Read my four-part series on the “sons of God” in Genesis 6 here, here, here, and here, or read it in full below. Also, check out my follow-up article, What I’m Not Saying About the Godly Line of Seth.
Of late, I have been leading the 9 to 12 year olds at my church through a discussion of the book of Genesis. When I came to Genesis 6, the question came up that inevitably comes up when surveying this book of the Bible: “Who were the sons of God in Genesis 6?” Now, this was not my first time having studied this text, so the answer came fairly easy for me, but I realize that it is still a hotly debated issue in Evangelicalism. In fact, I recently had an exchange with someone on social media over this topic, and the guy was less than cordial toward me for my stance.
The Fallen Angels View
The default position in the Dispensationalist SBC churches I attended as a child was that the sons of God were fallen angels who became like men and procreated with human women, the offspring of which were giant, hybrid creatures called Nephilim. The go-to text for proving this interpretation was always Job 1:6 where Satan (a fallen cherub) is said to have appeared before God “when the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord” (NASB). The idea seems to be, if a set of words is used in one way over in one book of the Bible, it must be used in the exact same way wherever else it appears.
Of course, the proponents of this view also cited a few verses from the New Testament:
“For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to pits of darkness, reserved for judgment” (2Peter 2:4; NASB).
“And angels who did not keep their own domain, but abandoned their proper abode, He has kept in eternal bonds under darkness for the judgment of the great day” (Jude 6; NASB).
“in which also He went and made proclamation to the spirits now in prison, who once were disobedient, when the patience of God kept waiting in the days of Noah, during the construction of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through the water” (1Peter 3:19-20; NASB).
Seems like a pretty open-and-shut case, doesn’t it? Hardly. Let’s examine their arguments closer and get into the context of these passages to see whether or not the arguments hold up and are truly supported by the texts here cited.
Let us start with the assertion many have made that “sons of God” must mean angels in this text precisely because that is what it means elsewhere, like in Job 1:6. This assertion assumes the idea that biblical words and phrases cannot have multiple meanings and usages. This is not true for any language; words and phrases have multiple usages and meanings, regardless of the language you are examining.
Especially when we are dealing with different authors writing in different eras, we need to take these things into account. Job is largely believed to have been written around the same time Abraham lived. We know nothing whatsoever about its author or common usages of phrases during his time. We do know that Moses, who wrote Genesis, lived hundreds of years after Abraham.
In this span of time, the common vernacular was highly likely to change. Consider the fact that the King James Version of the Bible was codified in the 1600s in Elizabethan English, and its language was considered archaic by many as early as the mid-1800s. Moses might have had angels in mind when he used the designation ‘sons of God.’ The only way to know for sure is to look at his usage of it in the immediate context. We will do so in Part Three of our study.
Next, we have 2Peter 2:4 in which Peter tells us that God did not spare angels when they sinned but cast them into hell. How does this even come close to relating to Genesis 6? Well, in the next verse, Peter alludes to Noah’s generation and the judgment they faced. What we have in 2Peter is the apostle’s warning against false teachers. He draws three illustrations of how God deals with false teachers. He judged the angels, he judged the generation of Noah, he judged Sodom and Gomorrah, and He will judge the false teachers in these last days as well. When understood in context, 2Peter 2 provides no support to the “angels sleeping with humans” view of Genesis 6.
But what about Jude 6? Isn’t that a parallel passage to 2Peter, and doesn’t that talk about angels abandoning spiritual form to take bodies for themselves? Proponents of this view draw from the word τὸ οἰκητήριον, claiming that angels left their bodily dwellings in order to assume new bodies. They attempt to justify this usage by pointing out that the only other usage of the Greek word in question is in 2Corinthians 5:2 is in reference to the Christian’s future, glorified (physical) body.
Actually, BDAG tells us that the term used both in Scripture and in extra-biblical texts to refer to heavenly dwelling places. Thus, it is apparently being used figuratively to refer to the bodies we will receive in heaven in 2Corinthians whereas, in Jude, it is used to refer to the angels’ actual heavenly abode. Jude, then, is not arguing that angels took on flesh; rather, he is warning against false teachers who, like those angels, would be punished by God in the end.
Finally, in 1Peter 3:19-20, we see that Christ went and made proclamation to spirits who are now in prison. Who were these spirits? In order to determine their identity, we must back up and look at the context. Peter is writing to his audience about their sufferings and claims that Christ too also suffered and died and was made alive in the Spirit. In this same Spirit, he writes, Christ went and made proclamation to the spirits “who were once disobedient, when the patience of God kept waiting in the days of Noah” (vs. 20a).
If Peter is talking about angels here, we have a big problem. Why would the patience of God be waiting for angels to respond to a Messianic proclamation? “For assuredly He does not give help to angels, but He gives help to the descendant of Abraham” (Hebrews 2:16; NASB). Christ did not come to die for angels, but for men, so what proclamation could he have possibly been making to angels? If it is a message of judgment and not salvation, how is it that this proclamation now correlates to baptism (1Peter 3:21)? No. Christ did not preach to the spirits of enfleshed angels; he preached to the spirits of men.
How then did the Spirit of Christ preach to the men of Noah’s day? Simple. He preached to them through Noah! Noah was a “preacher of righteousness” (2Peter 2:5); he was God’s messenger in his day. When God’s messenger speaks, God speaks. Had Noah’s generation heeded his voice and entered the ark, they would have been saved. In like manner, when we heed the voice of God’s divinely appointed messengers and are immersed into union with Christ, we are saved from the judgment to come.
The Godly Line of Seth
Now, we’ve examined the identity of the sons of God in Genesis 6, stating the default position of most in the Western church and refuting it with some negative argumentation. Let us now begin to offer a positive argument for the position I hold. As far as I am aware, there are three common positions held on the sons of God in Genesis 6, one of which I will not concern myself for lack of space and time.
Plain and simple, the position I hold is the position commonly called the “godly line of Seth” view. This position has historically been held by many Protestants, but was most famously championed by Augustine in his City of God. In City of God, Augustine spends the first half of the tome arguing in the negative against those who had claimed that Rome had fallen as a direct result of her abandonment of the Roman gods for Christianity. Augustine argued that those who worshiped the Greek and Roman gods worshiped demons, while those who worshiped Christ were worshiping the one, true and living God of the universe.
In the second half of this multi-volume work, Augustine develops a biblical theology of Christ. He traces through each book of the Bible a Christocentric hermeneutic of redemptive history. If you’ve never read City of God before, it is worth it just to see how he understands how God has worked through the different epochs of redemptive history to bring about His purposes.
History according to Augustine, more than anything else, is God’s story. However, it is not merely God’s story. History is more precisely the story of how God brings about His redemptive purposes through providentially directing the activities of the city of God and the city of man. From the dawn of creation, God has always had His people, and His people are distinct from all other people on the face of the earth.
Nehemiah Coxe picked up this idea of tracing God’s redemptive activity through the word of God when he wrote Covenant Theology: From Adam to Christ. Coxe’s unique contribution was that he demonstrated how God’s redemptive work in redemptive history was uniquely covenantal. Of course, as everyone knows who is familiar with this work, Coxe largely borrowed from Congregationalist John Owen in setting out his framework.
Both Augustine and Coxe subscribe to the “godly line of Seth” view, but we should beware lest we subscribe to a view merely because it is affirmed by a theologian we respect. Our minds and our hearts must be bound to Scripture. We must never elevate a man or a creed on par with Scripture. With that in mind, let us take a look at some Scriptural proof for the “godly line of Seth” view.
Our First Parents
In Genesis 1 and 2, we see that Adam and Eve were made holy and happy. They had never sinned, they were naked, and they were unashamed. God had only given them one rule, and that was that they should not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. As we know well, our first parents did eat of that fruit and, doing so, they plunged all of their progeny into sin and misery.
However, in Genesis 3, God offered mankind some hope. After having conducted His trial and found the man, his wife, and their deceiver guilty, God rendered His verdict. Upon the woman, He placed a curse, that she would have pain in child-rearing. Upon the man, he placed a similar curse, that he would no longer have joy in his labors. Before pronouncing these curses, though, God pronounced a curse on the serpent, a curse that came with hope for mankind.
“And I will put enmity
Between you and the woman,
And between your seed and her seed;
He shall bruise you on the head,
And you shall bruise him on the heel” (Genesis 3:15; NASB).
This pronouncement is what many theologians have labeled the proto-euangelion, which basically means the first gospel proclamation. In it, Adam and Eve were given a promise that one of their descendants would eventually set right all that they had destroyed in their rebellious act. Thus, we can imagine the effect that their oldest son’s fratricidal act would have on them.
Cain, Abel, and Seth
In Genesis 4, we witness the murder of one of Adam’s sons at the hand of his other son, likely the one through whom the promised Seed was expected to come. With this act, Cain cast some doubt over the promise God had made on that dismal day in the garden. Through whom was the promised Seed to come? Certainly not Cain!
The second half of Genesis 4 and Genesis 5 serve as a contrast of sorts. After Cain kills Abel, his lineage is detailed for us in the remainder of chapter 4. It is filled with violent, evil men. Chapter Five, however, reestablishes hope for mankind. Adam and Eve have a third son, Seth, and through him come godly men such as Enoch and Noah. On the arrival of Noah, Bible translators provide for us a chapter break. Yet the story is not over.
Do Not Be Unequally Yoked
Just as mankind’s hopes were dashed at the murder of Abel, so too they were dashed just after the godly line of Seth was established. What Moses tells us is that even this godly line was compromised. In fact, it was so corrupted that God saw fit to destroy the earth with a deluge. How was this godly line of Seth compromised? Through marriage.
Throughout the Bible, God forbade His people from intermarrying with pagans and idolaters. He established godly lines (e.g. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Judah, David…) through whom He established His covenants and promises, and through whom He would eventually bring the Seed of Abraham: Christ. The “godly line of Seth” argument is that God did not begin this covenantal headship work with Abraham, but with that promise in Genesis 3.
God has always His people, and those people have always had earthly representatives. Today, the Mediator between God and man is the man Jesus Christ. When one is found to be in the people of God under one of these covenant heads, to marry outside of that line is synonymous with apostasy. It simply is not to be done.
To do so will lead to idolatry and sin, as it did for the Israelites in the days of Balaam and still does in the church today. God’s people are not to be unequally yoked. Rather, we are to remain faithful to the God who called us out from among the nations.
In addressing the identity of the sons of God in Genesis 6, we have examined the most common interpretation today, given a negative argument against it, and offered a positive argument in favor of my personal understanding of it. This post has already been rather long. Thus, in conclusion to our study, there are just a few applications I’d like to make.
The Analogia Fide
First, we ought always to be mindful of the fact that our interpretation of one text cannot cancel out our interpretation of other texts in the word. We must recognize that, insofar as the word was written by one divine Author, it cannot contradict itself at any point. So, when the Bible teaches creation as a divine attribute (Psalm 33:6-9; 148:5; Isaiah 43:7; 45:12; Ephesians 3:9), we must recognize the utter blasphemy of attributing creative power to any created being. So, whatever we say about the ‘sons of God’ in Genesis 6, we have no liberty to say that they are angels who created flesh for themselves.
When people take hard to understand passages and use passages that are even harder to understand to try to explain them, there is always the risk of altering very important truths in other parts of the Bible. As such, we need to revive the old hermeneutical principle of analogia fide, or the analogy of the faith. This principle is simple. It asserts that we interpret the less clear parts of Scripture in light of the more clear parts. With this principle as our guide, we will be less likely to try to apply the difficult writings of Peter to the less difficult passage in Genesis 6, obscuring its more rich meaning.
Which of the Angels?
Second, let us glory in our place in creation. When we understand that Christ didn’t go and make proclamation to angels in hell, it allows us to affirm with the author of Hebrews the true goal of the gospel. Christ came to bring many sons to glory, not from the hosts of fallen angels, but from his brothers in the flesh (Hebrews 2:9-13). “For assuredly He does not give help to angels, but He gives help to the [descendant of Abraham” (vs. 16).
Not only is Christ exalted above the angels, but He also secured a place for His brethren above the angels in glory. Our eschatological place in creation has been established by our victorious Savior, and He is not ashamed to call us brothers. What a place of significance this truth affords us. What dignity we have above even the angels!
The God of Promise
Third, let us recognize the fact that God is faithful. Whatsoever He has promised, He will deliver. When Cain killed Abel, God’s promise stood. He provided a way through the godly line of Seth. When Adam died and all seemed lost, within the year God took Enoch demonstrating that He is a God of deliverance. When the godly line of Seth began to intermarry with heathen women and abandon God, He provided an ark of salvation. When God had been silent for hundreds of years, Rome had conquered Israel, and all once again seemed lost, God finally sent the Seed of the woman to crush the head of Satan and deliver His people from their sins.
God has met every promise He ever made. He is the God of promise, and He will remain faithful to the end. Let us glory in our great God of promise!