Genesis 6 is one of those debated Old Testament passages where there are at least a few possible interpretations. There are three main options in identifying the sons of God: (1) rulers/kings, (2) the line of Seth, and (3) angels. Although each viewpoint has its advocates, I believe the angelic view corresponds best with the evidence.
The situation is described as follows (Gen 6:1-4):
Now it came about, when men began to multiply on the face of the land, and daughters were born to them, that the sons of God saw that the daughters of men were beautiful; and they took wives for themselves, whomever they chose. Then the Lord said, “My Spirit shall not strive with man forever, because he also is flesh; nevertheless his days shall be one hundred and twenty years.” The Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of men, and they bore children to them. Those were the mighty men who were of old, men of renown.
There are a variety of questions that are prompted by this story.
Who are the “sons of God?”
There are three popular views which attempt to answer this question:
- They are judges (or rulers).
- They are the sons of Seth (the righteous line which intermarries with Cain’s line).
- They are angels (evil angels).
Support for view 1 is drawn from the fact that it is possible rulers are referred to as gods elsewhere (cf. Ps 82:6). However, Psalm 82:6 is best interpreted as referring to divine beings (and not human judges) and thus does not provide evidence for this view. Additionally, there does not seem to be anything in the context of Genesis 6 to indicate generic rulers are in view.
View 2 argues for the identity of the sons of God from the broader context, stressing Cain’s genealogy in Genesis 4 and Seth’s genealogy in Genesis 5. For some, intermarriage between the lines would be contextually plausible with what precedes. Supporters of this view also say that if the phrase “sons of God” signifies angels, why does God punish mankind while there is no mention of punishment of angels? Additionally, it is often viewed as a more acceptable alternative to see men cohabitating with women rather than angels cohabitating with women (cf. Matt 22:30). A subcategory of this view would be seeing the line of Seth marrying ungodly individuals in general (i.e., being unequally yoked, 2 Cor 6:14), and not specifically descendants of Cain. Although this view has less problems, a significant issue would be why this particular sin causes the destruction of all of humanity.
Although many are persuaded by views 1 and 2, view 3 seems to have the strongest arguments to identify the sons of God. The evidence for reading sons of God as angels is as follows:
- Angels are referred to elsewhere as “sons of God” (Job 1:6; 2:1; 38:7). Thus, the only evidence we have of the phrase, “sons of God” is a clear reference to divine beings.
- There is a general reference to mankind in verse 1 (“man began to multiple”), and is picked up in verse two (“daughters of men”). Nothing in the context indicates these daughters are not just women in general, which is the normal way we should understand it. Hence, there must be some difference between “sons of God” and “daughters of men [mankind]” which would prompt the cataclysmic judgment of Genesis 6-8.
- Furthermore, in the New Testament, it is apparent that Jude understands Genesis 6 to be a reference to angels: “And angels who did not keep their own domain, but abandoned their proper abode, He has kept in eternal bonds under darkness for the judgment of the great day” (Jude 6). Jude describes the sexual sin of Sodom and Gomorrah to be similar to these angels in Jude 7, “since they [Sodom and Gomorrah] in the same way as these [the angels] indulged in gross immorality.” Thus, there must have been some sort of sexual sin on the part of the angels. The only part of Scripture which contains anything at all that could be described in that way would be Genesis 6.
- Similarly, 2 Peter 2:4 talks about angels who were cast into hell when they sinned. Chronologically, if we follow the order of events, Peter mentions sinning angels (v. 4), Noah and the flood (v. 5, Gen 6-8)), Sodom and Gomorrah (v. 6, Gen 18-20), and Lot (vv. 7-8, Gen 19-20). Thus, the order would indicate Peter is talking about Genesis 6 in reference to the sinning angels.
- A further evidence may be Matthew 22 where Jesus is asked a question about the resurrection by the Sadducees. Jesus confronts the religious leaders by telling them they do not know the Scriptures (v. 29). He then points out the (apparently obvious) point that resurrected humans “are like angels who neither marry nor are given in marriage” (v. 30). By confronting the Sadducees and implying they should have known this through Scripture, Jesus may be referring to the only place in Scripture where angels and physical unions are talked about—Genesis 6.
If sons of God are angels, how can they reproduce?
This is a common question used to object to the “sons of God” being angels. However, there is biblical evidence that angels can take on physical form and perform physical activities. An example of this is Genesis 18 where the Lord and two angels come to visit Abraham. Abraham brings them food and water and refreshes them and watches them eat (vv. 4-8). So, if angels are capable of performing physical activities, they could be capable of having sex as well it seems. Note that Matthew 22:30 only says angels are not given in marriage.
Why does Genesis 6 neglect to describe the angelic punishment implied by Jude 6 (cf. 2 Peter 2:4)?
The story of Genesis focuses on the main character (God) and his relationship with man. It is not written to be an exhaustive account of history, but to accurately highlight the story of God’s redemption of mankind. Therefore, simply put: man is important in the biblical storyline, angels are not.
Why did the angels do this?
Based on the context and flow of Genesis 1–5, perhaps we can say that the angels were intent on distorting God’s plan of redemption for mankind (which God had already laid out in Gen 3:15). These were not noble angels who wanted to help Noah and mankind. Rather, these were evil angels who had rebelled against God and were attempting to corrupt God’s plan in some way. Perhaps they thought that they could bread a super-army and oppose God? Perhaps they wanted to create an nonredeemable race? In any case, these angels were not well-intentioned. Furthermore, it seems that mankind was unified in joining the angelic alliance. Thus, the sad meaning behind the story is that when humanity is left to themselves they do not seek God, but they rebel against him in unimaginable ways.