The Identity of the Sons of God in Genesis 6.2, Part 1: The Angel Interpretation

Perhaps no part of the book of Genesis has posed more interpretive and exegetical difficulties than the first four verses of chapter 6. In these verses we read:

(1)When man began to multiply on the face of the land and daughters were born to them, (2) the sons of God saw that the daughters of man were attractive. And they took as their wives any that they chose. (3) Then the Lord said, “My Spirit shall not abide in man forever, for he is flesh: his days shall be 120 years.” (4) 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.

All four of these verses give rise to incredibly difficult questions. But for this brief series, we will be focusing on the phrase “sons of God” in verse 2. The question that is to be answered is: who are the “sons of God?” Various attempts at answering this question have been made over the centuries. The first view we will examine, is the view that the “sons of God” in Genesis 6 are angels.

This interpretation holds that the “Sons of God” are angelic or celestial beings that “defied God by moving outside their appointed realm and [married (molested?)] human ‘daughters.’”[1] In other words, fallen angels came down to earth and cohabited with women of the human race, which resulted in the women becoming pregnant and giving birth to the Nephilim of verse 4. (The meaning of the word “Nephilim” will be dealt with in an upcoming post)

The angel interpretation of Genesis 6 is the oldest known interpretation of the phrase “Sons of God.” It was present in the Book of 1 Enoch, a pseudepigraphal book written a century or two before Christ. Elements of this view are also found in “The Genesis Apocryphon,” one of the dead sea scrolls, in which Noah’s father, Lamech,  suspects his wife was impregnated by an angel, a heavenly “watcher.” Older church fathers such as Philo, and the historian Josephus, and others also held to this view. 

Evidence in favor of the Angel Interpretation:

So now the question must be asked. What evidence can be marshaled in support of this interpretation?

1. The strongest argument for this view, perhaps, is that the phrase “the sons of God” elsewhere refers almost exclusively to angels in the Old Testament. Although, it is only used in Job 1.6; 2.1; and 38.7. Henry Morris concludes “The only obvious and natural meaning [of the phrase “sons of God”] is that these beings were sons of God, rather than men, because they had been created, not born. Such a description, of course, would only apply to Adam (Luke 3.38) and to the angels, whom God had directly created (Psalm 148.2, 5; Psalm 104.4; Colossians 1.16).”[2]

2. The contrast of “sons of God” and “daughters of men” suggest two spheres: one heavenly and the other earthly.

3. When Angels do appear to humans in the Old Testament, they take on the appearance of men, even partaking in the eating of food. Take for example, these instances where angels appeared to men in the Old Testament: Abraham (Gen. 18.1-8), Lot (Gen. 19.1), Balaam (Num. 22.22), and Joshua (5.13-15).

4. Furthermore, modern Christians will look to the New Testament to find additional support for this view as well. Some understand the “spirits” of 1 Peter 3.19-20 to be a reference to the angels who are called the “sons of God” in Genesis 6.2. 1 Peter 3.20 makes an explicit reference to the times of Noah, and therefore it is reasonable to conclude that the “spirits” are supernatural beings who are being punished for there actions during the time of Noah. 

In 2 Peter 2.4-6, Peter refers to the sins of angels, the Noahic flood, and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Since two of the three events occurred in Genesis, then perhaps the third did as well. 

Jude 6 makes reference to “angels who did not stay within their own position of authority, but left their proper dwelling,” and they are now being punished and imprisoned until the judgement day. 

Evidence against the Angel Interpretation:

In spite of these arguments, the view has some serious problems.

1. Christ says that after the resurrection, people will not marry but will be like the angels (Matt. 22.30). The implication is that Angels do not marry, or enter into sexual relations (though it should be noted that this passage is referencing angels in heaven).

2. As for the New Testament references, they do not clearly indicate what the sins of the angels were. The relationship between the works of Peter and Jude with Genesis 6 and ancient Jewish understanding that the “sons of God” were angels is difficult to establish. The use of these passages to support this interpretation is dubious, and remains unclear. 

3. Angels are mentioned nowhere else in the proto-history section of Genesis 1-11. It makes little sense for the author of Genesis to denounce the actions of angels as one of the leading causes of the flood, yet nowhere in the narrative up to this point make any reference to the existence of an angelic host. 

4. Why should Moses use the more obscure phrase “sons of God” rather than the more clear terms “angel” or “messenger” like in Gen. 19.1, or the phrases “angel of the Lord” or “angel of God.”

5. The use of the genesis passages that depict the Angel of the Lord and his two escorts (18.2, 8) to show that angels are capable of performing acts in the physical realm make for weak support for this view. Being able to enter into a sexual relationship with a female and produce offspring is a far cry from the ability to consume food.

6. The oracles of punishment given by God are focused entirely on mankind. If the chief sin that God was dealing with was the actions of angels, then why do we not see angels come under punishment as well?

7. It is difficult to see how it is possible for an angelic being to produce offspring with a human female. Biblically, this interpretation would seem to go against the natural order established by God in the creation account where each creature is to reproduce “according to their own kind” (1.12, 24, 25). Scientifically, this interpretation must wrestle with the difficulty of how angels could produce the genetic material needed to fertilize a female egg. Though in response to this objection, Morris states “This objection presupposes more about angelic abilities than we know. Whenever angels have appeared visibly to men, as recorded in the Bible, they have appeared in the physical bodies of men. Those who met with Abraham, for example, actually ate with him (Genesis 18.8) and, later, appeared to the inhabitants of Sodom in such perfectly manlike shape that the Sodomites were attempting to take these ‘men’ for homosexual purposes. The writer of Hebrews suggests that, on various occasions, some ‘have entertained angels unawares’ (Hebrews 13.2)”[3]

The reference to the reaction of the Sodomite men to the angels at first seems like a convincing line of evidence in support of the angel interpretation, but in fact leaves us with as little evidence as we had before. The Sodomite men never actually came into physical contact with the angels. So all we can conclude from this passage is that the angels looked like normal men. But this is a point that is not under dispute by anyone.


Despite being able to lay claim to being the interpretation of antiquity, the belief that the “sons of God” in Genesis 6 are angels suffers from tremendous difficulties. The only conclusion that I personally can come away with is that this view leaves the student with the metaphysical absurdity that a spiritual being can somehow impregnate a physical human woman, and this is a hurdle I cannot cross.

In the next post we will look at the “Dynastic Ruler Interpretation.”

[1] Mathews, The New American Commentary, Volume 1A: Genesis 1-11.26. 325.

[2] Morris, The Genesis Record. 165. 

[3] Morris, The Genesis Record, 166.