The Sons of God in Genesis 6:2-4

One of the most puzzling passages in the Bible is Genesis 6:2-4.  This mentions the “sons of God” (the sons of Elohim) who took wives from the “daughters of man.” This happened just before the Flood of Noah.  Many sensational videos have been made recently to explain this strange event and the mysterious Nephilim mentioned in these same verses.  But what do we actually known about these “sons of Elohim”? And what can we learn about them from other passages in the Bible?  We’ll also say a little about the book of Enoch, often mentioned in these videos.

Let’s start by looking at the verses in question:

Genesis 6:2,4: And sons of God (b’nei ha Elohim) saw that daughters of the man were desirable; and they took wives for themselves from all that they chose.... The Nephilim were on the earth in those days and also afterwards, when sons of God (b’nei ha Elohim) went in to daughters of the man, and they bore children for them. They were the mighty ones that were of old, men of renown.

Different views about these “sons of God” have been circulating since the 2nd century AD.  This is when the idea first appeared that they were actually the “good” descendants of Seth as opposed to the bad descendants of Cain—a teaching still popular in many places today.  But before that time, all the ancient authorities agreed that these “sons of God” were angelic messengers.  So for example, Josephus the Jewish historian, who lived in the time of the apostles, wrote:  

For many messengers (angeloi) of God, coming together with women, bore children that were violent men and disdainful of all that is good because of the confidence they had in their own strength, whose daring resembles that of  the giants spoken of by the Greeks; and these are the great deeds handed down [by tradition].  (The Antiquities of the Jews 1.3.1 §73)

Here Josephus clearly identifies the “sons of God” of Genesis 6 as “messengers of God,” in other words, angels.* The Nephilim he identifies as the children of the messengers and the women.  And he connects the Biblical account with the similar stories of giants among the Greeks.

* The Greek word angelos (angeloi in the plural), just like the Hebrew word malak, simply means “messenger.”  Whether this is a human messenger, an angelic messenger, or the Word of God acting as a messenger can only be determined from the context.  Since these messengers are here called “messengers of God,” this identifies them as angels.

But Josephus wasn’t the only one to make these identifications.  This was common knowledge at the time.  This can be seen in many of the writings that come to us both from before and during (or slightly after) the time of the New Testament.*

* These include the Enoch writings, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Book of Jubilees, the Testament of Reuben, and 2 Baruch. But we can trace the expression “sons of God” back even further to discoveries in the Ugaritic language from the time of Moses and Joshua.  Ugaritic is a Semitic language related to Hebrew.  In Ugaritic, the expression “sons of gods” (bn ilm) refers to divine beings, beings that were the focus of pagan worship and which are identified in the Bible as fallen angels.

But there’s no need to look outside the Bible to identify the “sons of Elohim.”  The Bible itself is quite clear about who they are:

Job 1:6: And the day came when the sons of God (b’nei ha Elohim) came to stand before the LORD, and the Adversary [the Satan in Hebrew] also came among them.

This is a description of the Divine Council of God that is mentioned several times in the Bible.  The idea is that from time to time God called a meeting of those he had put in authority in heaven; much like an earthly king would call a meeting of the nation’s leaders.  That this meeting took place in heaven is clear from the fact that it took place in the presence of the LORD (Job 1:6), and that Satan left the earth in order to attend (he came “from roaming around on the earth,” Job 1:7). Since Satan, who is himself an angel, was attending, this implies that the other “sons of God” at the meeting were also angels.*

* Satan is described as an archangel (an archon) in the Greek of Matt. 9:34 and Eph. 2:2.  This is the same Greek word that appears in Eph. 6:12 to describe the “rulers” of the spiritual forces in the heavenlies.

This is also how the Septuagint (the LXX), the ancient Greek translation of the Bible, understands this event:*

* The Septuagint, also known as the LXX, is a Greek translation of the Old Testament made for the Jewish community in Egypt.  This was before the time of the New Testament.  It also served as the Old Testament for early Gentile Christians and is still used in many Eastern churches.  Translators often refer to the Septuagint to check their translation or to determine the meaning of difficult Hebrew words and phrases.  Many of the slight differences between the Septuagint and the Hebrew Bible are today understood to originate in earlier Hebrew versions of the Bible.

Job 1:6 (LXX):  And it came to pass on this day that look, the messengers (angeloi) of God came to stand before the Lord, and the devil came with them.

The Septuagint translates the Hebrew “sons of Elohim” as “messengers of God.” In other words, it understands that this was an angelic council.  A similar passage appears in chapter 2 when the council meets again:

Job 2:1: And it was the day when the sons of God (b’nei ha Elohim) came to stand before the LORD.  And the Adversary (the Satan) also came among them to stand before the LORD.

Here again, Satan is among the “sons of Elohim” as one of them.  And again the Septuagint understands this to be an angelic council:

Job 2:1 (LXX): And it came to pass on a certain day that the messengers (angeloi) of God came to stand before the Lord, and the devil came among them to stand before the Lord.

In another place, Job mentions the “sons of Elohim” in a description of the Creation:

Job 38:7: [Where were you] at the crying out of the morning stars together, and when all the sons of God (b’nei ha Elohim) shouted for joy?

This passage is about acts of Creation that took place before the creation of  man (“when I laid the foundations of the earth,” etc., in Job 38:1-6).  That means that these “sons of Elohim” cannot be human beings—in fact, that’s the whole point of the passage: that at the time human beings were nowhere to be found.  Rather these “sons of Elohim” are the angelic sons of God.  Once again, the Septuagint understands this verse the same way:

Job 38:7 (LXX): When the stars were made, all my messengers (angeloi mou) praised me with a loud voice.

There is only one other appearance of the “sons of Elohim” in the Bible. But it’s not in the versions most people are familiar with today.  Instead, it’s a variant reading found in the Dead Sea Scrolls, which many scholars believe to be the original text:

Deuteronomy 32:8 (DSS): When the Most High gave the nations an inheritance, when he separated the sons of man, he established the boundaries of the peoples according to the number of the sons of God (b’nei ha Elohim).*

* Most modern translations follow the Hebrew Masoretic Text instead, which reads:  “according to the number of the sons of Israel.”

This passage describes how God placed the nations under spiritual authority, with Israel under the direct spiritual authority of God himself:  “For the portion of the LORD is his people, Jacob is the allotment of his possession” (Deut. 32:9).  This is also how the Septuagint understands it:  

Deuteronomy 32:8 (LXX): When the Most High divided the nations, when he separated the sons of Adam, he set the bounds of the nations according to the number of the messengers (angelon) of God.

This agrees with the idea found in the book of Daniel that God put each of the nations under the authority of an angel (Dan. 10:13,20; 12:1).*

* In the Hebrew of the book of Daniel, these high-ranking angelic authorities are called princes (sarim).  The Septuagint (and/or the later Theodotion Greek translation of Daniel) uses the Greek word archangel (archon).

But verses that mention the “sons of Elohim” are not the only way to find out who these beings were.  There are other, similar expressions that also refer to them, though modern translations sometimes obscure the original meaning.  Let’s consider the Hebrew of Psalm 82:

Psalm 82:1,6-7: God (Elohim) is standing in the congregation of God (El), in the midst of gods (elohim) he judges.... “I myself said you are gods (elohim), and all of you sons of the Most High (b’nei Elyon).  But surely as a man you will die, and as one of the princes you will fall.” *

* This passage is a good demonstration of the fact that the plural Hebrew word Elohim can be used both to refer to God and to the gods. Which of the two it is must be determined from the context, since the word can have both meanings. In verse 1, the first Elohim refers to God, since it takes a singular verb form (nitzav).  The second elohim refers to “the gods,” since God stands “in the midst” of them (or “among” them).  In verse 6, elohim also refers to “the gods,” since God addresses them with a plural form of “you” (atem):  “you are gods.”

This is another reference to the Council of God. But instead of the expression “sons of Elohim,” we see “sons of Elyon.”  This is the same Elyon found in the expression El Elyon (“God Most High,” Gen. 14:18, etc.).  Since this is the same Council of God that we saw earlier in Job, its clear that “sons of Elyon” has the same meaning as “sons of Elohim.” That this is not referring to human beings can be seen in verse 7, where the punishment given to these “sons of the Most High” will be to die “as a man.” That is, they will lose their current immortality and experience death as human beings do. But why then are these beings also called “gods”?*  By this point in history, these angelic beings had allowed themselves to be identified as gods:  the pagan gods of the nations.  And because of this, as God warns them here, they were headed toward eternal punishment.    

* Some modern translators are uncomfortable with the plain meaning of the words, and so change “gods” in verse 1 to “judges” (JPS) or “rulers” (NAS).

Jesus refers to this passage in John 10:34-36:

John 10:34-36:  Jesus answered them, “Is it not written in your Law, ‘I said you are gods’ [Psa. 82:6]?  If these to whom the word of God came he called gods—and Scripture cannot be abolished, do you say of the one whom the Father sanctified and sent into the world, ‘You blaspheme,’ because I said I am a son of God?”

Jesus’ point here is that if God called these angels “gods” “to whom the word of God came” (vs. 35)—which means that they are not the originators of the word of God and so are not true gods at all—how can it be wrong for “the one whom the Father sanctified and sent into the world”—that is, Jesus himself—who is the Word of God and therefore higher than the angels, to be called “a son of God” (vs. 36)?

The heavenly Council of God makes another appearance in Psalm 89:

Psalm 89:5-7: The heavens praise your wonder, LORD; yes, your faithfulness in an assembly of the holy ones.  For who in the cloud [of stars, i.e. in the heavens] compares to the LORD?  Who resembles the LORD among the sons of gods (b’nei elim)?  God (El) causes great trembling in the council of the holy ones and causes all surrounding him to fear.

The language used here makes it clear that these “sons of gods” dwell in the heavens, or at least go there to participate in God’s council.*  Why are they called “sons of gods” instead of the “sons of Elohim”?  Because as we’ve already seen, they had allowed themselves to be identified as the gods of the pagans, and this is how the pagan gods were known among the nations, as the supposed sons of other, earlier gods.

* Here, too, many modern translators are uncomfortable with the plain meaning, and so change the “sons of gods” in verse 6 to “sons of the mighty.”

Another appearance of the Council of God, or at least of its members, appears in Psalm 29:  

Psalm 29:1: Ascribe to the LORD, sons of the gods (b’nei elim), ascribe to the LORD glory and strength.

Here the Psalmist is calling on the gods of the nations, that is, on fallen angels masquerading as gods, to bow down to the God of Israel.  (For more on this topic, see our teaching on Psalm 29.)

One final reference to the “sons of Elohim” can be found in a section of the book of Daniel written in Aramaic, a sister language to Hebrew.  Here, the Aramaic bar elahin is a direct translation of the Hebrew ben elohim (“son of gods,” with “elohim” here used to refer to the gods):

Daniel 3:25,28: He [King Nebuchadnezzar] answered and said, ‘Look! I see four men loosed and walking about in the midst of the fire without harm, and the appearance of the fourth is like a son of gods (bar elahin)!’.... Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego: he has sent his messenger (malak) to rescue his servants...

According to King Nebuchadnezzar, the fourth man in the fiery furnace looked different than the others.  He looked like “a son of gods,” in other words, he had a divine rather than a human appearance. But he also refers to this fourth man as a messenger (malak in Aramaic, just as it is in Hebrew).  In other words, he understood that this “son of gods” was an angelic messenger.  So here, the book of Daniel directly identifies the expression “son of Elohim/elohim” with an angelic “messenger.” 

What happened to the sons of God after they sinned with the women?

These verses all clearly identify the “sons of Elohim” as angelic messengers of God.  But they don’t tell us the rest of the story.  They say nothing about what happened to the angels after they sinned with the women.  To get that information, we have to turn to the New Testament.  Here, Peter tells us:

2 Peter 2:4:  For if God didn’t spare messengers (angelon) who had sinned, but having thrown them into Tartarus [the deepest part of Hades], he delivered them to chains of darkness where they are being kept for judgment...

Here we find the punishment given to these angels after they sinned.  How do we know these are the same angels?  Peter mentions them in a list of judgments starting with (1) these angels, and then going on to (2) the Flood of Noah (in verse 5), and then to (3) Sodom and Gomorrah (in verses 6-8).  These events are in chronological order.  So what event preceded the Flood for which God would have judged angels?  The sin of the “sons of Elohim” in Genesis 6:2-4.  

Jude has a shorter list, but he mentions these same angels followed by the punishment of Sodom and Gomorrah (in verse 7):

Jude 1:6:  Messengers (angelous) that did not keep watch over their own domain, but rather left their proper dwelling place, he has kept under watch in darkness for eternal bonds on the judgment of the great day.

So where did the apostles get this additional information about these angels?  A likely source is the Book of Enoch (1 Enoch).  Enoch was never accepted into the Bible, but there are parts of it that line up well with the Bible’s teaching.  In fact, Jude quotes directly from 1 Enoch 1:9 in describing God’s judgment:  

Jude 1:14-15:  But Enoch, in the seventh generation from Adam, also prophesied to these, saying, “Look, the Lord will come with tens of thousands of his holy ones to bring about judgment against all and to convict every soul about all their godless deeds in which they were ungodly, and about all the harsh talk that ungodly sinners spoke against him.”

Enoch’s description of the punishment of the angels is similar to 2 Peter and Jude:

1 Enoch 10:12-13:  Bind them [the angels who sinned with the women] for seventy generations under the hills of the earth until the day of their judgment and of their consummation, until the judgment which is for all eternity is accomplished.  And in those days, they will lead them to the abyss of fire; in torment and in prison they will be shut up for all eternity.*

* H.F.D. Sparks, The Apocryphal Old Testament, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987), 196.

Does this mean, then, that the book of Enoch is at the same level of inspiration as the Bible?  There’s no question that Enoch had an important influence on peoples ideas about prophecy in the time of the New Testament. But it was never accepted as part of the Bible.*  So while the parts of Enoch quoted in the New Testament are God’s inspired word, the rest is not and shouldn’t be used to construct any Christian doctrines.** 

* Except in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.
** One of the problems with the book of Enoch (1 Enoch) is that it’s actually a set of five books of uncertain origin and date.  While the similar passages mentioned by the apostles may come from the book of Enoch, it’s also possible that they come from a different source or from a version of Enoch that is different than the one we know today.

Did Jesus say that angels can’t marry?

In the New Testament, the phrase “sons of God” refers almost exclusively to followers of Jesus—to human beings.  But even here there is an association with angels:

Luke 20:35-36:  But those considered worthy to attain to that age and the resurrection from the dead* neither marry nor are given in marriage. For neither are they still able to die, for they are like messengers (isangeloi) and are sons of God, being sons of the resurrection.

* The “resurrection from the dead” is the first resurrection, also known as the resurrection of the righteous (Rev. 20:5-6 and Luke 14:14).  This will be a resurrection of some of the dead (the righteous) out “from” the other dead (the unrighteous), who will remain dead until the general resurrection.  Then, in this second or general resurrection, all the remaining dead will be raised for the final judgment (Rev. 20:11-13).

Here Jesus teaches that a resurrected son of God will no longer die, just as angels don’t die (in verse 36).  He also teaches that they will no longer marry, just as the angels in heaven don’t marry (in verse 35, as also in Matt. 22:30).  But wait a minute!  If angels don’t marry, wouldn’t it be impossible for the angels to marry women in Genesis 6:2-4?  But note carefully that Jesus didn’t say that angels can’t marry.  He just said that they don’t.  

So why would God not want angels to marry—or resurrected believers for that matter?  The answer to the second question is that the mystery of salvation can only take place in the present fallen world.  Only in the present time is it possible for belief in God to be by faith.  After Jesus returns, the knowledge of God will be by sight, and so salvation by faith will no longer be possible.  This means that any children born after that time would not be able to be saved.  As a result, there will be no more marriage and no new babies in the resurrection.  In a similar way, angels, since they were created as eternal beings, were created in their full number right from the start, and so have no need for marriage and the bearing of children.  

Another explanation comes from the impurity laws of the Old Testament.  These teach that reproduction and giving birth are ritually unclean.  This doesn’t mean that giving birth is bad or sinful, or even that it should be avoided.  Just the opposite, the Bible commands husbands and wives to “be fruitful and multiply” (Gen. 1:22, etc.).  But the process of giving birth led to times of separation from the worship of the community.  A woman who gave birth to a baby boy, for example, wasn’t allowed to enter the sanctuary of God (the Temple or Tabernacle) for more than a month:  “And thirty-three days she will sit in the blood of her cleansing, she will not touch any holy things, and she will not go to the sanctuary until the fullness of the days of her cleansing” (Lev. 12:4).  This wasn’t a punishment.  Most women would have seen it as a blessing, since they were freed from many responsibilities and given time to recover and heal.  A similar ritual uncleanness applied to a woman’s time of the month.  This led to a separation of a week (Lev. 15:19-24).  Many of these laws are connected with the shedding of blood, and so by implication with death.  This is why so many of the steps in reproduction and giving birth are considered unclean in the Bible, even the emission and therefore the death of unused sperm and eggs (Lev. 15:16,19).  Only after a time of separation and cleansing were you able to join in the worship of the community again.  (See our teaching on Clean and Unclean.)

But in the resurrection, there will be no more death at all:  “Death, where is your victory?  Death, where is your sting?” (1 Cor. 15:55).  In the resurrection, there will be nothing that removes us from God’s presence.  There will be no obstacle to communion with God—ever.   So as a result, there will be no more marriage and no more giving birth.  

This helps to explain why the fall of the angels in Genesis 6 was such a tragedy:  They abandoned their calling of continual service to God to engage in ritually unclean acts, acts that removed them from the presence of God and led to sin.  And since there is no plan of salvation for angels (1 Peter 1:12), they lost their privileged position in heaven for eternity.*

* Why is there no plan of salvation for angels?  Because they, unlike us, know God by sight, not by faith:  “See that you don't despise one of these little ones:  for I say to you that their messengers in the heavens always see the face of my Father in the heavens” (Matt. 18:10).  This is why the topic of salvation for human beings is a topic “into which angels long to look” (1 Pet. 1:12):  they have nothing similar of their own.

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