Whenever we read the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, we should remind ourselves that we’re dealing with ways of thinking very different from our own. The Israelites shared the world view, and the myths, legends and folktales, of their fellow Canaanites (Palestinians), and the wider set of Assyrian (Syrian) and Babylonian (Iraqi) peoples in the ancient near east. It needn’t surprise us, then, that the writers/editors of Genesis 6 had no problem about including, in their national epic, what looks like their own version of one such myth. They gave these borrowings their own ‘slant’, in order to express their national and religious distinctiveness.
In the thinking of these distant times, the natural and supernatural world were right next door to each other, allowing for quick and easy two-way visiting. The chief god lived on a mountain top, or just above the clouds, and presided over a council of lesser gods. There were also lots of divine beings such as angels, who could fly down to convey dreams or verbal messages. Similarly, humans, like the patriarch Enoch and the prophet Elijah (and Jesus of Nazareth), could be ‘taken up’ into the skies, and become human/divine hybrids. In this picturesque story, divine beings called “sons of God“, come ‘down to earth’ to sample the delights on offer.
(By the way – this should remind us that when the earliest followers of Jesus began to speak of him being a “Son of God”, that term had a far wider meaning than subsequently became the case. Contemporary Roman pagans considered the Emperor Augustus to be a “Son of God”.)
It’s been suggested that angelic, and other divine beings, are sexless, but that’s certainly not the case in Genesis 6. As they looked down from on high, they “saw that the daughters of humankind were beautiful” (and physical). If they knew the hymn “Yield not to temptation”, they were tempted to ignore it, and did so en masse. And they didn’t come for ‘one night stands’. They appear to have ‘humanised’ themselves, since they married, and had children.
These semi-divine children, unsurprisingly, were extraordinary – “they were the mighty heroes of old, the famous men”, but too bad if they were female. Patriarchy reigned in both heaven and on earth in those days (and many might say, still does in ours). The text seems to imply that these offspring were called “Nephilim“, though that isn’t made clear. The name (the meaning of which is uncertain) appears again in Numbers 13:33, where they’re said to be giants, compared with whom, ordinary mortals “seemed like grasshoppers“.
In this little section of Genesis 6, there isn’t any explicit condemnation of all these questionable goings-on. Verse 3 may possibly hint at such, but its Hebrew is opaque and its meaning unclear : “My breath (or) spirit will not remain in (or) contend with man forever in that also he is flesh and his days will be a hundred and twenty years.” Well, quite so! Perhaps the thought is that, unlike the biblical others who live for hundreds of years, these Nephilim will only live for 120. Or the meaning may be that this ‘unholy’ state of affairs, with its ‘mixed marriages’, will only last for 120 years, after which the Flood will wipe them all away.
It strikes me that these writers/editors knew a trick of two about how to entertain, and retain, an audience. Perhaps, like the drunken porter episode in Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’, this is a bit of lighthearted relief, well positioned in between the shocking tales of Abel’s murder by his brother, and the near drowning of every living thing by the great Flood. Perhaps it’s also intended to tell us to take these preceding and following ‘horror stories’ seriously, but certainly not unduly so. Which sounds like a good way to take the bible as a whole – seriously, yes, but not unduly so.