The “Sons of God” in Genesis 6

  Gen. 6:4 “There were giants in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare children to them, the same became mighty men which were of old, men of renown.” What is the meaning of the phrase “the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men?” There are a number of interpretations of this passage. Is this referring to the “godly” seed intermingling with the “ungodly?” Or are these angels and human beings producing children through sexual relations? We will examine the arguments on either side of the controversy through a number of quotes by Bible scholars and commentators. In my opinion, Philip H. Eveson, writing in the Welwyn Commentary Series gives perhaps the clearest and best presented overview on this controversy. Therefore, I will apologize up front for the lengthy quotation we give from him. As you read what Eveson has to say, I believe you will forgive me for the prolix article I quote. We propose to list several individuals who believe this is speaking of fallen angels and then show a few men who believe it is speaking of the godly and ungodly intermarrying. We will then consider Eveson’s comments, and finally conclude with an attempt to justify our position.

Don Fleming claims that “It seems that certain angels had, in rebellion against God, taken human form and co-operated with ambitious people in trying to produce a race of ‘super-humans’ who would be unconquerable and immortal.” Courson concurs, stating,

The phrase “sons of God” is benai elohim. Every time “benai elohim” appears in the Old Testament, it is in reference to angels. Angels are divided into two groups: the exalted angels around the throne of God who do the work of the Lord, and fallen angels, or demons. Lucifer was an exalted angel who led a rebellion against the Lord in heaven. When he fell and became the devil, Revelation tells us one-third of the angelic host joined his rebellion and became demons. I believe it is to these demons that Gen. 6:4 refers. Some of these demons, evidently, had sexual relations with human women, resulting in nephalim—giants, legendary men, men of renown. That is why every culture contains stories of giants similar to those found in Greek mythology and Roman folklore.

Note Courson’s mention of Greek mythology. We will address that later. Courson returns to Biblical arguments, as he continues, saying,

The best explanation for these nephalim, however, isn’t found in mythology or folklore, but in the Word. We know that certain demons are held in prison (1 Pet. 3:19) because their deeds were so diabolically dark. I believe the demons who “left their own habitation” (Jude 6), are the “benai elohim” through whom Satan futilely attempted to pollute the seed of woman to such a degree that the promise of Gen. 3:15 would be thwarted.

J. Vernon McGee, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, says,

I recognize, and I want to insist upon it, that many fine expositors take the opposite view that the sons of God are actually angels. If you accept that view, you will be in good company, but I am sure that most of you want to be right and will want to go along with me.

Also taking the position these were not fallen angels, Kenneth O. Gangel and Stephen J. Bramer write, in Holman Old Testament Commentary,

This material on the Nephilim has been taken as either descriptive of the descendants of this mixed union or as an indication of time. Nephilim (literally, “fallen ones) is used later in Num. 13:31-33 to describe a people of great size and strength. In men’s eyes in the preflood era, these were heroes of old, men of renown (military leaders with wealth or power). But they were not godly people, since they were destroyed in the flood. Since Nephilim are mentioned after the flood, it does not appear that they are the offspring of a certain type of marriage. It seems best to take this reference as an indication that the 120 years started at the time of the rule of the Nephilim.

Concurring, Adam Clarke states,

The Septuagint translate the original word by γιγαντες, which literally signifies earth-born, and which we, following them, term giants, without having any reference to the meaning of the word, which we generally conceive to signify persons of enormous stature. But the word when properly understood makes a very just distinction between the sons of men and the sons of God; those were the nephilim, the fallen earth-born men, with the animal and devilish mind. These were the sons of God, who were born from above; children of the kingdom, because children of God. Hence we may suppose originated the different appellatives given to sinners and saints; the former were termed γιγαντες, earth-born, and the latter, ἁγιοι, i.e. saints, persons not of the earth, or separated from the earth.

J. Vernon McGee says,

As I see it, Genesis is a book of genealogies – it is a book of the families. The sons of God are the godly line who have come down from Adam through Seth, and the daughters of men belong to the line of Cain. What you have here now is an intermingling and intermarriage of these two lines, until finally the entire line is totally corrupted (well, not totally; there is one exception).

Warren Wiersbe is also among those who understand this passage to not be referring to angelic beings. He comments,

Some interpreters view Gen. 6:1-7 as an invasion of fallen angels who cohabited with women and produced a race of giants. But as interesting as the theory is, it creates more problems than it solves, not the least of which is the union of sexless spirit beings with flesh and blood humans. Even if such unions did occur, could there be offspring and why would they be giants? And how did these “giants” (Nephilim, “fallen ones”) survive the Flood (v. 4; Num. 13:31-33), or was there a second invasion of fallen angels after the Flood?

The term “sons of God” does refer to angels in Job 1:6; 2:1; 38:7; but these are unfallen angels faithfully serving God. Even if fallen angels could make themselves appear in human bodies, why would they want to marry women and settle down on earth? Certainly their wives and neighbors would detect something different about them and this would create problems. Furthermore, the emphasis in Gen. 6 is on the sin of man and not the rebellion of angels. The word “man” is used nine times in verses 1-7, and God states clearly that the judgment was coming because of what humans had done. “And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth” (v. 5).

McGee adds,

It says, “There were giants in the earth in those days,” but it does not say they are the offspring of the sons of God and the daughters of men. It does say this about the offspring: “the same became mighty men which were of old, men of renown.” These were not monstrosities; they were men. The record here makes it very clear that the giants were in the earth before this took place, and it simply means that these offspring were outstanding individuals.

Commenting on 2 Pet. 2:4, McGee says,

Many commentators feel that this refers to the events of Gen. 6. I do not agree, because I do not believe that the “sons of God” mentioned there were angels. Genesis talks about the genealogy of man. It concerns that family which was leading to the coming of Christ, which would bring Him into the world. That line intermarried with the world, with the line of Cain, and brought about a generation who were so sinful that God finally brought the Flood upon them. That is what Gen. 6 is all about, and I do not think this verse here in 2 Peter has any reference to that at all.

One of the great warnings found repeated throughout the Word of God has been the danger of compromise with the world (Gen. 24:3; 1 Kings 11:1-2, 4; 2 Cor. 6:14). Wiersbe says,

What was Satan’s plan for defeating God’s people in Noah’s day? To entice the godly line of Seth (“the sons of God”) to mix with the ungodly line of Cain (‘the daughters of men’) and thus abandon their devotion to the Lord. It was the same temptation that Christians face today: be friendly with the world (James 4:4), love the world (1 John 2:15-17), and conform to the world (Rom. 12:2), rather than be separated from the world (2 Cor. 6:14-7:1).

Finally, we come to the long awaited quote I promised. Philip H. Eveson, writing in the Welwyn Commentary Series, asks “Who were ‘the sons of God’?” He continues,

Most scholars would agree that this is one of the most difficult passages of the Old Testament to interpret. The main problem revolves around the identification of the ‘sons of God’. Does the term refer to angels, to the godly line of Seth, or to rulers? We shall consider the various options before taking a fresh look at the evidence. What does the phrase mean?

1. Angels

This is an ancient interpretation. The phrase ‘sons of God’ is a recognized way of referring to supernatural beings (Job 1:6; 38:7). On this understanding, they were angelic beings who had in some way contracted unions with the daughters of human beings. 2 Pet. 2:4 and Jude 6 are said to support this view. While liberal scholars have accepted it as a clear example of myth in Genesis, many evangelicals have rejected it on the authority of Jesus’ words that angels are sexless creatures who neither marry nor are given in marriage (Matt. 22:30).

2. Rulers

Some of the old Jewish Aramaic paraphrases, the Targums, understand elohim (God or gods) in the sense of judges or rulers (see Ex. 21:6; Ps. 82:1, 6). Thus ‘sons of the elohim’‘ would be high-ranking men or princes who obtained wives. This interpretation has been revived and associated with ancient Near-Eastern views on divine kingship and royal harems. The main objection is that, although rulers are sometimes called ‘gods’, they are not referred to in the plural as ‘sons of God’.

3. The line of Seth

Ancient and modern Christian expositors have understood the phrase to mean men of the godly line of Seth. The verse, ‘You are the children [literally ‘sons’] of the Lord your God’ (Deut. 14:1), supports taking ‘sons of God’ as referring to the chosen line of Seth. ‘Daughters of men’ are then said to be women of the line of Cain. There is thus a breakdown in the separation between the godly and the ungodly. The law of Moses warns Israel against mixed marriages (Deut. 7:3). This view falters in that the exact phrase ‘sons of God’ is not used in Hebrew for godly humans. It is also not at all clear that the expression ‘daughters of men’ refers to women of Cain’s line.

4. Rulers possessed by angelic beings

It is possible that a combination of these views is the right one. Did fallen angels possess the bodies of human rulers? In the ancient pagan world kings were regarded as offspring of the gods and called ‘sons of the gods’. Supernatural evil powers could well have been in league with those who exercised authority in those days. We know from Dan. 10:13 and 20 that powerful spirit beings (‘princes’) are at work behind the world rulers. Eph. 6:12 reminds us that ‘We do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers….’ On this understanding, the reason for the awful judgment becomes obvious. Evil spirits were overstepping their boundaries and human beings were seeking in their own way to become divine. The words ‘saw’, ‘beautiful’ (literally ‘good’) and ‘took’ (6:2) echo 3:6 and suggest that these beings were transgressing as Eve had done in eating the forbidden fruit. As Adam acquiesced in his wife’s sin, so the daughters and their parents were party to these sinful unions. The descendants of Seth of whom we read in chapter 5 were as much involved in this as the line of Cain in chapter 4. Human wickedness had taken a new turn for the worse. They had opened themselves to demon possession.

The mention of ‘giants’ (Nephilim) who were ‘mighty men’ and ‘men of renown’ (6:4) has been used to add support to this view that unnatural unions existed among the rulers of the day. The Greek term from which the English word ‘giant’ comes is used to describe those produced by the union of the gods with humans. By adding ‘also afterwards’ to ‘in those days’, Moses reminds us that there were similar giants around after the Flood. They appear in the report given by the spies (Num. 13:33). That demon-possessed rulers should produce unusual offspring would be consistent with known examples in more recent times of people who have dabbled in this forbidden realm. With the resurgence of paganism in Western society and the widespread use of drugs, those already in the kingdom of Satan are increasingly opening themselves to the influence of evil spirits. This understanding of the passage should be treated seriously and not lightly dismissed.

5. An alternative understanding of the passage

It is impossible to be dogmatic, but a further look at the evidence suggests another option. These verses, it must be remembered, do not begin a new section. The passage should be interpreted in the light of what has immediately preceded it. Despite the great rebellion, the command to ‘be fruitful and multiply’ (1:28) was not rescinded. Chapter 5 has emphasized how human beings were multiplying on the earth. This new paragraph takes up this point with the words: ‘Now it came to pass when men began to multiply on the face of the earth… ‘ (6:1). It also draws our attention to the fact that ‘Daughters were born to them.’ This again links up with the previous chapter where we have the constant refrain concerning the birth of ‘sons and daughters’ (5:4, 7, 10, etc.). Cain’s genealogy makes no mention of daughters. The first verse of chapter 6 may thus be summarizing what has been presented in chapter 5, just as 2:1 summarizes Gen. 1. In fact, the next verse could also be part of the summary. ‘Sons of God’ (6:2) is a succinct way of describing those created in the image of God. We saw how Gen. 5:1-3 points to God as the Father of humanity, and particularly of those who belong to the chosen line. Verse 2 may be saying no more than that the descendants of Adam, the offspring of God, especially this special line through Seth, were fulfilling the command to marry and have children. As today, the men were interested in beautiful women and they chose those whom they liked. Genesis often draws attention to a woman’s good looks (12:11, 14; 24:16; 29:17). The phrase ‘took wives for themselves’ is the normal way of referring to marriage (4:19; 11:29; 12:19; 25:1). In describing the events prior to the Flood, our Lord does not mention anything out of the ordinary. It was precisely the ordinariness of the activities that is highlighted: ‘For as in the days before the flood, they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noah entered the ark, and did not know until the flood came and took them all away…’ (Matt. 24:38-39). Life at that time went on normally, ‘but in arrogant independence of God’.

The statement that ‘They bore children to them’ (6:4), completes the picture that in those days, despite God’s curse, couples were very fertile. God blessed them with many children. These children grew to become the famous and valiant men of that period. Other ancient Near-Eastern documents bear witness to people of great reputation and influence on the earth prior to the Flood. The reference to the giants (the Nephilim) on the earth may be no more than an indication of time. There are a number of asides in the writings of Moses and this may well be one of them (see Deut. 2:10-12, 20-23; 3:11, 13-14). It would mean that the beginning of verse 4 should be in brackets: ‘(There were giants in those days, and also afterwards.)’ The text does not actually state that the giants were the fruit of the union between the sons of God and the daughters of men. As there were giants in Moses’ day, so there were people of great stature around in the period before the Flood. Neither does it follow that ‘Those were the mighty men… ‘ alludes to the giants. The word ‘those’ most naturally refers to the offspring in the immediately preceding sentence.

My position is that the “sons of God” were the godly seed … not fallen angels. This seems to me, the common sense approach, as we compare Scripture with Scripture. My conclusion is based, first of all, on several passages that record the teaching of Christ Himself. Jesus said “For in the resurrection they neither marry, nor are given in marriage, but are as the angels of God in heaven” (Matt. 22:30; Mark 12:25). It seems clear enough to me that Jesus taught angels do not marry. In Luke 20:34-36 we read “… The children of this world marry, and are given in marriage: But they which shall be accounted worthy to obtain that world, and the resurrection from the dead, neither marry, nor are given in marriage: Neither can they die any more: for they are equal unto the angels; and are the children of God, being the children of the resurrection.” Here again, Jesus says the angels do not marry. Also, being “equal unto the angels” means we will not die. If the “sons of God” in Gen. 6 were in fact angels, are they still alive? If these were angels, who had sexual relations with human beings and produced children, could that happen again in our day? If not, what Scriptural evidence would be given to support that answer. Another question that I believe begs an answer is, “If these were angels (demons), would their children have the ability to be redeemed?” And finally, if such a remarkable thing actually took place (angels and humans producing children), is it also possible that centaurs are not mythical after all?

 

REFERENCES

Clarke, Adam, Adam Clarke’s Commentary, (New York: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1826), WORDsearch CROSS e-book.

 

Courson, Jon, Jon Courson’s Application Commentary – Jon Courson’s Application Commentary Old Testament Volume 1, (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2005), WORDsearch CROSS e-book.

 

Eveson, Philip, Welwyn Commentary Series – The book of origins: Genesis simply explained, (Auburn, MA: Evangelical Press, 2001), WORDsearch CROSS e-book.

 

Fleming, Don, Concise Bible Commentary, (Chattanooga, TN: AMG Publishers, 1994), WORDsearch CROSS e-book.

 

Gangel Kenneth, and Stephen J. Bramer, Holman Old Testament Commentary – Genesis, ed. Max Anders (Nashville, TN: Broadman Holman, 2003), WORDsearch CROSS e-book.

 

McGee, J. Vernon, Thru The Bible with J. Vernon McGee, (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1983), WORDsearch CROSS e-book.

 

Wiersbe, Warren, The Bible Exposition Commentary – Pentateuch, (Colorado Springs, CO: Victor, 2001), WORDsearch CROSS e-book.

 

 

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  • Daniel Grotte

    I appreciate your answer to Genesis 6. Thank you.