THE SONS OF GOD
© 2008 John H Mattox
There are two main theories concerning the identity of the
sons of God mentioned in the above passage:
- that they were the Sethites, or descendants of Seth;
the daughters of men denoting the descendants of Cain.
The passage would then refer to intermarriages between
these two lines.
- that the sons of God were angels, specifically the
angels mentioned by Peter and Jude (II Peter 2:4; Jude
6) and usually referred to as the fallen angels. According
to this theory, these angels assumed the bodies of human
males and cohabited with women, or the daughters of
We will refer to the first of these theories as the Sethite Theory,
and to the second as the Angel Theory.
The following arguments are usually advanced in support
of the Sethite theory:
- It explains the passage without the necessity of
resorting to a supernatural interpretation.
Refutation: While it might be desirable to seek a natural,
rather than a supernatural, explanation of a passage
whenever possible, we should not shy away from an
otherwise satisfactory interpretation merely because it
contains a supernatural element. Certainly a passage
should not be tortured and twisted out of its obvious
meaning in order to give it a naturalistic meaning.
Therefore, this argument alone is of little weight.
- "It is Scriptural and not mythical; that is, the
Scriptures forbade marriages between Israelites and
Gentiles, and it is supposed that such a prohibition was
also given to the Sethites"
The Pulpit Commentary
Refutation: This is only one of the several groundless
suppositions that must be made in order to cling to the
- "It accords with the designation subse-quently given to
the pious followers of God. Duet. 14:1; 32:5; Psalm
73:15; Proverbs 14:26; Isaiah 43:6."
Refutation: This statement implies that God's people
were known, even in Old Testament times, as sons of
God; and the above passages are cited in evidence.
These passages, however, do not by any means fairly
support such a conclusion. The last two passages are
clearly prophetic in nature, and therefore are not
referrable to those who were God's people at the time
of writing, but to those who would become his people
through faith in Christ. Only in Deut. 14:1, is there an
expression similar to sons of God. In that passage the
Israelites are told that they are children (lit. sons) unto
the LORD your God. In Deut. 32:5, the expression is his
sons, and in Psalm 73:15, it is thy sons. It is obvious
that the expression in Deut. 14:1 is the definitive one,
and that the other passages must be understood in the
light of that passage. The question is, therefore, is the
expression sons of the LORD your God equivalent to sons
of God? If Deut. 14:1 actually read, in the Hebrew, as
it appears to in the King James Version, there would be
little hesitation in giving an affirmative answer.
However, the reader may judge the equivalency for
himself on the basis of the following facts: The Hebrew
word for sons is ben,
and its plural is banim. To say son
of, the word changes to ben; that is, the e changes from
long to short. The plural, sons of is b'nai, as in the
phrase B'nai B'rith, sons of (the) Covenant. The
expression in Genesis 6:2 and 4 is b'nai haElohim,
literally, the sons of God. This is the same Hebrew
expression which is used three times in the book of Job
(1:6; 2:1; 38:7) with reference to the angels. In Deut.
14:1 the expression is banim atem laYahweh Eloheicem;
"Sons (are) ye unto the LORD your God." The word
laYahweh consists of
Yahweh (Jehovah) which is usually
rendered LORD with the prefixed preposition la, which
denotes to, or for. Eloheicem is the word for God with
a suffix denoting your (plural.) The word atem is the
second person plural pronoun - ye. The verb are, is
understood. The expression sons unto the LORD your
God obviously is not equivalent to sons of God. The
former expression could be applied to an adoptive
relationship, whereas the latter seems more appropriate
to either a creative, or procreative, relationship. Had it
been Moses' intention to write sons of the LORD your
God he easily could have used the Hebrew expression
which would have said exactly that. Thus we find that
the expression sons of God is applied only to angels in
the Old Testament, with the possible exception of the
two occurrences in the passage which we are now
considering. In view of these facts, The Pulpit
Commentary's argument that we ought to identify the
Sethites as the sons of God because the subsequent pious
followers of God were so-called, is without support.
- "The Sethite theory is born out by the circumstance
that the Sethites had begun to call themselves by the
name of the Lord. Gen. 4:26."
The Pulpit Commentary
Refutation: In its discussion of Genesis 4:26, The Pulpit
Commentary says that the passage may mean either that
men then began to invoke the name of the Lord, or that
they then began to call themselves by the name of the
Lord. No attempt is made to explain the meaning of
- "The Sethite theory has been uniformly accepted by
Jews and Christians alike."
The Scofield Reference Bible
Refutation: This argument is an appeal to prestige of
numbers. We are expected to accept this theory, not
because it is the best supported one, but because the
weight of numbers and therefore, prestige, is on its side.
The truth or falsity of a theory is not determined by how many
scholars sue for, or against it, but by how well it is supported by
evidence and argumentation. As a matter of fact, however,
Scofield is very much in error in this statement. There always has
been a fairly even split among both Jews and Christians
on these two theories, as is indicated by the following lists:
In Favor of the
Cyril of Alexandria
Baxter, J. Sidlow
Smith's Bible History
In Favor of the
the New Testament
It appears that theologians and scholars of rank have been
arrayed on both sides of the controversy. It is interesting to
note that the editors of The New Scofield Reference Bible (1967)
have re-written Dr. Scofield's note on this passage, and have
taken a much less dogmatic position with reference to these two
continued at top of next column
The Sons of God (cont)
In addition to the specific refutations of the specific
arguments stated above, the following objections may be raised
against the Sethite theory. In order to accept this theory, one
must first accept several assumptions which have no basis in
- That all of Seth's descendants were godly for several
centuries; then suddenly forsook God.
- That no intermarriages had taken place between the
Sethites and the Cainites prior to the time in question.
- That these intermarriages between the Sethites and
Cainites was a one-way street; that is, that only male
Sethites (the sons of God) and female Cainites (the
daughters of men) were involved.
- That God had previously, either implicitly, or
explicitly, forbidden the Sethites to marry Cainites.
- That the Cainites were without exception ungodly
and degenerate, while the Sethites were all pious and
godly. (Editor's Note - This theory also ignores the fact
that Adam and Eve had many other sons and daughters.
Would these have been considered Cainites or Sethites?)
None of these assumptions is borne out by the Scriptures,
and there are no reasonable grounds for believing that they are
true. Thus the Sethite theory raises more questions than it
settles, and actually requires more credulity on the part of its
advocates than does the Angel theory.
Let us now look at arguments against the angel theory. As
before, the writer's refutation of each argument is appended.
continued at top of next column
- "These angels would either be good or bad. If good,
they might well be called the sons of God, but in that
case would not have committed the sin referred to. If
bad, they might have committed the sin referred to, but
in that case would not have been called the sons of
The Pulpit Commentary.
Refutation: The gist of this argument seems to be that a
being who is good can never become evil; and vice versa.
This assumption is completely exploded by the example
of Satan who was not created in his present evil state,
but was the anointed cherub that covereth, who walked up
and down in the midst of the stones of fire. But Lucifer,
who was full of wisdom, and perfect in beauty became
filled with pride and was demoted from his high office,
and became Satan, the adversary. If the argument
presented by The Pulpit Commentary were valid, Lucifer
never could have become Satan. The indisputable fact
that such a change did take place proves that the
argument is spurious, and that a similar situation could
have taken place with regard to the angels that kept not
their first estate (Jude 6); or, as Peter calls them, the
angels that sinned. The passage in question
therefore would mean that angels who previously had been
good and holy, and thus were rightly called sons of God,
succumbed to temptation, and became the fallen, or evil,
angels who are now in bondage.
- "The angels are spirit beings. They are sexless, and
therefore are not capable either of sensuous experiences
or of sexual processes; nor are they capable of
reproduction. As for the suggestion that these evil
angels somehow took human bodies to themselves and
thus became capable of sex functions, it is sheer
absurdity, as anyone can see. Both on psychological and
physiological grounds it is unthinkable. We all know
what an exquisitely delicate, sensitive, intricate
inter-reaction there is between the human body and the
human mind or soul. This is because soul and body
came into being together and are mysteriously united in
one human personality. Thus it is that the sensations of
the body become experiences of the mind. Now if
angels merely took bodies, and indwelt them for the
time being, their doing so could not have made them in
the slightest degree able to experience the sensations of
those bodies, for the angels and those bodies were not
united in one personality, as is the case with the human
mind and body."
(J. Sidlow Baxter).
Refutation: One's first impulse is to stand in
open-mouthed awe before the omniscience of Mr.
Baxter, who seems to be so intimately acquainted with
the psychology, physiology and reproductive limitations
of the angels. After a little reflection, however, it
becomes apparent that much of what Mr. Baxter knows
about angels simply is not so. It also dawns upon us that
he has not offered one shred of proof for his assertions.
Scofield puts forward a similar argument to the effect
that angels are sexless, and that marriage is unknown
among them. He gives as his proof text Matt. 22:30.
However, that text does not quite prove this point:
"For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in
marriage, but are as the angels of God in heaven."
Notice the qualifying phrase, in heaven. The angels
are, of course, essentially spirit beings (Heb. 1:14), and
are apparently manifested only in that form as long as
they remain in heaven. As spirit beings they have no
bodies, and therefore no sex. However, whenever angels
had occasion to visit the earth as messengers from God
to some man or woman, they appeared in the form of
male members of the human race. So completely
normal was their appearance that the person, or persons,
to whom they appeared were usually not aware of their
visitor's supernatural origin until the angels chose to
reveal it. In some cases it was apparently never revealed,
for mention is made in Heb. 13:2, of some who
entertained angels unawares. While occupying their
humanoid, if not human, bodies, the angels were capable
of such physiological processes as eating and drinking.
Cf. Gen. 18:1-33; 19:1. In chapter 18, Abraham's visitors
are called men (anashim
= plural of enosh), yet one of
them is identified as the LORD (Jehovah), while the
other two are obviously the two angels mentioned in
chapter 19:1. If these two human-appearing angels were
incapable of sexual functions, they had the men of
Sodom greatly fooled, for the latter wished to have
homosexual relations with these men who were visiting
Lot! Let it also be noted that while these visitors are
identified as angels once,
they are called men (anashim)
eight times in chapters eighteen and nineteen. It
appears that, for the time being, they were, to all intents
and purposes, members of the human race, although
endowed with certain supernatural powers. In the light
of these facts, it is extremely presumptuous for Mr.
Baxter to assert, unequivocally, that angels are incapable
of this or that physical function.
- An argument is sometimes offered on the basis of the
principle that things which reproduce do so after their
Refutation: This argument has no adverse weight,
inasmuch as there is every indication that this principle
did prevail in the union, as we suppose, of the angelic
hominoids and their human consorts. It is stated that
when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men,
"they bore unto them those heroes which were from
ancient time, men of renown" (Literal Translation.)
Whether these offspring are to be identified with the
giants mentioned in the first part of verse 4, is not clear;
but it seems difficult to account for them in any other
way. The word translated giants is the Hebrew nephilim,
which literally means fallen ones.
If these nephilim were
not fallen angels, and/or their offspring, who, or what
would they be? At any rate, the passage seems to
indicate that from these unusual marriages, unusual
offspring resulted. Thus, the law that like begets like
would seem to have been in full force.
The Sons of God (cont)
Let us now consider some arguments in favor of the angel
theory. We have already shown that angels, when they
appeared on earth, seem to have been possessed of bodies so
human in appearance and function as to be able to pass as
men. Since we are not in a position to know the possible
limitations of these bodies, no one can assert, categorically, that
they were incapable of sexual functions. It must therefore be
accepted as a possibility that they were capable of such
We have also called attention to the fact that the
precise expression sons of God (which is found twice in the
passage under consideration) is elsewhere used only in
reference to angels in the Old Testament. If the Angel theory
is correct, and the sons of God were angels in humanoid bodies
who entered into martial, or sexual relationships with certain
female members of the human race, then we have a precise and
proper use of terms in the expressions used to denote the two sides
of the misalliance; the sons of God being the supernatural
participants and the daughters of men (Adam) the earthly ones.
On the other hand, if the Sethite theory is correct, we have
more confusion than precision, for the terms used would seem
to indicate that only male Sethites and female Cainites were
involved; which appears to be unlikely in the light of human
If Moses had intended to say that Sethites had
married Cainites, why not simply say that the sons of Seth took
wives of the daughters of Cain? Of course, objectors may ask,
"On the other hand, if angels were meant, why not simply say angels?
The answer is simple: the expression sons of God is used for
the sake of parallelism with the expression daughters of men;
and, which is more important, for the sake of calling attention
to and emphasizing the great disparity in these relationships
and therefore the enormity of the sin involved. It is difficult for
the writer to believe that the Sethites were of such lofty piety
that their intermarriage with the Cainites would have called
forth such an antithesis as sons of God and daughters of men.
We also have called attention to the fact that the results of
these relationships were, apparently, the births of heroes (Hebrew
gibborim = mighty men), men of renown. The mythology of
many lands tells of great heroes and supermen who were the
offspring of relations between various gods and mortal women.
It is not impossible that such myths represent the distorted and
perverted remnants of true accounts of the exploits of these
gibborim, or mighty men of old, men of renown.
Another reason for believing the Angel theory is that it
gives Genesis 6:3 a meaning which that difficult and puzzling
passage would not otherwise have. In the King James Version,
the verse reads:
"My Spirit shall not always strive with man, for that he also
is flesh; yet his days shall be an hundred and twenty years."
The verb strive is rendered dwell, or remain by the Vulgate, the
Septuagint, the Syriac, and the Targum of Onkelos, the most
ancient versions of the Old Testament in existence. When one
of these words is substituted for strive it appears that the
passage is God's declaration that he would not permit this
unnatural union of his Spirit (as represented by the angels),
with Adamic flesh for more than one hundred twenty years.
However, the most authoritative argument in favor of the
angel theory lies in Jude's statement that the sin of Sodom and
Gomorrha was similar to that of the angels which kept not their
first estate committing fornication and going after strange flesh.
Jude's exact words in vs. 7 are:
"Hos Sodoma kai Gormorrhas, kai hai peri autas poleis, ton
homoion tropon toutois ekpomeusassi kai apelthousai opiso
sarkos heteras, prokeintai deigma, puros aioniou diken
"Even as Sodom and Gomorrha, and the cities around them,
in the like manner to them (angels), committing fornication
and going off after different flesh, are set forth an example,
undergoing vengeance of eternal fire."
The main difference between this translation and that of
the King James Version, is that the highlighted word toutois is
not translated in the King James. This word is the third person
pronoun in the dative case, and is properly translated to them.
In Greek, a pronoun must have an antecedent with which it
agrees in person, number and gender. Toutois is third person
plural; and as to its gender, is either masculine or neuter plural.
The only noun which qualifies is the word angelous (angels), in
verse 6. Both Sodom and Gomorrha are feminine singular,
while the word poleis (cities) is feminine plural. Thus the
antecedent of the pronoun toutois
must be angelous (or angels),
so that the meaning of verse seven must be that the sin of
Sodom and Gomorrha, which is defined as committing
fornication and going off after other (or different - Gr. heteras)
flesh, was similar to that of the angels. It is interesting to note
that The Pulpit Commentary, which supports the Sethite theory
in its discussion of Genesis six, supports the Angel theory in its
discussion of Jude. Of course, the exegeses of these two
passages were written by different men.
In conclusion, we may venture a suggestion as to why this
sin was committed by the angels. They were no doubt
influenced by Satan, who thus hoped to corrupt the Adamic
race though which the promised Seed of the woman was to
come, who was destined to bruise Satan's head.
John H Mattox
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