Who were the “sons of God” in Genesis 6?

Who Were the “Sons of God” in Genesis 6?
Now it came about, when men began to multiply on the face of the land, and daughters were born to them, that the sons of God saw that the daughters of men were beautiful; and they took wives for themselves, whomever they chose” (Gen. 6:1-2).

Some stories hang on identity. In the book Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte tells us the story of a child, orphaned by typhus and forced to endure life in an institution for poor and parentless girls. After enduring years of cold winters with little food and thin clothing, Jane is offered a position at the mysterious and haunted Thornfield Hall as the governess of a young girl. In a chance meeting, Jane meets the master of Thornfield, a Mr. Edward Rochester, and in spite of his overbearing arrogance, love is kindled. In the turn of events, Rochester proposes to Jane and the two stand before a priest to exchange vows, but during the wedding ceremony we learn that Mr. Rochester is already married to a mentally-insane women named Bertha, who is responsible for the strange happenings at Thornfield Hall. Though crushed, Jane refuses to go against her principles and run off with Rochester and ends the relationship. In the story of Jane Eyre, the identity of the mysterious wife of Edward Rochester is important to the crisis and resolution of the story.

Other stories do not hang on knowing the mysterious identity of a character. Genesis 6 is a good example of this. Although the identity of the “sons of God” in Genesis 6 is one of the most puzzling passages in the Bible, the story does not hang on discovering their true identity. In this post we’ll look at some of the different theories about the identity of these mysterious beings, but before we do that, let’s see how this passage moves the Genesis story forward.

The Pattern of Sin and Unlawful Taking
Sin is spreading. When it initially coiled its way into the human heart, the first relationship to be destroyed was the relationship between God and man (Gen. 3:9). As the prophet Isaiah reminds us, sin makes a separation between us and God (Isa. 59:2). Man is now alienated from God and exposed to judgment and death. The next relationship to be damaged by sin is marriage. Adam blames God for putting Eve in his life (3:12). Selfishness now puts an all too familiar blight on the kind of loving partnership that God had planned for marriage. Respectful submission to a husband’s leadership is supplanted by a desire to manipulate and control him; loving leadership is replaced by the abuse of physical and positional power. Sin not only destroys a marriage, but it can destroy the family as well. Cain murders his brother Abel in cold blood (4:8) and later, a descendent of Cain kills a man in self-defense and personal retribution (4:23-24).

The first four verses in Genesis 6 move the story forward by summarizing the spread of sin. It also prepares us for the catastrophic judgment that God unleashes on the land and the extravagant grace He showers on Noah. As we enter into Genesis 6, sin has wormed its way into every facet of human culture. Let’s review:

  • Adam and Eve unlawfully took the good fruit;
  • Eve would unlawfully try to take the upper hand in the relationship and Adam would unlawfully use his power to dominate her;
  • Cain unlawfully took his brother’s life;
  • Lamech unlawfully kills a man for striking him (though he protests innocence)

Now, as we enter into Genesis 6, a group of beings called the “sons of God” unlawfully take the “daughters of men.” There’s a pattern here that began in the Garden. I’ll bolden the words so that you can see the pattern of unlawful taking.

When the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable to make one wise, she took from its fruit and ate; and she gave also to her husband with her; and he ate” (Gen. 3:6).

Now it came about, when men began to multiply on the face of the land, and daughters were born to them, that the sons of God saw that the daughters of men were beautiful (lit. good); and they took wives for themselves , whomever they chose” (Gen. 6:1-2).

The “sons of God” saw something good and they took. This in a book that declares from the beginning that God is the One who declares what is good (Gen. 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31) and we are to trust His provision instead of taking for ourselves. Here, then, is the big idea behind Genesis 6:1-4: When demonized-tyrants do depraved things, a heartbroken God puts a limit on wickedness and unleashes catastrophic judgment.

Who are the “sons of God”?
Now that we know how Genesis 6:1-4 sets up the story of judgment and grace, we are now in a better position to make some decisions about the identity of these mysterious sinners. Who are the “sons of God” in Genesis 6? Three views have made it to the top of the interpretive heap over the centuries: The fallen angels view, the line of Seth view, and the tyrant-king view.

View #1: The “sons of God” Refer to Fallen Angels
The fallen angels view has the oldest pedigree. John Walton writes, “The earliest view, held unanimously until the second century A.D. as far as we know, is that “the sons of God” were angelic beings” (Walton, 291). Although the phrase “sons of God” appears only once in Genesis, it is used in the Book of Job to refer to angels (Job 1:6; 2:1; 38:7). In addition, New Testament passages tells us about angels that sinned by indulging in gross sexual immorality (2 Pet. 2:4; Jude 6). The main challenge to this view is that Jesus seems to teach us that angels do not procreate (Matt. 22:30). If so, how could the “sons of God” produce offspring with human women?

View #2: The “sons of God” Refer to the Line of Seth
Julius Africanas was one of the earliest adopters of the idea that the “sons of God” were men from the line fo Seth while the “daughters of men” were women from Cain’s lineage. Augustine also promoted this view in the City of God. In more recent times, the Scofield Reference Bible, an early study Bible published between 1909 and 1917, popularized the Line of Seth view:

sons of God
Some hold that these “sons of God” were the “angels which kept not their first estate” Jude 1:6 . It is asserted that the title is in the O.T. exclusively used of angels. But this is an error Isaiah 43:6 . Angels are spoken of in a sexless way. No female angels are mentioned in Scripture, and we are expressly told that marriage is unknown among angels. Matthew 22:30 . The uniform Hebrew and Christian interpretation has been that verse Genesis 6:2 marks the breaking down of the separation between the godly line of Seth and the godless line of Cain, and so the failure of the testimony to Jehovah committed to the line of Seth Genesis 4:26 . For apostasy there is no remedy but judgment ; Isaiah 1:2-7 Isaiah 1:24 Isaiah 1:25 ; Hebrews 6:4-8 ; 10:26-31 . Noah, “a preacher of righteousness,” is given 120 years, but he won no convert, and the judgment predicted by his great- grandfather fell ; Jude 1:14 Jude 1:15 ; Genesis 7:11 .

The problem with this view is two-fold. By this time, both lines were characterized by wickedness. In addition, nowhere in the text do we read that the line of Cain and the line of Seth were not supposed to marry. This rule has to be read into the passage.

View #3: The “sons of God” Refer to Wicked Human Rulers
In Scripture, human rulers could be referred to as elohim (Ps. 82:6) without implying that they were literally divine. Instead they exercised god-like authority. This view also has an old pedigree and was promoted by the Jewish Targum Onkelos (Dating anywhere from 35A.D. to 120 A.D.). In this Targum, “sons of god” are translated “sons of the great ones.” What was the sin of these tyrant then? If you’ve ever seen Mel Gibson’s Braveheart, there is scene where a wicked tyrant exercises the “right of the first night” (prima nocta) and rapes a man’s soon to be wife. People who hold to this view see a similar thing happening in the words, “they took wives for themselves, whomever they chose” (Gen. 6:2). An additional strength to this view is that it further shows the rot of sin spreading: Between husband and wife, between brothers, between tribes and now in its very governing institutions. The problem with this view is that we do not see the kind of governance model of divine-kingship until after the flood (Gen. 10:9; 12:15 etc.).

My View on the “sons of God”
As I mentioned in the introduction, I do not think that the main point of the story hinges on identifying who the “sons of god” were. In my view, Genesis 6:1-4 summarizes the spread of sin and prepares us for God’s judgement and mercy. The big idea behind the story is that when demonized-tyrants do depraved things, a heartbroken God puts a limit on wickedness and unleashes catastrophic judgment. This truth reminds me of what C.S. Lewis had to say about the coming judgment, “Finality must come sometime, and it does not require a very robust faith to believe that omniscience knows when.” Like Noah’s day, the only way to escape the coming judgment will be through the mercy that God provides in Christ. He bore our sins on the cross and defeated death. If you have Jesus, you have the mercy of God, if you reject Jesus, you will have the judgment of God. John’s Gospel says it this way, “The one who believes in the Son has eternal life, but the one who refuses to believe in the Son will not see life; instead, the wrath of God remains on him” (John 3:36).

As to the “sons of God”, I take a hybrid position of the angelic and wicked human ruler views. I see these tyrants as demonized. The “sons of God” were basically human beings empowered and animated by spiritual beings that we call fallen angels. This allows me to interpret “sons of God” as angels that could commit gross sexual immorality (Jude 6), but provides a solution to the challenge of angels not being able to procreate (Matt. 22:30). A hybrid-view also fits with my understanding of demons and their desire to inhabit bodies (Mk. 5:11-13; Lk. 8:31-33; 11:24-26). In fact, the desire for a non-corporeal being to inhabit a human body so that it could have sex with another human may be a part of their rebellion against God (i.e angels who refuse to keep to their domain). But whoever these beings were, the message is clear: No one escapes God’s judgment (not giants, not heroes and not sham god-kings), but some can experience God’s mercy.