Alternative interpretations of Genesis 6
There has been much debate concerning the identity of ‘the sons of God’ in this passage. The two main views are:
(a) The sons of God are supernatural beings, that is holy angels, demons or divine beings (gods).
(b) The sons of God are men. That is they are of the godly line being descended from Seth the son of Adam.
There is much ancient support for the first view and this might incline us to think that it must therefore be correct. If writers such as Josephus, Eusebius, Clement, Origen and so on interpreted the passage in this way are we not to accept the verdict of the Jewish historian and writers of the early church? Apparently we are not to rush into any such thing for Augustine, the greatest of the early church fathers understood the passage to mean that “the sons of God were taken with the love of the daughters of men, and for their sakes fell into the society of the earthly , leaving the piety that the holy society practiced.” On this understanding of the passage the Flood came not merely as a result of mixed marriages between the professing Sethites and ungodly women but because this intermingling fostered apostasy from God. Such was a repeated pattern in later Israel where marrying ungodly idolaters furthered apostasy and brought terrible judgments from God.
The influence of pagan folklore and extra-canonical writings.
Artifacts and literature of antiquity support the view that the pagan apostasy contained true recollections of the past but submerged the truth under fantastic embellishments. Whenever pagan myths have been used to interpret Scripture the result has been error. Ancient myths are full of gods coming to earth and semi-divine beings and many such were half god and half man. There was an intimate connection between dignitaries upon earth and the stars above in the night sky. When the pagan king died he was deified and took his place among the heavenly host. By reincarnation he would live again in his son who would be half man and half god or as in the case of Gilgamesh two-thirds god and one-third man. Interpreted against such a background some have found “the sons of God” of Genesis 6 to be human rulers deified by their admirers. But obviously Moses was not a pagan and the inspired Word of God deserves more reverent exposition than finding pagan elements at every turn. However, what is relevant is the influence of pagan thinking upon the interpretation of the terminology of Genesis 6. This will become clearer as we proceed.
The view that the “sons of God” are angels
The expression “sons of God”
The expression “the sons of God” when taken as referring to supernatural beings is interpreted as holy angels, demons or divine beings (gods) depending upon the interpreter. It is argued that linguistically “sons of God” (Hebrew bene ha-elohim ) can only mean angels in Genesis 6 verses 2 and 4 because the expression has the meaning of angels elsewhere in Scripture as in Job 1.6, 2.1 and 38.7 (in this last case the definite article is omitted and the Hebrew is bene elohim). It should be noted at the outset that it is not an acceptable rule of interpreting Scripture to forbid a word to be interpreted according to its context. Thus in the New Testament some insist that the Greek word diatheke must always be understood as “covenant” although it is clear that in Hebrews 9.15-17 it is a “testament” that is being referred to. Ridderbos argues for “testament” in Galatians also. A mechanical approach to to the meanings of expressions is not a safe guide and the safe rule for interpreting Scripture is to take each word in its context and according to the analogy of Scripture. The analogy of Scripture includes taking into consideration similar expressions as these often shed light upon the way in which Scripture uses expressions. Thus a useful comparison is Psalm 82.6-7a: “I have said, ye are gods (Hebrew elohim); and all of you are children (or literally “sons” Hebrew bene) of the most High (Hebrew elyon), But ye shall die like men…” Thus men are referred to as gods and “sons of God Most High”. It is in reference to this verse that Jesus defended His right to be called “the Son of God” because God’s people to whom the word of God came are called “gods” (John 10.34-36).
It is thus clear that in the thought of Scripture men are as much sons of God as angels because they are in the Divine image. The Apostle Paul explains the great benefit of the covenant of grace that God sent His Son as Redeemer so that believers might receive the adoption of sons. Sonship in relation to God can thus relate to “essence” as with Christ, the only begotten of the Father, or be ethical as with believers who are restored in God’s likeness. Clearly in this latter sense the term is capable of being used to distinguish believers from the rest of mankind. They are the ones who have been renewed after the image of God their Creator (Colossians 3.10). In them the righteousness, knowledge and holiness lost by the Fall are restored and it is natural to refer to them as “sons of God”.
When we divest ourselves of a preconceived notion of the philology dependent upon heathen parallels and consider the expression according to the theological background that we find in the Scripture it is obvious that “sons of God” can be used of holy angels or godly men because both are in the likeness of God in some respects. Against such evidence as the foregoing the use of the expression “sons of God” for angels in a passage giving a symbolic representation of heavenly things cannot be made determinative of the meaning of the same expression in a historical narrative. Job 1.6 and 2.1 provide no solid basis for insisting that “sons of God” must always mean angels. As Matthew Poole explains: “you must not think that these things were really done, and that Satan was mixed with the holy angels, or admitted into the presence of God in heaven, to maintain such discourses as this with the blessed God, or that he had formal commission and leave to do what follows; but it is only a parabolical representation of that great truth, that God by His wise and holy providence doth govern all the actions of men and devils to His own ends…” (Matthew Poole’s A Commentary on the Holy Bible).
Pagan Overtones in the Insistence upon a Single Meaning
We might ask why it should be assumed that Moses could not have used this expression “sons of God” in referring to men. The answer lies in the desire to fix the meaning of “the sons of God” according to a qualitative view of the association as found in paganism. Thus Robinson in the New Bible Dictionary explains: “In Job 1.6, 2.1, 38.7; Psalm 29.1, 89.6, ‘the sons of God’ form Yahweh’s heavenly train or subordinates. The term means ‘gods’ or ‘mighty ones’ rather than ‘sons of (the) God (Yahweh)’ ” He further states that this usage “is probably non-Israelite in origin and may belong to the language of myth; if so it has more or less been assimilated to Old Testament Theology.” It is a good rule of translation to retain the literal translation unless there are constraining reasons for not doing so. It should be carefully noted that Robinson dispenses with the literal meaning “sons of God” and in effect substitutes “those of divine nature”, that is, “gods”. This corresponds with the Akkadian myth of Marduk surrounded by the Anunnaki or the Canaanite El who presided over “the council of El” comprised of his seventy sons who share his image. Scholars use this pagan concept of God surrounded by his secondary gods to account for such passages as the following:
(a) “And God said, let us make man in our image, after our likeness….” Genesis 1.26. The plural is taken to refer to God and His angels.
(b) “And the Lord God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil….” Genesis 3.22. The plural is taken to refer to God and His angels.
(c) “God standeth in the congregation of the mighty; he judgeth among the gods.” Psalm 82.1. “The gods” being taken here as God’s council of semi-gods or angels among whom He presides.
The Analogy of Scripture must be given due Weight
Keil and Delitzsch reject the linguistic viewpoint based upon apparent pagan parallels because it does not accord with the scriptural usage. They draw attention to the fact that the term “sons of Elohim”, and “sons of Elim” are applied not only to angels but also to godly men. They cite the following examples : (1) Psalm 73.15 where Elohim is being addressed but the godly are called “the generation of Thy sons”, that is sons of Elohim. (2) Deuteronomy 32.5. In this verse the Israelites are called His sons, that is sons of God. (3) Hosea 1.10. In this verse the Israelites are called “sons of the living God.” (4) Psalm 80.17. In this verse Israel is spoken of as the son that Elohim has made strong. These commentators conclude that the expression “sons of God” cannot be interpreted philologically but must be interpreted theologically. Thus when the wider scriptural evidence is taken into consideration it can be seen that there is no constraining need to interpret “the sons of God” as angels because it is so used in other passages. If the meaning of exactly the same words in other passages is taken as the exclusive rule it would be self-defeating for the application of “sons of God” to angels because the Nephilim of Numbers 13.33 are “men of great stature” (Numbers 13.32) and, therefore, must be nothing but men in Genesis 6.4.