The more obscure a passage of Scripture is, the more magnetizing it tends to be for interpreters. Genesis 6:1-4 is such a text.
1 When man began to multiply on the face of the land and daughters were born to them, 2 the sons of God saw that the daughters of man were attractive. And they took as their wives any they chose. 3 Then the Lord said, “My Spirit shall not abide in man forever, for he is flesh: his days shall be 120 years.” 4 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.
Interpreters have a love-hate relationship with this text; it carries enough intrigue to pull us along, but stabs us in the back when we start prodding its mysteries. Many questions arise from this passage, but two are pertinent to our study:
1. Who are the “sons of God?”
2. Who are the Nephilim?
First, we’ll discuss the “sons of God.”
There are three main interpretations. Each view has merit, but for the purpose of brevity, I’ll evaluate views 2 and 3 in Part 1. In Parts 2 and 3, I’ll delineate why I believe the first view has the most merit and also include a discussion on the Nephilim.
The three views are:
1. They are supernatural beings who have rebelled against God
Summary: The “sons of God” are malevolent supernatural beings who, out of rebellion, transgressed God’s design by forming abominable relationships with human women.
Strengths: It maintains the Old Testament’s usual meaning of “sons of God” (Deut. 32:8; Job 1:2; 2:1; 38:7). It’s the most natural way to understand the heavenly-earthly contrast between “God” and “men” (“sons of God” and “daughters of men”) in 6:2. This is the predominant view across the theological spectrum. It’s supported by the LXX, the Dead Sea Scrolls and the early church fathers.
Weaknesses: The idea of supernatural beings marrying and copulating with humans contradicts what’s said elsewhere in Scripture (Matt. 22:30; Mark 12:25). The reason for the flood, under this view, should be placed on the “sons of God” instead of humanity, but the immediate context says humanity is the reason for judgment (Gen. 6:5-7).
2. They are descendants of Seth
Summary: The “sons of God” are descendants of Seth and the “daughters of men” are the women from the Cainite line. The line of Seth was godly and should have been preserved, uncontaminated by the ungodliness of the descendants of Cain, but in intermarrying with them the Sethites abandoned such prerogatives.
Strengths: It alleviates the problems of the first view. It fits in with the Bible’s prominent theological motif of “remnant” or “faithful people.” The idea of “godliness” has already been introduced in the previous context (Gen. 4:26; 5:24, 29), so “sons of God” is merely propagating this concept.
Weaknesses: It takes a rare meaning of “sons of God,” especially without the author (or redactor) explaining why it’s used in such a nuanced way. “Daughters of men” denotes a group too universal and broad to be applied to a specific group (Cainites).
3. They are kings and rulers
Summary: The “sons of God” are kings, rulers or nobles who are thirsty for power, and their “marrying any woman they chose” helps them prove their succes via polygamy. They demanded more than what God has allotted to them, and therefore transgressed when attempting to obtain it for themselves.
Strengths: It alleviates the problems of the first view. In ancient times, kings and rulers were viewed as divine, so this interpretation fits well in this respect if we see Moses (or whoever wrote Genesis) using commonplace language of his day to describe nobility.
Weaknesses: It has weak textual support. Nowhere (either Biblically or extra-Biblically) are groups of kings and rulers called “sons of God.” It’s also difficult to see why accumulating many wives would usher in universal judgment of all flesh.
Something simultaneously abnormal and terrible was going on in the antediluvian world, as the need for worldwide judgment makes clear. If the flood was the effect, then what interpretation fits best with the cause?
Let’s deconstruct views 2 and 3. I lump them together because they are both offered as a response to the difficulty of the first view. Interpreters are uncomfortable with the first view and thus seek to find alternatives, but is this sound methodology?
Is there a way to alleviate the difficulty of the first view without losing the meaning of “sons of God”? I’ll argue that in part 2.
Now, the deconstruction:
The chief problem with the “sons of Seth” and “kings and rulers” views is that they both require rare denotations of “sons of God” (Psa. 29:1; 89:6). It isn’t until the New Testament when we see humans regularly described as such (Matt. 5:9; Luke 20:36; Rom. 8:14, 19; Gal. 3:26).
We have Biblical evidence that kings and rulers were called “sons of God” (2 Sam. 2:17; Psa. 82), but the phrase is used specifically to describe David and his line, not in the general way that Genesis 6:2 uses it. In addition, if this view is correct, why would the whole world need to be judged because of the polygamy of its nobility?
Viewing the “sons of God” as a hint towards “faithful people” theology, as the “Sethite” interpretation insists, is supported by a few verses in the previous chapters: 4:26, 5:24 and 5:29. Although tempting to view these three, coupled with the “sons of God” in 6:2, as precursors to a type of “faithful seed” theology, I don’t think “sons of God” carries the theological weight proponents of this view think it does. As stated before, it’s too unnatural to take “sons of God” in this way. And Genesis 4:26, 5:24 and 5:29 simply mean that people were seeking God in faith; the language in these three verses is too limited to give “sons of God” such a novel meaning. And when we consider the usage of “sons of God” elsewhere, it’s more reasonable to take it to mean “supernatural beings” here.
If the meaning of a word/phrase is clear in numerous parts of Scripture, and if that same word/phrase appears in a difficult passage, then why try to force a rare meaning onto the word/phrase just because it alleviates certain theological tensions in the natural reading? What if those tensions can be resolved without abandoning the natural reading (as I’ll argue in part 2)? When the difficulties of a passage cause friction with theological preferences, then extra care must be taken in interpretation due to the likelihood of tailoring the conclusion to fit one’s preferences.
In parts 2 and 3, I’ll work on the constructive part of the argument in defending the “supernatural beings” view; I’ll also tackle the mystery of the Nephilim.
In addition to writing at A Clear Lens, Alex Aili (B.A. in Biblical Studies) writes short stories and offers his musings about God’s hand in the world at Covert God: Redemption in Shadows. He is a novelist-in-progress who lives in northern MN with his wife and two sons. He thrives on coffee, good pipe tobacco and longs walks in the woods. See what he’s up to on Twitter.