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In asking the question, is Genesis 6:1–4 about ETs?, Steve Hays makes the following observation:
To me, the text invites a far more mundane explanation. Isn’t this a familiar scenario? Raiding parties to abduct women from a neighboring tribe or village. That happens in lots of primitive cultures. An invading army where officers have the pick of the women. Sex-starved sailors who discover the Polynesian islands and help themselves to the bounty, including–or especially–native women.
If it weren’t for one or two enigmatic designations (nephilim; “sons of god[s]), surely we wouldn’t take it any other way.
For the sake of reference, here’s the passage in question from the LEB:
And it happened that, when humankind began to multiply on the face of the ground, daughters were born to them. 2 Then the sons of God saw the daughters of humankind, that they were beautiful. And they took for themselves wives from all that they chose. 3 And Yahweh said, “My Spirit shall not abide with humankind forever in that he is also flesh. And his days shall be one hundred and twenty years.” 4 The Nephilim were upon the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God went into the daughters of humankind, and they bore children to them.
Now, it should go without saying that I think the ancient aliens thesis is pure garbage. Entertaining, but utter tripe. You need to have a few screws loose or be deliberately misinformed to take it seriously. So Steve and I agree at least on that much. But I think his reasoning about this passage in general is poor. And it’s a pretty interesting passage; so now seems as good a time as any to make some hermeneutical and exegetical observations. I’m not going to fully develop my view here, but I will try to explain why I think the sons of God are not human, and why this passage is teaching something which has been widely depopularized in modern evangelicalism due to being “kooky”, “unscientific”, or a bit too reminiscent of ancient aliens conspiracy theories:
1. Some initial hermeneutical observations
To quote Michael Heiser, “if it’s weird, it’s important”. This is not to make our subjective credulity or lack of understanding a benchmark for deciding which passages to hang doctrines off; but rather to suggest that when there is something in Scripture which strikes us as weird, often it is because we have lost the background information that makes it sensible. And often that information turns out to shape the biblical worldview in surprising ways. So enigmatic references might well be important.
We also have to be quite careful not to impose our experience of the world onto Scripture as a normative principle. Just because we do not have experience of the spirit world—with possession or demonic activity or hauntings for example—does not mean the spirit world doesn’t exist, or that these events are inherently implausible. It takes very little reading of missionary reports from any time period at all to realize that the spiritual realm is much wilder and more active than we typically experience in the West.
There’s also the question of how much is experienced in the West. How many credible reports are dismissed as kooky on the basis of scientific modernism—which, needless to say, is not a biblical view—or hard cessationism—which, needless to say, is also not a biblical view?
2. “Enigmatic designations” in Genesis 6:1–4
Steve’s comment that if it weren’t for the enigmatic designations, we wouldn’t take the passage in a supernatural way, seems decidedly odd, since it is precisely because of these designations that people like me do take it that way. Now, I get that Steve is reacting against the ancient aliens theory, which mutilates the terms in question. But the fact that some people leap to bizarre conclusions about these “enigmatic designations” doesn’t imply that sensible people should conclude that they indicate nothing. They are enigmatic and seem to demand explanation.
So, about those terms…
2.1. With regard to the “sons of God” (beney ha-elohim)
This precise term only appears three times in Moses’ writings: Genesis 6:2; Genesis 6:4 and Deuteronomy 32:8. In the LXX, Deuteronomy 32:8 reads “angels of God” rather than “sons of God”, illustrating the understanding that spiritual beings are in view. [For a lengthier exegetical treatment, see the second half of D Bnonn Tennant, What is the kingdom of God, part 4: a tale of two seeds (January 2017).] That is also certainly how the term is understood in Job 1:6; 2:1; 38:7. Now, you can argue that Job’s Hebrew is idiosyncratic, which it is—but “sons of God” was a common religious term in Hebrew and in Canaanite usage. It referred to the divine beings who comprised the family of the sovereign God. This is evident in the extremely similar usage in Psalms 29:1; 82:6; 89:6. Obviously Canaanite religion diverged from Hebrew religion because it was largely based on false, man-made monistic philosophy rather than God’s revealed word. But the basic idea with respect to the sons of God was the same.
Deuteronomy 32:8 in the medieval Hebrew Masoretic Text reads “sons of Israel”. This is obviously a late corruption, since there was no Israel at the time of the event it describes (Babel). The correct reading is preserved in the LXX and Dead Sea Scrolls, as reflected in the ESV, NET and others.
You can argue that God calls both Israel and its king his son (Exodus 4:22; Jeremiah 31:9; Psalm 2:7 etc). But obviously Israel does not exist in Genesis 6. Moreover, while ancient Near Eastern cultures often considered kings divine or semi-divine, there are no known parallels for the term “sons of God” referring to human rulers; the closest parallel terms refer to divine beings. And taking the sons of God to be human kings also fails to account for their apparently unusual offspring, the Nephilim. (More on that below.)
Augustine first proposed that the sons of God were not human kings, but rather the line of Seth. So Genesis 6:1 is describing the propagation of the line of Cain, and 6:2 how the line of Seth found their daughters attractive. But aside from the same criticisms as ad (b), notice also:
- Not only does the text not imply this, but it implies the opposite; verse 1 does not draw such a differentiation. It simply speaks of mankind in general. But in that case, verse 2 is naturally understood to refer to the daughters of mankind in general also.
- Nowhere does the Bible speak of the Sethites as the sons of God; this simply has to be assumed in the teeth of the competing evidence for the sons of God being angelic.
- In the previous chapter, Genesis 5, it is daughters born to Seth who are mentioned. This puts tension on the theory in terms of the thought sequence Moses is creating. We would expect him to mention the daughters of Cain, if they are the characters in Genesis 6:1–4. But if the daughters of man are just human women generally—even those descended from Seth—this tension is resolved.
- The Augustinian view seems to make the text imply that the sons of Seth shouldn’t have been interbreeding with the daughters of Cain. But why? Jews and Christians have such obligations because of their covenant relationship with God. But there’s no indication that God had covenanted with a particular line of people at this point.
- Apropos (iv), this theory then seems to imply some sort of genetic distinction between the godly line and the ungodly one. Seth’s line only produced “sons of God” (i.e., godly people), while Cain’s only produced ungodly “daughters of men”. But again, not only is this absent from the text, but it makes no sense whatsoever in view of the Bible’s clear teaching that salvation is not based on who your parents are (John 1:13; Romans 9:16 etc).
- Apropos (v), the fact that Noah is noted for being godly militates against thinking that all Sethites were godly. Indeed, this view makes no sense of how Steve says we would read the text absent the “enigmatic designations”. If the sons of God are so-called because they are godly, they would hardly be making a widescale and concerted effort to “help themselves” to the “bounty” of evil men’s wives. So there is an internal contradiction here.
- You can relieve this contradiction by saying that “sons of God” is a designation of God’s favor, rather than of individual holiness. But if God’s favor doesn’t result in individual holiness, it has to be something like a covenant loyalty based on lineage. And again, this runs aground by basically reading God’s covenantal activity with Israel back into the antediluvian world with utterly no biblical warrant whatsoever. It is not until Babel, well after the flood, that God disinherits the nations and chooses just one line to covenant with for himself (cf. Deuteronomy 32:8).
On top of this is the odd contrast between the sons of God and the daughters of man. The LEB I think rightly emphasizes this by translating “man” (adam) as “humankind”. The point of verse 1 is that mankind, generally, is multiplying and having daughters. Obviously they were having sons too, but the daughters are the focus because they become an object of desire. For whom? Well, apparently not for the sons of humans, since that would merely reiterate what verse 1 has already indicated! It’s a no-brainer that people multiplying happens when sons of men find daughters of men attractive. If there was nothing more going on in verse 2 than human males finding human females attractive, it’s hard to make sense of the passage at all.
2.2. With regard to the “Nephilim”
Steve also observes:
The syntax is ambiguous. It doesn’t say the Nephilim were the offspring of union between the “sons of god[s]” and human females.
Again, strictly speaking this is true—but although the text can be read otherwise, it certainly implies very strongly that the Nephilim were the offspring of a union between the sons of God and daughters of man. It could be simply marking a chronological correlation—i.e., “the Nephilim were on the earth at the time that the sons of God went into the daughters of man who bore them children”—but it seems much more plausibly to be offering a causal explanation—i.e., “the Nephilim were on the earth due to the sons of God going into the daughters of man who bore them children”.
When I teach writing, one of the key points I emphasize is the connectivity of ideas. How thought sequences work. One idea relates to another nearby. When we write, we link ideas in various ways—but usually at least by proximity. Sometimes when we link ideas only by proximity, our reasoning seems clear to us, but not as obvious to our readers (or at least our readers 3,500 years later). But even if the exact link between two ideas in proximity isn’t clear, the reader can certainly infer that there is a link intended. So the question is, what is the probable link that Moses intended between the Nephilim being on the earth in those days, and the sons of God going into the daughters of men? Why mention those two things together? The only likely reason I can see is that the Nephilim are the product of this union.
Numbers 13:33 and the Septuagint rendering of Genesis 6:4 take the Nephilim to be giants. Even allowing for exaggeration from the spies in Numbers 13 (no doubt “grasshoppers” is not meant woodenly), clearly the Nephilim were intimidating people of unusual stature and skill in warfare. They were, according to Numbers 13:33, the sons of Anak—namely, a people “great and tall” (Deuteronomy 9:2). Now, how big a “giant” was is up for grabs—the average height of a man in the ancient Near East, to my understanding, was barely over 1.5 meters (5′). So the Nephilim might not have been taller than some modern men. Nonetheless, they were physically unusual.
The evidence for the sons of God being divine beings meshes naturally with the evidence for the Nephilim being giants. A seamless picture emerges of spiritual beings taking on bodily form, cohabiting with human women, and producing unusually mighty children. The picture that emerges from competing theories is either ad hoc, or ends up denying biblical data.
An interesting sidenote is that the Jews believed demons (as found in the New Testament) to be the spirits of dead Nephilim. While I wouldn’t dogmatically assert this, it certainly makes sense, given that the rebellious sons of God seem limited in number, and are either imprisoned (see below) or in charge of political realms (cf. Deuteronomy 32:8; Ephesians 6:12 etc). Inhabiting people to cause trouble seems beneath them given that they are described as gods (Psalm 82:6; cf. Jude 8). Demons, by contrast, are both legion and much less impressive, with an inordinate desire to be (re?)embodied.
3. The pedigree of the various views
Apropos (2.2d), 2 Peter 2:4–11 and Jude 6–7 mesh seamlessly with the traditional “divine beings” understanding of Genesis 6:1–4. 2 Peter 2:4 refers to the angels who sinned; verse 5 places this in the context of the flood; verse 6 gives Sodom as an example of judgment for the kind of sin in question; verse 10 names the sins as the lusts of defiling passion and despising authority; Jude 6 elaborates that these angels did not stay within their own position of authority, but left their proper dwelling. Moreover, there is also the intriguing reference to the “glorious ones” in 2 Peter 2:10–11 and Jude 8—which illustrate a distinction between glorious ones, angels, the Lord, and possibly also archangels. Because of the broad way that the term “angels” is used in the New Testament, it’s hard to be sure what is going on here, but it is at least plausible to suppose that the glorious ones are the angels who left their proper dwelling; i.e., they are spiritual beings greater than “typical” angels—what we might call archangels, and what the Old Testament would call the sons of God.
Understanding the sons of God to be divine beings is not a fringe view, nor a modern one. In fact, it was the exclusive view until about the second century AD. It is reflected in 1 Enoch 6, Jubilees 5, the Septuagint, Philo (De Gigant 2:358), Josephus (Ant. 1.31), the Dead Sea Scrolls (1QapGen 2:1; CD 2:17–19), Justin, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, and Origen, among others. This is not to say that these sources cannot err; rather, that this is a venerable understanding of the text. It wasn’t until theologians started to take Matthew 22:30 as normative for what angels cannot do rather than how they naturally are (an obviously unjustified equivocation denied by Old Testament examples), that competing views began to arise.
For an evangelical, the only reason I can see to discount the traditional view is non-textual—i.e., Western incredulity.