This much-disputed passage continues to be a thorn in the flesh of commentators even in the twenty-first century (see e.g. Motyer, pp.130,215f. n.57). Since the usual interpretations of it are less than convincing, and even bring the veracity of Scripture as a whole into question, another attempt at arriving at a more satisfactory conclusion seems worthwhile.
Most problems in the passage seem to arise because commentators read into it what is not there. What might be rejected as a superficial reading elicits no suggestion of sin, and Wenham admits, even after close scrutiny, that Cassuto correctly insists that the words can apply to perfectly proper marriages: “The passage contains not a single word … alluding to rape or adultery or any act against the LORD’s will” (quoted by Wenham, p.141, from U.Cassuto, Biblical and Oriental Studies 1, Jerusalem, 1973, 1:194. This statement is in direct collision with D.Clines’ reference to the “violent and polygamous lust of the ‘sons of God’”. See Atkinson, p.131.) So it is reasonable to suggest that these verses act as an additional comment elaborating the information given in the previous chapter (5) which is notable for its emphasis on the propagation of the race on the one hand and the universality of death on the other. They stand in complete contrast with verses 5-8 where sin changes the atmosphere. (One fancies that had our medieval forebears ended chapter 5 with 6:4 and begun chapter 6 with 6:5, they would have saved our more immediate predecessors, not to mention modern commentators, a deal of misapprehension!) It would appear that what we are told about the development and propagation of the human race in 5:1 to 6:4, the reference to the Nephilim apart, is a necessary prelude to what is said later, and verses 1-4 of chapter 6 are basically transitional.
Difficulties arise, however, once the first four verses of chapter 6 are given ethical content and imbued with notions of transgression. Verse 1 is not a problem, since it appears simply to state that the race multiplied in accordance with the will of God announced in Genesis 1:28. ‘Men’ (or ‘people’, NRSV) is a generic term and entirely natural (cf. Murray, p.244). However, verse 2 refers rather mysteriously to the “sons of God” (the context excludes ‘gods’) and to the “daughters of men” apparently bringing them into sharp contrast and raising questions as to their meaning.
Common views of the “sons of God” have been: first, that they are angels or divine beings. Support for this is said to be found in Job 1:6; 2:1; 38:7 and perhaps Daniel 3:25. But these references look decidedly less determinative when other texts like Exodus 4:22; Deuteronomy 14:1; 32:5f.; Psalm 73:15; 82:6; Isaiah 1:2; Hosea 1:10 and Malachi 1:6 are brought into view. Reasons for thinking that the “sons of God” are human as opposed to angelic surely arise from the recognition that angels are spirits (Heb. 1:14) and that they do not marry (Mt. 22:30). Appeal to the virgin birth (see Wenham, p140) in support of this angelic interpretation would seem to be entirely irrelevant, since it bears no comparison with what is being advocated. And since it has other implications, the less said about it the better. Furthermore, the close verbal affinity between Genesis 6:2 and 3:6, which describes Eve’s temptation, suggests powerfully that the flesh is very much in evidence on both sides (cf. James 1:14; 1 John 2:16f.).
These considerations seem to be decisive, and they do not appear to be undermined in the least by the highly questionable suggestion that 1 Corinthians 11:10 is an allusion to Genesis 6:2 (see e.g. Morris and Fee, who reject it, in their respective commentaries on 1 Corinthians, ad loc.). It is difficult not to believe that if the angelic interpretation had not been promoted by the apocryphal book of Enoch (probably under pagan influence), it would never have been advocated by Christians.
It is doubtless the inherent incredibility of the above, especially in the context of a book which Atkinson admits is remarkably free of mythological features (p.130), that has driven many to tout the idea that the “sons of God” were godly Sethites, and the “daughters of men” Cainites. But writers like Murray (pp.243ff.) seem to protest too much and, having unwarrantably saturated the passage with sin, exaggerate the distinction between the two lines of people. In any case, as Kidner says with his usual terseness, “nothing has prepared the reader to assume that ‘men’ now means Cainites only” (p.84). At the very least, it must be said that more evidence is needed. So while the distinction between families is valid, it hardly warrants designating Seth’s line “sons of God” and Cain’s “mere men”.
Also canvassed by some is the royal interpretation which envisages antediluvian leaders adopting Near Eastern titles as “sons of God” or “sons of nobles”, and taking up polygamy into the bargain, as Lamech is said to do though with some degree of exaggeration (Gen. 4:19). While this is a much more rational idea, Blocher thinks that Jude 6f. tells decisively against it (p.202). But that is questionable, since Jude is in all likelihood using an ad hominem argument and not necessarily endorsing the angelic view. Blocher apparently prefers to run the angelic and royal interpretations together, thus producing “a dangerous mixture of heavenly and earthly rebellions” (p.203). Apart from the inherent improbability of this in the context, it is rather speculative and again lacks support. So far as the “giants” (KJV) or “men of renown”, the mysterious Nephilim (cf. Num. 13:33), are concerned, there is no indication that they are to be regarded as especially sinful.
Kaiser (p.108), who describes the three lines of interpretation as the comologically, the religiously and the sociologically mixed race views, opts strongly for the latter. He claims that there are five lines of evidence supporting it. First, the ancient Aramaic Targums render “sons of God’ as “sons of nobles”. Second, the word “gods” (elohim) is used in Scripture for men who served as judges (Ex. 21:6; 22:8; Ps. 82:1,6). Third, structurally, the account of the Cainite, Lamech (Gen. 4:19-24), and that of the “sons of God” in Genesis 6:1-4 are similar. Fourth, Near Eastern discoveries point to pagan use of the names of “gods and goddesses” to give rulers added prestige and, fifth, the Nephilim means not ‘giants’ but something like ‘princes’ or ‘great men’.
There is little question in my view that Kaiser’s offering is superior to the other two. Superficially, its cumulative force is impressive, yet when each strand of evidence is analysed separately, it fails to convince. Its relation to the rest of Scripture is in the main extrinsic rather than intrinsic, and it is surely going beyond the evidence to claim that there is any real resemblance between Genesis 4:19-24 and 6:1-4. So there seems to be no good reason why we should not see 6:2 and 4 as corresponding with 2:18 and 24 rather than with 4:19.
What shall we say then to all this? If we reject the usual views, is it possible to find another? I think so.
Initially, I would refer back to my first comment that a natural reading of the passage elicits not the slightest hint of sin. NT references to the time of the flood bear this out. In Matthew 24:38 and Luke 17:27, in what is surely an allusion to Genesis 6:2 and 4 (cf. Marshall, ad loc.), Jesus simply states that people got married and had children in the normal run of events (cf. Luke 20:34). The only suggestion of sin, if there is one, must lie in the attitude of the antediluvians who, like modern secularists, carried on their activities without reference to God. In other words, they lived as though he did not exist or had any claims on them (contrast 1 Cor.10:31). Jesus’ terminology is arresting: he makes a clear distinction between marrying and being given in marriage. To be sure, it could be argued that his language reflects an interest in parallelism on the part of Matthew and Luke (cf. Gundry, Matthew, ad loc.). But is it not far more likely that the marrying echoes the activity of the “sons of God” and being given in marriage that of the “daughters of men” in Genesis 6:2 and 4? If this is so, the question that immediately prompts itself is, Why are the men and women referred to in such a way? And the answer must presumably lie in the creation story of Genesis 2 where it is taught that Adam was the first to be formed by God from the earth (2:7 and note 5:1-3), and then Eve from Adam’s side or rib. This point is taken up in the NT to underline man’s priority or primacy. Adam is designated a son of God in Luke 3:38, and in John 10:34f. Jesus, referring to Psalm 82:6f., clearly sees ordinary men, in this case Israelites, as sons of God (cf. Ex. 4:22; Dt. 14:1, etc.). What is more, as law-breakers they are typically sons of Adam.
Paul, of course, draws a distinction between Adam and Eve in 1 Timothy 2:13f. in a matter relating to the question of authority, and in 2 Corinthians 11:3 he implies what is explicit in the former passage.
But, next, it is quite astonishing that certain scholars have claimed to see, surely erroneously, an allusion to Genesis 6 in the reference to angels in 1 Corinthians 11:10, yet have failed to note the far more obvious and inherently more relevant reference to man’s primacy in the rest of the passage,. What Paul is saying here is that Adam was a son of God (see vv. 7-9) in a way that Eve was not his daughter. She was rather the daughter of man (i.e. Adam). While Paul’s appeal is doubtless primarily to Genesis 1:26-28 and 2:18-24 (and perhaps 5:1-3), he could well have had 6:1-4 in mind too. (1* Sherlock, following Barth, stresses the differentiation in the unity of man as the image of God in the early chapters of Genesis, pp. 34ff.)
Whatever the deficiencies of this line of interpretation, it is in accord with the analogy of faith. What is more, it suits the general and particular contexts in a way that other views do not and, above all, it is sensible and rational.
Finally, I argued earlier, in violent contrast with more traditional interpretations which steeped the issue in sin (see especially Murray, and also Payne, pp. 204ff.), that the verses lacked ethical content. In support of this contention it must be said that while Genesis 6:2 and 3:6 are similar in language and thought, it is quite gratuitous to assume that they both involve transgression. Eve, like David (2 Sam. 11:2-4, cf. Gen. 12:14f.), was breaking a divine command, but there is no evidence that the “sons of God” and the “daughters of men” were doing likewise, at least, not at this point (cf. Dt. 21:11). Further, it is unwarrantable to see 6:3, where human life is subjected to a maximum limit, as implying a special punishment for sin in addition to the death sentence already imposed. And it is far better with Wenham to see ‘flesh’ as referring not to man’s moral weakness and propensity to sin but to his natural mortality and total dependence on God for survival. (2* This comment requires the more extensive elaboration I have attempted elsewhere.)
So I conclude that the “sons of God” and the “daughters of men” in Genesis 6:1-4 are true children of Adam and Eve, ordinary men and women marrying and procreating in fulfilment of the will of God who created them (Gen. 1:27f.; Dt. 21:11). It should perhaps be added at this point that while little is said in the Bible about monogamy and that our first parents were not obviously married, as Sherlock intimates (p.272 n.18), nonetheless the fundamental relationship between man and woman is at least being strongly endorsed in Genesis 6:1-4. But further, and Jesus’ comment recorded in Matthew 24:38 and Luke 17:27 appear to support this view, marriage as we conceive of it as a formal and public commitment only began at this stage of man’s social development. Even if this could be proved not to be the case, far from conveying the absurd notion that angels had dealings with women, which is implicitly contradicted by Jesus himself (Mt. 22:30, cf. Dan. 2:11), Genesis 6:1-4 nevertheless underlines the perpetuation of the pattern of relationship established between Adam and Eve. While the difference between male and female is maintained, so is their unity, and, we might add, continues to be to this day despite the attempts of some to nullify it.
Long after completing the first draft of the above, as a matter of interest I consulted Bauckham’s extensive commentary on Jude and 2 Peter. With regard to Jude 6, having referred to the Jewish tradition that angels (Watchers) descended from heaven to marry human wives, Bauckham adds that “ in the mid-second century A.D., the traditional exegesis (of Gen. 6:1-4) was replaced in Judaism by an insistence that the “sons of God” were not angels but men. In Christianity, however, the traditional exegesis had a longer life, questioned only in the third century and disappearing in the fifth century” (p.51).
In view of this, one is left wondering why modern scholars, on dubious linguistic grounds, revert to conclusions that their ancient predecessors came to consider, with good reason, were inadequate. Perhaps an inordinate obsession with language, a notable legacy of liberalism, is the problem. Regrettably, it seems to exercise a baneful influence on other difficult texts like 1 Peter 3:19, which is often associated with Genesis 6:1-4.
David Atkinson, The Message of Genesis 1-11. Leicester, 1990.
H.Blocher, In the Beginning, Leicester, 1984.
G.D.Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, Grand Rapids, 1987.
R.H.Gundry, Matthew, Grand Rapids, 1994.
W.C.Kaiser Jr in Hard Sayings of the Bible, Downers Grove, 1996.
D.Kidner, Genesis, London, 1967.
I.H.Marshall, The Gospel of Luke, Exeter, 1987.
L.Morris, The First Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians, London, 1958.
J.A.Motyer, Look to the Rock, Leicester, 1996.
J.Murray, The principles of Conduct, London, 1957.
J.B.Payne, The Theology of the Older Testament, Grand Rapids, 1962.
C.Sherlock, The Doctrine of Humanity, Leicester, 1996.
G.J.Wenham, Genesis 1-15, Waco, 1987.