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In my book The Mormon Defenders, I noted that the evidence indicates that Judaism of Jesus' era, before, and after, believed that the "sons of God" in Genesis 6 were fallen angels, and that this understanding is also indicated by 1 Peter. As a supplement to this, we now also consider Genesis 6 itself and the views of that passage, as presented by Matthews' commentary on Genesis [324ff]. (We'll leave out of consideration such ideas as that they were aliens.)
Sons of God = fallen angels
Support for this is found in the use of the terms "sons of God" for angels in the Bible itself (Job) and in non-Biblical but culturally related texts (from Ugarit, for example, where it is used of lesser deities). Matthews admits that this is the earliest known understanding of the text of Genesis (since the 2nd century BC), and was adopted by Christian writers, though later rabbis endorsed the second view (below).
Matthews replies to this view as follows:
Sons of God = rulers
- There is no contextual identification in Gen. 6. This can be readily admitted, but the same applies for any other view of this passage.
- Matthews says that Gen. 6:1-8 "concerns humanity and its outcome, not angels and their punishment," but this is a case of assigning a topic arbitrarily ("humanity") and then objecting that another topic does not fit. The lack of reference to angelic punishment is not meaningful; and one may as well say that the subject here is, "humanity -- what happened when fallen angels stepped in".
- A major objection of Matthews and many opponents is that this understanding makes procreation a power of angels, whereas Jesus said that angels do not procreate [Matt. 22:30]. However, Matthews admits that angels are said to take on human traits, even eating (as they did with Abraham), and while this would not prove that fallen angels could acquire procreative properties as well, one may suggest as the article linked above does that fallen angels "used the bodies of ungodly men, by demonic possession, to achieve their evil purpose of producing an evil generation of people." Or, the manipulation of matter may have accomplished a similar purpose.
As for Jesus' comment, it is not clear whether this is because angels cannot engage such activity by nature, or are simply forbidden to. Note that Jude 1:6-7 says that angels who "left their habitation" and, like Sodom and Gomorrah, went after "strange flesh", which would suggest that the latter is more likely.
- Matthews acknowledges the interpretation of 1 Peter, but answers by providing alternate views which we addressed in The Mormon Defenders in the Appendix.
This was a view of the rabbis and ties in with the reference in Ps. 82 of human rulers as elohim. Matthews acknowledges that this does not satisfy contextual requirements either (Gen. 6 does not refer to kingship), and rulers of the period did consider themselves to be divine progeny. But it is hard to see why this should have received any special notice from Genesis.
Sons of God = line of Seth
This view is held by many Christians today and was held by Augustine and the Reformers. Matthews allows that this view has its "share of difficulties" (though he does not name any) but it is what he considers most attractive.
His positive evidence is:
- This would relate the text back to the two lines of Seth and Cain in Chs. 4 and 5. But this would neglect the dimension of what were likely numerous other children had by Adam and Eve (5:4), and it is also questionable as to why the lines of Seth and Cain specifically, and not other human lines, would produce "mighty men".
Matthews also allows, a bit contraily, that the "daughters of men" may not just mean Cainite humans; but this undermines the very understanding he is trying to adhere to.
- It is noted that the phrase can have a "genitive quality" and be read as, "godly sons".
But one wonders whether this would achieve a coherent parallel with the phrase "daughters of men," and there is also no particular reason why godliness ought to produce "mighty men" particularly when other human lines apparently do not (or are not said to).
- It is said to resonate with that Israelis are called "children of God". Yet this is not the same as "sons of God", and one may ask: Were there no "daughters of God" marrying "sons of men"?
- There is no evidence that the family lines of Cain and Seth were told to separate themselves from each other, or even that of Seth from that of Cain; there is no reason to consider the whole line of Cain as somehow "ungodly"; and there is no reason to suppose that the line of Seth was especially "godly". Indeed, was it godly to marry the daughters of men, it was known they were generally wicked?
Our conclusion is that option 1 in some form is the one that best coheres with the textual evidence; in particular, because of NT verification.