Home > Miscellaneous > Who Are The “sons of the gods” in Genesis 6?

Who Are The “sons of the gods” in Genesis 6?

One of the questions which cannot be definitively answered by even most well-educated scholars is, who are the “sons of God” (or more accurately in the Hebrew, the “sons of the gods”) in Genesis 6.2? Ultimately, speculating about who these people are is in some ways an exercise in futility, as one can never know for sure. Still, I think an attempt to explain my perspective on which theory is most likely to be accurate will help illuminate some of the Scriptures and show a thematic thread which may not otherwise be as clear, even if ultimately I cannot be conclusive about the referent of the phrase, “sons of the gods.”

The confusing text, Genesis 6.1-4:

Now it came about, when men began to multiply on the face of the land, and daughters were born to them, that the sons of God saw that the daughters of men were beautiful; and they took wives for themselves, whomever they chose. Then the Lord said, “My Spirit shall not strive with man forever, because he is also flesh; nevertheless his days shall be one hundred and twenty years.”
The Nephilim were 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.

There are three main theories about who the sons of the gods are, all of which are, in my opinion, based on reasonable interpretations of the Scriptures.

The first is that the sons of God are men from the line of Seth, Adam and Eve’s faithful son. In this case the daughters of men are those who are from the line of Cain (or from a line not of Seth). The evil these sons of God committed was intermarrying with outsiders and polluting the bloodline.

The second theory is that the sons of the gods are angels, or some type of spiritual being, who left their place in heaven to have sex with and marry humans. The evil they committed was perverting the sexual order of creation and also polluting the human bloodline.

The third theory is that the sons of the gods are local rulers. The daughters of men then refers to the everyday women who have little power and thus are vulnerable to the will of these rulers. The evil being committed by these rulers is the use of power to make wives of whichever vulnerable women they desire.baalsacrificealtar

I believe this third theory accords with historical evidence, best accounts for the textual data, and most seamlessly fits within the surrounding narrative. Other authors have done a far better job than I could explaining how this view fits very well with Hebrew language, historical documents outside of scriptures, and ancient understandings of the passage, so my primary focus will be on the narrative context. These are the reasons I believe this view to be the most likely:

  1. Local gods have always been closely associated with local rulers.
  2. The sons of the gods act out one of the explicit consequences of sin entering the world in Genesis 3.
  3. The sons of the gods are an example of evil’s progress since the first sin.
  4. This brief story immediately precedes the flood narrative and forms a part of the explanation of why God sent the flood.
  5. The rulers discussed in the stories of Abraham and Isaac are like the sons of the gods.
  6. The sin of the sons of the gods is committed again by future rulers of Israel.

Historically it is common to apply divine terms to local rulers. Even in recent European history, there was a close connection between God and monarchs. Their power and right to rule was declared divine. This god-ruler association was far more close and common thousands of years ago. Rulers were sometimes even considered gods themselves.

More often it was easier to explain their power and right to rule by claiming descendance from gods. These regional despots are then referenced individually as a “son of [insert name of one of the regional gods here].” It is plausible the author of Genesis used the term “sons of the gods” to refer to this group of rulers more generally. Within the context of this passage, it is a natural interpretation to assume these sons of God are humans who have godlike power.

If this is the case, then the text is contrasting the terms “sons of god” and “daughters of man.” The author is deliberately displaying the power differential between these two groups to highlight the relative powerlessness of the daughters of man. The sons of god are using their superior power over others to take as many wives as they want and whomever they want and no one can stop them. The women then, along with their fathers and husbands, are victims of the the local rulers.

These actions can be viewed as a playing out of the consequences of sin entering the world. One of the consequences for Woman was that “[her] desire will be for [her] husband and he will rule over [her]” (Gen 3.16). In the world of the text, women were often treated as property of their fathers. Marriage was a transference of ownership from the fathers to the husbands. Even in many of the most peaceful cases, marriage was an act of the husband ruling over his wife. In the case of the powerful local rulers who take whichever women they want (implying the women have no choice in the matter), marriages are even less voluntary. If we look at the evil characters in Genesis who precede the sons of God, this textual link becomes more solidified.

God warned Adam and Eve that their sin would bring death and this is tragically fulfilled when one of their sons kills the other. In Genesis 4, Cain kills his brother Abel in a rivalrous, jealous rage. Sin in the world brings death to humanity. After Cain sins and kills his brother, Cain, like his parents, was exiled. In his exile, Cain builds a city. He acquires a small local region to be the domain over which he reigns.

Lamech is one of Cain’s descendants who demonstrates that he shares some of Cain’s personality traits. One notable act of Lamech is that he took two wives. To them he said,

“Adah and Zillah,
Listen to my voice,
You wives of Lamech,
Give heed to my speech,
For I have killed a man for wounding me;
And a boy for striking me;
24 If Cain is avenged sevenfold,
Then Lamech seventy-sevenfold.” (Gen 4.23-24)

In his brief recorded speech, Lamech reveals his likeness to his ancestor Cain. He is not only similar to Cain in that he is violent and has no qualms about murdering even young boys, but describes himself as a far more vengeful version. The person of Lamech is the text’s demonstration that sin, and thus death, is growing and spreading across the earth. The effects of Adam and Eve’s first sin continue to progress. This story shows two characteristics of evil getting worse in the world. People are becoming more violent and are taking more wives.

Many generations after Lamech, the reader discovers this evil has progressed even further. The sons of the gods, like the violent men who came before them, are committing ever more violence and taking ever more women to be their wives. These men are an advanced version of Cain and Lamech. They are the growth of evil over time.

It is this growth of violence which causes God to regret making man and to send the flood. Immediately after the story of the sons of the gods, the author says,
Then the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. The Lord was sorry that He had made man on the earth, and He was grieved in his heart (Genesis 6.5-6).

It is highly probable God’s analysis of the greatness of man’s wickedness is directly related to the immediately preceding verses about the sons of the gods, as well as the preceding stories in Genesis about the other evil men (Cain and Lamech). The author isn’t jumping one subject to another, from the sons of the gods to the flood, but telling a related and progressive narrative.

We can be confident that violence is the central wickedness God has in mind because it is the only wickedness mentioned explicitly as the reason behind the flood.

Now the earth was corrupt in the sight of God, and the earth was filled with violence. (Gen 6.11)

Things were so violent on the earth, humans were so destructive to one another, God decided to hit the reset button on the world. Reading the text as a cohesive narrative leads one to conclude that the story which precedes the flood is directly related to the flood. The sons of the gods are an example of the type of overwhelming violence God saw on the earth.

Immediately after the flood, sin re-entered the world through Noah and his sons. A couple chapters later, we find many powerful rulers have arisen. When we look at the assumptions of Abraham and his son Isaac, we see that these rulers are quite similar to Lamech and the sons of the gods which came before them. They also are known for taking many women, whomever they choose, to be their wives.

There are three stories which exemplify these assumptions of the main characters of the text: Abraham and Pharaoh in Genesis 12.10-20, Abraham and Abimelech in Genesis 20.1-18, and Isaac and Abimelech in Genesis 26.1-12. These stories are all different and have many other narrative purposes, but one thing they have in common are Abraham’s and Isaac’s assumptions that the local people with power will kill them and take their wives as their own.

In every story, the main characters lie to the local people with power, saying that their wives are their sisters in order to protect their own lives. Perhaps Abraham and Isaac are just paranoid individuals, but it is more likely their assumption they will be killed and their wives taken has a basis in reality. It is likely that it is common for the more powerful local rulers to take the beautiful women they want to be their wives and kill anyone who stands in the way. The results of sin progressing in the world before the flood parallel the results of sin progressing in the world after the flood.

When we read the story of the sons of the gods in Genesis 6 as being local rulers using superior force to take women as their wives, they become an archetype for future rulers throughout the Old Testament. The very sins for which God sent the flood are sins God warns about when discussing Israel’s future kings and the sins we find Israel’s kings committing.

In the book of Deuteronomy, God, through Moses, anticipates that Israel will put a king on the throne to be like the other nations. He then provides them some guidelines about what the king should be like and what the king should not be like. One of the things to avoid is found in Deuteronomy 17.17.

He must not take many wives, or his heart will be led astray. 

The way the king’s heart being led astray was most likely to manifest is by worshiping the gods of his wives. This is probably the primary implication the author of Deuteronomy had in mind. However, in at least one notable example, a king’s pursuit of many wives led his heart astray in such a way that the king acted just like the local rulers in Genesis.

David is widely considered to be Israel’s best king. He is the king to whom all the other kings are compared. When they’re good, they walked in the ways of David. When they’re bad, they didn’t. Still, David sins a lot as king. His most infamous sin is sleeping with a woman and killing her husband.

2 Samuel 11.1-5

One evening David got up from his bed and walked around on the roof of the palace. From the roof he saw a woman bathing. The woman was very beautiful,and David sent someone to find out about her. The man said, “She is Bathsheba, the daughter of Eliam and the wife of Uriah the Hittite.” Then David sent messengers to get her. She came to him, and he slept with her. (Now she was purifying herself from her monthly uncleanness.) Then she went back home. The woman conceived and sent word to David, saying, “I am pregnant.”

When one reads this passage side by side with Genesis 6, the parallels are striking. David, the local ruler, saw a daughter of man who was beautiful. So what does David do next? Well, the only natural thing for an overwhelmingly powerful ruler to do. He uses his power to sleep with the powerless Bathsheba. What choice does she really have in this situation? In this culture? Say no to the king? That’s barely a choice. He takes whomever he sees and desires.

Soon after this, David does exactly what Abraham feared Pharoah and Abimelech would do. Bathsheba’s husband Uriah was a loyal warrior in David’s army. So David, being crafty and wanting to maintain popularity with his people by hiding his murder, comes up with this plan:

14 In the morning David wrote a letter to Joab and sent it with Uriah. 15 In it he wrote, “Put Uriah out in front where the fighting is fiercest. Then withdraw from him so he will be struck down and die: (2 Samuel 11.14-15)

The plan works. Uriah dies fighting for his king who slept with his wife. David then marries Bathsheba. He is, in this moment, just like the sons of the gods. He commits the very sin of covetous violence for which God sent the flood. The sons of the gods become an archetype not just for future pagan rulers in Genesis, but also for the greatest king Israel ever had.

For these reasons I believe the theory that the sons of the gods were local rulers fits best with the biblical narrative. Combined with articles which analyze historical evidence in the ancient near east,* this theory is far more compelling than any of the others. But it might be wrong.

* One such article: Who were the sons of the gods?


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