Before we get into the nitty gritty of the ever-so-familiar tale told in Genesis 6, I want to take the route of William Shakespeare and begin with a dramatis personae of the factions of intelligent life involved in this story.
First of all, there is God, who is also called Lord [Gen. 2:4 NRSV, etc.], but whose real name is unknown, unpronounceable, and represented by the tetragrammaton “YHWH.” God is the creator of everything that we know, or the one who organized, ordered, and conquered the chaos, depending on your interpretation of Genesis 1. God is composed of spirit (“a mighty wind”), has knowledge of good and evil, and possesses immortality. We know this because after God blessed Adam and Eve with the divine spirit, and directly after they ate of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, God cast humankind from the garden lest they eat of the tree of life and live forever like God and God’s droogs [3:22]. Nobody has called God all-powerful yet – of course, nobody has dared call God weak either – but we know that the creation / organization of the cosmos required a power much greater than that we currently have access to.
Next are the children of God, and I’m not referring to what Sunday School teachers call everybody who goes to your church. These are the beings that have only been referred to by the plural pronoun “us” up to this point [1:26, etc.]. It would seem that these mysterious other divine figures are part of a heavenly court ruled by God. Without much to go on, it would make sense that these beings are similar to God insofar as they are spirit, possess knowledge of good and evil, and have eternal life. As God’s children, it would seem that they derive their power, in some way, from God. These eternal beings may be the gods of other tribes, seen as local governors under the supervision of YHWH. They may be the personified / deified concepts that God created: Day [1:5], Night [1:5], Sky [1:8], Earth [1:10], Sea [1:10], etc. I wouldn’t be surprised if these are the same beings that are later transformed into angels because of codes against idolatry / worshiping other gods. One quality that they seem to exhibit which we haven’t seen God get into yet is the power to take on the flesh and appear as human, because in Genesis 6:2 they begin to breed with the daughters of humankind.
What a great transition, because humankind is the next on our list. I know this just might #TroubletheWaters, but it is beginning to look like there are two different kinds of human on earth. Why don’t we call this a hypothesis? There are children of delight, the garden-born / garden-descended humans (Eden = “delight”) who have had direct experiences of God because they are, in some sense, God’s chosen, the high priests and priestesses chosen to intercede on behalf of humankind. They are composed of flesh, spirit, and knowledge of good and evil, and prior to Genesis 6 the spirit within them allowed them to live to very old age. According to Genesis 5:5, Adam lived to the ripe age of 930 before he died. The rest of the humans may not have been blessed with the spirit and may not have lived very long. The first we learn of the children of wandering is when Cain is cast out into the land of Nod (“wandering”) [4:16], and we must presume that they are present in Genesis 6 as God plans to destroy all of humanity. We could easily call these people others, outsiders, or foreigners. All we know is that they have flesh. Maybe they had knowledge of good and evil. Maybe not.
Finally, there are the Nephilim, a newly introduced race as of Genesis 6 comprised of the offspring resulting from the interbreeding of the children of God and humankind. Genesis 6:4 reads, “These were the heroes that were of old, warriors of renown.” Half-divine, half-human, we can assume that they are composed of both flesh and spirit, probably the knowledge of good and evil, but almost certainly not immortality. From my understanding of the heroes of old, the Nephilim appeared to be larger, more powerful versions of normal humans.
Now that the players have entered the field, I can mention that Genesis 6 appears to be yet another chapter emphasizing God’s desire for non-violence. This theme is so prevalent in #TroubletheWaters that you’d think I went into reading scripture with the hopes of converting some ancient words to my cause, but I think it is so obvious in the text that anyone who is willing to do an honest, unencumbered reading will see what I am talking about. If you look only as far as Genesis 6:11-13, it should be clear:
Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight and the earth was filled with violence. And God saw that the earth was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted its ways upon the earth. And God said to Noah, “I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence because of them…”
In an odd, yet strangely familiar, narrative the humans and the Nephilim have turned their ways to violence, probably engaging in war over land, humans against Nephilim, humans against humans, Nephilim against Nephilim, human / Nephilim armies against human / Nephilim armies. I’m sure that if you look into some of the secondary literature of the time, you’ll find every possible iteration of these combatants and possibly a whole slew of other challengers. God is not happy with this aggression. It is interesting that violence is described as corruption of the flesh, which I presume to mean infection, rot, puss, decay, and maybe even leprosy. If you imagine the weapons that would have been used in these early wars, slings, arrows, crude blades and blunt weapons, you know that there was probably a severe lack of “clean kills” on the battlefield. Rather, many warriors probably crawled into a corner and died hours, days, or weeks later as their wounds festered, their cause of death: sepsis, the corruption of flesh that shuts down a person’s organs. With this understanding we see corruption as not just a metaphor for violence, but also an effect that is brought about by violence.
The reason I think this whole story is familiar is because the comparisons to the Greek epic Homer’s Iliad, among other ancient stories, are screaming out to me. A parent god and pantheon of lesser gods / children of god / godlings interfere in mortal affairs – CHECK! Heroes of great strength who claim lineage from the gods themselves are the warriors of old that are sung about in our songs – CHECK! There are normal people there fighting but you’ll never know their names or sing their songs – CHECK!
In another way, this story is eerily similar to our own recent past. When God revokes the spirit, drastically reducing the lifespan of humankind, and decides to destroy humanity and creation, we see a story comparable to the one that unfolded in World War I. This is the war to end all war. During the first half of the 20th century, the idea was to end German militarism in order to end all war. In Genesis 6, it is to destroy all humanity, all flesh, for flesh leads to violence. The end result is the same: somebody thought that it would be possible to end all violence by enacting the biggest act of violence one could ever dream of.
The dramatic irony is astonishing at this point. If God’s destruction of humankind had been successful in getting rid of violence, would humanity have ever fought World War I, not to mention every war before that and every war since? Would people be talking about gun deaths, domestic violence, or the ever more pervasive problems of abject poverty (which people are not talking about enough!)? No. We know already, at the beginning of Noah’s arc that God fails miserably with his half-cocked plan to rid the world of violence.
I don’t want to get too far ahead of the narrative, but there is a lesson to be learned from God’s failure, and I’m sure we’ll come to it before too long. For now, I want to return to the second half of Genesis 6 where, similar to the genealogical story of Genesis 5, Noah is set up as the new Adam. What is interesting about understanding Noah as the new Adam is that we learn just how impossibly different the humankind that we interact with on a daily basis are from “the first human” with whom we tend to claim kinship. (Are any of us even descended from Adam and Eve, the children of delight, or are we wanderers too?) Adam is blessed with the spirit of God, making him much closer in composition to the Nephilim, the giants and heroes of old, than to us. But Noah is the first human to be denied the spirit of God and live to have a tale told about him, and it is with Noah that we should feel familiarity. Noah’s probably met ancestors of his that were hundreds of years old, and this is what his expectations had been for himself and his children as well, until God got angry, and now Noah would be a lucky man to live past his hundredth birthday. This short life is the doom we all face. The line of Adam ended with Lamech. We are the children of Noah, the children of an early death.