I call upon You, Lord, God of Abraham and God of Isaac and God of Jacob and Israel, You who are the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the God who, through the abundance of your mercy, was well-pleased towards us so that we may know You, who made heaven and earth, who rules over all, You who are the one and the true God, above whom there is no other God; You who, by our Lord Jesus Christ gave us the gift of the Holy Spirit, give to every one who reads this writing to know You, that You alone are God, to be strengthened in You, and to avoid every heretical and godless and impious teaching.

St Irenaeus of Lyons, Against the Heresies 3:6:4

Monday, May 21, 2012



The phrase “sons of God,” in Gen 6:2 and 4, has been subject to a variety of interpretations.  Once fringe views are excluded, we are left with three possibilities.  The phrase “sons of God” refer to either (1) fallen angels, or (2) Sethites, or (3) rulers/nobles.  The earliest interpretations were almost unanimously view (1), fallen angels. 
            The Second Jewish Commonwealth apocryphal work 1 Enoch, dating around the second century B.C., provides one of the earliest commentaries on Gen 6:1—4, presenting the sons of God as angels (see 1 Enoch 6 – 11).  The primitive popularity of the angel view is also reflected in some of the manuscripts of the Septuagint (e.g., Alexandrinus), which translates the Hebrew term בני  האלהים (bene elohim) with γγελοι το θεο (aggeloi tou theou), “angels of God.”  The angel view is further testified to by a number of other Jewish apocryphal and apocalyptic works, such as, Jubilees 4:15, the Testament of Reuben 5:6,  2 Baruch 56:12—16, 2 Enoch 18:4, and the Genesis Apocryphon 2:1.  Both Philo (Gig. 2:6) and Josephus (Antiq. 1.3.1) appeared to follow this view (1) as well.  In addition to these early Jewish interpretations are a number of early Church fathers who likewise viewed the sons of God as angels.  Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Lactanitus, Irenaeus, Cyprian and Ambrose are names that the angel view may boast as authorities.[1] Finally, the two central NT texts that appear to support angel view must not be ignored (i.e., 2 Pet 2:4; Jude 6).  However, these passages will be adequately interacted with in the sections below in parts comparing modern perspectives.
            The following table is illustrative of the historical and statistical dominance of angel view over that of the Sethite in early Jewish and Christian interpretation.[2]

c.250 BC
Septuagint, Gen. 6:3
165-64 BC
1 Enoch 6-19; 86-88; 106: 13-15, 17
150 BC
Jubilees 4:15, 22; 5:1
100 BC
Damascus Document (Qumran) 2:16-19
20 BC-50 AD
Philo of Alexandria
Giants 6-7
37-100 AD
Antiquities, Book 1.3.1 (73)
Biblical Antiquities 3:1-2
Late 1st Cent.
Genesis Apocryphon 2:1
Late 1st Cent.
2 Baruch 56:10-14
Justin Martyr
1 Apology 5; 2 Apology
Irenaeus of Lyons
Demonstration 18; Heresies 16.2
Rabbi Akiba
[Greek translation of OT]
Rabbi Simean b. Yohai
Genesis Rabbah 26:5-7
Rabbi Jose
Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 108a
2nd Cent.
A Plea for the Christians, 24.
Late 2nd Cent.
[Greek translation of OT]
c. 150-215
Clement of Alexandria
Miscellanies 5.1.10
Idolatry 9; Veiling 7; Women, 1.2
c. 160-240
Julius Africanus
Chronology, Fragment 2
Divine Institutes 2.15
Eusebius of Caesarea
Eusebius, Preparation, 5.5
Ephrem the Syrian
Commentary on Genesis 6.3.1
Ambrose of Milan
Noah and the Ark 4.8
Hebrew, 6.4
John Chrysostom
Homily on Genesis, 22.6-8
Sulpicius Severus
History, 1.2
Augustine of Hippo*
City of God 15:22-23
KEY: X indicates agreement with this view
            Although views (1) and (2) dominated in antiquity, view (3) was not without a voice.  Genesis Rabbah 26:8 (fifth-sixth century A.D.) cites R. Simeon b. Yohai (A.D. 130—160) as insisting on the interpretation ‘sons of nobles’ and placing a curse on anyone who promulgated the ‘angels’ theory.  By the time of the medieval rabbis, this interpretation had become entrenched.  Rashi, Ramban and Ibn Exra all favored identifying the sons of God as rulers or judges.”[3]  
            Among critical scholarship today, all three views identified above have their heavy-hitting protagonists.  View (3), the Sethite view, however, has consensus among conservative scholars. “The most common view of orthodox interpreters has been that the ‘sons of God’ were the men of the godly Sethite lineage.”[4] We will now turn to three modern scholars, each supporting one or the other of the respective views on the sons of God.


The old Princeton student and then professor of biblical theology, Geerhardus Vos, was a proponent of (2), the Sethite view.[5]  Vos is particularly sensitive to two motifs that appear in the fore of the antediluvian epoch of revelation.  First, he notes that the antediluvian context of Genesis is not primarily concerned with the sphere of redemptive progress, but with the development of the race in general, which he recognizes is ultimately significant for the development of the plan of redemption.  Second, Vos points out that the revelation on the whole bears negative rather than positive connotations.[6]  These observations, with others below, play a role in him settling on the Sethite view.
            Vos further notes that the narrative develops in three stages. 

It first describes the rapid development of sin in the line of Cain.  In connection with this it describes the working of common grace in the gift of invention for the advance of civilization in the sphere of nature.  It shows further that these gifts of grace were abused by the Cainites and made subservient to the progress of evil in the world.  We have here a story of rapid degeneration, so guided by God as to bring out the inherent tendency of sin to lead to ruin, and its power to corrupt and debase whatever of good might still develop…The details of the description are evidently chosen with a view to emphasize the result.[7]

With this backcloth in mind, the narrative goes on to contrast the wickedness of the Cainite to the progress of the godly line of Seth (Gen 4:25—5:32).  With respect to the Sethites, nothing is said of secular or civil progress; rather, it is the continuity of redemption that is stressed.  “The two kinds of progress appear distributed over the two lines of the Cainites and the Sethites.”[8]
            Vos couches the situation in the context as he interpreted it, saying, “The character of the period in this respect finds clearest expression in what is said…about the commingling of the Cainites and Sethites through intermarriage.  The latter allowed themselves to become assimilated to the wickedness of the former.”[9]
            Because he so carefully recreated the context of the unit, Vos does not believe that the Sethite view needs much technical defense; “[it] alone would seem to fit into the construction of the period to serve the purpose of showing the necessary outcome of sin, when left to work itself out freely.  If the angel theory be accepted, this will tend to obscure the idea aimed at.”[10]  To inject a source ab extra, i.e., fallen angels, would interrupt the development of human sin that Moses so carefully created.  Vos recognizes that the evidence for the angel view from Jude 6, admitting that it does give the angel view some force, yet it is far from conclusive.
            Furthermore, in connection with the terms ‘sons of God’ and ‘daughters of men,’ Vos makes the point that in Hebrew idiom sometimes a genus is set over against a part of that genus as though they were mutually exclusive.  He cites Ps 73:5 and Jer 32:20 as explicit cases of this idiom.  Both classes mentioned are naturally speaking, mere men; so, the sons of God are men, but sons of God besides, thus marking their distinguished status.  These are the Sethites, for Vos.  Finally, he mentions that in 6:3, 5—7 we find the divine evaluation of things and pronouncement of pending judgment on the antediluvian race of man and his sphere of sovereignty; angels are not mentioned at all.


Henry Morris represents a resurgence among orthodox interpreters, which is increasingly adopting the angel view, and not without good exegetical reason.[11]  For Morris, taking the term bene elohim to refer to angels is the “obvious meaning.”[12]  That the term is used explicitly for angels elsewhere in the OT is crucial for Morris.  He cites, of course, Job 1:6; 2:1; 38:7.  The similar language of Dan 3:25 (bar elohim) refers to either angels or a theophany.  Finally, in Ps 29:1 and 89:6 the variation of the term (bene elim) clearly means angels.  Morris also references presidents in both Jewish and Christian historical theology, dominated by the angel view, in support of his thesis. 
            Liberalistic interpreters are quick to dismiss the angel view on the ground that it smacks of supernaturalism, something that is presuppositionally incredible for them.  Some, however, will accept a mythologized variation of the angel view.[13]  Morris does not concern himself with treating these objections; rather, he treats the primary rejection of conservatives who discard the angel view on the basis of Jesus’ teachings in Matthew. 
            The primary objection raised against the angel view is Jesus’ teaching concerning the resurrection in his debate with the Sadducees in Matt 22:23—33.  Therein, Jesus makes the remark that “At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven” (NIV).  This, it is said, would appear to preclude the angel view of the sons of God, which presents them as having “took wives for themselves, whomever they chose.”  Therefore, if in the resurrection people will not marry, and this makes them similar to the angels in heaven, then angels must not marry, or so the reasoning goes.  Morris, however, does not find this reasoning persuasive at all; he deals at length with its implications. 
            Morris raises the point that Jesus’ remark is not equivalent to saying that angels are sexless.  Instead, in Scripture, angels are given masculine pronouns and are described as having the appearance of men.  Moreover, in Jesus’ teaching the angels are qualified as the angels “in heaven” (Matt 22:30).  What is true for angels “in heaven” may very well not be true of fallen angels, Morris contends.[14]  A count against the Sethite view, according to Morris, is the fact that not all the Sethites were godly, which is made obvious by their demise in the deluge.[15] 
              For Morris, the toughest issue that the angel view must wrestle with is the nature of the union of women and angels and the prospect of their offspring.  “Admittedly, however, there is a grave difficulty in the idea of angel-human sexual unions, not only the question of whether such a thing is possible, but even more in the theologically paradoxical and grotesque nature of the progeny of such unions.”[16]  Morris answers the difficulty by postulating that angels were using the bodies of possessed men.  “Thus, the ‘sons of God’ controlled not only the men whose bodies they had acquired for their own exploitation, but also the women they took to themselves in this way, and then all the children they bore.”[17]


Walton begins his investigation respecting the identity of the sons of God with the cautious reminder that “This issue is one of the thorniest in Old Testament interpretation.”[18]  Walton admits that the case for the angel view has tremendous lexical strength, especially based on a synchronic analysis of the phrase.  He warns, however, that confident conclusions drawn from such an analysis depends in good measure on the phrase or term having a broad lexical base throughout Scripture.  It is this dependence on a broad lexical base that Walton calls “the weak link in the armor of the ‘angels’ view.” [19]  Despite the term sons of God having a limited lexical base, Walton offers three lines of reasoning for why it cannot be maintained.
            (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;[20] and (3) the mythological tone is at odds with life in the real world as we know it, though in the end our interest in the world as the Israelites knew it.[21]  Nevertheless, Walton has the honesty to admit that the burden of proof still lies with either the Sethite or rules view to build a convincing lexical case for the respective view, one that makes sense in the literary, cultural, and theological context.  Walton says, “I believe such a case can be built for a variation of the ‘rulers’ view.”[22]
            Walton assumes that the ‘sons of God’ were oppressive despotic kings, rulers, or nobles, whose sin—an primary source of oppression—was the practice of the ancient, ever-despised practice of the divine right of the first night.  “In this practice, the local authority (whether king, governor, or lord of the manor) imposes his will in his people by demanding and exercising the right to spend the first night with any woman who is being married…The wording of Genesis 6:2, that ‘the sons of God…married any of them they chose,’ would be an apt description of this practice.”[23]
            Walton argues that accepting this view allows for a very natural progression of the account of sin in the narrative:  individuals (Adam and Eve) à family (Cain) à society leaders (sons of God) à everyone (Flood).[24] His argument for this view, however, is one largely dependent on ancient Near Eastern background material, which helps provide a window into the worldview and culture of the original audience.  The concept of the divine descent of kings and nobility in the ancient Near East was copious, a point which strengthens the ruler view.  Walton cites numerous examples of this.  “From Sumerian times (e.g., Eannatum, Gudea), through Old Babylonian (e.g., Hammurabi), into Middle Assyrian (e.g., Tukulti-Ninurta) and Neo-Assyrian (e.g., Ashubanipal), it was part of the royal prerogative to claim divine heritage.”[25]  Walton leans most heavily on parallels between parts of the Epic of Gilgamesh and Genesis 6.[26]
            Birney, who also deftly defends the ruler view, offers this summary of the passage.  “The ‘daughters of men’ were women in general, the ‘sons of God’ were famous mighty rulers…the sin was polygamy, and the judgment was that the breath of life would be taken away from man in 120 years.”[27]


I personally find the ruler view interesting and challenging, although far from convincing, due to its crass dependency on reconstructive background parallels and inferences.  Furthermore, the scanty background parallels for the practice of right of first night, and utter lack the practice elsewhere treated in Scripture, the ruler view has a deep sense of anachronism for me.[28]
            In the unity and context of the rest of Torah (even into Joshua and Judges) the Sethite view holds pride of place in my estimation.  The original audience was saved out of the house of Egyptian bondage and “set-apart” as Yahweh’s special people.  As such, the whole of Torah commands and galvanizes a perpetual antithesis between Israel and the nations, especially those in the land to which they were headed, the Canaanites.  I believe, therefore, that the Sethite view provides the best framework for reading Gen 6 as the original audience would (or should) have. Genesis 6 was another illustration of the war between the “seeds,” set into motion in 3:15. 
            My settlement on the Sethite view is, however, an uncomfortable one.  When confronted with the pertinent latter-NT texts, and the accompanying background material concomitant with them, it seems most likely that the NT authors did themselves espouse the angel view, which was part and parcel of their literary, cultural, and theological context.  This presupposition would have therefore been back of their inspired writing, and thus is an authoritative interpretation for Gen 6.  I find myself hard-pressed between the angel and the Sethite views, praying that further study and illumination will help me to resolve the dilemma and create a cognitive rest on the issue.   

[1] This paragraph is greatly indebted for its content to John Walton’s entry, “Sons of God, daughters of men.” Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch.  T. Desmond Alexander and David W. Baker, editors (Downers Grove, IL: IVP.  2003), 794.

[2]  Robert I. Bradshaw, “Creationism & the Early Church,” chapter 5. http://www.robibrad.demon.co.uk/Chapter5.htm (Accessed on November 18, 2010).  *Exception must be taken with Bradshaw’s reading of Augustine’s view, presenting him as subscribing to view (1), angels.  Henry Morris understands Augustine’s position as (2), Sethites (The Genesis Record [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.  1976], 166), as does this present writer’s reading of Augustine, see City of God XV:23.  Also see John Walton, who calls Augustine’s view a variation of the Sethite view, “Sons of God, daughters of men,” DOT:P, 794.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Leroy Birney, “An Exegetical Study of Genesis 6:1—4.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 13, no. 1, pp. 43—52 (Winter 1970), 45.

[5] Biblical Theology: Old and New Testaments (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.  1948), 45—51.

[6] Ibid. 45.

[7] Ibid. 45—6. Italics added.

[8] Ibid. 46.

[9] Ibid. 48.

[10] Ibid.

[11] The Genesis Record, see 164—70.  Also, Walton cites Westermann, who said that we can basically consider the debate “closed.”  Westermann adds, “The number of voices supporting the view that they [sons of God] are human has diminished,” in “Sons of God, daughters of men,”  DOT:P, 795.

[12] The Genesis Record, 166.

[13] Ibid. 168.
[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid. 168—9.

[17] Ibid. 169.

[18] Genesis in The NIV Application Commentary.  Terry Muck, editor (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.  2001), 291. 

[19] Ibid. 292.

[20] Note the similarity of this line of criticism to that of Vos, see fn. 7.
[21] Genesis, 292.

[22] Ibid. Op. cit.

[23] Ibid. 293.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid. 294.

[26] These parallels are presented on pp. 294—95.

[27] Leroy Birney, “An Exegetical Study of Genesis 6:1—4.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society. (Winter: 1976): 43—52.  52.

[28] Walton actually appeals to the movie Braveheart in a footnote, see Genesis, 293 fn. 2.

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