tenth, concerning envy). Considering all this, the reason for the focus on the “imagination of the thoughts of his heart” must be theological: motives and imaginations and thoughts are every bit as significant as acts, for a spiritual creator. Ultimately, the true corruption of mankind was the corruption of his heart.

Why would God create a “very good” world only to allow it to fall so far that he had to destroy it (Gen 6:7)? Does not the talk of God’s “repentance” imply he had no knowledge or control over the state of the world?

First, let us get clear on this: to say “it repented the Lord” (i.e., “the Lord repented”) does not mean either that God admitted to himself that he had done something wrong or had made a mistake, or even that he had changed his mind on some point of principle. What had changed was man’s moral merits, and God’s attitude toward man reflected this moral fact. This still left a problem, which is really a variant on the problem of evil, unsolved. There is little in the Bible, as far as I can tell, that clearly reveals God’s purposes in permitting evil, although it is absolutely clear that he does permit it and also that he even achieves important purposes by permitting it. The book of Job clearly implies we must not expect to learn God’s purposes. But a theory that is at least consistent with the Bible makes it at least plausible: God did the least he could to help rebellious man until repentant man could be redeemed and purified by the perfect sacrifice. God kept a righteous remnant alive so this was possible—and thus he did not repent of his original purpose in creating man, namely, to create intelligent beings, acceptable to the Lord, who would freely glorify and take delight in the Lord. There is much more to the theory than that, but it is enough to suggest the answer to this question. By the way, the word translated “repent,” נָחַם or nacham, is the same as that used by Lamech in his prophesy saying Noah will “repent (nacham) us”; it is as if God were saying, “You were right, Lamech: Noah would bring “comfort (nacham)” in the sense of “repentance (also nacham),” although not in the way you meant. My repentance would put an end to your work and toil—with death.”

While the evil of man might explain why God destroyed man in the Flood (Gen 6:7), why allow him to continue on after that, and why bother with the destruction, if he is going to continue to be wicked after the Flood (Gen 8:21)?

In other words, after the Flood, God’s assessment of the merits of humanity seems little changed: “I will not again curse the ground any more for man’s sake; for the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth” (Gen 8:21). If he is going to preserve man whose “heart is evil from his youth,” why destroy him in the first place? Perhaps part of the answer is that man would, ever after that, never be quite as corrupt as the antediluvians were. In other words, while it was very true that man was a fallen sinner “from his youth,” it does not follow from that sad description that “every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (6:5); the three words I italicized here represent a significant difference. With the exception of Noah (and perhaps his family), man was utterly without merit. This suggests that the Flood was intended for, and successfully served a moral purpose, namely, it improved mankind’s moral stature. Man was never so completely corrupted as before the Flood. Even in the end times, there will always be a faithful remnant beyond just eight people.

What therefore was God’s purpose in (nearly) destroying man (Gen 6:7)?

I think it is fair to say that he was, literally, putting the fear of God into mankind ever after. His act was that of a sovereign exercising absolute prerogative over his own creation. He was, once and for all, establishing the absolute sovereignty of the Lord. This is a thing that God does over and over in the Bible: he demonstrates his sovereignty over one aspect of the creation, and that, typically, fairly early on in the narrative. Other examples include exile of Adam and Eve from the Garden, and of Cain from his presence; of the Tower of Babel, an attempt to raise man to the level of “the gods”; of the thoroughly corrupt but prosperous cities, Sodom and Gomorrah, of the (then) green rift valley east of the Promised Land; of the Egyptians, the first great empire of the Bible; of those who would use pagan idols to worship God, beginning with Rachel; of Nadab and Abihu, destroyed as a sign of his sovereignty over the priestly activities; of the wandering men who refused to trust in God’s guarantee of the Promised Land; later, of the fall of Israel and Judah, showing his sovereignty over the Promised Land when the Hebrews failed to keep up their part of the covenant; ultimately, he will demonstrate once and for all his total sovereignty over all creation at the end of time. So in the case of Noah, he chose to (all but) destroy man in order to clarify to wicked man from nearly the beginning, his sovereignty over his creation: we should not expect to be able to live in such wickedness forever. In the Psalms in two places there are two instances where the image of a flood, or of The Flood, is used to illustrate God’s sovereignty. “The Lord sitteth upon the flood; yea, the Lord sitteth King for ever.” (Ps. 29:10) Little could be clearer than that. But consider also: “Your throne is established from of old; You are from everlasting. The floods have lifted up, O Lord, the floods have lifted up their voice; the floods lift up their waves. The Lord on high is mightier than the noise of many waters, yea, than the mighty waves of the sea.” (Ps 93:3-4)

“But wait,” a nonbeliever will insist. “It seems unnecessary for an entity so powerful to have to demonstrate his sovereignty by total destruction (Gen 6:7). Why would he want to?”

Is it due to a kind of divine sadism? Or does it demonstrate some sort of emotional pettiness and neediness? There is a sound question lying behind the objectionable wording, but I wanted to put the question in this sort of objectionable way because it does capture a nonbeliever’s natural reaction to the Flood story that it is important to address. So let us be very clear: the point of God demonstrating his sovereignty is neither (a) because it is sadistic fun for him to hurt us, nor (b) because he had some sort of perverse (really, it would be quite evil) need to assert his mastery over us. No, in each case in which God demonstrates his sovereignty, the demonstration is for the benefit of all humanity to come, as recorded in the Bible. The Flood disaster shows once and for all that God’s patience will not last forever, and that he reserves to himself the absolute moral right to, as it were, pull the plug on the whole game that he started. This is just one reason we ought to have the fear of God. That fear, as the Bible reiterates time and again, keeps us on the straight and narrow. It is also worth reiterating that the antediluvian people, like the later Sodomites and the Canaanites, were unusually wicked: “every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” (Gen 6:5)

It seems obvious enough why God feels grief at man’s evil, and this is why he might wish to destroy man; but why “beast, and the creeping thing, and the fowls of the air” (Gen 6:7)?

There may be two reasons. The broader animal kingdom was created for man, who had responsibility for it; with man destroyed, it would make sense to destroy animals. A second reason, perhaps, is that these creatures too had been corrupted in the Fall, even as the land has sprouted “thorns and thistles.” A remark in Gen 6:11 is consistent with this: “all flesh”—not just human flesh—“had corrupted his way upon the earth.” That would certainly be true if the wolf originally lay down with the lamb, but became a carnivore after the Fall. This is suggested by the notion that nature would once again live in peace in the new creation: “The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them.” (Isa 11:6)

It is important that we understand the notion that “Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord” (Gen 6:8), since that grace saved him and us. So what is it?

The word “grace” in the OT translates the Hebrew חֵן, chen, a word which is used in the phrase “find favor” and often followed by “in the sight of” or “in the eyes of.” This is not really the same as the doctrine of grace in the NT; but in the present case it certainly has similar effects, since the grace shown to Noah by God involved mercy, forgiveness, and the ultimate hope for mankind.

In the toledoth that begins at Gen 6:9, what does it mean to say Noah was “perfect in his generations”?

The sentence is: “Noah was a just man and perfect in his generations, and Noah walked with God.” This does not mean he was perfect, full stop, because of the drunkenness incident, and because he died. Besides, surely “walking with God” does not require absolute perfection. Surely too God would not require a standard of Abram, whom God instructed, “be thou perfect” (Gen 17:1). Let us look to the Hebrew: the word is תָּמִים or tamim, glossed as “complete, sound.” Applied to men, this often means something like “possessed of integrity.” But why “in his generations”? Does the word mean the same here as earlier in the same verse? The Hebrew word is different: דּוֹר, dor, glossed “period, generation, dwelling”; it was confusing and misleading for the KJV to use the same word “generation,” because whereas toledoth can refer to offspring, dor cannot. So we should not say that the meaning is that Shem, Ham, and Japheth were singled out as tamim. The same issue arises with Gen 7:1, where God tells Noah, “Come thou and all thy house into the ark; for thee have I seen righteous before me in this generation [dor again].” An apparently better interpretation is supplied by, for example, NASB’s terse “blameless in his time” and the NIV’s more explicitly interpretive “blameless among the people of his time.”

Are Gen 6:11-13 a good example of repetition across toledoths?

Yes, because not only does it repeat themes brought out not long before—in a way that might well seem tiresome to a casual reader, or an indication of different sources, to a skeptical one—it is a highly germane elaboration. In other words, each “these are the generations of” sections marks a new beginning, and there is often blatant repetition across them. In Gen 6:11-13, the text reiterates the corruption of the earth (meaning mostly, but probably not only, the corruption of man), adding here that the earth was “filled with violence,” which was not specifically mentioned before, but it is certainly a natural consequence of “mighty men” (6:4) full of plans springing from “evil” thoughts (6:5). Verse 12 adds that God specifically took notice of this corruption, a repetition of 6:5, but adds that “all flesh had corrupted his [i.e., God’s] way upon the earth.”

How does God’s resolution to punish mankind (Gen 6:7, 13) prefigure later events in the Bible?

After a long period of patience—hundreds of years have passed since Cain went into the wilderness—God’s patience wears out. Finally, his cup of his wrath spills over. This is seen repeatedly in the case of Israel, e.g., in the 40 years’ wandering, in the punishment of Canaan at the hands of the Israelites, in the later subjugation of the same Israelites and their loss of land in the time of the judges, and in the loss of land and then exile in the time of the divided kingdom. It is prophesied to happen again in end times, as explained most forcefully in Revelation.

What is the significance of “with thee will I establish my covenant” (Gen 6:18)?

This is the first instance of this important word’s occurrence in the entire Bible. While one might say that God had a covenant with Adam and Eve—do not eat of that one tree, and you can continue to live in the Garden—it is not named by God as a covenant, which is a thing God does do later. But what is the covenant God refers to? Consider that, immediately after declaring that he would make a covenant, he says “thou shalt come into the ark.” So, is ordering Noah into the ark, or even promising to save Noah, the covenant? No. The word’s proper context is given by the previous verse: God just got done saying “every thing that is in the earth shall die,” except you, Noah, and why? Because it is with you that I will establish my covenant after the Flood. And indeed God does so when Moses sacrifices to God in gratitude, and God in turn sets the covenant rainbow in the sky, signifying the “common grace” under which all humanity would live (Gen 9:8-17), which seems to be closely associated the preceding, brief Noachian code of law (of Gen 9:1-7). For more, see questions on Gen 9.

Is it not implausible indeed that two of every species were preserved in the ark (Gen 6:19)? Is this not wholly inconsistent with science?

Notwithstanding the heroic efforts to defend the Noah’s ark story on scientific grounds, it certainly is implausible. But then all miracles are implausible by their very nature; they would hardly merit the epithet “miracle” if they were plausible. But that this is a miracle is obvious, since nothing else would explain the congregation of so many different species, appearing docile and ready to be led on board the ark. (Not “species,” however, but “kinds”: the modern concept of a species did not exist when Genesis was written). Now, is this inconsistent with science? A worldwide deluge might be inconsistent with science—a question we will take up later—but what about all the species being reborn from a single place in Turkey some mere thousands of years ago? They would have to all fit on the ark; a number of people have crunched some numbers and concluded that, yes, the kinds could all have fit on an ark that large. Very well, but then in a matter of some mere thousands of years, a single species of cat would have to give rise to all the cats, great and small; similarly with all the other many species and varieties. I am not a biologist but this also sounds extremely unlikely. Further, they would have to repopulate every continent and island, migrating throughout the world, in a matter of some thousands of years. As a scientific hypothesis, one of the consequences regarding the fossil record, but we seem to find nothing in the fossil record showing species fanning out from Turkey. We will have to consider this further later, in connection with the questions of science for the Flood.

So God obeyed by building an ark (Gen 6:22). How long would this enormous vessel require to build?

We are told (Gen 5:32) that Noah was five hundred years old when he began to father Shem, Ham, and Japheth. There is a short excursus about the descent of evil upon the world and God’s resolution to destroy it (6:1-7), and then the narrative returns to Noah, where a new toledoth begins (6:9) and we are told again that Noah has fathered his three sons. There is no further narrative until we are told God instructed Noah to build the ark. This seems to imply that Noah started the ark around the time of, or shortly after, the birth of his first son. The next marker of time has it that Noah is 600 years old (7:6), so up to 100 years would have passed—that seems like enough time.

How similar are Flood stories from other ancient near east sources, and why suppose these could pose any sort of problem?

The issues here are very similar to those mentioned above, with respect to the creation of the universe, the creation of Adam, and the Garden. But the similarities between Genesis 6-8 and at least two ancient Mesopotamian sources—the Atrahasis and the story of Utnapishtim in Gilgamesh—are truly striking. They are not merely accounts of a great flood. They are accounts of a world-ending universal flood, created by the gods to destroy man, with one man singled out for salvation, being instructed to build an ark to specific dimensions and to populate it with animals. In the Utnapishtim story, he even releases different birds to determine whether it is safe to venture forth after the flood; and then he sacrifices to the gods. The reason this could pose a problem is that Bible-believing Christians and Jews take the Noah story seriously, as revealing God’s master plan, one that is discussed and incorporated into the rest of the Bible narrative. The similarity to ancient pagan sources suggests thatthe Noah story might have had some pagan source. If it did, the narrative is false.

But so what? Why think the Noah story originated from a pagan source?

There is no reason to think the Noah story predates the other stories, say skeptics; we do not know which originated first. Indeed, it is probable that all the stories had some common origin, due to their striking plot similarities. This is not positive evidence that the Noah story (the exact date of which is unknown) was derivative, but it is evidence that the story underwent a oral retelling process that resulted in distortion, in at least some if not all cases. So why think the Noah version is the original?

Indeed, let us answer this: why think the Noah version is the original?

Let us state the bad news first: there is no knock-down argument that the Noah version is the original, apart from the argument that begins that the Bible is the word of God. It is all speculative. (Some claim that Gilgamesh greatly antedated the Bible, but that too is greatly speculative.) But now the good news: there are several plausible points to insist upon in defense of the Noah story. (1) It is the longest and most detailed of all the Flood stories. (2) It is embedded in a relatively “naturalistic” and otherwise theologically coherent (and sane) set of background beliefs. (3) By contrast, other details in the other versions of the story feature things like a mother goddess giving birth to the first seven couples, the gods requiring the food and drink of sacrifices, and generally gods acting much like primitive and corrupt human beings.

If the Flood story is inconsistent with science, then does that not indicate more strongly that it is merely borrowed from some common pagan source?

Let us elaborate the question. There is a separate problem about the Noah story that does not depend upon it being derivative: if, as seems to be the case (see questions about Gen 6 and 7), the story is inconsistent with science, then does that not indicate more strongly that it is merely borrowed from some common pagan source? Does that not indicate that the Noah story, and thus the Bible generally, has very questionable sources and thus lacks any credibility? As far as I am concerned, this is certainly one of the hardest problems for any Bible believer who does not accept a Young Earth theory. One way through, of course, is simply to take one horn of the dilemma and espouse the Young Earth theory, attempting to defend the claims made. There are ways to do that that are more plausible than might appear at first glance, but I have not learned about how creationists attempt to shift scientific paradigms. Another way is to deny that there is anything terribly wrong, theologically, with a Bible the first eleven chapters of which contain legendary or mythic elements shared with other traditions. Those traditions were recast in terms of a true theology, which is why those old stories did not completely sink into the mists of time but gained a lease on life by being dignified by association with Moses and those who followed after him. But this strikes me as unsatisfactory for the simple reason that so much of the rest of the Bible takes Gen 1-11 for granted as literal truth.