Please read “Sons of God (Genesis 6:1-4) Part 1 of 3” and “Sons of God (Genesis 6:1-4) Part 2 of 3” before continuing to read this blog post (or you’ll be lost!). Today, we will look at the 4th and 5th steps of our interpretive journey, and finally answer the question, “who are the sons of God in Genesis 6:1-4?”
(4) After looking at Scripture as the first and primary source of information, it can be useful to look at other contemporary texts, and the use of language elsewhere to better understand what it means in this particular passage.
Without going too deep into the weeds, let me say that some Ancient Near East texts detail similar accounts to the great flood of Noah. In most of these texts, the story begins with an account or allusion to kings who appointed their sons as kings and did something ungodly (see the Gilgamesh Epic, and Sumerian flood stories for more details).
Many Ancient Near Eastern documents also affirm that it was commonplace in that area to refer to a king as either divine or a “son of the gods,” similar to the Egyptian deified “pharaoh.” This was such a common expression for a king that some ancient translations of the Hebrew text such as the Aramaic Targum Onkelos and Symmachus’ Greek translation translate “sons of God” as “sons of nobles,” and “sons of the kings,” respectively.
Furthermore, The Hebrew root of the word Nephilim (npl) means “to fall.” It can be literally translated as “fallen ones” or “those who fall [prey] on others.” But, in Arabic, the word Nephilim means “princes born into royal houses.” These supplementary materials strongly support the third solution.
(5) Finally, after you have done your own analysis, it is useful to look at the analysis of other people, and the interpretation of others throughout history. If you are the only person who has come to your conclusion in the thousands of years of the existence of the text, you… just… maybe… might… happen to be wrong!
First, it should be established that the first solution was held UNANIMOUSLY until the second century A.D. Every Jewish text, from the apocryphal Book of Enoch to the writings of Josephus, including most of the rabbinical writers and all of the intertestamental Jewish literature, held that the account of Genesis 6 referred to fallen angels. So did the oldest church fathers—Justin, Tertullian, Cyprian, Ambrose, and Lactantius.
However, in the second and third centuries, both Jewish interpreters and Christian interpreters began to understand “sons of God” as not necessarily referring to angels. Jewish commentators began identifying “the sons of God” as rulers, while Christians such as Julius Africanus and Augustine suggested that they were men from the line of Seth while “the daughters of men” were women from the line of Cain. After Augustine promoted this belief in his famous City of God, it became the prominent Christian interpretation of Genesis 6 through the Reformation and into the nineteenth century.
Currently, I can point to 8 different commentaries on my desk and find multiple supporters of each of these solutions. As one commentator said “the lively controversy among evangelical interpreters over the identification of the sons of God has resulted in no consensus, probably because decisive evidence does not exist” (John J. Davis).
But, whether there is a consensus or not, it is time for us to make our conclusion:
The first solution of angels seems to create more problems than it solves: Why mention angels now without clearly calling them angels? Why would God punish mankind for the sin of angels? How do angels (who are only described as not marrying) take human women as their wives? Why would the offspring of angels be giants? Did the fallen angels do this a second time after the flood? If they are good angels, why would they commit this sin, and if they are fallen, evil angels, how could they be called “sons of God”? Because of all of these questions and more, I don’t believe that it is a reasonable solution, although I respect that many people hold this view.
The second solution holds more weight, and I think is more reasonable than the first, but it still raises some unanswerable questions: Are we to believe that the line of Cain and the line of Seth did not intermarry for centuries until this account, even though there weren’t that many other lines from which they could find spouses? Are we to believe that the examples of Enoch and Noah serve to demonstrate that the entire line of Seth was godly? If it was such a bad sin, why didn’t God ever command Seth or his descendants not to marry the descendants of Cain? Why are they described as “sons of God” if this phrase is never used elsewhere, either in the Bible or extrabiblical literature, to refer to the descendants of Cain? And why would they be called “daughters of men” instead of just “daughters of Cain”? None of these arguments are enough to say that this solution is a bad one, especially if I didn’t have another solution… but I do have another solution.
The third solution, that the “sons of God” refers to ancient kings or rulers who took any “daughters of men” that they wanted without regard to God seems to best fit the context. Granted, it seems odd to us to bring up kings at this point and not directly state that they are kings, but the ancient audience would have understood the phrase “sons of God” as the way that their neighbors referred to their kings. This also best explains describing their descendants as “mighty men who were of old, the men of renown”—the sons of kings would of course be described with such regard. Furthermore, this solution best explains the progression of sin: it has now gone from individual, to familial, to societal—even the rulers are institutionalizing their marriages with whomever they want, without regard for God, or His standards, and it is time that God steps up in judgment.
Finally, the Nephilim are a source of much debate, but they don’t seem to actually be described in Scripture. Rather, they seem to be some historical figures that are unknown to us, but known enough to the original audience that they were a mere setting for the events: Genesis 6:1-4 took place during the time of the Nephilim.
I conclude by saying that all three of these views are credible given the current evidence, and a Christian could happily believe any of them, but I leave you with the words of J. Vernon McGee, whom I believe said it best:
“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. Regardless of which view you take, I hope all of us will be friends, because this is merely a matter of interpretation.”
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