After Cain "went away from the presence of the Lord," (Genesis 4:16) we have genealogies and fantastic stories which might be about angels taking human women as wives. (von Rad pp113-116)
I think we have to accept these stories draw on common knowledge and understandings of the time which we simply don't possess. Our understanding of the story about the "sons of God" and the Nephilim, in particular, is only partial. But there seem to be two main purposes behind these traditions which lead up the story of the flood.
There appears to be a continued commentary on the commonly accepted "history of the world" in the city of Babylon at the time of the exile. The patterns in the genealogies of Genesis Chapters 4 and 5 reflect genealogies of the ancient kings.
The Genesis narrator overlays these background traditions with priestly traditions from Israel (which call God Elohim; modern scholars call this the P tradition,) and another tradition we know as J, which refers to God as Yahweh (and sometimes YahwehElohim.) See, for example, here for more detail.
This new story is designed not so much to tell us about the creation of the world as to tell us about the nature of God, and our relationship with God.
Secondly, the beginning of Chapter 6, Chapter 5, and the remainder of Chapter 4 after Cain, prepare us for the flood. I suspect the writers of Genesis took an ancient flood as a given; it happened, but they were seeking to say, "Yes, but it's not like you think it was. It has different implications. The One God is not how you think the gods to be."
This extended commentary is somewhat similar to a Christian today, who is quite accepting of the Theory of the Big Bang, but who says to a friend, "But that doesn't mean there is no God. There is another way to see the world, and to see God."
Part of the preparation for understanding the flood narrative which follows immediately after this chapter is seen in the story of Lamech, (4:17-24) especially in what is known as the Song of the Sword.
23 Lamech said to his wives:
‘Adah and Zillah, hear my voice;
you wives of Lamech, listen to what I say:
I have killed a man for wounding me,
a young man for striking me.
24 If Cain is avenged sevenfold,
truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold.’
Gerhard von Rad says of this story,
… it serves to make visible… the change in human attitude… the spirit of growing irreconcilableness and fierce self-assertiveness, by which the human community is more and more profoundly ruptured. Lamech is not satisfied with the protection that God promised to his ancestor Cain; he takes upon himself the execution of vengeance and takes his revenge recklessly…
First the Fall, then fratricide, and now the execution of vengeance (which God has reserved for himself ) is now claimed by man. (sic) It becomes wanton, and in addition, man boasts of it. (von Rad Genesis pp 111-112)
Brueggemann remembers Jesus' saying in Matthew and Luke:
Probably Jesus’ teaching of forgiveness “seventy times seven” (Matt. 18: 21–22; Luke 17:3–4) is a direct response to Lamech and means to refute the practice of unbridled vengeance. Jesus embodies the inversion of the world, a world set on a course to death by the family of Cain. (Walter Brueggemann Genesis pp66)
The text is moving us towards the beginning of Chapter 6, so that we will see the understand the actions and mind of God, when it says:
The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. (Genesis 6:5)
But what of the genealogies themselves? Brueggemann says they are used "to tie stories together which originally had no connection" (Walter Brueggemann Genesis pp64)
They also bring humanity down to size, especially those in power. Robert Gnuse quotes from one of a number of an ancient king lists—genealogies of sorts— which begins with "obviously fictitious" kings. However, "the later kings include historical personages." The fictitious kings reign for twenty and thirty thousand years at a time! At the end, the list says
These are five cities; eight kings reigned for 241,000 years. (Then) the flood streamed over (the Earth.) pp172
The biblical author is making a political and religious statement against Mesopotamian traditions about the antediluvian kings. Mesopotamians claim these great personages were ancient kings of semi-divine origin or sons of the gods. This gives added authority to the power of the contemporary Mesopotamian king, who claims descent (physically or symbolically) from these ancient figures. The biblical author maintains that the pre flood personages are not kings but simple shepherds. Their life spans show they are not divine or semi-divine; they are simply humans who lived a long time. None of the biblical figures live more than a thousand years; Methuselah tries his best, but even he falls short of the magic number. So the biblical author gives the biblical personages "short" lifespans to deny their divinity… when modern readers of the Bible ask why did these people live so long, the answer is that they really lived "short" lives because they were mortal not divine. … The text is really a polemic against the royal propaganda of the Mesopotamian kings or any kings with pretentious rhetoric of claimed self divinity. (Robert Gnuse Misunderstood Stories: Theological Commentary on Genesis 1-11 pp173)
In all of this we see a growing separation between humanity and God. Humans do their own thing, despite the birth of Seth, a new line descending from Adam and Eve, where we are told that "at that time people began to invoke the name of the Lord. (4:26) Enoch "walked with God." (5:21-24) But humanity's relationship with God is increasingly fractured. Chapter 5 remembers "When God created humankind, he made them in the likeness of God" [but Seth] is only in the likeness and according to the image of Adam, not God. (5:1-3)
This might mean he continues the image of God, for the image of God is granted not only to the first human but to all humans. But such an assertion is hedged, for the image of Adam is something less, and marred (cf. Gen. 3). Thus, the text may realistically recognize that Seth and his heirs are a strange, unresolved mixture of the regal image of God and the threatened image of Adam. Such a double statement recognizes the ambivalence of humankind, even as Paul later experienced it. (Brueggemann pp68 )
This ambivalence is heightened in a way we often miss. Both Gnuse and von Rad notice similarities between the two genealogies in Chapters 4 and 5. (Gnuse pp176, von Rad pp 111)
… a striking similarity between the two lists appears. The names are the same in both lists… The bottom line is that these two lists really contain the same name and the author writing in Hebrew would notice this very clearly, even though English speaking readers miss it frequently. (Gnuse)
Brueggemann assumes there is only one Lamech.
Worth noting is the attitude and presentation of Lamech here (vv. 28–31), quite a contrast to the vengeful man of 4:23–24. While the contrasting presentations of the same man may be explained on grounds of different sources, it is important that this two-sidedness is preserved in the tradition. Lamech prefigures the tendency we all know of trying to serve two masters (Matt. 6:24); in his case, self-security (4:23–24) and the vision of uncursed earth (5:29)
Thomas Brodie, in his book Genesis as Dialogue shows this dual tradition which we see in the repeated genealogies is a structural feature of Genesis.
Genesis consists of twenty-six diptychs... the entire book is composed of diptychs-- accounts which, like some paintings, consist of two parts or panels.. The relationships between the matching panels varies [but ...t]he overall purpose... is... to communicate at some level a sense of the depth of things. (ppxi - xii)
And so we see in Chapter 5:28-9 that through Lamech who is the worst of us, comes a relief: 28 When Lamech had lived for one hundred and eighty-two years, he became the father of a son; 29he named him Noah, saying, ‘Out of the ground that the Lord has cursed this one shall bring us relief from our work and from the toil of our hands.’
The anticipated help will come from the ground cursed by God (cf. 3:17; 4:11). The statement is obviously a careful theological link with those earlier narratives. It asserts on the one hand that God has not abandoned his intentions for the cursed earth. On the other hand, help must come from that very ground, and not as spirit or from heaven. The salvific promise shows how earthy and earthly the Bible is. Indeed, this is a hint of incarnational faith. The affirmation that relief comes from cursed ground reflects a way of thinking that easily runs toward crucifixion and resurrection in the New Testament. As help comes from the place of curse, so life comes from the reality of death (cf. Gal. 3:13–14). (Brueggemann Genesis pp69)
How will God react to all this? On the one hand, "The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. 6And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart—" (Genesis 6:5) yet there is the hint of relief, and glimpses of the original vision. If we are all Lamech, it is yet through us that relief will come.
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!
Genesis Claus Westermann
Genesis Walter Brueggemann
Genesis Gerhard von Rad
Misunderstood Stories: Theological Commentary on Genesis 1-11 Robert Gnuse
Studies in Bible and Feminist Criticism Tikva Frymer-Kensky
What Are the J, E, and P Texts of Genesis? Kurt Wheeler
Genesis As Dialogue Thomas L. Brodie
Note that you can often read significant excerpts of these volumes on Google Books if you do not have access to an eBook version or the paper copy. A way in might be to search for some of the text which I quote. Frustratingly, but fairly enough, there are frequent and significant pages missing in the previews.
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