The “daughters of Adam” (Women from the Bible #4)

Order66-AoDOther unnoticed women from the early chapters of Genesis include the “daughters of humanity/daughters of the man” in Gen 6:2. This little passage is mysterious and difficult. It is packed with problems..

Starting at the beginning we have to ask who the key characters are:

  • The women are identified as בְּנֹות הָאָדָם but are they Adam’s daughters, daughters of “the human” or daughters of humanity? The use of the definite article suggests not “Adam’s daughters” since names don’t usually take the article.1 Actually since no particular “human” is in view at this point most likely this problem is simple they are daughters of humanity (human girls).
  • But the men are identified as בְנֵי־הָאֱלֹהִים are they sons of the gods or sons of God? Bizarrely, the English translations avoid the obvious answer, and usually render the phrase as “sons of God”. This takes no account of the article. As far as I can see if we are to take this seriously we have a choice of “sons of the God” or “sons of the gods”. Again “the God” is not in focus here, so “sons of the gods” seems the obvious translation. The only problem is (perhaps) theological, since the author(s) of Genesis do not believe in the gods. But this puts theological interpretation in the driving seat.

This gives (an approximate and over literal) rendering as:

“1 When humanity began to multiply on the face of the earth, and daughters were born to them,
2 the sons of the gods saw that they were desirable2 ; and they took women3 for themselves of all that they chose.
3 Then the LORD said, “My spirit shall not abide in humanity forever, for they are flesh; their days shall be one hundred twenty years.”
4 The Nephilim were in the land4 in those days– and also afterward– when the sons of God went in to5 the daughters of humans, who bore children to them. These were the heroes that were of old, men of renown.
5 The LORD saw that the wickedness of humanity was great in the land, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually… (Gen 6:1-5)

Read like this, it seems to me, many of the difficulties disappear. (The Nephilim are a narrator’s aside and we can, for my purpose here ignore them.) Two main questions remain:

  1. Who are the “sons of the gods”? Are they (minor) gods themselves, powerful (royal) people, or Greek-style demigods?
  2. Why do these liaisons, and or the children they produce, so displeasing to YHWH?6

Cutting a long story short, and to the chase, the most likely understanding seems to me that the “sons of the gods” are royal persons (often claiming quasi-divine status and privilege in the ancient world). The combination of mention of them “taking for themselves women”, who they “go into” and have children, with the mention that they take “from all which they chose” with the suggestion that this is related to the “great  evils” that stimulate the divine wrath (v.6) suggests either rape, coerced sex with the abuse of power (think of David and Bathsheba) or possibly some sort of “first night” custom.

Already, this early in the Genesis story, women are sex objects, and at best the mothers of heroes. Human division has produced classes and ideologies that confer “divine” rights on some and remove the rights of others.

  1. But see Gen 2 where sometimes הָאָדָם is rendered “Adam”. []
  2. The word is the one used for anything “good”, it does not necessarily imply merely beautiful, for which there is a more specialised term. []
  3. Not “married” as NIV since there is nothing here about cultural or familial ceremonies, likewise not “wives” for the same reason. []
  4. The more usual “on the earth” seems unnecessary, this is a narrator’s note breaking the frame, and mentioning that this was during, but not the end of the period when the Nephilim lived in “the land”. []
  5. This is clearly a euphemism for having sex with, a common use of this construction. []
  6. For it seems to me unavoidable that this passage in some way leads to the next, as my inclusion of v.6 above strongly suggests. Only a narrowly source-critical reading allowed people to completely separate this story from the flood that follows. []