Issues in Genesis: The Sons of God & Daughters of Men, Part 2

Sons of God Part 2
“The Sons of God Saw the Daughters of Men That They Were Fair,” sculpture in marble by Daniel Chester French, USA, c.1920.  Photograph by Lee Sandstead, USA, 2011.  Check out his website.  Beautiful art photography and the artist’s TED Talk.

 

Last week, in Part 1, we went over the text of Genesis 6:1-6, which introduces the short but fascinating story of the Sons of God and the Daughters of Men.  This tiny little collection of verses has a lot to say, and how we interpret it will have a meaningful impact on how we view the context for other passages of scripture.

As far as I’m aware, Genesis 6:1-6 does not deal with anything soteriological (regarding salvation).  For that reason, I don’t think it’s threatening or crucial if people disagree about this passage.  Still, I’ve called Gen 6:1-6 an Issue in Genesis for four reasons:

  1. It’s a difficult passage for modern readers to understand with clarity.
  2. There is division amongst Christians over how to interpret this passage.
  3. There are some truly garbage theories attached to this passage that can really get a new reader off-track and totally separated from the actual text if they don’t have some guidance.
  4. People tend to skip this passage, and I just can’t tolerate that.  All scripture is God-breathed and useful to teach us.

My goal last week was to help you find clarity about what the text says.  This week, my goal is to equip you for thinking through what the text means.  So let’s do that.  Buckle up, Buttercup; this is a long one.  Consider breaking it up into two or three pieces through the week.

After reading through the text carefully last week, I asked you to do two things:

  • Look up “the Sons of God” and find three different interpretations of who and what these beings are.
  • Look up every passage in the Bible that contains the phrase, “sons of God,” to see what you could learn about these beings from other passages of scripture.

I hope you were able to find the time and desire to do that, but if you didn’t, today is your lucky cheat sheet.

In this post, I’m going to give you a summary of each of the three most widely-held positions on who the Sons of God are, and I am also going to write a bit about the other “sons of God” references in scripture.

First, let’s have another go at reading the text, shall we?  Today, I’ll be using the Christian Standard Bible (CSB) translation.

When mankind began to multiply on the earth and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that the daughters of mankind were beautiful, and they took any they chose as wives for themselves. And the Lord said, “My Spirit will not remain with mankind forever, because they are corrupt. Their days will be 120 years.”

The Nephilim were on the earth both in those days and afterward, when the sons of God came to the daughters of mankind, who bore children to them. They were the powerful men of old, the famous men.

When the Lord saw that human wickedness was widespread on the earth and that every inclination of the human mind was nothing but evil all the time, the Lord regretted that he had made man on the earth, and he was deeply grieved.

-Genesis 6:1-6, CSB

Who Were The Sons of God?

I asked you to look up three distinctly different ideas about who the Sons of God really are because that’s how many interpretations there are in the “mainstream” of Christian thought.  I’ll go over all three views and give you the basic supports and problems most commonly offered to argue for or against each one.  These are not meant to be scholarly or exhaustive.  They are simply my own basic summaries of each view and the most common arguments…as I understand them today.

ask blackboard chalk board chalkboard
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

1.) The Sethite View

This interpretation is pretty easy to lay out but a little harder to explain. In the Sethite view, the sons of God were godly human men, descended from Seth.  Seth was a son of Adam and Eve, given to them by God to replace the loss of Abel (Gen 4:25).  The daughters of man, in this view, are described as the women descended from the ungodly line of Cain.  It is the unsanctioned mixing of bloodlines between the godly son and the ungodly son that offended God and made these unions disruptive.

The Sethite view was popularized in the 5th century A.D. when the veneration of angels was becoming problematic within the church.  Prior to that time, the popular view of Genesis 6 was that the sons of God were fallen angels.  In an effort to combat angel worship and to fend off criticism and mockery from intellectuals and philosophers of the day, the Sethite view was formed and found support.  Several church fathers–starting with Julius Africanus and including St. Augustine–adopted the Sethite view.

Modern Christians who accept this view typically support it with the following:

  • In Genesis, chapter 4, Cain murders his brother, Abel, and is exiled away from God and his parental family as punishment.
  • Seth is born to Adam and Eve shortly after Cain’s exile and removal from the family.  Seth is expressly referred to as a replacement for Abel, the godly son whose offerings were pleasing to God.  Further, we see that right around the time that Seth begins fathering sons of his own, “people began to call on the name of the Lord.” (Gen 4:26)
  • Cain the ungodly son and Seth the godly son were not meant to mix.  When the godly sons of Seth intermarried with the ungodly daughters of Cain, it was a direct disobedience of Cain’s exile and, therefore, displeased God and spread wickedness among the previously-godly Sethites.  This sin is mirrored throughout the Mosaic books as we see Israel repeatedly warned against intermarrying with the ungodly nations.
  • We are told by Christ that angels do not marry in Matthew 22:30, and angels have no bodies, so this should be taken to mean that angels are not capable of procreation.  To insert angels or members of the heavenly host into the interpretation of theses verses is to contradict what Christ said, so the sons of God must be human beings.

Modern Christians who reject this view typically argue against it with the following:

  • There is no mention of Cain or his line in any part of Genesis chapter 6, and the daughters of man (presumed to be of Cain’s line) are nowhere called his descendants.  On the contrary, they are literally called the “daughters of Adam.”  Further, the sons of God are said to have taken wives from “any they chose” among the daughters of mankind; again, not specifying a particular bloodline.
  • In other Old Testament passages we see the same phrase, “bene ha elohim (translated ‘sons of God’),” or even the variant, “bene ‘elim,” and the beings in view are clearly not human beings but divine servants of God from the heavenly realm.
  • The Sethite view does not account for the “otherness” or attribution of “giant” or “nephilim” to the offspring of the sons and daughters.
  • Matthew 22:30 does not say that angels cannot marry or procreate.  It says that they don’t, and in that passage, Jesus is not referring to members of the heavenly host who rebelled.  He is talking about the angels who live in harmony with God the Father in Heaven.  Further, there are multiple places in scripture where angels interact physically with humans, pushing, grabbing, or even striking a person.  This indicates that, whatever their true physical nature, they can appear–at least temporarily–in functional, corporeal bodies.
Who Believes in the Sethite View?

Well…a lot of Christians do.  The Sethite view is traditional and still the most commonly-expressed interpretation amongst conservative Protestant pastors and teachers.  The Roman Catholic Church does not (to my knowledge) have an official interpretation of this scripture, but many Catholic priests and teachers favor the Sethite position.

One notable modern Christian leader who espouses the Sethite View of Genesis 6:1-6 is R.C. Sproul, Jr.  Here is a link to his article on the question:  “Who Are the Sons of God and Daughters of Men in Genesis 6:1-5?”

Gilgamesh of Uruk
Stone Relief Panel, Neo-Assyrian (883-859 B.C.),  Mesopotamia.  Donated by John D. Rockefeller to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA. 1932.

2.) The Ancient Kings/Royalty View

This interpretation states that the sons of God are powerful pagan kings from other nations who came to the cities of Adam and Eve’s descendants and took women by force, producing offspring who did not know the Lord.  

This view originated in rabbinical teaching and thought as a deeper examination of “why” human couplings would displease God or lead to widespread wickedness on the earth.  These kings, according to the interpretation, believed themselves to be of a higher class than the daughters they took.  Ancient kings of Mesopotamia and North Africa were often regarded as gods, themselves, and this kind of idolatry mixing with people who had just started calling upon the name of the Lord makes a striking picture of corruption.

Modern Christians who accept this view typically support it with the following:

  • The sons of God as powerful kings solves the problem of the Sethite View, which doesn’t explain why God sent a flood to destroy wickedness.  The kings bringing idol worship and the intermarriage of royal (higher, more moral) blood with common (lower, less moral) blood introduced the corruption spoken of Gen 6:3-6.  Isaiah 24:21-22 supports this idea that earthly kings will be punished for their tremendous corruption and sin against God.
  • A variant on this first view is that the powerful kings came to take the daughters of men to make a name for themselves, which as we see in Genesis 11…is a problem.  This way of looking at the ancient kings/royalty view is easier to support textually because the dispersion of the nations at Babel after the people attempt to make a name for themselves and operate independently of God could easily be argued to indicate that a similar arrogance in Genesis 6 was what the author had in mind.

Modern Christians who reject this view typically counter that argument with the following:

  • Kings are not forbidden to marry commoners in scripture, and nowhere are kings mentioned as being of higher morality than common people.  There is no support for an assumption that inter-class intermarriage would be displeasing to God.  There are no kings mentioned anywhere in Genesis 1-11, so it is a stretch to assume this specific identity for the sons of God when nothing in the text indicates it.

Beyond this unique addition of kings, the arguments for and against this view are basically the same ones used for and against the Sethite View.  Take all of those into consideration when evaluating it for yourself.

Who Believes in the Ancient Kings/Royalty View?

Not very many people in Christian leadership, I don’t think.  I couldn’t find a single name I recognized or even an unknown Christian commentator/rando blogger like myself who was defending the Royalty view of this passage…and I looked pretty hard.  What I think this probably tells us is that it likely remains an interpretation favored by the people who first proposed it: rabbis within Judaism and the teachers among Messianic (Christian) Jews.  I don’t know that, mind you.  I’m only guessing.

The Ancient Kings View was first brought up in Jewish circles, so it would make sense that rabbis and Tanakh scholars would be the ones with the best arguments in its favor.  Sadly, I do not read Hebrew; I didn’t think to research it on English-language Jewish sites until just this very minute; and this article is getting quite long enough, as it is.

Anyone interested in checking that out for me?  I would be most grateful to know what you find out.  If you come across anything good, please share the links with me in the comments.

Serpent in the Garden
This painting is entitled, “The Fall,” and is from a Genesis series by Jan van’t Hoff, Dutch, 2001.  One primary objection to the supernatural view of the sons of God is the fear that it removes the guilt of Original sin from mankind, shifting blame to fallen angels.

3.) The Supernatural (Nephilim) View

This interpretation, which is the oldest (and newest) view of this passage, says that the sons of God are rebellious angels* who came to Earth and cohabited with human beings without God’s blessing.  They took women as wives and dispensed knowledge of good and evil that accelerated the spread of wickedness and self-destruction among mankind.  The children produced by these illicit unions were called nephilim (which, depending on which root word was originally intended, could mean either “giants” or “fallen ones”).  

Modern Christians who accept this view typically support it with the following:

  • The phrase, “sons of God” is clearly used to describe angelic (heavenly) beings in every other place it appears in the Old Testament.
  • The nephilim–the offspring of the sons and daughters–are described as giants in the book of Numbers, as well as in Gen 6, and the descendants of these nephilim are also referred to as giants during the conquest of Joshua and the reign of King David.  They were clearly more than “just human.”
  • The books of Jude and 2 Peter reinforce the idea that our biblical authors–both in the Old and New Testaments, believed that the sons of God were angels, punished by God for violating divine order.
  • Extra-biblical sources, both Jewish and pagan, support the supernatural view of Gen 6:1-6 in explicit detail.

Modern Christians who reject this view typically argue against it with the following:

  • The Matthew 22:30 argument (see above) – Angels have no bodies and are incapable of sexual reproduction with humans.
  • The supernatural view depends upon extra-biblical sources to flesh out the details whereas the Sethite View is reasoned solely from the Bible.
  • The supernatural view takes responsibility for the wickedness leading to the flood away from humanity and places it onto a group of rebellious angels, instead.  This is not supported by the rest of scripture, which places man’s corruption and death squarely on the shoulders of mankind.

*Angel is an inadequate and often inaccurate term in many cases.  For now, however, we’ll just use it to mean “a creature from the heavenly realm who is not God.”  At some point, we’ll have to have the angel discussion, but today is not that day.

Who Believes in the Supernatural (Nephilim) View?

A lot of Christians and a lot of Jews–both in Judaism and Messianic Judaism.  Though the Sethite view has been more prominent from Christian pulpits in the past, The supernatural view has always been there, and it has gotten a lot more popular in the new century, from what I can gather.  This growing popularity has happened for a several reasons, but the primary one is access to more and better manuscripts from Mesopotamia and Qumran.  As new information is translated and trickles down from academia to the layperson, more and more legitimacy is being given to the supernatural view.  For more on this, I’ll give you this link to a lecture by Dr. Michael Heiser, a Hebrew Bible scholar who espouses the Supernatural view.  This link is to part 3 of a 4-part lecture series he did, but this link is the portion that deals with Genesis 6.  Click Here for the lecture:  Celebration Church – Supernatural Seminar, Part 3 .  I strongly recommend watching the entire lecture series, but if you want to skip to the part that dives into our Genesis 6:1-6 text, start the video at 24:20 (24 minutes, 20 seconds time mark).

brown book page
Photo by Wendy van Zyl on Pexels.com

 

What Does the Rest of Scripture Say about Sons of God?

Yay!  You made it.  We’re almost done with Part 2.  I want to take a moment to list all the other instances of “sons of God” that appear in our Old Testament (we’ll talk about the New Testament “sons of God” in the last post in the sons of god/daughters of men series).  If you didn’t have time to look them up after Part 1, you should do that this time.

There are two phrases from the Ancient Hebrew that get translated as “sons of God” in our English-language Bibles.

The “sons of God” in our Genesis text is translated from the Hebrew phrase
bene ha elohim 

We see this phrase in Genesis 6:2 and in Genesis 6:4.  We also see it in three other verses of the Old Testament.  Those verses are:

Job  1:6      Job  2:1     Job 38:7

There is another very similar Hebrew phrase in the Old Testament
bene elim

We see this phrase in Psalm 29:1 and in Psalm 89:7, and in some translations, instead of “sons of God,” it gets translated as, “heavenly beings,” (NIV, CSB, ESV) or “sons of the mighty,” (KJV) or “mighty angels,” (NLT)

What will become clear as you read these verses is that every other incident of bene ha elohim and bene elim in the entire Hebrew Bible clearly and undoubtedly designate angelic beings/lesser deities.  Not humans**.

The View I Favor

**This last bit is why I really started leaning in to the Supernatural (Nephilim) View of Genesis 6:1-4 over all of the others.  This is the view I have settled on, and I’ll go deeper into it in Part 3.  I will give you the entire case for the supernatural view that was laid out before me in my own first study of this passage, and several of the links in my suggested “homework” below include pieces of what I’ll be explaining in next week’s post.

I’ll lay out everything supporting my favored view in Part 3 next Wednesday, but I’d like you to spend more time investigating on your own, first.  There is something truly invaluable about the time you spend on your own in Bible study.  Yes, researching the context of your study topic is Bible study.  Don’t get out in the weeds, however.  Keep your eye on Genesis 6:1-6, and keep the questions we’re asking about Genesis in your mind as you read all this other “stuff” I’m about to dump on you.

Whatever view you’re leaning into, spend the week reading articles, watching videos, or listening to podcasts about that view.  Get some people defending it and get some people arguing against it.  Make sure the people you choose are more qualified than I am to be making those arguments, okay?  You and I are the same (unless you’re a pastor or scholar reading the scribbles of a layperson for some reason /grin).  I’ve given you what I know to this point, so go and dig a little deeper on your own.

Homework To Do Before Part 3

The goal of the homework is to look deeper into the interpretation of Genesis 6:1-6 that you think is the best view, to get acquainted with the portions of 1 Enoch and the writings of Josephus that pertain to Genesis 6:1-6, and to familiarize yourself with the basic similarity between Mesopotamian mythos and the biblical story of the Sons of God/Daughters of Man … and the Great Flood.

Remember back in part 1 when we noted that our text falls between Noah and Noah?  Part 3 will pick that back up.

  • Find at least two articles, podcasts, or lectures discussing your favorite of these three views on Genesis 6:1-6.  One pro, one con, if possible.  Listen or read or watch carefully.  Take notes.  Write down any questions you have.
  • Read the following excerpts linked here from 1 Enoch: Chapter 6-9 (it’s very short), Chapter 21.  This link is the entire text for free online.
  • Read Josephus from The Antiquities of the Jews, Book 1, Chapter 3
  • Look around for Mesopotamian cultus information (“cultus” just means a system of religious belief, not a “cult”), specifically as it pertains to the Apkallu and other Mesopotamian gods.  If you really hate Googling things, I’ll suggest a few links.  The goal here isn’t to learn everything.  It’s just to spend an hour or so looking at a little of the imagery so you can see the similarities between our biblical story and the Mesopotamian story:
  1. Apkallu in the Bible from Rider on the Clouds
  2. The Atrahasis Epic: The Great Flood and the Meaning of Suffering by Joshua J. Mark of Ancient History Encyclopedia (Note that Enki, the “lesser god” he refers to in this summary, is one of the Apkallu)
  3. The Atrahasis Epic – 17th century B.C., full text from Livius.org.

 

Happy Hunting!  See you next Wednesday.


One thought on “Issues in Genesis: The Sons of God & Daughters of Men, Part 2

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