Sons of God: Humans or Spirits? A History of Exegesis of Genesis

Desnitsky Andrei S.

The article presents the history of exegesis of a rather mysterious biblical passage, Genesis 6:1-6. The history of the antediluvian corrupted humankind seems to find its culmination in this episode where the «sons of God» were marrying «daughters of man». Who were those «sons of God» (or even «sons of gods», as one can also translate the Hebrew original)? The answer largely depends on the broader context in which we put this passage. The earliest explanations we can find (apocryphal literature, Hellenistic Jewish writers and earliest Christian fathers) quite consistently identify them as supernatural beings, or fallen angels, who were attracted by the beauty of mortal girls. However, this point of view became incompatible with the developing angelology in both Jewish and Christian traditions, so a new explanation was required. The Jewish tradition reached a consensus that they were judges and other powerful people who were taking wives without asking their consent. The later Christian writers, of which John Chrysostom became the most famous, insisted that the author must have meant by the «sons of God» the descendants of Seth who were unduly mixing with Cain's impious posterity. However, if we take the original cultural background into consideration, we will see that pagan religions regarded marriages between deities and mortal females as a perfectly normal and even desirable thing; so when the author of Genesis was telling his story, in all likelihood, the reference was transparent to his readers. Later, this reference became entirely irrelevant, so a new explanation was to be found. As this example shows, the understanding of ancient texts is shaped by the theology and ideology of the interpreter, so the history of interpretation may be not less captivating than a supposedly objective analysis of the original meaning of the text.