Sons of God

Genesis 6:1-6:   And it came to pass, when men began to multiply on the face of the earth, and daughters were born unto them, 2. That the sons of God saw the daughters of men that they were fair; and they took them wives of all which they chose.  3. 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. 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. 5. And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. 6. And it repented the LORD that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart.

Genesis Chapter 6 mentions the “sons of God” – are they not the decedents of Adam as alluded to in Chapter 5?  Or, are they angels?  Does the phrase “sons of God” mean anything else in other parts of the Bible?   An oft misunderstood passage primarily because the hermeneutical principle of Biblical comparison is not followed (which is why we follow appropriate hermeneutical guidelines), we find that “sons of God” has different meanings in Scripture:  To discover the Biblical answer to the specific inquiry as to whether this is a reference to angelic beings as well as a gaining a better understanding of the phrase’s use in Scripture, we turn to:

  • Historical Context: Although no specific date is assigned, authorship is likely between 1440 and 1400 B.C., between the time Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt and his death.  The author of the Book of Genesis is not identified; traditionally, the author has always assumed to have been Moses. There is no conclusive reason to deny the Mosaic authorship.  Genesis has sometimes been called the “seed-plot” of the entire Bible. Most of the major doctrines in the Bible are introduced in “seed” form in the Book of Genesis. Along with the fall of man, God’s promise of salvation or redemption is recorded (Gen 3:15). The doctrines of creation, imputation of sin, justification, atonement, depravity, wrath, grace, sovereignty, responsibility, and many more are all addressed in this book of origins called Genesis.  Many of the great questions of life are answered in Genesis. (1) Where did I come from? (God created us – Gen.1:1) (2) Why am I here? (we are here to have a relationship with God – Gen. 15:6) (3) Where am I going? (we have a destination after death – Gen 25:28). Genesis appeals to the scientist, the historian, the theologian, the housewife, the farmer, the traveler, and the man or woman of God. It is a fitting beginning for God’s story of His plan for mankind, the Bible.  The question at hand is of enormous importance in that if Genesis is, indeed, the seed of Biblical doctrine, then the introduction of the role and abilities of fallen angelic beings in relation to humanity takes on significance.  Hence, it is critical to determine the true meaning of the phrase “sons of God.”
  • Grammatical Usage: (1) “Sons” in the Hebrew is “binyamin” with “ben” or “bin” essentially (but not exclusively) a reference to the male offspring of human parents.  Occurring almost 5,000 times, it can also be used for children generally, for human descendants, for males born to common animals or for a class of humans such as “sons of prophets” or “sons of Israel”.  However, in relation to the inquiry, this is no reference to angelic beings; (2) “God” in the Hebrew is “elohim” and can only be defined by the contextual usage.  In v. 2, given that “sons” is reference to a male, it may be interpreted as “God, the Creator.”  (3) “Giants” in the Hebrew is “n’pilim” meaning a race or nation; (4) “repented” in the Hebrew is “naham” meaning to be sorry in the form of regret which causes grief.
  • Literal Application: When men began to increase in number on the earth and daughters were born to them, 2 the sons of God (human, male class created by God) saw that the daughters of men were beautiful, and they married any of them they chose. 3 Then the LORD said, “My Spirit will not contend with man forever, for he is mortal; his days will be a hundred and twenty years.”  4 The Nephilim (again, reference to a race or human nation) were on the earth in those days—and also afterward—when the sons of God went to the daughters of men and had children by them. They were the heroes of old, men of renown.  5 The LORD saw how great man’s wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time. 6 The LORD was grieved that he had made man on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain.
  • Contextual Interpretation: It should be noted that the phrase “sons of God” is found only three times in the OT and, linguistically, can refer to angelic beings, rulers (kings) or a specific sect, class or group of people.  It is understandable how the phrase, without the grammatical syntax, is misinterpreted and thereby misapplied.  In our case, the “sons” definition of a human male in v. 2 is immediately supported by God’s reaction in v. 3 when He specifically sites His exasperation with created “man” (Hebrew: “adam” meaning man/mankind) – not angels or angelic beings.  An opinion extensively adopted by pagan religion and carried over into Jewish tradition is that he “sons of God” denoted angels who had been appointed to guard Eden and generally roam the earth had become enamored with human females, mingled with them, became familiar with them thereby producing off-spring.  The view was promoted by the Jewish historian Josephus, the Jewish Church and theologians such as Justin, Clemens and Tertullian.  It should be noted that the apocryphal book of Enoch is where the theory is strongest.  Later church fathers such as Chrysostom and Augustine opposed this theory on the grounds of the Biblical language, denoting the idea as wild and revolting fiction.  Later, German theologians revived the idea (note such incorporation into Nazi lore) with secular poets such as Milton, Byron and Moore enlisting the concept as fanciful in their respective secular works which only confused the laity.  The fact is that not only does v. 3 specifically refer to human males, but goes on to inflict the 120 year judgment.  In fact, had such an outrage been committed by angelic beings, the deferral of judgment for such a time period is highly unlikely.  Such an enormous violation of the natural order would have earned immediate Divine retaliation. 

A second point occurs in the passage itself as the Hebrew verb in v. 2 translated as “took them wives” is the standard verb in the OT for marriage specifically referring to man and wife as opposed to any other union.  However, the plural version of “wife” indicates that polygamy was adopted.

There is much legitimate debate as to who these men truly were.  Were they super-human descendants of Adam?  Another race?  Actually the designation of man, or “adam” is never used to denote a distinct race of human beings nor is it in the plural designating a different, distinct race.  However, the term can designate a separate class of men.  The prevalent view is that the “sons of God” are Sethites, a sober sect linked to genuine obedience to God.  The incident refers to a failure to keep the “faithful” lines of Seth separate from the “worldly” line of Cain. The idea has been advanced that after Cain killed Abel, the line of Seth remained separate and faithful, but the line of Cain turned ungodly and rebellious. The “sons of God” are deemed to refer to leadership in the line of Seth; the “daughters of men” is deemed restricted to the line of Cain. The resulting marriages ostensibly blurred an inferred separation between them. 

The exasperation of God as expressed in v. 3 takes into account the polygamous nature of what was happening, as well as the fact that spiritually mixed marriages between parties of opposite principles and religious practice is the source of extensive corruption.  The women, irreligious themselves, would as wives and mothers exert an influence contrary to the standards of God negatively influencing the home which would have the same effect upon society. 

Another explanation is that these are leaders turned pagan, controlled by demonic forces who, because of their augmented personalities and voracious appetites for sexual conquest, were so feared as to be compared to “gods” by the community.  This would better explain the origination of the harem.  But let’s be clear as to the original question: these are human beings, descendants of Adam, who for whatever reason had rejected God in favor of worldly, sinful pursuit.  Demon possession does not translate into demonic beings.

The fact that God “repented” has always proven a perplexing point.  In fact, up until this point in time and history God had extended every bit of grace possible to his creation.  Yet at this point God changes his procedure toward mankind – from being merciful and long-suffering – to exercising judgment.  “Repented” does not suggest that God changed His mind, fore He is changeless (Mal. 3:6).  Instead, it means that God was sorrowful and in keeping with His attributes He had no choice but to exercise judgment upon a beloved creation – abandoning His previous disposition of benevolence. 

  • Scriptural Comparison: In the Book of Job the phrase is used for angelic or nonhuman beings (Job 1:6; 2:1).  They (unfallen angels) presented themselves to God in a heavenly assembly.  Satan appeared with them, although this does not mean he was one of the “sons of God.”  Thus the stage was set for the story of Job. 2.  (Daniel 3:25 is not of the same grammatical construction).  The phrase also appears in the NT – Romans 8:12-19 (specifically in v. 14).  It is a reference to adoption by which the believer becomes a child of God and thus and heir of God – joint-heir with Christ (Gal. 4:5; Heb. 2:10; 12:7). In the NT Jesus specifically states that angels do not marry (Mt. 22:30; Mk. 12:25; Lk. 34-36). 
  • Conclusion: Disagreement with the interpretation of Genesis 6 continues, even in Evangelical circles.  The key in the minds of many are the words of Jesus with reference to the nature of angelic beings which, for those dedicated to the Word of God and a proper hermeneutical approach, are given preeminence in relation to contextual interpretation.  It is true that scholars differ, but men such as R.F. Youngblood, F.F. Bruce, R.K. Harrison, John Walvoord and Roy Zuck just to name a few respected Evangelical scholars all agree that the reference is to men and not angels.  This inquiry does underscore how very carefully one must employ hermeneutical principles if one is to arrive at a sound conclusion.  This includes the Biblical review of angels in general which is attached as a supplement which finds no reference to angelic ability or permission to engage humanity on the sexual level.  Taken together, it is most reasonable to conclude that the “sons of God” are a group of men.  As to their identity, this is a secondary consideration of considerably less import and consequence than the original inquiry over which scholars can legitimately speculate and disagree without fear of major theological error.