Monday, June 27, 2016

Genesis 6 and the Sons of God


Several views exist regarding the identity of the sons of God in Genesis 6. These interpretations also affect how we should understand biblical references to supernatural beings including angels and foreign gods.

Sons of God as Divine Beings

The sons of God may be divine beings (e.g., angels). If so, the error they committed was a transgression of the human realm by these heavenly beings. Their involvement with human women led to a widespread breakdown in morality and an increase in wickedness and corruption. The Hebrew grammar of Genesis 6 could indicate that the offspring of these unions is the nephilim (Gen 6:4) who were considered quasi-divine and possessed unusual height (“giants”; Num 13:33).

This was the dominant view among Jewish and Christian thinkers until after the fourth century AD, when church father Augustine championed an alternative. It was also the exclusive view until the mid-second century AD. It appears in early extrabiblical Jewish works that comment on the stories of Genesis (1 Enoch 6; Jubilees 5; the Damascus Document 2.17–19; Genesis Apocryphon 2.1); it also appears in the work of the writers Philo (On Giants 2:358) and Josephus (Antiquities 1.31). In addition, this was the view of the early church fathers Justin, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, and Origen.

The view is based on the fact that elsewhere in the Old Testament the phrase “sons of God” (benei elohim or benei ha-elohim; Gen 6:2, 4) is used exclusively for divine beings (Job 1:6; 2:1; 38:7). Similar phrases, along with overt references to plural divine beings (elohim, elim), also appear in the Old Testament (Psa 29:1; 82:6; 89:6). Furthermore, all of these phrases and terms appear in Canaanite literature contemporary with the biblical world and are used to describe divine beings.

Those who object to the view that the sons of God are divine beings (such as angels) predominantly argue that the “sons of God” in Genesis 6:2 and Genesis 6:4 should be understood as human beings. This argument focuses on references to both the nation of Israel and Israel’s king as “my firstborn son” (Exod 4:22; Jer 31:9; Psa 2:7). Also, the Israelites are called “sons of the living God” in Hosea 1:10. In addition, the view that the “sons of God” of Genesis 6 refers to angels could be viewed as contradicting Matthew 22:29–30 (compare Mark 12:24–25; Luke 20:34–36), where Jesus says that the angels in heaven do not marry. In addition, God does not punish the angels in Genesis 6, which would seem necessary if they acted immorally.

Sons of God as Human Rulers

The sons of God could be understood as human rulers—kings. Thus, “daughters of men” may refer to the harems of these kings. In this case, the sin in question would be polygamy. The offspring would be humans born into the kingly line.

The earliest date for this viewpoint is the mid-second century AD. This view developed as a result of the belief that angels could not engage in sexual intercourse.

Evidence for this view comes from the reference to the Davidic king as the son of God in Psalm 2:7 (compare 2 Sam 7:14; 1 Chr 17:13). It is further supported by other ancient Near Eastern beliefs that kings were divine or semi-divine.

However, the major weakness of this view is its inability to account for the unusual offspring, who seem to be the nephilim (Gen 6:4; compare Num 13:33). Also, while ancient Near Eastern parallels refer to individual kings as sons of the Gods, there are no instances where the plural phrase (“sons of God”) refers to human royalty. Furthermore, while ancient Near Eastern cultures considered their kings to be divine or quasi-divine, no ancient Near Eastern evidence exists for an aristocratic household at large being considered divine sons.

Sons of God as Godly Descendants of Seth

In the fourth century AD, Augustine argued that the sons of God are the godly male descendants of Seth. Here, the “daughters of men” represent the ungodly females of Cain’s line. The sin is the intermarriage of godly and ungodly humans, and the offspring are humans.

There are several weaknesses to this view. First, nowhere in the Old Testament are Sethites identified as the sons of God. Second, this view forces two divergent meanings on the Hebrew word ╩żadam in Genesis 6:1–2: the term would have to mean “mankind” in Genesis 6:1, but a specific group of humans—the Cainites—in Genesis 6:2. Additionally, this view implies that all the women of Cain’s line were ungodly, whereas all the men of Seth’s line were godly. While this might be averted by noting that no law existed prohibiting intermarriage of any kind prior to the great flood, this would in turn undermine the entire premise of the view. Also, since only Noah and his family were considered godly in the days of the flood, we can presume that the vast majority of Seth’s descendants were far from godly; Seth had more than one descendant (Gen 5:7). Lastly, the daughters born in the previous chapter of Genesis were born to Seth’s line, not Cain’s—the precise opposite of what this explanation requires.

New Testament Views

Two passages in the New Testament may allude to this tradition. In 2 Peter 2:4, God “did not spare the angels who sinned, but held them captive in Tartarus with chains of darkness and handed them over to be kept for judgment.” The next verse situates the sin and punishment at the time of the flood: God “did not spare the ancient world, but preserved Noah, a proclaimer of righteousness, and seven others.” The writer connects this illustration to “licentious ways” (2 Pet 2:2) and “defiling lust” and despising of authority (2 Pet 2:10). More specifically, he strikes an analogy with the sexual sins of Sodom and Gomorrah (2 Pet 2:6–7). Thus, the passage seems to indicates angelic sin of a sexual nature at the time of the flood.

The letter of Jude (Jude 5–7) takes the same view, using some of the same language. While Jude does not refer to Noah and the Flood as 2 Peter does (2 Pet 2:5), both passages reference the same episode. Second Peter and Jude demonstrate that the episode of Genesis 6 involved “angels,” and a decision made by those divine beings to cross a divinely ordained boundary—God’s authority or out of their proper dwelling.