Who were the “sons of God and daughters of men”?
Mark Twain is supposed to have said, “It’s not the parts of the Bible I don’t understand which bother me—it’s the parts I do understand.” We understand what he meant, even if he never said it. The Bible tells us all we need to know, but seldom all we want to know.
Occasionally a biblical passage text tells us all we need to know, and more than we want to know. As we investigate one of the most perplexing texts in Scripture, we’ll find that it is actually one of the most urgent, practical, and relevant passages in God’s word.
Sons and daughters of whom?
The passage begins with one of the more confusing sentences in all the Bible: “When men began to increase in number on the earth and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that the daughters of men were beautiful, and they married any of them they chose” (Genesis 6:1-2). Who were these “sons of God” and “daughters of men”?
Some interpreters believe that the “sons of God” were angels, since Job 1:6 and Psalm 29:1 use this title for them. But Jesus told us that angels “neither marry nor are given in marriage” (Mark 12:25). Some believe the “sons of God” were kings, since people in the ancient Near East often associated their royal figures with divinity. However, the Bible never does. An interesting approach suggests that the “sons of God” were descendants of Seth, the godly child of Adam and Eve, and the “daughters of men” were descendants of the evil Cain. In this view, what happened here was intermarriage across tribal and spiritual lines. But the author of Genesis could easily have made this clear, and didn’t.
I think the clues we need are found in the text immediately surrounding our passage. Scripture intends to be clear, and was very clear to its original audience. So we must ask ourselves, what did they understand these words to mean? Genesis 2 says that God formed man from the ground, and woman from man (vs. 7, 23). So calling men the “sons of God” and women the “daughters of men” was simply repeating what the readers of Genesis already knew, and what the rest of the Bible teaches as well.
The Bible refers to men as “sons of God” in nine different places (cf. Deuteronomy 14:1, 32:5, Psalm 73:15, Isaiah 43:6-7, Hosea 1:10, 11:1, Luke 3:38, 1 John 3:1-2, 10). The text here seems simply to refer to men and women. And nothing in these verses ties these “sons of God and daughters of men” specifically to the flood which follows. They were simply populating the earth as God had commanded them (Genesis 1:28).
Who were the Nephilim?
Now we come to another confusing reference: “The Nephilim were on the earth in those days—and also afterward—when the sons of God went to the daughters of men and had children by them. They were the heroes of old, men of renown” (v. 4).
Their name means “to fall.” Some see them as evil figures and interpret their name as “fallen ones.” Others see them as heroic warriors and see their name as “falling on” others in strength and victory. They are among the children produced by the “sons of God and daughters of men,” but nothing in the text ties them specifically to the coming Flood. They are simply figures in the biblical narrative.
So we have “sons of God and daughters of men,” probably men and women who are marrying and having children. Among them were mighty warriors and heroes in the ancient Near East. Perhaps you’re wondering how any of this could be urgent, practical, and relevant, how it could apply to our lives today. Let’s read on.
What’s on your mind?
As our text proceeds, we move quickly from confusion to clarity, from ancient history to life experience today. Verse 5 comes home: “The Lord saw how great man’s wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time.”
God reads our minds and knows our thoughts. He knows how sinful they can be. He knows that we don’t put our thoughts into action because of legal restraints and fear of being caught. But he knows what we would do if we could. Think about your thoughts for a moment, and you’ll see what God sees every moment of every day.
Such sin “grieves” the Lord and fills his heart with pain (v. 6). He is holy and cannot countenance or condone our sin. He must bring it to judgment, as he did with the Flood.
But now the good news dawns on the black horizon: “Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord” (v. 8). He “found” it—he didn’t earn it. He found “favor”—the Hebrew word means “to bend or stoop,” and describes the condescending and unmerited favor of a superior for an inferior. This is the Old Testament’s primary word for grace; this text is its first use in all of Scripture. Through Noah, God extended this favor to the rest of mankind, as Noah warned the race of the coming judgment and Flood. Finally God had to judge humanity, after mankind refused his grace and salvation. But only after he had given them every chance to be saved.
We are all in this passage, each of us a “son of God” or “daughter of men.” No matter how much “renown” we have earned in the eyes of others, each of us is guilty of sinful thoughts and hearts before the only Judge of the universe. We have only this day to accept his offer of saving grace. One day he will come for us, or we will go to him. I cannot promise that judgment will come today. But I cannot promise that it will not.