David, a visitor to my web page, sent an email asking me to explain the meaning of the sons of God in Genesis 6:1-4. I welcome questions about texts and issues dealing with the Bible in general and the Old Testament in particular.
This passage of Scripture is difficult to interpret because scholars disagree on the identification of the sons of God and the daughters of men. Since the writer introduced these two groups of people without identifying them, it is left to the reader of Genesis to decide the interpretation of this enigmatic passage.
Several theories have been developed by interpreters for identifying the people involved in this story. The first possibility is that the sons of God were the descendants of Seth and the daughters of men were the descendants of Cain. Thus, the problem mentioned in this passage is the marriage of the godly descendants of Seth and the ungodly descendants of Cain.
Another theory, developed by Finis Jennings Dake, the author of the Dake’s Bible, is that the sons of God were the descendants of Cain and the daughters of men were the descendants of Seth. The issue again is the problem of mixed marriage.
A third view, developed by Meredith Kline, proposes that the sons of God were dynastic rulers and the daughters of men were the women in their royal harem. This view proposes that the sin of the kings was polygamy.
A fourth view proposes that the sons of God were angels and the daughters of men were mortal women. This view emphasizes the marriage between angelic beings and humans in violation of God’s order.
The first three views do not carry much weight. The issue of mixed marriage appears often in Scripture and so does the problem of polygamy. It is difficult to conceive that God would destroy the whole world with the flood because of polygamy or mixed marriages since these same two issues appear after the flood without divine recrimination.
The view that the sons of God were angels is developed in The Book of First Enoch, an apocryphal book that contains the account of the fall of a group of angels called “The Watchers.” The story in Enoch is similar to the story in Genesis. The Watchers are angels who have intercourse with women and as a result, they give birth to evil men, giants, whose violence brings desolation to the earth.
The intermingling between divine beings with mortal women finds support in passages such as 1 Peter 3:19-20, where the writer speaks of spirits in prison who disobeyed in the days of Noah; in 2 Peter 2:4-6, where the writer speaks of God not sparing the angels who sinned and not sparing the ancient world when he brought the flood on its ungodly people, but protecting Noah and his family; and in Jude 6, where the writer speaks of angels who did not keep their own position, but left their proper dwelling.
These passages above are obscure and controversial. The problem is compounded by the presence of a group of people called the Nephilim (NIV). The King James Version calls these people “giants.” The issue is whether the Nephilim are the descendants of the sons of God and the daughters of men. The issue is complicated since the Nephilim are related to the Anakim and other giants mentioned in the Old Testament. For those who are interested in exploring this topic in detail, read my article “The Anakim and the Nephilim” posted on my web page. Click here to get access to the article.
Thank you, David, for your question. Your request has allowed me to discuss a difficult topic in the Old Testament and at the same time help others learn more about this difficult passage in Genesis. Remember, your questions and comments are always welcome.
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary