The story of the flood in the days of Noah (Genesis 6-9) is introduced by a declaration that creation had become so corrupt with sin and violence that the natural order was disrupted. This desruption of the natural order was caused by the mating of the sons of God with the daughters of men. The sons of God were probably semi-divine beings from the heavenly court who married the daughters of men. These “divine beings cohabited with the daughters of men, who bore them offspring” (Genesis 6:4 TNK). Their offspring were either the Nephilim or the gibbōrîm, “the mighty men that were of old, the men of renown.”
Genesis 6:1-4 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.
NOTE: For a comprehensive collection of studies on the Book of Genesis, read my post Studies on the Book of Genesis.
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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Hi, Professor Mariottini. Have you had an opportunity to read Michael Heiser’s _The Unseen Realm_? He takes the fourth view you mentioned, because of its connection back to the Enochian tradition, that you cite, that would predate the first Sethian view, going back to Augustine. Plus, the fourth view has immense explanatory power for making sense of a number of New Testament passages that puzzles readers today, including the Peter and Jude passages that you cite.
Do you know of any other strengths (or weaknesses) with Heiser’s view?
I have not read Heiser’s book, but the fourth view may be the correct one for two reasons. First, the people of Israel believed that the sons of God were members of the divine council or at least, that they were angelic or celestial beings.
Second, since the word Nephilim in Hebrew means “the fallen ones,” they associated these angelic beings with the fallen ones. When the text says that the fallen ones were on earth in those days, they had to associate the Nephilim with the fallen ones, thus the view that appears in the book of Enoch and in the New Testament.
Thank you for your insightful comment.
One of my favorite O.T. passages.
It is one of your favorites, but brother, it is one of the most difficult passages in the Old Testament. There are so many interpretation and most of them are not very convincing.
Indeed Dr. Mariottini, Amar Annus in May 2010 published a paper that really helps with the ANE background of the text.
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Thanks for the intriguing post. This is a splendid test case for the difference between linguistic/exegetical and theological interpretations of the passage. The idea of angels having sex with humans seems fantastical. Why then, and not now? Why would the flood prevent lustful angels in future generations from committing the same sin? This is the stuff that ends up in movies.
If angels had sex with human women in the times of Noah, this would not happen again today because the angels who did not rebel remained faithful to God. This whole issue is very difficult because the Bible does not say much about this idea of fallen angels.