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
BACKGROUND TO GENESIS SIX
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 theASV in this
(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 fromha’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 frombene-ha’elohim, while “daughters of men” is derived
frombenoth 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
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
yadhonhas 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 Hebrewnephilim in order to avoid problems
in deriving its meaning. As I will discuss later, the word generally is thought to have its root innaphal
(“to fall”), but what connotation should be given as a result is an important question.
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
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 thatbene-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 story16]. 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
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.