THE SONS OF GOD
© 2008 John H Mattox
 
Gen. 6:1-4

    There are two main theories concerning the identity of the sons of God mentioned in the above passage:

  1. 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.
  2. 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 Adam.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. "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 Sethite theory.
  3. "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."
    The Pulpit Commentary
    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.
  4. "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 either version.
  5. "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
Sethite Theory
 
Cyril of Alexandria
Theodoret
Augustine
Jerome
Calvin
Keil
Havernick
Lange
Murphy
Wordsworth
Quarry
Speaker's
     Commentary
Baxter, J. Sidlow
Edersheim
Chrysostom
Matthew Henry
Blaikie
Smith's Bible History
B.H. Carroll
In Favor of the
Angel Theory
 
Philo (Jew)
Josephus (Jew)
Justin Martyr
Clement
Tertullian
Luther
Gesenieus
Rosenmueller
von Bohlen
Ewald
Baumgartner
Delitsch
Kurtz
Hengstenburg
Alford
Moffat
Authur Pink
Kenneth Wuest
Expositor's Greek
     Testament
Hastings' Bible
     Dictionary
Theological
     Dictionary of
     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 theories.
 
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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 Scripture:

  1. That all of Seth's descendants were godly for several centuries; then suddenly forsook God.
  2. That no intermarriages had taken place between the Sethites and the Cainites prior to the time in question.
  3. 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.
  4. That God had previously, either implicitly, or explicitly, forbidden the Sethites to marry Cainites.
  5. 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.

  1. "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 God."
    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.
  2. "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.
  3. An argument is sometimes offered on the basis of the principle that things which reproduce do so after their kind. 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.
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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 functions.
    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 experience.
    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 hupechousai."
 
"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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