Why Your Genesis Commentaries Might Be Like 8-Track Tapes

This post has been adapted from The Bible Unfiltered by Dr Michael S. Heiser.

We’ve all heard the old saying that certain things get better with age—wine, cheese, common sense. Anyone who’s watched Antiques Roadshow also knows that the longer you have something that there’s a demand for—real estate, investments, fine art, a popular car—the more value it will accrue. Unfortunately, the reverse is true for many of the most popular tools for biblical study. They’re often more like tech gear—they get worse with age and sometimes become totally obsolete.

Commentaries are one of the tools that don’t get better with the passage of time. The reasons are pretty simple. Biblical scholars are like experts in any field. They keep thinking and researching. The data of biblical studies increase and improve. Archaeology produces more discoveries of relevance. Computer technology makes ancient language analysis more thorough (and faster). Information becomes more accessible and searchable.

It’s no exaggeration to say that what scholars had access to 100 years ago is literally a fraction of what’s available to you today using only a smartphone. In terms of what previous generations were capable of analyzing in a lifetime, we can surpass with a few hours of effort.

I work closely with the world’s leading Bible software company and am used to the staggering realities of the modern world for biblical studies. But the truth I’m talking about today was brought home to me in a direct way only recently. My book The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible devotes a lot of space to a lot of weird passages. One of the strangest is Genesis 6:1–4, the episode in the days of Noah where the “sons of God” (called the “Watchers” in Jewish literature written during the time between the Testaments) transgress the boundary between heaven and Earth in an illicit relationship with the “daughters of humankind.” The act produced the Nephilim, who are the forebears of the giant clans encountered by Moses and Joshua (Num 13:32–33).

There have been many attempts to strip this passage of its supernatural elements to make it palatable to modern Bible students. Since this sort of material has been my academic focus for the past 15 years, I can tell you that all such attempts have significant flaws of exegesis and logical coherence. But the greatest flaw is that any view that humanizes the sons of God and denies the unusual nature of the Nephilim invariably violates the passage’s original context and polemic meaning.

Prior to 2010, that assertion may have been contestable. That is no longer the case. Recent scholarly work on Mesopotamian literature associated with events before and after the great flood have produced clear, unambiguous, point-for-point parallels to what we read in Genesis 6:1–4. Those parallels demonstrate with no uncertainty that this biblical passage was specifically written to denigrate Mesopotamian ideas of the superiority of their gods and culture.

In the Mesopotamian material, the divine beings who lived at the time of the flood were called apkallu. They cohabited with human women, producing a new generation of apkallu who were not only divine-human hybrids but also giants. Mesopotamian religion saw these generations of apkallu as great sages. Their survival via human women before the annihilation of the flood preserved pre-flood divine knowledge that had been taught to men. This knowledge was preserved in Babylon, which explained (to the Mesopotamian cultures) why their culture was superior to all others. Rather than deny the supernatural context of the Mesopotamian material, Genesis hits it head-on. The apkallu were not saviors. They were undeserving rivals to Yahweh of Israel and deserved to die. After the flood the giant apkallu became enemies of God’s people, the Israelites. Whether we realize it or not, Genesis 6:1–4 reports the first salvo in the long war against Yahweh and his people. This strange passage that modern readers keep at arm’s length has hooks into other biblical passages, including the New Testament.

This new research comes from a thorough reexamination of the Sumerian and Akkadian flood epics. The insights were skillfully culled by cuneiform scholar Amar Annus in a 2010 journal article. Annus’ article is the most current study on the Mesopotamian apkallu available anywhere in any form. It supersedes all preceding work on this subject. It deals a death blow to any nonsupernatural interpretation of Genesis 6:1–4.

What this means is that every commentary on Genesis you’ve come to trust can no longer be trusted on this passage because it was written before this new, groundbreaking research. They’re like 8-track tapes—obsolete. The good news is that my book The Unseen Realm interacts with this new research at length. And there are a lot of issues like this one where I draw on recent research and provide a more up-to-date discussion than most commentaries. If you care about interpreting the Bible in its original context—including the supernatural worldview of the biblical writers—you should care about the latest insights from research on the ancient world.

The author’s views do not necessarily represent those of Faithlife. 

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why is the bible hard to understandThis article is adapted from Dr. Heiser’s book The Bible Unfiltered.

Dr. Michael S. Heiser is the author of The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible and Angels: What the Bible Really Says about God’s Heavenly Host.

His newest book, The World Turned Upside Down: Finding the Gospel in Stranger Things, is now on pre-order.

He’s taught many Mobile Ed courses, including Problems in Biblical Interpretation: Difficult Passages I.

Comments

  1. David Egolf says:

    . 21 And all flesh died that moved on the earth, birds, livestock, beasts, all swarming creatures that swarm on the earth, and all mankind. 22 Everything on the dry land in whose nostrils was the breath of life died. 23 He blotted out every living thing that was on the face of the ground, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens. They were blotted out from the earth. Only Noah was left, and those who were with him in the ark. 24 And the waters prevailed on the earth 150 days. ESV Gen 21 – 24

    So did apkallu somehow survive the flood, or did Nephilim once again transgress the boundary between heaven and Earth in an illicit relationship with the “daughters of humankind” after the flood? Otherwise, how could the giants be encountered after the flood?

  2. I too hold to the view that the sons of God were angels, but then I’m thinking. Didn’t the flood destroy all life on earth except for Moses and his family? Seems the link between them and future giants is broken.

  3. Carey Pearson says:

    David and Larry, all your current questions (and then some you may not have asked yet) are answered in Dr Heiser’s book(s) referenced in the article. And if you are like me, your future questions are also addressed. Dr Heiser has brought clarity to the many many questions I had such as Psalms 82…etc etc.
    I have read through the Bible every year and have done so for 2 plus decades and have continually looked toward heaven many times asking God for clarification of the challenging areas regarding the supernatural realm. Dr Heiser’s work in bringing appropriate scholarship to the forefront has not only answered my questions but he has used scripture to define scripture. Dr Heiser’s citations will allow you to follow up his conclusions. If you are a student of God’s Word, You will not be disappointed.

  4. David Egolf says:

    I don’t know about Larry’s schedule, but I do not have time to read book(s) at this point. I would simply like an answer to a simple question:

    So did apkallu somehow survive the flood, or did Nephilim once again transgress the boundary between heaven and Earth in an illicit relationship with the “daughters of humankind” after the flood? Otherwise, how could the giants be encountered after the flood?

  5. Carey Pearson says:

    Your later suggestion.
    I would encourage you to reconsider carving out the time to investigate further as this Genesis activity has ramifications into the activities/teaching of Jesus Christ in the Gospels, Paul’s letters along with James, John and Jude’s writings. If you want answers, you will not regret working through the available scholarship on Supernatural beings and their Biblical activities.
    Blessing to you.

  6. Carey Pearson says:

    David, you asked “or did Nephilim once again transgress the boundary between heaven and Earth in an illicit relationship with the “daughters of humankind” after the flood?”

    To be a little more specific , replace your word ‘Nephilim’ with ‘God’s Council members’ and ‘yes, you have your answer. Some of the same supernatural beings who are referred to as God’s council that left their station pre flood, some of these from the council replicated that same sin after the flood. The product of that same sin are still called the Nephilim that Moses and Joshua were tasked with destroying in Canaan aka the promised land.

  7. Billy B. Avery says:

    I am anxiously waiting to see the results of these questions…

  8. Jim Johnson says:

    Michael, You just weakened your argument with this post. You said that before 2010, attempts to strip Genesis 6:1-4 of its supernatural elements “may have been contestable.” Now you say they are definitely not because Babylonian records covering the same time period demonstrate that similar supernatural beings to those described in the Genesis passage were reported to operate in other areas of Mesopotamia, where they were considered to be providing a divine blessing to their society. You then conclude that “Those parallels demonstrate with no uncertainty that this biblical passage was specifically written to denigrate Mesopotamian ideas of the superiority of their gods and culture.”
    I think you have provided excellent support for the non-historical (or would it be better called a-historical) perspective of Genesis 1-11, where historical and mythological elements that carry the meaning of events are intertwined in the oral transmission of history and religion. From the evidence you report here, I would not dispute whether or not the “sons of God” in Genesis 6 were spiritual beings; but I can only agree that the story is told in a way “to denigrate Mesopotamian ideas” about the significance of their experiences. I can’t see how it is definite proof that “spirits” were involved—at best it shows they believed they were, which is a clue to their worldview, which is one that continued in some areas of the world into modern times, although it was severely diminished in the 18th century “Enlightenment,” when our nation was born.

  9. I am sorry, but I find that some of the “smarter” and more recent commentaries have left the reality of who God is, doing just the opposite of what Mr. Heiser says. I do not hold to the fact that the new is better. The Bible was never intended to answer every question. To try to do so only opens us to novels, which open to more questions without Scriptural answers. The Bible clearly answers all we need to know about the atonement and redemption which is the purpose of God’s Word. The cross has been replaced by things that tickle our ears. I have read some of the books mentioned. I’ll stick to the classics which builds faith and love for our God.

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