The Sons of God and the Nephilim—Part 2

[As of 11/5/11 my thesis is now available in print or for Amazon Kindle.] In my previous post I briefly explained the subject of my thesis and summarized the three major evangelical approaches to the mysterious identity of the sons of God and Nephilim mentioned in Genesis 6. In this article I will explain why one of the popular views does not adequately explain the text, but I need to critique the liberal view of this passage.

Most liberal scholars believe the early chapters of Genesis are a compilation of various myths that the Jews borrowed from the surrounding cultures. As such, Genesis 6 is seen as a myth about gods cohabiting with women, similar to the popular Greek myths of gods and goddesses having affairs with human beings.

There are many problems with this position, but two will be cited here. First, the early chapters of Genesis are not compiled from pagan myths. They are accurate historical accounts of real events. This includes Genesis 6. Second, the Bible is strictly monotheistic (belief in one God), and if the proposed redactor (compiler and editor) tried to insert polytheistic teaching in Scripture, the Jews would have immediately dismissed it. It makes much more sense to see Genesis as providing the true history of earth while the pagan legends are distortions of real events.

This brings us to one of the three major views held by evangelicals today: the Sethite view. Briefly stated, this position sees the sons of God as godly descendants of Seth who married the daughters of men, believed to be the ungodly women from the line of Cain. Some of those in this camp see the Nephilim as the offspring of these unions while others believe they were simply a group of people on the earth when these marriages took place.

There are a few strengths for this position. First, it avoids the troublesome nature of the fallen angel view. Second, the surrounding context provides some support for this notion, since the descendants of Cain and Seth are described in Genesis 4–5. Finally, this was the dominant view in church history from the time of Augustine (4th century) until the early 20th century. In the past century this interpretation has largely fallen out of favor with most scholars, but there are still some who hold to it.

Despite its apparent strengths, this view has some significant weaknesses. First, the Bible does not reveal that all of the Sethite men were godly and Cainites ungodly. In fact, this clearly was not the case. By the time of Noah, only eight people survived the Flood on the Ark. The rest of the world was corrupt and evil (Genesis 6:5–12). This would have included all of the allegedly godly Sethites except for Noah and his family. Furthermore, if these Sethite men were so godly, then why did they continually marry ungodly women?

Second, this position does not really account for the offspring of these unions being described as “mighty men of old, men of renown” (Genesis 6:4). Why would the children of these marriages be any different than the children that come from unions of unbelievers and believers today? Why would these illicit unions lead to the devastating judgment of the Flood?

Third, it is important to understand that this view was the last of the major views to be developed. It only came about after the rise of the allegorical hermeneutic among Christians in the third century who sought to explain away the plain meaning of the text.

Fourth, this view fails to account for the existence of the Nephilim in the Promised Land mentioned in Numbers 13:33. Since all of the Cainites would have been wiped out in the Flood, there would not have been any of them around in the post-Flood world to produce Nephilim (at least not in the same manner as those in Genesis 6).

Fifth, the strongest (and I believe fatal) objection to this position comes from the text itself. Read through the passage below and pay close attention to how the word men (or man) is used throughout.

Now it came to pass, when men began to multiply on the face of the earth, and daughters were born to them, that the sons of God saw the daughters of men, that they were beautiful; and they took wives for themselves of all whom they chose.
And the LORD said, “My Spirit shall not strive with man forever, for he is indeed flesh; yet his days shall be one hundred and twenty years.” There were giants on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of men and they bore children to them. Those were the mighty men who were of old, men of renown. (Genesis 6:1–4)

Notice how the first use of “men” in this passage is in a general sense, that is, all men. This verse talks about something happening when (all) men began to multiply on the face of the earth and daughters were born to them. Who were daughters born to according to this verse? Men in general. Not a specific group of men.

So what happened when mankind multiplied? Well, verse two tells us that that the “sons of God” saw the “daughters of men” and married them. If the daughters in the first verse referred to the daughters born to men in general, then the “daughters of men” in this passage should refer to the same group of women. However, the Sethite view claims that “the daughters of men” in verse two only refers to a select group of people—the female descendants of Cain. There is no justifiable interpretive principle that allows for this sort of hermeneutical gymnastics. But it gets far worse.

In verse three God said that His spirit would not strive with man forever. This is a reference to all mankind. As far as I know, proponents of each of the views would agree on this point. However, verse four mentions that the giants (Hebrew Nephilim) were on the earth in those days, when the sons of God had children with the “daughters of men.” Once again, the Sethite position requires “men” in this passage to refer to a select group of individuals.

This inconsistent and unjustifiable interpretive scheme led commentator Gordon Wenham to write that perhaps what the author of Genesis really meant to write was that “the sons of some men [married] the daughters of other men” (Wenham, Genesis, 139).

Bible scholar Derek Kidner wrote, “The sons of God are identified by some interpreters as the sons of Seth, over against those of Cain. By others, including early Jewish writers, they are taken to mean angels. If the second view defies the normalities of experience, the first defies those of language (and our task is to find the author‘s meaning).” Derek Kidner, The Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries: Genesis (Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1967), 83–84.

The Sethite view fails, not because it is implausible from a human perspective, but because it offers an unjustifiable interpretation of Genesis 6 that defies the use of language.

In the next article I will critique the second most popular view of this passage which views the sons of God as royalty and the daughters of men as women who were taken into their harems.

[Click here for Part 3 of the Sons of God and the Nephilim]

About Tim Chaffey

I am the founder of Midwest Apologetics and work as the Content Manager with the Attractions Division of Answers in Genesis. I have written (or co-authored) several books, including In Defense of Easter, God and Cancer, The Sons of God and the Nephilim, and The Truth Chronicles Series (see the publications page for more details). Please note: the opinions expressed on this site are my own and do not necessarily represent the views of Answers in Genesis.


The Sons of God and the Nephilim—Part 2 — 6 Comments

  1. “but because it offers an unjustifiable interpretation of Genesis 6 that defies the use of language.”

    I don’t think this objection is as fatal as you think… all the “men” references in 6:1-4 could be read as “ungodly men”.

    Also, ch4 ends with “Seth had a son and Called his Name Enosh… Began to Call on the Name of the Lord”.. we then break for the lineage in ch5, the narrative resumes with “Man Began to multiply”… It seems reasonable to me to understand the “sons of god” as those who were calling on the name of the Lord. I’m not reading NT ideas into the text, just using what is there.

    I don’t think we need to read the Sons of God as ALL descendants of Seth, simply the ones who were still God’s people. The ones who had not fallen and were still up on the mountain. A group that shrank over time, due to intermarrying (mixing in) with those who had descended…. until there were just 8 left.

    Now if we do think about the NT… we have Jesus saying his second coming will be like the days of Noah, could that include the picture of a tiny remnant just before the judgement, yes, i think so…. but probably no angel sex… what I am saying, is I think this view fits the overall bible flow better… i mean, what does angel sex contribute theologically?

    • Why would “men” only refer to ungodly men, particularly when verse 3 clearly refers to all men?
      Yes, chapter four ends with men calling on the name of the Lord. This verse does not make a distinction between Cain’s line and Seth’s line (or any of Adam’s other sons). It seems that many people called on God at this early point in history, but by the time we see the end of Cain’s line and also at Noah’s generation (which may have been the same time), we see that the whole world is exceedingly wicked.
      Where does the Bible ever talk about Sethites being up on a mountain and abstaining from the sin of the world? There are so many suppositions that must go into such an interpretation. We know that bene ha ‘elohim refers to heavenly beings outside of Genesis 6, so why would it be different here? Also, who were the progenitors of the post-Flood Nephilim (Numbers 13:33) if all the Cainites were wiped out in the Flood? Why would believer marrying unbeliever bring about giant progeny and such a harsh judgment?
      The Sethite position was the latest of the three main views to be developed, and it only came about after the allegorical interpretation became popular.

  2. Mr. Chaffey,

    Thanks for your work. I’m muddling through this….is it fatal to the Sethite view that Sethite kings were making names for themselves by choosing fair women indiscriminately in their quest for the greatest harem? The sons of God, I think, were nominal Yahweh followers exhibited by what seems to be a false prophecy from Noah’s father.

    He said, “This one will comfort us concerning our work and toil of our hands because of the ground which the Lord our God has cursed.” Noah was no source of comfort, save his household! Mankind was marrying and giving in marriage. Lamech was preacing “peace and safety, then cometh sudden destruction…..”

    • Hi David,
      Most people who hold to the Sethite view don’t usually think of these guys taking women for harems. Instead, they think of the Sethites as being from the godly line marrying ungodly women from the line of Cain.
      It is the Royalty or Despotic view that says tyrants or kings took women for their harems. There are numerous problems with this idea as I explained in the articles. “Took wives” does not refer to a forcible taking of women, but was a common Hebrew idiom for marriage. Second, “sons of God” is “bene ha elohim” which clearly refers to angelic beings in every other place, so why should it refer to nominal Yahweh followers?
      Regarding the Lamech’s statement, I don’t think it is necessarily a prophecy as much as it was an expression of hope from Lamech and a description of why he was naming his son Noah. In his commentary on Genesis, Kenneth Mathews explains how the name Noah relates to “rest” or “comfort.” There are similar examples of this elsewhere in Genesis. Isaac was given his name because Sarah “laughed.” Leah named a son “Judah” because she “praised God,” and she had descriptions for the other sons as well. So I think it makes better sense to see Lamech’s words as a description of why he chose the name “Noah.”

  3. Thanks Brian. If we remember the chapter divisions are not part of the original text, then it is plausible to think of Cain and Seth as being the backdrop for this passage. However, the Sethite view just doesn’t interpret the text well. It’s greatest strength is that it was the dominant view from the time of Augustine until the early 20th century. That is largely due to the tremendous influence of Augustine, but his tendency to allegorize passages should cause one to think twice before adopting this position.
    I skimmed through Hancock’s book yesterday, but it didn’t have a section on India. Could it have been in a different place or from another book? I’d be interested to see that.
    Thanks again!

  4. The first time I heard this Sethite view was at a Sunday evening pastor-led Bible study in 1992 or so. I wanted to object on the bases that the text didn’t mention Seth or Cain, so why invoke such things? But pastor bulldozed ahead in the study…
    Two items: 1. DTS professor Lightner told me personally that although his interpretation of Gen 6 Nephilim as the product of fallen angels and human women was unique among his colleagues, but the best-supported by the text. 2. There are legends among peoples of demons having children with women, and producing giant tyrants. I seem to recall their likenesses carved in rock in India, images of which are in Graham Hancock’s remarkable book Heaven’s Mirror. I have my antennae tuned to detect more such legends.
    thanks again, Bt

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