When man began to multiply on the face of the land and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that the daughters of man were attractive. And they took as their wives any they chose. Then the Lord said, “My Spirit shall not abide in man forever, for he is flesh: his days shall be 120 years.” The Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of man and they bore children to them. These were the mighty men who were of old, the men of renown. The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the Lord regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the Lord said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens, for I am sorry that I have made them.” But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord.Genesis 6:1-8
As is the pattern of each toledot of Genesis, we see a lengthy genealogy followed by historical narrative. As we arrive a Noah, we find that he is 500 years old and has three sons – Shem, Ham, and Japheth (Genesis 5:32). However, Noah takes a quick detour to set the stage for the upcoming episode.
The beginning of chapter 6 has been the source of speculation and fantastical debate over the interpretation and meaning of it. However, a close examination of the historical and cultural context of verses 1-4 can clear up any confusion, as it is intended to set the stage for what is to follow. So let’s look at this verse by verse.
“When man began to multiply on the face of the land and daughters were born to them,”Genesis 6:1
So this is a simple observation. Mankind is fulfilling the creation mandate to be fruitful and multiply and subdue the earth. Naturally, as a part of that multiplication, both sons and daughters were born in order to continue the process of replication and multiplication. As such, as the earth is still one land mass, it is much easier for man to cover the face of the earth and as mankind continued to live to very old ages (over 800 years on the average), they were able to produce many children. One can also safely assume that women also lived to be equally as old as men, even if the Scriptures do not explicitly say so. As such, they were likely able to bear children for hundreds of years. As a result, the birth rate was likely significantly higher than today.
By today’s birth rates, global population at that time would have been approximately 750 million. However, at an accelerated birth rate due to prolonged lifespans and a global environment undisturbed by natural disaster, it has been postulated that the global population was likely closer to 4 billion people, a little less than half of today’s global population1.
“the sons of God saw that the daughters of man were attractive. And they took as their wives any they chose. Then the LORD said, My Spirit shall not abide in man forever, for he is flesh: his days shall be 120 years. The Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of man and they bore children to them. These were the mighty men who were of old, the men of renown.”Genesis 6:2-4
This is perhaps one of the most “mysterious” passages of Scripture with interpretations ranging from the mystical to the hyperbolic symbolism to simple heroic ascription. One explanation is that the “sons of God” refers to angels with “the Nephilim” as their offspring. Support for this interpretation comes from the book of Job where the angelic court is referred to as the “sons of God.” (Job 1:6) However, as angels are non-gendered creatures and there is no indication of any ability to procreate, and Genesis 1 records that God designed all botanical and zoological life to reproduce “according to their kind.” Thus two different kinds of creation could not be capable of reproduction. Furthermore, there is no explicit indication that the Nephilim (often translated as “the fallen ones” due to the Hebrew word being a derivative of the word “nephil”, meaning “to fall”) were the aforementioned offspring; simply a casual mention that this race or legendary tribe of warriors existed. It has been postulated that this interpretation stems from a reference to such “giants in the sky” or constellations like Orion, a correlation to Greek mythology. As such this interpretation would be anachronistic in the sense that interpreters are imposing a mythological reference from a culture that arose over a millennia later than this text was conceived and would carry no meaning to either Moses or the readers of his day. In fact, there are many different mythological tales of giants throughout history, including reference to such creatures as trolls, ogres, and Homer’s Cyclops. In all of these mythological references, these are likely exaggerations for dramatic effect to emphasize strength, power, and dominance in an effort to incite fear.
A second explanation is that the “sons of God” were the descendant sons of Seth intermarrying with the corrupt descendant daughters of Cain. While the current toledot of Adam provides a contrasting genealogy that demonstrates the evil inherent in the line of Cain and the relative righteousness of the descendants of Seth, this doesn’t quite meet up with literary justification based on the judgement of God on all mankind to limit their lifespan to 120 years (from the average of 800+). Verse 3 is an indication of God’s faithfulness to His word as it relates to the penalty for sin – death. However, as mankind began to increase and populate the earth, so too did sin as a result of our sinful nature. As such, in God’s judgement and mercy, He chose to limit the lifespan of mankind to an average of 120 years (the age of Moses at his death). So the immediate literary context does give some support to this theory, but there is a third possibility that seems most plausible.
As was part and parcel of Ancient Near East cultures in the time of Moses, regional kings and governors and ruling authorities would often refer to themselves as “sons of God”. Often these same rulers would play the role of religious sovereign, or high priest, as well. Within this interpretation, Gesenius’ Hebrew-Chaldee Lexicon prefers to render the translation of Nephilim as “the fallers”, or “tyrants who cause others to fall.”2 One such example would be the pharaohs of Egypt who considered themselves direct descendants of their pagan gods, most specifically of the sun god, Ra. What was also common is that these rulers would often take unto themselves multiple wives, often by force (“took as their wives any they chose”). Euphemistically, this is likely a descriptive reference to the forced taking of women as wives into a form of sexual slavery – human trafficking if you will. Linguistic evidence suggests that the word for “take” was also occasionally translated in economic terms as “to buy”. As was the custom in the ANE, women had very few choices when it comes to matrimony and their only responsibility, as demonstrated in this text was to bear children – particularly strong sons of a warrior stock for the purpose of kingly succession (“the mighty men who were of old, the men of renown.”). Were the Nephilim and these offspring one and the same? The literary evidence suggests that they were not and that the use of the term “Nephilim” was more a comparative, descriptive reference to a known tribe of warriors in Canaan referenced in Numbers 13:33.
The description of the Nephilim in this reference is one of hyperbolic exaggeration from fearful spies: “And there we saw the Nephilim (the sons of Anak, who come from the Nephilim), and we seemed to ourselves grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them.” (Numbers 13:33) The idea that the Nephilim were a race of giants up to 10 feet tall or more seems hyperbolic and inspired by fear where the average height of the Canaanite warriors could very well have been taller than the average Israelite 40 years after suffering for 400 years under the slave-master’s whip in Egypt, along with their relative lack of military experience. Combined with the military organization of the Canaanite clans and the relative population size of Israel likely being closer to 30,000 people (see Colin Humphrey’s analysis of the interpretive problem of the translation of the Hebrew אֶלֶף “‘eleph”3), it’s no wonder that the human vision of the spies would exaggerate the strength of the experienced Canaanite warrior clans in hyperbolic imagery. Applying this interpretive framework to the antediluvian reference to the Nephilim, one can then see that the Nephilim were nothing more than a race of tyrannical warriors, similar in reputation to that of what we know of the Assyrian empire or even the Mongolian hordes under Genghis Kahn. Furthermore, considering the antediluvian Nephilim were wiped out in the flood, there is no reason to assume that the Nephilim in Numbers are the same tribe/race, but rather the refence in Numbers provides a metaphorical descriptive image for readers of Moses’ day to understand the nature of the “mighty men who were of old, the men of renown” in Genesis.
So in this study, we see a shift begin to occur. Mankind is obediently fulfilling the creation mandate to be fruitful and multiply. However, as they multiply, the old sin of pride not only takes root, but we see man transition from being made in the image of God to seeking to be like God through the taking of the forbidden fruit to the elites declaring themselves to be “sons of God”. This then culminates in the judgement of God upon all flesh.
“The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the LORD regretted that He had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the LORD said, ‘I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens, for I am sorry that I have made them.’ But Noah found favor in the eyes of the LORD.”Genesis 6:5-8
The wickedness of man was great. Every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. How evil does the world have to be for this to be the summation of moral state of mankind up to this point. We go from paradise in Eden to a near literal hell on earth as sin takes foothold and tightens its chokehold grip on creation. What is unfortunate is that the translation of “the LORD regretted that He had made man on the earth” loses it’s heart as the word for “regretted” in the cultural context of the Hebrew readers of Moses’ day is more akin to the phrase “to have pity upon” or “to suffer grief.” It’s easy to be confused by the thought of our omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent God regretting His own Providential choices, but when we recognize that our omnibenevolent, loving, merciful, and gracious Eternal Father is grieved to the point of pity upon His wayward children, Moses’ intended meaning comes into focus.
Imagine the emotional turmoil of a loving father whose children abuse one another continually, and ignore his guidance and wisdom in favor of their own selfish pride. Imagine the horrors that the world has wrought. If you think the world is at the worst it has ever been today with the rise of violent crime, wars, genocides, human trafficking, greed, corruption, and even threats of nuclear holocaust, you haven’t seen anything yet. At least today there is still some hope as the grace of Almighty God still offers a chance of redemption. But in the days of Noah, there was no hope of redemption except for 8 people, and then only by virtue of God’s gracious and sovereign favor upon the father.
“For as were the days of Noah, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and they were unaware until the flood came and swept them all away, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.” (Matthew 24:37-39)
If you think the state of the world can’t get any worse than it is today, just wait. The worst is yet to come. The good news: the best is also yet to come, because we know that in the end, the King is returning. Paradise will be restored. The question remains: will you be prepared? What will the King of all Creation have to say about you? Will He say “your wickedness is great and every intention of every thought of your heart is only evil continually?” Or will He say “Well done, good and faithful servant….Enter into the joy of your Master.” (Matthew 25:21)
- “What was the Pre-Flood Population Like?” https://answersingenesis.org/noahs-ark/pre-flood-population/
- Gesenius’ Hebrew-Chaldee Lexicon. https://www.blueletterbible.org/lexicon/h5303/esv/wlc/0-1/
- Humphreys, Colin. “The Number of People in the Exodus from Egypt: Decoding Mathematically the Very Large Numbers in Numbers I and XXVI.” Vetus Testamentum. Vol. 48, Fasc. 2 (Apr., 1998), pp. 196-213 (18 pages)