Several views exist regarding the identity of the sons of God in Gen 6. These interpretations also affect how we should understand biblical references to supernatural beings including angels and foreign gods.
Sons of God as Divine Beings
The sons of God may be divine beings (e.g., angels). If so, the sin in question was a transgression of the human realm by these heavenly beings. Their involvement with human women led to a widespread breakdown in morality and an increase in wickedness and corruption. The offspring of these unions, the nephilim (Gen 6:4), were considered quasi-divine and possessed unusual height (“giants”).
This was the dominant view among Jewish and Christian thinkers until after the fourth century AD, when Augustine championed an alternative (see below). It was also the exclusive view until the mid-second century AD. It appears in early Jewish works that comment on the stories of Genesis (1 Enoch 6; Jubilees 5), the Septuagint, Philo (De Gigant 2:358), Josephus (Ant. 1.31), and the Dead Sea Scrolls (1QapGen 2:1; CD 2:17–19); as well as the works of early Christian scholars such as Justin, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, and Origen.
The view is based on the fact that elsewhere in the OT, the phrase “sons of God” (benei [ha]-elohim in Gen 6:2, 4) is used exclusively for divine beings (Job 1:6; 2:1; 38:7). Similar phrases, along with overt references to plural divine beings (elohim, elim), also appear in the OT (Psa 29:1; 82:6; 89:6). Furthermore, all of these phrases and terms appear in Canaanite literature contemporary with the biblical world to speak of divine beings.
Those who object to the “angelic view” predominantly argue that the “sons of God” in Gen 6:2, 4 should be understood as human beings. This argument focuses on references to both the nation of Israel and Israel’s king as “my firstborn son” (Exod 4:22; Jer 31:9; Psa 2:7). Also, the Israelites are called “sons of the living God” in Hos 1:10. Some also object to the angelic view on the grounds that it contradicts Matt 22:29–30 (compare Mark 12:24–25; Luke 20:34–36), where Jesus says that the angels in heaven do not marry. Neither does God punish the angels in Gen 6, which would seem necessary if they acted immorally.
Sons of God as Human Rulers
The sons of God may be human rulers—kings. Thus, “daughters of men” may refer to the harems of these kings. In this case, the sin in question would be polygamy. The offspring would be humans born into the kingly line.
The earliest date for the “human rulers view” is the mid-second century AD. This view developed in rejection of the idea that angels could engage in sexual intercourse.
Evidence for this view comes from the reference to the Davidic king as the son of God in Psa 2:7 (compare 2 Sam 7:14; 1 Chr 17:13). It is further supported by other ancient Near Eastern beliefs that kings were divine or semi-divine. Additionally, the “mythological” sense of the angelic view is absent from this interpretation.
However, the major weakness of this view is its inability to account for the unusual offspring, or nephilim (Gen 6:4; compare Num 13:33). Also, while ancient Near Eastern parallels refer to individual kings as sons of the Gods, there are no instances where the plural phrase (“sons of God”) refers to human royalty. Furthermore, while ancient Near Eastern cultures considered their kings to be divine or quasi-divine, no ancient Near Eastern evidence exists for an aristocratic household at large being considered divine sons.
Sons of God as Godly Descendants of Seth
In the fourth century AD, Augustine argued that the sons of God are the godly male descendants of Seth. Here, the “daughters of men” represent the ungodly females of Cain’s line. The sin is the intermarriage of godly and ungodly humans, and the offspring are humans.
There are several weaknesses to this view. First, nowhere in the OT are Sethites identified as the sons of God. Second, this view forces two divergent meanings on the Hebrew word ʾadam in Gen 6:1–2: the term would have to mean “mankind” in Gen 6:1, but a specific group of humans—the Cainites—in Gen 6:2. Additionally, this view implies that all the women of Cain’s line were ungodly, whereas all the men of Seth’s line were godly. While this might be averted by noting that no law existed prohibiting intermarriage of any kind prior to the great flood, this would in turn undermine the entire premise of the view. Also, since only Noah and his family were considered godly in the days of the flood, we can presume that the vast majority of Seth’s descendants were far from godly; Seth had more than one descendant (Gen 5:7). Lastly, the daughters born in the previous chapter of Genesis were born to Seth’s line, not Cain’s—the precise opposite of what this explanation requires.
New Testament Views
The NT writers seem to accept the angelic view—a position especially supported by two passages. In 2 Pet 2:5, God “did not spare the angels who sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to chains of gloomy darkness to be kept until the judgment.” The next verse situates the sin and punishment at the time of the flood: “[God] did not spare the ancient world, but preserved Noah, a herald of righteousness, with seven others.…” The writer connects this illustration to “sensuality” (2 Pet 2:2) and “the lust of defiling passion and despis[ing of] authority” (2 Pet 2:10). More specifically, he strikes an analogy with the sexual sins of Sodom and Gomorrah (2 Pet 2:6–7). The passage therefore indicates angelic sin of a sexual nature at the time of the flood.
The letter of Jude (Jude 5–7) takes the same view using some of the same contexts. While Jude does not refer to Noah and the Flood as 2 Peter does (2 Pet 2:5), both passages reference the same episode. Second Peter and Jude demonstrate that the episode of Gen 6 involved “angels,” and a decision made by those divine beings to cross a divinely-ordained boundary (“authority”; “proper dwelling”).
The angelic view may be taken in fully literal terms—presuming that embodied angels occupy genuine human flesh with all its abilities. There are many examples in Scripture of angels (and even God) taking physical human form (Gen 18:1–8; 32:22–32; Exod 23:20–23; Judg 6, 13). In Gen 18:1–8 (compare Gen 18:22; 19:1, 13, 15), God and the angels eat a meal—something they need not do as spirit beings. The Bible consistently portrays angels in human form (and even as flesh) when coming to earth.
The angelic view may also be considered a metaphor of cosmic rebellion, and the offspring of these “unions” a metaphor of good versus evil. However, no such cosmic rebellion is described in the Bible. While Rev 12:7–9 is often offered in support of such a description, that passage does not describe a primeval casting out of fallen angels. It correlates the event of Rev 12:7–9 to the birth of Christ (Rev 12:1–4), the resurrection (Rev 12:5), and the plight of Israel (the woman of Rev 12:6) leading to the final conflict before the consummation of God’s kingdom (Rev 12:6, 10–17; see Dan 12:1–3). Since Rev 12:10 clearly links the expulsion of Satan and his angels to the work of Christ, the context is post-flood.
MICHAEL S. HEISER
Barry, J. D., Heiser, M. S., Custis, M., Mangum, D., & Whitehead, M. M. (2012). Faithlife Study Bible. Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.