Originally written September 15, 2014
The “sons of God” [Heb. בני־האלהים] found in Genesis 6:2 have perplexed scholars for many years. Even today, there is still not one exclusive interpretation to this biblical text. Three major interpretations exist today concerning the “sons of God.” Some believe that they are godlike beings such as angels or demons; some believe they are mortal, mighty men such as kings or other rulers/judges; others believe they are the Sethites (descendants of Seth) as opposed to the Cainites. In this paper, the phrase בני־האלהים will be examined and each position will be addressed by detailing their proponents, support, and weaknesses.
Before one addresses each interpretation of the phrase בני־האלהים, the phrase itself must be examined. This exact phrase is found only five times in the Tanakh (Gen 6:2,4; Job 1:16; 2:1; 38:7). Literally, the phrase can read either “the sons of God” or “the sons of the gods.” The usage of the word elohim varies in the Tanakh. Though YHWH (YHWH is the abbreviated form of God’s name Yahweh) refers to himself, as well as the authors of scripture in reference to him, uses the plural form of the noun El [Pl. elohim], this does not signify plurality; rather, elohim can refer to a single being that is mighty in power. Thus, the term elohim in Genesis 6:2 can be translated as “God” if it is in reference to the sons of YHWH, but also if it is in reference to sons of pagan deities or mighty men. This is precisely where the differing interpretations begin to develop.
The Angelic Theory
The first interpretation to address is the angelic theory. There are many proponents to the angelic theory: Ancient Jewish exegesis (1 Enoch 6:2ff; Jubilees 5:1), LXX, Philo (De Gigant 2:358), Josephus (Ant. 1.31), the Dead Sea Scrolls (1QapGen 2:1; CD 2:17-19), New Testament writers (2 Pet 2:4; Jude 1:6-7), and early Christian writers (Justin, Irenaues, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Origen). With these prestigious sources holding to the angelic theory, it is no wonder that most evangelicals also maintain this interpretation.
The support for the angelic theory begins with the usage of the phrase elsewhere in the Tanakh. The usage of the phrase in Job 1:6 leads the interpretation as Job describes a meeting between YHWH and the “sons of God” [Heb. בני־האלהים be-ni ha-elohim] with Satan present in the meeting. This picture of a heavenly council parallels Canaanite descriptions of their heavenly pantheon, in which the Canaanite gods partook in sexual intercourse. To Gordon Wenham, the author of Genesis believed that the “sons of God” could act in the same way.
However, this interpretation still has a difficult time finding its way into the opinion of some evangelicals. As Willem A. Van Gemeren points out, evangelicals sometimes assume that understanding Genesis 6:2 requires a more natural interpretation. Moreover, Jesus’ words in Matthew 22:30 “provide a theological justification for looking for a natural explanation.” Simply put, since Jesus claims that angels are not “given in marriage,” they cannot be sexual creatures; thus “eliminating” this theory. To Gemeren, immediately writing off the angelic theory is to make theology replace exegesis.
Gemeren also agrees with the New American Bible on the idea that Genesis 6:2 is possibly a fragment from an old legend that borrow from ancient mythology. In this borrowing, the author of Genesis not only provides an account for the Nephilim, but he also provides a moral orientation to the story of the flood – increased wickedness of man. Gemeren understands the refusal of evangelicals to consider this position is nothing more than a case of demythologization.
Again, the main problem with the angelic theory remains in the words of Jesus in Matthew 22:30. To a non-Christian, these words would not affect the exegesis of Genesis 6:2; but to a Christian, this would be the beginning point to a proper interpretation of the “sons of God.” If one takes away the words of Jesus, or simply understands his words differently, the text of Genesis 6:2 becomes more open to the angelic theory; but if one reads the text of Genesis 6:2 in light of the words of Jesus, the angelic theory must be avoided. This seems to be Gemeren’s main concern – the fact that theology has replaced proper exegesis.
The King Theory
The second theory for interpreting Genesis 6:2 is known as the king theory. This theory is also popular among evangelicals because it prevents the interpretation from suggesting that angelic being mated with humans and produced hybrid offspring. The word elohim is used elsewhere in the Tanakh to refer to judges. In Exodus 21, we are introduced to the slave who wishes to remain with his master after his time of release. “Then his master shall bring him unto the judges [Heb. Elohim]; he shall also bring him to the door, or unto the door post; and his master shall bore his ear through with an aul; and he shall serve him for ever” (Ex 21:6 KJV). The King James Version, along with the Bishops, Geneva, NET, NIV, HCSB, and Syriac translations, all understand the word elohim here to refer to the judges of Israel and not YHWH. Thus, since the word elohim can accurately be translated as judges, the same is possible for the usage of elohim in Genesis 6:2.
Gordon Wenham points out that the judges of Israel are identified with gods and the sons of God in Psalm 82. Moreover, the Davidic king is referred to as God’s son in 2 Sam 7:14 & Ps 2:7, and the Ugarit king Keret is described as El’s in Ugarit texts. Wenham further suggests that the kings/judges were then guilty of an abuse by marrying “whoever they chose,” i.e., convincing the daughters of man to join them in their polygamous acts. This would explain why the mortal men, not angels, are condemned for their intermarriages.
The Sethite Theory
The third interpretation is the Sethite theory. This theory suggests that the “sons of God” are the descendants of Seth and the “daughters of man” are the descendants of Cain. Again, this theory is popular among evangelicals. Gill notes that the “sons of God” is to be understood as the posterity of Seth, who from the times of Enosh began to “call upon the name of the LORD” (Gen 4:25). Thus, the line of Seth became known as the sons of God because they claimed the privilege of divine adoption, and professed to be born of God by their partaking in his grace and by worshiping him according to his will. Gill also notes that the Arabic writers attest that immediately following the death of Adam, the family of Seth was separated from the family of Cain. The family of Cain pursued lives of holiness and purity and identified themselves as the sons of God. Then, after the death of Seth and the following few patriarchs, some of the Sethites in the time of Jared went down and saw the beauty of the daughters of Cain and proceeded to intermarry with them. Thus, this displeased God; for his children (Sethites) had begun to intermarry with those whom they had so strictly segregated themselves from. Moreover, Wenham notes that Abraham, being a direct descendant of Seth, became the father of the nation of Israel, whom YHWH calls his “son” (Ex 4:22; Deut 14:1).
The problem with the Sethite theory is that, aside from the Abraham fathering the “son” of YHWH – Israel, the evidence for this theory is only found within non-biblical texts and not the Hebrew Bible itself. Outside of the Arabic writings, there is no evidence to justify the calling of Seth’s descendants the “sons of God” as opposed to the Cainites.
Much can be said concerning the “sons of God” in Genesis 6:2, but in light of the Canaanite passages and the biblical texts such as Job 1:6, the angelic theory seems most plausible. Three major interpretations exist concerning this text, but neither of the other two seem to hold a strong position against the angelic theory. Without using preconceived theology to understand the Genesis 6 account, one almost cannot resist considering that the individuals in Genesis 6:2 are heavenly, angelic beings. Though this passage will remain one of the Tanakh’s most hard-to-understand texts, the evidence presented for the theory that angelic beings looked upon the daughters of men and acted upon those urges cannot be ignored. Furthermore, the use of this theory then provides a moral justification for YHWH’s decision to destroy the world and all that remains in it.
Gill, John. An Exposition on the First Book of Moses, Called Genesis, Springfield, MO: Particular Baptist Press, 2010.
Wenham, Gordon J. Word Biblical Commentary: Genesis 1-15, Waco, TX: Word Books Publisher, 1987.
Gemeren, W. A. van, “The Sons of God in Genesis 6:1-4.” Westminster Theological Journal 43 (1981), 320-348.
 Gordon J. Wenham, Word Biblical Commentary: Genesis 1-15, 140.
 Willem A. Van Gemeren, The Sons of God in Genesis 6:1-4, 321.
 Ibid., 320.
 Ibid., 323.
 Wenham, 140.
 Ibid., 140.
 Ibid., 108.