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 memory and tech gear—they get worse with age and perhaps 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 smart phone. In terms of what previous generations were capable of analyzing in a lifetime we can surpass with a few hours of effort.
I work for the world’s leading Bible software company, so I’m 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 in the last year. 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 “Watchers” in Jewish literature 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 the Mesopotamian epic 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 preflood 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 that deserved to die. After the flood the post-flood giant apkallu became enemies of God’s people, the Israelites. Whether we realize it or not, Genesis 6:1–4 is 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.
The new research I speak of is the result of thorough reexamination of the Sumerian and Akkadian flood epics. That result was skillfully culled by cuneiform scholar Amar Annus in a 2010 article: “On the Origin of Watchers: A Comparative Study of the Antediluvian Wisdom in Mesopotamian and Jewish Traditions,” Journal for the Study of the Pseudepigrapha vol. 19:4 (2010): 277–320. Annus’ article is the most current study on the Mesopotamian apkallu available anywhere in any form. It supersedes all preceding work on this subject.((Such as J. C. Greenfield, “Apkallu,” in Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible (Edited by Karel van der Toorn, Bob Becking, and Pieter W. van der Horst; Leiden: Brill; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999) and Anne Draffkorn Kilmer, “The Mesopotamian Counterparts of the Biblical Nepilim in E.W. Conrad and E.G. Newing (eds.), Perspectives on Language and Text: Essays and Poems in Honor of Francis I. Andersen’s Sixtieth Birthday July 28, 1985 (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns): 39-44.)) 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, ground-breaking research. They’re like 8-track cassettes—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 that it brings up-to-date. If you care about interpreting the Bible in its original context—including the supernatural worldview of the biblical writers—you need to read The Unseen Realm.
The Unseen Realm, brought to you by Lexham Press, is coming to shelves this summer. For more resources exploring the mysteries of the Old Testament, check out Dr. Heiser’s Mobile Ed course, OT 291 The Jewish Trinity: How the Old Testament Reveals the Christian Godhead.
Be sure to check back every Friday for more unfiltered insight from Dr. Michael Heiser.