Who Were the "Sons of God" and the "Giants" in Genesis 6:1–4?

by John Bockman
Tokyo, Japan

The Problem (Three Minutes of Irksome Thought)

In the Book of Genesis, we find wedged between the generations of Adam and the story of Noah and the flood an odd passage telling how people multiplied on the earth and how the "sons of God" went in to the daughters of men who bore either "mighty men" or "giants," depending on the text in hand. The brevity and mythical character of this passage make it hardly worth spending much time pondering — indeed my daughter's A Child's Bible (Shirley Steen [New York: Paulist Press, 1986]) passes over it in silence — because in the words of A. E. Housman, "thought is irksome and three minutes is a long time." (Selected Prose [Cambridge University Press, 1905], p. 56, quoted in Hendel's The Text of Genesis 1–11 [Oxford University Press, 1998], p. 3). Yet the passage is nevertheless there, which makes it as much holy writ as the generations of Adam and the story of Noah and the flood.

And for this reason one may be intrigued by the half-page-long footnote to this passage contained in The Complete Word Study Old Testament (AMG Publishers, 1994). In this footnote, three theories of the identity of these characters are explained as follows:

The first theory is that the "sons of God" are fallen angels and the "daughters of men" are mortals. . . The second theory as to their identity is the one most often held to within conservative scholarship. The "sons of God" are reckoned to be the godly line of Seth, while the "daughters of men" are the line of Cain. . . The last theory is one that is gaining popularity among conservatives. Recent archaeological evidence has suggested that the phrase "sons of God" was sometimes used to describe kings. . . (p. 17)

When I read St. Ephraim the Syrian's "Commentary on Genesis," which endorses the second theory above, I was relieved that my three minutes of irksome thought had been rendered unnecessary. According to St. Ephraim, the line of Cain ceased to be productive, and rather than bearing male offspring, it produced only female offspring. The line of Seth, on the other hand, continued to produce robust males who, though they were "the righteous people of God," were at any rate "stirred to a frenzy" over the women in the line of Cain.

For this reason the "tribe of Seth" declined and the "house of Cain" waxed strong with "mighty men." Therefore, God gave mankind 120 years in which to repent or bear the consequences, i.e., the flood (pp. 134–137). This explanation seemed so neat until I found that the Codex Alexandrinus of the LXX refers to hoi angeloi tou Theou (the angels of God) and not to hoi huioi tou Theou (the sons of God). Oops! Back to square one!

Textual Analysis

Speaking of texts, let us go through each version (the Masoretic [M] in the KJV, the LXX, and the Syriac Peshitta [P] used by St. Ephraim) and see how they compare in terminology. First the M version (words in bold type are those that diverge from the other versions):

And it came to pass, when men began to multiply on the face of the earth, and daughters were born to them, that the sons of God (benei ha-elohim) saw the daughters of men that they were fair, and they took them wives of all which they chose. And the Lord said, My spirit shall not always strive with man, for that he also is flesh: yet his days shall be a hundred and twenty years. There were giants (ha-nephilim) in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God (benei ha-elohim) came unto the daughters of men, and they bore children to them, the same became mighty men (ha-gibborim) which were of old, men of renown.

Now the LXX (from the Bagster edition):

And it came to pass, when men began to be numerous upon the earth, and daughters were born to them, that the sons of God (hoi huioi tou Theou) having seen the daughters of men that they were beautiful took to themselves wives of all whom they chose. And the Lord God said, My spirit shall certainly not remain among these men forever, because they are flesh, but their days shall be an hundred and twenty years. Now the giants (gigantes) were upon the earth in those days; and after that when the sons of God (hoi huioi tou Theou) were wont to go in to the daughters of men, they bore children to them, those were the giants (gigantes) of old, the men of renown.

And now the gleanings from the text of St. Ephraim's commentary:

And it came to pass that when men increased and daughters were born to them, and the sons of God saw that the daughters of men were beautiful and they took to wife such of them as they chose. Then the Lord said, "My spirit shall not abide in man forever, for he is flesh, but his days shall be one hundred and twenty years. There were mighty men in those days, and also afterward, because judges went into the daughters of men, they bore the mighty men who were of old, the mighty men of renown.

Notice first of all that all three texts refer to the sons of God seeing the daughters of men and choosing wives. Then M and LXX mention the giants on the earth in those days, but the P only mentions mighty men. The M and LXX also refer again to the sons of God going in to the daughters of men, but the P refers instead to judges (!). Only the LXX makes further mention of giants being borne by the daughters of men, but M sides with P in referring only to mighty men. This double mention of giants in LXX shows that the fact that there were giants on the earth is seen as somehow significant. Then the surprising mention of judges in P seems to indicate an adherence to the third theory outlined in Word Study OT footnote. If so, St. Ephraim seems not to subscribe to it.

Linguistic Analysis

Both the M and the LXX texts refer to the benei ha-elohim and hoi huioi tou Theou which are in complete agreement to "the sons of God" which are also mentioned in the P. (The Aramaic equivalent is bnaya d-alaha.) However, the Hebrew ha-nephilim, while being translated by the KJV as "giants," is actually subject to a wide range of interpretation. Strong's A Concise Dictionary of the Hebrew Bible, which is contained in the Word Study OT, defines nephil as "a feller, i.e., a bully or tyrant: — giant." The "lexical aids" section in the same book explains: "This masculine noun has its origin in naphal. It means a bully, a tyrant, a giant. It appears three times in the OT (Gen. 6:4 [once]; Num. 13:33 [twice]). Since the etymology is uncertain, there is much speculation among reputable scholars concerning the nature of these individuals. Until more evidence becomes available, perhaps it is wise to do as the RSV and NIV translations have done, i.e., render it 'Nephilim'" (p. 2341). The LXX uses the term gigantes from which we get our English "gigantic" and "giants." There is no mistaking the meaning of "giants" here. But then why doesn't the P also mention giants? This is extremely problematic.

Historical Analysis

Let us return to the footnote in the Word Study OT and look at it in greater detail. The first theory states:

The wickedness for which they are condemned is the unlawful marriage between those who are supernatural and those who are mortal. The ancient viewpoint hinges in part on the assumption that Jude 1:6,7 refers to these angels. The proponents of this view insist, perhaps with some Scriptural backing, that the term "sons of God" refers only to angels (Job 1:6–12). However, at this point there is no precedent from which this conclusion can be drawn.

And the second theory:

Thus the sin with which they are charged is one which is common to the whole of Scripture, and especially to the Pentateuch: the intermarriage of the chosen people of God (the believers) with those who are unholy.

And the third theory:

. . . [T]he "sons of God" are immoral kings who used their power to take as many women and whatever women they chose. It must be noted that the Scripture never describes human rulers as deities. This theory rests upon the conjecture that the "giants" of verse four are the children of the union described in the preceding verses. The word "giant" comes from the Septuagint rendering of the Hebrew Nephilim, "the fallen ones," which comes from naphal, "to fall." It is often associated with violence, and so translated "overthrow, fall upon." The term emphasizes their violence and lack of respect for others. However, neither the text nor the fact that they were "giants" supports the idea that they are the result of a union between angels and human beings. No one believes that, because Goliath and his brothers (the children of Anak) were giants, that they were necessarily the offspring of some supernatural union.

This last comment is very interesting because, first, the P version, in its jump from "sons of God" to "judges," appears to lack any unity. It could easily be questioned whether not one but two unnatural unions are being referred to in the P version. Also, it is true that to consider Goliath the product of a "supernatural union" would be totally absurd, and we will see why very soon.

Critical Analysis

The Qumran scrolls fortunately unmuddy the waters for us considerably. A fuller account of Gen. 6:1–4 can be found in 4QEnochb and 1QGenesis Apocryphon (Florentino Garcia Martinez, The Dead Sea Scrolls Translated [Leiden, New York, Koln: Billl, 1994] pp. 230–31, 248–50). Let us turn to these now. First, the Book of Enoch. (For ease of reading, all the diacritical marks that indicate text restorations are dispensed with.)

It happened that when in those days the sons of men increased, pretty and attractive daughters were born to them. The Watchers, sons of the sky, saw them and lusted for them and said to each other: Let's go and pick out women from among the daughters of men and sire for ourselves sons. However, Shemihazah, who was their chief, said to them: I am afraid you do not want to carry out this deed and I alone will be guilty of great sin. They replied and all said to him: We all take an oath and all swear under oath to each other not to go back on this venture until we have performed this deed. . .

The text then lists the twelve other angels by name.

They and their chiefs all took for themselves women, choosing from among all, and they began to penetrate them and be defiled by them and teach them sorcery, incantations, and the cutting of roots and to explain herbs. They became pregnant by them and gave birth to giants, some three thousand cubits tall [a cubit is about 1½ feet], who were born upon the earth in keeping with their infancy and grew at a rate of their growth and consumed the work of all the sons of men, without the men being able to supply them.

People became increasingly depraved through the black arts taught them. Raphael, Michael, Sariel, and Gabriel see this and report to God.

And to Gabriel the Lord said: Go to the bastards and the sons of whoring and exterminate the sons of the Watchers from among the sons of men; involving them in a war of attrition for there will not be long days for them. Absolutely no request in their favor will be granted to their fathers; for they hope to live an everlasting life or that each one of them will live five hundred years. And to Michael the Lord said: Go, Michael, and tell Shemihazah and all his friends who coupled with women to be defiled by them in their uncleanness that their sons will expire and they will see the extermination of their loved one; chain them up for seventy generations in the valleys of the earth until the great day of their judgment. . .

Meanwhile, in the Genesis Apocryphon, Lamech becomes suspicious of his wife, for reasons now lost, that his own son Noah is the product of such a supernatural union:

Then I, Lamech, was frightened and turned to Bitenosh, my wife, and said: . . . Swear to me by the Most High, by the Great Lord, by the King of the Universe, . . . the sons of heaven, that you will in truth let me know everything, if . . . you will in truth and without lies let me know whether this . . . Swear to me by the King of all the Universe that you are speaking to me frankly and without lies. . . Then Bitenosh, my bride, spoke to me very harshly. She wept . . . and said: Oh my brother and lord! Remember my pleasure . . . the time of love, the gasping of my breath in my breast. I shall tell you everything accurately. . . I swear to you by the Great Holy One, by the King of the heavens . . . that this seed comes from you, that this pregnancy comes from you, that the planting of this fruit comes from you, and not from any foreigner or watcher or son of heaven. . . Then I, Lamech, ran to my father, Methuselah, and told him everything, so that he would go and ask Enoch, his father, and would know everything for certain from him, since he (Enoch) is liked and well liked. . ." (This having been done, Enoch responds:) "Go tell Lamech, your son. . ."

At this point the extant text of the Genesis Apocryphon breaks off, but we can assume that Lamech was reassured his son Noah was legitimate. Furthermore, this means the sons of Noah were not descended from any "sons of God" or "Watchers," as they are called in the Qumran scrolls. Therefore, since all mankind is descended from the sons of Noah, Goliath could not have been the product of a supernatural union. And above all, the Qumran scrolls establish beyond the shadow of a doubt that the Second Temple era Jews espoused the first theory in the above-mentioned footnote, and not to the second theory expounded on by St. Ephraim the Syrian.

Theological Interpretation

Let us turn to some very interesting questions raised in the footnote in the Word Study OT. These are:


"If this sin (intermarriage) is, at least to a large extent, the fault of the angels, why is man punished by the flood?"


". . . There is considerable theological difficulty in the existence of human beings who are, at least in part, not descended from Adam (Acts 17:26 [sic])."


"How can these men (the line of Seth) be considered holy when the Bible states that only Noah was holy (Gen. 6:8,9)? And why is the term ‘sons of God' not used with this meaning in any other place? Other people question why only sons and not daughters are associated with the line of Seth."

To answer the first, God was not punishing man just for the sin of intermarriage. If He were, why would Genesis 6:5 go on to explain, "And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually"? Therefore the sin of intermarriage, being only a part of man's wickedness, could not have been the determining factor in God's purpose. In addition, it wasn't only man He was destroying in the flood, but "both man, and beast, and the creeping thing, and the fowls of the air; for it repenteth Me that I have made them."

To answer the second, it has already been established (from the Genesis Apochryphon) that no semi-humans were on the ark with Noah. Therefore, the editors of the Word Study OT have misapplied Acts 17:29. When St. Paul addressed the Athenians in the Areopagus, he certainly did not have Gen. 6:1–4 in mind in claiming we are God's offspring.

To answer the third, in Genesis mankind is always referred to generically and is never segregated into any "tribe of Seth" or "house of Cain," so the objection that no daughters are associated with the line of Seth is a valid one. While St. Ephraim the Syrian's interpretation remains a theory, i.e., a plausible explanation, it accords well with subsequent Jewish and Christian thought, namely, that believers should not be yoked with unbelievers.


In this article, I have considered the three theories expounded in the Word Study OT; compared the terminologies of M, LXX and P versions of Gen. 6:1–4; and then used the Qumran scrolls to show that the "nephilim" were indeed giants and not just "mighty men," and not the "tribe of Seth" which is nowhere mentioned in Genesis. This is the viewpoint held by Second Temple era Jews, and it was subsequent speculation that muddied the waters. Anyway, I hope you have found these more than three minutes of irksome thought entertaining and instructive after all.

John Bockman, Tokyo Japan

The Holy Fathers Speak

St. Clement was a Roman who characterized himself as a "lover of chastity from his earliest youth." He struggled for years with the dread of oblivion after death. In his quest for truth, he studied with the philosophers, who only argued unceasingly and left him in still greater spiritual turmoil and despair. Then he hears of our Savior's preaching to the Jews, and of His miracles, and attempts to go to Judæa. On the way he meets St. Barnabas who has come to preach in Alexandria, but the sophisticated Greeks deride the simple discourse of Barnabas, and Clement takes Barnabas to his lodgings to protect him from the crowd. Then Barnabas leaves for Judæa, and shortly thereafter Clement does, as well. When he arrives in Cæsarea he again comes upon Barnabas, who introduces him to St. Peter. Commending him for rescuing Barnabas from the unruly crowd in Alexandria, Peter invites him to join his party as it makes its way to Rome with the message of Truth, and to become his attendant. In the course of St. Peter's discourse on our Savior's teachings, he gives an account of creation of the world and of man. This is St. Clement's account of what St. Peter said next.

All things being completed which are in heaven, and in earth, and in the waters, and the human race also having multiplied, in the eighth generation, righteous men, who had lived the life of angels, being allured by the beauty of women, fell into promiscuous and illicit connections with these; and thenceforth acting in all things without discretion, and disorderly, they changed the state of human affairs and the divinely prescribed order of life, so that either by persuasion or force they compelled all men to sin against God their Creator. In the ninth generation are born the giants, so called from of old, not dragon-footed, as the fables of the Greeks relate, but men of immense bodies, whose bones, of enormous size, are still shown in some places for confirmation. But against these the righteous providence of God brought a flood upon the world, that the earth might be purified from their pollution, and every place might be turned into a sea by the destruction of the wicked. Yet there was then found one righteous man, by the name of Noah, who, being delivered in an ark with his three sons and their wives, became the colonizer of the world after the subsiding of the waters, with those animals and seeds which he had shut up with him.

In the twelfth generation, when God had blessed men, and they had begun to multiply, they received a commandment that they should not taste blood, for on account of this also the deluge had been sent. In the thirteenth generation, when the second of Noah's three sons had done an injury to his father, and had been cursed by him, he brought the condition of slavery upon his posterity. . . In the fourteenth generation one of the cursed progeny first erected an altar to demons, for the purpose of magical arts, and offered there bloody sacrifices. In the fifteenth generation, for the first time, men set up an idol and worshiped it. . . .

The following, from "The Clementine Homilies," is an elaboration on the subject of creation quoted above from the "Recognitions of Clement." (The translator calls it "a more developed speculation.")

For of the spirits who inhabit the heaven, the angels who dwell in the lowest region, being grieved at the ingratitude of men to God, asked that they might come into the life of men, that, really becoming men, by more of an exchange of ideas they might convict those who had acted ungratefully towards God, and might subject every one to adequate punishment. When, therefore, their petition was granted, they metamorphosed themselves into every nature; for, being of a more godlike substance, they are able easily to assume any form. So they became precious stones, and [metals]. . . They also changed themselves into beasts and reptiles, and fishes and birds, and into whatsoever they pleased. . .

But when, having assumed these forms, they . . .changed themselves into the nature of men, in order that, living holily, they might subject the ungrateful to punishment, yet having become in all respects men, they also partook of human lust, and being brought under its subjection they fell into cohabitation with women; and being involved with them, and sunk in defilement and altogether emptied of their first power, were unable to turn back to the first purity of their proper nature, . . .they trode the impious path downward. For they themselves, being fettered with the bonds of flesh, were constrained and strongly bound; wherefore they have no more been able to ascend into the heavens.

But from their unhallowed intercourse spurious men sprang, much greater in stature than ordinary men, whom they afterwards called giants; not those dragon-footed giants who waged war against God . . . but wild in manners, and greater than men in size, inasmuch as they were sprung of angels; yet less than angels, as they were born of women. Therefore God, knowing that they were barbarized to brutality, and that the world was not sufficient to satisfy them (for it was created according to the proportion of men and human use), that they might not through want of food turn, contrary to nature, to the eating of animals, and yet seem to be blameless, as having ventured upon this through necessity, the Almighty God rained manna upon them, suited to their various tastes; and they enjoyed all that they would. But they, on account of their bastard nature, not being pleased with purity of food, longed only after the taste of blood. Wherefore they first tasted flesh.

And the men who were with them there for the first time were eager to do the like. Thus, although we are born neither good nor bad, we become one of the other; and having formed habits, we are with difficulty drawn from them. But when irrational animals fell short, these bastard men tasted also human flesh. For it was not a long step to the consumption of flesh like their own, having first tasted it in other forms.

. . . All things, therefore, going from bad to worse, on account of these brutal demons, God wished to cast them away like an evil leaven, lest each generation from a wicked seed, being like to that before it, and equally impious, should empty the world to come of saved men. And for this purpose, having warned a certain righteous man, with his children, to save themselves in an ark, He sent a deluge of water, that all being destroyed, the purified world might be handed over to him who was saved in the ark, in order [that there might be] a second beginning of life. And thus it came to pass.

"Recognitions of Clement," Book 1, Ch. xxix–xxx,
and "The Clementine Homilies," Homily 8,
Ch. xii–xvii, Ante-Nicene Fathers.

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