Who Are the “Sons of God” in Genesis 6:2?

Herbert Wolf
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As part of the sin and corruption that led to the Noahic flood, Genesis 6:14 refers to the marriages between the sons of God and the daughters of men. It is clear that these relationships were highly displeasing to the Lord, but controversy surrounds the identification of “the sons of God.” Are we to understand by this a kind of invasion of earth by angels, or is it a case of mixed marriages between believers and unbelievers or perhaps an escalation of the polygamy begun in Genesis 4:19? Each of these views has strong adherents.

The Angel Interpretation

One of the oldest views identifies the “sons of God” with fallen angels who lusted after beautiful women and cohabited with them. This interpretation is found in the book of Enoch, a pseudepigraphal work probably written in the centuries just before the birth of Christ.45 Another work from the same period is “The Genesis Apocryphon,” an Aramaic midrash discovered among the Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran. In column II, Noah’s father, Lamech, suspects that his wife was impregnated by an angel, a heavenly “Watcher,” and has to be convinced to the contrary.[1] Philo, Josephus, and a number of the church Fathers also subscribed to this view.

Perhaps the strongest argument for the angel hypothesis is that the expression benê ‘elo ̄hîm (“the sons of God”) refers exclusively to angels in the Old Testament, although it appears elsewhere only in Job (1:6; 2:1; 38:7). In the first two instances, however, Satan comes with “the sons of God” to present his case against Job, so the connection with fallen angels is apparent—”sons of God” means “supernatural ones,” just as “sons of the prophets” means “members of the prophetic guild,” not literal sons of recognized prophets (cf. 1 Sam. 10:5; 1 Kings 20:35). In the New Testament, the “sons of God” are individual believers (cf. 1 John 3:1–2), but this is quite different from the Old Testament meaning. Likewise, the contrast in Genesis 6:2 between “the sons of God” and “the daughters of men” points to two spheres—one heavenly and the other earthly.

Although angels are normally portrayed as spiritual beings, when they do appear on earth they are consistently called men (cf. Dan. 10:5, 16). The angels entertained by Abraham looked like men and ate a sumptuous meal hastily prepared by Sarah and the servants (Gen. 18:1–8). In the next chapter, two of the men are called “angels” (mal’a ̄kîm) as they entered Sodom to warn Lot of the imminent destruction coming upon the cities of the plain (Gen. 19:1). Ironically, the two angels became targets of the sexually depraved men of Sodom. In Numbers 22:22 the angel of the Lord, holding a drawn sword, stood in Balaam’s path, and Joshua bowed before a similarly armed man identified as commander of the Lord’s army ( Josh. 5:13–15). If this “male” orientation also applies to fallen angels, we could compare their lust for human flesh to the desire of demons for a body in the New Testament.

A final argument supporting the identification of the sons of God with angels comes from the New Testament. In 2 Peter 2:4–6 the apostle refers in successive verses to the sins of angels, the Noahic flood, and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Since two of the three events are found in Genesis, the third may be also, and 6:1–4 is the only possible reference. The book of Jude places the sin of angels in juxtaposition to the sexual immorality of Sodom and Gomorrah (vv. 6–7), with the implication that the angels may have been guilty of a sexual offense also. If angels were indeed involved on earth with women, the grossness of this sin could provide another reason for the flood. Something terrible must have been happening for God to take such drastic action against mankind.

In spite of the advantages of the angel hypothesis, it does face some serious objections. In the gospels, Christ states that after the resurrection people will not marry but will be like the angels in heaven (Matt. 22:30; Mark 12:25; Luke 20:34–36). This implies that angels never did and never will marry, so how could they be involved in the marriages of Genesis 6:2? In response one might argue that perhaps God did allow angels to marry at one time, but it clearly was impossible after the flood.

A second major objection has to do with the absence of other references to angels anywhere else in Genesis 1–11. And why use the more obscure “sons of God” rather than the common mal’a ̄ k, the word for “angel” or “messenger” found in Genesis 19:1 and in each of the passages where “the angel of the Lord” (Gen. 16:7, 9, 11; 22:11, 15) or “the angel of God” (Gen. 21:47; 31:11) appears? Moreover, if angels were as guilty as men in adding to sin and corruption on earth, why is there no reference to the judgment of angels anywhere in the chapter? Yet Victor Hamilton has pointed out that the punishment is not directly aligned with the criminals, for the animals and birds perished even though the sin belonged to mankind (Gen. 6:5–7).[2]

The Godly-Line-of-Seth Interpretation

The view that probably is preferred by most evangelicals today understands “the sons of God” to be a reference to descendants of the godly man Seth. Turning their backs on their godly heritage, these men intermarried with unbelieving women from the line of Cain and produced offspring renowned for their wickedness. With the spiritual collapse of the descendants of Seth, God pronounced judgment upon mankind in toto and sent a flood to wipe them off the face of the earth.

This view has in its favor its agreement with the strong polemic in Genesis against intermarriage with unbelievers. Whether we look at Abraham’s instruction to his servant not to get a wife for Isaac “from the daughters of the Canaanites” (Gen. 24:3) or at Rebekah’s distress over Esau’s Hittite wives (26:34–35; 27:46), the message is the same: do not intermarry with pagan neighbors. Jacob had to flee for his life after he deceived Isaac, but his stay in Paddan-Aram resulted in his marriage to Leah and Rachel, relatives of Abraham. Thus, if the sin of Genesis 6:2 was intermarriage, it would fit in nicely with the overall teaching of the book.

A second line of argument focuses on the use of “sons” to refer to human beings. Usually the context in which “sons” appears is talking about the children of Israel or God’s chosen people (Deut. 14:1; 32:5; Isa. 43:6), even though their behavior often left much to be desired. But Hosea 1:10 looks forward to the day when the rebellious Israelites “will be called ‘sons of the living God.’ ” The complete phrase “sons of God” is never applied to men, but Adam is called “the son of God” in the genealogy of Christ (Luke 3:38). Since Genesis 5 presents the genealogy of man from Adam to Noah and since it specifies that Adam was made “in the likeness of God” (v. 1), perhaps Genesis 6:2 employs the phrase “sons of God” with reference to the godly line of Seth that takes up the rest of Genesis 5. If that is true, “the daughters of men” would refer to the descendants of Cain, whose lineage was famous for its cultural achievements but not for its godliness (Gen. 4:17–24). The offspring of these marriages unfortunately behaved more like Cain than Seth and accelerated the evil inclinations of mankind. And it was man’s wickedness—not the activity of fallen angels—that is singled out in Genesis 6:5.

Whereas the Seth hypothesis has some important advantages, it too encounters some major problems. Perhaps the most serious is the identification of “the daughters of men” with “the daughters of Cain.” What evidence can prove that all the daughters of Cain were wicked and all the sons of Seth were godly? Were their respective lines kept completely separate and were they uniformly good or evil? Because of the flood being prepared by God, the inference is that by this time many of the descendants of Seth were also wicked. If so, why would they be called “the sons of God,” that is, “godly sons”? The main contrast in the two phrases is between “God” and “men” (‘a ̄ da ̄ m), and this indicates that “the sons of God” did not belong to the sphere of mankind.

The Dynastic-Ruler Interpretation.

In light of the difficulties inherent in the other two views, Meredith Kline has suggested that “sons of God” refers to kings or dynastic rulers primarily descended from Cain.[3] These rulers continued the civilization described in 4:17–24 and like Lamech in 4:19 were guilty of polygamy. “The daughters of men” were the members of the harems possessed by these kings as a sign of their wealth and prestige.

Support for this theory comes first of all from the use of ’elo ̄hîm (“God” or “gods”) in the limited sense of “judges” in Exodus 21:6; 22:8–9; and possibly Psalm 82:6. Understood in this fashion, “sons of the judges” could refer to a succession of kings and the authority they wielded. Second, one could point to examples in other Near Eastern literature where kings are referred to as the son of a particular deity. In Egypt the pharaoh was quite clearly regarded as divine, while in other nations a king could be called a god’s son because he was chosen as ruler and enjoyed the god’s favor. In the Old Testament, Solomon is called God’s son because he would succeed David as king (2 Sam. 7:14), and there does seem to be a special father–son relationship between God and the king from this time on (cf. Ps. 2:7). God chose David’s family to be the ruling dynasty in Israel, and He endowed them with the strength and wisdom to be effective kings. Yet this concept is not found in Scripture until 1000 B.C. and is difficult to read back into Genesis 6.

A third line of support for the dynastic ruler theory comes from the Sumerian King List, which tells us that, before the flood, kingship was lowered from heaven and eight monarchs enjoyed very long reigns.[4] The tradition about these kings—though usually compared with Genesis 5[5]—might be reflected in Genesis 6:1–4 with its references to “the sons of God” and “the heroes of old, men of renown.” If the antediluvian kings were descended from Cain, they would form a parallel line to the great heroes of Seth listed in Genesis 5.

Although Kline’s interpretation has some attractive features, it suffers from lack of evidence. Why were not “the sons of God” called “kings” or “rulers” if that was intended, and why is the subject of polygamy mentioned so indirectly? The paragraph is admittedly an obscure one, but the first two theories supply more adequate solutions.

[1] Geza Vermes, The Dead Sea Scrolls in English (Baltimore: Penguin, 1968), 215–16.

[2] Victor P. Hamilton, Handbook on the Pentateuch (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1982), 64.

[3] Meredith Kline, “Divine Kingship and Genesis 6:1–4,” WTJ 24 (1962): 187–204.

[4] H. W. F. Saggs, The Greatness That Was Babylon (New York: Hawthorn, 1962), 35.

[5] Cf. John Walton, “The Antediluvian Section of the Sumerian King Lists and Genesis,” BA 44 (1981): 207–8.

For Further Reading:

An Introduction to the Old Testament Pentateuch

by Herbert Wolf

The Pentateuch—Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy—are the vital first books in the Bible. Understanding their scope, meaning,...

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