Sons of God and the daughters of men


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The following article is essentially a review of ideas put forward in a book published nearly a century and a half ago but which deserve to be more widely known. What follows should be read as a supplement to discussion of the subject elsewhere, notably in the detailed appendix to Gary Bates’ book Alien Intrusion: UFOs and the evolution connection.1 A lightly-edited version of the latter is available here: Who were the ‘sons of God’ in Genesis 6? We strongly urge anyone who wishes to comment on the present article to read that latter link first.

CMI recognises that evangelical Christians (including biblical creationists) have varying opinions as to the identity of “the sons of God” and “the daughters of man” (Genesis 6:2,4). The purpose of this review of the arguments of a long-deceased writer is to stimulate careful thought. Such well-thought-through ideas are worthy of the consideration of any Christian with a sincere interest in understanding the intent of the author of Genesis who, ultimately, is the Holy Spirit.

The book referred to above is The Fallen Angels and the Heroes of Mythology (the same with “The Sons of God” and the “Mighty Men” of the Sixth Chapter of the First Book of Moses), published in 1879.2 Author John Flemming was an Anglican minister in the Diocese of Ardfert, and missionary of the Irish Society. Ardfert is a village in County Kerry, Republic of Ireland.

In The Fallen Angels and the Heroes of Mythology, Flemming details three main interpretations:3

  1. The Filii-Magnatum interpretation, which considers Bne-Elohim (“sons of God”; Genesis 6:2,4) as men of rank. Since this view is seldom discussed by contemporary writers in the Christian world, we will pass over it here.
  2. The Sethite interpretation, which views “the sons of God” as descendants of Adam’s son Seth (the godly line), and “the daughters of men” (Genesis 6:2,4) as the ungodly descendants of Cain who murdered his brother Abel. Flemming maintained that this view was not held until about the 4th century but thereafter became dominant until the 18th century.4 The earliest advocates were Augustine, Theodoret, Cyril of Alexandria, and Basil of Seleucia. (Note that, regardless of the respectability of Christian scholars, their writings are not as authoritative as Scripture.)
  3. The Angel interpretation—the view that Flemming himself favoured. He taught that it was also what the early Jews and the early Church believed.5

An overview of Flemming’s arguments on some aspects of the latter two positions follows. Most of my additional thoughts appear in parentheses.

Problems with the Sethite view

Flemming’s case is that there is no evidence for this view at all, that it makes no real sense, neither does it do justice to the teaching of Scripture. He contends that the aforementioned early advocates, and all who followed them, were primarily prejudiced against the former ‘angel view’ by their disbelief that angels could have taken on corporeal bodies. (It is true, of course, that today’s advocates of the Sethite view make similar criticisms of the ‘angel view’. For example, theologian John Murray (1898–1975) claimed “that there is no biblical support for the view that ‘the sons of God’ were angelic or preternatural beings.”6 Since Genesis 6:1–4 provides rather scant information, it is fair to say that our various deductions and interpretations accord with the assumptions we hold. Nevertheless, we can ask which viewpoint seems to best reflect the biblical data and to logically cohere.)

According to Flemming, the Sethite view makes two assumptions, neither of which has sufficient biblical warrant:

Assumption 1. The “sons of God” was a well-known epithet for men of Seth’s line, which they happily took to themselves.

Admittedly, we cannot know this for certain, and the Bible is silent on this point. Also, this view assumes that the Sethites were a distinct community in ancient times. This would have to have been something with which Moses (the author of Genesis) knew his readers were familiar. Flemming comments:

“That the posterity of Seth formed, for several generations, a community distinct and separate from the descendants of Cain, as well in point of moral and religious character, as of local habitation; that their devotion to the service of God was so warm and conspicuous, and their moral conduct so faultless, that not only did they themselves think it allowable to use the title “Sons of God”, or “Sons of Jehovah”, but that that title was so generally recognised as belonging peculiarly to them, that Moses having occasion to refer to them in his narrative, might with full propriety, designate them by it, as a title the application of which was not, in the least, liable to be mistaken” (pp. 48–49).

(This argument is certainly thought-provoking. Some might counter that the description of the Sethites as ‘faultless’ is somewhat of a strawman that overstates the case. Moreover, that it is nevertheless possible that once-godly Sethites, by marrying ungodly Cainites, later declined, albeit that the Genesis 6 passage gives no details. Supporters of the Sethite/Cainite view believe that these two spiritually-distinct groups are discernible in Genesis 4–5, and that similar distinctions are subsequently observed in Scripture in Genesis 10–12 (Abraham’s line versus the Gentile nations), Numbers 25 (Israelites vs. Moabites), and Nehemiah 13:23 onwards.)

Assumption 2. The people of the Cainite lineage kept themselves to themselves, were all ungodly, and their women uncommonly attractive, enough to entice the godly Sethites into ‘mixed’ marriages.

Flemming writes:

“That Cain’s descendants, in the same period, constituted another community, equally distinct from that of Seth; that they were universally, but especially the female portion of them, characterised by irreligion, carnal-mindedness, and profligate life; that the Cainite women were further distinguished by personal beauty—a quality in which, the exposition implies, the women of the race of Seth were wanting; and, finally, that Moses, making mention in the same historical writing of these female descendants of Cain, might, without any apprehension of being misunderstood, describe them as “the daughters of men,” or “the daughters of Adam” (p. 49).

(Flemming is dismissive of the view that Genesis 6:1–4 merely describes human beings. Although the statement quoted above may read more into the verses than is actually there, his assumption about the Cainite women seems to be a straightforward deduction from the biblical text.)

The grounds for the Sethite ideas?

The Sethite view is mainly based on Genesis 4:26: “To Seth also a son was born, and he called his name Enosh. At that time people began to call upon the name of the Lord” (emphasis added). Supposedly, Seth became famous for being very pious, and thus his descendants after him too. Flemming relates that Sethite-view advocates connect the latter verse with the few verses in Genesis 6:1–4, arguing that the people calling upon the name on the Lord were all descended from Seth and were called sons of God. They cite biblical references to God’s people being called the sons of God, such as Deuteronomy 32:8 (although the Masoretic text has “sons of Israel”), and particularly several New Testament references (Matthew 5:9, Luke 20:36, Romans 8:14, 19, Galatians 3:26).

In addition, they point out that we read separate genealogical information about Cain’s offspring in Genesis 4. The idea is that the descendants of Cain were all equally apostate, and notorious for it—especially the women, whose stunning good looks could turn heads of the godly Sethites. The famous Jewish historian Josephus (b. AD 37) made statements about the descendants of Cain and of Seth that have probably reinforced these ideas. (Nevertheless, some will likely object that Flemming has exaggerated his case; that it is surely legitimate to compare the mixed marriage of ‘Sethites and Cainites’ with the tragedy of Christian young men being enticed into relationships which unequally yoke them with unbelieving young women.7) One wonders, however, if the descendants of the Sethite line were so godly, why did they mix with ungodly Cainites? It is a simple fact that is often overlooked.

However, Flemming argues, even if there is some truth to these assertions, in spite of there being little real evidence, there is no question that people from both such lines would have blended and intermarried over the centuries. (One can speculate that godly people of those days should have known not to be unequally yoked with unbelievers, but the Bible is silent here). Would it have been necessary for there to have been a significant geographic separation between the ‘Sethite’ and ‘Cainite’ lines, in order to keep the two groups distinct? If so, Flemming points out that absolutely no hint of such things is given in the Bible itself (and indeed, both parties in this debate are in the dark concerning such details).

(Thinking about the possible geographic separation of Cainites and Sethites we might ask, who knows where the land of Nod was located, where Cain settled after murdering Abel (Genesis 4:16)? This tragic siblicide occurred within a generation of the Creation of the world, so no present-day, post-Flood geographical places can be read back to those antediluvian times. It is noteworthy that Flemming was oblivious to the fact that the landmasses today can bear no resemblance to the pre-Flood geography—see e.g. Where was Eden?.)

(Similarities in the names of the lists of Seth’s descendants and those of Cain (compare Genesis 5:10–25 with Genesis 4:17–18) argue against their progeny being widely separated and living as distinctly separate populations. That said, in the many centuries before the Flood, the progeny of both Cain and of Seth may have dispersed geographically over a very wide area of the pre-Flood landmass.)

Flemming points that, even if one grants that Seth’s immediate descendants may have been generally more pious than those of Cain, it simply would not follow that such a state of affairs continued for over 16 centuries until the Flood.8 (Yet, the situation was surely quite the contrary, with Scripture recording that “the earth was filled with violence” and “all flesh had corrupted their way on the earth” (Genesis 6:11–12). There is no obvious distinction between the progeny of Seth and Cain in those statements, no mention of an exceptional godly human line. Rather, we read that all people had become corrupt. Some will argue, however, that this does not discount a godly, Sethite line, but that their eventual apostasy is included in the latter verses.)

Certainly, nobody is claiming, and the Bible does not suggest, that humanity became exceedingly corrupt just before the time of the Flood. In fact, centuries before the Flood (six generations on from Cain), two of the five names in the Cainite genealogy include the name for God—Mehujael and his son Methushael (Genesis 4:18). Flemming says this hardly fits with the Sethite view of things at all (though, admittedly, ‘el’ could refer to other gods, rather than the one supreme God). He concludes:

“But if we have not sufficient grounds for believing the race of Cain to have been universally irreligious and profligate, neither will we be justified in coming to a directly opposite conclusion respecting the descendants of Seth. … it does not follow that all the members of that family, or the greater number of them, must have been God-fearing men, or even externally blameless in life or character” (p. 56).

(Some may counter that we cannot rule out the possibility that, at least in the earlier centuries prior to the Flood, the Cainites were almost universally irreligious, and the greater part of the Sethites were godly; that perhaps the latter dwindled in numbers until there was just Noah’s family. If so, one wonders why God saw fit to virtually annihilate humanity, except for the eight on the Ark, on account of this illicit union (Gen. 6:2–3), for it would no longer have been a problem; i.e. these intermarriages would have already ceased.) 

What then, of the last clause of Genesis 4:26?

“And to Seth, to him also there was born a son; and he called his name Enos: then began men to call upon the name of the Lord” (the KJV, as quoted by Flemming; but the ESV renders the last clause identically). One problem is that some of the early Church Fathers (e.g. Theodoret, AD 393–457) and many scholars since then, preferred to render it, “men began to call themselves by the name of the Lord”, or even, “men began to proclaim (or prophesy) the name of the Lord”, or in one instance, “then men began profanely to call on the name of the Lord”! The latter is a particularly Jewish idea, and some Sethite-view advocates have used it as evidence for their position. However, if this supposedly profane worship was somehow to be justified from the text, the context would attach this profane worship to the Sethites. Flemming maintains that no such association can be made. In any case, the word ‘profane’ can in no way be justified from the Hebrew.9

The Hebrew grammar also disallows the reading of “men [calling] themselves by the name of the Lord”. Flemming does think that a decent case can be made for the reading that “men began to proclaim the name of the Lord,” although he prefers the rendering, ‘then men began to call upon the name of the Lord’ —which is the same as the Arabic, Syriac, Samaritan and Vulgate versions of the Old Testament. Most scholars agree with this reading even though they are not all agreed upon its meaning. Was this a calling upon Jehovah? Was it signifying a time when people audibly began praying to God? We might be unsure of the answers to those questions, but we can be confident that Genesis 4:26 is rightly translated in our English Bibles.

Bne-Elohim means angels

This article uses the term Bne-Elohim (after Flemming), though many scholars write it as bene elohim. Flemming’s case is that these were not pious men, rather fallen angels, arguing that we need only to follow the rules of Hebrew grammar and the usage of the Hebrew language.

(As pointed out elsewhere, this Hebrew phrase “sons of God” also appears in Job 1:6, 2:1, and 38:7.1 Job is a very ancient book, likely dating back to the period of the post-Flood patriarchs. Consider that Job may have been over 200 years old when he died.10 If so, this could well make him contemporary with the generations between Peleg and Abraham’s great grandfather Serug; c.f. Genesis 11:19–22. Many will argue that, if the phrase means ‘angels’ in the Job passages, this strongly argues for its meaning ‘angels’ when Moses uses it in Genesis 6).

Flemming makes the case that, since Moses uses the term Bne-Elohim in a few verses, very briefly and without any justifying or clarifying context, it strongly suggests that there was no reason to question the plain meaning of the words. This argues against any other interpretation than the angel one, he says. There are very similar expressions to Bne-Elohim in Daniel 3:25, Psalm 29:1, and 89:7, namely Bne-ha-Elohim (more commonly written bene (ha)Elohim). In the latter passages, angels are in view so, while not as strong evidence as the verses in Job, they do support the angel reading.11 (Some might object to this view on the basis that angels are ‘spirit beings’. But Scripture makes it clear that they can appear physically in our realm; see Can spirits manifest physically?)

As indicated already, proponents of the Sethite view often say that, since “sons of God” (albeit not this particular Hebrew phrase) can be, and is, rightly applied to believers (though solely in the New Testament), there is every reason to believe that this can be applied back to Genesis 6:1–4. Surely, they argue, there were God-fearing people in that age too. Without doubt, it is true that there may have been believers in God. Nevertheless, there is no evidence that they styled themselves as ‘Sons of Elohim’, as distinct from daughters of men. (Arguably, all that would matter is that Moses, as the author of Genesis, thought it appropriate to call them by this name.)

Flemming further wonders why the Sethites were not much more definite about their self-description? (Or why was Moses not more definite?) Why not ‘Sons of Jehovah’ instead? At least that would have avoided any confusion in people’s minds that the intended meaning was ‘sons of the angels’, as Elohim can also be translated angels. After all, ‘sons of the angels’ would seem rather pagan, more like the gnostic ideas that came later. Flemming also asks, if “sons of God” in Genesis 6 was such a suitable moniker for believers, why was it never used in the millennia after that patriarchal age? (Though some might counter, perhaps because after the Flood they would be called Israel.) Certainly, there is no record in the rest of the Bible of men taking on, or being called by, that name. (Unless, that is, one seeks to contend that the “sons of God” mentioned in Job 1:6 and 2:1 were human beings.)

Daughters of men

If the “sons of God” are deemed to be godly Sethites, then “daughters of men” can no longer simply mean human females. Instead of literally ‘daughters of Adam’ (benoth Adam—a literal translation of the Hebrew), it has to be forced to mean something else, in this case, women in the line of Cain! Furthermore, contends Flemming, for the Sethite view to hold water, these Cainite women had to be significantly more attractive than women in the line of the Sethites—so much so that the supposedly godly men preferred the ungodly Cainite women as wives!

His case is that the way in which the phrases “sons of God” and “daughters of men” are expounded by advocates of the Sethite view is contrary to the principles of sound exegesis. If “daughters of men” are acknowledged to be human females generally, the whole antithesis of the two groups disappears.

Flemming argues that there is no justification, biblical or otherwise, for maintaining that women in the Cainite line were more beautiful (‘fair’ or ‘graceful’) than other women (unless one assumes that “daughters of men” are Cainites, which is to reason in a circle). And why, if the Sethite view were correct, is there no mention whatsoever of instances of marriages between the ‘sons of men’ (‘ungodly Cainite men’) and the ‘daughters of God’ (‘godly Cainite women’)?

Concluding thoughts

John Flemming’s 1879 work The Fallen Angels and the Heroes of Mythology contains much insightful argument, albeit that some sincere Christians will still disagree with his thesis. Whatever view one holds (whether in agreement with Flemming or not), it is surely worth asking an additional question: How, and why, would the alleged Sethite/Cainite union, a union of mere human beings, have resulted in the Nephilim (or giants, KJV; Genesis 6:4), “mighty men” and “men of renown”? In that antediluvian world, with many people living in excess of 900 years, one can only imagine the level of evil that occurred; a combination of ingenuity and iniquity that has probably not have been equalled since (c.f. Genesis 6:5, 11–12). Even the most malevolent people today are limited by the fact that their energetic and intellectual capacities rarely exceed 60 years. Are entirely human capacities referred to in the phrase “men of renown”? Or does this refer instead to the offspring of an (admittedly very strange) union of fallen angels and human females?

Whatever the case, there is a strong implication in the words of Genesis 6:5–6 that God’s grief at the great wickedness of the antediluvians was that this was an evil union in His eyes. He deemed this serious enough to warrant the blotting out of all flesh from the Earth (Genesis 6–7). Proponents of both the Sethite and angel views agree that the Genesis record of individuals, who over the centuries prior to the Flood were bent on violence and murder, is a dreadful one (not to mention other wickedness of all sorts, fraud, deception, theft, adultery, and more). That former world of unrestrained evil was without doubt, ripely deserving of God’s Flood judgement.

Published: 7 December 2023

References and notes 

  1. Bates, G., Alien Intrusion: UFOs and the evolution connection, Creation Book Publishers, Powder Springs, GA, pp. 380–396, 2010. Return to text.
  2. Published by Hodges, Foster, and Figgis (publishers to the University of Dublin), 1879. Page numbers in this article refer to the edition used for this review, reprinted in facsimile by Kessinger Legacy Reprints. Return to text.
  3. Gary Bates (see ref. 1) discusses four popular views, including that the “sons of God” were a demonically possessed group. Return to text.
  4. One might ask whether the change of thinking was in some way connected to the ‘Enlightenment’ thought which became prominent at that time, with its low view of Scripture. However, the potential link is far from obvious. Moreover, Flemming does not elaborate on this point, which is beyond the scope of this review. Return to text.
  5. Gary Bates reviewed this article and shared, from his own research, that the Jews and early Church mostly considered the nephilim to be demons. A discussion of this can be found in a free e-book: Chaffey, T., The Sons of God and the Nephilim, 143 pages, November 2011. Chaffey makes the case that the Sethite view only really took hold after John Calvin published on the subject in the sixteenth century; this is contrary to John Flemming, see point 2. Return to text.
  6. Appendix A, ‘The sons of God and the daughters of men (Genesis 6:1–4) in: Murray J., Principles of Conduct, The Tyndale Press, London, p. 247, 1957. Return to text.
  7. It is certainly true that, as successive generations of young people from Christian homes have gone to secular universities, people still wonder at the alarming number who depart from the faith. Yet Christian parents who have not trained their children to defend their faith foundationally have essentially surrendered them to secular indoctrination. Along with this, it is hard to deny that young men who are thus unprepared, are more likely to have their heads turned towards attractive-but-worldly, non-Christian young women. Return to text.
  8. Though we must grant this was not impossible. For example, as a colleague pointed out to me, England has benefitted from more than 16 centuries of Christianity (maybe more), with many ups and downs. Successive generations of English people have demonstrated piety across the centuries, albeit with times in between of terrible decline and apostasy. Return to text.
  9. This ‘profane’ idea is further discussed in Gary Bates’ book Alien Intrusion, see ref. 1. Return to text.
  10. Job’s likely age of 200 years? This was not discussed in Flemming’s book. My reasoning is as follows. Consider that he died 140 years after he was restored by God, “an old man, and full of days” and saw his descendants for four generations, presumably meaning great grand-children (Job 42:16–17). Before suffering the series of calamities, he had 10 children, who feasted in one another’s homes (Job 1:2, c.f. 1:4); the indication being that many if not all were adults. That Job had grandchildren can perhaps be surmised from Job 19:17–19. Yet Job 1:18–19 indicates all his children died. The verses at the end of Job 42 show that he saw four generations of his descendants. It seems unlikely that they were all the offspring of the seven sons and three daughters born to him after his restoration (Job 42:13), since Job 1:18–19 does not indicate all members of their respective families died. It is unlikely that none of his (pre-calamity) adult children had families of their own since at least some of them had moved out into separate houses. Since the biblical model was leave and cleave, moving out was likely coincident with marriage in most cases. Which is all to say, some of his adult children would likely have been in their thirties at least, putting Job’s age at the time of the calamity at sixty plus. Consider also that the typical age of fatherhood in the patriarchal list (Genesis 11) between Peleg and Reu (men who lived to about 200 years) is about 30 years old. Return to text.
  11. Note, however, that the Septuagint does not use the ‘angel’ translation for the Psalm 29:1, 89:7. Return to text.

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