Those Elusive Sons of God: Genesis 6:1–4 Revisited

What are we to imagine when Gen 6:1–4 describes heavenly beings as entering into a sexual relationship with human women, from which liaisons giant children are born? Such seems rather to belong to the realm of Greek mythology, but hardly fits within the biblical tradition.

See Also: The Sons of God in Genesis 6:1–4: Analysis and History of Interpretation (Old Testament Studies 76. Leiden: Brill, 2019).

By Jaap Doedens
Pápa Reformed Theological Seminary

April 2019

Unsung Heroes

It seems that virtually every ancient culture reflected either in written or oral form on its origins and on the provenance of its crafts and knowledge. For the ancients, the accomplishments of their society appeared to be of a nearly superhuman quality, impossible to invent for a common mortal. Therefore, they usually attributed inventions like crafts, agriculture, metallurgy, writing, law, or the use of astronomical data to one or more heroes in the distant past. Ancient worldviews, thus, differed substantially from the conceptual world that gained a foothold since early modernity in the Western world. Modern people view their world as originating from more or less primitive roots, yet ever developing towards something better and higher. The ancient worldview, instead, rather saw the world as deteriorating from a legendary ‘golden age’ in which people lived happily and enjoyed long lives, through a ‘silver age’ in which life became ever more harsh, ending in a cold ‘iron age’. They projected the wished-for situation into the past, not into the future. Even medieval Europeans had the feeling that the world was growing old and tired.

          Thus, Mesopotamia had its Apkallu, the seven sages who lived before the flood and instructed their fellow humans in wisdom, medicine, and craftsmanship. Egypt had the gods Isis and Osiris, who were thought to have taught crafts, agriculture, law, and religion to their people. Greek culture had its Prometheus, the trickster who stole the fire from the gods and gave it to humans so that they could acquire the art of metalworking. The pseudepigraphic Jewish tradition attributes astronomy and the invention of the Hebrew script to Enoch or Seth. The Hebrew Bible, also, mentions, in Gen 4:20–22, ‘culture heroes’ for the invention of agriculture (Jabal), music (Jubal), metallurgy (Tubal-cain), and perhaps religion (Na’amah). Interestingly, Gen 4:22 mentions Na’amah, but attributes no special craft to her name. Yet the Judaic tradition views her as the one who seduced people by the use of musical instruments to idol worship, see Genesis Rabbah 23:3. The Hebrew Bible, however, appears to be somewhat reluctant to appreciate these developments positively; these cultural heroes are all descendants from the tribe of Cain, who could not cope with inequality and therefore killed his brother Abel. Another example in the biblical tradition is the mighty hero Nimrod (Gen 10:8–12), descended from Ham, whom Gen 9:20–25 apparently casts in a negative light. Similarly problematic are the heroes mentioned in Gen 6:4. The text calls them Nephilim, probably referring – by association with the Hebrew verb npl, ‘to fall’ – to their status as fallen heroes. The most problematic fact was, of course, their descent: they were mixed beings, born from the marriages of ‘sons of God’ and ‘daughters of men’ (Gen 6:4). It is perhaps revealing that these famous mighty warriors of old, the “men of name” (ʾanshe hashem) remain nameless in Gen 6:4. Yet who are these ‘sons of God’, the fathers of the ancient heroes? During the whole the history of the exegesis of Gen 6:1–4, this remained a much-debated question.


Mainstream Interpretations

The problem of Gen 6:1–4 lies not so much in the understanding of its text, because the words are, with a few exceptions, not extremely difficult to translate. Any interpretation would, based on biblical and extrabiblical material, view the expression ‘sons of God’ as referring to heavenly beings or angels. The occurrence of angels and the reference to other non-human beings is not especially rare in the Old Testament. The real problems arise from the content of the narrative. What are we to imagine when Gen 6:1–4 describes heavenly beings as entering into a sexual relationship with human women, from which liaisons giant children are born? Such seems rather to belong to the realm of Greek mythology, but hardly fits within the biblical tradition. This is why ancient and modern exegetes alike proposed solutions that are – literally – more ‘down to earth’.

          The interpretation of the ‘sons of God’ as humans comes in two branches. The ‘sons of God’ are either explained as being mighty men, i.e. judges or divine kings, or they are viewed as Sethites, i.e. descendants of Adam and Eve’s son Seth, who is mentioned in Gen 4:25–26.

          The mighty ones -interpretation’s main argument to identify the ‘sons of God’ as ‘judges’ is provided by the ancient translations that interpret the word ʾelohim in Exod 21:6 and 22:6–12 not as referring to ‘God’ or ‘gods’, but to judges. Exodus 21:5–6 deals with a situation of the obliged manumission of a slave, after he had served his owner for six years. Yet if the slave indicated that he wanted to stay with his master, Exod 21:6 prescribes that “his master shall bring him to haʾelohim, shall bring him to the door or the doorpost, and bore his ear through with an awl.” The ancient versions (Targumim, Peshitta, Septuagint) all interpret this act of “bringing the slave to the deity / deities” as a reference to judges or to a law court. Exodus 22:6–12 is explained in a similar way. The passage describes a purgatory procedure in case of missing or damaged property that was given in deposit. If no suspect is found to hold accountable for theft or damaging the deposited goods, the person responsible for the goods can clear himself / herself of suspicion by appealing to haʾelohim. In such a case of ‘word against word’, both the plaintiff and the accused must appear before haʾelohim; whom the ʾelohim declare guilty shall be liable. Here also, the interpreters viewed the word ʾelohim as referring to human judges. This solution opened the door to interpreting the ‘sons of God’ (bene haʾelohim) in Gen 6:1–4 as ‘sons of the judges’, or simply: ‘judges’. However, it seems more plausible that the procedures mentioned in Exod 21 and 22 are prescriptions about going to the sanctuary of Yhwh or perhaps of other gods. This appears to be a working solution in deadlocked legal cases, as it is found in other ancient Near Eastern sources as well. The accused persons who refuse to swear a purgatory oath before the gods decline to do so out of fear for punishment by the gods, and declare themselves guilty by this very refusal. An interesting argument to support the interpretation of the ‘sons of God’ as human beings is the story in 1 Sam 28 about king Saul, who consults a female necromanceress. According to 1 Sam 28:13, the woman tells the king: “I see gods / a god coming up from the earth.” In reply to Saul’s question what the apparition looks like, the necromanceress says that she sees an old man coming up (1 Sam 28:14). Within the context of the narrative, it seems fair to surmise that the word ʾelohim in 1 Sam 28:13 refers to the ‘ghost’ or the ‘wraith’ of a deceased person. However, this can hardly can support the interpretation of the ‘sons of God’ as human beings, because they, arguably, were not wraiths of deceased persons at the time they engaged in sexual relationships with the ‘daughters of men’.

          The exegetical solution to explain the ‘sons of God’ as a kind of divine kings belongs in the same category of the mighty men -interpretation. In the ancient Near East, kings were sometimes considered to be as ‘divine’. If kings could be called ‘gods’ or ‘sons of the gods’, this might be an indication that with the expression ‘sons of God’ in Gen 6:1–4 suggests that, also, kings are meant. On closer examination, however, the phenomenon of ‘divine kingship’ seems to be restricted to certain periods. Although kingship was always sacred, only rarely were kings were viewed as gods. Moreover, kings were mortal, and as such did not fit automatically into the category of the divine. But even if a king was referred to as a ‘son of the gods’ or a ‘god’, the plural use of this expression in Gen 6:1–4 would be unique, for in the extant ancient Near Eastern texts, kings as a group are never referred to as ‘sons of the gods’.

          The other ‘human’ solution for understanding the ‘sons of God’ in Gen 6:1–4 is to see them as ‘Sethites’. This exegesis implies that the ‘daughters of men’ are the daughters of Cainite descent. This interpretation, thus, contrasts two ‘moral’ or ‘religious’ categories: the pious Sethites, who marry the godless daughters of Cain.  The key text for this Sethites -interpretation in patristic literature is the translation of Gen 4:26, as found in the Septuagint. Genesis 4:26 in its Greek rendering recalls of Seth that “he hoped to invoke (epikaleisthai) the name of the Lord God.” However, the Greek middle voice of the verb is ambivalent, and can be interpreted as an active form, ‘to invoke’, but also as a passive, ‘to be called with’. The latter solution implies that Seth hoped that because of his piety he would be called ‘god’ by others, and by that mere fact his sons, of course, could be named ‘sons of god’. From the fourth century CE onward, this is how most of the church fathers explained the expression ‘sons of God’ in their exegesis of Gen 6:1–4. Yet it raises the question how religiously mixed marriages could genetically result in the rise of a race of giants.

          Additionally, many interpreters of Gen 6:1–4 point to the fact that the Old Testament often refers to Israelites as God’s sons. The problem, here, is that Israelites are not called ‘sons of God’ because of their godly way of life, but often despite their lack of piety. Thus, in the Hebrew Bible, this designation is based on God’s covenantal relationship with his people, and not on human piety. Moreover, in passages that mention Israelites as ‘sons’ of Yhwh, the word has to be translated as ‘children’, referring to both male and female Israelites, whereas the expression ‘sons of God’ in Gen 6:1–4 obviously refers to males only.

          Since the beginning of the 20th century, and especially after the numerous discoveries of similar expressions in extrabiblical texts, mainstream exegesis returned to a ‘superhuman’ interpretation of the ‘sons of God’ in Gen 6:1–4. Yet now they were not viewed as (fallen) angels, but as ‘divine beings’, or deities.


History of Exegesis in its Cultural Context

Obviously, Gen 6:1–4 was in many ways a stumbling block to biblical exegesis and theology. Many interpreters tried to find some meaning in this passage, perplexed as they were by its shockingly scandalous and almost ‘non-biblical’ content. It is, therefore, not surprising that we can witness a more than 2000 years long Wirkungsgeschichte of Gen 6:1–4, both in exegesis and in the form of so called ‘reworked Bible’ compositions.

Probably the oldest explanation is that the ‘sons of God’ are angels. The Book of Enoch elaborated on that viewpoint.  It is basically is a narrative expanding Gen 6:1-4: angels descend to earth in order to marry human women; their children turn out to be giants, the world almost spirals down into total chaos, but God intervenes and imprisons the fallen angels until the last judgment. Some scholars view Gen 6:1–4 as a condensation of the Enochic narrative, but it seems more logical to consider the Enochic tradition as an expansion of the story about the ‘sons of God’ in Gen 6:1–4. The origin of this tradition may have been the combination of Gen 6:1–4 with Isa 24:21–22, where a connection is made between the kings of the earth and heavenly powers undergirding these earthly rulers. God will punish both the host of heaven and the kings of the earth; “they will be gathered together as prisoners in a pit; they will be shut up in a prison and after many days they will be punished” (Isa 24:22).

The earliest Christian exegesis essentially took over the view that the expression ‘sons of God’ refers to angels. It is around the fourth century CE that the tide turns. The ‘sons of God’ are evermore explained as being humans, that is, godly Sethites, who mingle with the daughters of the godless tribe of Cain. It seems that this approach had its provenance in Syriac Christianity. As early as the second century CE on, Jewish exegesis also exchanged the ‘angels-interpretation’ for an explanation of the ‘sons of God’ as ‘judges’, ‘rulers’, ‘the elite’, who marry morally inferior women. The change in rabbinical exegesis is mainly connected to the rabbi Simeon bar Yoai (2nd century CE) who, according to Genesis Rabbah 26:5.1, put a curse on anyone who still referred to the ‘sons of God’ as angels. Nevertheless, traces of the angels-interpretation and of the Enochic tradition persisted within Judaic exegesis.

Interestingly, exegesis always appears to be closely connected to its own historical and cultural context. The concept of ‘fallen angels’ who became demons leading people astray, helped to explain, for the early Christians why they were a persecuted minority in a pagan world full of idolatry. Yet when Christianity became the accepted worldview, the view of god-fearing Sethites mixing with the godless Cainites fitted well into a new context in which Christians leaders warned their fellow Christians not to assimilate to a non-Christian way of living. Similarly, the rabbis would have liked to prevent the assimilation of Jewish people living in a diaspora-situation.

Although the ‘angels -interpretation’ was never completely forgotten, it is only in the 20th century that mainstream exegesis returns to a ‘non-human’ explanation of the ‘sons of God’, as already mentioned above. This exegesis based itself mainly on comparison of the expression ‘sons of God’ with similar expressions within the Old Testament or within extrabiblical texts from the ancient Near East. The Septuagint manuscripts of Deut 32:8, 43 and its textual variants as found in fragments from the Dead Sea Scrolls refer to the ‘sons of God’ or the ‘gods’. Other Old Testament texts use the expression ‘sons of God’, or similar wordings, to indicate heavenly beings: Job 1:6, 2:1, 38:7, Ps 29:1, 82:6, 89:7, Dan 3:25. Extrabiblical texts from the ancient Near East point in the same direction that deities or heavenly beings are called ‘sons of the gods’. Therefore, exegetes concluded that in Gen 6:1–4 also the words ‘sons of God’ also refer to heavenly beings.  This newer exegetical solution is most probably the correct one.


Functions and Origins of Genesis 6:1–4’s Narrative

Is it possible to discover an historical kernel of this narrative about marriages of divine beings and human women resulting in the birth of giant heroes? The origin of this narrative could perhaps be connected with the presence of megalithic tombs, mainly in the Transjordan region, the so called dolmens, dating from the end of the third and the beginning of the second millennium BCE. It is reasonable  that, because of their mere size, these monumental structures gave rise to tales about giant fallen warriors. Somehow, one of these tales made its way into the biblical narrative, and became part of a theological framework elucidating humanity’s fate with all its trial and error.

From a literary and theological point of view, this shedding light on the human condition may be one of the functions of the narrative in Gen 6:1–4 within the Primeval History. The story-line overarching Genesis 1–11 exhibits two basic problems, these being the alienation from God and the fracturing of the human community. It seems that within the framework of the Primeval History people sought a kind of do-it-yourself solution for both of these problems. According to Gen 11:1–9, they build a city and a tower, to avoid being scattered over the earth, thus “making a name” for themselves. As to the problem of being alienated from God, a physical connection to beings from the heavenly realm seems to offer a solution, bridging the gap between heaven and earth. This solution perhaps even aimed at regaining humanity’s lost immortality (see Gen 3:22). These human efforts to connect with the heavenly realm result, similarly, in a ‘name’ for humans: the “mighty men of old, the men of renown” (Gen 6:4). In both endeavors, however, God intervenes, stopping the developments in its tracks. By confusing their language, God disperses people over the earth. By reducing the lifespan to a maximum of 120 years, it is clear that humans remain mortals and cannot become gods by intermarrying with heavenly beings. It is only in the calling of Abraham that God himself provides a new solution (Gen 12:2–3): God promises Abraham to “make his name great” and bless him, thus ending alienation between God and humanity. Furthermore, through Abraham, “all the families of the earth” will be blessed, thus reconnecting humans to each other.

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