Chapter 6 is the beginning of the Flood story.
“When men began to multiply on the face of the ground, and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that the daughters of men were fair; and they took to wife such of them as they chose” (Gen. 6:1-2).
We can ignore the misogynistic language of “taking” women, etc, since God does judge them. It’s never stated that he judges them because of their misogyny, but the interpretation is possible.
We do have this interesting reference to the fathers of the Nephilim as the “sons of God.” My study bible says that this ties them to the heavenly court referenced in Genesis 1:26. Wikipedia presents two theories: 1) That this is a story about angels breeding with humans, and 2) that the sons of God are the descendants of Seth and the daughters of men are the descendants of Cain. This second theory divides the favoured line from the fallen one.
Regardless of their parentage, the Nephilim are the products of this union. Wikipedia says that the etymology of the name is from the Hebrew word “to fall.” The only other thing we are told about them is that they were “mighty men that were of old, the men of renown” (Gen. 6:4). This suggests to me that there were other stories floating around at the time about the Nephilim – perhaps they were heroes, or this was an attempt to explain, from a Hebrew perspective, the hero myths of surrounding cultures. This is all just personal speculation, of course.
The four verses about the Nephilim come out of nowhere. We’re talking about Noah and his sons at the end of Chapter 5, then we get two paragraphs about the Nephilim, and then we bounce right back to Noah. It feels very much like an accidental insertion. And in the middle of this, we’re told that God’s spirit “shall not abide in man for ever, for he is flesh, but his days shall be a hundred and twenty years” (Gen. 6:3). Seriously, just plopped right in the middle of the description of the Nephilim. Providing context is clearly beneath the authors of Genesis.
The First Judgement
God decides that there’s too much wickedness on earth and he regrets having created humanity. He’s so angry, in fact, that he’s not content to just kill off all humanity, but he’s going to go after “man and beast and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them” (Gen. 6:7).
One has to wonder about the emotional maturity of someone who is angry at one group and therefore decides to destroy all groups. Far from the actions of a being worthy of worship, this sounds rather more like the tantruming of a child – or, perhaps more accurately, like the capricious behaviour we see in polytheistic pantheons. I find this comparison especially interesting since my study bible points out that the Genesis Flood is only superficially similar to the Babylonian myth because the Genesis account is attributed to God’s judgement of human wickedness rather than an “expression of polytheistic caprice.”
At the end of this passage, we find out that there’s an exception to God’s hatred – “Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord” (Gen. 6:8) – and we are told again that Noah has three sons: Shem, Ham, and Japheth.
The Second Judgement
The third portion of Chapter 6 is a repetition of the second. Once again, we are told that God sees corruption on earth, and once again he says that he has “determined to make an end of all flesh” (Gen. 6:13). Genesis 6:14-16 are instructions for the construction of the ark (my study bible has the dimensions as roughly equivalent to 450 x 75 x 45 feet), and then we are told that this ark will be necessary because God’s chosen method of mass destruction is flooding.
God then proceeds to instruct Noah to get in the ark along with his wife, his sons, and his daughters-in-law. Further, he must take with him “of every living thing of all flesh, you shall bring two of every sort into the ark, to keep them alive with you; they shall be male and female” (Gen. 6:19). I’d just like to note that God does not make any exceptions – this is two of every living thing (though he does go on to specify birds, animals, and creeping things). In addition, Noah is to take “every sort of food that is eaten” (Gen. 6:21). Noah follows all of God’s instructions.
Why the second judgement story? My study bible says that “it is generally recognized that an earlier and a later (priestly) tradition have been combined.”
Now, it’s often been pointed out that it would be pretty near impossible to fit two of every animal onto an ark of the dimensions listed above. In fact, it would be pretty difficult even if the ark were much larger. I’ve heard quite a few theories given to explain away this problem – such as that only juvenile animals were boarded (and therefore took up less space), or that only representatives of “kinds” were taken (diverging into the many species we see today after the Flood ended) – but they never seem particularly satisfactory. It seems far more likely that the story was simply written by people who had never travelled to far beyond their own borders and whose imaginations were thus limited.
And, of course, the care of so many animals by the only eight humans allowed on the ark is plainly unrealistic.
A Few Final Thoughts
The idea that this chapter could be the retelling of a literal, world-wide flood is rather absurd. It strikes me as silly that there are so many people who would even try, especially since there’s a simpler interpretation available. I don’t want to do the apologists’ work for them, but God only says that he wants to kill all of humanity – not that he wants to flood the whole world. So far, we’ve only seen 11 (or possibly 12, if Shem, Ham, and Japheth have kids who were not allowed on the ark) generations. We have no reason to believe that humanity has spread outside of their starting point and the land of Nod. A large local flood could conceivably kill all of humanity (thereby honouring God’s covenant of not doing that again) without the necessity of being global. It still makes a liar of God in that he says to take two of every animal, but even that can be rationalized by the diligent imagination.
But none of this makes God a good guy. He spares Noah because Noah “found favor in the eyes of the Lord” (Gen. 6:8) – what did he do, exactly, to warrant this favour? There haven’t been any commandments issued for him to follow yet, so it can’t be that he’s done good works. If he’s simply abstained from partaking in the violence and corruption of his fellows, why would God not also command him to take all the little babies into the ark as well? The only way I could possibly accept that it would be legitimate for God to slaughter newborns would be if we live in a deterministic universe and God knew that all those babies would someday grow up to commit atrocities (and that no other possibility exists). But wouldn’t this conflict with the (thus far extra-biblical) doctrine of free will? My humble human morality simply cannot accept the slaughter of infants – but perhaps I just don’t understand God’s mysterious ways.
And finally, is this an instance of God changing his mind? Why do I keep hearing the claim that God is omniscient when he clearly regrets his own actions? Shouldn’t he have been able to foresee the consequences of creating humanity and, therefore, known what he was getting himself into?