I recently participated in a doctoral colloquium where students were required to read my book The Unseen Realm. It was fun, and I’m grateful to all who took part and considered the book stimulating reading for the colloquium. One of the questions focused on an excerpt from a book recently co-authored by a friend of mine (Dr. Peter Gentry). The book is entitled Kingdom Through Covenant: A Biblical-Theological Understanding of the Covenants (which I recommend to readers). Here’s the question, along with the relevant excerpt:
Question: How would you respond to Discourse Grammar Analysis of Gen 6:4 as explained in Kingdom Through Covenant?
The analysis in question is found on pp. 150-151:
The relationship of Genesis 6:1–4 to the flood story, and the interpretation of these four verses, is extremely problematic. Only a brief comment is possible in the scope of this work. Two main issues are significant: (1) the identity of the “sons of God” who marry the daughters of the human race and have children by them (6:2, 4), and (2) interpretation of the temporal expressions “those days” and “afterwards” in 6:4. Three views predominate on the identity of the sons of God: (1) they represent the godly line of Seth (Gen. 4:25–5:32) intermarrying with the ungodly line of Cain (Gen. 4:17–24); (2) they represent powerful kings/tyrants ruling at the time; (3) they represent angels who married human women. The last view is a problem since one would then have to wonder if the flood was a judgement upon angelic rather than human corruption and violence. This view should be considered seriously, however, since the exact expression “sons of God” refers consistently and exclusively to angelic beings in the Old Testament (Job 1:6; 2:1; 38:7, cf. Ps. 29:1; Dan. 3:25) and is also supported by the New Testament in 2 Peter 2:4 and Jude 6–7. Peter and Jude seek to bolster the faith of their readers by reference to events well known from the Old Testament. Their comments are structured in such a way as to refer in particular to two texts in Genesis (Genesis 6–9 and 18–19). They speak of angels who sinned and were cast into a particular prison awaiting further judgement. According to Jude, both examples (i.e., angels and cities of the plain) involved gross immorality.
The temporal expressions “those days” and “afterwards” both occur in verse 4. For purposes of discussion, a literal translation of this verse is useful:
The Nephilim were on the earth in those days and also afterwards when the sons of God had relations with human women and they bore children for them. They were the heroes who were from the ancient past, men of reknown.
Two main possibilities exist for interpretation of the temporal expressions. If one interprets “those times” to be the times described in verses 1–3, then what is distinguished are the times before the flood from the times after the flood. The relative clause introduced by “afterwards” would seem to indicate that the cohabitation of angelic and human beings continued after the flood. One might conclude that the Nephilim were the product of such unions (cf. Num. 13:22, 28, 33).
Yet a different interpretation is possible. The expression “afterwards” (’aḥărê-kēn) usually occurs in the second of two verbal sentences: the first sentence says that event X did or will happen; the second says that subsequent to the event in the first sentence, event Y did or will happen. Here we must note that the expression ’aḥărê-kēn is modified by a relative sentence which refers specifically to the event in verse 2. Therefore one could assume that “those days” means before the cohabitation of divine and human beings. Verse 4 would then comment that the Nephilim were in the earth before the business of angelic and human beings cohabiting and also afterwards and therefore had nothing to do with these unions.
This latter interpretation is strengthened by considerations of discourse grammar. Verse 4 consists of two clauses or sentences, the first verbal, the second nominal. Both are marked by asyndeton (i.e., no conjunction or connector at the beginning of the clause/sentence). In the first, the verb is non-initial. This pattern marks a commentary or explanatory digression. The fact that the first sentence is subject-initial indicates a new topic. The relative sentence in verse 4 correlates this new topic with the events of verse 2. The nominal sentence is a further comment on the Nephilim. They were the heroes from the distant past. This may mean the distant past with reference to the writer, or it may indicate a period long past in reference to the event of 6:2. Therefore the writer would be demythologizing the Nephilim. These heroes of ancient times were there before and after the events of 6:2 and were not necessarily related to them at all. Thus, verse 1 describes an increase in female humans, verse 2 describes a cohabitation of angelic and human beings, verse 3 concludes that the result is still human and therefore under God’s judgement, and verse 4 states that all this has nothing to do with the well-known Nephilim. Since the word Nephilim is not otherwise explained, they must have been well known to the ancient (first) readers of this text.
What this digression shows, then, is that if one assumes that Genesis 6:1–4 is referring to a union of angelic and human beings, this may not be connected to the causes of the flood. In addition, according to 2 Peter 2:4 and Jude 6, the judgement of the angels was separate from the judgement of the flood.
My response is straightforward.
First, there’s nothing amiss with the analysis of the possibilities. “May mean” is appropriately cautious. I don’t find the second possibility persuasive for the following reasons:
- The second alternative is a reading that fails to cohere with the apkallu tradition from Mesopotamia, which Annus and others have conclusively demonstrated is the backdrop for Gen 6:1-4. The apkallu tradition accounts for all the elements of Gen 6:1-4, including the punishment of the divine offenders. Second Temple literature shows a clear awareness of that backdrop (e.g., Gilgamesh in the book of Giants; Gilgamesh was “lord of the apkallu per one cylinder seal, two-thirds divine and one-third human, and a giant).
- Second Temple Jewish texts don’t separate the items in Gen 6:1-4 as the alternative seeks to (i.e., they don’t follow the second discourse trajectory)
- Peter and Jude are also aware of, and utilize, the Titan material (“sent to Tartarus”) which also doesn’t really follow this second trajectory.
- Though the Old Testament doesn’t include the judgment of the “angels” of Gen 6:1-4, Second Temple texts and the New Testament do.
- That inclusion is completely in line with the original context for the Old Testament passage (i.e., the apkallu tradition, which was clearly inherited by Second Temple texts, Jewish and Greek). That’s because the Second Temple material bears witness to the Mesopotamian context of Gen 6:1-4 and the New Testament writers drew on that Second Temple material.
There are of course more trajectories that could be brought to bear in terms of why the alternative idea fails and the first option makes the best sense. But in broad terms, of the two possible discourse perspectives, only one coheres with the apkallu context and the intended polemic, as well as with the Second Temple perspective of Gen 6:1-4. Consequently, I prefer a reading that aligns with ALL the contexts (not just a select possible linguistic context) and that works across the board interpretively when all the data are brought to bear.
I mention this because it’s a good illustration of how one could come across an argument (discourse grammar) and then opt for that alternative while paying no attention to other contexts. While there are two discourse options, one must ask which of those aligns with other contexts for the passage. There’s only one choice in that regard.
In fairness, the apkallu tradition wasn’t prominent in The Unseen Realm. It receives far more attention in Reversing Hermon and my forthcoming book, Demons: What the Bible Really Says About the Powers of Darkness.