So you’re reading Genesis, and you’re out of the Garden of Eden. What’s next?
An important milestone
Everyone knows about the first day and night, the first man and woman, the first murder (Cain and Abel). But never have I heard anyone mention the milestone that came just after:
The first sarcasm.
Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?”
On a more serious note, the Cain and Abel story – rather than the Adam and Eve story – is the first instance of the word “sin” in the Bible (Gen 4:7). God describes sin as something like a wild animal, “lurking at the door.” Abel’s death is described in likewise evocative terms; his blood “is crying out” to God from the ground (Gen 4:10).
Cain is cast out to the land of Nod, and then we read:
Cain knew his wife, and she conceived and bore Enoch…
Back the train up.
So far, in the entire world, we have (counts on fingers) Eve, Adam, Cain…yep, that’s a total of three living humans on the planet. Who exactly is this wife of Cain’s, never introduced or named, casually first mentioned in the act of intercourse?
The simplest explanation, to me, is that other humans were around besides Adam’s immediate family. If you want the story to be literally true, you have to accept brother-sister incest, as well as a disjointed narrative, because Eve’s daughters haven’t been mentioned yet (Gen 5:4, Adam has “other sons and daughters”).
And you thought these guys had it rough.
Don’t forget about Seth
Adam, Eve, Cain, Abel. Everybody knows those names. But Seth remains far more obscure.
Which is odd, really, because Seth – Eve’s third child, the only one besides Cain and Abel mentioned by name – is the ancestor (through Noah) of every human alive.
Also, compare the descendants of Cain with the descendants of Seth. In order, they are:
These lists of descendants are awfully similar. Cain and Seth have similar-named sons (Enoch, Enosh). “Irad” sounds like “Jared.” And they both end with Methushael/Methuselah, followed by Lamech.
This is another case where the literal interpretation (the names happen to be similar) differs from what I’d consider the simple explanation (both are variants of a single traditional story).
Enoch and Methuselah
We’re talking about Enoch the descendant of Seth, here, not Enoch the son of Cain.
What does it mean that all of Enoch’s ancestors “died,” but Enoch “walked with God; then he was no more, because God took him”? (Gen 5:24)
The explanation I was taught growing up was that, because Enoch was righteous, God physically took him up into heaven rather than letting him die. This seems to be a common interpretation. If accurate, it puts Enoch in pretty exclusive company. If you go by what the Bible explicitly says, the only other person I know who was taken permanently, bodily into heaven, is Jesus.
How or why was Enoch so righteous? In what way did he walk with God? Why is it that Noah, who a bit later is described as “righteous” and “blameless” and who likewise “walked with God” (Gen 6:9), did not receive a similar honor, as far as we know? Like so many other curious fragments in the Bible, we simply don’t get much explanation.
By the way, Enoch’s son Methuselah is famous as the oldest man in the Bible, dying at age 969. It’s interesting, though, that the Genesis narrative itself doesn’t say anything special about him at all; it doesn’t mention that he is the oldest, or give any extra details about him. And Methuselah, by the way, had only thirty-nine more birthdays than Adam.
And now for something completely different
You’re reading Genesis. Creation, sin, descendants of Cain, descendants of Seth, okay, following the story so far…
And then you get to Genesis 6.
When people began to multiply on the face of the ground, and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that they were fair; and they took wives for themselves of all that they chose. Then the Lord said, “My spirit shall not abide in mortals forever, for they are flesh; their days shall be one hundred twenty years.” The Nephilim were on the earth in those days—and also afterward—when the sons of God went in to the daughters of humans, who bore children to them. These were the heroes that were of old, warriors of renown.
Sorry, I meant WHAT?
This passage comes with absolutely no introduction, explanation, or follow-up, so that little block of text is about all you get. And I have questions. So, so many questions. Questions like:
- Who or what are the Nephilim?
- Who or what are the “sons of God”?
- What is the relationship, if any, between the two groups?
- Just what, exactly, is going on here?
…to name only a few.
The most literal and obvious meaning of “sons of God” would seem to be angels, and indeed, this is the meaning assumed by the Oxford Annotated footnotes. Biblical context supports this. The same Hebrew phrase (or close variations of it) appears only a few other places, as far as I can discover: several times in Job, and once in Psalm 29. In all cases it appears to be talking about angels.
But if angels are really marrying human women and having children – I mean, wow, right? That’s certainly a striking little fact that doesn’t get much attention.
Incidentally, Jesus implies in Matthew 22:30 that “angels in heaven” do not marry. But maybe these angels, having descended to earth, no longer follow heavenly rules. Or maybe they’re fallen angels – that is, demons. That interpretation, by the way, is the origin of the incubus and succubus myths.
If all this sounds a little unorthodox, that’s because it is. These days, the standard Christian (and Jewish) interpretation is that “sons of God” refers to righteous men – that is, the descendants of Seth – marrying corrupt women, the “daughters of humans” – that is, the descendants of Cain.
The Nephilim are slightly less mysterious (but only slightly). They are explicitly mentioned in just one other place, Numbers 13:33, as giants, and “giants” is the standard English translation for this term.
But how do the Nephilim fit into the story? They seem to be distinct from the “sons of God.” But are they the offspring mentioned, the “warriors of renown,” as most interpretations seem to believe? Or are they a separate group altogether, as the Oxford Annotated claims?
For me, this little story is just the most striking example (so far) of a phenomenon all throughout Genesis, and indeed, throughout the Bible. The text says very curious, very difficult, very ambiguous things, often with little or no explanation. As readers, we must also be detectives, piecing together the clues as best we can.
Whatever their logical explanation, however, many such fragments are starkly beautiful, in part because of their mystery. I’ve already incorporated a passage from Genesis 6 into my current draft of The Crane Girl.
Next up: the Flood.