Written by Ángel Manuel Rodríguez
I’ve been reading some commentaries on Genesis 6:1-4, and almost all of them interpret the expression “son of God” as a reference to divine beings or angels. What is a proper understanding of this biblical text?
Until recently the prevailing opinion among commentators was that the phrase “sons of God” referred to angels. Canaanite literature used this same phrase to designate divine beings, members of the divine pantheon. This use of the phrase has been read into the passage by a number of modern scholars. They use ancient mythology to interpret the text because, supposedly, this passage contains ancient myths.
Extrabiblical materials can be helpful in understanding difficult passages. However, those backgrounds should not determine the interpretation of a passage if in the process we sacrifice the principle that the Bible is its own interpreter. We should begin with the biblical text itself. From it we can observe the following points:
1. Use of “sons of God” in the Old Testament. A study of the phrase reveals that it is used to designate the Israelite king (Ps. 2:7; 2 Sam. 7:14); angels (Job 38:7); and heavenly beings, members of the divine council (Job 1:6; 2:1). In a very special way the Israelites are called sons/children of God. Israel is the firstborn son of God (Ex. 4:22, 23).
2. Immediate context. In Genesis 4 and 5 the human race is divided into two main groups: the descendants of Cain (Gen. 4: 17-24) and those of Seth ( verses 25, 26).
In Genesis 6:1,2 this division is clearly recognized by referring to those who followed the Lord as “sons of God” and to the rest of humanity as “men.” There is nothing in the immediate context to suggest that the “sons of God” are kings, angels, or heavenly beings.
3. Significance of the expression “to take a wife.” Verse 2 describes a legal and permanent union between the sons of God and the daughters of men. “They took to wife such of them as they chose” (RSV) includes a verb that is a technical expression to designate marriage, the act of entering into a legal and binding relationship between a man and a woman (Gen. 4:19; 11:29; 12:19; 20:2, 3).
Had the reference been to angels, one would have to conclude that they married the daughters of men and became their legal husbands. This is rejected by all serious interpreters.
4. Concept of judgment. The sin of the “sons of God” brought judgment on the human race. Had they been angels or heavenly beings, they, and possibly the daughters of men, should have been punished for their sins, but not the human race as a whole.
5. Descendants were human beings. Children born as a result of these intermarriages are not described as semidivine or semiangelic beings. There is a reference to the nephilim who were on the earth in those days, but the Hebrew text does not say that they were the descendants of the intermarriages (although some translations make that suggestion).
The sentence “The Nephilim were on the earth in those days. . .” seems to be a parenthetical statement. Nephilim is a Hebrew word whose meaning is not clear, and translators do not provide any English equivalent. In Numbers 13:33 this term designates giants. The antediluvian Nephilim were destroyed by the Flood, but later the term was used to refer to people of unusual height and violence who inhabited the land of Canaan.
“Men of renown” means “men of reputation” and describes a person with a good character (1 Chron. 12:30), and also individuals who use their influence for evil purposes (Num. 16:2, 3;1 Chron. 5:24, 25). Here the contexts seems to require a negative interpretation of that terminology.
Thus contextual and linguistic analysis indicates that the best interpretation of the phrase “sons of God” is the one that finds in it a designation of the descendants of Seth. This appears to be the one suggested by Scripture itself.