Friday, June 18, 2010

Angels & Demons 13: Who Are the “Sons of God” in Genesis?

The word “son” (Hebrew: BEN) occurs 4580 times in the Hebrew Bible. In the vast majority of those occurrences, the term is used to refer to the parent-child relationship between a human father and his physically-begotten human “son.” To my knowledge, no one seriously claims that the Hebrew God physically fathered any angels. Even Christians, who admit to no “physical begetting” while asserting that God “spiritually” begat Jesus, claim that Jesus was God’s “ONLY begotten Son.” Therefore, Christians do not hold that God (even spiritually) begat any angels. My initial conclusion, then, is that the phrase with which we are dealing in Genesis 6 is to be interpreted either figuratively or metaphorically. Those who married the daughters of men, in Genesis 6, are IN SOME FIGURATIVE OR METAPHORICAL SENSE “sons of God.” What are our figurative/metaphorical options?

1. The Septuagint (LXX), the major Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament during the New Testament period, does translate the phrase “sons of God” with the Greek word for “angels” in the book of Job, but interestingly enough, NOT IN GENESIS 6! The Greek translators of the Hebrew Bible—even though they were probably QUITE FAMILIAR WITH THE INTERPRETATION OFFERED IN I ENOCH that these were angels who married human women—chose NOT to translate the phrase as “angels” in Genesis 6.

2. H. Haag observes, in his article on “BEN” in the Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, that the word may be used to indicate a LINEAGE or ethnic identity, as when all offspring of the lineage of Jacob are called the “sons (children) of Israel.” This is a possibility that I will revisit.

3. The word can be used to indicate a GEOGRAPHICAL ORIGIN. Various humans are referred to as sons of Bethlehem, sons of Jerusalem, sons of Zion, sons of Eden, sons of Samaria, etc. While the terms “God” and “Heaven” are sometimes used as synonyms—as in the phrases “Kingdom of Heaven” and “Kingdom of God”—the contrast with “daughters of men” in the Genesis passage makes this an unlikely option.

4. Haag also observes: “An INDIVIDUAL is distinguished from the COLLECTIVE COMMUNITY of which he is a part or from man” by expressions translated “son of man.” This option may be more pertinent to the expression “daughters of men.”

5. The word, according to Haag, “is used as an affectionate address to YOUNGER STUDENTS or hearers,” much as we may use the word “son” in American discourse. I don’t think this interpretation has much merit.

6. It is used figuratively to express the SOURCE FROM WHICH SOMETHING COMES in such expressions as “son of oil” (referring to a hill or to an “anointed one”/messianic office holder), “son of dawn” (referring to the Morning Star), “sons of fire” (referring to sparks), and “sons of the bow” or “sons of the quiver” (referring to arrows).

7. BEN is also used to express MEMBERSHIP IN A SOCIAL GROUP, such as “sons of exile,” “sons of nobles,” “sons of the poor,” and “sons of the common people.” A group of musicians may be called “sons of Korah” or “sons of Asaph.” Priests are called “sons of Aaron.” Disciples of prophets are called “sons of the prophets.” Worthless people are called “sons of Belial.”

8. The term is also an idiom that is better translated “-LIKE.” Thus, “sons of strength” are strong, “sons of pride” are conceited, “sons of rebellion” are rebellious, “sons of uproar” are uproarious. In this sense, “sons of God” would be “God-like.” This interpretation has a great deal of merit.

9. Lastly, the term may be used to suggest a LENGTH OF TIME. Thus, a “son of eight days” or a “son of five hundred year” would refer to an eight day old child or a very old man. This is not how Genesis 6 is using the term.

While literature written in the Hellenistic period, before the New Testament times, embraces the interpretation “angels” for the “sons of God,” the rabbinic literature and the New Testament contain a different interpretation. According to Bereshit Rabbah 26.5, Rabbi Simeon ben Yoḥai translates the “sons of God” as “judges.” Targum Onkelos on Genesis 6 translates the phrase as “sons of the nobles.” Siphre Zuta on Numbers, section 86, agrees with this translation. Midrash Wayyikra Rabbah 23:9 treats the Genesis account as if it is talking about human activity. These translations would easily fit in the 7th and 8th categories, listed above. In addition to Jesus’ rejection of the notion that angels can marry (discussed in the previous commentary), Jesus is quoted in John 10:33-36 as clearly implying that the term “sons of the Most High” (from Psalm 82:6—a passage we shall return to in a later commentary) refers to “human judges.” Human judges are even called “gods/ELOHIM” in both Psalm 82:6 and Exodus 22:28. Jesus was making the point that it was not blasphemous for him to be called “god” or “son of God,” if even human judges could be called “gods” and “sons of the Most High.” Even though Haag argues that the passages in which “sons of God” are most prominent in the Old Testament (Job, Genesis 6, and Psalm 82) presuppose some sort of heavenly council in which God seeks input from other heavenly beings (such as angels), the Septuagint is only willing to explicitly apply that interpretation to Job. The rabbis rejected the notion that Psalm 82 referred to angels, as did John 10:33-36. Furthermore, the three other gospels (and the rabbis) reject the notion that angels can marry, so Genesis 6 could not then refer to angels, if the New Testament is to be believed. According to Haag, Dexinger (in more recent years) interprets the “sons of God” in Genesis 6 as “heroes” and Scharbert interprets the “sons of God” in Genesis 6 as the descendents of Seth. Is God actually objecting to heroes marrying common women or to Seth's descendents marrying Cain's descendents? Why would such unions produce "heroes"?

Louis Ginzberg notes that all of the Enoch legends “left no trace in the authoritative rabbinic sources,” and Bamberger goes so far as to say that Enoch “is not mentioned at all” in “the two Talmuds and in the tannaitic literature.” Bamberger does admit, in the footnotes (p. 275), that “actually Enoch is mentioned (but just mentioned)” in Seder Olam Rabbah, chapter 1, beginning. Then, two or three more references in the standard midrashim round out the references to Enoch. One of those references (Bereshit Rabbah 25.1) mentions Enoch, but only to claim that he was NOT translated to Heaven. Other than the reference to Enoch in Jude 14 and the few allusions to I Enoch in Jude, the only reference to Enoch in the New Testament is Hebrews 11:5, which merely lists Enoch as an example of faith who did not die (something that could be gleaned from Genesis 5:24 and that has no bearing on the “sons of God” issue).

So, let’s just look at the Genesis 6:1-8 text and see what makes sense:

“When ‘man/ADAM’ began to multiply on the face of the earth and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw the daughters of ‘man’ that they were beautiful and they took wives for themselves from all whom they chose. And the Lord said, ‘My spirit shall not always YADON with (or in) ‘man’; in their erring, he is flesh. And his days shall be a hundred twenty years. The giants (NEPHILIM) were on the earth in those days and even afterwards, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of ‘man’ and they bore for them. They [Who are ‘they’?] were the heroes who existed from ancient time, men/ANOSH of name. And the Lord saw that the evil (HA-RA‘) of ‘man’ on the earth was great. And every inclination (YETZER) of the thoughts of his ‘heart’ was only evil (HA-RA‘) all the day. And God repented that he had made ‘man’ on the earth and He was grieved in His ‘heart.’ And the Lord said, ‘I will wipe off “man” whom I have created from the face of the earth—from man to beast to creeping thing to the fowl of the heavens. I regret that I made them.’ But Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord.”

Notice that this passage is ALL ABOUT “MAN.” The word “man/ADAM” is used eight times in these eight verses:

Man multiplies.

His daughters are beautiful.

God’s spirit will not YADON in him; he errs; he is flesh.

He seems to be obsessed ONLY with his “evil inclination/YETZER HA-RA‘.”

God repented that He had made him.

God plans to wipe him off the face of the earth.

Where is God’s outrage toward “angels”? If this passage is supposed to report the story of “fallen angels,” why is God only regretful that he made man, beast, creeping thing, and fowl? Why doesn’t God regret making the angels? Why doesn’t He punish the angels? To believe I Enoch, one would have to assume that having children who were heroes is punishment enough for them! This is not an account of fallen angels. Whoever these “sons of God” were, they were human. Perhaps, they were judges or sons of the judges, in line with Psalm 82:6 and Exodus 22:28. Judges were generally pretty smart and, like Samson and Gideon, they were usually good warriors. They could have had children who were “heroes.”

Some interpreters have tried to make something out of the term NEPHILIM (translated “giants”). The term can be associated etymologically with the root NAPHAL, which means “to fall.” Hence, some say, “Aha! Fallen Angels!” But, that interpretation of NEPHILIM has its own problems. Numbers 13:33 gives the clear indication that NEPHILIM were just human giants. When the Hebrew spies went in to scope out the land of Canaan, they reported that there were NEPHILIM (giants) in the land—i.e., the sons of Anak. The spies reported that they were as grasshoppers compared to the Canaanites. One would have assumed that they would have been more specific, if they had actually seen fallen angels. In the Genesis 6 text recorded above, I inserted the question “Who are they?” where the text says “They were the heroes who existed from ancient time, men/ANOSH of name.” Was the text saying that giants were the heroes—men of name? Or was the text saying that the sons of God were the heroes—men of name? If Genesis were following strict grammatical rules, as set down for English journalists by Strunk and White, the sons of God would be the heroes, but we cannot hold the Hebrew author of Genesis to English rules of grammar. The third possibility is not very grammatically correct for English readers, but works in the Hebrew: that the heroes (men of name) were the offspring of the sons of God and daughters of men. Whether the heroes were the “sons of God,” the giants, or the offspring of the sons of God and daughters of men, one thing is clear: they were MEN (men of name). They were not part-man/part angel.

One other Hebrew term in this text is important, the term YADON, found in the comment from God: “My spirit shall not always YADON with (or in) ‘man’; in their erring, he is flesh.” Frankly, we DO NOT KNOW what this word means. It is what scholars of ancient writings call a “hapax legomenon.” A hapax legomenon is a word that occurs ONLY ONCE IN ALL OF LITERATURE. We were able to interpret the word NEPHILIM in Genesis 6 as “human giants” because it occurs other places in literature. Numbers 13:33 gives the clear indication that NEPHILIM were just human giants. The word YADON, however, was never used before and never used again in ancient literature. You could say that your guess is as good as mine regarding the meaning of this word.

Nevertheless, I will hazard a guess, based on the dichotomies that are developed in this text. My perspective on the meaning of this word stems from my application of the Twentieth Century communication theorist Kenneth Burke’s definition of human. In my book, Disneology: Religious Rhetoric at Walt Disney World, I develop Burke’s view of humans as the symbol-using animal. Burke sees a dichotomy in humans: they have animality and they have symbolicity. In that book, I suggest possibilities for viewing the point at which humans existed “in God’s image.” While I did not discuss this point in that book, Genesis 1:26 quotes God: “Let us make man INTO our image.” The Hebrew consonant that I have translated “into” is typically translated “in.” Nevertheless “into” is a perfectly legitimate translation. Another legitimate translation would be: “Let us make man WITH our image.” Due to the scientific recalcitrance of the fossil record that seems to provide evidence of the existence of a non-symbol-using version of man that predates the symbol-using variety, I am happy with a translation of “into” or “with.” In other words, I see a possibility that God originally made a man (such as, Neanderthal) who did not have symbol-using capacities. He could not speak a language, make tools, paint pictures on cave walls, etc. Then, at some point, God made the same type of being with symbol-using capacities (i.e., with His image): He created Adam and Eve. This variety of man possessed BOTH animality AND symbolicity. Just as Genesis 6 says, God’s “spirit” (=symbolicity) shall not always “prevail/YADON” in man” because man is also “flesh” (=animality). The word “prevail” (as I have translated YADON) is at least a shade of the meaning of the word “strive”—the most common translation of the word YADON. It also makes perfect sense, if one notes that this passage is discussing man’s “evil inclination/YETZER HA-RA‘” which was “prevailing” all day long (presumably, over man’s “good inclination/YETZER HA-TOV”). The sons of God, in this scenario, would be the offspring of Adam and Eve—those who were created “with” God’s image, and hence, could be thought of as his “sons.” The daughters of men, in this scenario, would be the female offspring of the purely “animal” man, the Neanderthals or some such. This uses the "lineage" approach (#2, above) or interpreting "sons." The fact that the latest Neanderthals lived at the same time as the earliest forms of Modern Man has been in the news, lately. What would happen if one bred a very intelligent (symbolicity=God’s spirit=son of God) man with a very physically adapted (animality= YETZER HA-RA‘=daughter of man) woman? Would their offspring not have the capability of being “heroes” and “men of name?” Furthermore, such unions between “symbol-using” humans and their “animal” counterparts might be attributed to the purely sexual attraction of “sons of God” to the “daughters of men.” Their “evil inclination” could be interpreted as “prevailing” over their “good inclination”—because they are also flesh. This “prevailing” of the evil inclination of men over their good inclination could produce an understandable “regret” on the part of God that he had made either “animal man” or even “symbol-using man.”

Final thought: One does not need to buy into my Burkean philosophically dichotomous interpretation of Genesis 6, however, to see that the sons of God were not angels; they were humans.

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