Every year, Christians embarking on a “Bible-in-a-year” reading program stumble upon and are confounded by Genesis 6:1-8 within the first few days of their plan. And with good reason, this passage is one of the most debated texts in Scripture. It contains the enigmatic story of the marriage between the “sons of God” and the “daughters of men” and one of only two references to the mysterious “Nephilim.” Questions abound: Who are these sons of God? What did they do wrong? Who were the Nephilim? Why is this strange passage in the Bible?
Some have dismissed this text as merely a mythological story not meant to be taken literally. However, as I have argued, Genesis is history and such a view fails to take that into account. In this article I want to do two things: 1) Help you navigate the various interpretations of this hard text; and 2) Show you how even such strange and obscure passages proclaim the gospel.
Toward the first end, we will examine the main interpretations of this passage and then offer what we think is the best understanding. For a more thorough examination of this passage, I encourage you to read what I’ve written here. There are three main interpretations of this complex passage. The Angelic View, the Sethite View, and the Tyrant View.
The Angelic View
The first and oldest view is that the “sons of God” are angels who left heaven to marry human women. In this case, the sin of the sons of God is leaving their proper place and engaging in sexual relations which cross the boundary between divine and human and the Nephilim are the offspring of this supernatural-natural union. This is the oldest interpretation and can be found in early extra-biblical Jewish literature (1 Enoch 6 and Jubilees 4-5). The two main arguments for this view are that the phrase “sons of God” always refers to angels in the Old Testament and that the 2 Peter and Jude interpret the passage this way.
However, this view has some serious problems. First, the phrase sons of God is only used two times in the OT outside of Genesis 6, both in Job (1:6, 2:1). That means that it is very difficult to assign it a specific meaning in Genesis 6 based off only two other occurrences not even in the near context.
Second, the New Testament evidence is not nearly as conclusive as the angelic proponents claim. Second Peter leaves the sin of the angels unspecified and is debatable whether the sin in Jude is of a sexual nature. In fact, the NT moves in the other direction by indicating that angels do not marry (Matt. 22:30).
Third, there is no reason in the text to understand the Nephilim as the offspring of the union, in fact it, the phrase “and also afterwards” as well as the mention of the Nephilim in Numbers 13:33 indicates that they were not unique offspring of a angelic-human union.
Fourth, Genesis 6:1-8 is the prologue to the Flood narrative, the paradigmatic act of judgment in the Old Testament. However, the Flood is a judgment against mankind, not angels! Yahweh decided that His spirit will not remain in man forever (6:3), He saw that the wickedness of man was great (6:5), He regretted that He had made man (6:6), and said that He will blot out man from the face of the earth (6:7). It is inconsistent with God’s justice to argue that God judged humanity for the sin of angelic beings, and any attempt to make the “daughters of men” active in the sin reads into the text what is not there. Much more could be said, but these problems are serious enough to render this view improbable.
The Sethite View
This view takes the “sons of God” to be from the line of Seth and the “daughters of men” to be from the line of Cain. The sin in this case is intermarriage between the godly and wicked lines and the Nephilim are not the fruit of the union. This view has ample support in church history, including such weighty figures as John Calvin and Martin Luther.
This view has three main arguments to support it. First, the immediate context of Genesis 4-5 with the contrasting genealogies of Cain and Seth (each containing a Lamech and an Enoch), sets the reader up to expect a contrast in 6:1-8. Second, marriage within a particular family is a theme of Genesis (24:4, 27:46-28:9). Third, The Pentateuch elsewhere uses the language of sonship to refer to God’s covenant people (Ex. 4:22-23).
This view has one major problem with it: it requires that a shift from the generic use of “man” in verse 1 to a specific use of “man” in verse 2. Verses 1-2 say, “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.” Clearly in the first verse, “man” refers generically to all mankind, not just the line of Cain, and the “daughters” refers to all of their daughters. There is nothing in the text that suggests a shift in the meaning of “man” between verse one and two such that it refers to mankind generically in verse one but only to the line of Cain in verse two.
The Tyrant View
This last view argues that the “sons of God” are despotic tyrants and the “daughters of men” are regular human women. In this view, the sin described is that of forceful polygamy, the tyrants took whichever women pleased them. This view has three main arguments in support of it. First, in ancient near eastern culture, kings and rulers are often referred to as “a son of the God.” Second, the Bible itself designates judges and kings as God’s son (2 Sam. 7:14, Ps. 82:6). Third, Genesis 4 shows the origins of a despotic line in Cain, who founded a city and named it after his son, and Lamech, who engaged in violence and polygamy.
However, like the other views, this view has some problems. First, while individual kings are styled as a “son of God,” there is no ANE or OT background for groups of kings being styled as such, and when the language is used of an individual king it is almost never found in straightforward historical narrative.
Second, there is no evidence elsewhere in the context of Genesis for the descendants of Cain being labeled “sons of God,” and it would be an odd way of referring to a wicked lineage.
Third, as we mentioned earlier, the Nephilim are most likely not the offspring of the marriage described in verse 2.
Is There an Answer?
In light of the complexity of this debate, I tentatively suggest a combination of the second and third views which I believe acknowledges the strengths of both while avoiding their particular weaknesses. I believe the Sethite View is correct that the “sons of God” are men from the line of Seth. Both other views rely on strained connections with distant passages to substantiate their interpretation and do not do full justice to the immediate context of Genesis 4-5 which clearly involves a contrast between wicked and godly lineages.
However, I believe the Tyrant View is correct that the sin described is not intermarriage between two lines, but forceful polygamy. The similarities between Genesis 6:1-4 and the account of Lamech in Genesis 4 show how the godly line of Seth became corrupt just like the line of Cain, resulting in only Noah and his family finding favor in God’s eyes out of all mankind. Furthermore, order of the words “saw…good…took” in verse 2 is a clear allusion back to Eve’s sin in Genesis 3:6. The sin described is that these men took whichever women they desired as their wives and disregarded the creation pattern of monogamy (Gen. 2:24).
So then, the “sons of God” in Genesis 6 are men from the line of Seth who became like Lamech in violent polygamy and took whatever women they desired from all the daughters of mankind. This resulted in God’s judgment of limiting the human lifespan to 120 years and destroying all life on the face of the earth in the deluge.
Where’s the Gospel?
Much more could be said about this passage, but I want to point out of even such a strange and obscure passage shows quite clearly the gospel. The three main themes of this passage are mankind’s sinfulness, God’s righteous judgment, and God’s grace. Here we see a picture of the utter sinfulness and depravity of mankind, “the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (6:5).
In response to mankind’s sinfulness, God announces His judgment. He will not tolerate sin and declares that He will blot out every living creature from the face of the earth. His judgment is so complete as to return the earth to its state of being “formless and void” with the waters covering the face of the deep. God’s righteousness is displayed in His terrible wrath against sin.
But sin will not be triumphant. The passage ends with a hint of grace in verse 8, “But Noah found grace in the eyes of the LORD.” Here is the first use of the word “grace” in the Bible (though the concept is present earlier). Just at the point when sin seems to reign triumphant, God’s good creation is ruined, and His image will be wiped off the face of the earth – at just that point we read of Noah – as a son, in the image of God (Gen. 5:3), whose name means rest, who will bring relief from the curse (Gen. 5:29), and (most importantly) who has found favor in the eyes of Yahweh.
The main point of Genesis 6:1-8 ties these three themes together: Mankind is totally depraved and deserving of God’s wrath which He will pour out on all creation except those who find refuge in His grace though a chosen representative. What a clear statement of the gospel!
I hope this is encouraging to you, that these texts are not impossible to understand and that even texts which are debated among Christians still proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ, who is the better Noah, who will grant ultimate rest, reverse the curse, and save from the coming wrath those who take refuge in Him.
 For a full treatment of 2 Peter 2:4 and Jude 6, see Keil, C. F. Commentary on the OT: Pentateuch. Peabody: Hendrickson, 2001, p. 83-85n1.