When men began to multiply on the face of the ground, and daughters were born to them, 2 the sons of God saw that the daughters of men were fair; and they took to wife such of them as they chose. 3 Then the Lord said, “My spirit shall not abide in man for ever, for he is flesh, but his days shall be a hundred and twenty years.” 4 The Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of men, and they bore children to them. These were the mighty men that were of old, the men of renown. 5 The Lord 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. 6 And the Lord was sorry that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. 7 So the Lord said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the ground, man and beast and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.” 8 But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord. 9 These are the generations of Noah. Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation; Noah walked with God. 10 And Noah had three sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth. 11 Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence.
So, how bad was it?
Two pressing questions I find in this reading of Genesis relate to the state of humanity just before the flood:
- What exactly was this wickedness and proclivity towards evil?
- How far are we today from this wickedness of old?
We are not given a detailed picture as to what this mess looked like. The fuzzy details that stand out have to do with wickedness/violence as well as carnal relationships that developed between humanity and spirits, resulting in the Nephilim. The latter is a fascinating rabbit hole of a conversation that we won’t deviate too far into, though I recommend reading the Book of Enoch for more on this. Though this unlawful union of spirits and humanity does seem to be part of the conditions that lead to the flood, I believe there’s something we can all gain by focusing on the other details–vague as they may be–of this pre-flood world.
A blessing or a curse?
The mentioning that the earth being filled with violence is a rather important detail in this story. We may not think much of this detail in the 21st century, looking back on humanity’s history of war, genocide, and the like. Again, thinking about the horrors that took place in the 20th century begs the question how bad things were in the pre-flood world, and if with all our innovation and ideology we have surpassed such level of wickedness without punishment.
But to fully appreciate this detail of the earth being filled with violence, we first must consider that we aren’t looking at a world too far from Adam and Eve, especially considering the age of these figures we read about. Perhaps 10 or so generations down and the world is so destitute to the point that a great reset is being issued. Is this unfathomable?
We ought to draw our attention back to Genesis 4 as we consider the violence and mentality of mankind in Genesis 6. We read at the end of Genesis 4 that Cain is given a kind of special protection after his murder of Abel. It’s a bit of a headscratcher to read how Cain is given this protection of avengeance from God, yet it seems this was done in order to prevent any types of fueds or human vengeance upon Cain for his murder. Perhaps God desired Cain’s repentance and/or desired humanity to end its cycle of violence.
And yet, out of our free will, we see a descendant of Cain, Lamech, who tells his wives at the end of this chapter that he kills a young man who wounded him. He seems to proudly indicate to his family the promise of Cain being upon he and his kin, and that the family should rest knowing that he expects 77-times over retribution should he be killed. This thinking reveals a great deal of not just the character of Cain’s lineage, but perhaps some insight into fallen man, a proclivity towards recompense, entitlement, and retribution. Lamech repays the wounding for death–he escalates the violence–and he wears the protection of Cain proudly as though to say, “don’t worry, we can get away with murder”.
Though we may be tempted to question God’s foresight in giving this protection to Cain and his family in the first place, I believe it important that we value the risk He is willing to take with us, the efforts He makes in assuring mankind peace, even if blessings are misused. To use an analogy, we might say that the authority given to clergy is a blessed protection and grace from God to ensure peace, and yet with this also comes abuse of power, be it through lust, pride, vanity, or greed. Should we throw the baby out with the bathwater, or is it humanity’s turn to take responsibility of what God gives us?
entitlement and violence
The issue of Lamech we see repeat throughout history and it lives within our society today. We enjoy protections, stability, structures, and comforts that we take for granted. These rights we have unconsciously inflate our sense of self-importance, instill within us a “god” like sensation that permits us to feel indignation when we are wronged. Standing up for oneself and being bothered by injustice is one thing, but to escalate a wounding for death, a pound of flesh for a mere cut, this is humanity’s bloodlust, pride, and greed all coming together. This is perhaps the wickedness of the pre-flood times.
If someone else can be killed for hurting us, they invariably become beneath us, for we become the victors and the writers of that history. What’s worse, we can justify the punishment, and that person becomes the demon, the villain, while we are the injured, moral victim.
The indignation of Lamech is not far from the unhappiness of Cain. It is the pitfall of comparisons that leads us to mistreatment of our neighbor. It is harder to look at our own shortcomings and what agency we have in our own life and happiness than it is to hope for happiness at the cost of someone else. Is it not easier to cast blame on our ancestors and the world rather than to consider what our own potential is, what our own responsibilities are with what we have?
I would wager a great deal of the violence we read in the pre-flood state stems not far from Lamech’s world view, a apple that had fallen not too far from Cain’s dehumanizing envy.
Easier to break than build
Related to all this is this notion that it is easier to knock down a tower of bricks than it is to build it up.
God’s task to Noah is to build an ark, to save creation, to do some hard work. Nobody else will profit from this work, labor, and incredible feat. Noah does not look at the chaos of the world and participate in it, does not look at his authority over creation and abuse it. Noah takes creation, transforms it into a magnificent vessel, and uses that to SAVE creation.
My mind often goes to the image of the petulant child that throws or breaks when they do not get what they want, or even when they cannot accomplish something great while being surrounded by the success of others. The temptation is to knock over the Jenga blocks, to tear apart and topple the Lego set, to set fire or stain the well-crafted masterpiece of someone else’s hand.
A mundane example of this from pop-culture is the scene from the Office when Michael Scott sees the hard work, the complicated achievement of Holly and her new boyfriend, and becomes jealous. The thoughtful gift of the Woody doll, the work it took for the two to achieve their state in that relationship–even if we, the audience, don’t approve of it–is all immediately undone by two simple acts: toss the doll into the garbage, and pour coffee upon it.
This spirit is the spirit of the arsonist, of the jealous lover, of the despondent killer. It is a spirit that followed Cain’s family five generations, and then multiplied further generations down to Noah. By this I mean to say is that for any of us to assume we are immune to such malicious or sadist tendencies is an assumption based on hubris.
We ought to give some serious contemplation towards our penchant for destruction, to rip order and beauty apart, and to spend some time considering what we have ever done to save, preserve, transform, or build, or to at least give consideration to how we may grow in these areas.
Today, consider the following…
- Am I happy or unhappy?
- Is there anyone I feel I am morally justified to be indignant with? Why is this?
- What gifts or blessings do I have in my life? What responsibilities do I have for them? How do I honor these blessings and responsibilities?
- In what ways do I use or justify violence?
- How can I cultivate peace within myself first? How can I cultivate peace in the world?
- What can I build, save, bring order to, or instill beauty within in a way that is not done for selfish gain?