John D. Davis on the “Sons of God”

A Dictionary of the Bible, 2nd Edition (1903), John D. Davis, editor

The following is a fascinating Bible Dictionary entry of the biblical useage of the phrase “Sons of God,” with a special treatment on the various interpretations thereof in Genesis 6. The editor of this Bible Dictionary, John D. Davis, was a member of the faculty of the “Old Princeton.” B.B. Warfield himself even contributed a few of the entries in this dictionary as well. It’s written on a very accessible level for laymen to grasp, and now that I have an antiquarian copy of the 1903 Second edition, I’ll be consulting it in my own Bible study, and most likely, this will not be the last you read from it on this blog, as well.

Sons of God

A Dictionary of the Bible by John D. David, Ph.D. D.D., LL.D.

Professor of Oriental and Old Testament Literature in the Theological Seminary, Princeton, N. J.

1898, 1903 by The Trustees of the Presbyterian Board of Publication and Sabbath-School Work.

Pages 701-702

Worshipers and beneficiaries of God…Such was its common Semitic meaning in early times. There is abundant reason to believe that this is its signification in the celebrated passage where it first appears in the Bible. “It came to pass, when men began to multiply on the face of the ground, 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 that they chose” (Gen. 6:1-2).

Three interpretations have been proposed. The Sons of God are:

  1. The great and noble of the earth, and the daughters of men are women of inferior rank (Samaritan version; Greek translation of Symmachus; Targums of Onkelos and Jonathan).
  2. Angels, who left their first estate and took wives from among the children of men (Book of Enoch, Philo, Josephus, Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian).
  3. Pious men, worshipers of God, who were especially represented by the descendants of Seth. They were attracted by the beauty of women who did not belong to the godly line, married with them, and became secularized (Julius Africanus, Chrysostom, Cyril of Alexandria, Augustine, Jerome).

The first interpretation has no longer any advocates.

In favor of the second, it is asserted that the term denotes angels everywhere else in the O.T. (Job 1:6; 2:1; 38:7; cf. a similar expression Ps. 29:1; 89:6; RV margin; but not Dan. 3:25); that the designation describes angels according to their nature, whereas the ordinary word for angels,mal’akim, messengers, refers to their official employment; and that this interpretation is confirmed by Jude 6 and 2 Pet. 2:4. But that the term relates to the nature of angels lacks proof; it is quite as natural that it should describe angels as worshipers of God. As to the passages in Jude and Peter, to cite them is begging the question, since exegetes point out other references, as Is. 24:21-23. And unless the title be restricted to the special form which it has in the passage under discussion, it is not true that the term denotes angels in all other places where it occurs in the O.T.

  • The worshipers of the heathen deity Chemosh are called the people of Chemosh, and his sons and daughters (Num. 21:29; Jer. 48:46).
  • When the men of Judah, professed worshipers of Jehovah, took heathen women to wife, Judah was said to have married the daughter of a strange god (Mal. 2:11).
  • Moses was directed to say to Pharaoh: “Thus saith the Lord, Israel is my son . . . . . Let my son go” (Ex. 4:22-23).
  • “Ye are the children [or sons] of the Lord your God” (Deut. 14:1).
  • “They have dealt corruptly with him, they are not his children.” (Deut. 32:5)
  • “Is not he [the Lord] thy father?” (Deut. 32:6)
  • “The Lord saw it, and abhorred them, because of the provocations of his sons and his daughters” (Deut. 32:19)
  • “Ye are the sons of the living God” (Hos. 1:10).
  • “When Israel was a child …I…called my son out of Egypt” (Hos. 10:1).
  • “Bring my sons from far, and my daughters from the end of the earth; every one that is called by my name, and whom I have created for my glory” (Is. 43:6-7).
  • The pious are the generation of God’s children (Ps. 73:15), and Ephraim is his dear son (Jer. 31:20).

Taking a broader survey, and examining Semitic literature other than Hebrew, one observes the same fact. Many a Babylonian styled himself the son of the god whom he worshiped and upon whom he relied for protection and care.

Furthermore, the opinion that the title in Gen. 6:2 means angels is not the earliest view, so far as the records go. The earliest attested interpretation, that of the Samaritan version, regarded the sons of God as men; and later when the angelic theory arose, it was the opinion of a particular school among the Jews, while the more influential party in religious matters still taught that the sons of God were men.

Icon of Seth

The interpretation that the sons of God in Gen. 6:2 were pious people, the worshipers of the true God, more especially that they were the godly descendants of Adam through Seth, whose genealogy is given in Gen. 5, is not only in accordance with Semitic, and particularly biblical, usage of the designation, as already shown, but it is consistent with the context. The sons of God are contrasted with the daughters of men, that is of other men. So Jeremiah says, “God did set signs in Israel and among men;” and the English version supplies the word other before men, in order to bring out the sense (Jer. 32:20). Likewise the psalmist says that the wicked “are not in trouble as men; neither are they plagued like men;” and again the English version supplies the word other (Ps. 73:5). After the same manner Gen. 6:1-2 may be read: “When mankind began to multiply on the face of the ground, and daughters of other men that they were fair; and they took them wives of all that they chose.” The meaning of the writer is that when men began to increase in number, the worshipers of God so far degenerated that in choosing wives for themselves they neglected character, and esteemed beauty of face and form above piety. The offspring of these marriages were perhaps stalwart and violent. Mixture of race in marriage often produces physical strength in the descendants, and lack of religion in the parents is apt to be reproduced in the children. The intermarriage of the sons of God and the daughters of men was offensive in the sight of God. Sentence was pronounced against the wrongdoers. The penalty is not denounced on angels, who were not only implicated, but were the chief sinners, if the sons of God were angels. The punishment is pronounced against man only. Man, not angels, had offended.

Sons of God everywhere in Scripture, from the earliest to the latest times, means the worshipers and beneficiaries of God, both among mortal in immortal beings. But the content of this idea did not remain the same through the ages. It became larger with increasing knowledge of the riches of God. It enlarged, for example, at the time when the Israelites were delivered from Egypt.

  • God said: “I have seen the affliction of my people” (Ex. 3:7);
  • and again: “Say unto Pharaoh, Israel is my son, my firstborn; who is as dear to me,” so the following words imply, “as Pharaoh’s firstborn is to him” (Ex. 4:22 with 23);
  • and again: “I will take you to me for a people, and I will be to you a God” (Ex. 4:7).

Heretofore the title had emphasized a filial relation of men to God, their dependence upon him for protection and care, and their duty of reverence and obedience. Now God formally accepts the obligations which implicitly devolve on him. The content of the title was further enlarged through the teaching of Jesus Christ. He took truths already known, shed light on them, and connected them with this designation.

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7 responses

  1. I wish the “nephilim” were the offspring of fallen angels, namely giants. Unfortunately, the context precludes “angels” and is probably more than likely, simply the intermarrying of the line of seth and the line of cain, “the sons of God and the daughters of men”. The “whomever they chose” is the giveaway in the text. It seems Moses is barking against the idea that they could marry whomever they wanted, which for an israelite was not the case. So Moses seems to be giving us a tip that the issue and the sin is that those in the line of Seth, chose to marry whomever they liked. Basic and very boring interpretation when compared to the possibility of demonic offspring for sure.

    1. Great point about God’s people not being unequally yoked. That aspect hadn’t dawned on me yet.

  2. an interpretation by ” (Julius Africanus, Chrysostom, Cyril of Alexandria, Augustine, Jerome) and G Browning. Tall company boy!

    1. Just a few of the giants (pun intended) on whose shoulders we stand!

  3. There has been plenty of giants, whose shoulders I have stood on, too many to count to be sure. The aforementioned men, I am not worthy to change their chamberpots, men who have gone before, who are now justified men, made perfect! Sometimes I just feel better when I agree with someone I recognize. I always feel weird when I agree with those that I neither know who they are or I know who they are and don’t like them so much…kind of like when I agree with John Hagee, Glenn Beck, or Billy Sunday…don’t feel real good about my position then ya know? Gotta re-think it etc…and kind of make me feel, um, strange.

    1. Very true and very colorful.

  4. The article is one for me to ponder and the back and forth between you two is too!

    thanks for both!!

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