Who are the “sons of God” in Genesis 6:1–4?

by | Jan 6, 2023 | Ask the Pastors

QUESTION

What’s up with the “sons of God” in Genesis 6:1–4? Who are they?

ANSWER

We suspected we might get this question eventually. 😄 And I’m sorry, I always initially expect these answers to be shorter than they end up being. Alas!

We think there are two explanations of the identity of these “sons of God” worth considering.

1. Angelic Beings

One explanation is that these are angelic beings who had sexual relations with human women, even producing giant offspring known as the “Nephilim.” This interpretation was the predominant one from before the time of Christ up through the 4th century AD. For the following reasons, I (Pastor McNeilly) believe this is the correct interpretation.

1. It’s the plainest reading of the text.

Nearly everyone who comes to this passage immediately reads it as saying that angelic beings had sexual relations with human women and produced giant offspring. Only when we hear an interpretation that provides an alternative to this supernatural explanation do we breathe a sigh of relief, thankful that we don’t have to believe something that sounds so…weird. However, if there seems to be a plain interpretation of something in Scripture, the burden of proof should be on explaining why a less obvious interpretation is a better one.

2. Peter and Jude seemed to think these were angels.

I believe Peter and Jude reference this exact event from Genesis 6 in the New Testament. Here’s how Jude describes it:

Angels who did not keep their own domain, but abandoned their proper abode, [the Lord] has kept in eternal bonds under darkness for the judgment of the great day, just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the cities around them, since they in the same way as these indulged in gross immorality and went after strange flesh, are exhibited as an example in undergoing the punishment of eternal fire.

Yet in the same way these men [false teachers], also by dreaming, defile the flesh, and reject authority, and revile angelic majesties. (Jude 6–8)

Peter writes:

Many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of the truth will be maligned; and in their greed they [false teachers] will exploit you with false words; their judgment from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep.

For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to pits of darkness, reserved for judgment; and did not spare the ancient world, but preserved Noah, a preacher of righteousness…; and if He condemned the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to destruction by reducing them to ashes, having made them an example to those who would live ungodly lives thereafter; and if He rescued righteous Lot, oppressed by the sensual conduct of unprincipled men…, then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from temptation, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment for the day of judgment, and especially those who indulge the flesh in its corrupt desires and despise authority. (2 Peter 2:2–10)

In both of the above, notice the emphasis on sexual immorality and on rebellion against authority. This is exactly what the angelic beings of Genesis 6 gave themselves to as they rebelled against God’s distinctions between angels and mankind, particularly as they were overcome with lustful desire for the women of mankind.

One of the reasons we know Peter and Jude are talking about the events in Genesis 6 is because we know that they were drawing from sources written between the Old and New Testaments. Specifically, Jude quotes a prophecy from the book of Enoch (see Jude 14–15), a book which speaks extensively about these Genesis 6 events as a pre-Flood rebellion of angels. I think it’s safe to assume that Peter and Jude’s unified understandings of the Genesis 6 event coincide with the understanding that also shows up in the book of Enoch. This is why they speak of the rebellion of angels, and I think any original reader of Peter and Jude would have assumed this supernatural explanation for Genesis 6.

3. The Old Testament uses “sons of God” to identify angelic beings.

To answer questions like this, we must always look at how the term in question—in this case “son(s) of God”—is used elsewhere in Scripture. We must start with the most immediate context and work our way out. “Son(s) of God” does not appear many times in the Old Testament, but the places where it does appear help us to understand what’s going on.

  • The term doesn’t appear elsewhere in Genesis.
  • It appears in one other place in Moses’s writings in Deuteronomy 32:8 (ESV): “When the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance, when he divided mankind, he fixed the borders of the peoples according to the number of the sons of God.” I believe this is referring to angelic beings, but the explanation for why that’s the case is somewhat technical, so we won’t dwell on this one.
  • It appears three times in Job (1:6; 2:1; 38:7), all clearly referring to angelic beings who present themselves before God in heaven: “Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the LORD, and Satan also came among them” (Job 1:6). We note that Job seems to be one of the earliest-written books of the Old Testament (perhaps even composed before Moses wrote Genesis), which means it is particularly helpful in shedding light on vocabulary like this used in Genesis.
  • In Daniel 3:25, Nebuchadnezzar sees four men in his fiery furnace, “and the appearance of the fourth is like a son of the gods.” This clues us in to how someone in the ancient world would have used the term “son of God” or “son of the gods.” Nebuchadnezzar was simply using standard vocabulary from the time to describe the fourth “man” as angelic in appearance, which is to say, he didn’t look like an ordinary man.
  • (There are a few other places where similar Hebrew terminology is used, but English translations handle it differently because the context of these passages makes the meaning somewhat more ambiguous.)

Nowhere in the Old Testament do we have an example of “sons of God” being explicitly applied to humans. Israel is referred to by God with sonship language, but this is later in the history of God’s people, and it is never the actual term “son(s) of God.”

As you know, “son of God” and “sons of God” are very common in the New Testament. And a New Testament understanding of what it means to be a son of God is largely what those who hold the second interpretation we’ll give seek to base that interpretation on.

2. Sons of Seth

The classic alternative interpretation (held by a multitude of eminent fathers in the faith including Augustine and Calvin, as well as modern fathers like R. C. Sproul) is that “sons of God” here in Genesis refers to the descendants of Seth, the chosen son of Adam through whom God would eventually provide the world with His own Son, Jesus Christ. Genesis 5 tells us that Adam (who is identified in Luke 3:38 as the “son of God”) was made in the image and likeness of God (Gen. 5:1), and that he then had a son, Seth, who is described as being “in his [Adam’s] own likeness, according to his image” (Gen. 5:3), and whom Eve understood to be a replacement for the murdered Abel (Gen. 4:25). Thus, the conclusion is that it makes perfect sense to refer to the descendants of Seth as the “sons of God” in Genesis 6, especially when we realize that Cain is not explicitly described as being in Adam’s own likeness, according to his image. (Though neither is Abel, and Abel is whom the New Testament goes out of its way to identify as our father in the faith. See Matt. 23:35; Heb. 11:4. But if Seth is righteous Abel’s promised replacement, we could perhaps understand that Seth’s descendants were those sons of Adam who had faith in God, i.e., those who “began to call upon the name of the LORD” in Gen. 4:26.)

The sons of God are seen as standing in contrast to the “daughters of men.” These women’s fathers are understood to be the reprobate descendants of Cain who lived according to the sinful ways of man, rather than according to the righteous ways of God. In other words, the designation “sons of God” is intended to refer to men who were sons of God by faith and by their deeds, as well as by their covenant association with the line of Seth, but who then departed from living in obedience to God. The sin of the sons of God here is understood to be the first biblical example of believers intermarrying with those who were the enemies of God, a sin we see repeatedly condemned throughout the rest of the Bible, since it goes hand in hand with the pursuit of idolatry.

This view is built on a later understanding of the term “son of God” which is then read back into the Old Testament. In the New Testament, for instance, “sons of God” is often more plainly applied to humans, because even you and I can be called sons of God if we believe in His true Son Jesus. I find this line of reasoning very persuasive. After all, we must interpret the Old Testament in the light of the New, even in places where we might not initially think of doing so. In fact, there are many things in the Old Testament we get to understand that even Old Testament saints did not, because we get to read the Old Testament after the revelation of Jesus Christ. As one example of this, we should see the concept of divine sonship through faith in Christ (as revealed to us in Romans 8, Galatians 5, and elsewhere) all over the Old Testament.

At the same time we must also do our best to read the Old Testament in a way that its original readers would have understood it. Jewish writings from the intertestamental period interpret Genesis 6 as referring to angelic beings, and the New Testament writers themselves (as we explained above) seem to follow that same interpretation when they directly address the same passage. And if this is the case, we should also be asking ourselves this question: If the New Testament writers had this angelic understanding of what it means to be a “son of God,” how should that inform our understanding of what the New Testament means when it uses the term “son of God”? The authors of the New Testament were extremely familiar with the Old Testament and believed it to be true, so we should assume that they use words in a way that is consistent with how the Old Testament uses them.

Along these lines, it seems a significant logical jump to understand “daughters of men” to somehow only be referring to daughters who are descended from the unfaithful line of Cain. There’s not much in the text which would bring us to this conclusion until we first make a case for defining the “sons of God” as the spiritual children of the promise, which then requires us to come up with a suitable definition of the “daughters of men” besides the obvious one (i.e., that they are simply daughters of mankind in general). In other places where Scripture (Old Testament and New) refers to the “children of man” or “sons of man,” it’s almost always talking about mankind in general without making any distinction between believers and unbelievers.

So What?

This is not a theological issue on which our faith depends. There are certain basic truths about angels we should accept and believe, and certain truths about what it means to be sons of God, but none of those truths ultimately hinge on us fully understanding who or what is being talked about in Genesis 6:1–4. Nevertheless, we should strive to understand Scripture as thoroughly as we can, and as we do come to right conclusions about God’s Word—including more mysterious passages like this—it teaches us more about Jesus Christ and the significance of who He is and what He has accomplished on our behalf.

Jesus is the true Son of God, which means He’s not just the son of some lesser divine being. Such beings do exist (whether or not they ever begot half-human children), and some of them have been actively warring against God on the earth at least since the garden of Eden. Jesus, however, is the only begotten “Son of the Most High God” (Mark 5:7). He was miraculously conceived by the Holy Spirit apart from the will of any man, so that it would be clear that God (the Most High God, the LORD, Yahweh, the God of Israel) is truly His Father. He has power over the spiritual forces of darkness, and God His Father has promised to Him all the nations as His inheritance. He came and laid claim to this inheritance two thousand years ago, and He is establishing His kingdom by driving out demonic forces in the world even as you read this. And, wonder of wonders, “the Father…has qualified us to share in the inheritance of the saints in Light. For He rescued us from the domain of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Colossians 1:12–14). Hallelujah!

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible®, Copyright © 1960, 1971, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. All rights reserved.

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