During my own study for a sermon I was preparing, I was intrigued by the passage before me: Genesis 6:1-8, which is a passage of significant debate. The question is, “Who were the Sons of God?” I enjoyed studying this text, and I think the answer is significant to understanding the nature of the world’s wickedness during the days of Noah. No doubt many men greater than I disagree with my conclusions. Would I say they’re wrong? I would – I’d have to by the nature of coming to a conclusion. This doesn’t mean I wouldn’t change my position as I might grow in my understanding of the Hebrew text. In this case, I’d saw I was wrong, but I wanted to point out that this isn’t an issue to divide churches over, and it’s certainly no hill to die on. Regardless, this is a subject that has historically interested many Christians, and most continue to enjoy discussion on the issue. So who were the sons of God? I will address each of the four main views that I have come across.
1. The Cainites
Yes, believe it or not, there are those who believe that the “sons of God” in Genesis 6 refers to the Cainites, although this is definitely the least common of the four views. It is important to point out that in the Hebrew, there is a conjunction, usually rendered in the English text as “now,” linking Gen. 6:1 to the preceding genealogies listed in chapter 5. This view emphasizes that linkage, pointing out that one lineage is from the evil line of Cain (the Cainites), while the other comes from the line of Seth (the Sethites – which is the lineage Noah comes from). So, this view holds that it was the evil Cainites were the “sons of God,” who married the “daughters of men,” who were the Sethites. The argument is that there is a definite emphasis on daughters in Genesis 6 (which is true – “daughters” is placed before the verb in the Hebrew). Going back to chapter 5, it was only the tribe of Seth that it was specifically mentioned that they had sons and daughters. There is no mention of daughters in the lineage of Cain. There are two problems with this view (actually there are more, but these are the main ones).
a) While “daughters” is being emphasized, it’s a weak argument to say that that the reason they’re being emphasized is to link them to the preceding genealogy from the tribe of Seth. Obviously daughters were being born to the Cainites too; they’re just not noted (which is normal). This view would have to prove that “daughters” is not being emphasized for any other reason, since this view stands or falls on this issue.
b) The biggest problem is glaringly obvious. How can you call the evil Cainites the “sons of God?” That makes no sense, even if the daughters are being emphasized. Nothing in Scripture would ever affirm that. To say the least, this view is unconvincing and lacks any historical credibility as well.
2. The Sethites
This is a far more popular view and is currently held by many in Christianity. Many Reformers held this view, including Calvin and Luther. It’s the exact opposite of the previous view. Here the “sons of God” are from the tribe of Seth. In other words, the “sons of God,” were the “godly sons” who married the beautiful, enticing “daughters of men,” much like Samson who married the Philistine woman – leading to his destruction. This doesn’t necessarily mean by default that the daughters are from Cain. It just means that the “godly sons” married whomever they chose, without discernment, and without concern for their spiritual condition. But this view also has its problems.
a) The “godly sons” don’t sound so godly. It’s true that it’s hard to argue that these men are evil just because they lacked discernment and caution with whom they married. After all, David certainly lacked discernment when he slept with and married Bathsheba. So did Samson when he married the Philistine woman. Both, however, found favor in God’s eyes when the repented. THAT however, is key. The Scriptures are clear that these men did, in fact, repent. It’s obvious that these “sons of God” did NOT repent, since they were destroyed by the Flood 120 years later. I find it very difficult to believe that these men who were destroyed and apparently unrepentant can be considered “godly.”
b) More exegetically, another problem is that the Hebrew adam in Gen. 6:1 would have to have a different meaning from adam in verse two. In verse one, it’s obviously being used collectively, as in speaking of the whole of mankind in general. Then, it would have to switch in verse two to refer to a specific group of men. This is possible in the Hebrew, but unlikely contextually.
This view has a little more historical credibility than the previous two views, since it was introduced in to Hebrew exegesis around the middle of the 2nd century AD. Here, the “sons of God” are understood to be royalty or judges, appealing to references in the OT that refer to kings and judges as “sons of the Most High.” If so, this view would have a better time explaining who the Nephelim were. It makes sense that these would then be the “mighty men of old.” But the question here is, what then is the sin? After all, what’s wrong with royalty marrying commoners? There are two views, but there are problems with both.
a) It’s argued that the gross sin that was occurring to move God to destroy the earth was polygamy. Kings and judges would have had the wealth to be able to have multiple wives. But the problem is that Moses clearly assumes that his readers (the early Israelites) knew who these men were and the sin that they were committing, and polygamy was relatively common among the people of Israel by prominent, godly men. Even King David and Solomon had multiple wives (though it was not right). I find it difficult to believe that if this was what brought such corruption that God would destroy the earth with a flood, someone such as David would have been more cautious to avoid it.
b) Others argue that the great evil was rampant rape. The kings and judges were taking advantage of their God-given positions, which would be consistent with the fact that they were men of strength and power. But the Hebrew text doesn’t allow for this either. This view understands 6:2 negatively: The men took wives for themselves, that is by force. But the Hebrew word here that’s used is laqah, which was the word used to describe marital transactions… not rape. That would have been a different word in the Hebrew that is usually translated “forced,” not “took.” So, linguistically, the sin of rape doesn’t really work.
That leaves us with one final view, and incidentally, what I believe to be the right one.
4. Fallen Angels/Demons
This then leaves us with the final view, that the sons of God were fallen angels or demons, and I think this view has the most Scriptural and contextual support, since angels/demons were often referred to as “sons of God” in the OT. And, we can definitely see why this would produce evil of epic proportions.This is the oldest and longest held view, which most commentators still hold today, and Jewish literature also affirms it. The LXX (the Greek translation of the OT) implies this view in its translation of the Hebrew, as does Philo and the Dead Sea Scrolls. Also, the earliest Christian church writers held to this view, such as Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, and Origen.
So what has happened then, is that humanity at the time of Noah has engaged in consenting demonic, sexual relationships that was reserved to be exclusively between a man and a woman. Mankind was thoroughly abusing the grace of God who preserved the human race, allowing family and the bearing of children to continue even after the Fall. What is happening here, is that demons were recognizing the masterful beauty with which God created woman for man, and the demons twisted and distorted the purpose of their beauty for their own pleasure, and all with their consent. People were willingly inviting demons into their homes to influence them and their children – and this was done when the demons would possess the men, taking on their bodies. Because demons are spirits, they cannot procreate or marry like human beings (Matt. 22:30), but by taking on human flesh, much in the same way Satan took on the serpent in the Garden, they could “bear” children through the men they possessed.
Why would they do that? They believed the same lie of Satan that Eve did. Somehow the demons promised to make them great. They could, and had the power to make them the great rulers of the world, the men of renown, the Nephilim. They promised the same thing that Satan promised to Jesus, “Worship me and I will give all the world and its splendors to You” (Matt. 4:8-9). The demons could provide unnatural strength (the demoniac in Mark 5 is a great example of that, and no human chains could bind him).
So, God concludes that His Spirit will not contend with humanity forever. He will grant them 120 more years to repent, to listen to the preaching of Noah, after which He would bring judgment. He was patient, but also just to destroy the earth with the Flood.