Looking at Genesis 6:1-4
I must confess that I have an interest in somewhat obscure and difficult to understand portions of the Bible. The Scriptures are a treasure trove of knowledge for us. We gain knowledge about God. We learn of His dealings with mankind over the centuries. More importantly for us, as the Apostle wrote, the Scriptures are able to make us “wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” (2 Tim. 3:15) But in the midst of this wonder book of God’s revelation, there are passages that are harder to interpret and that cause us some difficulties in understanding their meanings.
To me, one of these fascinating but difficult passages of scripture is the pre-flood account of the ‘sons of God’ related in Genesis 6:1-4. To many, this is an obscure portion of Scripture that they pass over quickly in proceeding to the flood story. But, to many others, this passage holds a great interest. If you do an internet search with the relevant keywords of this passage, you will find much discussion and even several books that have been written on the topic.
I will give the passage in the Kings James Version for reasons that I will explain later:
And it came to pass, when men began to multiply on the face of the earth, and daughters were born unto them, that the sons of God saw the daughters of men that they were fair; and they took them wives of all which they chose. 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. 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. (Gen 6:1-4 KJV)
Chief among the interpretive challenges of this passage is the identification of the ‘sons of God’ mentioned here who take wives of the ‘daughters of men.’ These marriages resulted in the birth of those referred to as, “mighty men” and “men of renown.” Also of note—and the reason why I chose the King James Version—is the mention of “giants in the earth.” The word “giants” does not appear in the vast majority of our modern translations who substitute a transliteration of the actual Hebrew word, Nephilim.
There are several things to investigate in this passage:
(1) Who were the ‘Sons of God’ and the ‘daughters of men?’
(2) Who were the Nephilim?
(3) Is there a connection between the Nephilim and giants spoken of in the Bible?
I will deal with the first question in Part One of this study and reserve the other two for the conclusion.
Who were the ‘Sons of God’ and the ‘daughters of men?’
It is appropriate that we examine this question first. It is the first challenge for interpreting the passage. The actions of the ‘sons of God’ appear to be the occasion for God’s statement of judgment. Over the centuries, there have been different answers offered to solve the identity of the participants in the marriages that resulted in judgment.
Fallen Angels and Human Offspring
The oldest traditional identification of the ‘sons of God’ is that they were angels who cohabitated with human women to produce offspring. This viewpoint has its origin in Jewish tradition from as early as the second century BC where it was advocated in the book of 1 Enoch.
In those days, when the children of man had multiplied, it happened that there were born unto them handsome and beautiful daughters. And the angels, the children of heaven, saw them and desired them; and they said to one another, “Come, let us choose wives for ourselves from among the daughters of man and beget us children.” (1 Enoch 6:2) 1
1 Enoch was not written by the biblical character Enoch but is from a collection of books that scholars call “pseudepigrapha.” 2 The book of Enoch bears the name of the ancient godly man but was written sometime in the second century BC. It is not canonical, meaning that it is not inspired Scripture. Its value is that it reflects ideas and traditions that existed among the Jews of that period.
It is likely that the interpretation that the ‘sons of God’ were angels goes back to at least the third century BC. Some manuscripts of the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, have the reading “angels of God” instead of “sons of God” in Genesis 6:2. 3
Several early Christian writers held to this position (Justin, Irenaeus, Ps.-Clement, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian). Many liberal/critical commentators in the modern day have adopted this view but see it as a mythological story from an earlier polytheistic era. 4,5 It must be remembered that in liberal scholarship, the Jewish belief in a single God is believed to have evolved from the surrounding paganism rather than paganism having come from a rebellion against God, as the Bible attests.
In summary, the view that the ‘sons of God’ of Genesis 6 were angels who took human women has an ancient pedigree.
Men from the Genealogical Line of Seth
Another popular interpretation is that ‘sons of God’ were the descendants of the righteous line of Adam’s son Seth while the ‘daughters of men’ came from the wicked line of Cain. Several of the church fathers and many of the Reformers held to this viewpoint (Julius Africanus, John Chrysostom, Augustine, John Calvin, Martin Luther).
An example comes from John Calvin:
It was, therefore, base ingratitude in the posterity of Seth, to mingle themselves with the children of Cain, and with other profane races; because they voluntarily deprived themselves of the inestimable grace of God. 6
Calvin thought the fallen angel viewpoint so difficult to believe that he would not even try to refute it. He was unsparing in his criticism.
That ancient figment, concerning the intercourse of angels with women, is abundantly refuted by its own absurdity; and it is surprising that learned men should formerly have been fascinated by ravings so gross and prodigious. 7
Even today, commentators are divided between these two opinions. Kenneth Mathews, in his excellent commentary on Genesis, wrote favorably of this interpretation.
Although this view has its share of difficulties, we find that it is the most attractive. 7
Human Judges or Rulers
Later Jewish interpreters viewed the ‘sons of God’ as human judges or rulers. This distinction between the two parties was a social one depicting the marriage of rulers and princes with commoners. Lately, a revision of this view depicts the ‘sons of God’ as human kings who terrorized the population and practiced polygamy. 9
Evaluation of Historic Interpretations
I will deal with the last option first. In no place in the Old Testament is the plural term, ‘sons of God,’ applied to human rulers. Literature from other ancient near eastern societies sometimes referred to their kings in this way but it was probably for the purpose of establishing a divine right to rule. Such a concept would have been avoided by biblical writers. Also, there is no evidence in near eastern tradition of a wicked kingship that resulted in punishment by a universal flood. 10
The view that the ’sons of God’ were the righteous line of Seth intermarrying with the sinful line of Cain has been very popular over the centuries because it eliminates the thorny issue of angels procreating with humans. It received its first known promotion by Julius Africanus who lived about AD 160-240. Augustine followed in the fifth century with the same viewpoint in Book XV of the City of God. This led to the general rejection of the angel-humans option by most early commentators. 11
In favor of this interpretation is that Genesis 4-5 contrast the respective lines of Cain and Seth. It has also been argued that in ‘sons of God,’ the word for God (Elohim) is a genitive of quality describing those descendants (i.e., “godly sons”) 12
In the taking of wives of “of all which they chose,” it is argued, the godly line of Seth moved beyond the bounds God had set for them and intermarried with the ungodly. In joining with the descendants of Cain, “the Sethites, too, became so badly contaminated that the existing world order [had to be] definitely terminated. 13
For all its advantages, the Seth-Cain view is not without considerable difficulties. For one, in writing Genesis 6:1 of men multiplying upon the earth, Moses uses the generic Hebrew word for mankind, adam. He uses the term again in v. 2 in speaking of the ‘daughters of men’ that the ‘sons of God’ marry. Then again, in v. 3, God speaks of His spirit not striving with mankind (adam) forever. There is no reason to suspect that the word adam is used only for the line of Cain in v. 2 and then used for all of mankind in verses 1 and 3.
The interpretation that the ‘sons of God’ were angels has much stronger biblical support. In every place where the term appears, it refers to supernatural beings (Job 1:6, 2:1, 38:8).14 As was noted before, this is the earliest known interpretation, appearing in the third century BC and possibly earlier. These two factors are the strongest arguments in favor of this viewpoint.
Also, there exists in the legends of ancient peoples stories of supernatural beings proposing marriage or having sexual relations with mortals (Greek mythology, Epic of Gilgamesh, etc.). It is thus probable that the true happenings recorded in Genesis were adapted by pagan peoples to form these legends.15
New Testament References
There is New Testament support for seeing ‘sons of God’ as angels. In 2 Peter 2:4, Peter speaks of angels who sinned and were cast into Tartarus,16 being held in chains of darkness to be reserved for judgment.
An almost identical statement appears in Jude 6:
And the angels who did not stay within their own position of authority, but left their proper dwelling, he has kept in eternal chains under gloomy darkness until the judgment of the great day (Jude 6)
Jude continued in v. 7 to speak of the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah. He writes that they “likewise indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural desire.”
The passage clearly shows that the sins of these angels were of the same nature as the sexual immorality of Sodom and Gomorrah.
This strong scriptural support is not without its detractors. It is pointed out that, with the exception of the cherubim guarding the Tree of Life in Genesis 3:24, no angel was shown in Scripture before Genesis 6. It is also argued that the flood judgment was against man with no indication in the Genesis account that angels were punished or held to be culpable.
Probably the strongest argument against the angelic viewpoint is that there is no biblical evidence for angels having the ability to procreate with humans or otherwise. Objectors point to Jesus’ statement in Matthew 22:30
For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. (Matt 22:30)
They would point out that Jesus’ words show something very different from the pagan conception of celestial beings procreating with humans.16
These objections are not insignificant and although it is argued from Jesus’ words in Matthew 22:30 that angels cannot procreate, it reads too much into the passage. Jesus was not speaking about procreation but about relationships between men and women in the eternal state. The old order of husband and wife would not exist in that future existence.
Jesus spoke of “angels in heaven” not cohabitating but this says nothing about the actions of fallen angels with depraved and rebellious humans. As Richard Wolff said, “the angels in heaven neither marry or are given in marriage, but this does not automatically exclude the possibility of unnatural relationships of fallen angels.”18
It is true that Genesis says nothing about punishment of angels but this was an account written for men. 2 Peter 2:4 and Jude 6 seem to provide the missing information that the angels were and are being punished for their transgressions.
The identity of the ‘sons of God’ in Genesis 6:1-4 is one of those issues for which it is impossible to be overly dogmatic and we should never let it divide us. However, as difficult as it may be for us to understand, the biblical evidence favors the identity of the ‘sons of God’ as being angels who sinned in taking human wives. These actions spoke to the general corruption of humankind at that time to which God responded with the punishment of the flood.
In part two of this article, I will deal with the Nephilim and their relationship to the mention of giants in the Bible.
1 1 Enoch 6:1-2, (1983) The Old Testament Pseudipigrapha, Vol 1, ed. by James H. Charlesworth (p 15)
2 The term Pseudepigrapha refers to anonymous works written under the name of a biblical heroes long after that hero lived. These writings appeared in Judea between the Second Century BC and the Second Century AD.
3 Mathews, Kenneth A, (1996) Genesis 1-11:26, (p. 327), Nashville, Broadman & Holman.
4 Huey, F. B. Jr, The Sons of God, The Genesis Debate (1986), ed. by Ronald F. Youngblood, (p. 185), Grand Rapids, Baker.
5 Speiser, E. A., Genesis, (1964) The Anchor Bible, (p. 45-46), Garden City, Doubleday. Speiser notes the similarity between this account and the Greek mythological tales of battles between the gods. Uranus was defeated by his son Cronus which, in turn, was beaten by his son, Zeus. Zeus then battled a group of giants known as the Titans. He speculates that the Genesis and Greek accounts had their basis in a Hurrian mythological tale from the second millennium BC.
6 Calvin, John, The Book of Genesis (2005), (p. I:238), Grand Rapids, Baker.
8 Mathews, op. cit., p. 329.
9 Huey, op. cit., p. 185.
10 ibid., pp. 195-196.
11 ibid., p. 190.
12 Mathews, op. cit., pp. 329-33.
13 Leupold, H. C., Exposition of Genesis (1942), (p. 249), Grand Rapids, Baker.
14 Huey, op. cit., pp 193-194.
15 Mathews, op. cit., pp 325-326.
16 The Greeks believed that Tartarus was the lowest part of the underworld where divine punishment was meted out. The giant Titans were in Tartarus, according to Greek mythology.
17 Mathew, op. cit., pp. 326-327.
18 Wolff, Richard, quoted in Huey, op. cit., pp. 199-200.
All Scriptures are from the English Standard Version
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