I’m loving angels instead (Part I)

10 06 2010

Open your Bibles at Genesis 6, turn on the Robbie Williams classic Angels and marvel, as it takes on a sinister new twist…

Genesis 6 is arguably one of the strangest texts in all of Scripture. Let it be known from the outset, I’ve never been one to read Marvel comics, don’t have much of a penchant for sci-fi, and tend to like nice, tidy, respectable theological opinions that don’t cause people to look at you funny and make excuses about why they need to leave quickly. Nor do I make a habit of studying the apocrypha or Ancient Near Eastern mythology. Not that I have a problem with any of those things per se… I’m just saying…

Yet given that I’ve recently been studying my way through Genesis, and seeing as a few people have asked, I thought I would take a moment to share a few thoughts on Genesis 6:

‘When man began to multiply on the face of the land and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that the daughters of man were attractive. And they took as their wives any they chose. Then the Lord said, “My Spirit shall not abide in man forever, for he is flesh: his days shall be 120 years.” The Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of man and they bore children to them. These were the mighty men who were of old, the men of renown.’ (Genesis 6:1-4)

This passage poses a couple of puzzlers; in particular, who on earth (or in heaven?!) are the Sons of God, and who are the Nephilim?

Sons of God

Of the major interpretations regarding the identity of the Sons of God, two stand out as the most plausible:

  1. They are descendents of Seth, who intermarried with the daughters of Cain
  2. They are angelic beings who mated with human women

According to Option 1, the Sons of God are humans born of Seth’s (godly) line. This is backed up by referring to Genesis 4:26, where Seth’s line are unique amongst the peoples as being those who ‘call on the name of the Lord.’ The daughters of men are women born of Cain’s (ungodly) line. People who hold this view also tend to note that the phrase Sons of God is used in the NT to refer to godly humans (Matt 5:9; Rom 8:14, 19; Gal 3:26; and particularly Luke 3:38 ‘…the son of Enosh, the son of Seth, the son of Adam, the son of God.’)

Thus, many take Genesis 6 as demonstrating the impropriety of relationships between believers and unbelievers. This is the stance of many modern preachers, who are put off by the rather more bizarre notion that there may have been intercourse between humans and angels.

So as one particularly popular preacher puts it ‘Later in Genesis Noah gets drunk, and from reading some of the answers [about the Sons of God] from Bible commentators, one is given the distinct impression that they have been joining him… The passage says they were ‘men’, not the demon seed of chucky.’ (Cue condescending laughter, and his case is settled…)

But, I have to say, I’m not convinced. Though I am tempted by this neat, un-weird version of events, here are a few reasons why I’m more inclined to go with the slightly more peculiar Option 2.

  • In the Old Testament, the phrase ‘Sons of God’ is used of angelic beings, possibly even fallen angels. See Job 1:6 for example. Of course, that is not to say the phrase must always mean angels (see Matt 5:9; Luke 3:38; Rom 8:14, 19 and Gal 3:26), but it certainly does not always mean ‘godly humans.’
  • The Codex Alexandrinus of the Septuagint translates the phrase angeloi tou theou (angels of gods)
  • Most Jewish commentators have historically taken the view that the Sons of God were angels, for example:

‘And it came to pass when the children of men had multiplied that in those days were born unto them beautiful and comely daughters. And the angels, the children of the heaven, saw and lusted after them, and said to one another: ‘Come, let us choose us wives from among the children of men and beget us children.’ (1 Enoch 6:1-4)

‘And it came to pass when the children of men began to multiply on the face of the earth and daughters were born unto them, that the angels of God saw them on a certain year of this jubilee, that they were beautiful to look upon; and they took themselves wives of all whom they chose, and they bare unto them sons and they were giants.’ (Jubilees 5:1)

‘For many angels of God accompanied with women, and begat sons that proved unjust, and despisers of all that was good, on account of the confidence they had in their own strength; for the tradition is, that these men did what resembled the acts of those whom the Grecians call giants.’ (Josephus, Ant 1.3.1)

  • The early church fathers (Justin Martyr, Iranaeus, Origen etc) all held this view.
  • In fact, this was a near unanimous interpretation until approximately 200 A.D. And it is still the view of most modern commentators.
  • The idea of angels sleeping with humans has parallels in Greek literature and the myths of the ANE, where Heaven and Earth unite and give rise to a race of giants.
  • It is conceivable that a number of NT texts hint at this passages:
    • Jude 6 talks about angels who fell (v6) and then compares them to the sexual impurity of Sodom and Gomorrah (v7), which perhaps implies that the angels’ ‘falling’ involved sexually impure actions of the sort seen in Gen 6.
    • 2 Peter 2:4 talks about angels sinning and being condemned. This is immediately followed by a reference to the flood, in which men were judged.
  • Even if we were to accept that ‘Sons of God’ referred to Seth’s offspring, there is no reason why ‘daughters of men’ should refer to Cain’s line. Nothing in Genesis so far has prepared the reader to assume that ‘men’ now refers to Cainites only.
  • We know from Genesis 18 that angels can take on physical form, and that when they do so, humans find them attractive.

So on these grounds, I find myself leaning toward the angel interpretation.

One major objection to this is that the NT teaches that angels do not marry (Matt 22:29-30; Mark 12:24-25; Luke 20:34-36). However, to my mind this is not decisive.

  • Michael Eaton suggests that ‘After the flood a restraint was put on angels. Matthew 22:30 is true now. It may not have been true then.’ (Michael Eaton, Preaching through the Bible: Genesis 1-12, p123) I find no proof for this either way.
  • That godly angels do not marry, says nothing about the practice of fallen angels. It is conceivable that these were fallen angels, who slept with humans in an attempt to distort the lineage of the people of God, and subvert normal celestial asexuality.
  • At any rate, the very point of Genesis 6 is that the angels shouldn’t have been sleeping with the humans! That’s what brings about judgment. So rather than serving as a conclusive objection, Matt 22 only goes to strengthen the case against the fallen Sons of God.

Chew on that for a day or so… Thoughts on the Nephilim to follow!

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