by Christopher Preston, Fairview Bible Church, Fairview, PA
The “sons of God” of Genesis chapter six have been the subject of much controversy. Respected theologians and pastors differ drastically on their understanding of the identity of these beings. There are four basic interpretations regarding the identity of the Sons of God. The purpose of this paper is to examine these views, and to argue that the sons of God were in fact fallen angels who abandoned their proper domain of the spiritual realm and cohabited with human women, corrupting humanity. The three alternative views will first be examined, and then the evidence supporting this fourth view will be presented.
The first view, which will be called “the Despot view,” is the view that the sons of God were ambitious kings or nobles who acquired for themselves harems of women, and sought to make a name for themselves as “the mighty men who were of old, the men of renown” (Genesis 6:4, esv). The sin, according to this interpretation, was polygamy.
Allen Ross, arguing for this view, suggests that Genesis 6:1-4 is a sort of polemic against the pagan notion that kings were of a supernatural origin. The teaching of Genesis six, Ross claims, is that these kings were merely people. However, throughout the rest of the Hebrew Scriptures, the term “sons of God” always refers to angels (Job 1:6; 2:1; 38:7; Daniel 3:25; Ps. 29:1; Ps 89:5).
His argument for a polemic against the pagan view of kings as offspring of divine beings is contextually week as well as exegetically unstable. A far better explanation of this connection between the pagan notion and the Genesis record is that the pagan view is a distortion of a true event that Genesis records accurately. This would explain where such mythological views could arise from—as simply a corruption of a true event.
Ross seems to view (as many others do) the “mighty men” and “men of renown” as the offspring of the rulers and their women. He says that Genesis six is teaching that the rulers’ offspring, “despite pagan notions, were not god-kings. Though heroes and ‘men of renown,’ they were flesh; and they died, in due course, like all members of the human race.” However, if Genesis 6:1-4 is connected with Genesis 6:5-8:22—in other words, if Genesis 6:1-4 is the introduction to the flood account—then these “men of renown” did not simply die “in due course.” Rather, they were cut off by God in the judgment of the global flood.
Furthermore, if these mighty men were in fact the offspring of the sons of God and daughters of men, then the Despot view is insufficient in explaining the notability of this offspring. Why would the offspring of polygamous rulers necessarily result in famous, mighty men known as “the fallen?” It seems likely there was a significant reason for the producing of mighty men, and the Despot view fails to provide a sufficient answer.
Finally, this view fails to account for God’s judgment upon all of humanity. The context is clearly one of dealing with the whole of humanity. And yet, if it were merely polygamous rulers marrying women, would God not have simply destroyed them and their offspring? However, in Genesis, God grieves that He made humans at all (verse six) and clearly decides to destroy all people. Noah is saved from this destruction because he walked with God. It is possible from the context that Noah, and Noah alone, was found righteous on the earth.
In short, the argument of the Despot view that Genesis 6:1-4 is a polemic against a pagan concept is weak contextually; the argument that “sons of God” refers to demon-controlled rulers instead of to the fallen angels themselves, is weak exegetically; and the view that these rulers and their harems universally produced offspring who became mighty warriors is weak logically.
MEN MARRYING WOMEN
David Jeremiah offers another possibility. He suggests that the language used in Genesis six could be a poetic reference to Adam and Eve. God formed Adam out of the dust, but He molded Eve from the rib of Adam. Therefore, Adam is viewed here as a son of God, while Eve would be a daughter of man, since she was taken from man (Genesis 2:23). Jeremiah then suggests that when Genesis six speaks of the sons of God marrying the daughters of men, this is an idiomatic expression referring simply to regular men marrying regular women. Michael Wechsler also holds to this view, and discusses it in much greater length than Jeremiah. Wechsler argues that only this view is “consistent with both the context and language of the passage.”
However, there are a number of problems with this interpretation. First, this interpretation is not consistent with the language of the passage, because, as has been pointed out before, the phrase “sons of God” clearly refers to angelic beings where it is used elsewhere in the Hebrew Scriptures. Another problem with the “idiom” view is that it does not give a morally satisfactory response as to why God would desire to wipe all of mankind off the face of the earth. Wechsler posits that as the world’s population continued to grow, God had to take action to destroy mankind (save Noah and his family) in order to let mankind “start over.” What’s more, this seems to have been simply because of the evil thoughts of mankind—apart from any wickedness they had actually committed. The authors state:
God determined to blot out man… from the face of the land, not merely because he had offended God’s righteous standard, but because such action was necessary for the welfare of man himself, to preserve man from the full effects of his unmitigated depravity.
However, the context seems to indicate that the judgment of the flood was in fact connected to the transgression committed by the sons of God and the daughters of men. This interpretation also fails to explain the origin of the spreading vileness of man. It does not seem to be merely the reproducing of human beings, because God commanded the multiplying of humanity both before (at Creation) and after the flood (Genesis 1:28; 9:1).
The “idiom view” does not provide a sufficient interpretation of Genesis 6:1-4. This view must ignore the normal usage of the phrase “sons of God.” The view fails to give a sufficient reason for God reacting against the whole of mankind, or to adequately connect the marrying of the sons of God and the daughters of men with the spreading of the vile wickedness to which God reacted. This last point is one that the next view at least does a better job of answering.
GODLY LINE OF SETH
Another popular interpretation is that the sons of God were the godly descendants of Seth, while the daughters of men were of the more sinful descendants of Cain. According to this view, the sin committed by mankind is an ungodly, forbidden union. That is, the godly, “saved” men from the family line of Seth, called the sons of God, married the ungodly, non-believing women from the family line of Cain.
According to Wayne Grudem, the term “sons of God” has to do with one’s disposition. That is, if one is walking with God, he is a son of God. Combining this with the preceding two chapters containing records of the descendants of Seth and Cain, Grudem argues that the context shows that the sons of God in Genesis 6 are those godly descendants of Seth.
However, there is a grave contradiction in this interpretation. If believing men were en masse marrying unsaved, ungodly women, would this not mean that those men were not very godly after all? This view of the sons of God inconsistently suggests that the descendants of Seth are called “sons of God” because they are believing, godly men, but then that God had to flood the earth to destroy mankind because of the wickedness being spread from these “godly” men intermarrying with wicked descendants of Cain.
In fact, another problem with this view is that there simply is no substantial support for the idea that the descendants of Seth were, even in a majority, godly, while the descendants of Cain were wicked. Why would it be that the male descendants of Seth were godly, while the female descendants of Cain were ungodly, and that these were the two groups who intermarried? Why would not the “sons of men” (the male descendants of Cain) take wives for themselves from the “daughters of God” (the female descendants of Seth)? Or perhaps there were godly descendants of Cain who married ungodly descendants of Seth, which also would have been sinful. The Sethite/Cainite interpretation is simply weak, inconsistent, and careless at this point.
This interpretation also forces two different meanings onto the same word within the span of two verses. In verse one, “man” must refer to all of humanity. Verse one then says that this group—humans in general—had daughters; presumably they had sons as well, but the sons are not mentioned because they are not pertinent to the narrative, as the ensuing event only involves the women from this initial group, that is, mankind. Then in verse two, the men of another group, a group distinct from the one just discussed (mankind), looks on the daughters of the first group (mankind) with lust.
Yet those who hold to the Sethite/Cainite view must see an immediate change in the referent of the word “man” from verse one (where it refers to humanity) to verse two (where it refers only to the descendants of Cain), when a new group introduced (the sons of God) are now also part of the original “man” established as all of mankind in verse one. This inconsistent hermeneutic is one of the weakest points of this view.
Another issue with the Sethite/Cainite interpretation is that not only do the sons of God appear to be a distinct group from mankind, but, again, the term “sons of God” itself identifies who that second group is, as it has already been shown to be a term referring to angelic beings. It is especially important to note here that the book of Job was written long before the book of Genesis, so the referent of “sons of God” has already been established by Scripture to be angels. As Robert Deffinbaugh puts it, “while this [the Sethite/Cainite] interpretation has the commendable feature of explaining the passage without creating any doctrinal or theological problems, what it offers in terms of orthodoxy, it does at the expense of accepted exegetical practices.”
The final view to be examined is the view that “the sons of God” refers to fallen angels. In this view, a certain group from among the fallen angels abandoned the created natural order and cohabited with human women, seeking to corrupt the human race. They succeeded to a great extent—so much so that God had to wipe mankind off the face of the earth.
Perhaps the most often raised objection to this view is the idea that angels are not capable of reproduction. Grudem, Wechsler, Sailhamer, and others appeal to Matthew 22:30, where Jesus says that the angels in heaven do not marry. Millard Erickson says that the suggestion that angels could mate with human women and bear children “runs counter to what Jesus taught us about angels.” However, in this verse in Matthew Jesus speaks of the condition of the holy “angels in heaven,” and does not speak to the potential ontological ability of angels, especially fallen angels intent on destroying the purposes of God. Jesus merely states that angels do not marry each other. This does not mean that they do not have ability to cohabit with human women. It is clear throughout Scripture that angels do at times step into the physical realm with bodies, and can eat, sleep, and genuinely participate in human activities (Genesis 18-19; Joshua 5:13-15; Hebrews 13:2).
One problem with the opposing three views is that none sufficiently answer the question of why there is a distinction between the men who began to multiply (and their daughters), and the “men” who were the sons of God. Exegetically, it is clear that Genesis six is making a distinction between mankind, and another group. This group, according to the angel interpretation, are fallen angels who came into the physical realm to corrupt mankind. As David Kidner emphasizes, while this view seems strange and foreign to the modern reader, the fact remains that other interpretations are foreign to a faithfully literal interpretation of the text.
Another issue with each of the other views of Genesis six is that they do not answer the issue of certain angels being confined to prison in direct connection with the days of the flood (1 Peter 3:19-20; 2 Peter 2:4). A benefit of the angel view of Genesis six is that it helps explain several New Testament passages which otherwise can be confusing and difficult to interpret. For example, in Jude 6-7, Jude speaks of a group of angels whom God has kept in chains for a sin they committed that was somehow similar to that of Sodom and Gomorrah. The angels referred to are not simply all fallen angels, for not all fallen angels are chained in a prison pit. Thus, this cannot simply refer to the original rebellion against heaven led by Satan. So Jude is referring to a subset of angles—but what subset? Genesis six helps in identifying who these angels are. These angels chained in darkness are the ones who did not keep their own position but deserted their proper dwelling. That is, they left their spiritual domain and abandoned the proper function of their being, going after “strange flesh.”
Verse seven immediately connects the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah to the sin of the Angels. That is, they were committing acts which were unnatural and, furthermore, of a sexual nature. In Greek, this verse says that Sodom and Gomorrah “in like manner to them… indulged in unnatural flesh.” The Holman Christian Standard Bible clarifies the referent of “them” by rendering it as “just as angels did” (Jude 7, hcsb). So these particular angels, who are now being held in chains in darkness, committed some kind of sexual sin involving going after unnatural flesh.
2 Peter 2:4 also connects angels who sinned with the time of the flood, and says that because of this, God cast them into Tartarus to be held in chains until judgment. According to some theologians, these demons may also be the spirits to whom Christ proclaimed victory over after His crucifixion, as referenced in 1 Peter 3:19.
Norman Geisler also relates Genesis 6 to 1 Peter 3:19. Some struggle with this passage because it can sound as though Jesus is preaching the Gospel to dead unbelievers. However, the word is not the word for evangelize, but for proclaiming or heralding a message, and does not refer to Jesus offering salvation, but Jesus proclaiming a definitive message to them—namely, His victory over them. “Spirits” is also never used to refer to human souls in hell. A better explanation is that this refers to the sons of God—fallen angels—who infiltrated humanity before the flood in order to corrupt humanity, and who God threw into prison because of this heinous, unnatural rebellion against the Creator.
The interpretation of the sons of God as fallen angels is also the historic rabbinical interpretation of Genesis six. The Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, actually translates the phrase “sons of God” as “angels of God.” The early church fathers, such as Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Athenagoras, and Jerome, as well as Josephus, all held the view that the sons of God were indeed fallen angels.
In summary, there are four common interpretations of the identity of the “sons of God” of Genesis six. First, they were polygamous rulers or kings; second, “sons of God” and “daughters of men” are simply poetic ways to refer to regular men and women; third, the sons of God were of the godly line of Seth, and the daughters of man were of the wicked line of Cain; fourth, the sons of God were fallen angels who found a way to cohabit with human women. The first three positions are inconsistent at points, leave questions unanswered, and must equivocate on the use of the terms “man” and “sons of God.”
The fourth view, that the sons of God were fallen angels, makes the most sense of the distinction between “man” in verse one, and the sons of God in verse two. It is the historical rabbinic view, as well as the view of the early church fathers. The strongest argument for the angel view, however, is that it affirms the established meaning of the phrase “sons of God” as referring explicitly to angelic beings. This view is the most historically traditional, logically consistent, and exegetically faithful position. Even if it seems strange, or in certain areas is difficult to make sense of, the exegetical weight of letting the Word speak for itself drives the student of the Bible to the conclusion that Genesis six is referring to fallen angels who cohabited with human women.
Christopher Preston serves as pastor of Fairview Bible Church, in Fairview, PA. After studying theology and political philosophy in college, he attended Shepherds Theological Seminary, where he received his Master of Divinity, as well as training with the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors. Christopher is married to Kristin and they have a beloved son. Christopher enjoys blogging at tavernhall.wordpress.com
 It is significant to note that ancient cultures, such as Egypt, Canaan, Phoenicia, and others, did refer to their kings as “sons of the gods” and viewed them as semi-divine (Ross, Allen P. “Genesis.” In The Bible Knowledge Commentary: OT, edited by John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck. Wheaton: Victor Books, 1983. 36).
 Much like the people of Babel wished to make a name for themselves in Genesis 11.
 Swindoll, Charles R. Understanding Christian Theology. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2003. 589.
 Hamilton, Victor P. The Book of Genesis. Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans, 1990. 263.
 Hamilton, 262.
 Swindoll, 590.
 Freeman, Drue. The Angelic Conflict: The Missing Link. Oklahoma City: Trinity Bible Church of OKC, 2014. 37.
 “Mighty men” and “men of renown” are descriptors of the “Nephilim,” or “fallen ones.” As such, the three terms may be used interchangeably throughout this paper.
 Ross, 36.
 MacArthur, John. 1 Peter. Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2004. 215.
 Swindoll, 590.
 Wechsler, 55.
 Freeman, 142.
 Jeremiah, David. What the Bible Says About Angels: Powerful Guardians, a Mysterious Presence, God’s Messengers. Sisters: Multnomah Books, 1996. 195.
 It is worth noting that in Luke 3:38, in the genealogy of Jesus through Mary, Adam is referred to as the “son of God.”
 It is not entirely clear whether this is the view Jeremiah himself holds to, but it appears to be so.
 Sailhamer, 115.
 Wechsler, Michael G. “Genesis.” In The Moody Bible Commentary, edited by Michael Rydelnik and Michael Vanlaningham. Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2014. 55.
 Job 1:6; 2:1; 38:7; Daniel 3:25; Ps. 29:1; Ps 89:5
 Wechsler, 56 (emphasis original).
 MacArthur, John. Christians and Demons. Panorama City: Word of Grace. 3.
 Jeremiah, 195.
 It is important to note that God does indeed desire believers to only marry believers (1 Corinthians 7:39; 2 Corinthians 6:14).
 Hamilton, 264.
 Grudem, Wayne A. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994. 414.
 Swindoll, 590
 Wechsler, 55.
 Hamilton, 264.
 If it does not refer to all mankind, then it must be explained why only the Cainites began to multiply, and not the godly Sethites, who surely would have obeyed the command to “be fruitful and Multiply” (Genesis 1:28). Most who hold to the Sethite/Cainite view do in fact split the definitions as discussed here—Kenneth Matthews in The New American Commentary, for example.
 Heron, Patrick. The Nephilim and the Pyramid of the Apocalypse. Xulon Press, 2005. 22.
 Hamilton, 264.
 Job 1:6; 2:1; 38:7; Daniel 3:25; Ps. 29:1; Ps 89:5
 Merrill, Eugene H., Mark F. Rooker, and Michael A. Grisanti. The World and the Word: An Introduction to the Old Testament. Nashville: B&H Academic, 2011.
 Deffinbaugh, Robert. “The Sons of God and the Daughters of Men.” Bible.org. Accessed May 3, 2015.
 Perhaps so that the Messiah could not come into the world as a pure human to redeem mankind (MacArthur. 1 Peter, 211).
 Grudem, 414; Wechsler, 55; Sailhamer 113.
 Erickson, Millard J. Christian Theology. 3rd ed. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013.
 Swindoll, 291.
 Clearly this is not a normal occurrence, and holy angles would most likely only find the need to do this upon a command from God. However, the contention here is that fallen angels had the ability to do it before the flood without God’s permission (though ultimately of course He allowed it). Perhaps after the flood God disallowed this from happening again.
 Heron, 22.
 Kidner, Derek. Genesis: An Introduction and Commentary. Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1967. 89.
 Swindoll, 290.
 Kidner, Derek. Genesis: An Introduction and Commentary. Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1967. 90.
 MacArthur. Christians and Demons, 4.
 Hamilton, 271.
 Hamilton, 272.
 MacArthur. 1 Peter, 212.
 MacArthur. 1 Peter, 209.
 Geisler, Norman L. Systematic Theology. Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2002. 959.
 MacArthur. 1 Peter, 209.
 Hamilton, 262.
 Oppenheimer, Michael. “The Sons of God in Genesis 6.” Let Us Reason. 2013. Accessed May 14, 2015.
Deffinbaugh, Robert. “The Sons of God and the Daughters of Men.” Bible.org. Accessed May 3, 2015. https://bible.org/seriespage/sons-god-and-daughters-men-genesis-61-8.
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Erickson, Millard J. Christian Theology. 3rd ed. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013.
Freeman, Drue. The Angelic Conflict: The Missing Link. Oklahoma City: Trinity Bible Church of OKC, 2014.
Geisler, Norman L. Systematic Theology. Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2002.
Grudem, Wayne A. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994.
Hamilton, Victor P. The Book of Genesis. Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans, 1990.
Heron, Patrick. The Nephilim and the Pyramid of the Apocalypse. Xulon Press, 2005.
Jeremiah, David. What the Bible Says About Angels: Powerful Guardians, a Mysterious Presence, God’s Messengers. Sisters: Multnomah Books, 1996.
Keathley III, J. Hampton. “Angels, God’s Ministering Spirits.” Grace Notes, 2012. Accessed May 6, 2014. http://www.gracenotes.info/documents/TOPICS_DOC/angels.pdf.
Kidner, Derek. Genesis: An Introduction and Commentary. Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1967.
Konya, Alex. Demons: A Biblically Based Perspective. Schaumburg: Regular Baptist Press, 1990.
MacArthur, John. 1 Peter. Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2004.
MacArthur, John F. Jr. Christians and Demons. Panorama City: Word of Grace.
Matthews, Kenneth A. “Genesis 1–11:26.” In The New American Commentary, edited by David S. Dockery. Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1991.
Merrill, Eugene H., Mark F. Rooker, and Michael A. Grisanti. The World and the Word: An Introduction to the Old Testament. Nashville: B&H Academic, 2011.
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Oppenheimer, Michael. “The Sons of God in Genesis 6.” Let Us Reason. 2013. Accessed May 14, 2015.
Plumptre, E. H. The Spirits in Prison and Other Studies on the Life After Death. London: Isbister, 1898.
Ross, Allen P. “Genesis.” In The Bible Knowledge Commentary: OT, edited by John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck. Wheaton: Victor Books, 1983.
Sailhamer, John H. “Genesis.” In The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, edited by Tremper Longman III and David E. Garland. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006.
Wechsler, Michael G. “Genesis.” In The Moody Bible Commentary, edited by Michael Rydelnik and Michael Vanlaningham. Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2014.
Swindoll, Charles R. Understanding Christian Theology. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2003.