Genesis 6: The Sons of God and the Daughters of Men

By Mary Jane Chaignot

When humans tried to become divine in the creation story, God thwarted their efforts. Now in this unusual passage it seems as though divine beings want to become human. God will, again, thwart their efforts. The story begins innocuously enough by reporting that the humans on earth began to increase in number. This would have been in fulfillment of God's command to "be fruitful and multiply." Yet, for the first time, the focus is not on the sons, but on the daughters who were beautiful. In fact, they were so beautiful that the sons of God began marrying them. The result, however, was not a semi-divine being, but a mortal one. God limited the lifetimes to 120 years. (Note the contrast between these offspring and the generations who lived for hundreds of years, previously mentioned in chapter 5.) Yet, it is also true that many ancestors lived well beyond 120 years after the flood. Abraham, for example, was 175 years old at the time of his death.

Some translations identify these offspring as the Nephilim and refer to them as "the heroes of old, men of renown." Other translations are less clear, suggesting they existed even before the sons of God mated with the daughters of men. Regardless, God saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on earth. Every thought of the human heart was evil all the time. This was so pronounced that the Lord God regretted having made humans at all. He was "troubled/grieved" and decided to "wipe from the face of the earth the human race I have created – and with them the animals, the birds and the creatures that move along the ground – for I regret that I have made them." This is akin to undoing the acts of creation as described in Genesis 1.

All was not lost, however, for there was one exception to this evil—Noah "found favor in the eyes of the Lord." The story of Noah and his family will occupy the next few chapters.

For now, however, the task is to try to understand this unusual story about the sons of God and the daughters of man. Not surprisingly, scholars have not reached a consensus regarding its meaning. Not only does it seem out of place at this point in Genesis, but it also seems incomplete. That has led some scholars to relegate it to the genre of other ancient mythological stories wherein the gods supposedly procreated with humans. Yet, in Hebrew theology these unions would still have been under the purview of God as illustrated by his response.

The more interesting question, however, is who are the "sons of God?" Scholars note that it could also be translated as "sons of the gods." It seems evident from God's reaction that this was the source of the "great wickedness" committed by the human race. So it bears a closer look. There are really three options for the "sons of God."

One is that they were heavenly beings (perhaps angels, demons, spirits, or some sort of godlike creatures) that were so consumed with desire that they cohabited with humans. This violated the boundary between humans and the divine. The problem with this is that, if true, one wonders why the humans had to be destroyed. Obviously, those that were divine dominated the humans and should have borne the brunt of the punishment. It is not clear why humans and animals had to be wiped out for a transgression committed by divine beings.

The second option is that these divine beings were the kings and royalty of old, who were oftentimes referred to as "divine beings." This came about because Jewish interpreters could not accept that angels, et al, would have had sexual relations of any kind or would have been unable to resist the attractions of beautiful women. The ancients also had many experiences with rulers who would have exercised their power to grab any woman they chose. This practice would have led to polygamy, which would have resulted in a population explosion. Yet, the problem is that polygamy was a common practice later on, and it is not at all clear why it would have been condemned here.

The third option is that the sons of God referred to the offspring of Seth, while the daughters of men referred to the offspring of Cain. In this case, the daughters of Cain would have seduced, tempted, and led Seth's offspring into licentiousness. Unable to resist, the sons of God would have fallen into wickedness, leaving the worship of God for the pleasures of the flesh. This would be similar to the story of Adam and Eve, wherein Eve was blamed for causing Adam to sin. Yet, other scholars have reversed the lineage—connecting the daughters to Seth's line and the men to Cain's. The argument is virtually the same. One line was righteous; the other was not. They could not be conjoined.

Modern scholars lean towards the first option, but not without some qualifications. It should be noted that the line about men marrying whomever they chose also mimics the activities of Genesis 2. Eve and the sons of God "saw," the apple/women were "good," and they both "took." It is this connection that suggests the marrying was bad, but this is not overtly stated. On the other hand, the Israelite tradition of clean/unclean is deeply rooted in not mixing categories. Marriages between divine beings and humans certainly transgressed this idea and may indicate why the Lord was displeased.

The mention of Nephilim is also problematic. The only other reference to them comes in Numbers 13:33 when the Israelites entered the Promised Land. If, however, all people were wiped out during the flood, it would be difficult to make a connection between these two passages. For now, however, it is unclear whether they were the offspring of the sons of God and daughters of men or if they were contemporaneous with them. In one breath, we read about the "heroes of old, men of renown," and in the next the Lord is lamenting the great wickedness of the human race. Scholars debate whether these are connected. Since "Nephilim" literally means "fallen ones," most argue for some distinction between them and the heroes of old.

In any event, human activity certainly transgressed the moral code and "the Lord saw how great the wickedness…had become." Even though his goal that humans would "fill the earth" was taking place, it was occurring with great wickedness. Every idea that humans had was evil all the time. This appears to be a comprehensive problem and one that would require a comprehensive response. "The Lord regretted that he had made human beings," so much so that he "grieved" and had pain in his heart. God's regret would lead to a new direction. But the resulting action would not be done lightheartedly or with indifference. If humans had been the subjects of the verb translated "regret," it would have been translated as "repent," the common word for "changing one's mind." Needless to say, this raises many theological questions about God's sovereignty. Does God change his mind? Does he have "pain in his heart?" Many scholars are uncomfortable attributing such thoughts/emotions to God. Obviously, words can be very inadequate when used to describe God and his actions.

The text does not dwell on such points. It moves right into God's action, "I will wipe from the face of the earth the human race"…as well as everything else. "Wiping" is akin to blotting out their names, wiping the slate clean, starting from scratch. God's response is intended to undo all of creation. This would include the "beast, the creeping thing and the fowl of the air." The text doesn't indicate whether the animals were complicit in the sinful acts or innocent victims in this scenario. The bottom line is that all life would be terminated.

Except for one man – Noah – who "found favor in the eyes of the Lord." It should be noted that several translations suggest that Noah "won" favor in the eyes of the Lord, indicating there was some moral righteousness within him that set him apart. The previous translation gives no reason for his selection and is oftentimes referred to as an example of God's unmerited grace. The Hebrew can be translated either way.

The purpose of these verses is to justify the flood story that follows. It is the result of God's judgment against the evil that has evolved in the world. Nonetheless, it comes as somewhat of a surprise that this is where humanity ended up, since only a few isolated examples of sinful acts had been noted. Noah's presence, however, indicates that, in spite of the destruction wreaked by the flood story, God's intention was to save. All would not be lost.