This is the first post in what I hope to become a semi-regular feature here at Living Theologically… reader questions. If there’s something you’ve been wondering or confused about, please go HERE to submit your question.
Here’s today’s question:
Who are the “sons of God” & the Nephilim in Genesis 6:1-4?
When man began to multiply on the face of the land and daughters were born to them, 2 the sons of God saw that the daughters of man were attractive. And they took as their wives any they chose. 3 Then the Lord said, “My Spirit shall not abide in man forever, for he is flesh: his days shall be 120 years.” 4 The Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of man and they bore children to them. These were the mighty men who were of old, the men of renown
This is a strange passage of Scripture which has confused Jewish and Christian believers for centuries. By no means do I profess to have it all “figured out,” but after studying this passage in seminary and over the last few weeks, I’ve been reminded that we only lose when we avoid difficult portions of the Bible.
Three Main Views: An Overview
The earliest and most common view throughout the first two centuries of the Church held these “sons of God” to be angels. In this interpretation, angels were having sexual relations with human women, transgressing the boundaries between God’s created beings. One of the strongest arguments for this position are the three texts in Job (1:6, 2:1, and 38:7) where “sons of God” are clearly angelic beings.
Concerning this view, John Calvin wrote, “That ancient figment, concerning the intercourse of angels with women, is abundantly refuted by its own absurdity; and it is surprising that learned men should formerly have been fascinated by ravings so gross and prodigious.”
In John Walton’s commentary on Genesis (NICOT series) he writes, “If the lexical case for “sons of God” meaning “angels” is solid and unassailable, then the issue is resolved.” I would agree with him. If these “sons of God” are not human, then this remains a troubling text, but only because of our ignorance about angelology. If these “sons of God” are not angels, the options remain fuzzy and confusing.
Walton gives three reasons why “sons of God” should not be understood as referring to angels:
(1) Cohabitation between angels and humans has no immediately obvious connection with the purposes of Genesis.
(2) An angelic intrusion is considered out of place in the sequence of episodes recounting the advance of human sin.
(3) The mythological tone is at odds with life in the real world as we know it, though in the end our interest is in the world as the Israelites knew it.
One interpretation where “sons of God” are human (not angelic) follows the argument where they are sons of rulers. This makes the best sense of the Hebrew text, where “Elohim” means “ruler” and is applied to God as the Great Ruler of creation. In this way, the “sons of elohim/the rulers” (small ‘r’) have cast off all restraint and “all the intentions of the hearts was evil day long” (Gen 6:5). This interpretation places Gen. 6:1-4 into the broader context, setting up the reasons for the coming judgment through the Great Flood. The weakness of the “Rulers” interpretation is twofold: first, they are never identified, and so we do not know what is their relationship with the descendants of Adam (Gen. 5); and second, we do not know why it was so damning to marry “daughters of man.”
Eventually, the predominant interpretation understood the “sons of God” to be decedents of Seth while the “daughters of men” were women from the line of Cain. The offense which led to judgment was that the men from the “line of promise” were intermixing with those who have been cursed. Those who rightly worshipped God were living as the rest of men, marrying whomever they desired without discernment or restraint. This view became popularized through Saint Augustine’s City of God and remained the most widely held view through the Reformation.
The Sethite view provides a strong argument because it is so clearly in line with biblical teaching: the righteous should be separate and distinct from the rest of people who do not profess to worship God. While it does not naturally arise out from a more literal exegesis of the text, it easily flows if one interprets “sons of God” as metaphorical. With this passage immediately following Genesis 5’s presentation of Adam’s descendants, a metaphorical approach is perfectly reasonable.
Who Are The “Nephilim?”
The word “Nephilim” comes from the Hebrew word npl which means “to fall.” If you choose an interpretation strictly by word-origins, then this could lead to an understanding where they are either fallen warriors or those who fall upon others in battle.
Another way to approach the “Nephilim” is to connect them with the giants mentioned in Numbers 13:33. This interpretation requires a lot of inference and cannot be clearly connected.
I believe the simplest explanation is the Nephilim are the great men of old. They represent the heroes of the past who have “fallen” from heaven to earth (hence, sons of God) and have since died (and are “fallen” heroes). They were the great men of God who walked faithfully with the Lord and urged others to do the same. Again, context is king – this reference to the Nephilim comes immediately after a long genealogy naming the forefathers of Israel, from Adam, to Seth, all the way leading up to Noah (whose story is told in the verses immediately after this reference to the Nephilim).
Why This Passage Matters
Whatever your interpretation may be, the direct result of the text is the same: God’s judgment is to limit the typical human lifespan. A brief look through genealogies before Genesis 6 shows people living for hundreds of years before their death. After the flood (Gen. 6-9) human life is significantly shorter. This change is not because of the Flood (though God certainly used the Flood to accomplish his purposes), but because of God’s judgment in Genesis 6:3.
Sin matters to God. So does the holiness of those who profess to follow him. When the “sons of God” live the same way as the sons/daughters of men, there will be judgment. God will not be mocked. God is love, but his judgment remains utterly terrifying. The story of the Flood is no casual children’s story.
Grace continues to reign as one of God’s commitments to creation. In the midst of the judgment, human life is preserved. We are given “120” years (12×10… the numbers of God’s “chosen people” and ten, which represented ‘a lot’ of something). God’s promise to bless the godly with long lives remained (as is repeated many times throughout Proverbs and elsewhere), but lifespan is significantly cut shorter than before the Great Flood. Where judgment was fully deserved because “The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Genesis 6:5)… God set apart Noah and showed him favor/grace.
Finally, this is a timely warning to be thoughtful regarding whom you marry. There is no human institution more intimate than marriage, so the Christian should be careful to unite himself or herself with another Christian. Those who live as children of God ought to place a priority on marrying others who desire their lives to reflect their identity through Christ.
May we live by faith as Nephilim in our day, men and women whose legacies shine forth as righteous children of God.
In a nutshell, Genesis 6:1-4 begs the question:
How are you living? As a child of God (John 1:12), are you living according to godliness, or are you mixing in with the daughters of men?