Who are the “Sons of God” in Genesis 6?

by Jonathan Woodyard August 23, 2022

In Genesis 6 Moses paints a picture of the human race falling into sin to such a significant degree that God is said to have “regretted” making mankind (Gen 6:6). The depths of sin that God witnessed among those who were created to bear his image (Gen 1:26–27) had “grieved him to his heart” (6:6). This picture of the sinfulness of mankind sets the stage for one of the most well-known stories in the Bible: the flood narrative.

As with most biblical stories, however, the various details are often debated. The particular debate I’m interested in here is concerned with how we identify the “sons of God” in Genesis 6.

Here is the passage:

When man began to multiply on the face of the land and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that the daughters of man were attractive. And they took as their wives any they chose. Then the Lord said, “My Spirit shall not abide in man forever, for he is flesh: his days shall be 120 years.” The Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of man and they bore children to them. These were the mighty men who were of old, the men of renown. (Gen 6:1–4).

In this text Moses describes the multiplication of mankind on the face of the earth. This, after all, was the imperative given to Adam and Eve (cf. Gen 1:28). As humanity increases, there is a strange story of “sons of God” being attracted to the “daughters of man” (6:2). The situation (“sons of God” finding the women “attractive”) results in marriages (“they took as their wives”). But the question is, who are the “sons of God” that find these women “attractive” and then marry them?

There have been several answers provided in the history of interpretation. The two answers that I’m most interested in are the (a) Sethite view and (b) the Fallen Angels view.

The Sethite view understands the “sons of God” to be the descendants of Seth. The women (i.e. “daughters of man”) were not women in general but the offspring of Cain. The overarching point, then, is that the line of Seth is intermarrying with the line of Cain, the murderer of Abel. This, it is argued, helps explain the downfall of the human race into such degrees of sin that God is grieved and eventually unleashes the rains of judgment.

Another view understands the “sons of God” as angelic beings that have become sexually involved with women. These fallen angels are perhaps who Peter and Jude have in mind in various places (cf. 1 Pet 3:18–22; 2 Pet 2:4–10; Jude 5–7). Again, the overarching story aims to show the depth of sin that the human race had fallen into. Here, fallen angels, like their father the Devil before them (cf. Gen 3:1-7), helped lead all of mankind away from their Lord.

Admittedly, this position is not without problems and there are reputable biblical interpreters who take a different view (e.g. John Calvin). However, there are a number of persuasive arguments in favor of the fallen angel view:

  1. Though not determinative, this view seems to be the majority view of Christian history.
  2. Second Temple Judaism writers understood the passage as referring to angels.
  3. “Sons of God” is used to reference angelic beings in other parts of the Bible (Job 1:6; 2:1; 38:7).
  4. The specific phrase “sons of God” is not employed to reference God’s people in the Bible, though God’s people are called God’s sons in various places (e.g. Jer 3:19).
  5. Angelic beings are perhaps in view in Gen 6 according to NT passages (cf. 1 Pet 3:18–22; 2 Pet 2:4–10; Jude 5–7).
  6. In this view, the use of “man” (אָדָם) is employed consistently to reference the totality of mankind.

In my view, the fallen angel position makes the most sense of the flow of the narrative and the grammar of the text. It is the grammar of the text that has caught my eye most recently and is one reason I hesitate to take the Sethite view. Namely, Moses references “man” or “humankind” (אָדָם) eight different times in 6:1–7. The usage consistently aims to describe the entire human race, not one narrow slice of humanity.

Now, why does this present a problem for the Sethite view? Those who understand the “sons of God” to be descendants of Seth believe these men are marrying women who are in the line of Cain (“daughters of man”). Moses, according to this view, is showing what happens when the line of promise mixes with Cain’s line. Furthermore, this view means the usage of אָדָם in 6:2 and 6:4 is not a reference to all of humanity but narrows in on the line of Cain only.

Again, why is that a problem? I believe one reason this is a problematic reading is because Moses consistently used אָדָם (“man”) to refer to universal humanity in Genesis 6. His point is to show the universality of sin and therefore help readers make sense of the universal judgment of God that comes via the flood. To see, then, the use of אָדָם (“man”) in this flow of thought as limited to one slice of humanity (i.e., the descendants of Cain) would introduce an idea that seems out of place. It would require us to read the text this way: 

When [all of humanity] began to multiply on the face of the land and daughters were born to them, 2 the sons of God saw that the [daughters of Cain] were attractive. And they took as their wives any [of the daughters of Cain] they chose. 3 Then the Lord said, “My Spirit shall not abide in [all of humanity] forever, for he is flesh: his days shall be 120 years.” 4 The Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the [daughters of Cain] and they bore children to them. These were the mighty men who were of old, the men of renown. The Lord saw that the wickedness of [all of humanity] was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. 6 And the Lord regretted that he had made [all of humanity] on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. 7 So the Lord said, “I will blot out [all of humanity] whom I have created from the face of the land, [all of humanity] and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens, for I am sorry that I have made them.” (Gen 6:1–8).

Perhaps Moses is trying to show his readers that the intermarrying of the descendants of Seth and Cain led to a spiral downwards into such levels of sin that warranted the flood of God’s judgement. Yet, what clues would cause us to read אָדָם as narrowing in on the line of Cain when the passage consistently uses אָדָם to paint a picture of universal humanity? And universal human sin is the particular problem Moses is highlighting and the coming flood will deal with. It seems we would need more, or at least clearer, grammatical warrant to adopt a reading that understands two uses of אָדָם (“man”) in the middle of a narrative (6:2, 4) to move from universal (mankind) to a more narrow referent (line of Cain). Despite the biblical-theological reading that argues for the Sethite view, as theologically interesting as that reading may be, we must not jettison commitment to the grammar of a text.

Instead, it seems to me the best reading sees every use of אָדָם (“man”) as a reference to the totality of humankind. Thus, all the families of the earth are multiplying. The “sons of God” found women attractive and married them. These demonic forces (fallen angels) are involved in leading the totality of humanity away from God, just as the Serpent had led Adam and Eve to rebel. The whole human race has spiraled downward. Sin abounds. God is grieved. Judgment is coming. And it is coming to every slice of the human race for all have sinned (cf. Gen 6:7; Rom 3:23). Only God’s mercy allows Noah to escape via the ark he is commanded to prepare.

Admittedly, these questions are complex and the Sethite view is a plausible (and faithful) reading of the Genesis account. In the end, whether you see “sons of God” as descendants of Seth, fallen angels, or you take some other view, the overall point seems clear. Southern Seminary professor, Dr. Bill Cook, states the matter succinctly:

Of course, I may be wrong, and the Sethite interpretation may be correct after all. I certainly grant that the ancient view seems strange to our modern ears. But since Peter and Jude both appear to have held it, it seems to me the best interpretation of Genesis 6:1–4. Regardless of which interpretation is correct, though, the main point is plain: humanity was falling deeper and deeper into sin and running farther and farther away from God.

In light of the pervasiveness of human sin, the text sends us to our knees. We all, like mankind before us, have turned aside and gone our own way (Rom 3:12, 23). Therefore, we are humbled to the dust. 

And yet, Genesis 6 reminds us that though sin abounds, the grace of God abounds all the more. Noah builds an ark that saves all who take refuge within. Thousands of years later, God provides another ark of salvation. That latter ark is not a boat made of wood but a person who carries a wooden cross and dies a substitutionary-atoning death for all those who would turn from sin and trust in him. Thus, like those who found refuge in Noah’s ark and were saved from the waters of judgment, those who come to Jesus are brought through the waters of judgment and saved from wrath of God (cf. 1 Pet 3:18–22).