Until I was about 15, I had never heard the events of Genesis 6: 1-4 discussed in Christian circles. Sunday School classes would discuss the story of Cain and Abel one week, and hopped right over these mysterious verses to the story of Noah’s Ark by the next week’s lesson.
What actually drew my attention to the events of Genesis 6:1-4 was a report I did about the Antediluvian Age. I thought it would be interesting to compile any and all historical accounts and traditional Jewish legends that talked about the 1,600 year period before the flood.
I had no clue the Pandora’s box I was opening!
I quickly discovered that the Bible discussed a mysterious event in those short four verses that divides modern Bible scholars and commentators.
Now it came to pass, when men began to multiply on the face of the earth, and daughters were born to them, 2 that the sons of God saw the daughters of men, that they were beautiful; and they took wives for themselves of all whom they chose.
4 There were giants on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of men and they bore children to them. Those were the mighty men who were of old, men of renown. Genesis 6: 1,2,4
Investigating the identity of the ‘sons of God’ and giants (aka nephilim) has been dealt with by others very thoroughly elsewhere on the internet and in a host of books. I highly recommend reading Tim Chaffey’s book The Sons of God and the Nephilim (He has posted condensed articles on his website). He respectfully and very carefully analyzes the most popular interpretations of these verses, and shows very clearly that there is only one interpretation that meets the rigid standards of interpretation.
I came to the same conclusion years ago – the ‘sons of God’ are angels. As much as this shocked me at first, it was after thorough research that it became clear to me that it’s the only clear answer. And its also the answer that demonstrates once again that the Bible is truly authentic in describing reality around us. More about that later…
This subject is controversial. I was called a heretic by a former pastor, while two other pastors in the same denomination told me that this interpretation was correct. And some might even think that I’m being sacrilegious. If that’s your impression, keep reading.
Without going into all the ins and outs of the study of this topic (Again, check out Tim Chaffey’s resources for the complete investigation), here are a couple lines of reasoning which were most influential in coming to the conclusion I did. There are more, but I’m just hitting the highlights here.
1. It’s the oldest view
There’s no argument that the ‘sons of God’ were angels view is clearly the oldest interpretation of these verses. Alternate interpretations are never mentioned until the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD, while the Angel interpretation is discussed in extra-Biblical Jewish writings centuries before the time of Christ, as well as by a host of early church fathers. Seventeen different church fathers or early church writers retell this event, identifying the ‘sons of God’ as angels. For them, there was no controversy – it was a common fact, and they incorporate it into the Antediluvian history without additional commentary.
When the Jews prepared the Septuagint Greek translation of the Old Testament, they translated ‘Sons of God’ to simply read ‘angels’ for their Greek speaking readers. That was 250 BC.
Additionally, outside of Christian and Jewish circles, it’s easy to see how most world cultures contain remnants of this interpretation in their own myths. Gods descending to earth, taking wives and birthing demigods… sound familiar?
If you want to get an idea of how freshly this story was preserved in the immediate post-flood years, read The Epic of Gilgamesh, which is the earliest physically surviving great work of literature. It’s a Sumerian myth that follows Gilgamesh, a mighty king who is half god, half man, and his own discovery that in spite of his partial divine nature, he is mortal, and will surely die. He launches a quest to seek out immortality.
It’s the ancient version of a remix or ‘mashup’ of all the themes and stories of Genesis. And you can’t make heads or tales of this story without understanding that the ‘sons of God’ in Genesis were angels, and that Gilgamesh was one of their offspring (at least in Sumerian mythology remembering the events described in Genesis).
The writer of Genesis’s ‘pop culture’ comment is interesting. He knew what he was referring to when he said:
Those were the mighty men who were of old, men of renown. Genesis 6:4
Josephus, the famous Jewish historian, wrote in Chapter 3 of The Antiquities of the Jews:
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 giants.
What I find intensely interesting is that both the Biblical account and the historians are pointing their reader’s attention to the fact that the Bible has the original story for the source of so many legends, myths, and religious aberrations. They’re saying, “You know that story of Hercules, Gilgamesh, and the rest of the Babylonian and Egyptian myths of the adventures of their demigods? Here’s the original story in Genesis!”
In spite of all this, the Angel view fell out of favor in the 3rd century AD, and the strong influence of a certain religious group (unnamed here!) kept it that way even through the Reformation.
2. It’s the simplest way to interpret the text
Maybe I should have led with this point, but I wanted to give you some general context for the interpretation before diving into the textual evidence itself.
Again, we could go into great detail on the subject, but here are the highlights: ‘Sons of God’ is a direct translation of bene elohim in Hebrew – direct creations of God. The term is used sparingly in the Old Testament, and only in reference to angels (three times in Job). We know that Christians are referred to as ‘sons of God’ in the New Testament, but until the cross, it’s interesting that only angels, Adam, and Jesus are referred to as ‘sons’. Through Christ’s work on the cross, we can now become sons – direct new creations of God.
This was such a non-issue at the time, that the Septuagint translators simply wrote it as ‘angels of God’ in 250 BC.
With that understanding, it’s easy to see how this is the intended meaning of the text. The writer of Genesis was using a term he knew his readers understood. A few thousand years and a couple dispensations later, we need to be reminded of what it means!
The New Testament is also not silent on this topic.
Keep in mind as well, that the Peter and Jude knew their readers, and knew how their readers would understand the terminology they were using.
The ‘Book of Enoch‘ was in common usage at that time (as evidenced by the number of times it’s quoted by the early church fathers, Jude quotes it directly, and it was found among the Dead Sea scrolls). It’s not canonical, and seems to be a mishmash of a few writers and sources, however, it also contains the most detailed description of the Genesis 6:1-4 account. New Testament Jews were very familiar with it.
To Michael likewise the Lord said, Go and announce his crime to Samyaza, and to the others who are with him, who have been associated with women, that they might be polluted with all their impurity. And when all their sons shall be slain, when they shall see the perdition of their beloved, bind them for seventy generations underneath the earth, even to the day of judgment, and of consummation, until the judgment, the effect of which will last for ever, be completed.
Then shall they be taken away into the lowest depths of the fire in torments; and in confinement shall they be shut up for ever. Enoch 10: 15-16
Then the Lord said to me: Enoch, scribe of righteousness, go tell the Watchers of heaven, who have deserted the lofty sky, and their holy everlasting station, who have been polluted with women.
And have done as the sons of men do, by taking to themselves wives, and who have been greatly corrupted on the earth;
That on the earth they shall never obtain peace and remission of sin. For they shall not rejoice in their offspring; they shall behold the slaughter of their beloved; shall lament for the destruction of their sons; and shall petition for ever; but shall not obtain mercy and peace. Enoch 12:5-7
The curiosity that is the Book of Enoch is a topic for another time. I’m bringing it up here to demonstrate that Peter and Jude were not ignorant of the terminology they were using in the passages below, and their readers would know what they were referring to – the angels that sinned with women as related in the Book of Enoch. Knowing that the readers were familiar with the above passage, it’s easy to see how they could only interpret the following passages as referring to the ‘sons of God’ who took wives in Genesis 6.
And the angels who did not keep their proper domain, but left their own abode, He has reserved in everlasting chains under darkness for the judgment of the great day; Jude 6
And again, with the surrounding context of the passage discussing sexual perversion and Noah’s flood, these angels are identified as having left the position God created for them.
For if God did not spare the angels who sinned, but cast them down to hell and delivered them into chains of darkness, to be reserved for judgment; and did not spare the ancient world, but saved Noah… 2 Peter 2:4-5
As well, the following passage also makes sense. Spirits in prison that were disobedient during the days of Noah – to a modern reader these ‘spirits’ could be simply the wicked people before the flood that were killed in the flood. However once we understand the context in which the early church would read these verses, we can see they would know that the spirits mentioned were the angels who sinned in the days of Noah. (Why would Christ speak only to human spirits slain in the flood, and not the rest of the human spirits who had died over the ages?)
By whom also He went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly were disobedient, when once the Divine longsuffering waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight souls, were saved through water. 1 Peter 3:19-20
There is more textual evidence, but I think these are the most interesting – in the Old Testament, ‘sons of God’ only ever refer to angels, and in the New Testament, the stories of these angels and their sin is referenced three different times with clearly the same terminology used to describe the event.
3. This interpretation provides real answers to unsolved mysteries
Where did the ancients get their mythologies? The angel interpretation provides the basis for the core themes of ancient myth. The angel interpretation makes it more obvious than ever that the Bible’s early narrative is the source of those myths.
Does the idea of our planet being visited by superior beings in the distant past sound familiar? It should. With the angel interpretation in mind, watch a few episodes of Ancient Aliens, or read a book or two on the topic like the error-ridden but classic Chariots of the Gods, or watch a movie like Prometheus.
Our culture is fascinated by the idea that our planet was visited in the past, and the Bible has the original story already contained in its pages. Unsolved mysteries make perfect and plain sense when viewed with the Biblical account in mind. Again, the Bible demonstrates it has answers for a very confused world.
Objections to the angel view
I’ll discuss a couple common objections. Considering the fact that alternate interpretations can’t explain why the angel view is older, why it deals better with the textual evidence and the alternate views reduce the impact of the Bible’s impact on secular culture and myth… well, my point is probably made.
1. Angels in heaven don’t marry
This is probably the most common objection, although it has nothing actually to do with the actual issue.
At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven. Matthew 22:30
In short, Christ explains to the Sadducees that their line of reasoning/questioning was in error, because in the afterlife marriage won’t be an issue, exactly in the way it isn’t a factor for the angels in heaven.
This doesn’t apply to the Genesis 6 discussion at all, because Christ is simply says that angels in heaven don’t marry. It doesn’t say that they can’t on earth. But it rather supports the Genesis 6 angel interpretation that what these ‘sons of God’ did was a terrible sin when they left their proper place and roll, one for which they were severely judged for – resulting in being bound in chains of darkness until the final judgment.
2. Physically impossible
Another very common objection is that it is physically or biologically impossible for angels to impregnate humans. Really? Is that common knowledge? We know that angels are capable of taking human form, because they have done it before. Can we really definitively say this is impossible, when we know nothing else about it?
Why it matters
This is by no means a comprehensive overview. Those have been done and are easily found online. Again, if this subject is of interest to you for further study, I highly recommend Tim Chaffey’s book, or Chuck Missler’s works on the topic. These two men are bound by loyalty to God’s Word above all else, and also recognize the need to challenge our own minds to tackle controversial and difficult subjects with confidence, knowing that investigation further demonstrates the Bible’s authority, and not the other way around.
There’s no need to indulge in the conspiracy theories that have sprung up from this topic. The Bible provides clear context for the reality we live in.
A few authors have expanded on this tale into fictional forms, as I have done also. The goal is to tell a theologically plausible version of the story that has such a long history and has had such a huge impact on our world.
Christians need not be ignorant of it, or afraid of it.
Another good and balanced review of this topic is on the Answers in Genesis website.