Chapter 6 begins with a somewhat odd statement—the sons of God saw that the daughters of men were beautiful (or pleasant) and they took them as wives. Who are these sons of God? And who are the daughters of men? We need to keep to the storyline. Seth’s line was being contrasted with Cain’s line precisely to show their image-bearing of and concern for relationship with God. Cain’s line showed continued sin dependence on the physical. Thus, the title “sons of God” fits, not Cain’s line, but those who image God. The daughters of men are those who had a concentration on men—on the physical; they are the ones of Cain’s line. And in verse 1 of chapter 6 we find that the contrast is going away. These two lines begin to intermarry and produce those referred to as the Nephilim, offspring who are described as giants and powerful and well-known.
Before discussing that further, let’s put to rest a rather distorted identification of these sons of God. Some commentators have suggested that the term sons of God is one the OT reserves for angels. And therefore, the sons of God in this passage are renegade (or fallen) angels who have sex with human women producing a race of giants called the Nephilim. And those who suggest so are not fringe fanatics or liberal interpreters but rather many of the conservative evangelical type, drawing support from church fathers and written commentary from as far back as the third century BC. But the whole argument for these sons of God being fallen angels is a linguistic one based on the examination of terminology.
First, it does have to be admitted that all other references to “sons of God” throughout the OT speak of angels, not humans. That may at first seem like pretty strong evidence. But when we realize there are only a handful of other references to “sons of God” in the rest of the OT, the impression begins to wane. And in fact, there are only three exact references which all occur in Job:
Job 1:6 “One day the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord. . . .”
Job 2:1 “One day the sons of God came again to present themselves before the Lord. . . “
Job 38:6b–7 “Or who laid its cornerstone while the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy.”
Two other references occur in the Psalms, but they use “sons of el” rather than “sons of Elohim” as in Genesis 6 and the Job references. “Sons of el” is often used to refer to might. As we’ve talked about previously, Elohim means mighty one. So, the word el is often used simply to refer to being mighty. The two references are these:
Psalm 29:1 “Ascribe to Yahweh, you sons of might, ascribe to the Lord glory and strength.”
Psalm 89:6 “Who among the sons of might is like the Lord?”
So, we do have these handful of OT references speaking of angels using the phrase “sons of Elohim” or “sons of el.” But instead of demanding that these three to five references are simply alternate names for angels and must force our interpretation for any other use of the term, we should perhaps try to understand why the term is used. One helpful tool is to see how the term is used in the New Testament. In Luke 3:38, we come to the end of a backward-moving genealogy of Jesus. Each person identified by name is then identified as the son of his father. So Jesus is son of Joseph and Joseph is son of Heli. Verse 38 tells us that Enos (or Enosh) was the son of Seth, who was the son of Adam, who was the son of God. Does that mean that Adam was an angel? No. Adam was a human male, but the image-bearing emphasis of Genesis 1 shows Adam to image God—to be like God. And while “son of” offers a link to offspring, it is also intended as a strong link to imaging. Likewise in Galatians 3:26, Paul tells the Christians reading his letter that they are “all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus.” Again, the point is to show relationship and likeness. Paul, in fact, emphasizes the “likeness” and “imaging” link in a heated explosion against the sorcerer in Acts 13 when that sorcerer is trying to discredit Paul’s message of Jesus to the proconsul. The sorcerer’s name is Bar-jesus. Bar is the Aramaic (like ben is in Hebrew) meaning “son of.” The prisoner released at Passover whose name was Barabbas had a name that simply meant “son of Abbas.” So also this sorcerer’s name, Bar-jesus, meant son of Jesus. No doubt that man’s father was named Jesus. But Paul is defending Jesus, the Christ, and this Bar-jesus is nothing like Jesus, the Christ. So we read Paul lashing out at him in Acts 13:9–10 as he says, “Then Saul—also called Paul—filled with the Holy Spirit, stared straight at the sorcerer and said, “You son of the Devil!” Paul was not merely angrily thinking of foul things to call him. Paul makes a wordplay on the name. He said, in effect, “’Son of” means likeness, and you are nothing like my Jesus. In fact, your name should be Bar-Satan because you are like the Devil.” Again, in Luke 20:36, Jesus says that humans who belong to him who pass from this life and enter the resurrection cannot die anymore “because they are like angels and are sons of God, since they are sons of the resurrection.” This verse emphasizes the imaging again. Being “son of” means being alike in some capacity of emphasis.
Once the idea of sons of God as angels took hold, an attempt to reinforce it came (again, linguistically) by pointing out the notation of daughters of men. Surely Seth’s descendants included men as well as their daughters. Therefore, how could daughters of men be attributed to only Cain’s offspring? First, the Bible often sets one group in opposition to another with similar assumed characteristic. For example, Jeremiah 32:20 recounts, “You performed signs and wonders in the land of Egypt and do so to this very day both in Israel and among mankind.” Of course, the idea is not that Israel is something other than mankind so that the distinction can hold. Mankind (or humankind) here represents those without God. It is an assumption we gather from the passage discussion. Another example is Isaiah 43:4, in which God tells Israel the nation, “Because you are precious in My sight and honored, and I love you, I will give people in exchange for you and nations for your life.” No one stops after reading this, wondering whether Israel is either made up of people or is considered a nation. Of course, it is. However, God assumes other people and other nations in the statement although the Hebrew does not specifically indicate that. In fact, sometimes translators, so sure that the intent is other, they insert the word even if not in the Hebrew. For example, in our English Bibles, Judges 16:7 reads “Samson told her, ‘If they tie me up with seven fresh bowstrings that have not been dried, I will become weak and be like any other man.’” Strictly translated, Samson says he will “become as human.” And again, of course, we know the intent is not to say Samson was not human.
Daughters of men in the context of the passage refers to the offspring of those whose concentration was away from God and on humankind instead. Sons of (i.e., those like) God were those whose focus was on God. And the point of the discussion is that these groups began to intermarry. In other words the focus on God would inevitably wane as the attraction to human care and concern seeped in. And the passage concludes that fact as God describes humankind as a whole as being corrupt (6:3). (And as a side note, notice when God talks further about the resultant corruptness in 6:7, he does not say that these are hybrid angel-humans; rather, he says he will judge “mankind [Hebrew humans] whom I created.”
Who then are the Nephilim—those who were the product of the sons of God and the daughters of men? Nephilim is a Hebrew word that has been transliterated into our English texts. The KJV translates the word as giants, but the implication is not simply that they are physically large. The discussion is about the faltering sons of God. The discussion has moved toward a diluting of God-imaging. Humankind is becoming corrupt. To mark that conclusion—to write it in boldface with underline and italics—God says that humankind had become mightily corrupt—giants among evildoers. The words translated men “of old” and the “famous” men give us a hint. The Hebrew word for “of old” isn’t used only in the sense of looking back. It means longevity and so could be translated as forever and always. The Hebrew word for “famous” has an etymology that can mean to fall upon. This entire passage moves from Cain murdering his brother, to Lamech killing, and ending here with a group of evil people who have adopted the attitude of always falling on (killing) others. These hugely terrible people would not quit. They had left God. And God would judge.