Rev. Izzy Harbin
Genesis 6:1-4, Separation of Spirit
6 When people began to multiply on the face of the ground, and daughters were born to them, 2 the sons of God saw that they were fair; and they took wives for themselves of all that they chose. 3 Then the Lord said, “My spirit shall not abidein mortals forever, for they are flesh; their days shall be one hundred twenty years.” 4 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.
This is one of my favorite passages in all of the Bible. It is a mystery. And, if I’m honest, this passage raises so many questions, but the point in this passage that I’d like to focus on is God’s declaration that, “My spirit shall not abide in mortals forever, for they are flesh; their days shall be one hundred twenty years.”
In this fragment of text, included by the author known as “J,” or the “Yahwist” author, we see a connection to ancient Near East motifs of rebellions of and with/from the gods, including the Epic of Gilgamesh, a Mesopotamian myth regarding the flooding of the world. It is in the Epic of Gilgamesh that we first experience the co-mingling of gods and humanity and the infighting that occurs as a result of the volume of noise humanity makes; noise that irritates the gods. The coming flood story in Genesis mirrors that of the Epic of Gilgamesh and was most likely used as a basis for the Genesis story.
What is important to note is that, once again, we see God instituting separation, between God and God’s creation, this time because of the blurring of boundaries between the heavenly realm and the earthly realm. As the text reveals, the “sons of God,” described in the Book of Jubilee and the Book of Enoch as “angels” saw the daughters of men as pleasing in their sight and choose to take them for wives. This suggests that the veil between heaven and earth was much more fluid and that the boundaries between heaven and earth, although defined, were not necessarily sealed.
The outcome of this coupling, the creation of giants, is what leads God to, once again, modify his creation. He will call upon Noah to build an Ark in preparation for the oncoming flood that will wipe out all of humanity. Before we get to the flood, however, God makes a clear proclamation that God’s spirit would not dwell among men forever. This proclamation is not clear in its meaning or intent, but rather challenges us to question whether we will continue in God’s keeping or not.
There are several ways to interpret God’s proclamation. First, God could be saying that humans will no longer live for hundreds of years, but instead will see their bodies expire after 120 years of life. Once the body expires, the Spirit of God no longer resides in that individual. Second, God could be predicting that there will be 120 days until the flood at which time all life will be extinguished. Third, that God’s Spirit, freely given to humanity in the beginning as the animating force that is all life, will be revoked at the end of 120 years. Most scholars gravitate to option one, that humanity’s lifespan would decrease to 120 years and no more. We don’t know why God chose 120 years or why God felt the necessity to limit the amount of time humans spend in one lifetime on earth, but based on the rest of the Biblical text, option two is unknown and option three is proved wrong by God’s continual engagement with humanity to the present day.
God’s engagement with humanity in the early chapters of Genesis feels otherworldly. We reach a point in the Biblical text where God no longer interacts directly with humanity. The authors are depicting God as more distant, even outside of human events; one that “cannot be looked upon,” or death will come immediately. We see this transition with the story of Moses and the burning bush, as well as his time on Mount Sinai. Eventually, God speaks through the prophets and until Jesus emerges on the scene, God doesn’t interact directly with humanity beyond the earliest stories in the Hebrew text.
The idea of separation appears to be built into the narrative as a necessity for survival of all humanity. When we frame our separation from God as a fundamental flaw in human action, we take on guilt, and perhaps even shame, for actions that we did not commit. Calvin, and Augustine before him, implied that at our birth we were born into sin; born with a sinful nature so depraved that we could never find our way back to God without the intervention of Jesus. Sadly, what we ignore in this assumption is that God, through the act of creation, designed us to be fluid beings who are capable of experiencing every emotion and aspect of being fully human. It is by this separation, intentionally structured and instituted by God, that we achieve the fullness of humanity.
I assert that the authors of Genesis were able to see the flaws in humanity from the start and were curious about how and why God allowed such flaws. Genesis is a collection of stories written by a variety of authors to expose the complexity of creation and the interconnectedness of all life. By taking the stories in Genesis too literally, we have failed to understand the gift of knowledge of good and evil, that to be fully human and emersed in this human experiment, we must know both for one would be lost without the other. As we approach the story of Noah and move beyond the flood to the covenant that God establishes with Abraham, God is asking us to choose life over death, to choose compassion over indifference, to be fully engaged with loving neighbor and self.
What we think of as irreparable separation is instead part of God’s design. In this moment in the Biblical text, God see that further separation is necessary so that the integrity of creation may be protected. The writers of this text are surmising that God, even in his infinite wisdom, did not account for every eventuality. God could not foresee “angels lusting after human females.” Maybe it happened, maybe it didn’t, but whatever occurred in the ancient world is most likely beyond our comprehension. If we are comfortable with the science and are willing to date our earth to at least 4.3 billion years old, then God has been active in this world for a long time. There is no doubt in my mind that all the stories ever written about human existence in the ancient world gave them hope that there was more to know, more to experience, and more to God than we can comprehend in our rudimentary languages.
Whether God made a definitive decision to limit our years to 120, or not, the simple fact remains that we are all born into this world on a given day, we live, and then we die. I believe that God is waiting to see what we will do with our lives. The choices we make every single day have the capacity to destroy us or to create a greater capacity for empathy and compassion for all life. Ultimately, the only question about this passage that really matters is, “What are we going to do with the time we are given?”