The notion that Genesis 6 ‘sons of‘ is a reference to ‘the sons of Seth’ is surprisingly popular despite the fact that the Bible is replete with evidence that the sons of God in Genesis 6:1-4 were (demons) and despite the fact that all of the ancient Jewish and Ante-Nicene Christian commentators believed the “sons of God” to be referring to demons (fallen angels).
Augustine of Hippo
The first, as far as we can see, to definitively deny the sons of God as being angels was Augustine of Hippo of the fifth century, approximately seventy five years after the drafting of the Nicene Creed. Augustine did much to spiritualize the history of the Bible and twist a simple straightforward reading of the Bible. His method of Bible interpretation made a profound impact and his legacy remains even to this day. Many centuries after Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, a doctor of the Catholic Church in the 13th century, quotes in his magnum opus, Summa Theologica, from Augustine’s work City of God (De Civ. Dei xv) concerning the sons of Seth:
Many persons affirm that they have had the experience, or have heard from such as have experienced it, that the Satyrs and Fauns, whom the common folk call incubi, have often presented themselves before women, and have sought and procured intercourse with them. Hence it is folly to deny it. But God’s holy angels could not fall in such fashion before the deluge. Hence by the sons of God are to be understood the sons of Seth, who were good; while by the daughters of men the Scripture designates those who sprang from the race of Cain. [i] Nor is it to be wondered at that giants should be born of them; for they were not all giants, albeit there were many more before than after the deluge. Still if some are occasionally begotten from demons, it is not from the seed of such demons, nor from their assumed bodies, but from the seed of men taken for the purpose; as when the demon assumes first the form of a woman, and afterwards of a man; just as they take the seed of other things for other generating purposes, as Augustine says (De Trin. iii), so that the person born is not the child of a demon, but of a man, [ii] (emphasis mine).
Just as Augustine fallaciously suggested the sons of God were the so called “godly line of Seth,” the daughters of men have been labeled as being from the “ungodly line of Cain”. Augustine says, “By the daughters of men the Scripture designates those who sprang from the race of Cain,” (Augustine as quoted in Summa Theologica, Aquinas). We must ask the important question – where in Scripture does it say such a thing? Augustine makes the claim above that Scripture designates those daughters as coming from the race of Cain, but just where do we see that? The answer is that we simply do not. It was first tentatively considered by Julius Africanus and then completely invented by Augustine and then repeated by all who would follow in his footsteps ever since. If the term “sons of God” refers to the “sons of Seth” as so many suggest, then why does the text not simply state it? Unfortunately neither Augustine nor Aquinas substantiates the claim. They simply presume their statement to be true and offer no biblical proof. Augustine states that “Scripture designates” that the daughters of men “sprang from the race of Cain”. But where in Scripture does it say that? Sadly, their unbiblical assertion has left its mark in the modern day creating a great deal of confusion regarding what the Bible literally teaches.
John Calvin in the 17th century carried on the tradition started by Augustine that the sons of God are in fact the sons of Seth. He states in his commentary:
The principle is to be kept in memory, that the world was then as if divided into two parts; because the family of Seth cherished the pure and lawful worship of God, from which the rest had fallen. Now, although all mankind had been formed for the worship of God, and therefore sincere religion ought everywhere to have reigned; yet since the greater part had prostituted itself, either to an entire contempt of God, or to depraved superstitions; it was fitting that the small portion which God had adopted, by special privilege, to himself, should remain separate from others. It was, therefore, base ingratitude in the posterity of Seth, to mingle themselves with the children of Cain, and with other profane races; because they voluntarily deprived themselves of the inestimable grace of God. For it was an intolerable profanation, to pervert, and to confound, the order appointed by God. It seems at first sight frivolous, that the sons of God should be so severely condemned, for having chosen for themselves beautiful wives from the daughters of men. But we must know first, that it is not a light crime to violate a distinction established by the Lord; secondly, that for the worshippers of God to be separated from profane nations, was a sacred appointment which ought reverently to have been observed, in order that a Church of God might exist upon earth; thirdly, that the disease was desperate, seeing that men rejected the remedy divinely prescribed for them. In short, Moses points it out as the most extreme disorder; when the sons of the pious, whom God had separated to himself from others, as a peculiar and hidden treasure, became degenerate, (emphasis mine). [iii]
Calvin rightly describes the world as being wicked, but he vainly asserts that the world had been “divided into two parts.” Where do we see such an idea in the Bible? He also introduces his deterministic philosophy of predestination by stating that apparently the sons of Seth were adopted by “special privilege.” His denial of who the sons of God truly were creates a tremendous amount of confusion that has clouded the interpretation of the text for potentially millions of people over the centuries. Furthermore, nowhere do we see that the daughters of men are from the so called ungodly line of Cain.
Calvin continues with his unbiblical prohibition of inter-class marriages. Notice that again he does not offer any biblical support for any of his positions. He does not seek to prove his point with Scripture but with opinion and conjecture. Having simply asserted his position, Calvin then ridicules the ‘sons of God as demons [m1] ‘ interpretation.
That ancient figment, concerning the intercourse of angels with women, is abundantly refuted by its own absurdity; and it is surprising that learned men should formerly have been fascinated by ravings so gross and prodigious. The opinion also of the Chaldean paraphrase is frigid; namely, that promiscuous marriages between the sons of nobles, and the daughters of plebeians, is condemned. 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, (Calvin Commentary Genesis 6:1 emphasis mine).
We have already seen how “sons of God” is used in Scripture – furthermore that there were no human “sons of God” before the resurrection of Jesus. However Calvin introduces great confusion into the text by dogmatically declaring that God’s terms are very capricious and that they sometimes mean one thing in one context and quite another someplace else. The simple biblical definition, as we have seen, is that sons of God are direct creations of God. Calvin is unable to define sons of God because of bad exegesis.
Should anyone object, that they who had shamefully departed from the faith, and the obedience which God required, were unworthy to be accounted the sons of God; the answer is easy, that the honor is not ascribed to them, but to the grace of God, which had hitherto been conspicuous in their families. For when Scripture speaks of the sons of God, sometimes it has respect to eternal election, which extends only to the lawful heirs; sometimes to external vocations according to which many wolves are within the fold; and though in fact, they are strangers, yet they obtain the name of sons, until the Lord shall disown them. Yea, even by giving them a title so honorable, Moses reproves their ingratitude, because, leaving their heavenly Father, they prostituted themselves as deserters, (emphasis mine). [iv]
Now, to support his presuppositions, he must explain away the giants (Nephilim) that are introduced in Genesis 6:4 and are the result of the sons of God (or as he would say the sons of Seth) and the daughters of men (or as he would say the daughters of Cain).
Moses does not indeed say, that they were of extraordinary stature, but only that they were robust. Elsewhere, I acknowledge, the same word denotes vastness of stature, which was formidable to those
who explored the land of Canaan, (Jos 13:33.) But Moses does not distinguish those of whom he speaks in this place, from other men, so much by the size of their bodies, as by their robberies and their lust of dominion, (emphasis mine). [v]
He downplays the fact that the fruit of the union between the sons of God and daughters of men were men of extraordinary size. He simply asserts that they were “great” in their evil. His interpretation is unfounded and he is not completely honest here for the word (Nephilim) used in both places is exactly the same. Calvin and numerous others turn to Genesis 4:26 in order to substantiate their case. Hawker’s Poor Man’s Commentary is very typical of those that leap to the conclusion that sons of God must be referring to the Sons of Seth.
Observe the different expressions: sons of God, and daughters of men. If you turn to Gen 4:26 you there discover that the children of Seth are said to call on the name of the Lord; including both sons and daughters; and hence, therefore, these are meant by the sons of God. [vi]
They suggest that this passage in some way proves that the term “sons of God” is really a hidden meaning for sons of Seth. Let’s take a look at the passage to see if their claims are valid.
Seth and His Sons
Seth appears a total of seven times in both the Old Testament and the New Testament (NKJV). We get a brief glimpse of his life by stringing together all of the passages [vii] that speak of him.
And Adam knew his wife again, and she bore a son and named him Seth [...], and as for Seth, to him also a son was born; and he named him Enosh. Then men began to call on the name of the LORD, (Genesis 4:25-26).
And Adam lived one hundred and thirty years, and begot a son in his own likeness, after his image, and named him Seth. After he begot Seth, the days of Adam were eight hundred years; and he had sons and daughters. Seth lived one hundred and five years, and begot Enosh. After he begot Enosh, Seth lived eight hundred and seven years, and had sons and daughters. So all the days of Seth were nine hundred and twelve years; and he died. (Genesis 5:3-4, 6-8).
Here 130 years after creation, Adam has a son named Seth; then 105 years after that Seth had a son named Enosh. Thus we learn that a total of 235 years after creation men began to call upon the name of the Lord. The Hebrew term for Lord is YHWH which is the personal name of God. God told Moses: “I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, as God Almighty [El Shaddai שַׁדָּ֑י אֵ֣ל], but by My name LORD [YHWH יְהוָה] I was not known to them,” (Exodus 6:3). Thus to think that this was the first time that humans began to worship the Lord is unfounded. Rather we simply read that they began to use his personal name at that point for some purpose. While it appears to have begun with a son of Seth, we should not infer that it was limited to that line. After all, the Hebrew text very literally says az hukhal likro beshem YHWH [בְּשֵׁ֥ם יְהוָֽה לִקְרֹ֖א הוּחַ֔ל אָ֣ז] “then was begun (the) calling by (with, in) the name YHWH” (translation mine). The term hukhal (הוּחַל) is the passive (hophal) of begin. The subject of the verb hukhal is “calling” (likro’ לִקְרֹא). The word “men” does not even appear in the text. Thus we see that apparently, up until that point, men were not invoking God by His proper name. It could be that they didn’t know it, though we cannot be sure. Nevertheless this reading of the verse does not in any way substantiate the notion that Seth’s sons were the sons of God. Another reading is possible which may clarify the passage.
A Possible Translation
Conversely, the verb hukhal (הוּחַל) comes from the root (חלל) the basic meaning is “to profane, defile, pollute, desecrate, begin” according to Brown Driver Briggs’ [viii] Lexicon of the Hebrew Bible. Thus, the alternative reading would be “then calling by the name of YHWH was profaned”. This alternative reading actually finds endorsement by the ancient Aramaic Targumim. Targum Onkelos interprets the passage as:
And to Sheth also was born a son, and he called his name Enosh. Then in his days the sons of men desisted [חָלוּ] (or forbore) from praying in the name of the Lord, (Genesis 4:26, Targum Onkelos, emphasis mine).
Targum Jonathan is similar though it amplifies that reading even more:
And to Sheth also was born a son, and he called his name Enosh. That was the generation in whose days they began to err [למטעי], and to make themselves idols, and surnamed their idols by the name of the Word of the Lord, (Genesis 4:26, Targum Jonathan, emphasis mine).
While neither “began” nor “profane” supports the sons of Seth theory, the latter would seem to make more sense in light of the entire story of the Bible. The divine name seems to have been known from the very beginning of creation. Adam was familiar with it because he heard the voice of the LORD (YHWH) God in the garden after he had sinned. Calling by the name of the Lord was until that time respected and honored but it was in the days of Enosh when calling by the name of the Lord was defiled. God then destroyed the world because of the continual wickedness. Noah retains knowledge of the name and then apparently at the tower of Babel the name is forgotten or lost. God chooses not to reveal His name again until Moses has the encounter at the burning bush.
The Sons of Seth Were Not Sons of God
Regardless of which reading we take, there is simply no evidence whatsoever to support the concept that Genesis 4:26 can be used to interpret the sons of God as the sons of Seth. There is no indication that Seth’s sons were somehow more godly than the rest of humanity. Furthermore, it must not be missed that Adam lived another 800 years after begetting Seth and that he had sons and daughters. Likewise “Seth lived eight hundred and seven years and had sons and daughters,” (Genesis 5:7). All of the sons and daughters of Seth as well as the sons and daughters of Cain were in fact sons (and daughters) of Adam. Technically speaking every human ever born on this planet is a son or daughter of Adam; the Hebrew language uses the term to mean “human”. Thus the text is driving home the point that there are two dissimilar groups: the daughters of Adam on the one hand and the sons of God on the other. To suggest that the daughters of men were actually the daughters of Cain is fanciful. Rather, the daughters of Adam are contrasted with the sons of God: the daughters of men were human and the sons of God were not.
Furthermore, we can in no way infer that all of these sons and daughters remained so godly that they would be distinguished from the sons of Cain. After all, only eight people were saved out of the entire world. These sons of Seth must not have been so godly after all. Simply put, the sons of God do not refer to the lineage of Seth, but to direct creations of God, which before the redeeming work of Christ was limited to Adam himself and to angels. Therefore, the sons of God in Genesis six refers to fallen angels who had relations with human women.
[viii] Brown Driver Briggs (BDB) Hebrew English Lexicon provides the following definition. The most common definition is “1. to profane, defile, pollute, desecrate, begin”. BDB then goes on to give the various forms of how the root is used in each of the binyanim (verbal paradigms). In the a. (Niphal) it means to: 1. to profane oneself, defile oneself, pollute oneself; b. ritually; c. sexually; 1. to be polluted, be defiled; d. (Piel): 1. to profane, make common, defile, pollute; 2. to violate the honour of, dishonour; 3. to violate (a covenant); 4. to treat as common; e. (Pual) to profane (name of God); f. (Hiphil): 1. to let be profaned; 2. to begin; g. (Hophal) to be begun”(emphasis mine). The Hophal is simply the passive of the Hiphil – therefore, if the Hiphil occasionally means to let be profaned then the one occurrence of the Hophal might also be translated as profaned rather than begin.