Who corrupted God’s world? (Genesis 6:1-6)

Genesis 6:2 (NIV)
The sons of God saw that the daughters of humans were beautiful, and they married any of them they chose.

Who were the sons of God? Who were the daughters of humankind? Why did their intermarriage corrupt the world?

During the Persian period (300 years before Jesus), some Jews crafted a story known as The Book of the Watchers (the first part of 1 Enoch). They reinterpreted “sons of God” in Genesis 6:2 to mean angels who could not keep their eyes off the pretty girls. These watchers were spirits, but they managed to sleep with the girls and produce babies. The babies grew into giants. When the giants died (or the flesh part did), their spirits lived on, searching for other bodies to possess (1 Enoch 15). They provided to men the technologies to make war, and to women the cosmetics to seduce men (1 Enoch 8). According to The Book of the Watchers, these fallen angels are to blame for all the troubles on earth.

There are several problems with this interpretation. For starters, it does not comport with how Jewish people understood their enemies in earlier times. It was a rereading of the Genesis story, not what the Genesis story was saying. They wanted to attribute their sufferings to evil spirits, not to human sin.

The Enochic embellishment of the story hinges on interpreting “sons of God” as fallen angels. There are passages in the Bible where this phrase is used of heavenly beings. However, there are also passages where God’s people are called his sons. Israel is his son (Exodus 4:20; Hosea 11:1). The king who represents Israel is his son (2 Samuel 7:14; Psalm 2:7). In Deuteronomy 32:8-9, the phrase “sons of God” is parallel to Jacob (i.e. Israel), and two verses earlier YHWH was described as the father who created them. Even in later Jewish writings such as the Greek addition to Esther (Esther 16:16), the Jews are called the sons of the most high mighty, living God (υἱοὺς τοῦ ὑψίστου μεγίστου ζῶντος θεοῦ). In the context of Genesis 6, the sons of God are the sons of the heavenly sovereign, the people who represent the heavenly ruler, portraying his “image” (5:1, 3).

The point of the Enochian story is to make the fallen angels the source of evil rather than the rebellion described in Genesis 3-4. Genesis 6 makes no attempt to get humans off the hook: it explicitly and repeatedly assigns blame to humans (not to evil spirits):

Genesis 6 (NIV)

5 The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time. 6 The Lord regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled. … 12 God saw how corrupt the earth had become, for all the people on earth had corrupted their ways.

In fact, it makes no sense to interpret “sons of God” as angels in this context. There was nothing about angels in the preceding chapter, or the one before, or the one before that. What we do have in Genesis 5 is a listing of the godly sons in their generations—the descendants of Seth, in the image of Adam in the image of God, the people who call on the name of YHWH. Genesis 4 described the City of Enoch where people relied on human strength to get justice. By contrast, the Enoch in Seth’s line was a godly son: he walked with God. The Lamech in Cain’s line was the epitome of human power (4:23), whereas the Lamech in Seth’s line looked for YHWH to bring relief for their suffering (5:29). The whole context has contrasted the godly sons versus those who rely on human strength.

So who is responsible for the corruption of God’s world? Genesis 6 does not blame evil spirits. Just as importantly, neither does it blame the ungodly! The blame falls on the godly sons who lost their distinctiveness.

When the sons of God choose partners based on physical attractiveness rather than the values that matter, the distinction between those who called on God’s name and those who trusted in human strength disappeared. Again, this is a very Jewish way of understanding the world. When those who represent the heavenly sovereign lose their distinctiveness, the hope of the world is gone.

YHWH’s restoration programme relies on humans partnering with him and representing his reign. When they lose their distinctiveness, there is no hope. Even God loses hope:

Genesis 6:6 (ESV)
And the Lord regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.

If the world is a dark place, don’t blame the world: the problem lies with the people called to be the light. Everything is corrupted if the salt loses its saltiness.


What others are saying

Ida Fröhlich, “Mesopotamian Elements and the Watchers Traditions,” in The Watchers in Jewish and Christian Traditions, edited by Angela Kim Harkins et al (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2014), 20:

The story of the Watchers contains a message that cannot be found in Gen. 6:1–4. It is a determinist myth and an alternative tradition to the message of the primeval history of Genesis. In the Enochic tradition evil originates from the deeds of the Watchers, after creation. According to Genesis, the origin of evil is due to human disobedience (Gen. 2–3). The tradition of the Watchers is often referred to in Qumran texts, with the implication that this is the origin of evil. On the other hand, the biblical story of Gen. 2–3 is almost never mentioned at Qumran.

For a contrary view, see Amar Annus, “On the Origin of Watchers: A Comparative Study of the Antediluvian Wisdom in Mesopotamian and Jewish Traditions” in Journal for the Study of the Pseudepigrapha vol. 19:4 (2010): 277–320.

Read Genesis 6:1-6.



Author: Allen Browne

Seeking to understand Jesus in the terms he chose to describe himself: son of man (his identity), and kingdom of God (his mission). Riverview Church, Perth, Western Australia

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