One of the most puzzling passages in the Bible is Genesis 6:1-4:
When man began to multiply on the face of the land and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that the daughters of man were attractive. And they took as their wives any they chose. Then the LORD said, “My Spirit shall not abide in man forever, for he is flesh: his days shall be 120 years.” 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.
The account immediately leads into a statement about how corrupt the earth is and how God has decided to blot out humanity as a result (Gen. 6:5-8). Two big questions come up when I read this passage:
(1) Who are the “sons of God”?
(2) What is the nature of the sin involved in this text, which apparently leads to the judgment of the flood?
As with most biblical-theological issues, there are three main views, the first of which I will discuss in this post.
One ancient interpretation of Genesis 6 that has persisted to this day is the view that the “sons of God” are angels who rebelled by doing what is forbidden to them: cohabit with human women. One version of this interpretation (let’s call it “angelic view A”) holds that the “Nephilim” (i.e., “fallen ones”) are the offspring of this fallen angel/human union, resulting in half-breed creatures of superhuman size and power. Another version of this interpretation (let’s call it “angelic view B”) holds that the text is written in such a way as to demonstrate that the Nephilim are actually not the result of the angelic-human intermarriage. In other words, the author (probably aware of ancient stories of demi-gods who are the offspring of heavenly beings and human women) intentionally demythologized the Nephilim by saying they were actually there before the business with the sons of God/daughters of men, and that they were still there long afterward (notice again how the text reads: “The Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward…“). Hence Moses, writing for Israel in the wilderness, makes the point in passing that the Nephilim, some of whom Israel is about to face in battle in Canaan, are not to be feared as though they are superhuman creatures. Yes, they are unusually big, but they are nevertheless mortal men, and always have been.
The angelic interpretation has a number of strengths and a number of weaknesses. Here are its strengths:
- The exact phrase “sons of God” (in the plural) always refers to angels in the Old Testament (Job 1:6; 2:1; 38:7). Nevertheless, this is not a conclusive point, because very similar wording refers to men in, e.g., Hosea 1:10, 2 Samuel 7:14, and other places.
- The phrase “sons of God” is set in something of a contrast with “daughters of man.” The latter phrase most naturally refers simply to human women. The angelic interpretation makes good sense of the contrast.
- Three New Testament passages seem to support the angelic interpretation. One is Jude 6-7, where Jude is providing the last two (out of three) examples of rebels whom God judged in the past as warnings for the present:
And the angels who did not stay within their own position of authority, but left their proper dwelling, he has kept in eternal chains under gloomy darkness until the judgment of the great day–just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which likewise indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural desire, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire.
Is Jude referring to Genesis 6 here, or is he referring to some other angelic rebellion? Two considerations indicate the likelihood that he is, in fact, referring to Genesis 6. One is that the angelic interpretation of Genesis 6 was well-known among Jewish writings at the time that Jude wrote. One of the most important of these is the book of 1 Enoch, from which Jude actually quotes in verses 14-15 of his short book. Another consideration (and a very strong one) is that in verse 7, Jude specifically says that Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities “likewise indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural desire.” In other words, the sexual sin of Sodom and Gomorrah is similar to the rebellion of the angels mentioned in verse 6, which strengthens the case that Jude has particularly a sexual sin in view on the part of the angels. See also the connection between the angels who rebelled and the time of Noah in 2 Peter 2:4-5, as well as the “spirits in prison” who disobeyed during the time of Noah in 1 Peter 3:18-20. All of these texts can make good sense in light of 1 Enoch’s interpretation of Genesis 6.
Nevertheless, the angelic view suffers from these weaknesses:
- Contextually, it is difficult to see the connection between the sin of angels and the resulting judgment of God on humanity in Genesis 6. I don’t quite follow why an angelic rebellion, in which angels intermarry with human women, would result in God saying, “My Spirit shall not abide in man forever, for he is flesh: his days shall be 120 years.” Verses 5-8 further stress that the sin to which God is responding is the sinful condition of humanity, not fallen angels.
- In Matthew 22:30, Jesus says that “angels in heaven” neither marry nor are given in marriage, which could be taken to mean that angels are asexual beings. Nevertheless, this point is not conclusive, because Jesus did specify with the phrase “in heaven” that he is speaking of unfallen angels, leaving open the possibility that fallen angels might indeed marry. But we should nevertheless count this observation against the angelic view, even if it is not a knockout punch.
- Theologically, it is difficult to understand how fallen angels might obtain the power to reproduce with human women. Even if you take the “angelic view B” interpretation, which denies that the Nephilim are the offspring of angels and women, we are still left with the fact that text specifically says that the women bore children to the sons of God (v. 3). We know from Genesis 18, for example, that angels can appear in human form and even eat, but it seems that having the power to reproduce with human women is on a different level altogether. And how would we classify these offspring? Do they count as human beings? How do they stand in covenantal relation to Adam (if at all)? It certainly raises a number of difficult questions.
I will look at other interpretations in subsequent posts, but I would be interested to hear your thoughts on this one in the comments.