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

  1. I have long embraced the view you advocate here, but I thought that you were going to take the opposite view, so I began to consider whether or not I was simply taking the view that is most convenient to my pre-existing understanding of angels. Therefore, I tried to study up on the “sons of God= angels” view, and approached the sermon with a somewhat open-mind; indeed, I had become more than half-convinced that the “sons of God” are angels, but I found your arguments here concerning the “sons of God” to be thoroughly convincing.

  2. On the other hand, I honestly don’t find your argument concerning the Nephilim to be nearly as convincing. I certainly agree that, “[there is] no reason why the Nephilim must be extraordinary offspring of angels and women.” However, I don’t see at all how the mention of Nephilim could be a simple time-reference that would be more helpful to the original readers than the surrounding genealogies. Indeed, given the reference to the Nephilim in Numbers 13, I hardly see how the Nephilim *could* refer to a specific time. If the Nephilim do not provide a clear time-reference, then the way the phrases are positioned in 6:4 hardly make any sense *unless* they are referring to the Nephilim as the offspring of the other groups that are mentioned.

    But that is not all. Based on the established pattern in Genesis, when someone is said to bear children, it would seem that the identity of those children would be mentioned.

    I would ask you to consider whether, having heard that the explanation for the Nephilim being “mighty men” was due to their demi-demonic origin, and having rejected the idea that the “sons of God” are demons, if you might not have unnecessarily rejected the idea that the Nephilim are the offspring of the “sons of God” and the “daughters of men.”

    As to the proper explanation of the reason for the Nephilim being “mighty men:”
    1. I see no reason why the “sons of God” = angels idea would necessarily provide any explanatory power for this connection; why would being parented by a spiritual being provide a person with physical prowess?
    2. On the other hand, if we do take these “men of renown” to be the offspring of the other mentioned groups, then we do have a readily apparent explanation for their ‘might.’ Notice the phrases, “the sons of God saw the daughters of Man– that they were good” and “they took wives for themselves from any that they chose.” “Good” in the first phrase is the common Hebrew word for “good.” The translations usually render the word “beautiful” or “fair,” but this seems to be an interpretive choice, to explain the sense in which the “sons of God” could ‘see’ that the “daughters of Man” were “good.” But the phrase is similar to the one used in Genesis 1, when God looks at His creation and sees that it is good. Certainly, creation was “beautiful,” but I’m quite sure that it had some other “good” qualities as well. My point is: these “sons of God” were selecting out the cream of the crop– physically speaking– among the “daughters of Man.” It would make sense, then, that the offspring of such unions may tend to be “mighty men:” “men of renown.”

    • Excellent thoughts, Andrew! I enjoyed reading your challenge, and I’m very open to reevaluating my Nephilim argument. My main concern in writing it was to show that a “sons of God=angels” view isn’t required to explain some supposed supernormal physical prowess. And if my argument does at least that, I’m happy. ;)

      Seriously, though, I could certainly be overreacting to one view and thus not able to see the textual merit of seeing the Nephilim as the children of those intermarriages.

  3. You may have already seen this, but it was interesting to me that Aquinas’ discussion of angels in the Summa Theologica includes a discussion of Genesis 6:4, in which his reply consists of the following quote from Augustine’s City of God:

    “Hence by the sons of God are to be understood the sons of Seth, who were good; while by the daughters of men the Scripture designates those who sprang from the race of Cain. Nor is it to be wondered at that giants should be born of them; for they were not all giants, albeit there were many more before than after the deluge.”

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