Hidden in our scripture reading for this week is a strange little passage which many modern Biblical scholars say was originally intended to explain the rise of the giant race of antiquity by the union of angelic beings with human wives. These verses in Genesis stirred a lively debate among early Christian theologians as they struggled to explain why God felt it necessary to cleanse the Earth with a worldwide Flood. It all starts with this odd passage inserted in the account before Noah built his vessel, the great ark.
And it came to pass, when men began to multiply on the face of the earth, and daughters were born unto them, that the sons of God saw the daughters of men that they were fair; and they took them wives of all which they chose…There were giants (Nephilim) in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare children to them, the same became mighty men which were of old, men of renown. And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. (Genesis 6:1-5)
This small passage has been the subject of much dispute in Christendom, and two main schools of exegesis have formed. The first and most popular explains this passage as descriptive of disobedient angels (sometimes called Watchers) who descended from celestial realms and cohabitated with human women, producing a race of giants. Pseudopigraphic literature such as the Book of Enoch are dedicated to expanding this particular incident and serve as proof-tests for this theory. It is also similar in many respects to various myths of Near Eastern peoples. This interpretation has spawned all kinds of new-age speculation on alien races, their interaction with antediluvian human beings, and modern-day abductions — but is actually the more conservative and accepted interpretation by the higher critics.
An alternate explanation results by understanding the term “sons of God” to be the pious race descended from Seth, who sinned by marrying descendants of Cain, who would have been pagans. This is favored by some Christian groups who object to the idea that angels are physical or sexual beings. Many Jewish Biblical authorities prefer this explanation as well, to maintain an emphasis on one God.
The first explanation is definitely the cool one. I would have thought that Joseph Smith would have been all over fallen angels, with his emphasis on the corporeality of divine beings. But it turns out that Joseph didn’t believe in Watchers. Hugh Nibley wrote an article explaining how Joseph’s theology in the Book of Moses provides a solution to the dilemma:
It is the Joseph Smith Enoch which gives the most convincing solution: the beings who fell were not angels but men who had become sons of God. From the beginning, it tells us, mortal men could qualify as “sons of God,” beginning with Adam. Moses 6:68 How? By believing and entering the covenant. Moses 7:1 Thus when “Noah and his sons hearkened unto the Lord, and gave heed … they were called the sons of God.” Moses 8:13 In short, the sons of God are those who accept and live by the law of God. When “the sons of men” (as Enoch calls them) broke their covenant, they still insisted on that exalted title: “Behold, we are the sons of God; have we not taken unto ourselves the daughters of men?” Moses 8:21 (Hugh Nibley, “A Strange Thing in the Land: The Return of the Book of Enoch, Part 8,” Ensign, Dec 1976, 73)
Joseph Smith’s unique Mormon spin on the b’nei ha-Elohim was that they were priesthood holders, and the covenant people of the Lord, who were defiling themselves by marrying out of the covenant. Their resulting progeny were “Nephilim,” or “fallen ones.” Joseph Fielding Smith later clarified the LDS interpretation of Genesis 6 when he scolded:
There is a prevailing doctrine in the Christian world that these sons of God were heavenly beings who came down and married the daughters of men and thus came a superior race on the earth, the result bringing the displeasure of the Lord. This foolish notion is the result of lack of proper information, and because the correct information is not found in the Book of Genesis Christian peoples have been led astray. The correct information regarding these unions is revealed in the inspired interpretation given to the Prophet Joseph Smith in the Book of Moses. Without doubt when this scripture was first written, it was perfectly clear, but scribes and translators in the course of time, not having divine inspiration, changed the meaning to conform to their incorrect understanding. These verses in the Prophet’s revision give us a correct meaning, and from them we learn why the Lord was angry with the people and decreed to shorten the span of life and to bring upon the world the flood of purification. (Answers to Gospel Questions, 5 vols. [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1957-1966], 1: 136.)
The doctrine is repeated in sermons in the Journal of Discourses, such as this one by Charles W. Penrose:
It is stated that the iniquity of man was great, and God brought a flood on the earth. Now, to understand that correctly we have to know what kind of position those persons were in, and why they were called the “Sons of God.” Those men were in the same position as the Latter-day Saints. They were heirs to the Priesthood. They were the sons of God. They had obeyed the holy covenants. They had received the word of the Lord. They were consecrated to the Almighty. But they went outside of their covenants and their engagement with the Lord, and took wives of the daughters of men that were not in the covenant, and thus transgressed the law of God. The law of God in relation to this has been the same in all ages, and has been given to this people—that the sons of Israel shall wed the daughters of Israel, and shall not go out to wed with the stranger. These men did that, and God was displeased, as He is to-day with Latter-day Saints, who are called out of the world to be His servants, to be holy unto the Lord, to be clean because they bear the vessels of the Lord, when they go outside and wed with the stranger. (Journal of Discourses, 26 vols. [London: Latter-day Saints’ Book Depot, 1854-1886], 25: 228 – 229.)
Perhaps because of its controversial nature Genesis 6:1-4 is often ignored when discussing the causes of the flood, even though the strong link between them has been noted in the past. More fundamental religionists believe that this type of explanation of the Flood underscores the importance of maintaining racial and spiritual purity. God’s believing remnant must be preserved. When men failed to perceive the importance of this, God had to judge them severely. In a Pearl of Great Price Institute Manual, President John Taylor is quoted, describing the Flood as an act of love, done for the benefit of that generation. By taking away their earthly existence God prevented them from entailing their sins upon their posterity and degenerating them. An additional quotation from Joseph Fielding Smith applies this lesson to our day, saying:
“Because the daughters of Noah married the sons of men contrary to the teachings of the Lord, his anger was kindled, and this offense was one cause that brought to pass the universal flood. . . . The daughters who had been born, evidently under the covenant, and were the daughters of the sons of God, that is to say of those who held the priesthood, were transgressing the commandment of the Lord and were marrying out of the Church . Thus they were cutting themselves off from the blessings of the priesthood contrary to the teachings of Noah and the will of God. . . .Today there are foolish daughters of those who hold this same priesthood who are violating this commandment and marrying the sons of men; there are also some of the sons of those who hold the priesthood who are marrying the daughters of men. All of this is contrary to the will of God just as much as it was in the days of Noah” (Pearl of Great Price Student Manual – Religion 327)
Now, the Church still teaches that it is preferable not to marry outside of the covenant. But we’re usually not so un-PC as to suggest that marrying non-members is an abominable sin that may cause mankind to be swept off the earth. Some of you reading this post may not even agree that marrying outside the covenant is what brought a great judgment upon these people. Once again, we’re seeing a shift in doctrine, to the point that some Latter-day Saint thinkers are again putting credence in the “Watcher” theory of Genesis 6. Recent examples are posts by Yellow Dart at Faith Promoting Rumor, Seth P. at his blog, and David Larsen at Heavenly Ascents. In this, we’re not so different than the Christian world, where the debate continues.
Robert C. Newman points out some interesting facts concerning the current controversy:
The present form of the debate is rather paradoxical. On the one hand, liberal theologians, who deny the miraculous, claim the account pictures a supernatural liaison between divine beings and humans. Conservative theologians, though believing implicitly in angels and demons, tend to deny the passage any such import. The liberal position is more understandable with the realisation that they deny the historicity of the incident and see it as a borrowing from pagan mythology. The rationale behind the conservative view is more complex: though partially a reaction to liberalism, the view is older than liberal theology.
Why do you think our LDS bloggers are beginning to reconsider such an unusual theory?