WHO ARE THE SONS OF GOD IN GEN. 6?

PMW 2020-067 by R. C. Sproul (Ligonier Ministries)

In the twentieth century, the German biblical scholar Rudolf Bultmann gave a massive critique of the Scriptures, arguing that the Bible is filled with mythological references that must be removed if it is to have any significant application to our day. Bultmann’s major concern was with the New Testament narratives, particularly those that included records of miracles, which he deemed impossible. Other scholars, however, have claimed that there are mythological elements in the Old Testament as well. Exhibit A for this argument is usually a narrative that some believe parallels the ancient Greek and Roman myths about gods and goddesses occasionally mating with human beings.

In Genesis 6, we read this account:

“When man began to multiply on the face of the land and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that the daughters of man were attractive. And they took as their wives any they chose… . The Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of man and they bore children to them. These were the mighty men who were of old, the men of renown” (vv. 1–4).


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This narrative is basically a preface to the account of the flood God sent to eradicate all people from the earth, except for the family of Noah. Of course, the flood narrative itself is often regarded as mythological, but this preparatory section, where we read of the intermarriage of “the sons of God” and “the daughters of man,” is seen as blatant myth.

The assumption in this interpretation of Genesis 6 is that “the sons of God” refers to angelic beings. Why do some biblical interpreters make this assumption? The simple answer is that the Scriptures sometimes refer to angels as sons of God, and it is assumed that the reference in Genesis 6 means the same. This is certainly a possible inference that could be drawn, but is it a necessary inference? I would answer no; I do not believe this text necessarily teaches the idea of sexual relations between angels and human beings.

To understand this difficult passage, we have to look at the broader application of the phrase “sons of God.” Pre-eminently, it is used for Jesus Himself; He is the Son of God. As noted, it is sometimes used to refer to angels (Job 1:6; 21:1; Ps. 29:1). Also, it is sometimes used to speak of followers of Christ (Matt. 5:9; Rom. 8:14; Gal. 3:26). So, the concept of divine sonship in the Scriptures is not always linked to a biological or ontological relationship (relationship of being). Rather, it is chiefly used to set forth a relationship of obedience. This means Genesis 6 could simply be speaking about the intermarriage of those who manifested a pattern of obedience to God in their lives and those who were pagans in their orientation. In other words, this text likely describes marriages between believers and unbelievers.

The immediate context of Genesis 6 supports this conclusion. Following the narrative of the fall in Genesis 3, the Bible traces the lines of two families, the descendants of Cain and of Seth. Cain’s line is recounted in Genesis 4, and this line displays proliferating wickedness, capped by Lamech, who was the first polygamist (v. 19) and who rejoiced in murderous, vengeful use of the sword (vv. 23–24). By contrast, the line of Seth, which is traced in Genesis 5, displays righteousness. This line includes Enoch, who “walked with God, and … was not, for God took him” (v. 24). In the line of Seth was born Noah, who was “a righteous man, blameless in his generation” (6:9). Thus, we see two lines, one obeying God and the other willfully disobeying Him.
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Therefore, many Hebrew scholars believe that Genesis 6 is describing not the intermarriage of angels and human women but the intermarriage of the descendants of Cain and Seth. The two lines, one godly and one wicked, come together, and suddenly everyone is caught up in the pursuit of evil, such that “every intention of the thoughts of [man’s] heart was only evil continually” (v. 5). We do not need to surmise an invasion of the earth by angels in order to make sense of this chapter. . . .

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17 thoughts on “WHO ARE THE SONS OF GOD IN GEN. 6?

  1. Fred V. Squillante August 25, 2020 at 10:00 am

    Good article, Dr. Gentry. That’s an intriguing passage. A few things: 1. When men began to multiply, it isn’t clear if they are to be differentiated from the sons of God (as humans vs angels) or, 2) If it is as you propose, it appears the sons of God (the supposed righteous) are the ones who did wrong by taking wives from the daughters of men (the wicked); 3. It almost seems like the text starts over when it talks of the Nephilim, and it isn’t really clear what their role is in the overall passage, or whether the daughter of men bore children to them., but probably not. I take these types of things as showing how deep the word of God is. Nothing (most things) is (are) ever (never) decisively clear which goes to show we must show ourselves approved, rightly dividing the word of truth. Great stuff.

  2. Ed T August 25, 2020 at 10:45 am

    An excellent summation. Could you comment further, though, on the follow up phrase “the Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward”. How does this tie into the concept of the lineage of Seth and Cain coming together?

  3. Alvin Plummer August 25, 2020 at 1:17 pm

    A good article, on the Sons of God in Genesis 6.

  4. Samuel M. Frost, Th.M. August 26, 2020 at 4:23 am

    Thanks for posting this, brother. Excellent.

  5. Kenneth Gentry August 26, 2020 at 9:38 am

    Gen 6:4 reads: “The Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of men, and they bore children to them. Those were the mighty men who were of old, men of renown.”

    Keil and Delitzsch’s commentary notes that the word “Nephilim” is derived from niphal, which means “to fall upon” (see Job 1:15; Josh. 11:7). They explain that “the men of renown” are tyrants who were “called Nephilim because they fell upon the people and oppressed them…. The words, as they stand, represent the Nephilim, who were on the earth in those days, as existing before the sons of God began to marry the daughters of men, and clearly distinguish them from the fruits of these marriages. [The Hebrew here cannot] be rendered ‘they became, or arose,’ in this connection…. The expression ‘in those days’ refers most naturally to the time when God pronounced the sentence upon the degenerate race; but it is so general and comprehensive a terms, that it must not be confined exclusively to that time, not merely because the divine sentence was first pronounced after these marriages were contracted, and the marriages, if they did not produce the corruption, raised it to that fulness of iniquity which was ripe for the judgment, but still more because the words ‘after that’ represent the marriages which drew down the judgment as an event that followed the appearance of the Nephilim. “The same were mighty men:’ this might point back to the Nephilim; but it is a more natural supposition, that it refers to the children born to the sons of God. ‘These,’ i.e., the sons spurning from those marriages, ‘are the heroes, these renowned heroes of old.’”

    They continue: “Now if, according to the simple meaning of the passage, the Nephilim were in existence at the very time when the sons of God came in to the daughters of men, the appearance of the Nephilim cannot afford the slightest evidence that the ‘sons of God’ were angels, by whom a family of monsters were begotten, whether demigods, daemons, or angel-men.”

  6. Kenneth Gentry August 26, 2020 at 9:40 am

    See my response to Ed T. By the way, this article was written by R. C. Sproul, not by men.

  7. Joshua Stevens August 26, 2020 at 10:01 am

    Some pastors that I respect greatly, adhere to the “angels mating with women” theory. But in my own studies, seeing that Moses wrote Genesis, I tried to look at how Moses used the phrase “sons of God” in his other writings. The only other place that I found was Deuteronomy 14:1 (NASB), in which Moses says, “You are the sons of the LORD your God; you shall not cut yourselves nor shave your forehead for the sake of the dead.” And so, Moses uses that phrase to refer to God’s covenant people, not to angels. I think Moses used that phrase in Genesis 6, to demonstrate how detrimental it is for God’s people to intermarry with unbelievers.

  8. Fred V. Squillante August 26, 2020 at 12:55 pm

    ‘These,’ i.e., the sons spurning from those marriages, ‘are the heroes, these renowned heroes of old.’”

    Just for clarification, if believers intermarried with unbelievers, are you saying their offspring, the men of renown, are heroes? Also, I’m not sure if “spurned” is the word you meant to use, so can you explain what you mean there? Thanks.

  9. Kenneth Gentry August 26, 2020 at 1:47 pm

    Oops. Typo: “spurning” should have been “sprung.” By the way, these are not my words (except for the typo!). This a quotation from C. F. Keil in the classic Keil and Delitzsch Hebrew commentary on the OT.

    You are understanding Keil’s late-1800s use of the word “hero” in a more contemporary, positive sense. By “heroes” he simply means mighty tyrants who were well-known for their conquering strength. For instance the NASB translated the phraseology: “mighty men … of renown.” That is, well known warriors.

  10. pastor@abundantlifesimi.com August 26, 2020 at 3:06 pm

    Ken,

    Have you considered the presentation of Genesis 6 from Michael Heiser The Unseen Realm – Recovering the supernatural worldview of the Bible.

    I would value your insights.

    Pastor George

    Ps. Any word on your commentary on the book of Revelation

    ABUNDANT LIFE CHURCH

    Pastor George Taggart

    P.O. Box 940714

    Simi Valley, CA 93094-0714

    Phone: 805-603-4427

    Website: http://www.abundantlifesimi.com

  11. Kenneth Gentry August 26, 2020 at 4:38 pm

    I have the book but haven’t read it. I have been seeing some concerns about Heiser (even beyond his opposition to Six-day Creation).
    https://themileses.com/2019/06/17/unseen-realm/

  12. Fred V. Squillante August 26, 2020 at 7:26 pm

    Interesting. Two things: 1. An endorsement coming from Dallas Theological Seminary would not give me cause to think whatever it was critiquing was ok, especially a subject such as this 2. “The discoveries [of the Baal tablets in 1928] at Ugarit put all of that Old Testament History in context…” To put all that Old Testament History in context appears to me that they are rather dismissive of the Old Testament, and the book reviewer pretty much sums that up in citing Heiser’s interpreting the O.T according to pagan religions.

  13. Jason Elliott August 28, 2020 at 4:13 am

    I have always tried to deal with this passage in light of the creation mandate that plants, animals, and people always produce after their kind. To assert that a person can procreate with anything other than another person kicks open the door for evolution. Similar to John 3:6, which can also open the door for evolution unless we assert that it is the Holy Spirit that does the regenerating and not man changing his very nature by an act of his wicked, unregenerate heart.

  14. Ken "TrueFreeThinker" Ammi September 1, 2020 at 4:21 pm

    Dr. Gentry,
    Keil and Delitzsch seem to overlook that the text is telling us Nephilim who were on the earth in those days WHEN (as in: as a result of) the sons of God mated with the daughters of men.
    In those days refers to just that, the days when they mated (which v. 1 tells us was when men began to multiply upon the face of the earth and daughters were born unto them) so that “after that” merely means just that: when they first did so and after they first did so, so that they kept doing it, with those days and after that all being pre-flood–since, of course, only eight people and some animals survived the flood, Nephilim did not–nor did they return, nor will they, ever.

  15. Ken "TrueFreeThinker" Ammi September 1, 2020 at 4:23 pm

    Jason Elliott,
    Humans are made “a little lower than the angels” (Psalm 8:4) and Angels look just like human males (no wings, no halos, etc.) so since they can mate with us (even though they were not supposed to), as Jude and Peter affirm, then we are of the same kind.

  16. Kenneth Gentry September 2, 2020 at 9:54 am

    Actually, angels are fundamentally different from man. They are spirit beings who only take on a material form when necessary. They are never related by covenant marriage. They are God’s servants who minister to the needs of man.

  17. Kenneth Gentry September 2, 2020 at 9:56 am

    Keil and Delitzsch were two remarkable Hebrew scholars who were so competent and influential that their commentary is still be published over 100 years after their deaths. I don’t believe they overlook this point. They examined the Hebrew form and came to their conclusion.

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