There has been much speculation about who these "sons of God" mentioned in the sixth chapter of Genesis were. Three basic interpretations of this passage have been advanced.
The first, and oldest, belief is that "the sons of God" were fallen angels who consorted with human women, producing giant offspring called nephilim. This view was widely held in the Judaic world of the first century, and was supported by many of the "Ante-Nicene Fathers," including Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Irenaeus, and Eusebius.
The second view is one which was advocated by Saint Augustine, the Catholic Bishop of Hippo. He rejected the concept of the fallen host having committed fornication with women. In his early fifth century book The City of God, he advanced the theory that "the sons of God" simply referred to the genealogical line of Seth, who were committed to preserving the true worship of God. He interpreted Genesis 6 to mean that the offspring of Adam through Seth were "the sons of God," and the offspring of Adam through Cain were "the daughters of men." He wrote that the problem was that the family of Seth had interbred with the family of Cain, intermingling the bloodlines and corrupting the pure religion. This view has become the dominant one among most modern biblical scholars.
The third view is that "the sons of God" were the sons of pre-Flood rulers or magistrates. This interpretation was advocated by two of the most respected Jewish rabbis of the Middle Ages, Rashi and Nachmanides, and became the standard explanation of rabbinical Judaism. However, it is not widely accepted by modern scholars.
To determine who these "sons of God" were, we'll first examine what various outside sources have to say about this topic. Then we'll examine the ultimate authority, the Bible, to see its position.
Let's start with a quotation and footnote from William Whiston's translation of The Antiquities of the Jews, by the respected Jewish historian Flavius Josephus:
Now this posterity of Seth continued to esteem God as the Lord of the universe, and to have an entire regard to virtue, for seven generations; but in process of time they were perverted, and forsook the practices of their forefathers, and did neither pay those honors to God which were appointed to them, nor had they any concern to do justice towards men. But for what degree of zeal they had formerly shown for virtue, they now showed by their actions a double degree of wickedness; whereby they made God to be their enemy, for many angels* of God accompanied with women and begat sons that proved unjust, and despisers of all that was good, on account of the confidence they had in their own strength; for the tradition is, that these men did what resembled the acts of those whom the Grecians called giants. But Noah was very uneasy at what they did; and, being displeased at their conduct, persuaded them to change their dispositions and their acts for the better; but, seeing that they did not yield to him, but were slaves to their wicked pleasures, he was afraid they would kill him, together with his wife and children, and those they had married; so he departed out of that land (bk. 1, ch. 3, 72-74).
* This notion, that the fallen angels were, in some sense the fathers of the old giants, was the constant opinion of antiquity. As you can see, Josephus believed and recorded that "the sons of God" mentioned in Genesis 6 were fallen angels, or demons. Another well-known first century Jewish writer, Philo of Alexandria, shared Josephus' views on this topic. In his work "On the Giants," Philo wrote:
"And when the angels of God saw the daughters of men that they were beautiful, they took unto themselves wives of all them whom they chose." Those beings, whom other philosophers call demons, Moses usually calls angels . . . (The Works of Philo, "De Gigantibus," translated by C.D. Yonge, p. 152)
The Book of Enoch, also called 1 Enoch, is a collection of pseudepigraphic writings by various authors which dates to the first or second century B.C. This book was well-known by the early church; in fact, Jude, the brother of Jesus, quoted 1 Enoch 1:9 in verses 14 and 15 of his epistle. Obviously Jude felt that the quote he attributed to Enoch was genuine. This work, which deals extensively with the fall of the angels, was also viewed favorably by some early "Christian" writers (Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, and others); however, it was never universally accepted as Scripture. Below is a selection from 1 Enoch which records the sin of angels:
1 ENOCH 6:1 And it came to pass when the children of men had multiplied that in those days were born unto 2 them beautiful and comely daughters. And the angels, the children of the heaven, saw and lusted after them, and said to one another: 'Come, let us choose us wives from among the children of men 3 and beget us children.' And Semjaza, who was their leader, said unto them: 'I fear ye will not 4 indeed agree to do this deed, and I alone shall have to pay the penalty of a great sin.' And they all answered him and said: 'Let us all swear an oath, and all bind ourselves by mutual imprecations 5 not to abandon this plan but to do this thing.' Then sware they all together and bound themselves 6 by mutual imprecations upon it. And they were in all two hundred; who descended in the days of Jared on the summit of Mount Hermon . . . (From The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament, tr. R.H. Charles)
A similar passage is also found in the pseudepigraphic Book of Jubilees:
JUBILEES 5:1 And it came to pass when the children of men began to multiply on the face of the earth and daughters were born unto them, that the angels of God saw them on a certain year of this jubilee, that they were beautiful to look upon; and they took themselves wives of all whom they 2 chose, and they bare unto them sons and they were giants. And lawlessness increased on the earth and all flesh corrupted its way, alike men and cattle and beasts and birds and everything that walks on the earth - all of them corrupted their ways and their orders, and they began to devour each other, and lawlessness increased on the earth and every imagination of the thoughts of all men 3 (was) thus evil continually . . . (From The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament, translated by R.H. Charles)
The Genesis Apocryphon, one of the texts uncovered among the Dead Sea Scrolls, also contains references to the angels interbreeding with human women. In this text, a conversation between Lamech, the father of Noah, and his wife Bathenosh is detailed. Lamech questions his wife because he thinks that the conception of Noah was due to either an angel or one of their offspring, a nephilim. The Book of Enoch, the Book of Jubilees, and the Genesis Apocryphon all clearly show that the common understanding at the time of Christ was that the fallen host had committed fornication with women in the period before the flood.
The idea that the nephilim or giants were the offspring of the fallen host and human females was not unique to Judaism. This understanding was likely behind the Greek, Roman, and Egyptian mythologies, as well as those of India and the near east. All these beliefs resulted not as mere inventions of fertile human imagination, but as a corruption of antediluvian truths which were distorted as their origin was forgotten over time.
Take, for example, the legend of the Titans. In Greek mythology, the Titans were a family of giant gods who were the offspring of Uranus (heaven) and Gaea (earth). The most famous of the Titans was Cronus, who killed his father. Cronus later led the Titans in their losing war against Zeus and the Olympian gods. After their defeat, the Titans were imprisoned in a section of the underworld called Tartarus.
In his second epistle, the apostle Peter uses part of this Greek myth to explain the fate of some of the fallen angels. He states that for their sins, these angels had been tartarosas, which The NKJV Greek English Interlinear New Testament translates literally as "confining them to Tartarus" (also known in the Bible as "the Abyss").
II PETER 2:4 For if God did not spare the angels who sinned, but cast them down to hell tartarosas and delivered them into chains of darkness, to be reserved for judgment (NKJV).
This is the same Tartarus where Greek mythology says the Titans were imprisoned. It's highly unlikely that Peter would have used such an analogy if this pagan legend wasn't based on at least some grain of truth which his readers would have knowledge of. The idea that evil angels mated with human women and had offspring (the nephilim) appears far-fetched to us in this modern era, but it seems to have been widely accepted as fact in the ancient world.
As we've seen above, the word translated "giants" in Genesis 6:4 is nephilim. Let's look at what The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia has to say about the possible origins of this Hebrew word:
The etymology of nepîlîm is uncertain, the following explanations have been advanced with mixed reception. First, it may derive from the niphal of the verb pãlã, meaning "be extraordinary," i.e., "extraordinary men." Second, it may be derived from the verb nãpal, "fall," in one of the following senses:
(1) the "fallen ones" - from heaven, i.e., supernatural beings
(2) morally "fallen men"
(3) "those who fall upon," in the sense of invaders or hostile, violent men
(4) "those who fell by" the sword (cf. Ezk. 32:20f.)
(5) "unnaturally begotten men" or bastards (from cf. nepel, "abortion" or miscarriage"). (vol. 3, pp. 518-519)
The Greek version of the Old Testament, the Septuagint, renders the Hebrew term nephilim as gigantes, which literally means "earth-born." This is often misunderstood to mean "giants" - which the nephilim apparently were also.
From the sources we've just examined, it's readily apparent that the general understanding of Genesis 6:1-4 at the time of Christ was that the angels had sinned by committing fornication with human women. But does the Bible support this theory?
First, let's look at all of the Old Testament references to "sons of God" (Heb. bene elim or bene elohim):
GENESIS 6:1 When men began to increase on earth and daughters were born to them, 2 the divine beings bene elohim saw how beautiful the daughters of men were and took wives from among those that pleased them. 3 The Lord said, "My breath shall not abide in man forever, since he too is flesh; let the days allowed him be one hundred and twenty years." 4 It was then, and later too, that the Nephilim appeared on earth when the divine beings bene elohim cohabited with the daughters of men, who bore them offspring. They were the heroes of old, the men of renown. (Tanakh, the new Jewish Publication Society translation according to the traditional Hebrew text)
DEUTERONOMY 32:8 When the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance, when he separated the sons of men, he fixed the bounds of the peoples according to the number of the sons of God bene elim. (RSV)
JOB 1:6 Now there was a day when the sons of God bene elohim came to present themselves before the Lord and Satan also came among them. (NKJV)
JOB 2:1 Again there was a day when the sons of God bene elohim came to present themselves before the Lord and Satan came also among them to present himself before the Lord. (NKJV)
JOB 38:4 "Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Tell Me, if you have understanding. 5 Who determined its measurements? Surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? 6 To what were its foundations fastened? Or who laid its cornerstone, 7 when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God bene elohim shouted for joy? (NKJV)
PSALM 29:1 O give the Lord you sons of God bene elim, give the Lord glory and power; 2 give the Lord the glory of his name. Adore the Lord in his holy court. (The Psalms: A New Translation)
PSALM 89:5 The heavens proclaim your wonders, O Lord; the assembly of your holy ones proclaims your truth. 6 For who in the skies "heaven" - KJV can compare with the Lord or who is like the Lord among the sons of God bene elim? (The Psalms: A New Translation)
DANIEL 3:25 "Look!" he answered, "I see four men loose, walking in the midst of the fire; and they are not hurt, and the form of the fourth is like the Son of God Ch. bar 'elahh." (NKJV)
As you can see, each reference above is to angels. There are no instances in the Old Testament where "the sons of God" refer to men. Let's see what E.W. Bullinger has to say about these "sons of God" in Appendix 23 of The Companion Bible:
"The Sons of God" in Gen. 6.2, 4. It is only by the Divine specific act of creation that any created being can be called "a son of God." For that which is "born of the flesh is flesh." God is spirit and that which is "born of the Spirit is spirit" (John 3.6). Hence Adam is called a "son of God" in Luke 3.38. Those "in Christ" having the "new nature" which is by the direct creation of God (2 Cor. 5.17; Eph. 2.l0) can be, and are called "sons of God" (John 1.13; Rom. 8.14, 15; 1 John 3.1).
This is why angels are called "sons of God" in every other place where the expression is used in the Old Testament. Job 1.6; 2.1; 38.7; Ps. 29.1; 89.6; Dan. 3.25 (no art.). We have no authority or right to take the _expression in Gen. 6.4 in any other sense. Moreover in Gen. 6.2 the Sept. renders it angels."
Now let's look at Genesis 6:9, which discusses Noah's genealogy. This Scripture is further proof that fallen angels had interbred with humans.
GENESIS 6:9 This is the genealogy of Noah. Noah was a just man, perfect tamim in his generations. Noah walked with God. (NKJV)
In Genesis 6:9, the Hebrew word tamim, here translated "perfect," means "physically without blemish." As the first sentence makes clear, it's referring to the genealogy of Noah; it does not refer to moral perfection. Below is what Appendix 26 of The Companion Bible has to say about this word as used in Genesis 6:9: The Heb. word tamim means without blemish, and is the technical word for bodily and physical perfection, and, not moral. Hence it is used of animals of sacrificial purity . It is rendered without blemish in Ex. 12.5; 29.1; Lev. 1.3, 10; 3.1, 6; 4.3, 23, 28, 32; 5.12, 18; 6.6; 9.2, 3; 14.10; 22.19; 23.12, 18; Num. 6.14; 28.19, 31; 29.2, 8, 13, 20, 23, 29, 32, 36; Ezek. 43.22, 23, 25; 45.18, 23; 46.4, 6, 13. Without spot: Num. 19.2; 28.3, 9, 11; 29.17, 26. Undefiled: Ps. 119.1. This shows that Gen. 6.9 does not speak of Noah's moral perfection . . .
Now let's examine what Jude said about the fallen angels in the New Testament:
JUDE 6 And the angels which kept not their first estate, but left their own habitation, he hath reserved in everlasting chains under darkness unto the judgment of the great day. 7 Even as Sodom and Gomorrha, and the cities about them in like manner, giving themselves over to fornication, and going after strange flesh, are set forth for an example, suffering the vengeance of eternal fire. (KJV)
Because of the punctuation of verse 7, this Scripture appears to say that Sodom and Gomorrah, as well as the cities around them, gave themselves over to sexual immorality. However, the underlying Greek text does not support this interpretation. Kenneth Wuest writes of verse 7: This verse begins with hõs, an adverb of comparison having meanings of "in the same manner as, after the fashion of, as, just as." Here it introduces a comparison showing a likeness between the angels of verse 6 and the cities of Sodom and Gomorrha of this verse. But the likeness between them lies deeper than the fact that both were guilty of committing sin. It extends to the fact that both were guilty of the same identical sin. The punctuation of the A.V. KJV is misleading, as an examination of Greek text discloses.
The A.V. punctuation gives the reader the impression that Sodom and Gomorrha committed fornication and that the cities about them committed fornication in like manner to the two cities named. . . . The words "in like manner" are related to the verbal forms, "giving themselves over to fornication" and "going after strange flesh." In addition to all this, the Greek text has toutois, "to these." Thus, the translation should read, "just as Sodom and Gomorrha and the cities about them, in like manner to these, having given themselves over to fornication and having gone after strange flesh." The sense of the entire passage (vv.6, 7) is that the cities of Sodom and Gomorrha and the cities about them, in like manner to these (the angels), have given themselves over to fornication and have gone after strange flesh. That means that the sin of the fallen angels was fornication (Word Studies in the Greek New Testament, vol. II, pp. 241-242). Some translations do more clearly show what Jude was saying in this Scripture. Below is the literal translation of this passage given in The NKJV Greek English Interlinear New Testament:
JUDE 6 And angels who did not keep their own domain, but rather having left their own habitation, He has kept with eternal chains under the netherworld for the judgment of the great day. 7 As Sodom and Gomorrah, and the cities around them, in a similar manner to these angels having indulged in sexual immorality and having gone after other flesh, are exhibited as an example, suffering the punishment of eternal fire.
The underlying Greek text indicates that the fallen angels left their own domain and indulged in sexual immorality, going after "strange," or "other" flesh. The KJV obscures this fact, probably because the view that the fallen angels were "the sons of God" spoken of in Genesis 6:2, 4 was not accepted when it was translated in 1611. Another translation that plainly shows the full magnitude of what Jude was saying is the New English Bible: JUDE 6 Remember too the angels, how some of them were not content to keep the dominion given to them but abandoned their proper home; and God has reserved them for judgement on the great Day, bound beneath the darkness in everlasting chains. 7 Remember Sodom and Gomorrah and the neighbouring towns; like the angels, they committed fornication and followed unnatural lusts; and they paid the penalty in eternal fire, an example for all to see.
It's clear that Jude wrote of the fornication of the angels as a fact. In verse 7 of his epistle, he compares the sexual wickedness in Sodom, Gomorrah, and the surrounding cities to the sin of the angels.
The nature of the angels' fall is also clearly stated in Jude 6, where it is said that they left their own "abode" (Gr. oiketerion). This word occurs in the New Testament only here and in II Corinthians 5:2, where it is used of the spiritual body of a resurrected saint.
II CORINTHIANS 5:1 For we know that if our earthly house, this tent, is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. 2 For in this we groan, earnestly desiring to be clothed with our habitation oiketerion which is from heaven, (NKJV)
There is a great deal revealed in the Bible about angels. Angels could and did assume human form and even eat men's food (Gen. 18-19). Although the Bible doesn't tell us how, Jude 6 shows that some angels left their proper abode (their spiritual bodies) and took on fleshly bodies so as to marry and produce offspring by the daughters of men.
Although the angels committed sexual sins and corrupted the human lineage to some extent, they did something else that threatened to foil God's plan for humanity. Let's go back to 1 Enoch to see what these fallen angels did that affected the human race enormously:
1 ENOCH 8:1 And Azazel taught men to make swords, and knives, and shields, and breastplates, and made known to them the metals of the earth and the art of working them, and bracelets, and ornaments, and the use of antimony, and the beautifying of the eyelids, and all kinds of costly stones, and all 2 colouring tinctures. And there arose much godlessness, and they committed fornication, and they 3 were led astray, and became corrupt in all their ways. Semjaza taught enchantments, and root-cuttings, Armaros the resolving of enchantments, Baraqijal (taught) astrology, Kokabel the constellations, Ezeqeel the knowledge of the clouds, Araqiel the signs of the earth, Shamsiel the signs of the sun, and Sariel the course of the moon. And as men perished, they cried, and their cry went up to heaven . . . (From The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament, translated by R.H. Charles)
As the text above shows, the angels brought with them knowledge which humanity did not have beforehand. This information led to a rapid advance in the knowledge base of the antediluvian society, including the invention of advanced methods of waging warfare. In the NKJV translation of Genesis 6:4, the nephilim are called "mighty men who were of old, men of renown"; however, the NRSV translates that same phrase as "heroes that were of old, warriors of renown."
Genesis 6:11 shows that the earth was filled with violence; this is very likely the direct result of the nephilim, who apparently were mighty warriors. If the ancient legends are indeed based in fact, as they appear to be, these angelic offspring were superhuman in size and great in strength. Therefore the objective of the flood was the destruction of the polluted human bloodline and the eradication of the forbidden knowledge that humanity had learned from the fallen host.
There is one other New Testament passage which hints at the sin of the angels before the flood. It is an enigmatic scripture found in Paul's first letter to the Corinthian church.
I CORINTHIANS 11:7 For a man indeed ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. 8 For man is not from woman, but woman from man. 9 Nor was man created for the woman, but woman for the man. 10 For this reason the woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels. (NKJV)
In I Corinthians 11, Paul states the position of women in relation to men and says that the symbol of authority on a woman's head is needed "because of the angels." Without an understanding of what took place anciently between the fallen host and women, this verse is cryptic at best.
There is opposition to the view that the fallen angels are the "sons of God" referred to in Genesis 6. Some cite Matthew 22:29-30 and Mark 12:24-25 as objections, saying that these Scriptures clearly teach that angels do not marry.
MATTHEW 22:29 Jesus answered and said to them the Sadducees, "You are mistaken, not knowing the Scriptures nor the power of God. 30 For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels of God in heaven." (NKJV)
MARK 12:24 Jesus answered and said to them, "Are you not therefore mistaken, because you do not know the Scriptures nor the power of God? 25 For when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven." (NKJV)
First, these verses do not state whether angels can marry or procreate. Here Christ was referring only to the way things will be after the first resurrection of the dead. Additionally, the angels in heaven who did not sin are the example cited, not the angels confined to Tartarus because they sinned by marrying humans and producing offspring. To get a better perspective of what Christ was saying, let's look at the parallel account of this conversation in Luke's Gospel.
LUKE 20:34 And Jesus answered and said to them, "The sons of this age marry and are given in marriage. 35 But those who are counted worthy to attain that age, and the resurrection from the dead, neither marry nor are given in marriage; 36 nor can they die anymore, for they are equal to the angels and are sons of God, being sons of the resurrection." (NKJV)
Christ's primary purpose in his answer was to affirm the reality of the resurrection to these questioning Sadducees, who did not believe that there would be a resurrection. As you can clearly see from Luke's account of this confrontation, Christ is making two points about the age to come: (1) Resurrected humans will not marry, and (2) resurrected humans will be given eternal life, which the holy angels now have. Interpreting these Scriptures to mean that angels have never been able to marry or procreate reads more into them than was intended by Jesus.
Some also object by saying that Genesis 6:4 shows that there were nephilim on the earth before "the sons of God" came in to "the daughters of men" and also afterward; therefore, these giants cannot be the offspring of this union. Does the phrase "in those days, and also afterward" mean that the nephilim were present before the the sons of God cohabited with the daughters of men?
"In those days" plainly means the time after the "sons of God" had come down to earth; the fact that they had taken wives is disclosed in Genesis 6:2. In time sequence, chapter six of Genesis should follow chapter four; the fifth chapter is an inset into the story flow. "Afterward" specifies after the flood, when we see another instance of giants appearing, this time in the land of Canaan which the Israelites were to inherit (Num. 13:33). It's possible that Satan again tried to thwart God's plan by using these savage hybrids to occupy the land of Canaan and keep Abraham's offspring out. Another possibility is that an antediluvian name for the gigantic offspring of the angels was later applied to fully human giants. Obviously none of the nephilim survived the flood. These giants are often mentioned in the early books of the Old Testament until the last of them were finally killed off. The word nephilim only appears twice in the Old Testament (Gen 6:4; Num. 13:33), but these giants are also referred to as gibbor (Gen 6:4; Num. 13:33; Job 16:14) and rephaim when they reappear in a more limited fashion after the flood (Gen. 14:5; 15:20; Deu. 2:11, 20; 3:11, 13; Jos. 12:4; 13:12; 15:8; 17:15; 18:16; II Sam. 5:18, 22; 21:16, 18, 20, 22; 23:13; I Chr. 11:15; 14:9; 20:4, 6, 8; Isa. 17:5; 26:14). They were known by the proper names of Rephaim, Emim, Anakim, Horim, Avim, and Zamzummim.
As shown above, the evidence that "the sons of God" mentioned in Genesis 6 are fallen angels is substantial. By their sexual immorality, these angels produced offspring which were strong and violent. The concept of a race of giants which resulted from the union of gods and humans is virtually universal in the world's early civilizations. The original intent of the angels may have only been to satisfy their forbidden lust. Yet the knowledge they brought with them and taught mankind caused society to develop at a more rapid technological pace than God had intended. This societal development was not positive, and it gave rise to a very violent society, one in which the nephilim apparently played a large role. God was forced to restrain in the Abyss the wicked angels that produced the nephilim, and cleanse the earth of them and the violence they brought with the great Flood.
-- Bryan T. Huie
Updated: August 31, 1997
My view: I used to hold with Augustine's notion that the Nephilim were the offspring of the merging of the line of Cain with the line of Seth. I now believe there is another possibility. Look for it in my next book on Genesis. -- DJ, 27/11/2015