Who Are the “Sons of God” in Genesis 6:1-4?

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….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 (Gen 6:1-2, 4).

Few passages in the Bible are as perplexing as this one.  The following is a series of arguments in support of my take on it, though I have friends and mentors who conclude differently.

As specifically as it can be stated, here’s the problem: who are the “sons of God” mentioned in Genesis 6:2 and 6:4? Two main views exist, though others or even variations of the two have been proposed: (1) the “sons of God” are angels who marry and procreate with women or (2) the “sons of God” are people in Seth’s line who marry women in Cain’s line.

I’m going to give seven reasons why the second view is more compelling to me.

THE ARGUMENTS

(1) “Sons” and “daughters” refer to people in Genesis 1 – 5. The word “son” appears in 4:17, 25, 26; 5:3, and the phrase “sons and daughters” appears in 5:4, 7, 10, 13, 16, 19, 22, 26, and 30. Given this immediate context from Genesis 5, it seems likely that the opening verses of the next chapter refer also to human “sons” and “daughters.”

Moreover, in Genesis 6:10 Noah’s three “sons” are named, and those are human sons too. For the “sons of God=angels” view to work, “sons” would have to mean something in 6:1-4 that it didn’t mean in Gen 1 – 5 or in 6:8ff.  I don’t find such a shift warranted in the context of Genesis 6.

Yes, “sons of God” can refer to angels (like in Job 1 or Psalm 29), but God’s people are also called “sons” in Deuteronomy 14:1. And more importantly, I think that the context of Genesis 1 – 5 prepares us to read 6:1-4 with human “sons” in mind.

(2) The qualifications “of God” and “of man” reflect the division established after Genesis 3:15. God judged the serpent with the promise of enmity between “your offspring and [the woman’s] offspring” (Gen 3:15). This division of those who are against God and those who are God is glimpsed in the first story told outside the garden. Cain, who was of the serpent’s seed (cf. 1 John 3:12), murdered Abel (Gen 4:1-8). Abel pleased God; Cain didn’t.

Then in Genesis 4:17-26 there are two lines of descent. The divide between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent is seen starkly when Cain’s line (4:17-24) is marked by the murderous Lamech (4:19-24), and Adam’s line through Seth (4:25-26) is marked by people who call on the name of Yahweh (4:26).

The ten-generation genealogy in Genesis 5 is a contrast with Cain’s in 4:17-24, especially because the seventh person in each chapter (Lamech in 4:19-24; Enoch in 5:21-24) are clear contrasts with one another.

With the division between the seed of the woman and seed of the serpent (Gen 3:15), between Abel and Cain (4:1-8), and between Cain and Seth’s respective genealogies (4:17–5:32), the division between people in 6:1-2 being “of God” or “of man” seems to cohere nicely with what started in Genesis 3:15.

I think this kind of division is present in Jesus’ words to Peter when the latter rebuked him for teaching of his coming suffering, death, and resurrection: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man” (Matt 16:23, emphasis mine).

(3) God gives the blessing of marriage and procreation to image-bearing humans. There’s no indication outside Genesis 6 that angels marry or procreate, so I find the “sons of God=angels” view especially difficult to square with what we see happening in Genesis 6:1-4. The sons of God marry women (6:2), and those unions bear children (6:4). Let’s unpack this further.

In Genesis 1:28 God gave the commission of procreation to engendered persons, male and female (1:27). The Bible nowhere teaches that God made angels in his image, but he did make men and women in his image to be fruitful and multiply. In Genesis 4 the offspring come from two humans, as do the offspring chronicled in ten generations of Genesis 5.

Therefore, when we see more marriage and procreation happening in Genesis 6:1-4, this is most likely the “sons of God,” as human persons, availing themselves of the commission in 1:28. The problem lies in whom they married, for the objects of their affection were not followers of God.

If the “sons of God=angels” view is true, consider what that would mean for Genesis 6:4. Angels, who are not made in the image of God, would be engaging in sexual relations with women and fathering children. Doesn’t this very notion, however, go against what we find in Genesis 1 – 5? God made humans in his image, and he made them male and female (1:26-27). An angel cannot choose to incarnate himself, or somehow assume the status of an image-bearer with the ability to procreate. Procreation is something humans do. An angel has no power to reconstitute its essential nature.

“But what about the Nephilim?” you say. “Doesn’t the view that angels intermarried with women best explain the rise of these ambiguous mighty men?” Let’s deal with these figures next.

(4) The Nephilim are not the offspring of the “sons of God” and “daughters of man,” so there is no need to explain the characteristics of the Nephilim with the view that the “sons of God” must have been angels who fathered them. Yes, that’s a long point. But consider this verse carefully:

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 (Gen 6:4).

Did you see what the verse doesn’t say? It never equates the Nephilim with the offspring of the “sons” and “daughters.” This observation is important because some advocates of the angel-view contend that the seemingly-abnormal traits of the Nephilim must be explained by something extraordinary, and what could  be more extraordinary than angels marrying human women?

But the Nephilim (literally “fallen ones”) should probably  be understood as a time-reference that would’ve helped the first readers of Genesis hang their hat on a historical hook. Nothing else is said of the Nephilim, so clearly what the narrator has written would’ve been sufficient for the first readers. He was probably helping his readers answer an implicit question like, “Now when did these marriages take place? Oh, during the era when the mighty men, the Nephilim, were on the earth.”

The characteristics of the Nephilim (“the mighty men who were of old, the men of renown”) may mean something as simple as this: they were ancient and intimidating human warriors. There need be nothing supernatural about them at all, nothing freakish or abnormal that demands an angelic interpretation of the “sons of God.” In any event, I don’t think the identity of the Nephilim is related to, or is meant to help us identify, who the “sons of God” are.

One last word about the Nephilim. In Numbers 13, the spies returned from their forty days of spying the land and reported, “The people who dwell in the land are strong, and the cities are fortified and very large. And besides, we saw the descendants of Anak there” (13:28). That last statement matters because of 13:33: “And there we saw the Nephilim (the sons of Anak, who come from the Nephilim), and we seemed to ourselves like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them.”

Why did the spies report the presence of Nephilim in the land? Because those inhabitants seemed like strong and mighty warriors who intimidated on-lookers as an animal would a grasshopper. In light of all this, I see no reason why the Nephilim must be extraordinary offspring of angels and women.

(5) The literary parallels in Genesis 6:1-4 and 6:5-8 support identifying the disobedient ones in both cases as humans, not angels. There are three important parallels to observe here:

In Genesis 6:1-4

  • There is a report of “seeing” (6:1-2)
  • There is a response and declaration by God (6:3)
  • There is a statement about a person or people (6:4)

Now consider that in Genesis 6:5-8

  • There is a report of “seeing” (6:5)
  • There is a response and declaration by God (6:6-7)
  • There is a statement about a person or people (6:8)

How do these parallels relate to one another? My suggestions are: (1) The sinful marriages undertaken by image-bearers in Genesis 6:1-2 are part of the escalation to the comprehensive and constant wickedness described in 6:5.  And (2) God’s judgment in 6:3 that shortens the lifespan is the first step toward the greater judgment he announces in 6:6-7 about blotting out everything he made. Finally, (3) in contrast to the dark and ominous tone struck in 6:4 by the intimidating Nephilim and the sinful marriages bearing children, Noah is one man in 6:8 who is a glimmer of hope.

In sum, the parallels between Genesis 6:1-4 and 6:5-8 indicate that the two passages should probably be read together. And taken together, 6:1-4 and 6:5-8 relate the sinful actions of humans that provoke the judgment of God.

(6) The actions of the “sons of God” echo the temptation of Eve. The words in Genesis 6:2 are carefully chosen: the sons of God “saw” that the daughters were “good/attractive,” and thus they “took” any they chose. These three words (saw, good, took) reinforce that we should be reading 6:1-4 in light of what has come before. In 3:6 Eve “saw” that the tree was “good” for food, and she “took” of its fruit and ate.

What is the message of Genesis 6:2? The sons of God are image-bearers who are going the way of the first sinner who “saw” what appeared “good” and then “took.” The actions of the sons of God are human actions cast in the mold of the first transgressor.

(7) The early chapters of Genesis show the antiquity of practices and events established later in Israelite life and law, and Genesis 6:1-4 illustrates God’s displeasure with sinful intermarriages. Already in Genesis 1 – 5 we see the precedence of the Sabbath’s importance (2:1-3), of bringing offerings as acts of worship (4:1-7), and of the sanctity and subsequent perversion of marriage (2:22-25; 4:19). All these elements will be very important in and for the life of Israel.

What would Israelites see and learn from Genesis 6:1-4? One lesson would be that disaster has always resulted when faithful image-bearers marry those who do not know God. As the apostle Paul later wrote, “Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness?” (2 Cor 6:14).

TWO BIG OBJECTIONS

Thus stands my case for the “sons of God=the line of Seth” view. The previous seven reasons aren’t exhaustive by any means, but they represent what I think are the best arguments in favor of seeing the “sons of God” as humans in the Sethite lineage.

I’m under no delusion that my view is objection-free. Quite the contrary, two good objections must be answered for the “Sethite lineage” view to withstand effective criticism:

  • (1) Beyond a doubt, the oldest interpretation is that the “sons of God” in Gen 6:1-4 are angels who intermarried and procreated with human women. Why then should we trust an alternative view that does have antiquity in its favor? 
  • (2) Peter and Jude’s letters contain statements that must be seriously addressed. In the view of many scholars, those New Testament writings require that the “sons of God” in Genesis 6:1-4 be angels who rebelled, intermarried with women, and procreated the infamous Nephilim.

Alas, though, this article is long enough. I’ll deal with these two objections in a future post. Until then, are there reasons you would give in the context of Genesis 6 that undermine any of the seven arguments I’ve provided?

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50 Million Murdered in the Wilderness

We have a death problem because we have a sin problem. In the early chapters of Genesis the garden paradise becomes vacant as God expels the image-bearers outside where they will surely die. No matter how hard they work, how much dominion they exercise, or how long their years last, one day the dust would overcome them. And die they did.

But Adam and Eve weren’t the first to die. Their older son Cain killed his younger brother Abel, meaning the first death was a murder. This act sounded an ominous tone for the stories that followed because we see that life outside the garden is characterized by sin, and the sins we are capable of are heinous.

Fast-forward to the Israelites. After generations of death and the spread of sin, the generation freed by the exodus from Egypt heads toward the Promised Land. Then, due to their disbelief in God’s promises and power, he forbids the exodus generation to enter the land. The next generation will still inherit it, but not before a forty-year detour that will bring about the death of their unbelieving ancestors. And die they did.

The wilderness wandering was a period when millions returned to the dust under the judgment of God. His judgment on them lasted not just a week or a month or a year or even a decade. For forty years the Lord kept his word, and then the descendants of the exodus generation inherited the Promised Land.

Now think about another forty-year period. Today, January 22, 2013, is forty years since January 22, 1973, when the Supreme Court rendered its ruling on Roe vs. Wade. These four decades have been a wilderness of our own making, a time when many doctors and patients have usurped the role of God and administered judgment without warrant against innocent life through abortion.

The wilderness wandering in Exodus may have been on the way to the Promised Land, but that’s not where the years of 1973-2013 have been taking us. When the first murder was committed in Genesis 4, God told Cain that Abel’s blood cried out from the ground–a cry for judgment, for vindication.

In forty years the deaths by abortion exceed 50 million babies. We can’t fully imagine the combined cry of 50 million voices. But God is not deaf, and their cries are heard. The murder of God’s image-bearers graphically displays the heinous potentialities of sin.

How long will this wilderness of our own making last? The answer is unknown. How many more deaths will be added to the 50 million slain? We don’t know, but any number is unacceptable.

May God grant Christians courage and wisdom to speak the truth about the injustices committed against unborn image-bearers. The seed of the serpent, like Cain or Pharaoh or Herod, has always shown a blatant disregard for the dignity of tiny lives, so God help the seed of the woman–the Church–to have biblical resolve and a prophetic voice.

The Origin of Species: Plants, Animals, Humans, and Important Distinctions in Genesis 1-2

Humans aren’t animals, animals aren’t plants, and plants aren’t humans. Those (obvious) distinctions are clear in the opening chapters of the Bible, and seeing how phrases like “breath of life” and “image of God” are used can highlight the distinctions made in the text itself.

Ever wondered, like Darwin, about “the origin of species”? Your answer is in the Bible’s first two chapters, and the answer isn’t what he suggested. In Genesis 1–2  plants, animals, and humans are created by God. God creates plants on Day 3 (1:11-12), animals on Day 5 (1:20-21) and Day 6 (1:24-25), and humans on Day 6 (1:26-27). Origin solved.

But more can be said than that.

In Genesis 1:30 God tells the first couple that animals have “the breath of life,” something not attributed to plants. In fact, God says everything that has the breath of life can have every green plant for food! So in whatever ways plants are alive and undergoing complex processes at microscopic levels, this is not the same thing as saying they have the “breath of life” as animals do.

In Genesis 1:26 God makes man and woman in his image, something never said of animals. Also, in 2:7, God forms the man and breathes into him the “breath of life.” The woman, likewise in the image of God (1:26), certainly receives the “breath of life” when God forms her out of what he took from Adam (2:21-22). While animals and humans both have “the breath of life,” only humans are made in God’s image. As God’s image-bearers, humans must exercise dominion over the animals (1:28).

Here’s a bullet-point summary:

  • God Created: Humans, Animals, and Plants
  • God Gave the “Breath of Life” to: Humans and Animals
  • God Made in His Image: Humans

What are some implications of these realities laid out in Genesis 1-2?

  • As those made in God’s image, humans are not animals, nor did they evolve from animals. Macroevolution doesn’t fit with the Bible’s creation account. 
  • As those made in God’s image, humans are more important than animals. Supporting abortion and wanting to save the whales is a theological and philosophical travesty. The tiniest baby in the womb is more valuable than the rarest creature in all the world.

How the Judgments on Adam and Eve Relate to Genesis 1:28

Before the fall in Genesis 3, God gave Adam and Eve a creation mandate:

Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Gen 1:28).

Then, after the fall, God judged Eve (Gen 3:16) and Adam (3:17-19) with language that should be viewed in light of the creation mandate.

  • God said to Eve: “I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children. Your desire shall be for your husband, and shall rule over you” (Gen 3:16)
  • God said to Adam: “…cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Gen 3:17-19)

Let’s note how the judgment language for each one reflects the preceding creation mandate of Genesis 1:28:

  • God told them to be fruitful and multiply (Gen 1:28), but he judged Eve by multiplying pain in such fruitfulness (3:16). She will indeed begin to fill the earth (1:28), but it will be in pain (3:16). She should exercise dominion over creation (1:28), but her judgment includes the desire to rule over her husband, to exercise dominion that undermines his headship (3:16). 
  • God told them to subdue the earth (Gen 1:28), but he told Adam the ground is now cursed and gleaning its fruit will mean pain for him (3:17).  The exercise of dominion (1:28) will now be toilsome and wearisome (3:18-19). And though he may work to subdue the earth (1:28), in the end he will succumb to the dust in death (3:19).

Clearly, therefore, the language spoken to the man and woman in Genesis 3:16-19 is not without precedent. God issued the creation mandate in 1:28 before the fall, and the later punishments in 3:16-19 did not rescind that mandate. Rather, they ensured that the mandate would now be accomplished through difficulty, frustration, toil, and pain.

In summary, to understand why God judged Adam and Eve the way he did with the language he used, we must first consider the creation mandate in Genesis 1:28. The punishments become inseparably linked to that divine command to be fruitful and multiply and subdue the earth.