Who Are the Sons of God, Daughters of Man, and Nephilim?
In Genesis 6:1–4, the reader encounters one of the most challenging passages in all of Scripture to interpret.
This was originally published by Mitch Chase on his Biblical Theology Substack as a five-part series.
In Genesis 6:1–4, the reader encounters one of the most challenging passages in all of Scripture to interpret. Here’s the passage in the ESV.
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.
Echoes from Genesis 1–3
People multiplying is an echo of Genesis 1. God made “man” (Gen 1:26–27), and then he commissioned his image-bearers to be fruitful and “multiply” (1:28). In 6:1, we read of this multiplication happening.
The reference to God “Spirit” in Genesis 6:3 reminds us of 1:2, the second verse in the Bible. There the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters, and in 6:3 the Lord’s Spirit shall no longer abide in image-bearers for extraordinary lengths of time. The limit of “his days shall be 120 years.”
Marriages are reported in Genesis 6:1–4, and marriage is rooted in Genesis 2. Adam and Eve were the first image-bearers, and they were the first married couple. Many generations later, marriages were happening in Genesis 6.
In Genesis 3, Eve’s sin occurs when she takes the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the tree God had forbidden his image-bearers to eat from. Note the language in 3:6: the woman “saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise,” so “she took of its fruit and ate.” In 6:2, the sons of God “saw” that the daughters of man were “attractive,” so they “took” as their wives any they chose. In Genesis 3 and 6, there was a “taking” of what someone “saw” as “desirable,” and this “taking” was something that should not have happened.
Sons and Daughters in Genesis 5
The four verses of Genesis 6:1–4 come right after a genealogy. In Genesis 5, we see a ten-member linear genealogy that takes us from Adam to Noah. The purpose of this genealogy is to take the reader to the days preceding the flood, and that means the days of Noah.
Some language in Genesis 5 is noteworthy for our purposes because the words “sons” and “daughters” in 6:1–4 occur in this genealogy as well. The genealogy implies marrying and having children, and long lives are reported right before the statement that the genealogy member “died.” Take Adam as an example. “The days of Adam after he fathered Seth were 800 years; and he had other sons and daughters. Thus all the days that Adam lived were 930 years, and he died” (5:4).
In Genesis 6:1–4 we read about marriages and about children born from these unions (6:2, 4). The long lives will now not exceed 120 years (6:3). And interestingly, the terms “sons” and “daughters” appear in 6:2. To be sure, these terms are part of larger phrases: “sons of God” and “daughters of man.”
In the Days of the Promised Flood
Having reviewed what comes before Genesis 6:1–4, let’s remember what comes after it. God beholds the widespread wickedness of the world and promises to judge his image-bearers (6:5–8).
So Genesis 6:1–4 occurs between a genealogy and a judgment. This judgment is a divine response to “the wickedness of man” that “was great in the earth” (6:5). Whatever 6:1–4 means, its literary placement suggests that the disobedience described there was part of what angered the Lord and resulted in a divine judgment that occurred in the days of Noah.
What are the ways interpreters have read 6:1–4?
Option 1: The Sons of God are Sethites
According to the Sethite view, the “sons of God” are the descendants of Seth. They are human beings only. Their marriages to “daughters of man” would be human marriages, and their offspring would be human children. If the Nephilim are considered the offspring of these unions, the Nephilim are not supernatural beings.
The distinction between the “sons of God” and “daughters of man” is a spiritual one. The godly line of Seth would be intermarrying with the daughters of man, and “of man” emphasizes that these “daughters” do not know the Lord. In the Sethite view, then, these marriages displease the Lord because they involve the joining together of believers and unbelievers.
Support for this view comes, first of all, from the immediately preceding chapter. In Genesis 5, the genealogy of Adam through Seth is traced to Noah. Genesis 5 reports family descent through birth of human “sons” and human “daughters.” Second, the prior chapters of Genesis have been interested in conflicting spiritual lines. We see Cain and Abel in Genesis 4. After Abel dies, the Lord gives Eve another son, Seth. And in Genesis 4, we see the respective lines of descent for Cain and Seth, lines we should contrast. Third, the Sethite view has the advantage of staying with the realm of humanity and not moving to the realm of angels, so there may be less initial objection to strangeness. The non-human views of the “sons of God” must deal with the accompanying oddities which the Sethite view can avoid. Fourth, 6:1–4 reports marriages, and throughout the Old and New Testaments we see human beings getting married. Jesus says in Matthew 22:30 that the angels in heaven do not marry.
Option 2: The Sons of God are Human Kings
The “human king” view understands that in the ancient Near East, a king might be viewed as divine or partly divine, a “son” of the gods. In Genesis 6:1–4, then, the “sons of God” would be human kings who have relationships with human women. These human women became wives to these “sons of God.”
According to the human king—or royal son—view, the offspring of these marriages would be mighty people, the Nephilim, who were human offspring.
Support for this view includes, first, the recognition that in Psalm 2:7 and 2 Samuel 7:13–13, a renowned “son” can be a king. Indeed, in Psalm 2:7, the royal son is a son of God. Second, the view avoids the entanglements that a supernatural explanation brings to the question of who the “sons of God” are. Third, the marriages are human marriages, in keeping with Jesus’s statement in Matthew 22:30 that the angels in heaven do not marry.
Option 3: The Sons of God are Angels, and the Nephilim are Their Offspring
Options 3 and 4 both view the sons of God as angels—rebellious angels. The nefarious activity in Genesis 6:1–4 would be evil spirits acting in ways that further provoke the judgment of God. The spirits would be acting directly with women, or they are possessing men who are acting directly with women.
According to Option 3, the “sons of God” are the angels who engage in sexual activity with human women (“the daughters of man”), and the result of their union are beings known as the Nephilim. The Nephilim would be demonic offspring.
Support for this view of the “sons of God” comes from several directions. First, the use of the phrase “sons of God” in the Old Testament can refer to angels. Such a phrase seems to distinguish this group from the “daughters of man,” which would naturally refer to human beings. Second, though angels in heaven do not marry (Matt 22:30), the activity described in Genesis 6:1–4 is earthly and not heavenly. Third, the Nephilim in Genesis 6:4 are called “mighty men who were of old, the men of renown.” This language seems to suggest incredible stature and strength, a might that warrants a spiritual—and not merely human—explanation. Fourth, in Peter and Jude’s writings in the New Testament, they seem to confirm rebellious angelic activity in the days of Noah.
Option 4: The Sons of God are Angels, but the Nephilim are Not Their Offspring
This view has a lot of overlap with Option 3, because the identities of the “sons of God” and the “daughters of man” are the same. The sons of God are rebellious angels, and the daughters of man are human women. Marriages take place, and offspring are born.
But in Option 4, the Nephilim are not the children of these marriages. Instead, the biblical author clarifies that these marriages and the offspring were taking place in the days of the Nephilim.
Support for this view is multifaceted. First, the phrase “sons of God” in the Old Testament can refer to angels. Second, the rebellious angelic activity would be on earth, thus avoiding the specific language in Matthew 22:30 that angels in heaven do not marry. Third, Peter and Jude’s writings in the New Testament seem to confirm rebellious angelic activity in the days of Noah. Fourth, the Nephilim in Genesis 6:4 are never actually called the offspring of the marriages between the sons of God and daughters of man. Paying careful attention to the language, we notice that the Nephilim were on earth at the same time as the illicit marriages were happening, and this report distinguishes the Nephilim from these relationships. In other words, the presence of the Nephilim preceded the offspring of the illicit marriages. Fifth, Numbers 13:33 mentions the Israelite spies seeing “the Nephilim (the sons of Anak, who come from the Nephilim), and we seemed to ourselves like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them.” If Nephilim in Genesis 6:4 referred to mighty warriors and not to demonic offspring, the reference in Numbers 13:33 makes sense. If the Nephilim were demonic offspring (like Option 3 asserts), then their death in the flood would seem to conflict with the later reference to their presence in Canaan (in Num 13:33).
Bible readers might be surprised to learn that the oldest Jewish interpretation of the “sons of God” is that they are angels. And the oldest view about the Nephilim is that they are the offspring of the sons of God and daughters of man.
Pre-Christian history of interpretation of Genesis 6:1–4.
In extant manuscripts of the Septuagint, some have the words “sons of God” in Genesis 6:2, and others have the words “angels of God.” This variation indicates that the “sons of God” could be understood as angels.
During the era known as the Second Temple Period (from approximately 516 BC to AD 70), there were documents in the intertestamental years that speak to the rebellious activity of angels in the days of Noah. Particularly relevant are 1 Enoch and the book of Jubilees. Some excerpts:
In 1 Enoch 6:2–3 we read, “And the angels, the children of the heaven, saw and lusted after them, and said to one another: ‘Come, let us choose us wives from among the children of men and beget us children.’”
In 1 Enoch 7:1–3 we read, “And all the others together with them took unto themselves wives, and each chose for himself one, and they began to go in unto them and to defile themselves with them, and they taught them charms and enchantments, and the cutting of roots, and made them acquainted with plants. And they became pregnant, and they bore great giants…”
In 1 Enoch 15:3–10 we read, “Wherefore have ye left the high, holy, and eternal heaven, and lain with women, and defiled yourselves with the daughters of men and taken to yourselves wives, and done like the children of earth, and begotten giants (as your) sons? And though ye were holy, spiritual, living the eternal life, you have defiled yourselves with the blood of women, and have begotten (children) with the blood of flesh, and, as the children of men, have lusted after flesh and blood as those also do who die and perish. Therefore have I given them wives also that they might impregnate them, and beget children by them, that thus nothing might be wanting to them on earth. But you were formerly spiritual, living the eternal life, and immortal for all generations of the world. And therefore I have not appointed wives for you; for as for the spiritual ones of the heaven, in heaven is their dwelling. And now, the giants, who are produced from the spirits and flesh, shall be called evil spirits upon the earth, and on the earth shall be their dwelling. Evil spirits have proceeded from their bodies; because they are born from men and from the holy Watchers is their beginning and primal origin; they shall be evil spirits on earth, and evil spirits shall they be called.”
In Jubilees 7:25–26 we read, “For owing to these three things came the flood upon the earth, namely, owing to the fornication wherein the Watchers against the law of their ordinances went a whoring after the daughters of men, and took themselves wives of all which they chose: and they made the beginning of uncleanness.”
Dead Sea Scrolls
Among the Dead Sea Scrolls, here are two relevant excerpts, one from Genesis Apocryphon [1QapGen] and another from the Damascus Document [CD].
Noah’s father Lamech had concerns about his son. According to 1QapGen, “Then I considered whether the pregnancy was due to the Watchers and Holy Ones, or (should be ascribed) to the Nephil[im], and I grew perturbed about this child.”
According to CD 2:16–19, “For many have gone astray by such thoughts, even strong and doughty men of old faltered through them, and still do. When they went about in their willful heart, the of Heaven fell and were ensnared by it, for they did not observe the commandments of God. Their sons, who were as tall as cedars, and whose bodies were as big as mountains fell by it.”
In Philo’s work On the Giants, he quotes from the LXX of Genesis 6:1–4 using the terms “angels” and “giants.” In 2.6.2 he says, “Those beings, whom other philosophers call demons, Moses usually calls angels; and they are souls hovering in the air.”
In Josephus’s work Antiquities of the Jews, he says in 1.73, “For many angels of God accompanied with women, and begat sons that proved unjust, and despisers of all that was good, on account of the confidence they had in their own strength; for the tradition is, that these men did what resembled the acts of those whom the Grecians call giants.”
In Targum Pseudo-Jonathan 6:1–4, we read, “And it came to pass when the sons of men began to multiply on the face of the ground, and beautiful daughters were born to them, that the sons of the great ones saw that the daughters of men were beautiful, with eyes painted and hair curled, walking in nakedness of flesh, and they conceived lustful thoughts; and they took them wives of all they chose. . . . Shamhazai and Azael fell from heaven and were on earth in those days, and also after that, when the sons of the great ones came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare children to them: the same are called men of the world, the men of renown.”
In the 2nd century AD and in later writings, some Jewish interpretation leaned away from the “sons of God as angels” view and toward seeing the “sons of God” as human rulers or judges. According to Genesis Rabbah 26, Rabbi Simeon bar Yochai said the “sons of God” were judges, and he cursed anyone who called them angels.
From the Babylonian Talmud, we read in Sanh. 108a the explanation from Rabbi Jose: “They waxed haughty only on account of covetousness of the eyeball, which is like water, as it is written, And they took wives from all they chose. Therefore he punished them by water, which is like the eyeball, as it is written, All the fountains of the great deep were broken up, and the windows of heaven were opened.” Rabbi Jose is discussing the disobedience of Noah’s generation, and the view is non-supernatural. Disobedient people engaged in illicit marriages.
Summary of the pre-Christian history of interpretation.
The ancient understanding about the identity of the “sons of God” is the angel view. Multiple textual witnesses in the intertestamental period and in the first century AD confirm this. However, after the first century AD, there were Jewish writings that leaned away from the “fallen angels” interpretation. Such writings adopted a non-supernatural view of the “sons of God,” but the “angel” view did not fade away entirely.
How did the early church fathers interpret Genesis 6:1–4?
In the first few centuries of the church, the prevailing interpretation was that the “sons of God” were angels rebelling against God and committing sexual sin with human women. And the offspring of these unions were the Nephilim.
Let’s consider some primary sources for evidence. These sources will be from the first four hundred years of church history.
The Sons of God are Rebel Angels
The following excerpts from primary sources adopt the position that the “sons of God” are rebel angels.
Clement of Rome
Clement of Rome lived in the 1st century AD.
From his Clementine Homilies, he wrote in Homily 8.13: “But when, having assumed these forms, they convicted as covetous those who stole them, and changed themselves into the nature of men, in order that, living holily, and showing the possibility of so living, they might subject the ungrateful to punishment, yet having become in all respects men, they also partook of human lust, and being brought under its subjection they fell into cohabitation with women; and being involved with them, and sunk into defilement and altogether emptied of their power, were unable to turn back to the first purity of their proper nature, their members turned away from their fiery substance: for the fire itself, being exhausted by the weight of lust, and changed into flesh, they trode the impious path downward. For they themselves, being fettered with bonds of flesh, were constrained and strongly bound; wherefore they have no more been able to ascend into the heavens.”
And from Homily 8.15, “But from their unhallowed intercourse spurious men sprang, much greater in stature than ordinary men, whom they afterwards called giants; not those dragon-footed giants who waged war against God, as those blasphemous myths of the Greeks do sing, but wild in manners, and greater than men in size, inasmuch as they were sprung of angels; yet less than angels, as they were born of women.”
Justin Martyr lived from approximately AD 100 to 165. In Chapter 5 of his work The Second Apology, he says:
“But the angels transgressed this appointment, and were captivated by love of women, and begat children who are those that are called demons; and besides, they afterwards subdued the human race to themselves, partly by magical writings, and partly by fears and the punishments they occasioned, and partly by teaching them to offer sacrifices, and incense, and libations, of which things they stood in need after they were enslaved by lustful passions; and among men they sowed murders, wars, adulteries, intemperate deeds, and all wickedness. Whence also the poets and mythologists, not knowing that it was the angels and those demons who had been begotten by them that did these things to men, and women, and cities, and nations, which they related, ascribed them to god himself, and to those who were accounted to be his very offspring, and to the offspring of those who were called his brothers, Neptune and Pluto, and to the children again of these their offspring. For whatever name each of the angels had given to himself and his children, by that name they called them.”
Athenagorus lived from approximately AD 133 to 190.
In his work, Plea for the Christians, he said in 24.81, “Some, free agents, you will observe, such as they were created by God, continued in those things for which God had made and over which He had ordained them; but some outraged both the constitution of their nature and the government entrusted to them: namely, this ruler of matter and its various forms, and others of those who were placed about this first firmament (you know that we say nothing without witnesses, but state the things which have been declared by the prophets); these fell into impure love of virgins, and were subjugated by the flesh, and he became negligent and wicked in the management of the things entrusted to him. Of these lovers of virgins, therefore, were begotten those who are called giants.”
Irenaeus lived from approximately AD 130 to 202.
In his work Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching, Irenaeus wrote in Section 18, “And for a very long while wickedness extended and spread, and reached and laid hold upon the whole race of mankind, until a very small seed of righteousness remained among them and illicit unions took place upon the earth, since angels were united with the daughters of the race of mankind; and they bore to them sons who for their exceeding greatness were called giants.”
Clement of Alexandria
Clement of Alexandria lived from approximately AD 150 to 215.
In Book 5 of his Miscellanies, Clement said, “To which also we shall add, that the angels who had obtained the superior rank, having sunk into pleasures, told to the women the secrets which had come to their knowledge; while the rest of the angels concealed them, or rather, kept them against the coming of the Lord.”
Tertullian lived from approximately AD 155 to 240.
In Chapter 7 of On the Veiling of Virgins, Tertullian said, “For if it is on account of the angels— those, to wit, whom we read of as having fallen from God and heaven on account of concupiscence after females— who can presume that it was bodies already defiled, and relics of human lust, which such angels yearned after, so as not rather to have been inflamed for virgins, whose bloom pleads an excuse for human lust likewise? For thus does Scripture withal suggest: ‘And it came to pass,’ it says, ‘when men had begun to grow more numerous upon the earth, there were withal daughters born them; but the sons of God, having descried the daughters of men, that they were fair, took to themselves wives of all whom they elected.’ For here the Greek name of women does seem to have the sense ‘wives,’ inasmuch as mention is made of marriage. When, then, it says ‘the daughters of men,’ it manifestly purports virgins, who would be still reckoned as belonging to their parents— for wedded women are called their husbands’— whereas it could have said ‘the wives of men:’ in like manner not naming the angels adulterers, but husbands, while they take unwedded ‘daughters of men,’ who it has above said were ‘born,’ thus also signifying their virginity: first, ‘born;’ but here, wedded to angels.”
Commodianus lived in the 3rd century AD.
In his work Instructions, Commodianus said in Chapter 3, “When Almighty God, to beautify the nature of the world, willed that that earth should be visited by angels, when they were sent down they despised His laws. Such was the beauty of women, that it turned them aside; so that, being contaminated, they could not return to heaven. Rebels from God, they uttered words against Him. Then the Highest uttered His judgment against them; and from their seed giants are said to have been born.”
Lactantius lived in the 4th century AD.
In his Divine Institutes, 2.15, Lactantius wrote, “When, therefore, the number of men had begun to increase, God in His forethought, lest the devil, to whom from the beginning He had given power over the earth, should by his subtlety either corrupt or destroy men, as he had done at first, sent angels for the protection and improvement of the human race; and inasmuch as He had given these a free will, He enjoined them above all things not to defile themselves with contamination from the earth, and thus lose the dignity of their heavenly nature. He plainly prohibited them from doing that which He knew that they would do, that they might entertain no hope of pardon. Therefore, while they abode among men, that most deceitful ruler of the earth, by his very association, gradually enticed them to vices, and polluted them by intercourse with women.”
Ambrose lived in the 4th century AD.
In Noah and the Ark 4.8, Ambrose said, “ ‘The giants (Nephilim) were on the Earth in those days.’ The author of the divine Scripture does not mean that those giants must be considered, according to the tradition of poets, as sons of the earth but asserts that those whom he defines with such a name because of the extraordinary size of their body were generated by angels and women.”
The Sons of God Are Descendants of Seth
The following excerpts from primary sources adopt the position that the “sons of God” are human descendants from the line of Seth.
Julius Africanus lived from approximately AD 160 to 240.
In his Passion of St. Symphorosa and Her Seven Sons, Julius said in Fragment 2, “When men multiplied on the earth, the angels of heaven came together with the daughters of men. In some copies I found ‘the sons of God.’ What is meant by the Spirit, in my opinion, is that the descendants of Seth are called the sons of God on account of the righteous men and patriarchs who have sprung from him, even down to the Saviour Himself; but that the descendants of Cain are named the seed of men, as having nothing divine in them, on account of the wickedness of their race and the inequality of their nature, being a mixed people, and having stirred the indignation of God.”
Athanasius of Alexandria
Athanasius of Alexandria lived in the 4th century AD.
In his Interpretationes ex Veto Testamento, Athanasius said in Quaestio 65, “From Adam Seth was born, who was the third after Abel, and from Seth Enosh was born. He hoped to be called the Lord and God. Therefore the children born from him bear the name ‘sons of God’, just like we also from the name of the master Christ are called Christians. The race of Seth was segregated and not mixed with the race of Cain because of the curse which was laid on him by the God of the universe. But later, when they observed how beautiful the daughters of Cain’s family were, they became enchanted and took them for themselves as wives, thus ruining their ancestral nobility.
John Chrysostom lived in the 4th century AD.
In his Homilies on Genesis, Chrysostom said in Homily 22, “We made the point before in teaching you that it is customary with Scripture to call human beings sons of God. So, since these people took their origin from Seth and from his son named Enosh those descended from him in future were called sons of God by Sacred Scripture for the reason of their imitation of the virtue of their ancestors up to his time. On the other hand, he gave the name sons of men to those born after Seth, the descendants of Cain and those taking their descent from him.”
Augustine lived from AD 354 to 430.
In Chapter 22 of The City of God, Augustine said, “When the human race, in the exercise of this freedom of will, increased and advanced, there arose a mixture and confusion of the two cities by their participation in a common iniquity. And this calamity, as well as the first, was occasioned by woman, though not in the same way; for these women were not themselves betrayed, neither did they persuade the men to sin, but having belonged to the earthly city and society of the earthly, they had been of corrupt manners from the first, and were loved for their bodily beauty by the sons of God, or the citizens of the other city which sojourns in this world.”
Cyril of Alexandria
Cyril of Alexandria lived from approximately AD 376 to 444.
In his Glaphyra in Genesim 2.1, he said, “That we rightly understand this passage is also very much confirmed by the interpretation of the other translators. Aquila says: ‘When the sons of the gods saw the daughters of men’. On the other hand, instead of ‘sons of the gods’, Symmachus rendered the expression as ‘sons of the rulers’. They called the descendants of Seth and of Enosh sons of the gods, or better, sons of the rulers, because of the piety and godliness which was in them, and because they could defeat all adversaries: while God, I suppose, in all likelihood came to their aid, and made known all around this pious and holy generation, which was not mixed with that other one, that is to say, with the descendants from Cain and, what is more, from Lamech.”
Summary of early Christian interpretation.
The earliest view of the “sons of God” among the church fathers was that these were rebel angels who engaged in sexual sin with human women. This was the prevailing view in the first four centuries of the early church.
From the 4th century AD onward, the “Sethite” view—that the “sons of God” in Genesis 6:2 were human descendants of Seth—gained traction.
The most persuasive view?
I’m most persuaded by the view that the “sons of God” are rebel angels and that the Nephilim are not their offspring. As I’m presenting the argument below, I will address possible objections to this view along the way.
The Phrase “Sons of God”
While the word “son” and “sons” has appeared in Genesis prior to Genesis 6:1–4, the phrase “sons of God” appears for the first time in 6:2. And in later biblical texts, “sons of God” clearly refers to angels. The exact construction (בני האלהים) occurs only five times in the Old Testament: in Genesis 6:2, Genesis 6:4, Job 1:6, Job 2:1, and Job 38:7.
Since we’re trying to discern what’s going on in Genesis 6:2 and 6:4, let’s look at the three occurrences in Job.
In Job 1:6 we read, “Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the LORD, and Satan also came among them.” The “sons of God” here are angels.
In Job 2:1, “Again there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the LORD.” And again, the “sons of God” here are angels.
In Job 38:6–7, “On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone, when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” Here, once more, the “sons of God” are angels.
Because of the way the expression “sons of God” is used in Job, the case is strengthened that the expression in Genesis 6:2 and 6:4 is referring to angelic beings.
In the context of Genesis 6:2, “sons of God” appears distinct from the use of “man” and the “daughters” who were born to “man” in 6:1. In other words, 6:1 is about how “man” multiplied and daughters were born to them. Then 6:2 refers to “daughters” again, this time calling them “daughters of man.” Perhaps we should see the language of “man” and “daughters” in 6:1 and 6:2 as drawing a distinction between humans and the “sons of God” in 6:2. The “sons of God” would be nonhuman.
Important to notice is that the Sethite view suffers from the fact that there is no mention of Seth at all in 6:1–4. We read about people multiplying, daughters being born, and then beings known as “the sons of God” saw that these daughters were desirable and took any they chose to be wives (6:2).
Angels Who Marry?
Readers might shake their heads here and insist, “Jesus said angels do not marry.” That’s partly correct. When Jesus spoke about angels not marrying, the entirety of his statement was this: “For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven” (Matt. 22:30).
Jesus’s words about angels in heaven do not have to govern everything possible for rebel angels on the earth. The Sethite view has overstretched the language of Matthew 22:30.
When we read Genesis 6:4, we see that “the sons of God came in to the daughters of man and they bore children to them.” The sexual activity is plain and not subtle. If the sons of God are rebel angels, then illicit sexual activity is taking place in unions with human women.
Readers may scratch their heads and say, “How is it that angelic beings are doing things that humans do?” This is a valid question. Consider, though, that in Genesis there are angels who do things that seem to be what humans do. For example, in Genesis 18 there are angels who go to Abraham’s tent, and they appear as men (18:2, 16, 22). They rested under a tree and ate the food that Sarah made (18:4–8). Two of these “men” are later called “angels” (19:1).
What if we admit that we do not know everything there is to know about the invisible realm, the realm of angels and demons? Could it be these rebel “sons of God” appeared as humans and were capable of human activities?
For the longest time the Sethite view was appealing to me because the “sons of God are angels” view seemed so strange. Yet the strangeness of an interpretation cannot be decisive. In Genesis, a snake tempts a woman. In Exodus, walls of Red Sea water stand at attention. In Numbers, a donkey speaks to a pagan prophet. In Jonah, a fish swallows a wayward prophet. Quite frankly, the Bible is full of strange stories. Don’t reject the “sons of God are angels” view because of how strange it seems.
The View of Peter and Jude
Part of the exercise of biblical theology is paying attention to how later texts interpret earlier texts. Would you be open to the idea that there are New Testament passages interpreting what happened in Genesis 6:1–4?
Clearly in Genesis 6:1–4, the “sons of God” are committing sexual sin in the days of Noah. What ultimately convinced me that the “sons of God” are rebel angels is the evidence from the letters of 1–2 Peter and Jude. They seem to be writing statements that show awareness of the prevailing intertestamental reading of Genesis 6:1–4, and they seem to affirm that reading.
In 1 Peter 3:18, Christ is the righteous who died for the unrighteous. And in 1 Peter 3:19–20 we’re told that “he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water.”
According to 1 Peter 3, there were beings who sinned in the days of Noah, and those beings are now being held in judgment—“spirits in prison.” Could Peter be interpreting Genesis 6:1–4 to include acts of angelic disobedience? If so, then the rebel angels would be the “sons of God” in that passage.
But let’s keep looking. In 2 Peter 2:4–10, “For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to chains of gloomy darkness to be kept until the judgment; if he did not spare the ancient world, but preserved Noah, a herald of righteousness, with seven others, when he brought a flood upon the world of the ungodly; if by turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to ashes he condemned them to extinction, making them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly; and if he rescued righteous Lot, greatly distressed by the sensual conduct of the wicked (for as that righteous man lived among them day after day, he was tormenting his righteous soul over their lawless deeds that he saw and heard); then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment until the day of judgment, and especially those who indulge in the lust of defiling passion and despise authority.”
There’s a lot going on in that 2 Peter 2 passage, too much to handle in one article. But a few observations are relevant for our purposes. Peter is asserting that God knows how to deliver the righteous and handle the wicked, and Peter marshals forth evidence from the Old Testament as proof. Working backward, we notice that 2:7 mentions the rescue of Lot and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, which occurred in Genesis 19. What other story does he mention? The sinning of angels in the days of Noah. There isn’t a passage besides Genesis 6 that corresponds to his claim.
According to 2 Peter 2, angels sinned in the days of Noah, and they were put in chains until the judgment. Doesn’t this sound like the same teaching in 1 Peter 3, where spirits were being kept in prison for disobeying the Lord in the days of Noah? Apparently, 1 Peter 3 and 2 Peter 2 are talking about the same event—what happened in Genesis 6:1–4 with the “sons of God.”
Genesis 6:2 calls the sinning beings “sons of God,” and Peter calls them “spirits” and “angels.” According to 2 Peter 2:10, they engaged in the “lust of defiling passion” and despised “authority.” The activity of the “sons of God” in Genesis 6:1–4 was a manifestation of angelic rebellion against God.
Let’s add Jude. According to Jude 6–7, “And the angels who did not stay within their own position of authority, but left their proper dwelling, he has kept in eternal chains under gloomy darkness until the judgment of the great day—just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which likewise indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural desire, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire.”
Do you notice how Jude’s words are similar to Peter’s words? In Jude 7, he brings up judgment on Sodom and Gomorrah, which took place in Genesis 19. And in Jude 6, he mentions angels who rejected their proper position and authority, and these angels are now “kept in eternal chains under gloomy darkness” until the day of judgment. Moreover, the reference to Sodom and Gomorrah in Jude 7 includes the language “likewise indulged in sexual immorality…” Likewise. Jude 7 is about sexual immorality, and so is Jude 6.
To recap: 1 Peter 3:19–20, 2 Peter 2:4–10, and Jude 6–7 are all talking about the same thing, the sexual sin of rebel angels in Genesis 6:1–4. In the letters of Peter and Jude, we are getting an inspired interpretation of what happened. They give clarity as to the identity of the “sons of God,” and the authors confirm the displeasure and judgment of God in response to those sinful actions.
I’ve argued above for the view that the “sons of God” in Genesis 6:1–4 are rebel angels. And now I want to consider the identity of the Nephilim. What does the passage specifically tell us?
First, we’re told that 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” (Gen. 6:4). The presence of the Nephilim was parallel to the period of time when unions between the “sons of God” and the “daughters of man” were taking place.
Second, the Nephilim were on the earth “also afterward,” which means after the flood judgment. Though God’s judgment caused everyone to perish who wasn’t inside the ark, the Nephilim were on the earth “afterward.” This isn’t because they were supernatural. The Nephilim were human warriors, which brings us to the third point.
Third, speaking of the Nephilim, the author says, “These were the mighty men who were of old, the men of renown” (Gen. 6:4). They’re called men—mighty men, even giants (think: Goliath). The book of Numbers mentions the Nephilim too. The twelve spies came back with the report that said, “And there we saw the Nephilim (the sons of Anak, who come from the Nephilim), and we seemed to ourselves like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them” (Num. 13:33). Genesis 6:4 and Numbers 13:33 speak with one voice about the Nephilim: they are mighty men.
I get the impression from Genesis 6:4 and Numbers 13:33 that the Nephilim are not supernatural creatures. I don’t think they’re the offspring of the “sons of God” and “daughters of man.” Rather, the Nephilim existed during the same days when the “sons of God” were committing rebellious acts of immorality with human women.
In the preceding sections, I argued for the view that the “sons of God” are rebel angels and that the Nephilim are human mighty men rather than supernatural offspring. When we consider how the exact expression “sons of God” was used outside Genesis 6, we’re left with Job 1:6, 2:1, and 38:7—three verses which all use “sons of God” to refer to angels.
In addition to this lexical observation, we have the compelling evidence of Peter and Jude’s letters, letters which mention sinning angels during the days of Noah. Peter and Jude are interpreting earlier Scripture (specifically, Gen. 6:1–4), and they are identifying the “sons of God” for us with language like “spirits” and “angels.”
Earlier in this article, we also considered how Jesus’s words in Matthew 22:30 and the overall strangeness of the “sons of God are angels” view are not defeaters to the view. In fact, the ancient Jewish interpretation—as well as the earliest Christian interpretation—of Genesis 6:1–4 is that the “sons of God” are rebel angels who committed sexual sin in unions with human women. And I think this ancient view is correct.