In Gen. 6:3, the Hebrew text states,

ג וַיֹּאמֶר יַהְוֶה לֹא יָדוֹן רוּחִי בָאָדָם לְעֹלָם בְּשַׁגַּם הוּא בָשָׂר וְהָיוּ יָמָיו מֵאָה וְעֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה

which the King James Version translates into English as follows,

3 And the LORD said, My spirit shall not always strive with man, for that he also is flesh: yet his days shall be an hundred and twenty years. KJV, 1769

Despite the variance in most English translations of Gen. 6:3, most consistently translate the Hebrew הוּא בָשָׂר as “he is flesh.” Adam was most certainly composed of flesh prior to Gen. 6:3, otherwise, he could not have said concerning Eve, “This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh.”1 Likewise, his descendants were all composed of flesh, for they died, just as men do today.

I wondered, then, if the Hebrew does not really concern man’s physical nature, but rather his ethical nature. As such, it would be understood as “he is carnal,” (“carnal”=adjective) rather than “he is flesh” (“flesh”=noun). As most know, the apostle Paul frequently uses the Greek word σαρκικός, an adjective related to the noun σάρξ (“flesh”), which the KJV translates into English as “carnal.” I did a brief search, but it does not appear that σαρκικός and related declensions ever occur in the LXX.

My question is this: is it possible to translate/understand the Hebrew הוּא בָשָׂר as “he is carnal (fleshly)”? What word or phrase would the Hebrew author have used to convey the idea of “he is carnal” if not הוּא בָשָׂר? Did biblical Hebrew have an adjective equivalent to “carnal”?


1 Gen. 2:23

  • I don't know if it is terribly relevant, but according to a footnote in the Oxford Jewish Study Bible, the Masoretic Text of the first part of this verse is corrupt.
    – user15733
    Commented Dec 22, 2016 at 0:06

1 Answer 1



First, "flesh" has changed in English usage. In modern usage, "flesh" is used to indicate (Wikipedia) "the soft substance consisting of muscle and fat that is found between the skin and bones of an animal or a human." It is no longer in common usage to indicate the temporal, and as the contrast to or opposite of "spirit" (רוח), as it is used in Genesis 6:3.

Second, there is no concept of "the carnal" in the culture or language of the OT. The association of sex with sin that characterizes Western culture from the medieval period has no basis in the language or culture or the OT. It is a foreign import. In the OT, a man with a "carnal" impulse that his wife does not satisfy is invited to take on additional wives or concubines as required. To be entirely without a wife is clearly not good. In fact, there isn't any condemnation when Judah, being without a wife, resorts to a prostitute in Genesis 38.

The word בשר ("basar") "flesh", is used in Gen 6:3 to indicate mortality and to contrast with רוח ("ruah") "spirit" used earlier in the verse that indicates the eternal. The intent of this verse in the passage is polemic, to demythologize the בני האלוהים ("bnei haelohim"), the demi-gods of verse 2 and reduce them to mortal status by means of YHWH's word.

Verse 4 states that the demi-gods "came to" (יבאו.. אל) the daughters of man, a euphemism for sex, and that from these unions the great and renowned men of old were born. There is no negative connotation here to the acts of the demi-gods, just the opposite. However, the offspring are human, not gods.

At the end of verse 4 there is a full parsha break which, unfortunately, is not indicated in most English translations, and even when it is, as in the Cambridge NEB, is lost in translation. It means, this paragraph is over. What follows is a different subject. You need to pay close attention to the parsha breaks when reading the OT in order to understand it correctly. The currently used chapter breaks are a post OT addition and mislead many readers.

The following parasha, verse 4 though 8, serves as an introduction to the story of Noah. It states that man had done much evil and that his thoughts were always evil. There is no indication that these thoughts are particularly connected with sex. After this blanket condemnation, the last verse in the parasha indicates that Noah found favor in God's eyes. This is a particularly Hebrew construction - a hyperbolic generalization followed by an exception, intended to contrast the exception. If you read the generalization too literally then there is no explanation for why Noah finds favor.

Interpretations of Genesis 6:3 such as the "My spirit shall not for ever be contending with man; seeing that he also is carnally minded" do a great disservice to the modern reader. They are back-reading an agenda into the text.

  • Can the phrase in 6:2 be understood in terms other than taking as wives? Could it mean took to teach or as servants or to make as disciples? Commented Dec 23, 2016 at 13:33
  • @RevelationLad Gen 6:2 states ויקחו להם נשים. No need for interpretation. The literal translation is that "they took for themselves women [wifes]", i.e regular wives in the conventional sense. There aren't any uses of phrase "to take a wife" in the OT where the meaning is anything more or less than simply to marry.
    – user17080
    Commented Dec 23, 2016 at 13:46
  • “The word בשר ("basar") "flesh", is used in Gen 6:3 to indicate mortality...”—At what point did they become mortal?
    – user862
    Commented Dec 23, 2016 at 19:56
  • @SimplyaChristian The simplest reading is that verses 6:1-3 refer to the situation described in verse 1. So the future descendants of the "bnei elohim" mentioned in verse 4 are mortal from the start, and even more so than the figures of the past such as Methuselah. This comes to debunk the idea that there are humans who can achieve immortal status, and then be worthy of worship, through aristocratic lineage or by virtue of their becoming rulers, or prophets or whatever. The subtext is that God alone is purely spirit and eternal and worthy of worship.
    – user17080
    Commented Dec 24, 2016 at 16:21

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