So the LORD said, “My spirit will not remain in humankind indefinitely, since they are mortal. They will remain for 120 more years.”
God sets a limit
The world today bears a resemblance to the pre-flood world of Genesis 6; our world pays so much attention to celebrities. Their every move receives intense scrutiny and comment. Celebrity views on every subject are given attention, whether deserved or not.
How may we fix our attention on what endures rather than what passes away? What will become of those powerful people who oppose what God values? Why does humankind pay so much attention to celebrities and so little attention to God?
The story of this verse is that God is both patient and kind, but his long patience has a limit.
Note that the word “spirit” is not capitalized by NET (RSV also), though “Spirit” is the translation of ESV and NIV (both 1984 and 2011). Such decisions are difficult. This writer agrees with NET for the reasons offered by Gordon Wenham: “It seems much more likely that it denotes the life-giving power of God, on which every creature is entirely dependent for its life. It is called the ‘breath of life’ (2:7) or ‘the spirit of life’ (6:17; 7:15) and the phrase ‘my spirit’ is used again in Ezek. 37:14.”
In addition, the idea that sinful man was indwelt by the Spirit of God seems totally contrary to verses such as Romans 8:9 and John 14:17. Instead, the author of Genesis is telling us that all life is sustained by God, but God can withdraw that life as he thinks necessary. This same verse explains when time will run out, which will be discussed below.
The phrase “since they are mortal” (NET, NIV) may be more literally translated “for he is flesh” (ESV, RSV). That last word (“flesh”) translates a vital word described well by Victor Hamilton:
To be sure, the OT in general, and the opening chapters of Genesis in particular, do not teach that simply being flesh is sinful, as if the two were synonymous. After all, the man used this same word to describe his partner in 2:23, and together they became “one flesh” (2:25). But basar [the Hebrew word for “flesh”] does seem to be a general term to describe the limitation and fallibility of humankind.
Flesh has proven to be vulnerable to harboring defiance of the Creator. Paul speaks of the inability of the Law to deliver men from sin’s grip, because the Law was “weakened through the flesh” (Rom. 8:3). But in light of the sexual interaction between the sons of God and the daughters of men, God decides to limit the remaining years of humankind on the earth to 120 years.
Another possible interpretation is that God limited human lifespan to 120 years, but only if the decision was implemented over a long period of time. While lifespan drops dramatically after the flood, many live longer than 120 years. So, the NET Bible translators and many others think God graciously gave 120 years for Noah to build the ark and make it clear that God intended judgment.
The Nephilim were on the earth in those days (and also after this) when the sons of God were having sexual relations with the daughters of humankind, who gave birth to their children. They were the mighty heroes of old, the famous men.
A glimpse of lost legends
Our challenge in this verse is that we get a clear glimpse of the pre-flood world, but it is only a glimpse. For that reason, the meaning is disputed. We begin with the Nephilim, a name which occurs only here and in Numbers 13:33 (during the long years of Israel’s wanderings in the desert). The NET Bible Notes say, “The text may imply they were the offspring of the sexual union of the ‘sons of God’ and the ‘daughters of humankind’ (verse 2), but it stops short of saying this in a direct manner.”
For a word used so rarely, like Nephilim, one must sometimes resort to considering the root of the word to clarify its meaning, a process called etymology. This process is used frequently in the Old Testament where over 1500 words are used just once, but it is never necessary in the New Testament due to the abundance of contemporary Greek literature.
Wenham says: “The etymology of ‘Nephilim’ is obscure. If Ezek. 32:20–28 is alluding to Gen. 6:1–4, it seems likely he connected the Nephilim with [the Hebrew root] NPL ‘to fall.’” No matter how mighty they were as warriors (NET “heroes of old, the famous men”), the pre-flood Nephilim fell to the flood God brought in judgment upon a sinful world; the post-flood Nephilim seen by the spies Moses sent into Canaan (Num. 13:33) were slain by 85-year-old Caleb during the conquest of Canaan under Joshua (Josh. 14:11–12; 15:13–14). If God is against you, it does not matter how big and powerful you are or who your father is!
Speaking of the angelic fathers of the Nephilim, it appears that Peter reveals their dire punishment in 2 Pet. 2:4–5. Note that the latter verse speaks of God bringing judgment on “the ancient world” but protecting Noah.
Every educated person knows that ancient mythology contains the stories of mighty heroes. Concerning the famed Nephilim, Bruce Waltke says: “These heroes may provide the historical base behind the accounts of semidivine heroes . . . of mythology. Instead of the Bible representing myth as history, as is commonly alleged, perhaps the ancients transformed history into myth.”
Unlike ancient mythology, the Bible does not dwell on these extraordinary figures. Instead, it continues with the story of God’s eternal kingdom and its extraordinary King, who, unlike the Nephilim, rose from the dead after giving his life to save humankind from its terrible ruin.
Copyright © 2011 by Barry Applewhite. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from material created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.
 Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 1–15, Word Biblical Commentary (Nashville: Word Incorporated, 1987) 141.
 Victor P. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis: Chapters 1-17, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1990) 268-269.
 NET Bible Notes for Genesis 6:4.
 Wenham, Genesis 1-15, 143.
 Bruce K. Waltke with Cathi J. Fredricks, Genesis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001) 118.