Q. Is Genesis 6:1-4 saying that angels married humans? Who are the "sons of God"?
A. Before studying into this question in depth, I assumed I knew the answer. So I surprised myself with what I found. I also found that the correct understanding of this passage is important because it serves as a lesson for us today. I will go through the common explanations of this passage, show from the Bible which is correct, and then discuss what we can learn from this lesson.
In the King James Version, Genesis 6:1-4 reads:
And it came to pass, when men began to multiply on the face of the earth, and daughters were born unto them, That the sons of God 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 an hundred and twenty years. There were giants in 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, the same became mighty men which were of old, men of renown.
There are at least three explanations for what this passage means by the "sons of God."
1. The most commonly accepted explanation today of this verse is that the "sons of God" means the male descendents of Seth, and that the "daughters of men" refers to the female descendents of Cain. The adherents of this explanation say that the descendents of Seth are called the "sons of God" because they had preserved the worship of the true God, whereas the descendents of Cain had lost true worship and fallen into a corrupt religion. The problem, then, was that intermarriage between these two lines of people led to this corrupt religion spreading into the line of Seth.
The appeal of this explanation is that it does not involve anything extraordinary. God was not pleased with the intermarriage of two lines of humans because it was spreading corrupt religion. It matches with such Scriptures as 2 Corinthians 6:14: "Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness?" But merely matching a biblical principle is not a compelling reason to accept this understanding. An explanation of a Scripture should be based on how the same words and phrases are used elsewhere in the Bible, and, if possible, on other Scriptures that speak of the same thing.
So there is a serious problem with this view. It is not at all based on Sola Scriptura, the Bible alone. It is not based on the Bible interpreting itself. It does not show us that the term "sons of God" is elsewhere used to mean "sons of Seth." It does not come from exegesis but from eisegesis. That is, aside from the general principle that God does not want us to marry outside of the true religion, there is nothing in the Bible that supports this explanation. It is out of the heads of men.
Nothing in the Bible says that, by this time, the sons of Seth were any more righteous than anyone else. Nothing in the Bible supports the idea that this is talking about the intermarriage between the sons of Seth and the daughters of Cain. Verse 1 is speaking of "when men began to multiply...and daughters were born unto them." There is absolutely no reason to assume that this is referring to anything other than all men. But the proponents of this explanation want us to believe that in verses 2 and 4, "the daughters of men" means the daughters of only the sons of Cain. Although this is the explanation I once believed, I now see that it is an absurd and baseless assumption. Most importantly, nothing in the Bible supports the interpretation of "sons of God" as "sons of Seth."
2. Another explanation, not widely accepted today, is that "sons of God" refers to "sons of judges" or "sons of magistrates." And it is true that it is possible to so translate the Hebrew. The Hebrew word 'ĕlōhîm, which is almost always translated "God," is translated "judges" in Exodus 21:6 and 22:8-9 and as "judge" in 1 Samuel 2:25 (although this latter instance is probably wrong, and should be "God"). But, aside from man trying to reason out this Scripture, there is no real cause to translate 'ĕlōhîm as "judges" here. Also, this does not explain why it would be wrong for the "sons of judges" to marry the "daughters of men." And, finally, this explanation also is not based on any other biblical evidence; it is not based on sound exegesis.
3. The third explanation of this passage is that "sons of God" refers to angels, and that these angels left their spiritual abode manifesting themselves physically and having sexual relations with human women who are referred to as the "daughters of men." This explanation was held by Josephus, Philo, Eusebius, and many of the early "church fathers."
This explanation has several supports. Very importantly, a study of the term "sons of God" reveals that it always refers to rational beings directly created by God or, in the singular, to the Second Person of the Trinity. The reference to Adam as the "son of God" in Luke 3:38 is really only in the English. The Greek merely says, "of God." Nevertheless, it is perhaps implied that Adam was the son of God, but this still fits the explanation because Adam was a rational being directly created by God. Christians are also called "sons of God" because they are new creations, born again of God. They are His direct, spiritual offspring.
In the Old Testament, "sons of God" clearly refers to the angels. In Job 1:6, we read, "Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the LORD, and Satan came also among them." And Job 2:1 says, "Again there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the LORD, and Satan came also among them to present himself before the LORD." Plainly, this was a meeting of angels before God. Job 38:4-7 says, "Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? declare, if thou hast understanding. Who hath laid the measures thereof, if thou knowest? or who hath stretched the line upon it? Whereupon are the foundations thereof fastened? or who laid the corner stone thereof; When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?" This is referring to a time before the creation of man. Who else could "sons of God" be referring to but the angels?
Now, let's notice another Scripture—Jude 1:6-7: "And the angels which kept not their first estate, but left their own habitation, he hath reserved in everlasting chains under darkness unto the judgment of the great day. Even as Sodom and Gomorrha, and the cities about them in like manner, giving themselves over to fornication, and going after strange flesh, are set forth for an example, suffering the vengeance of eternal fire." So we see here another reference to angels who kept not their first estate, who left their own habitation. But there is even more to this passage that is not presented clearly in the King James Version.
Notice the American Standard Version of these verses: "And angels that kept not their own principality, but left their proper habitation, he hath kept in everlasting bonds under darkness unto the judgment of the great day. Even as Sodom and Gomorrah, and the cities about them, having in like manner with these given themselves over to fornication and gone after strange flesh, are set forth as an example, suffering the punishment of eternal fire." The inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities gave themselves over to fornication "in like manner with these." In like manner with whom? The angels who left their proper habitation, of course.
Now read it in the English Standard Version: "And the angels who did not stay within their own position of authority, but left their proper dwelling, he has kept in eternal chains under gloomy darkness until the judgment of the great day—just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which likewise indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural desire, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire." The inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities "likewise indulged in sexual immorality." Likewise to whom? Likewise to the angels who left their proper dwelling.
The Revised English Bible could hardly be clearer: "Remember too those angels who were not content to maintain the dominion assigned to them, but abandoned their proper dwelling-place; God is holding them, bound in darkness with everlasting chains, for judgement on the great day. Remember Sodom and Gomorrah and the neighboring towns; like the angels, they committed fornication and indulged in unnatural lusts; and in eternal fire they paid the penalty, a warning for all."
Some might argue that these translations are not literal enough, so I am going to quote from The Literal Translation of the Holy Bible: "And those angels not having kept their first place, but having deserted their dwelling-place, He has kept in everlasting chains under darkness for the judgment of a great Day; as Sodom and Gomorrah, and the cities around them, in like manner to these, committing fornication, and going away after other flesh, laid down an example before-times, undergoing vengeance of everlasting fire." The Greek of the phrase "in like manner to these" is homoion toutois tropon. A very strict, literal translation is "similar to these in manner." The word "other" in "other flesh" is heteras. It means "different."
There can hardly be a doubt that Jude was saying that the people of Sodom and Gomorrah committed sexual immorality and went after different flesh in a manner similar to the angels who left their proper dwelling. We certainly know that the people of Sodom and Gomorrah committed fornication, including having homosexual relations. But how did they go after "different flesh"? Remember that in Genesis 19, the people of Sodom wanted to have sexual relations with the angels. Thus, Jude 1:6-7 strongly supports the explanation of Genesis 6 that the "sons of God" refers to angels who left their heavenly dwelling and their spiritual bodies, manifested themselves physically, and committed fornication with flesh that was different from their own—that is, they had sexual relations with humans.
Now that we know this, we see that this is also what Peter is writing of in 2 Peter 2:4-6: "For if God spared not the angels that sinned, but cast them down to hell, and delivered them into chains of darkness, to be reserved unto judgment; And spared not the old world, but saved Noah the eighth person, a preacher of righteousness, bringing in the flood upon the world of the ungodly; And turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrha into ashes condemned them with an overthrow, making them an ensample unto those that after should live ungodly."