For 40 years the people of Israel have been wandering in the wilderness east of the Jordan River, without city walls to protect them, without farmland to feed them — and yet they have thrived. God kept them alive with bread from heaven. He made sure their clothes did not wear out, not even their sandals. The cloud of his presence protected them from the sun during the day; the fire of his presence protected them from the cold and the darkness during the night.
But now they are ready to enter their promised homeland. Moses has led them to the eastern gateway of the land of Canaan, which we call Palestine today. And as the people of Israel stand there looking in, they are thinking about all the cities that block their way, cities dedicated to blood-drinking gods and goddesses, cities defended by giants. And they are…apprehensive.
Moses is not. As God’s prophet, he knows that Judgement has finally come for the land of Canaan. 600 years before, God had told Abraham that the Canaanites were living on borrowed time. He was going to give them just a few more centuries to repent of their false worship, their violence, their degradation of women and children — and then, if they did not repent, he was going to wipe the land clean and make it new.
For 600 years the people of Israel and the people of Canaan have been living in the Last Days — the End Times — waiting for God’s Judgement to set things right. During those centuries Israel has suffered: wandering the wilderness for generations, then falling into slavery for generations, then wandering in the wilderness again. They looked like they were under a curse — but actually God, as their loving Father, was disciplining them, getting them ready for their inheritance. The Canaanites, by contrast, have only gotten stronger and more sophisticated, ever more powerful and perverted and proud. They have looked like…the gods themselves, going always from success to even greater success.
But now the Last Days are almost over. The Days of Judgement are about to begin. And Moses already knows how it is going to end; he knows the people of Canaan will be brought down, the people of Israel lifted up, just as God promised. So Moses is not worried about that!
He is worried, however, about what is going to happen during the last few days of the Last Days. He is worried about what is going to happen during the first few days of the Days of Judgement, as the land is cleansed and remade in the image of God’s garden. Moses knows these next years are going to be years of intense temptation for God’s people. They will be fighting their own fears as God leads them to face nations greater than they are. They will be fighting their own greed as God gives them the firstfruits of the great wealth they are destined to inherit. They will be tempted to compromise with those they fear; they will be tempted to reach out for more than God has given them —
In short, Moses is worried that the people of Canaan will lead Israel away from true worship. And Moses is worried about this because…it has happened before.
That is what our passage is about today: it is about how, in the face of great power and wealth, God’s people compromised and gave in to false worship, the lusts of this world.
And this is how it begins:  When man began to multiply on the face of the land and daughters were born to them,  the sons of God saw that the daughters of man were attractive. And they took as their wives any they chose.
Moses has constructed the Book of Genesis very carefully. He started by showing us the garden of Eden, the garden of God’s presence: a single point of order in the midst of a disorderly wilderness. Man’s job was to protect the garden from disorder, while also gradually bringing the wilderness into order. His job was to extend God’s revelation until the knowledge of God had filled the whole earth with perfect balance and order.
Instead, the man — Adam — became the source of disorder in the garden. He compromised God’s revelation, he changed God’s Word. As a result he could not stay: God had to cleanse the garden by driving Adam out into the disorderly wilderness.
Now, the good news is Adam did repent of his sin. He returned to the true Word of God, and he lived a life of faith in God’s promises to take care of him even in the wilderness. But Adam’s sons went in two different directions. The older son, Cain, rejected God and his promises. He travelled eastward, and set up his own garden, his own city, his own religion, all designed to take care of himself. The younger son, Seth, followed in Adam’s footsteps: he lived a life of faith in God’s promises, he worshiped God as his Father, he trusted God to take care of him.
Cain’s religion looked orderly. But it was the kind of order that is held in place by high walls, the kind of order that feeds on division and exploitation, the kind of order ruled by people who called themselves gods. It was not the kind of order that brings life and freedom, it was the kind that brings slavery and death. It was the kind of order that is actually the most profound kind of disorder.
Seth’s religion, by contrast, looked disorderly: a people living without city walls, a people without a human king, a people who called themselves the children of God. But because Seth’s religion was true to God’s revelation of what order is supposed to look like, it brought life and freedom to its people.
And these two religions, these two civilizations, were in opposition to one another. They were the result of God’s curse on the serpent, God’s promise that the children of the serpent would be at constant war with the children of God. And as man began to multiply on the face of the land — as mankind began to fill up the available space — these two civilizations came into contact with each other more and more. And everyone in the world at that time had to choose which one they would join: Cain’s religion of slavery and death, or Seth’s religion of life and freedom.
And of course, when we describe the two systems like that, we wonder why anyone would join Cain’s, right? Why would anyone deliberately choose to join a system that runs on slavery?
Well, here’s the thing: unfortunately, Cain’s system was also the kind of system that brings great power and wealth to those who are at the top. It was the kind of system that says, “If you join us, we will make sure you end up near the top! If you refuse, we will conquer you anyway, and then you’ll end up at the bottom for sure.”
And that is a powerful incentive. It takes great faith in God to listen to that offer and then say, “No! We are not going to join you. We are going to trust our Lord to protect us from you.”
What Moses is describing for us here is how Seth’s people failed to say no to Cain’s people. This is the story as he tells it:
As the generations pass, we find that God is keeping his promise to Eve: children are being born. And they are being born to everyone, not just to the “good” people: Seth’s people are having kids, and Cain’s people are having kids. They are multiplying on the face of the land. That is how gracious God is: he blesses even murderers with new life.
And — even better news! — everyone is not just having sons, they are also having daughters. Seth’s people are having daughters; Cain’s people are having daughters. This is significant! — and not just for the obvious biological reasons. Moses is telling us that the men of Seth’s civilization — the sons of God, those who worship God — have plenty of good, faithful daughters of God to marry.
But here comes the wrinkle in the story: the daughters of man — the daughters of Cain’s civilization, those who worship men — are attractive.
And Moses actually set us up for this crisis two chapters ago with a little “after credit scene” in the story of Lamech. Remember him? Seventh from Adam, two trophy wives, three very productive sons — and one daughter: Naamah. And do you remember how, at that time, we reflected on how unusual it was to find a daughter’s name on a list of kings? And do you remember how I said this daughter would turn out to be significant later on? And do you remember what her name, Naamah, means? It means “pleasant, graceful…gorgeous”.
Now, Moses is not trying to say that the daughters of Seth were ugly. I’m sure they were fine. But Cain’s daughters would have had a special kind of attractiveness: the kind that comes from power and wealth. Naamah, for instance, is the daughter of a very powerful king. The man who marries her would be set for life, wouldn’t he? That is very attractive.
This is how the sons of Seth fell. This is how they gave up their faith in God’s protection: they married into Cain’s family. Through marriage, they made alliances with Cain’s people. They did it for the power, for the wealth, for the protection that comes from being part of a powerful religion. They did it because they finally fell for the serpent’s lie that they too can be gods, that they too can make themselves immortal.
And Moses makes it clear that their sin is exactly like Adam’s sin: he repeats, word for word, the moment of temptation. In Chapter 3, Eve, the daughter of God, saw that the forbidden fruit was attractive, and she took. Here, the sons of God saw that the forbidden women were attractive, and they took. Same. Exact. Words.
And what we find out next is that the consequence for this sin is also the same as the consequence for Adam’s sin:  then the LORD said, “My Spirit shall not abide in man forever, for he is flesh: his days shall be 120 years.”
Adam reached out and tried to make himself into a god. He tried to make himself immortal — and the consequence was death. The sons of Seth have reached out and tried to turn themselves into gods. They have tried to make themselves immortal — and the consequence is death.
But there is a key difference, this time, in how the death happens.
When Adam sinned, God drove him out of the garden. He removed Adam from the source of life. But in his mercy he left that source of life on the earth: God continued to live in the garden as the life-giving center of Seth’s civilization.
But now that Seth’s civilization has turned away from that life-giving centre…God has decided to take it back. He is going to take away the garden of his presence. His Spirit is no longer going to abide in the midst of mankind anymore. He is going to leave his garden-temple. The garden-temple is going to be destroyed. And this is going to happen in 120 years.
So what Moses is describing here is a final, great, apostasy: the children of God, after generations of faithfulness, are turning away from the garden of life, and joining themselves to the cities of death in a fruitless search for immortality. And it is this event, this mass rebellion of God’s people, that triggers Judgement Day.
And we all wonder: why? Cain’s civilization has been corrupt for hundreds or thousands of years and God has done nothing to stop it. So…so what if most of Seth’s people have now joined Cain’s people? As long as there are a few faithful people left on earth that should be enough to keep God from bringing judgement. After all God is merciful, right?
Yes, he is. And this act of removing his presence from his earthly temple is an act of mercy. As long as the people of God lived lives centered around the presence of God, they were bringing God’s revelation to the world, they were bringing God’s order to the wilderness. They were God’s preservatives — salt and light! — keeping the earth from just going completely rotten.
But now that they have stopped doing their job, what is inevitably going to happen if God lets things go on for another few thousand years? Corruption, slavery, degradation, murder will swallow up the whole world.
God, in his mercy, is cutting the time short. Mankind has 120 years left. The sons of Seth have decided to live without God’s presence at their center. And so God has decided to give them what they want: in 120 years they are going find out exactly what it is like to live without God’s life-giving presence in their midst.
The sons of Seth — and the sons of everyone else — are going to discover that they are not gods after all! They are not immortal. They are flesh. And they are going to have this proven to them in the only way it can be proven: through death.
And at this point Moses pauses his story to make a little explanatory sidenote:  The Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of man and they bore children to them. These were the mighty men who were of old, the men of renown.
Now, ironically, Moses’ little explanatory sidenote has actually caused more confusion than almost any other sentence in the bible. This one little verse has inspired many books, including one of the most popular novels of the ancient world — and that’s because nobody really understands what it means.
We don’t know who the Nephilim are. Apparently the word “nephilim” seems to mean “fallen ones”, but that doesn’t really narrow things down. And they are only mentioned once more in scripture: when the spies get back from exploring the promised land, they tell everyone that giants live there — the descendants of the Nephilim.
So the Nephilim are giants, apparently. But where did they come from, and why are they fallen?
Well, Moses tells us right here: the Nephilim are the children of these forbidden marriages between the sons of God and the daughters of men. They are the mighty men who were of old, the men of renown.
Except that…the grammar is actually not so clear. Everyone agrees that the “mighty men of old” are definitely the children of these forbidden marriages. But is Moses saying that the Nephilim and the mighty men are the same thing, or is he just saying that the Nephilim and the mighty men lived at the same time? It’s not clear. And even if the Nephilim are “the mighty men of old”, the fallen children of these fallen marriages between the sons of God and the daughters of men — why would they be giants?
And this is why this verse has generated so much interest over the years. We all love stories about super-humans and monsters and things like that. And here we have one, right in the bible. Why? What is Moses trying to teach us through this little sidenote about Nephilim and mighty men?
Well, the earliest and most popular explanation is this: the sons of God are not actually the sons of Seth. They are fallen angels. Spirit beings from another dimension. This is the idea that inspired that best-selling novel I mentioned from 2000 years ago. Because, after all, who does not want to read a book about aliens falling in love with women and producing a race of giant supermen? That novel was a bit like the X-Files of Jesus’ time. And the moral of the story is obvious: don’t have sex with angels…?
But then Jesus spoiled all the fun by pointing out that angels are not sexual creatures anyway. So…that was pretty much the end of that.
The second most popular explanation is that the sons of God were the terrible god-kings of the age: the sons of Cain who used their power to kidnap and rape the daughters of ordinary men, and ended up producing “fallen” offspring just like themselves: monstrous and violent. And there is biblical support for this idea. After all, Cain’s son Lamech was a violent man who used women as trophies. He did produce three sons who were “mighty men”. And he proclaimed himself to be God, so Moses could be calling his sons “the sons of God” in an ironic way. And so the moral of the story in this case would be: don’t abuse women…?
The problem, however, is this: when Moses says, “they took as their wives any they chose,” that word “took” is the normal word for marriage. If Moses had meant “kidnapped” or “raped”, he could have used those words. Of course, it is possible that Cain’s sons came and asked if they could marry Seth’s daughters, and the fathers of those daughters agreed to the marriages. And that would result in almost the same thing: an alliance, through marriage, between Seth’s people and Cain’s people. So the moral of the story could be: don’t let your daughters marry men outside your faith.
But, in the end, I believe that the third most popular explanation is the right one: that the sons of God were the sons of Seth marrying women from outside their faith. I believe this explanation makes the most sense because this is the thing we see happen again and again in scripture; this is the thing that God’s people are warned against again and again all the way through scripture.
For instance, Moses warns the Israelites not to marry outside their faith, because those wives will lead them away from true worship. They do it anyway. So God judges them by removing his Spirit from the temple in Jerusalem, allowing it to be destroyed.
Later on, after the temple is rebuilt, the prophets warn the Jews not to join themselves to the nations around them, because those nations will lead them away from true worship. They do it anyway. So God judges them again by removing his Spirit from the temple in Jerusalem, allowing it to be destroyed — for the last time.
Then, in the New Testament, the apostles warn Christians not to join themselves to the world around them, because that will lead them away from true worship. But guess what? Jesus tells us that, during the Last Days, there will be a final, great, apostasy: many people who claim to be God’s people “will turn away from the faith” and join themselves to the world. We are told that they will be deceived by false prophets who will set themselves up in God’s church, proclaiming themselves to be gods, false prophets who perform great signs and wonders and promise spiritual power and protection to everyone who joins them. But in the end, we are told, God will judge them — along with the rest of the world — by removing his Spirit from their midst, allowing them to be destroyed.
So the moral of this story about the sons of God marrying the daughters of men is this: trust your Father to care for you. Do not try to save yourselves by compromising with the world around you. At first everything will seem to turn out great, just like it did for Seth’s sons. They married the daughters of Cain in a bid for power, wealth, protection, immortality — and they got it! They produced powerful descendants, monstrous mighty men who feared nothing, who knew how to make a great name for themselves, the immortality of fame and fortune and world dominance. But in the end they fell under God’s judgement.
So what all this means is that, through this little sidenote, Moses is trying to warn and encourage God’s people.
Unfortunately, we often miss what Moses is saying because we’re so distracted by the whole Nephilim thing. In fact, even in this moment, we’re all sitting here thinking, “Yeah, that’s great and all, but…what about the Nephilim? Are they the same thing as the “mighty men of old”, or are they something else?”
Well, Moses is not clear about that, so we cannot really be clear about that.
But we can be clear about this: Moses is standing at the Jordan River with the people of Israel, looking into their promised homeland. He knows they are worried about the Nephilim there. He knows they are worried about the “mighty men” they will be facing. And so he deliberately points out that this is not the first time that Nephilim and “mighty men” have dominated the world. And this is not the first time that Nephilim and mighty men have fallen under the judgement of God.
Moses is trying to encourage his people. He is trying to remind them that God has dealt with these monsters before, and he is going to deal with them again. So do not be afraid to go in and receive the inheritance God has promised you!
So the story goes on: Seth’s civilization has combined with Cain’s civilization, and now there is no one left to stand up against their plans for world domination. Together they have produced a race of mighty men who exercise absolute control over their environments.
And what is the effect of all this?  The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.
And Moses has included a bit of an ironic joke here: men looked at women and thought they were attractive. But God looks at men and sees nothing but ugliness.
 And the LORD regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.
God put mankind in charge of developing the wilderness, bringing order to the animal kingdoms, filling the world with the worship of God. Instead — now that the sons of God are out of the way — mankind is busy turning everything toward the worship of himself. People are deliberately taking the creation God gave them and twisting it into whatever order serves them best.
And so what God is seeing here is a creation in agony. He is looking at an earth groaning with the pain of being bent into a shape it was not meant to take.
 So the LORD said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens, for I am sorry that I have made them.”
In other words, God is going to do the same thing we would do if we came upon a sociopath torturing an animal: we would remove the sociopath and put the animal out of its misery.
The god-kings of mankind have made slaves out of other people and animals and creeping things and birds. And so now God is going to show mercy to the victims by putting an end to their sufferings, and bring judgement upon the monsters by putting an end to their lives.
Moses is describing a world system that produces nothing but misery, a system that cannot be redeemed because the sons of God are no longer there to redeem it.
But in the midst of all this horror Moses does offer us two glimmers of hope.
The first glimmer of hope is his use of this word “blot out”. This is a word that means “to erase by washing”, like when you wash a plate clean, or erase someone’s name from a list. That is bad, if you are the food on the plate, or the person being erased! But this is also the same word that is used to talk about the washing away of sins, the first step toward making all things new.
The second glimmer of hope is his last sentence in Book 3:
 But Noah found favor in the eyes of the LORD.
The sons of Seth, the sons of God, have all turned away from the faith and joined themselves to the world — all except one.
There is one faithful son of God left in the world. When he was born, his own father had said, “Oh, finally! This one will comfort us and save us from the curse of the ground!” And so he was named “Noah”, which means “rest”. Noah’s name is yet another promise from God: it is a promise that the earth will have rest from its tormentors.
So this is the end of the first part of Genesis, the story of Adam and his three sons. One was murdered, one rejected God, and one remained faithful — for a while. Book 4 of Genesis, which begins in the very next verse, verse 9, will tell us the story of Noah and his three sons. But we’ll get into that some other time.
For now, we are going to stop here and ask the question we ask every week: what does all this mean for us? How is this supposed to change the way we live?
Well, Moses originally wrote this as a warning for the people of Israel. They had been living in the Last Days for 600 years, ever since the time of Abraham. They had remained faithful all the way down through the centuries of slavery and life in the wilderness. And that is great! But now, as they stand on the border of the promised land, as they begin to enter into their inheritance — Moses knows these next few years will be the ultimate test of their faithfulness. In some ways it is easier to be faithful in the wilderness, when you have no choice but to depend upon God. It is almost always as you cross the finish line that you fall.
And Moses knows this is a real danger because…it has happened before. Seth’s people had been living in the Last Days for generations, ever since the time of Enoch, who told them that God’s judgement was on the way to deliver them. They had remained faithful right up until the end — and then they fell away. The promises of God’s protection and provision grew small in their eyes, while their fears and their greed grew large…
Our situation is just like theirs. The New Testament tells us that we have been living in the Last Days ever since the time of Christ, who came and told us that God’s final judgement is on the way to deliver us. In every generation from then until now Christians have faithfully passed on what they learned from the generation before. For 2000 years the Church has been living in the wilderness on the banks of the Jordan River, looking into the land of our inheritance, waiting for the waters to part and let us cross into the new heavens and the new earth.
Which means that Moses also wrote this as a warning for us as well. Jesus repeated Moses’ warnings in even more detail, and so did Paul, and Peter, and John. This is what they all told us: we need to understand that the greatest danger always comes right before the end. That is when the fighting will be the fiercest, and the temptation to give up the strongest. And here is the most painful truth of all: most of the final generation will fall away. As the Last Days draw to a close, and as the Days of Judgement begin, most of the final generation will be seduced by Satan’s promises of power and pleasure and wealth and security. They will be led away from true worship by false prophets who will even pretend to be Christian teachers! — false prophets who will actually use miracles and signs and wonders to fool people and lead them away from the gospel into slavery and death.
Our problem is that we don’t know if we are the final generation; only our Father knows that. And this is why Jesus and Paul and Peter and John all gave us the same command: every generation needs to live as if theirs is the final generation. We need to always be on our guard against the temptations of this world, the temptation to turn aside from faith in God’s promises of protection and provision. This is how Paul said it: so then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the teachings we passed on to you.
That is what our Father wants us to do in light of this warning: stand firm and hold fast to the teachings we passed on to you. If you do hold fast to God’s Word, you will not be fooled by false teachers, no matter how much power they seem to have.
But this episode is not just a warning for us, it is also an encouragement. Our Father sees the suffering of his children; he knows we are facing a world full of giants and mighty men; he hears the groans of this creation longing to be set free. Our Father is grieved to his heart over what mankind has done to the world and to one another. And that is why he preserved for us one final Son of God — the only true Son of God — one righteous man whom he provided to give us rest from slavery and fear. In this episode, that man was Noah. For us, that man is Jesus Christ.
This episode teaches us is that every generation of humanity since Adam has faced a choice: join Cain’s religion, faith in the serpent’s promise of power — or join Seth’s religion, which is faith in God’s promise of redemption. We can join with the powerful and try to save ourselves, or we can stand with the powerless and trust our Father to save us.
This episode teaches us that everyone eventually ends up choosing to join the powerful, for obvious reasons: we are all betting that, by joining the powerful, we have a better chance of becoming powerful ourselves. Most of us lose that bet, and become the slaves of the powerful instead. We become the powerless whether we want to or not! — and then we find that there is no escape.
This episode teaches us that God himself has provided a way of escape. He has sent us a Saviour who will show mercy to every powerless person who asks him for deliverance, a Saviour who will bring judgment upon every tyrant who has ever used their power to twist creation into whatever order served them best. That is our good news.
In the world’s economy it is better to be powerful than to be powerless, it is better to be a tyrant than to be a victim. In God’s ecomony, it is better to be powerless, because God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.
So if you are here today and your life, your family, your career is not progressing as you thought, if you are not going from success to even greater success, if you are finding that you not one of the “mighty men” you thought you were going to be — then be encouraged: God’s heart is with you. He has provided a way of escape.
So if you are here today and you do not yet see God as your Father, if you have not yet trusted him with your life, your family, your career, do this: ask him to reveal his Son to you. Ask him to open for you the way of escape through the waters of death to the life on the other side. And he will.
If you are here today and you already see God as your Father, if you have already passed through the waters of baptism, then do this: stand firm and hold fast to our Father’s promises of deliverance. When the voice of the serpent tempts us to turn aside into doubt and fear and greed, let us return to the teachings that were passed on to us. Let us open our bibles again to this episode and to all the others like it, and be reminded that God has dealt with the monsters of this world before, and he will deal with them again. We have nothing to fear. Our Father is going to carry us safely into the land of our inheritance, a land that has been washed clean of every impurity: the new heavens and the new earth.