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“Ti-i-i-ime, is on my side… yes it is!”.
Remember that line from the movie Fallen, starring Denzil Washington? Wow, I can’t hear that song without thinking of that movie anymore! Or what about the block buster Noah starring Russel Crowe? City of Angels starring Nicholas Cage and Meg Ryan? Do you remember The X-Files series with Agents Mulder and Scully? Or seen Supernatural, Shadow Hunters, or Wynonna Earp on Netflix? Are you a gamer? Remember Diablo, the dungeon crawler video game by Blizzard, or Tekken, God of War? Heard of bands like Incubus, Fields of Nephilim or System of a Down?
Chances are that you’ve either seen a movie, watched a series, listened to music or played a video game that draws ideas for their names or story lines from the Bible, and more specifically from the Fallen Angels theme.
During a braai a while ago (when we were still allowed to visit friends!), I chatted with a great Christian brother of mine about all this stuff – the Genesis 6 story, angelic beings coming down to be with human women, and the relative significance of our interpretation of this verse. He good-naturedly wondered if I don’t just favour the supernatural interpretation of this story because I like sci-fi and fantasy.
It’s a fair question (because I do like it!). But as a reminder, this series is not only about which interpretation is right and which is wrong. It is also about exploring the lineage between various passages in Scripture and how they support each other. The point is to show that The Bible Makes Sense in its original context.
So in this third and last post of the Giants series, we will spend a bit of time on the material distinction theory of interpretation of Genesis 6:1-4.
Part 1: Fall of the Giants was about the giants in the Bible and how they link back to the Nephilim. In Part 2: Sins of the Fathers we dealt with the question: “who are the Sons of God?”, the fathers of the giants, and we looked at two popular options. Contender 1: they were the descendants of Seth. Contender 2: they were rulers who gave themselves god-like statuses in society and acted accordingly. This post is about the third option for interpretation.
The Material Distinction
The Sons of God were heavenly beings, and the Daughters of Man were humans on earth. This is the Material Distinction interpretation, in that they were materially different from each other. Before Augustine and others in the 4th century AD, this was the common view held by both Christians and Jews. But it did not end there.
Interestingly, every major ancient culture had stories from their history or religious texts, similar to this one, where beings from the heavens came down to earth to procreate with women and produced hybrid offspring. Mesopotamians, Greeks, Egyptians, African tribes, Native Americans, Asians – they all have it in their histories.
What was the sin?
The sin is pretty obvious. Humans were meant to marry humans. Men were meant to marry women. Heavenly beings were not meant to marry women. Jesus himself said so in Luke 20:34-36.
Perhaps you might be aware that two of Jesus’ earthly brothers wrote letters in the New Testament. One was James, the other Jude. Jude actually refers to our Genesis passage in his letter. In it, he confirms both that angels left heaven, and that they engaged in sexual sin. Here is the short passage:
And the angels who did not stay within their own position of authority, but left their proper dwelling, he has kept in eternal chains under gloomy darkness until the judgment of the great day – just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which likewise indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural desire, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire. – Jude 6, 7.
Nowhere else in the Bible, apart from Genesis 6:1-4, do we read about a similar situation. Jude ties it neatly together for us: firstly that angels left the natural habitat, and secondly that they engaged in sinful sexual activity. He likens the angelic sin to the sin of the men in Sodom – they both sexually engaged in ways that are outside of the created order.
Others Sons of God passages
But let’s just make double sure that “Sons of God” really means heavenly beings. Do we find the term “Sons of God” elsewhere in the Bible where it specifically refers to heavenly beings? Yes we do.
Although Jesus is called the Son of God many times (Mark 1:1, Luke 1:35, Luke 4:3, John 1:34, Romans 1:4, Psalm 2:7 and elsewhere), and humans are sometimes called that too (e.g. Romans 8:16, Galatians 3:26, John 1:12, Exodus 4:22), here is a list where Sons of God specifically refer to non-human, not-Jesus heavenly beings:
- Job 1:6 and Job 2:1, where we read about a heavenly council, made up of sons of God, that meets together. On this occasion the faithfulness of Job is discussed and debated. We find a similar scene where there is a meeting in heaven happening in 2 Chronicles 18:18, though here the council is just called the Host of Heaven.
- Job 38:7. God asks Job where he was when He created earth and the sons of God sang for joy
- Psalm 82:6. God pronounces judgment on the sons of the Most High
- Psalm 29:1, where sons of God are also often translated as “heavenly beings”
- Psalm 89:6, “who among the sons of God are like the Lord?” – also often translated as heavenly beings.
- Deuteronomy 32:8, where God talks about the allotment of nations and of Israel being his inheritance
- Daniel 3:25, where the angel who walks in the burning furnace with Daniel’s friends are described as “one like a son of the gods” (same Hebrew wording for sons of God).
- Luke 20:34 – 36, where Jesus specifically equates angels with sons of God.
What it means for other parts of the Bible
A number of other passages starts to make (more) sense if we are mindful of the context of the original biblical authors and what was part of their worldview. We’ve read a section of Jude’s letter earlier, which is pretty obscure if the Sons are not fallen angels. But others parts of the Bible make more sense too when taking the Sons to be heavenly beings.
Take Peter’s somewhat puzzling words in his first letter. He writes that Jesus went to proclaim his victory over sin and death to spirits in prison who did not obey in the days of Noah (1 Peter 3:18-22). In his second letter, he warns believers against false prophets and teachers who leads people away from Christ and his truth. He compares their fate with that of the angels who sinned in the days of Noah, and who were cast into hell (Greek Tartarus) and are now “in chains in gloomy darkness to be kept until judgement” (2 Peter 2:4-5).
A short language geek interlude. Normally, when you read the word “hell” in an English Bible the original Greek would be “Hades”. Peter, in the verse above, actually used the word “Tartarus”, the only place in the New Testament where this word is used. It is reserved specifically for the place below Hades where divine punishment is meted out for non-human beings. For example in Greek mythology, this is the place where the Titans were banished to by Zeus.
We said Peter’s words are puzzling. But they’re not puzzling if the original context is kept in mind… let’s tie this together.
Both Peter and Jude 6 tells us that those angels who have fallen are kept in chains until Judgement Day, Peter tells us this place was Tartarus and Jesus went there to proclaim his victory. Those “sons of God” in Genesis have come to earth to corrupt, spread sin and cause human misery. But in contrast, the Son of God came to earth to heal, drive out the demonic spirits and die for sin so that the relationship between mankind and God is repaired, effectively reversing the Genesis Sons’ evil works (along with the curse humans brought on themselves by succumbing to the temptations of the serpent in the garden).
And I think that is what Peter meant when he said Jesus went to preach to those “spirits in prison”.
For me, seeing this angle of Jesus’ death and resurrection just increases my awe of what he has done and the magnitude of his work on earth.
His ways are indeed higher than our ways, and his thoughts higher than ours (Isaiah 55:8-9).
Did Peter and Jude read the same books?
If you’re a Christ follower today, you have probably read some Christian books, listen to some Christian podcasts, watch some Christian movies or shows, or followed some Christian blogs. I have certainly been blessed, challenged and taught by many great authors outside of the Bible. Some of my favourites include C.S. Lewis, Michael S. Heiser, Charles Spurgeon and John Mark Comer. They give me lots of insights into my own life, my Christian walk and my understanding of the Bible. They influence my Christian worldview in a big way.
In much the same way, the biblical authors were also exposed to numerous other works of literature. For example, the Greek poets, Roman classics and, importantly, other Jewish religious books. Many of these were written in the inter-testamental period, also known as the Second Temple period. One of these works is called the Book of Enoch, and although many other Jewish writings outside the Bible is sometimes alluded to, Enoch is the only one which is directly quoted by a biblical author. It is significant for our topic here, because that author is Jude, and Jude specifically credits Enoch in his quote (Jude 14-15). Moreover, both Peter and Paul draws content from Enoch.
Reading Genesis, Jude and Peter together makes a lot more sense. We get a good understanding of the content without looking into any book outside of the Bible. However, we get a much richer understanding if we know what was going on the minds of the biblical authors.
In our case, Enoch contains expanded details about the angels who took wives from the earthly women, what they taught them, how they consumed each other, and what punishment awaits them. That’s also one of the ways we know that everyone during Jesus’ time thought the Sons of God referred to angelic beings.
I have included a short summary of the Genesis story from Enoch here.
Knowing these details in turn increases our understanding of Genesis (e.g. the nature of the fallen angels), Peter (e.g. the use of Tartarus and the story about Jesus going there), and Jude (the angels leaving their abode and committing their sin).
We benefit from understanding the original worldview, and it keeps us from trying to push round pegs into square holes. Exegetically speaking, that is.
This concludes the 3 part Giant series. In summary, it covered
Let’s end with a summary answer for the last question.
Reading the Bible in context of its original authors and hearers is very important. This is exegesis. If we don’t do that, we will too easily read into the Bible what we want. This is eisogesis. We will better know what the Bible means for us today if we know what it meant for original readers. This is hermeneutics.
For me, the more holistic my understanding of the Bible, the more in awe of the triune God I am, realising that he is ONE being operating in THREE different persons seeking to forgive repentant sinners and bringing them back into a safe relationship with him.
At some point in the future there will be a Second Coming of Jesus to finally establish his kingdom after having inaugurated it during his first coming. There will also be a final judgment. When this happens, those who belong to Jesus will be with him for eternity, whilst those who rejected him will not (Matthew 25:31-46). This is the same judgment day that Peter talks about and will coincide with the final judgment of the angels in prison – the same ones Jesus went to speak to and who are awaiting their fate there.
Time is on our side, in one sense, because God is patient and wishes that people will come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9). But on the other hand it’s not. We should not take that patience for granted, because “that day” will come like a thief in the night (2 Peter 3:10).
The Bible Makes Sense.