Last updated: September 28, 2010
English Translation (ESV)
1When man began to multiply on the face of the land and daughters were born to them, 2the sons of God saw that the daughters of man were attractive. And they took as their wives any they chose. 3Then the LORD said, “My Spirit shall not abide in man forever, for he is flesh: his days shall be 120 years.” 4The Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of man and they bore children to them. These were the mighty men who were of old, the men of renown.
5The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. 6And the LORD was sorry that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. 7So the LORD said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens, for I am sorry that I have made them.” 8But Noah found favor in the eyes of the LORD.
1-2 When man began to multiply on the face of the land and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that the daughters of man were attractive. And they took as their wives any they chose.
The opening phrase describes an ongoing situation and points back to the command to be fruitful and multiply (1:28)1. Chapter 5 focused on the sons of the antediluvians while 6:1-4 focuses on the daughters.
The identity of “the sons of God” is debated but the oldest and most common view is that they are heavenly beings2. Elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, the term “the sons of God” refers to heavenly beings3. In Ugaritic texts and in Phoenician and Ammonite inscriptions, “sons of God” refers to members of the divine pantheon4. In 6:1-4 there is a contrast between “the sons of God” and “the daughters of man” which makes more sense if “the sons of God” are not really “the sons of man” (other interpretations suggest “the sons of God” are human rulers or godly men). In verse 1 “man” refers to mankind so we would expect it to refer to mankind in the phrase “daughters of man”.
The words “saw”, “good/attractive”, and “took” echo Eve’s sin (3:6). The sons of God are guilty of trespassing a boundary set by God. The Hebrew in no way implies that rape or adultery took place5. Fault lies with the daughters of man for agreeing to these marriages. Though I find this interpretation of “the sons of God” to be the best, I must admit that certainty cannot be had.
3 Then the LORD said, “My Spirit shall not abide in man forever, for he is flesh: his days shall be 120 years.”
In this verse, “spirit” probably refers to the life-giving power bestowed on man by God6. In 3:22, access to the tree of life was cut off so that man could not live forever. Here we are told that God’s spirit will not abide in man forever.
The phrase “for he is flesh” explains why man will die when the life-giving power is removed from him and not why God’s spirit will not abide in man forever. Without the life-giving power, the flesh perishes and returns to the dust7.
The phrase “his days shall be 120 years” suggests that from now on no man will live more than 120 years. However, men mentioned later in Genesis live more than 120 years. Perhaps this limit on human lifespan took effect gradually. Another interpretation is that this verse is predicting that God’s judgment, the flood, will be put on hold for 120 years8. Again, certainty cannot be had.
4 The Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of man and they bore children to them. These were the mighty men who were of old, the men of renown.
The only other reference to the Nephilim is Numbers 13:33, where they are described as giant inhabitants of Canaan by the Israelite spies. This is why they are said to be on the earth “in those days” before the flood but “also afterward”. The Nephilim are not specifically said to be the offspring of the marriages between “the sons of God” and “the daughters of man”9. It is unclear whether the “men of renown” are the Nephilim or the offspring (or both if the Nephilim are the offspring). What made these men famous or infamous is not clear10.
5 The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.
“The LORD saw” mimics “the sons of God saw” (6:2) as well as “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good” (1:31). God’s good creation has gone bad because of sin. The use of the term “earth” shows that this is a universal condition11. The phrase “every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” stresses that sin was the lifestyle of humanity12. In Hebrew thought the heart was the center of man’s cognitive processes13.
6 And the LORD was sorry that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.
English translations that imply God regretted making man have raised theological questions for many readers. Richard Elliott Friedman writes:
What could [the LORD was sorry] mean? If God knows the future, how could God regret something once it has happened? Compare what the prophet Samuel says about God: “He’s not a human that He should regret” (1 Sam 15:29); yet it says twice in the same chapter that God does regret making Saul the king of Israel (15:11, 35)! This word is commonly understood to mean “repented,” especially when referring to human beings, but the question still remains what it would mean for God. The problem may be more linguistic than theological, as a result of a lack of a satisfactory word in English to capture the wider range of the Hebrew word. It refers to a change of heart or making a reversal of direction. The nature of the change may vary according to the situation, so that it may mean “repent” or “regret” or “relent,” and in biblical terms it may apply to either God or humans.14
In this passage God is reversing creation with the flood. John H. Walton takes the Hebrew term to mean that God is balancing accounts: humanity must be punished for its sins.15 The two views are complementary. Kenneth A. Matthews expounds on the verse at length:
“Grieve” (yinnahem), translated “repent” in the AV, has troubled many expositors since elsewhere Scripture says God does not “repent” (Num 23:19; 1 Sam 15:29; Ps 110:4). We find the same expression (yinnahem YHWH) only twice more in the Pentateuch (Exod 32:12, 14). In the wilderness God changes his harmful intentions against idolatrous Israel because of the intercessory prayers of Moses: “Then the LORD relented [yinnahem] and did not bring on his people the disaster [raa] he had threatened” (Exod 32:14; cf. Ps 78:40-41).
The tension between these characterizations of God partly lies in the diverse contexts in which “grieve/relent” occurs in the Bible. Genesis 6:6-7 is describing the emotional anguish of God; our verse does not present an abstract statement about God’s decision making. This would be altogether out of place for the intention of the passage, which depicts God as wronged by the presumptuous sin of humanity. Moreover, the parameters of this verse have been dictated by the author’s intention to imitate 5:29 with its distinctive vocabulary and mood. This is shown especially by the subsequent clause, where it describes God’s heart as “filled with pain” (yitasseb). This further echoes the painful consequences of human sin in the garden, where the cognate nouns narrate the “painful toil” the man and woman will endure (3:16-17; 5:29).
The NIV rightly reflects contextual differences by translating “grieved” (“was sorry,” NRSV, NASB) in 6:6-7 but “change his mind” in 1 Sam 15:29 as well as “relent” in Exod 32:12, 14 (also Amos 7:3, 6). In Samuel’s chastening of Saul the concern is the character of God’s word, as indicated by the parallel “does not lie” (saqar; 1 Sam 15:29). Close to the sense of 6:6 is God’s sorrowful concern over Saul’s moral failures, which precipitate rejection of his kingship: “I am grieved that I have made Saul king” (1 Sam 15:11; also v. 35). Similarly, Exodus 32 is speaking of a new course in God’s dealing with his people. This too is not a comment on the nature of God’s sovereignty or promises. It is told so as to highlight the intercessory position of Moses with God, a reassuring thought for Israel. We have mentioned earlier the common language of our passage and Exodus 32. Now to this we can add “wipe” (maha) from Gen 6:7, which is rendered “blot out” in Exod 32:32-33. If the Exodus passage is a veiled remembrance of God’s pain at antediluvian humanity, Moses is expressing the same remorse over the sins of Israel. In the case of Israel, Moses’ mediation delivers his people, but antediluvian man has no intercessor, and the whole world suffers as a result. It is solely by the grace of God that the human family has any chance at all.
God’s response of grief over the making of humanity, however, is not remorse in the sense of sorrow over a mistaken creation; our verse shows that God’s pain has its source in the perversion of human sin. The making of “man” is no error; it is what “man” has made of himself. By recurring reference to mankind (‘adam) in 6:5-7, the passage focuses on the source of his grief. God is grieving because this sinful “man” is not the pristine mankind whom he has made to bear his image. The intensity of the pain is demonstrated by the use of naham elsewhere in Genesis, where it describes mourning over the loss of a family member due to death. But his is not regret over destroying humanity; paradoxically, so foul has become mankind that it is the necessary step to salvage him.16
Nahum Sarna states:
[God grieved to the heart] is an anthropopathism, or the ascription to God of human emotions, a frequent feature of the biblical narrative. The need for such usage arises from the inherit tension between God’s transcendence and His immanence. On the one hand, He is conceived to be wholly outside of nature, omniscient and omnipotent, sovereign over time and space, and not subject to change. On the other hand, He is also immanent in the world, not withdrawn from it, a personal God who is actively involved in the lives of His creatures, approachable by them, and responsive to their needs. God’s transcendence requires formulation in abstract, philosophical language that poses the danger of depriving Him of personality and relevance. God’s immanence must unavoidably be expressed in concrete, imaginative terms that entail the risk of compromising His invariability. The biblical writers frequently took that risk for the sake of emphasizing God’s vital presence and personality; otherwise, the God idea would have lost all meaning for them. Statements like that in Numbers 23:19, “God is not a man to be capricious, / Or mortal to change His mind,” and 1 Samuel 15:29, “He is not human that He should change His mind,” serve as a corrective to the misunderstanding that may arise from a passage such as this one.17
7 So the LORD said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens, for I am sorry that I have made them.”
“Blot out” is a pun on “grieved”18. The terminology here reflects the terminology of chapter 1. The flood will be a reversal of creation.
8 But Noah found favor in the eyes of the LORD.
Finding favor in the eyes of God puts Noah on par with Moses (Exodus 33:17). This detail leads us to expect that Noah will escape God’s judgment.
Friedman, Richard E. Commentary on the Torah. HarperOne, 2003.
Hamilton, Victor P. The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1-17. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament 1A. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1990.
Mathews, Kenneth A. Genesis 1- 11:26. The New American Commentary Volume 1A. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1996.
Sarna, Nahum M. JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis. 1st ed. Jewish Publication Society of America, 1989.
Walton, John H. Genesis. The NIV Application Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001.
Wenham, Gordon J. Genesis 1-15. Word Biblical Commentary 1. Waco, Texas: Word Books, 1987.
1Wenham, Genesis 1-15, 138.
21 Enoch 6-11; Jubilees 5:1; LXX; Philo, De Gigant 2.358; Josephus, Antiquities 1.31; 1QapGen 2:1; CD 2:17-19; 2 Peter 2:4; Jude 6-7; Justin, Second Apology 5; Irenaeus, Against Heresies 4.36, 4; Ps.-Clem. Homilies 7.12-15; 8.11-15; Clement of Alexandria, The Instructor 3.2; Tertullian, On the Veiling of Virgins 7; Commodianus, Instructions 1.3; Origen
3Job 1:6; 2:1; 38:7; Psalms 29:1; 89:7
4Wenham, Genesis 1-15, 139; Mathews, Genesis 1- 11:26, 324.
5Wenham, Genesis 1-15, 141; Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1-17, 265; Mathews, Genesis 1- 11:26, 331.
6Genesis 2:7; 6:17; 7:15
7Genesis 2:7; 3:19; Job 34:14-15; Isaiah 40:7
8Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1-17, 269.
9Mathews, Genesis 1- 11:26, 337.
10Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1-17, 270.
12Mathews, Genesis 1- 11:26, 340.
13Genesis 31:20; Psalm 33:11; 1 Samuel 10:26
14Friedman, Commentary on the Torah, 34.
15Walton, Genesis, 308-311.
16Mathews, Genesis 1- 11:26, 341-343.
17Sarna, JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis, 47.
18Mathews, Genesis 1- 11:26, 345.