SPECIAL TOPIC: "the sons of God" in Genesis 6

A. There is great controversy over the identification of the phrase "the sons of God."  There have been three major interpretations

1. the phrase refers to the godly line of Seth (cf. Genesis 5)

2. the phrase refers to a group of angelic beings

3. the phrase refers to the kings or tyrants of Cain's line (cf. Genesis 4)

 

B. Evidence for the phrase referring to Seth's line

1. The immediate literary context of Genesis 4 and 5 shows the development of the rebellious line of Cain and the godly line of Seth.  Therefore, contextual evidence seems to favor the godly line of Seth.

2. The rabbis have been divided over their understanding of this passage.  Some assert that it refers to Seth (but most to angels).

3. The phrase, "the sons of God," though most often used for angelic beings, rarely refers to human beings

 a. Deut. 14:1, "sons of YHWH your God"

 b. Deut. 32:5, "His sons"

 c. Exod. 22:8-9; 21:6, possibly Levitical Judges

 d. Psalm 73:15, "Thy children"

 e. Hosea 1:10, "sons of the Living God"

 

C. Evidence for the phrase referring to angelic beings

1. This has been the most common traditional understanding of the passage.  The larger context of Genesis could support this view as another example of supernatural evil trying to thwart God's will for mankind (the rabbis say out of jealousy).

2. The phrase ("sons of God") is used overwhelmingly in the OT for angels.

a. Job 1:6 

b. Job 2:1

c. Job 38:7

d. Psalm 29:1

e. Psalm 89:6,7

f.  Daniel 3:25

3. The intertestamental book of I Enoch, which was very popular among believers in the NT period, along with the Genesis Apocryphon from the Dead Sea Scrolls and Jubilees 5:1, interprets these as rebellious angels (I Enoch 12:4; 19:1; 21:1-10).

4. The immediate context of Genesis 6 seems to imply that "the mighty men who were of old, men of renown" came from this improper mixing of the orders of creation.

5. I Enoch even asserts that Noah's Flood came to destroy this angelic/human union which was hostile towards YHWH and His plan for creation (cf. I Enoch 7:1ff; 15:1ff; 86:1ff).

 

D. Evidence for the phrase referring to kings or tyrants of Cain's line

1. there are several ancient translations that support this view

a. Targum or Onkelos (second century a.d.) translates "sons of God" as "sons of nobles"

 b. Symmachus (second century a.d.) Greek translation of the OT, translated "sons of God" as "the sons of the kings"

 c. the term elohim is sometimes used of Israelite leaders (cf. Exod. 21:6; 22:8; Ps. 82:1,6, note NIV and NET Bible)

 d. Nephilim is linked to Gibborim in Gen 6:4.  Gibborim is plural of Gibbor, meaning "a mighty man of valor; strength; wealth or power"

2. this interpretation and its evidence is taken from Hard Sayings of the Bible, pp. 106-108.


E. Historical evidence of the advocates of both usages
  1. the phrase refers to Sethites    
   

a. Cyril of Alexander  b. Theodoret
c. Augustine
d. Jerome

e. Calvin
f. Kyle
g. Gleason Archer
h. Watts 

 
  2. the phrase refers to angelic beings
   

a. writers of the Septuagint
b. Philo
c. Josephus (Antiquities 1.3.1)d. Justin Martyr
e. Clement of Alexandria 

f. Tertullian
g. Origen
h. Luther
i. Delitzsch
j. Hengstenberg

k. Olford
l. Westermann
m. Wenham
n. NET bible 

F. How are the Nephilim of Gen. 6:4 related to the "sons of God" and "the daughters of men" of Gen. 6:1-2?  Note the three theories:

1. They are the giants that resulted from the union between angels and human women (cf. Num. 13:33).

2. They do not relate at all.  They are simply mentioned as being on the earth in the days of the events of Gen. 6:1-2 and also afterwards.

3. R. K. Harrison in Introduction to the Old Testament, p. 557, has the following cryptic quote, "to miss entirely the invaluable anthropological insights into the interrelation of Homo sapiens and pre-Adamic species which the passage contains, and which are amenable to those scholars who are equipped to pursue them."

This implies to me that he sees these two groups as representing differing groups of humanoids.  This would imply a later special creation of Adam and Eve, but also an evolutionary development of Homo erectus.

 

G. It is only fair to disclose my own understanding of this controversial text.  First, let me remind all of us that the text in Genesis is brief and ambiguous.  Moses' first hearers must have had additional historical insight or Moses used oral or written tradition from the Patriarchal period that he himself did not fully understand.  This issue is not a crucial theological subject.  We are often curious about things the Scriptures only hint at.  It would be very unfortunate to build an elaborate theology out of this and similar fragments of biblical information.  If we needed this information God would have provided it in a more clear and complete form.  I personally believe it was angels and humans because:

1. the phrase "sons of God" is used consistently, if not exclusively, for angels in the OT

2. the Septuagint (Alexandrian) translates (late first century b.c.) "sons of God" as "angels of God"

3. the pseudepigraphal apocalyptic book of I Enoch (possibly written about 200 b.c.) is very specific that it refers to angels (cf. chapters 6-7)

4. 2 Peter 2 and Jude speak of angels who sinned and did not keep their proper abode

I know that to some this seems to contradict Matt. 22:30, but these specific angels are neither in heaven nor earth, but in a special prison (Tartarus).

5. I think that one reason many of the events of Genesis 1-11 are found in other cultures (i.e., similar creation accounts, similar flood accounts, similar accounts of angels taking women) is because all humans were together and had some knowledge of YHWH during this period, but after the tower of Babel's dispersion this knowledge became corrupted and adapted to a polytheistic model.

A good example of this is Greek mythology where the half human/half superhuman giants called Titans are imprisoned in Tartarus, this very name used only once in the Bible (2 Peter 2) for the holding place of the angels that kept not their proper abode.  In rabbinical theology Hades was divided into a section for the righteous (paradise) and a section for the wicked (Tartarus).

 

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