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. Then the LORD said, “My Spirit shall not abide in man forever, for he is flesh: his days shall be 120 years.” The Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of man and they bore children to them. These were the mighty men who were of old, the men of renown. [Genesis 6:1-4]
These verses present one of the more interesting moments in scripture, which has created a lot of theology and stirred a debate or two. The belief held by some is that the “sons of God” are angels, who came down and married, and procreated with, women, resulting in the creation of “giants” (the Nephilim). This was a Rabbinical tradition, likewise recorded down by the Jewish historian Josephus:
For many angels of God accompanied with women, and begat sons that proved unjust, and despisers of all that was good, on account of the confidence they had in their own strength; for the tradition is, that these men did what resembled the acts of those whom the Grecians call giants. [Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 1:3:1; source]
It was also seen in some early Church Fathers, such as the second century apologist Athenagoras:
Some [angels]…created by God, continued in those things for which God had made and over which He had ordained them; but some outraged both the constitution of their nature and the government entrusted to them…these fell into impure love of virgins, and were subjugated by the flesh, and he became negligent and wicked in the management of the things entrusted to him. Of these lovers of virgins, therefore, were begotten those who are called giants. [Athenagoras, A Plea for Christians, XXIV; source]
Let’s take a moment to examine this passage of scripture, and do so by examining two points:
Many people, as we’ve seen, identify the “sons of God” as fallen angels, who went to earth and procreated with human women. This is partially because the term “sons of God” is used in reference to angels in the book of Job (Job 1:6, 2:1, 38:7), as well an assertion that Jude’s epistle states the fallen angels engaged in sins of the flesh:
And the angels who did not stay within their own position of authority, but left their proper dwelling, he has kept in eternal chains under gloomy darkness until the judgment of the great day—just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which likewise indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural desire, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire. [Jude 1:6-7]
However, the term “sons of God” is likewise use in reference to believers, especially in the New Testament (Matt 5:9; Luke 20:36; Rom 8:14, 19; Gal 3:26). The similar phrase “children of God” is likewise used to refer to believers, both by the apostle Paul (Rom 8:16, 21; 9:8; Php 2:15) and the apostle John (John 1:12, 11:52; 1 John 2:28, 3:1, 10; 5:2).
In like manner, the words in Jude’s epistle do not explicitly clarify that these angels are the “sons of God” seen in Genesis 6. We must likewise consider the full context of what Jude has written:
Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints. For certain people have crept in unnoticed who long ago were designated for this condemnation, ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ. Now I want to remind you, although you once fully knew it, that Jesus, who saved a people out of the land of Egypt, afterward destroyed those who did not believe. And the angels who did not stay within their own position of authority, but left their proper dwelling, he has kept in eternal chains under gloomy darkness until the judgment of the great day—just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which likewise indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural desire, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire. [Jude 1:3-7]
Jude explains that he had begun a letter talking about faith in general, but felt compelled to write about a serious topic: false teachers had infiltrated the churches. He then goes into examples of how those who disobeyed and rebelled against God were treated in the past: many saved out of Egypt were punished for unbelief, fallen angels were put in eternal chains as a result of their rebellion, and Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed for their immorality. Those who attempt to tie in the fallen angels with Sodom and Gomorrah forget that these three examples are all one train of thought. They also forget the example of the people fleeing Egypt – were these people also guilty of sexual sins? Perhaps as much as everyone is, but Jude’s point in citing them is irrelevant to the matter of sexual purity. The use of “which likewise indulged” in regards to Sodom and Gomorrah is most likely referring back to the false teachers mentioned earlier, whom Jude will make mention of as “defiling the flesh” (v. 8). Jude’s point in this discussion is to cite various examples of those who sinned against God for various purposes. He does this again when he cites Cain, Balaam, and Korah together (v. 11) – obviously these three men were not guilty of the same exact crime, but were all guilty before God for specific, unique crimes. Therefore, the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah cannot be tied backwards into the fallen angels, and hence it is assumed that these fallen angels engaged in sins of the flesh.
Perhaps the most problematic part of assuming that the “sons of God” in Genesis 6 are angels is the fact that they said to have married daughters of men. Why is this problematic? Because, as Christ himself said, angels do not marry.
“For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.” [Matt 22:30; see also Mark 12:25]
In this verse, Christ is talking to the Sadducees about the resurrection and the place of marriage, and says that those in the resurrection live like the angels in heaven. One trait is that the angels “neither marry nor are given in marriage.” We therefore have a dilemma here, as either: 1) Christ gave a contradiction, as clearly there’s an example early on in scripture where angels marry and were given to marriage; or 2) the “sons of God” are in fact not angels. The only logical course would be to assume that the “sons of God” are not angels.
If the “sons of God” are not angels, then who were they? That answer comes with the age old rule of reading: context, context, context. Genesis 6 comes from a long narrative in Genesis 4 and 5, detailed the lineage of both Cain and Seth. Seth’s lineage especially continues all the way down to Noah, who takes center stage in Genesis 6. It is likewise said during the beginning of Seth’s lineage that “at that time people began to call upon the name of the Lord” (Ge 4:26). Following this trail of thought all the way to Genesis 6, we have to conclude that the “sons of God” are those early believers, and the “daughters of men” are the descendants of Cain, who were not believers. The two begin to mingle and marry in Genesis 6, and scripture always presents negative results when believers are swayed by unbelievers in marriage. We see this in Genesis 6:5, where, after the procreation, wickedness is said to have filled the earth.
Most people are more familiar with the translation of “giants” for the word Nephilim. This was how the word was translated in many older translations, in particularly the KJV, the latter of whom has given a great influence on how we understand certain wordings within scripture. The very word nephilim (נפלים), however, is of unknown origin, as the NET notes explain. Many commentators believe that it comes from the word naphal (נפל), meaning “to fall.”
The use by some translations of the word “giants” most likely comes from two sources: the only other use of the word, in Numbers 13:33, in which another group of Nephilim are described as being of great height; the Septuagint, which renders the word here in Genesis 6 as γίγαντες, from which we get the word “gigantic.”
Many assume that the Nephilim are the offspring of the sons of God and daughters of men. The argument they make is, “Would two normal people be able to produce a giant?” However, scripture seems to suggest they existed at the same time. Genesis 6 reads that the Nephilim were already on the earth “in those days,” when the sons of God and daughters of men procreated, as well as “afterward.” In other words, you have two parallel timelines: you have the sons of God and the daughters of men marrying and procreating; at the same time, you have the Nephilim frolicking across the land. Therefore, we cannot immediately assume that the Nephilim here are the results of the breeding between the Sons of God and Daughters of Men.