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. -Genesis 6:1-4
Differing interpretations exist on this very short passage, generally falling within two camps: Supernatural or Natural. The goal here is to show that the supernatural view has the most support Biblically, contextually, and historically. In this article, I will argue that this passage is discussing angels and humans marrying and producing giant offspring. Many are apprehensive about holding to this view because of how strange it is, and it is indeed strange. However, strange does not mean wrong and it is my hope that we find comfort in truth above normalcy.
Reading the passage above, we have several questions we must ask ourselves:
- Who are the sons of God?
- Who are the daughters of man?
- What are the Nephilim?
- How does the union between the sons of God and the daughters of man produce these Nephilim?
- Why does this union make God so angry?
Again, in answering these questions, people have landed in one of two camps: The Supernatural View and the Natural View. The former is what is in view in this article, however, we will briefly take a look at the latter.
The natural view has a few versions but what is consistent in all of them is that all parties involved in this passage are humans. The most common iteration of this view is known as the Sethite View. “Sons of God” refer to the godly line of Seth (the third son of Adam), while the “daughters of men” refer to the ungodly line of Cain. “Nephilim” refer to a race of humans (possibly large in stature or possibly mighty rulers) that were particularly violent and were the result of this mating. The anger of the Lord burns against these people because the formerly godly men fell into apostasy and abandoned their holy separation in order to fulfill their lusts and marry idolatrous women that led them away from YHWH.
Many godly and brilliant men have held to this view and it is quite possibly the leading view in the modern church. Be that as it may, it is not the view that I think has the best support. So, let’s travel through these questions and take a look at the Supernatural View (hereafter called the angelic view).
Answering the Questions
1. Who are the Sons of God?
The answer to this from the angelic perspective is that the “sons of God” are angelic beings (hence the name of the view). The phrase sons of God in the Old Testament almost always (if not always) refers to angelic beings. There is some dispute over a couple of passages involving this phrase (Psalm 82:6 particularly), however, even with the possibility of exceptions in mind the general usage of the phrase typically indicates divine beings of some sort. Furthermore, in the case of this specific phrase in the Hebrew (beney ha-elohim) it is in fact exclusively discussing divine entities1. Humans in the Old Testament are never (or almost never) called “sons of God.”
The Sethite view of sons of God is unsatisfactory in the realm of Biblical support. Not only is there little to no supporting verses of humans holding this title (particularly beney ha-elohim), there is no contextual support in the immediate passage to indicate that this is what the author intended. The preceding passage is genealogy and this fact is often used to argue that the author is pointing to a human-centered and naturalistic reading, but this assumes too much. In order to take this view, you must read the genealogies as though the descendants of Seth are all righteous, which is never mentioned. As Doug Van Dorn writes in his book, Giants: Sons of the Gods:
“This point cannot be proven either way from the genealogy, yet this ‘fact’ creates the justification for reading the passage this way2“.
Certainly some men in this line were holy (Enoch for example) but there is nothing in the text to indicate a wholesale dedication to the Lord by exclusively one genealogical line. Unanimous righteousness in the line of Seth is assumed without any contextual reasoning to reach the conclusion.
2. Who are the Daughters of Man?
The explanation of this phrase from the angelic perspective is very straight forward; the daughters of man are the daughters of men. The phrase simply means that these were human women, daughters of mankind, descended from Adam.
Broadly using this term to mean women from the ungodly lineage of Cain or some other pagan heritage does not make much sense. Firstly, there is no contextual basis that these women are from any particular line or that they are particularly wicked. Second, there is no other place where a phrase like “daughters of men” is used to refer to a particular line of genealogy. Lastly, this view necessitates an equivocation of the word “men.” Adherents to the Sethite view must hold that the word “men” means one thing in v.1, something entirely different in v.2, and then returns to the original meaning in v.3 without much justification for the swap. Here is Van Dorn on this again:
“‘It came to pass when men (ha’adam, literally ‘the men’) began to be numerous upon the earth, and daughters were born to them, that the sons of God having seen the daughters of men (ha’adam) that they were beautiful.’ In the Sethite view, in the first instance, “men” means ‘mankind.’ Very few dispute this. I certainly don’t. In the second instance, however, “men” supposedly means ‘daughters of Cain.’ What justification in these two verses is there for such a change in meaning3?”
3. What are the Nephilim?
Nephilim are the offspring of the angelic/human union according to the angelic view. Nephilim were giants and the word has often been translated as such (with the exception by some translators to simply not translate the word as with the ESV). These were men of large stature who were very violent and pushed the world further and further into corruption.
The word “Nephilim” itself is a subject of great debate, both in what it means and where it comes from. Many proponents of the Sethite view claim that the name comes from the Hebrew word naphal, meaning “cast down” or “to fall”4. The proposed translation would be something like “the fallen ones.” The desire for a meaning like this is meant to go along with their propensity for violence, they fall (die) because of their wickedness. However, even if “fallen ones” is the correct rendering (and I don’t think it is), this in no way precludes the angelic view. To the contrary, it lends itself to the language of divine beings falling, being cast down as a result of wickedness. These beings are the progenitors of the Nephilim, so it would be a fitting title for their offspring. Moreover, regardless of the name meaning, we are given descriptions of the Nephilim’s gigantic stature in other places5.
4. How Does the Union Between the Sons of God and the Daughters of Men Produce Nephilim?
This question poses a difficulty for both sides of the discussion regardless of what you think the Nephilim are and there is no way for either side to be 100% sure. Some posit that there was DNA manipulation while others posit that these beings took a physical form and this was the outcome; a hybrid, giant creature.
Difficulties are not eased by taking a natural view. Even many Sethite proponents believe the Nephilim to be giants (in the sense of large stature), so how is it that the union between two humans automatically produce a giant clan? This is especially troublesome given the fact that Nephilim appear later in Scripture and we are even told that they are around after the flood (Genesis 6:4). If the daughters of man are the line of Cain and the sons of God are the line of Seth and the union between the two somehow produce Nephilim (whatever that is), how is it that there are still Nephilim given that the line of Cain became extinct after the flood? Evident throughout time is the fact that unequally yoked marriages between humans do not typically produce giants.
5. Why Does This Make God So Angry?
Up until this point, all creatures mated and existed “according to its kind” (Genesis 1). Now, however, we have these “kinds” intermingling. Unnatural unions between heavenly beings and humans. God had specifically created woman in order that man might not be alone and yet, it seemed as though it was not enough for the humans. Furthermore, the sons of God whom God had placed in positions of authority had no regard for the order that he had placed in his creation. Just as God abhors bestiality (Leviticus 18:23; Deuteronomy 27:21) he is against this union. Their relations were heinous and abominable and it produced beings of haughty hearts and violent actions. This emphasis on things “according to their kinds” is reinforced throughout the flood narrative as Noah is instructed to board the ark.
The Sethite view on this does not pose much of a stretch to the whole of Biblical narrative. It takes principals we see in the law books and applies them to what is going on here. There are many passages that speak of not intermarrying between faiths (Deuteronomy 7:3; Ezra 9:2) so merit does exist for this view. With that said, even here the angelic view seems to come out ahead. There is no command up to this point for people not to marry people from other tribes. We do not get a command like that until much later. Again, the Sethite view is working off the uncorroborated presupposition that all the line of Cain was wicked and all the line of Seth was righteous and then, it anachronistically reads commands into the text given to people much later. The angelic view, on the other hand, has support from the preceding and following verses given the attention to creatures “according to their kinds.”
A Look at History
Before moving onto looking at a few objections often leveled against the angelic view, it would be wise to look at some strengths from the lens of history.
Firstly, the angelic view is by far the most historic and traditional view both in Ancient Jewish schools of thought and the early Church. For the sake of brevity, only two quotes will be listed, however, readers are encouraged to look into various Church Fathers and their views on this subject. It will be clearly seen that, prior to Augustine, the angelic view was the predominant, if not unanimous, view and that the Sethite view was a foreign and late concept.
In chapter 3 of his Antiquities of the Jews, Jewish historian Josephus writes:
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 call Giants6
In his Second Apology, early Church Father Justin Martyr says:
But the angels transgressed this appointment, and were captivated by love of women, and begot children who are those that are called demons7
Further confirmation of the Ancient Jewish interpretation of the angelic view can be seen in the First Book of Enoch as well as the Book of Jubilees.
Secondly, it is clearly seen as a common thought in the surrounding cultures of the time. When apologists defend the historicity of the Bible, they often point to the flood narrative and its pervasive influence across cultures. Nearly every ancient culture known to mankind has a flood story and this is used as evidence that some kind of flood event likely did happen and there are simply variants in the telling from culture to culture, with the Bible containing the true account. For example, the Institute for Creation Research put out an article with the following:
One of the strongest evidences for the global flood which annihilated all people on Earth except for Noah and his family, has been the ubiquitous presence of flood legends in the folklore of people groups from around the world. And the stories are all so similar. Local geography and cultural aspects may be present but they all seem to be telling the same story8.
This has been a long-used argument and it is a good one, however, we must be consistent in our argumentation. If we are going to use the flood narratives in various cultures in order to argue that a Biblical flood likely happened, we need to also do the same in regards to divine beings mating with humans and creating powerful offspring. Just as the former is seen in nearly every ancient culture so is the latter. It is not difficult to thing of examples of think, consider Heracles (Hercules) and Gilgamesh.
Genesis 6:1-4 acts not merely as an echo of these various nations’ narratives, but as a polemic against their interpretation of what is going on around them. These other nations considered this union a good thing and out of it they received mighty heroes. However, Genesis sets the record straight. This is no happy event, it is an abominable act that sends the world to a watery death.
In Mesopotamian myths, the divine beings are called Apkallus. In his book The Unseen Realm Dr. Michael Heiser writes the following:
The apkallus were the great culture-heroes of pre-flood knowledge. They were the divine sages of a glorious bygone era. Babylonian kings claimed to be descended from the apkallus and other divine figures from before the flood. The collective claim was that the glorious Babylonia was the sole possessor of divine knowledge, and that that empire’s rule had the approval of the gods.
The Biblical writers and later Jews disagreed. They saw Babylonian knowledge as having demonic origins – in large part because the apkallus themselves were so intertwined with Mesopotamian demonology.9
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There are several objections often leveled against this view, so it would be wise to address some here.
I. It is absurd.
In his Commentary on the First Book of Moses Called Genesis, John Calvin writes:
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 prodigious10.
This sentiment is echoed by other brilliant and revered theologians like Augustine and Luther. However, the argument itself is invalid. If we tossed out every doctrine that seemed to be absurd on the surface, there would be no Christianity. The virgin birth is absurd. The resurrection is absurd. A God so full of grace that he would become a man in order to reconcile himself with those that hate him is absurd. And yet, here we are. We must go by what the text of Scripture says, even if it seems strange to us.
II. Only humans are punished.
Reading the narrative of Genesis 6, we only see humans getting punished. God says he will not contend with flesh forever and that the wickedness of men was great in the earth. He then floods the world. If Genesis 6:1-4 marks a transgression of both humans and angels then why aren't they punished? The answer is: they are. We do not learn of their punishment in the immediate narrative, but we are given divine commentary on it from Jude 6-7:
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. (Emphasis mine)
Here, there is a direct connection between the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah and the sins of these angels. Notice the just as and the likewise. The angels that sinned in not keeping their proper dwelling are being punished just as Sodom & Gomorrah were punished, for they likewise indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural desire. I'd like to remind the reader that the straw that broke the camels back for Sodom and Gomorrah was not merely in-hospitality, it wasn't even homosexuality, it was men trying to rape...angels (Genesis 19).
The humans are punished but so are the angels. Jewish literature (like the book of Enoch) shows that the Ancient Israelites believed these angels were punished and we later, in Jude, get infallible confirmation of that.
III. Matthew & Mark contradict this view.
At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven. -Matthew 22:30
For when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. -Mark 12:25
These verses are often used to demonstrate that angelic beings could not have taken humans as wives as they are not given in marriage in heaven. However, these verses by no means exclude the angelic interpretation. It is the angels in heaven that do not marry. We read in Jude that angels "left their proper dwelling" (Jude 6) and these are those that committed this heinous act. Angels in heaven do not marry, true, but the angels in question have left heaven in order to marry.
IV. Angels cannot produce offspring.
In an article by the late great R.C. Sproul entitled Who Are the Sons of God and Daughters of Men in Genesis 6:1-5? writes:
Angels, whether fallen or not, and though I am happy to concede they can appear in human form, are spirit beings. They have no bodies. Most of the time most of us remember this, though here some seem to forget. Because angels are spirit beings they are not equipped to consummate a marriage and to sire offspring. Demons can do all sorts of shocking and even frightening things. This, however, is not one of them. They can’t bring forth giants because they simply can’t bring forth11.
The claim that angels could not possibly produce offspring with humans is a presumptuous and bold one. We have very limited knowledge of what angels can and cannot do and none of the knowledge we do have indicates that this would be impossible for them. It is true that angelic beings are spiritual beings, and thus naturally immaterial. However, in Scripture we see angels taking physical form and even eating (Genesis 18:8). There is no Biblical reason to dogmatically hold that angels cannot take a physical form and produce offspring somehow. We might have logical hesitations of such a notion, but to reject it wholesale because of a Biblically unfounded presupposition is problematic. Furthermore, it is foolish to make claims about creatures we know little about, especially when the available evidence runs contrary to the claim.
V. If the Nephilim are destroyed in the flood, they cannot be present in later Biblical accounts.
This view is somewhat self-defeating. Regardless of what the Nephilim are, Geneis 6 is clear that they were there in those days and also afterwards. Even if the Nephilim are not the giant offspring of divine beings and humans, they are still a category of beings that is present both pre-flood and post-flood. The Sethite view has no less difficult answering this question than the angelic view.
With that said, there are various different ideas and different degrees of validity for each of those ideas. Some posit that one of Noah's son's wife was descended from a Nephilim, some say that the flood was local and so a few giants were able to survive, and some older interpretations say that the Nephilim survived by grabbing onto the ark as it floated. Personally, I see no reason to believe that multiple incursions could not have happened and that is the view I take. Regardless, we know that Nephilim appear again in Scripture and we should humbly accept where the Lord decides to reveal mysteries and where he decides to keep them hidden.
VI. The Nephilim are called "men"
This last objection posits that, because the Nephilim are called "men" in v. 4, they cannot be a human/angel hybrid and must in fact be fully human. Here, the charge of equivocation is placed on the angelic view. However, claim is false on two accounts. First, simply because one thing is a hybrid of two things does not mean that they cannot be considered either of those things. In the Nephilim, we have a mixed class of human and divine, but this does not negate that they are human. Second, angels themselves are referred to as "men" in the Scriptures. When a being looks like a human, it is referred to as a human (Genesis 18:2-3; Genesis 19:1-8; Daniel 9:20-21). Not only did the Nephilim look like humans (and thus fall within the bounds of the Biblical descriptor of "men"), but they were born, lived life, and died as men. There were unique aspects of them that differentiated them from other men, but for all intents and purposes they were men.
Wrapping up, I would like to recognize that this teaching that has been properly discerned by some has led to many erroneous, ludicrous, and unbiblical ideas in others. This is true today of some Christians as well as centuries past of the Ancient Jews. Based on that, it is no wonder so many other Christians try to distance themselves from the view.
Properly understanding this passage is important because understanding any passage of God's inspired word is important. It is further important because through it, we get a greater glimpse into the plight the Israelites faced in battling clans of giants and the providence that God brought them through (consider Goliath and Og). We also get a greater picture of the transgressions of God's creation which resulted in the flood. What's more, it has several implications in regards to demons and the spiritual realm. Because of these things, we need to make sure that we are properly reading Scripture, but we also need to make sure that we do not go over-board with the teaching. Some ancient books discussing this topic contain things of a ridiculous nature that run counter to what is taught in Scripture, we should beware to not make the same mistakes. As with all doctrines, we ought to hold this teaching with prudence and care, not twisting it into a fear-mongering tactic.
Looking to the Gospel, we see a reversal of the event in Genesis 6. Jesus Christ is the Son of God who came down from heaven in order to save his people. The depravity highlighted through this abominable act is rectified by the the Savior. Christ's pure method of incarnation through the virgin birth runs counter to the impure lusts of the angels spawning monsters. Furthermore, Christ's victory at the cross assured the destruction and complete punishment of these beings which he made sure to proclaim to them while they remained in their chains (1 Peter 3:18-20). Jesus Christ reigns supreme in redemption and in judgement, both of which are proved by his incarnation, death, resurrection, and ascension. We await now only the final realization of his return when both angels and men will stand before God to be judged.
- See: Job 1:6, Job 2:1, and Job 38:7
- Van Dorn, Doug. Giants: sons of the Gods. Erie, CO: Waters of Creation Publishing. 2013. Print. pp. 16.
- Van Dorn, Doug. Giants: sons of the Gods. Erie, CO: Waters of Creation Publishing. 2013. Print. pp. 18.
- "5307. naphal." Biblehub, biblehub.com/strongs/hebrew/5307.htm. Accessed January 20, 2019.
- See: Numbers 13:33, the sons of Anak (also call Anakim) are Nephilim. Then see: Deuteronomy 2:20-23.
- Flavius, Josephus. The Antiquities of the Jews. Translated by William Whiston. www.gutenberg.org/files/2848/2848-h/2848-h.htm#link2HCH0003. Accessed January 28, 2019.
- Martyr, Justin. The Second Apology of St. Justin Martyr. Translatd by Marcus Dods. www.newadvent.org/fathers/0127.htm. Accessed January 20, 2019.
- Morris, John D. Why Does Nearly Every Culture Have a Tradition of a Global Flood? 2001. www.icr.org/article/why-does-nearly-every-culture-have-tradition-globa/. Accessed January 20, 2019
- Heiser, Michael S. The Unseen Realm. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press. 2015. pp. 108.
- Calvin, John. Commentaries on the First Book of Moses, Called Genesis. https://www.christianity.com/bible/commentary.php?com=clvn&b=1&c=6. Accessed January 20, 2019.
- Sproul, R.C. Who Are the Sons of God and Daughters of Men in Genesis 6:1-5? 2012. www.ligonier.org/blog/who-are-sons-god-and-daughters-men-genesis-6/. Accessed January 28, 2019.