Genesis 6: Fallen Angels Or Sons of Seth?

Carl Friedrich Keil (1807-1888)
Commentary on Genesis 6:1-8,
Pentateuch, pp. 80-88.

The genealogies in Genesis 4 and 5, which trace the development of the human race through two fundamentally different lines, headed by Cain and Seth, are accompanied by a description of their moral development, and the statement that through marriages between the “sons of God ” (Elohim) and the “daughters of men,” the wickedness became so great, that God determined to destroy the men whom He had created. This description applies to the whole human race, and presupposes the intercourse or marriage of the Cainites with the Sethites.

Genesis 6:1-2 relates to the increase of men generally (האדם, without any restriction), i.e., of the whole human race; and whilst the moral corruption is represented as universal, the whole human race, with the exception of Noah, who found grace before God (Genesis 6:8), is described as ripe for destruction (Genesis 6:3, 5-8). To understand this section, and appreciate the causes of this complete degeneracy of the race, we must first obtain a correct interpretation of the expressions “sons of God” (האלהים בני) and “daughters of men” (האדם בנות).

Three Views on the Identity of the “Sons of God” and the “Daughters of Men.”

Three different views have been entertained from the very earliest times: the “sons of God” being regarded as (a) the sons of princes, (b) angels, (c) the Sethites or godly men; and the “daughters of men,” as the daughters (a) of people of the lower orders, (b) of mankind generally, (c) of the Cainites, or of the rest of mankind as contrasted with the godly or the children of God.

1. Princes and Common People.

Of these three views, the first, although it has become the traditional one in orthodox rabbinical Judaism, may be dismissed at once as not warranted by the usages of the language, and as altogether unscriptural.

2. Angels and Mankind.

The second, on the contrary, may be defended on two plausible grounds: first, the fact that the “sons of God,” in Job 1:6; 2:1, and 38:7, and in Daniel 3:25, are unquestionably angels (also אלים בּני in Ps. 29:1 and 89:7); and secondly, the antithesis, “sons of God” and “daughters of men.” Apart from the context and tenor of the passage, these two points would lead us most naturally to regard the “sons of God” as angels, in distinction from men and the daughters of men.

Refutation of the Angelic View.

But this explanation, though the first to suggest itself, can only lay claim to be received as the correct one, provided the language itself admits of no other. Now that is not the case.

The Godly are also “Sons of God.”

For it is not to angels only that the term “sons of Elohim,” or “sons of Elim,” is applied. But in Psalm 73:15, in an address to Elohim, the godly are called “the generation of Thy sons,” i.e., sons of Elohim. In Deuteronomy 32:5 the Israelites are called His (God’s) sons, and in Hosea 1:10, “sons of the living God.” And in Psalm 80:17, Israel is spoken of as the son, whom Elohim has made strong. These passages show that the expression “sons of God” cannot be elucidated by philological means, but must be interpreted by theology alone.

Angels are “Sons of God” in an Ethical Sense—and so are Godly Men.

Moreover, even when it is applied to the angels, it is questionable whether it is to be understood in a physical or ethical sense. The notion that “it is employed in a physical sense as nomen naturae [a name of nature], instead of angels as nomen officii [a name of service], and presupposes generation of a physical kind,” we must reject as an unscriptural and gnostic error. According to the scriptural view, the heavenly spirits are creatures of God, and not begotten from the divine essence. Moreover, all the other terms applied to the angels are ethical in their character.

But if the title “sons of God” cannot involve the notion of physical generation, it cannot be restricted to celestial spirits, but is applicable to all beings which bear the image of God, or by virtue of their likeness to God participate in the glory, power, and blessedness of the divine life—to men therefore as well as angels, since God has caused man to “want but little of Elohim,” or to stand but a little behind Elohim (Ps. 8:5), so that even magistrates are designated “ Elohim, and sons of the Most High” (Ps. 82:6).


Delitzsch objects to the application of the expression “sons of Elohim” to pious men, because, “although the idea of a child of God may indeed have pointed, even in the O.T., beyond its theocratic limitation to Israel (Ex. 4:22; Deut. 14:1) towards a wider ethical signification (Ps. 73:15; Prov. 14:26), yet this extension and expansion were not so completed, that in historical prose the terms ‘sons of God’ (for which ‘sons of Jehovah‘ should have been used to prevent mistake), and ‘sons (or daughters) of men,’ could be used to distinguish the children of God and the children of the world.”


This argument rests upon the erroneous supposition that the expression “sons of God” was introduced by Jehovah for the first time when He selected Israel to be the covenant nation. So much is true, indeed, that before the adoption of Israel as the first-born son of Jehovah (Ex. 4:22), it would have been out of place to speak of sons of Jehovah; but the notion is false, or at least incapable of proof, that there were not children of God in the olden time, long before Abraham’s call, and that, if there were, they could not have been called “sons of Elohim.”

The idea was not first introduced in connection with the theocracy, and extended thence to a more universal signification. It had its roots in the divine image, and therefore was general in its application from the very first; and it was not till God in the character of Jehovah chose Abraham and his seed to be the vehicles of salvation, and left the heathen nations to go their own way, that the expression received the specifically theocratic signification of “son of Jehovah,” to be again liberated and expanded into the more comprehensive idea of νἱοθεσία τοῦ Θεοῦ (i.e., Elohim, not τοῦ κυρίου = Jehovah), at the coming of Christ, the Saviour of all nations.

If in the olden time there were pious men who, like Enoch and Noah, walked with Elohim, or who, even if they did not stand in this close priestly relation to God, made the divine image a reality through their piety and fear of God, then there were sons (children) of God, for whom the only correct appellation was “sons of Elohim,” since sonship to Jehovah was introduced with the call of Israel, so that it could only have been proleptically that the children of God in the old world could be called “sons of Jehovah.”

But if it be still argued, that in mere prose the term “sons of God” could not have been applied to children of God, or pious men, this would be equally applicable to “sons of Jehovah.” On the other hand, there is this objection to our applying it to angels, that the pious, who walked with God and called upon the name of the Lord [Gen. 4:26], had been mentioned just before, whereas no allusion had been made to angels, not even to their creation.

False Assumptions from Antithesis.

Again, the antithesis “sons of God” and “daughters of men” does not prove that the former were angels. It by no means follows, that because in Gen. 6:1 האדם [man] denotes man as a genus, i.e., the whole human race, it must do the same in Gen. 6:2, where the expression “daughters of men” is determined by the antithesis “sons of God.” And with reasons existing for understanding by the sons of God and the daughters of men two species of the genus האדם [men], mentioned in Gen. 6:1, no valid objection can be offered to the restriction of האדם [men], through the antithesis Elohim, to all men with the exception of the sons of God; since this mode of expression is by no means unusual in Hebrew.

“From the expression ‘daughters of men,” as Dettinger observes, “it by no means follows that the sons of God were not men; any more than it follows from Jeremiah 32:20, where it is said that God had done miracles ‘in Israel, and among men,’ or from Isaiah 43:4, where God says He will give men for the Israelites, or from Judges 16:7, where Samson says, that if he is bound with seven green withs he shall be as weak as a man, for from Psalm 73:5, where it is said of the ungodly they are not in trouble as men, that the Israelites, or Samson, or the ungodly, were not men at all. In all these passages אדם (men) denotes the remainder of mankind in distinction from those who are especially named.”

Cases occur, too, even in simple prose, in which the same term is used, first in a general, and then directly afterwards in a more restricted sense. We need cite only one, which occurs in Judges 19:30 where reference is made to the coming of the children of Israel (i.e., of the twelve tribes) out of Egypt; and directly afterwards (Ju. 20:1-2) it is related that “ all the children of Israel,” “all the tribes of Israel,” assembled together (to make war, as we learn from Ju. 20:3, upon Benjamin); and in the whole account of the war, Judges 20 and 21, the tribes of Israel are distinguished from the tribe of Benjamin: so that the expression “tribes of Israel” really means the rest of the tribes with the exception of Benjamin. And yet the Benjamites were Israelites.

Why then should the fact that the sons of God are distinguished from the daughters of men prove that the former could not be men? There is not force enough in these two objections to compel us to adopt the conclusion that the sons of God were angels.

Context Determines the Meaning of “Sons of God.”

The question whether the “sons of Elohim” were celestial or terrestrial sons of God (angels or pious men of the family of Seth) can only be determined from the context, and from the substance of the passage itself—that is to say, from what is related respecting the conduct of the sons of God and its results.

The Context Leading up to Genesis 6 Favors the Sethite View.

That the connection does not favour the idea of their being angels, is acknowledged even by those who adopt this view. “It cannot be denied,” says Delitzsch, “that the connection of Genesis 6:1-8 with Genesis 4 necessitates the assumption, that such intermarriages (of the Sethite and Cainite families) did take place about the time of the flood (cf. Mat. 24:38; Lu. 17:27); and the prohibition of mixed marriages under the law (Ex. 34:16; cf. Gen. 27:46; 28:1) also favours the same idea.”

But this “assumption” is placed beyond all doubt, by what is here related of the sons of God: In Genesis 6:2 it is stated that “the sons of God saw the daughters of men, that they were fair; and they took them wives of all which they chose,” i.e., of any with whose beauty they were charmed; and these wives bare children to them (Gen. 6:4). Now אשּׁה לקח (to take a wife) is a standing expression throughout the whole of the Old Testament for the marriage relation established by God at the creation, and is never applied to πορνεία [fornication], or the simple act of physical connection. This is quite sufficient of itself to exclude any reference to angels. For Christ Himself distinctly states that the angels cannot marry (Mat. 22:30; Mark 12:25; cf. Lu. 20:34).

Objection. Angels can marry, but only out of rebellion.

Kurtz endeavors to weaken the force of these words of Christ, by arguing that they do not prove that it is impossible for angels so to fall from their original holiness as to sink into an unnatural state.


This phrase has no meaning, unless by conclusive analogies, or the clear testimony of Scripture, it can be proved that the angels either (1) possess by nature a material corporeality adequate to the contraction of a human marriage, or (2) that by rebellion against their Creator they can acquire it, or (3) that there are some creatures in heaven and on earth which, through sinful degeneracy, or by sinking into an unnatural state, can become possessed of the power, which they have not by nature, of generating and propagating their species. As man could indeed destroy by sin the nature which he had received from his Creator, but could not by his own power restore it when destroyed, to say nothing of implanting an organ or a power that was wanting before; so we cannot believe that angels, through apostasy from God, could acquire sexual power of which they had previously been destitute.

Objection. If Angels can eat, they can procreate with man.

We cannot admit that there is any force in Hoffmann’s argument that “the begetting of children on the part of angels is not more irreconcilable with a nature that is not organized, like that of man, on the basis of sexual distinctions, than partaking of food is with a nature that is altogether spiritual; and yet food was eaten by the angels who visited Abraham.”


For, in the first place, the eating in this case was a miracle wrought through the condescending grace of the omnipotent God, and furnishes no standard for judging what angels can do by their own power in rebellion against God. And in the second place, there is a considerable difference between the act of eating on the part of the angels of God who appeared in human shape, and the taking of wives and begetting of children on the part of sinning angels.

Heathen & Jewish Fables are Unreliable.

We are quite unable also to accept as historical testimony, the myths of the heathen respecting demigods, sons of gods, and the begetting of children on the part of their gods, or the fables of the book of Enoch (ch. 6ff.) about the 200 angels, with their leaders, who lusted after the beautiful and delicate daughters of men, and who came down from heaven and took to themselves wives, with whom they begat giants of 3000 (or according to one manuscript, 300) cubits in height.

Nor do 2 Peter 2:4 and Jude 1:6 furnish any evidence of angel marriages… [See here for Keil’s digression on this point].

God punishes men, not fallen angels.

The sentence of God upon the “sons of God” is also appropriate to men only. “Jehovah said: My spirit shall not rule in men for ever; in their wandering they are flesh.” “The verb דּוּן equals דּין and signifies to rule (hence אדון the ruler), and to judge, as the consequence of ruling. “My spirit” (רוּה) is the divine spirit of life bestowed upon man, the principle of physical and ethical, natural and spiritual life. This His spirit God will withdraw from man, and thereby put an end to their life and conduct….

Men, says God, have proved themselves by their erring and straying to be flesh, i.e., given up to the flesh, and incapable of being ruled by the Spirit of God and led back to the divine goal of their life. בּשׂר is used already in its ethical signification, like σάρξ [flesh] in the New Testament, denoting not merely the natural corporeality of man, but his materiality as rendered ungodly by sin. “Therefore his days shall be 120 years:” this means, not that human life should in future never attain a greater age than 120 years, but that a respite of 120 years should still be granted to the human race. This sentence, as we may gather from the context, was made known to Noah in his 480th year, to be published by him as “preacher of righteousness” (2 Peter 2:5) to the degenerate race.

The reason why men had gone so far astray, that God determined to withdraw His spirit and give them up to destruction, was that the sons of God had taken wives of such of the daughters of men as they chose. Can this mean, because angels had formed marriages with the daughters of men? Even granting that such marriages, as being unnatural connections, would have led to the complete corruption of human nature; the men would in that case have been the tempted, and the real authors of the corruption would have been the angels. Why then should judgment fall upon the tempted alone? The judgments of God in the world are not executed with such partiality as this.

And the supposition that nothing is said about the punishment of the angels, because the narrative has to do with the history of man, and the spiritual world is intentionally veiled as much as possible, does not meet the difficulty. If the sons of God were angels, the narrative is concerned not only with men, but with angels also. And it is not the custom of the Scriptures merely to relate the judgments which fall upon the tempted, and say nothing at all about the tempters. For the contrary, see Genesis 3:14 [where Satan is punished first]. If the “sons of God” were not men, so as to be included in the term אדם [man], the punishment would need to be specially pointed out in their case, and no deep revelations of the spiritual world would be required, since these celestial tempters would be living with men upon the earth, when they had taken wives from among their daughters. The judgments of God are not only free from all unrighteousness, but avoid every kind of partiality.

The Identity of the Nephilim or Giants.

Genesis 6:4, “The Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare children to them: these are the heroes (הגּבּרים) who from the olden time (מעולם, as in Ps. 25:6; 1 Sam. 27:8) are the men of name ” (i.e., noted, renowned or notorious men). נפילים, from נפל ‘to fall upon’ (Job 1:15; Josh. 11:7), signifies the invaders (ἐπιπίπτοντες Aq., βιαῖοι Sym.). Luther gives the correct meaning, “tyrants:” they were called Nephilim because they fell upon the people and oppressed them.

The Nephilim were not giants in stature.

The notion that the Nephilim were giants, to which the Septuagint (LXX) rendering γίγαντες has given rise, was rejected even by Luther as fabulous. He bases his view upon Joshua 11:7: “Nephilim non dictos a magnitudine corporum, sicut Rabbini putant, sed a tyrannide et oppressione quod vi grassati sint, nulla habita ratione legum aut honestatis, sed simpliciter indulgentes suis voluptatibus et cupiditatibus.” [“The Nephilim were not named for the size of their bodies, as the Rabbis believe, but for the tyranny and oppression with which they ruthlessly dominated, paying no heed to the laws or morality, but simply indulging in their own desires and passions.”]

The opinion that giants are intended derives no support from Numbers 13:32-33. When the spies describe the land of Canaan as “a land that eateth up the inhabitants thereof,” and then add (Numbers 13:33), “and there we saw the Nephilim, the sons of Anak among (מן lit., from, out of, in a partitive sense) the Nephilim,” by the side of whom they were as grasshoppers. The term Nephilim cannot signify giants, since the spies not only mention them especially along with the inhabitants of the land, who are described as people of great stature, but single out only a portion of the Nephilim as “sons of Anak” ענק בּני), i.e., long-necked people or giants. The explanation “fallen from heaven” needs no refutation; inasmuch as the main element, “from heaven,” is a purely arbitrary addition.

The Nephilim were not the offspring of the Sons of God and Daughters of Men.

The meaning of Genesis 6:4 is a subject of dispute. To an unprejudiced mind, the words, as they stand, represent the Nephilim, who were on the earth in those days, as existing before the sons of God began to marry the daughters of men, and clearly distinguish them from the fruits of these marriages.

“Were” (היוּ) can no more be rendered “they became, or arose,” in this connection, than היה (“was”) in Genesis 1:2. ויּהיוּ would have been the proper word [for “they became, or arose”]. The expression “in those days” refers most naturally to the time when God pronounced the sentence upon the degenerate race; but it is so general and comprehensive a term, that it must not be confined exclusively to that time, not merely because the divine sentence was first pronounced after these marriages were contracted, and the marriages, if they did not produce the corruption, raised it to that fullness of iniquity which was ripe for the judgment, but still more because the words “after that” represent the marriages which drew down the judgment as an event that followed the appearance of the Nephilim. “The same were mighty men:” this might point back to the Nephilim; but it is a more natural supposition, that it refers to the children born to the sons of God. “These,” i.e., the sons sprung from those marriages, “are the heroes, those renowned heroes of old.”

Now if, according to the simple meaning of the passage, the Nephilim were in existence at the very time when the sons of God came in to the daughters of men, the appearance of the Nephilim cannot afford the slightest evidence that the “sons of God” were angels, by whom a family of monsters were begotten, whether demigods, daemons, or angel-men.

The pre-existence of the Nephilim is irreconcilable with the angel theory.

How thoroughly irreconcilable the contents of this verse [Gen. 6:4] are with the angel hypothesis is evident from the strenuous efforts of its supporters to bring them into harmony with it. Thus, in Reuter’s Repert., p. 7, Del. observes that the verse cannot be rendered in any but the following manner: “The giants were on the earth in those days, and also afterwards, when the sons of God went in to the daughters of men, these they bare to them, or rather, and these bare to them.” But, for all that, he gives this as the meaning of the words: “At the time of the divine determination to inflict punishment the giants arose, and also afterwards, when this unnatural connection between super-terrestrial and human beings continued, there arose such giants;” not only substituting “arose” for “were,” but changing “when they connected themselves with them” into “when this connection continued.”

Angel theory advocates cannot explain how the Nephilim come from the illicit marriages.

Nevertheless he is obliged to confess that “it is strange that this unnatural connection, which I also suppose to be the intermediate cause of the origin of the giants, should not be mentioned in the first clause of Genesis 6:4.” This is an admission that the text says nothing about the origin of the giants being traceable to the marriages of the sons of God, but that the commentators have been obliged to insert it in the text to save their angel marriages.

Kurtz has tried three different explanations of this verse but they are all opposed to the rules of the language. (1) In the History of the Old Covenant he gives this rendering: “Nephilim were on earth in these days, and that even after the sons of God had formed connections with the daughters of men;” in which he not only gives to גּם [also] the unsupportable meaning, “even, just,” but takes the imperfect יָבֹאוּ [came in unto] in the sense of the perfect בָּאוּ. 

(2) In his Ehen der Söhne Gottes (p. 80) he gives the choice of this and the following rendering: “The Nephilim were on earth in those days, and also after this had happened, that the sons of God came to the daughters of men and begat children,” were the ungrammatical rendering of the imperfect as the perfect is artfully concealed by the interpolation of “after this had happened.”

(3) In die Söhne Gottes (p. 85): “In these days and also afterwards, when the sons of God came (continued to come) to the daughters of men, they bare to them (sc., Nephilim),” where יבאוּ, they came, is arbitrarily altered into לבוא יוסיפוּ, they continued to come. But when he observes in defense of this quid pro quo, that “the imperfect denotes here, as Hengstenberg has correctly affirmed, and as so often is the case, an action frequently repeated in past times,” this remark only shows that he has neither understood the nature of the usage to which H. refers, nor what Ewald has said (§136) concerning the force and use of the imperfect.

The reason for the Flood is irreconcilable with the angel theory.

Genesis 6:5-8. Now when the wickedness of man became great, and “every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil the whole day,” i.e., continually and altogether evil, it repented God that He had made man, and He determined to destroy them. This determination and the motive assigned are also irreconcilable with the angel theory. “Had the godless race, which God destroyed by the Flood, sprung either entirely or in part from the marriage of angels to the daughters of men, it would no longer have been the race first created by God in Adam, but a grotesque product of the Adamitic factor created by God, and an entirely foreign and angelic factor” (Phil.).

Objection. God wanted to exterminate the angel-men hybrid beings in the Flood.

On the other hand, the supporters of the angel marriages maintain that it is only on this interpretation that the necessity for the Flood, i.e., for the complete destruction of the whole human race with the exception of righteous Noah, can be understood.


(1) Not only is there no scriptural foundation for this argument, but (2) it is decidedly at variance with those statements of the Scriptures, which speak of the corruption of the men whom God had created, and not of a race that had arisen through an unnatural connection of angels and men and forced their way into God’s creation.

(3) If it were really the case, that it would otherwise be impossible to understand where the necessity [for the Flood] could lie, for all the rest of the human race to be destroyed and a new beginning to be made, whereas afterwards, when Abraham was chosen, the rest of the human race was not only spared, but preserved for subsequent participation in the blessings of salvation: we should only need to call Job to mind, who also could not comprehend the necessity for the fearful sufferings which overwhelmed him, and was unable to discover the justice of God, but who was afterwards taught a better lesson by God Himself, and reproved for his rash conclusions, as a sufficient proof of the deceptive and futile character of all such human reasoning. But this is not the true state of the case.

(4) The Scriptures expressly affirm, that after the Flood the moral corruption of man was the same as before the Flood; for they describe it in Genesis 8:21 in the very same words as in Genesis 6:5: and the reason they assign for the same judgment not being repeated is simply the promise that God would no more smite and destroy all living, as He had done before—an evident proof that God expected no change in human nature, and out of pure mercy and long-suffering would never send a second Flood. “Now, if the race destroyed had been one that sprang from angel-fathers, it is difficult to understand why no improvement was to be looked for after the Flood; for the repetition of any such unnatural angel-tragedy was certainly not probable, and still less inevitable” (Philippi).

How Jehovah repented of making man.

The force of ינּחם, “it repented the LORD,” may be gathered from the explanatory יתעצּב, “it grieved Him at His heart.” This shows that the repentance of God does not presuppose any variableness in His nature of His purposes. In this sense God never repents of anything (1 Samuel 15:29), “quia nihil illi inopinatum vel non praevisum accidit” [because nothing unexpected or unforeseen can happen to Him] (Calvin).

The repentance of God is an anthropomorphic expression for the pain of the divine love at the sin of man, and signifies that “God is hurt no less by the atrocious sins of men than if they pierced His heart with mortal anguish” (Calvin). The destruction of all, “from man unto beast,” etc., is to be explained on the ground of the sovereignty of man upon the earth, the irrational creatures being created for him, and therefore involved in his fall. This destruction, however, was not to bring the human race to an end. “Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord.” In these words mercy is seen in the midst of wrath, pledging the preservation and restoration of humanity.


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