NEPHILIM pt 1 of 2

THE MEANING OF “SONS OF GOD” IN GENESIS 6:1-4

THE MEANING OF “SONS OF GOD” IN GENESIS 6:1-4, by Trevor J. Major, M.Sc., M.A.

     Genesis 6:1-4 speaks of the universal degeneration of man into ungodliness prior to the equally universal,

worldwide Flood of Genesis 6-9. What, then, is the significance of these verses to the beliefs of the

Christian? As will be discussed in detail below, these verses either present a historical account, or make

the writer of Genesis a perpetrator of myths; they either provide sufficient warrant for the Noahic Flood,

or they mock it; they either are consistent with biblical teaching, or they contradict it and promote false

doctrine. An overview of previous works dealing with this passage also sheds light on the influence of

prior assumptions. Almost without exception, those scholars who accept the Documentary Hypothesis,

and who otherwise have little regard for the inerrancy and divine inspiration of the Bible, reach one conclusion,

and those who respect Scripture come to quite a different conclusion. Most of this controversy

surrounds the meaning of “sons of God” in verses two and four, and so after I outline the passage and

note problems in translation, I will present some possibilities for the meaning of the phrase “sons of

God.”

BACKGROUND TO GENESIS SIX

Overall Context

While it is recognized that Genesis 4 and 5 contain many interesting problems in their own right, the

following outline is intended merely to provide a contextual background to the problem in chapter 6.

Verses three and four of Genesis 4 discuss the offering of sacrifices by Cain and Abel. However, it

soon becomes apparent that these sons of Adam and Eve exhibit contrasting attitudes toward God. Cain

offered to God a sacrifice of such a nature that was unacceptable to God, for it is recorded that the Lord

had no respect for Cain’s offering (vs. 5). In verses six and seven, God reproached Cain for the inadequacy

of his sacrifice, and admonished him to “do well.” It appears, however, that Cain did not react to

such guidance with humility and a penitent attitude, and in his jealously murdered Abel (vs. 8). To compound

the seriousness of both an unfit sacrifice and a murder, Cain denied his crime when confronted by

Jahweh (vs. 9). One thus is led to infer that Cain possessed ungodly attributes, not so much by the fact

that he committed murder, but that he failed to worship God in the proper manner, and then lied to Him.

God’s response was to exile Cain (vss. 12-16) to a land away from his parents. The generations of Cain,

which are listed in verses 17-24, include Lamech, who already had abandoned the concept of a monogamous

marriage, and who boasted of his violence (vss. 23-24). Other Cainites are noted for certain material

pursuits, including Jabal (animal husbandry), Jubal (musicianship), and Tubal-Cain (metal working).

Meanwhile, Adam and Eve bore another son of note named Seth (although Adam and Eve had more

children, 5:4). With the arrival of Seth and his son Enosh (4:26a), the writer notes: “Then began men to

call upon the name of Jehovah” (4:26b), as if there was now a renewed spirit of devotion toward God.

Seth’s descendants (5:6-32) included Enoch, of whom it is said, “he walked with God: and he was not; for

God took him” (5:24). The concept of “walking with God” probably means that Enoch was in spiritual

communion and favor with God—an interpretation supported by the writer of Hebrews, who remarked of

the patriarch that he did not see death because “he had been well-pleasing unto God” (Hebrews 11:5).

Finally, Lamech is seen to rejoice in the birth of his son Noah, in whom he saw the hope of comfort in

their work and toil (5:29). Later, Noah became the one who “found favor in the eyes of Jehovah” (6:8).

However, this latter verse presents a problem in understanding the state of the pre-flood peoples: the

inspired writer gives examples of those who are quite worldly (e.g., Lamech), and those who are favored

by God (e.g., Enoch), but then a situation arises in which only one man is considered “perfect [i.e., blameless]

in his generations.” In fact, the state of affairs had reached such a point that when God viewed mankind,

He was grieved over the total wickedness and unrepentant state into which people had fallen (6:5).

From verse nine onwards, Noah is instructed by God to prepare a means of rescuing a component of humanity and the living world from a flood that will destroy all life on land (6:17). What, then, changed the

spiritual condition of humanity to such a degree that God would bring about a universal destruction? It is

my view that the verses between the end of chapter five, and verse five of chapter six, provide the reason,

or at least the grounds, for the Noahic Flood. The thrust of the following discussion is to find a reasonable

solution consistent with the language, context, and Scripture in general.

Some Notes on Translation

As the passage is relatively brief, it would be useful to quote it in its entirety (from the

ASV in this

case):

(1) And it came to pass, when men began to multiply on the face of the ground, and daughters

were born unto them,

(2) that the sons of God saw the daughters of men that they were fair; and they took them

wives of all that they chose.

(3) And Jehovah said, My Spirit shall not strive with man for ever, for that he also is flesh: yet

shall his days be a hundred and twenty years.

(4) The nephilim were in the earth in those days, and also after that, when the sons of God

came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare children to them: the same were the

mighty men that were of old, the men of renown.

With regards to the translation, the following notes on key words or phrases will help when discussing

problems with the above passage in the remainder of this work.

1. “Men” is translated from ha’adham, and “daughters” from benoth. The critical questions here are

as follows: Are these the same men and daughters mentioned in the succeeding verses?; and, Are the

“daughters” merely female offspring, or does the word convey a broader meaning?

2. The expression “sons of God” is taken from

bene-ha’elohim, while “daughters of men” is derived

from

benoth ha’adham.1 While few would argue with the common rendering of the latter phrase, some

would say that the former should read “sons of the gods” or “lesser gods.”

2 Although a reference to a plurality

of gods or god-like characters may be inferred, the word

‘elohim in the Old Testament most often

refers to the One God of the Israelites, and hence the former usage cannot be used to affirm the pagan

definition as the only option.

The word “fair” (referring to “daughters of men”) can be equally translated “beautiful” (as in the

more modern versions). Maars further suggests that this could mean “sexually appealing.”

3 “They took

them wives” (referring to the actions of the sons of God) is the common Hebrew expression for marriage.

4

Lastly, “all that [or “whomever”—

NAS] they chose” probably is intended to mean the indiscriminate selection

of mates.

5

3. Most versions capitalize the word “Spirit,” clearly indicating their translators’ belief that it refers

to the Holy Spirit, although this is not necessarily the case. Willis considers that “spirit” refers to the Godgiven

breath of man (Genesis 2:7), over which God has ultimate control (Numbers 16:22).

6 The word

yadhon

has been rendered variously as contend, strive, or abide; the etymology is uncertain. It is usually

taken to mean that “God will not forever bear the consequences of man’s sin.”

7

4. The translators of many versions chose to transliterate the Hebrew

nephilim in order to avoid problems

in deriving its meaning. As I will discuss later, the word generally is thought to have its root in

naphal

(“to fall”), but what connotation should be given as a result is an important question.

Immediate Context

According to various scholars,

ha’adham in verse one refers to all men everywhere then existing.8

However, such an interpretation results in either misunderstanding or inconsistency due to consequent

restrictions placed on the meaning of the corresponding phrase “daughters of men” in verse two. Misunderstanding

arises when the “daughters of men” are also considered the whole of mankind, in which case the “sons of God” are excluded from the human population designated “men.” The thrust of this first option

centers on the possible involvement of divine beings, the merits of which will be considered later.

Inconsistency occurs when “men” is taken to mean all mankind in the first verse, but only some of mankind

in the form of “daughters of men” in the second. In this latter interpretation, the “sons of God” and

the “daughters of men” are seen as two components of mankind who are multiplying. Thus,

ha’adham in

verse two must be made to carry a more limited sense than the word in verse one.

The problem with the second option, as critics often have pointed out, is that it forces an unnatural

shift in meaning that may not be the intention of the passage.

9 However, if the initial premise of the second

option is correct (i.e., that two groups of mankind are under discussion), then consistency may be

maintained if the men of verse one also are considered a subset of the population in general. Thus, the

daughters born to men in verse one equate with the “daughters of men” in verses two and four. In this respect

also, the phrase “with man” (

ba’adham) is found in verse three between references to both daughters

and sons, yet occurs with no similar qualifications. It is likely, therefore, that the men whom God is

viewing in verse three includes all humanity and not just the “daughters of men.”

As to the range in meaning of the word “daughters,” the natural conclusion is to assume a reference

is here being made to female offspring exclusively. However, the word also may be equated with both

males and females, as in the singular collective for the inhabitants of a place or city; especially “daughter

of Zion.”

10 While I prefer the latter view, it is not necessary to insist on one interpretation over another.

As I will show, the overall effect is the same in either case.

If it is understood that verse three expresses the result of what has occurred prior to that time, where

is the adequate reason in verses one and two? In other words, if the taking of women described in verse

two is proper marriage, what is so wrong with the union that it should cause God to bring judgment on

mankind in such a dramatic way? Unfortunately, nowhere in the immediate context of the passage is the

wrongdoing of the people explained. I thus concur with Keil, who stated: “To understand this section, and

appreciate the causes of this complete degeneracy of the race, we must first obtain a correct interpretation

of the expressions ‘sons of God’ and ‘daughters of men.’ ”

11

Defining the “Sons of God”

The word “son” (

ben) has a far wider meaning in Hebrew than it does in contemporary English use,

and occurs some 4,850 times in the Hebrew Bible.

12 The most common meaning is of a son, as in the

male offspring of his parents (e.g., Genesis 5:4), but in general terms the word refers to a variety of relationships

in which a person or object belongs to, or is influenced by, someone or something. A son could

be a citizen of a city (Psalm 147:13), a student (Proverbs 1:10), or an arrow (Job 41:28). The expression

“sons of God” refers to some entity somehow connected or related to God, but whether by birth, creation,

ownership, or characteristic, it is impossible to say from the phrase alone. The only way to examine the

issue further is to study the use of the phrase in Scripture and other literature sources.

The phrase “sons of

‘elohim” is used in Job 1:6; 2:1; 38:7, as well as in Genesis 6:2,4. In each of the

former cases, the reference is to angels. Psalms 29:1 and 89:7 use the phrase “sons of

‘elim,” which may

refer to heavenly objects. “Sons of ‘

elyon” (Psalm 82:6) may refer to the elders of Israel.13 Daniel (3:25)

uses the phrase “like a son of

‘elohin,” which has reference to spiritual beings of some description. In addition,

God’s chosen nation Israel often is portrayed as the spiritual son or child of God (cf. Deuteronomy

32:5; Isaiah 45:11; 43:6; Jeremiah 3:4; Hosea 1:10; 11:1). Apart from the latter usage, Hendel sees parallels

in terminology with Ugaritic and other Semitic mythology in which, for instance, “the chief god of

the pantheon, El, is called

‘ab bn il, ‘father of the sons of El,’ which indicates that the term bn il originally

included the notion of the patrimony of El.”

14

In a similar vain, Kline would interpret the “sons of God”

as a parallel to the “pagan ideology of divine kingship,” which was borrowed as a designation for antediluvian

kings.

15

However, while the influence of related cultures on Hebrew literature must not be ignored, the

uniqueness of the passage under consideration should serve as a caution against the over exuberant comparison

of Scripture with pagan mythology. Interpretations (as opposed to simple definitions) drawn from

other cultures may serve as an unnecessary imposition on the text, especially in this case where the concept of divine patrimony has such a wide range of use, even within the Hebrew Bible itself. The whole

point here is that a precise meaning as to who or what the “sons of God” are, cannot be gained simply

from a study of the phrase divorced from either its immediate or broader context. As I will show in the

following sections, various meanings have been proposed, but these must be assessed according to the

plausibility of the explanation with respect to the context as outlined previously.

INTERPRETATION OF GENESIS 6:1-3

First Hypothesis Discussed

The fact that

bene-ha ‘elohim and similar forms occur in the Old Testament and extra-biblical literature,

and often refer to angels or minor deities, respectively, provides one with a strong incentive to conclude

that the “sons of God” in Genesis 6:2,4 also must refer to spiritual beings. In this case, the “daughters

of men” would then be females of the human race or mankind in general (see notes on verse two).

However, having defined the phrase in the preceding manner, there is still a considerable information gap.

Somehow one must explain why angels left their heavenly abode, and why their marriage to human females

precipitated God’s judgment. A whole story must therefore be fabricated so as to offer a solution to

these problems. In fact, the “story” goes something like this: Once upon a time, some angels were in

heaven looking at the women of the world and, noticing how beautiful they appeared, those angels became

full of lust [or had a desire to reproduce themselves, or desired to exalt themselves, depending on

the version of the story

16]. They left their proper abode (heaven) and rightful duties, took on the form of

men, and chose the wives they desired from among the population. In the course of these events, Enoch

tried to intercede on behalf of what is now corrupted humanity, prophesying the destruction of man by a

great flood unless the demons departed. Needless to say, Enoch did not succeed in ridding mankind of

these fallen angels, and thus God found it necessary to destroy all life, except for righteous Noah and his

family.

The above account is the gist of the story in the pseudepigraphal apocalyptic books of Enoch, and is

similar in many respects to various myths of Near Eastern peoples. This “explanation” of Genesis 6:1-4 is

favored by liberal scholars and the higher critics because the passage can then be rendered mythological

and ahistoric. A number of scholars argue that Near Eastern ideas on the assembly of divine beings are

rife throughout the Bible, and thus Genesis 6:1-4 is merely a “fragment of mythical narrative” having Ugaritic

parallels.17 Speiser traces the “fragment” to Hurrian myths, originating sometime in the second millennium

before Christ.

18 Similar views are held by Von Rad,19 Graves and Patai,20 Maars, and Dillmann,21

to name but a few. The common denominator in all of the foregoing works, as alluded to in the introduction,

is the unquestioning acceptance of the Documentary Hypothesis. Speiser even ventures that the “final

redactor” of Genesis found this passage distasteful, and so toned down the “obvious” mythological

connotations.

22 Thus, according to these expositors, the passage only appears to be factual and objective

because the extraneous fabrications have been removed. It would not occur to these writers that perhaps

the Bible’s rendering is based on the original event, and is accurate because of the guidance of the Holy

Spirit. And while the myths of neighboring peoples have their origin in a common event, true history has

been corrupted and embellished by man over time.

 

 

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