Thursday, February 17, 2011

Questions (and answers) on early Genesis, Part II

As, for the past two weeks, the daily Mass readings in the Novus Ordo have presented the Church with the first eleven chapters of Genesis (from the creation to Abraham), it seemed fitting that we should briefly consider several questions which may arise in the minds of believers who read these passages. There are certainly many fascinating events and stories, and there are many thousands of questions which could be raised, but we are here attempting only to raise a few which seem most profitable and most interesting to us.
In the first part of our little “commentary,” we discussed the six days of creation, the serpent-tempter, the mark of Cain, and the long life-spans of the early Patriarchs. Now, in the second part, we discuss the period before, during and after the great flood. Again, we here intend to give only an answer, not the answer – for surely, in such difficult questions as these, there is room for much diversity of opinion.
It would be most beneficial if we all took the time to re-read these eleven chapters, especially if we have not read them recently (in the past couple of months).

Did angels and women procreate and give birth to giants? (Genesis 6:1-4)
The sons of God seeing the daughters of men, that they were fair, took to themselves wives of all which they chose. […] Now giants were upon the earth in those days. For after the sons of God went in to the daughters of men, and they brought forth children, these are the mighty men of old, men of renown. (Genesis 6:2,4)
The angels are often called the “sons of God” (as in the early chapters of Job, and many other places) – on this account, several of the Fathers of the Church assert that fallen angels came to earth and had sexual intercourse with human women, giving birth to a race of giants. What are we to say about such a claim?
On the one hand, Clement of Alexandria and St. Ambrose maintain that these “sons of God” really were angels who took material form and impregnated women. Certainly, this is theoretically possible; as pure spirits have great power over matter when they so will.
St. Ephrem and St. Augustine, on the other hand, maintain that the “sons of God” were the sons of Seth, and that these married the “daughters of men” (meaning the daughters of Cain). This seems to us to be the more likely opinion.
If one were to follow Clement and St. Ambrose, it would be necessary to maintain that the male seed was taken from human men by the fallen angels, and then implanted in the women – else, it would seem that these “giants” would have been without original sin, since original sin is transmitted through human generation (and it is the common doctrine of theologians that original sin is passed on specifically through the active power of the male seed; hence, if a man were to be conceived of a virgin, and without male seed, he would be conceived without original sin).
Regarding the question of “giants” – the Douay Rheims commentary offers an interesting analysis, “It is likely the generality of men before the flood were of gigantic stature in comparison with what men are now. But these here spoken of are called giants, as being not only tall in stature, but violent and savage in their dispositions, and mere monsters of cruelty and lust.” We suppose that these men were called “giants” principally according to a certain metaphor; not that they were gigantic in size, but in vice.
How did Noe find favor with God? (Genesis 6:8)
While God repented of having created men, since all were displeasing to him; Noe is said to have found grace before the Lord. What was it that made Noe to find the favor of God, when the rest of humanity was to be destroyed? Was it something in Noe?
Here we consider the words of St. Thomas, as he discusses the nature of grace: “A difference must be noted between the grace of God and the grace of man; for since the creature’s good springs from the Divine will, some good in the creature flows from God’s love, whereby he wishes the good of the creature. On the other hand, the will of man is moved by the good pre-existing in things; and hence man’s love does not wholly cause the good of the thing, but pre-supposes it either in part or wholly. […] Even when a man is said to be in another’s good graces, it is understood that there is something in him pleasing to the other; even as anyone is said to have God’s grace – with this difference, that what is pleasing to a man in another is presupposed to his love, but whatever is pleasing to God in a man is caused by the Divine love.” (Summa Theologica I-II, q.110, a.1, co. and ad 1)
What St. Thomas means to tell us is that Noe was pleasing to God on account of something good in him, but that this good in Noe was itself put there first by Divine Love. Hence, simply speaking, Noe did nothing to find the grace of God absolutely – but, once that grace was given, according to the Divine will, Noe participated in that gift and merited more grace.
For this is the great difference between God and man – whereas a man loves another on account of something good already present in the other, God’s Love creates goodness in the men whom he loves. When men cooperate with that grace (according to Divine providence), they merit an increase in grace and find favor with God. Hence, Noe did not save himself or make himself to be holy purely by his own efforts, but he received the grace of God and co-operated with that grace, and was thus saved from the devastation of the flood.
Why did God destroy the tower of Babel? (Genesis 11:1-9)
And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of Adam were building. And he said: […] Come ye, therefore, let us go down, and there confound their tongue, that they may not understand one another’s speech. And so the Lord scattered them from that placed into all lands, and they ceased to build the city. (Genesis 11:5,7-8)
Certain descendents of Adam, uniting together in one language and nation, went so far as to construct a city with a great tower – in the Septuagint, the city Babel is rendered “Babylon.” The city and the tower were displeasing to the Lord, so he set the inhabitants of the city into confusion (babel, in Hebrew) and destroyed the city. Could it be that the Lord was threatened by these men? Did God act in self-defense when destroying Babel, as though he had need to protect himself from men? Of course not!
St. Jerome tells us: “Just as when holy men live together, it is a great grace and blessing; so, likewise, that congregation is the worst kind when sinners dwell together. The more sinners there are at one time, the worse they are. Indeed, when the tower was being built up against God, those who were building it were disbanded for their own welfare. The conspiracy was evil. The dispersion was of true benefit even to those who were dispersed.” Thus, we see that God destroyed Babel out of a true love for the inhabitants of that city. The Good Lord acted not to defend himself, but for the salvation of those wretched men – lest, finishing the construction of the city and the tower, they should sin so greatly as to fall into utter ruin. In this way, the diversity of languages is a gift to humanity, lest men should unite in evil and go from bad to worse.
Characteristic of his general preaching style, St. John Chrysostom finds, in the story of Babel, a warning to the rich: “There are many people even today who in imitation of them want to be remembered for such achievements, by building splendid homes, baths, porches and avenues. […] This, on the contrary, is worthy not of commemoration but of condemnation. […] But if you are anxious for undying reputation, I will show you the way to succeed in being remembered for every achievement and also, along with an excellent name, to provide yourself with great confidence in the age to come. […] If you give away these goods of yours into the hands of the poor, letting go of precious stones, magnificent homes, properties and baths.”


Nick said...

Have you read the rabbinic writings on Noah? It's fascinating stuff.

Marco da Vinha said...

Considering Seth and Cain's wives, where did they came from? Is it to be infered that they were also the offspring of Adam and Eve?

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@ronconte (3:53pm),
The question you raise is indeed a very interesting point...

Still, we simply must hold that original sin is passed down through generation -- hence, even with cloning, there must be some sense of "generation" involved.

The way I would answer the question (as I have it answered other times, on other blogs) is this: In the case of cloning (if it is possible), the "active power" of generation usually attributed to the male seed would then be attributed to the doctor (whether male or female) doing the cloning.
Ultimately the physical aspect of the male seed isn't what is important -- it is the causal power that matters, and the doctors would seem to be providing the active cause in "cloning".

So, coming back to the question of the fallen angels in Genesis -- it is clear that they could not alone be the active power in generation, there would have to be some other human being involved beyond the human mothers (since the mother is the material cause but only passively; and that is corroborated even by modern science).

Hence, I would not be so quick to dismiss the consensus of the theologians (throughout the ages) ... rather, as Catholics, what we ought to do is try to take the old theological systems and see how the fundamental principles can still apply to modern problems.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@Mark of the Vineyard (2:50pm),
Yes, we must hold that the wives of Seth and Cain were daughters of Adam and Even (and therefore sisters to Seth and Cain)...
I know that this seems repulsive, but we must recall that the genetic pool would have been quite different at that time -- since the particular specification of genes to races and even to families had not yet occurred.

Thus, it does not seem that incest is absolutely wrong (as it was not wrong in the beginning of the human race) -- though it would be wrong today.

A similar thing occurred (though not quite so extreme) after the flood.
The sons of Shem (for example) would have had to marry the daughters of either Ham or Japeth -- this would be marriage between first cousins.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@Nick, I have never even heard of the "rabbinic writings of Noah" -- thanks for the tip! :)

James Zahler said...

As I’m reading this, I’m getting the idea that original sin is an actual something. Isn’t sin properly understood as a lack? Otherwise, there is a problem with “what created this evil-thing?” I was just reading St. Thomas Aquinas on original sin today, and he seemed to think that original sin was the lack of original justice (a grace from God) which God has simply chosen not to given to any future children of Adam because of the first sin. In this way, original sin is still passed on through generation. We might more specifically call it a non-inheritance of something humans ought to have (though don’t have a strict right to).

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@James, You are certainly correct -- original sin is a lack, it is not a positive reality.
Hence, when we say it is transmitted through generation, we cannot mean that it is passed on in the way a genetic mutation is passed on...rather, it is passed from father to child insofar as the human nature transmitted lacks original justice (as you rightly understand St. Thomas to say).

However, it is not quite right to say that original sin is simply God choosing not to give original justice to the future children of Adam (as you seem to state) -- the very nature which Adam transmits lacks grace and is in the state of sin ... in other words, there is more at work than simply a divine choice; it is a defect in very nature of human generation.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

...That is, it is a privation in the very nature which is transmitted through human generation...
[not that there is something necessarily defective in the generative process itself]

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