The Identity of the Sons of God in Genesis 6.2, Part 3: The Sethite View

This post is a continuation on the interpretive difficulties surrounding the phrase “sons of God” in Genesis 6.2. We have spent some time looking at the view that the sons were angels who cohabited with women and produced human/angel hybrid offspring, as well as the view that the sons are rulers or kings who took large harems for themselves. This third view we are looking at today is the position I myself hold, that the “sons of God” are the descendants of Seth, the son of Adam and Eve who replaced Abel as the godly offspring of Adam. The “daughters of men” are usually identified as the descendants of Cain, though this is not always the case.

Among evangelical interpreters today, this is probably the most preferred view. This is the view taken by Mathews in The New American Commentary. This view was also held by Augustine, as well as the Reformers Luther and Calvin. Calvin had this to say of the passage: “It was, therefore, base ingratitude in the posterity of Seth, to mingle themselves with the children of Cain… Moses, then, does not distinguish the sons of God from the daughters of men, because they were of dissimilar nature, or of different origin; but because they were the sons of God by adoption, whom he had set apart for himself; while the rest remained in their original condition.”[1]

I. Evidence for the Godly Line of Seth Interpretation.

1. The strongest argument in favor of this view, in my opinion, is how it seems to fit better with the overall narrative progression of Genesis following the fall in chapters 4-9.  The author of Genesis, following the fall in Genesis 3, begins to divide the narratives of Genesis according to family lineages (referred to by scholars by the Hebrew term toledoth).

Genesis 4 tracks the family lineage of Cain, following his murder of his brother Abel (4.17-24). Within this family we see the rise of various cultural advances, city organization, the development of music and musical instruments, and metal working. But we also see the descendants of Cain follow in his violent footsteps, with his descendent Lamech announcing that he has murdered someone.

Genesis 5 follows the lineage of Seth after Adam and Eve give birth to him in 4.25. In contrast to the violence of Cain’s lineage, we see in the descendants of Seth godly individuals like Enoch (5.24). The important point to be emphasized here, is that in 5.30 we see the birth of Noah. Then, in 5.32, we read that when was 500 years old he fathered his three sons. And crucially, we don’t see the death of Noah until 9.29! After this we see the start of a different toledoth in chapter 10. So this means that the flood narrative is an insert into the lineage of Seth, and this includes the precipitating sins in 6.1-4.

To draw this line of reasoning to a point, Chapters 4 and 5 of Genesis recount the contrasting lineages of the descendants of Adam, the Cainites and the Sethites. The author of Genesis closely followed the split between the godly line of Seth, and the ungodly line of Cain.  Therefore, the proper interpretive context for 6.2 is the genealogy of Seth. Upon arriving at 6.1-4, the reader finds that these two lineages have begun to merge again.   

2. This view is supported by the repeating theme of denouncement of intermarriage with non-believers throughout the book of Genesis.

  • Abraham married his half-sister (20.12).
  • Abraham told his servant not to get a wife for his son Isaac from the “daughters of the Canaanites” (Gen. 24.3). Isaac ended up marrying his cousin. 
  • Rebekah’s distress over Esau’s Hittite wives (Gen. 26.34-35, 27.46).
  • Jacob married his cousins Leah and Rachel (Gen. 29.12).

3. The word for God in “sons of God” is elohim. But it could possibly be taken as a genitive of quality. This would then mean the proper reading is not “sons of God,” but rather “godly sons.”[2]

II. Evidence against the Godly Line of Seth Interpretation.

Even though this interpretation is the one I myself favor, it is still not without it’s weaknesses.

1. The difficulty of this view is the “all or nothing” attitude it takes in regard to these two phrases. What reason is there to think that all of Seth’s offspring were godly while all of Cain’s offspring were wicked? How can the descendants of Seth still be called sons of God if they had begun to so thoroughly intermarry?

Related to this point, Mathews says “Although we have said that the ‘sons of God’ refers to the Sethites, we do not insist that the ‘daughters of men’ (benot ha’adam) refers exclusively to Cainite women. Verse 1 speaks of human procreation in general by the collective use of ‘men’ (ha’adam), meaning ‘people,’ as in 5.1b-2 (cf. 6.5). ‘Daughters of men,’ then, in v. 2 again refers to women regardless of parentage, but among these ‘daughters’ are the offspring of Cain.”[3]

2. The two phrases “sons of God” and “daughters of men” seem to be referring to two distinct realms. It does feel like the use of these terms is hinting at more than just religious faithfulness. 

Conclusion

I hope that in this brief post I have shown that it is reasonable to believe that the “sons of God” in Genesis 6.2 are descendants of Seth, rather than angels or rulers. Although this view still leaves the readers with a few lingering questions, I feel that the Sethite view fites better with the text than the ruler interpretation, and doesn’t leave us with the metaphysical issues presented with the angel interpretation.

 


[1] Calvin, qtd. in Mathews, The New American Commentary, vol. 1A: Genesis 1-11.26. 329.

[2] Mathews, The New American Commentary, Vol. 1A. 330.

[3] ibid. 330-331.

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