A History of Interpreting Genesis 6:1-4 (Part I)

וַֽיְהִי֙ כִּֽי־הֵחֵ֣ל הָֽאָדָ֔ם לָרֹ֖ב עַל־פְּנֵ֣י הָֽאֲדָמָ֑ה וּבָנ֖וֹת יֻלְּד֥וּ לָהֶֽם׃ וַיִּרְא֤וּ בְנֵי־הָֽאֱלֹהִים֙ אֶת־בְּנ֣וֹת הָֽאָדָ֔ם כִּ֥י טֹבֹ֖ת הֵ֑נָּה וַיִּקְח֤וּ לָהֶם֙ נָשִׁ֔ים מִכֹּ֖ל אֲשֶׁ֥ר בָּחָֽרוּ׃ וַיֹּ֣אמֶר יְהֹוָ֗ה לֹֽא־יָד֨וֹן רוּחִ֤י בָֽאָדָם֙ לְעֹלָ֔ם בְּשַׁגַּ֖ם ה֣וּא בָשָׂ֑ר וְהָי֣וּ יָמָ֔יו מֵאָ֥ה וְעֶשְׂרִ֖ים שָׁנָֽה׃ הַנְּפִלִ֞ים הָי֣וּ בָאָ֘רֶץ֮ בַּיָּמִ֣ים הָהֵם֒ וְגַ֣ם אַֽחֲרֵי־כֵ֗ן אֲשֶׁ֨ר יָבֹ֜אוּ בְּנֵ֤י הָֽאֱלֹהִים֙ אֶל־בְּנ֣וֹת הָֽאָדָ֔ם וְיָלְד֖וּ לָהֶ֑ם הֵ֧מָּה הַגִּבֹּרִ֛ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר מֵעוֹלָ֖ם אַנְשֵׁ֥י הַשֵּֽׁם׃
Genesis 6:1-4

In their endeavors to make sense of Gen 6:1-4, readers across the centuries have turned to a host of expansive solutions. The text leaves much unexplained, from the semantics of its expressions to the question of literary context. Modern scholars note the brevity of the account and have suggested the existence of a more complete narrative as the original source. [1] Ancient readers situated this story within the Book of the Watchers, which interpreted the nĕp̄ilîm as a product of the sexual relations between bĕnê-hāʾę̆lohîm and bĕnôt hāʾādām—fallen angels and human women. Later, Christian skeptics of such readings offered the “Sethite explanation” as a creative reworking of the passage. These competing interpretations continued to develop through the middle ages.

As a study in reception history, this paper follows the motif of giants (γίγαντες, the LXX rendering of nĕp̄ilîm) as the offspring of spirits and women. This motif emerged in the Second Temple period, but by late antiquity both Christian and Jewish commentators had rejected it. Despite rejection by established tradition, the motif survived into the high middle ages of the Latin West. The Brut, the national foundation history of Britain, played a role in its survival, possibly prompting continued treatment of the subject in the writings of later scholastics like Nicholas of Lyra (d. 1349). In the medieval West, extra-biblical storytelling passed down the understanding that giants come from the union of fallen angels and human women.

Modern Exegesis

As Susan Gillingham argues, reception history done well produces a dialogue between a text and its receiving cultures. [2] Such dialogue necessitates a basic familiarity with the text. For this reason, before looking at the text’s reception, it is worthwhile to see the text itself, along with a delineation of the problematics presented by the text and a cursory overview of modern scholarly solutions. Gen 6:1-4 appears at the end of the genealogy of Seth (4:25-5:32) and before the flood narrative (6:5-8:22). In some ways, the four verses function as a transition: vv. 1-2 continue the genealogical interest of human procreation and v. 3 tells of God’s displeasure with mankind leading up to the flood. [3] Yet these same verses do not perfectly relate to either what comes before or after them. Verses 1-2 lack the formula of the previous genealogies, and v. 3 is not necessarily related to the deluge. [4] To further confuse matters, God’s 120-year limit on all humanity is not an intuitive punishment for the copulation between ḇĕnê-hāʾę̆lohîm and bĕnôṯ hāʾāḏām. Verse 4 frames the nĕp̄ilîm as the offspring of ḇĕnê-hāʾę̆lohîm and bĕnôṯ hāʾāḏām, but only through “an odd agglomeration of disjunctive clauses,” as Hendel puts it. [5] The text offers pieces of a story but leaves the reader with the job of connecting these pieces into a unified whole. [6]

In their search for a fuller view of the story, scholars look to other ancient cultures. Here, an abundance of literature testifies to the widespread mythological motif of spirits consorting with humans and the destruction that follows. Later parallels from Greek and Phoenician literature may have stemmed from an older Hurrian myth. Cassuto points to similar stories in Canaanite and Ugaritic texts. Speiser calls the story found in Genesis “undisguised mythology,” whereas Cassuto emphasizes its curt presentation, “as though it wished to convey that it finds the entire topic wholly uncongenial, and that the subject is mentioned not for its own sake but in order to disabuse the reader’s mind of certain notions.” [7]

Westermann sees the pericope (if it may be called such) as an etiology for hagiborîm (v. 4): “It is a primeval story of the origin of the gibbōrim.” [8] Speiser argues that, in its place, it serves to indict mankind and offer “a compelling motive for the forthcoming disaster.” [9] But most agree that the redactor cut short an originally pagan narrative myth to fit new purposes, whether an etiology for hagiborîm or a justification for the flood.

Three titles remain obscure: bĕnê-hāʾę̆lohîm (v. 2), hanĕp̄ilîm, and hagiborîm ʾăšęr meʿôlām ʾanšê hašem (v. 4). In addition to Gen 6, bĕnê-hāʾę̆lohîm appear in Job, Daniel, and some Psalms. Most scholars now understand bĕnê-hāʾę̆lohîm to be lesser divinities. Skinner describes them as “members (but probably inferior) of the divine order, or (using the word with some freedom) angels.” [10] Cassuto proposes that the term “denotes the entities appertaining to the Divine sphere,” in this case angels “of a degraded type.” [11] Dillmann argues that bĕnê-hāʾę̆lohîm “is the name given in the Old Testament to the angels when the reference is to their nature as beings of higher divine mould, as superterrestrial; otherwise when spoken of as executing a duty at the bidding of God, they are called מַלְאָכִים.”[12] Waltke, reading from a Christian paradigm, suggests a variation on the traditional Jewish reading of bĕnê-hāʾę̆lohîm as power-abusing rulers: “[t]he best solution is to combine the ‘angelic’ interpretation with the ‘divine king’ view. The tyrants were demon possessed.” [13]

Verse 4 identifies hanĕp̄ilîm with hagiborîm ʾăšęr meʿôlām ʾanšê hašem by the pronoun hemmā. [14] The verse ties the etiology to a later time, when the nĕp̄ilîm still existed. The Hebrew Bible mentions nĕp̄ilîm in one other place: Num 13:32-33, where the nĕp̄ilîm are identified as a race of giants. Ezek 32:27 also refers to giborîm nôpĕlîm (LXX τῶν γιγάντων τῶν πεπτωκότων), fallen warriors.

The Second Temple Period

Second Temple traditions corroborate modern exegesis in their own colorful fashion. In Gen 6:4, LXX calls both the nĕp̄ilîm and the giborîm giants (γίγαντες), and though it translates bĕnê-hāʾę̆lohîm as “the sons of God” (οἱ υἱοὶ τοῦ θεοῦ), a variant manuscript tradition renders them “angels of God” (ἀγγελοὶ τοῦ θεοῦ). [15]

The Book of the Watchers (BW; 1 Enoch 1-36) preserves a fleshed-out retelling of Gen 6:1-4 as part of its narration of the angelic rebellion against God. [16] BW represents a set of traditions which identify bĕnê-hāʾę̆lohîm as angels and understand the union of angels with human women as producing destructive giants. The text names the angels and recounts their sinful acts of consorting and sharing forbidden knowledge with human wives. Of all extant Second Temple literature, BW presents the most elaborate account of the primeval drama between angels, humans, giants, and God.

Late Antiquity

BW traveled far and wide through the late antique world. Ancient translations in Greek and Ge’ez survive; it found a place among the Dead Sea Scrolls; Jubilees and the Similitudes of Enoch draw from BW; and Jude 14-15 quotes it. [17] Along the way, it popularized the interpretation of giants as the product of the illicit union between fallen spiritual beings and women, an etiology which must have resonated with Hellenistic readers who were aware of this motif from the literature of other cultures. [18] Athenagoras, Origen, Clement, and Tertullian read writings attributed to Enoch as prophecies. Tertullian even treated BW as Scripture, relying on the story of angelic and human miscegenation in his work De cultu feminarum. [19]

BW gives a fleshy depiction of the angelic descent, but this motif may also have found other modes of transmission. Annette Yoshiko Reed notes that most texts from late antiquity which recall the angelic reading of Gen 6:1-4 omit major themes of BW (illicit instruction and the origin of evil), cautioning against “the dangers of assuming that all references to the fallen angels derive from this apocalypse.” [20] In all likelihood, oral storytelling, exegesis of Genesis, and other formats additional to BW promoted the narrative of angels consorting with human women.

The angelic interpretation eventually fell out of favor within early rabbinic Judaism. With Christian adoption of BW and the parting of ways, rabbinic Judaism saw a need for differentiation, and this included the exclusion of Watchers traditions. Targum Onkelos translates bĕnê-hāʾę̆lohîm as bny rbrbyʾ, “sons of great men.” Genesis Rabbah 26:5 states that “Rabbi Shimon son of Yochai called them ‘sons of the judges.’ Rabbi Shimon son of Yochai cursed anyone who called them ‘sons of God.’” Justin Martyr, a contemporary of Rabbi Shimon, records Trypho the Jew’s aspersion against the angelic descent narrative in his Dialogue with Trypho 79, wherein Trypho calls such interpretations βλάσφημοι, “blasphemies.” [21] The angelic reading of Gen 6:1-4 resurfaces in later medieval Jewish literature, but in its formative days rabbinic Judaism rejected the Enochic tradition as sectarian.

Although the earliest Christians embraced the angelic reading of Gen 6:1-4, between the third and fifth centuries western Christian exegesis moved toward a Sethite interpretation. Julius Africanus suggested that bĕnê-hāʾę̆lohîm refer to the children of Seth who consorted with Cain’s descendants—not fallen angels. [22] Reed points to theological reasons Christians rejected BW: with Christ as Second Adam, the origin of evil had to be placed before the genealogies of Adam. Christian chronology could not allow evil to originate as late as Enoch. Even worse, pagans challenged Christians on Christ’s incarnation, comparing it with the nĕp̄ilîm. Moreover, when Manicheans embraced Enochic literature, heresiologists formed a negative association with BW. [23] The testimony of Jewish reception likewise influenced early Christians away from the angelic reading. Cyril of Alexandria looked to the Jewish Greek translations Aquila and Symmachus to support his euhemeristic stance; Augustine likewise relied on Aquila for the same purpose. Augustine and Jerome referred to “that canon of Scripture which was preserved in the temple of the Hebrew people” to argue that BW had no place in the canon. [24] According to Cassian, Serenus called the angelic tradition of Gen 6:1-4 “illa vulgi opinio.” It may be that as Christians came to square their theology with western philosophy the church fathers found the idea of spirits descending and copulating with humans intellectually unappetizing. [25]


[1] “[O]ne has the impression of an already fixed formula which could be a fragment of an earlier layer… it is important that there is here yet again the trace of a pre-history of the narratives of primeval time that goes right back to the primitive cultures.” C. Westermann, Genesis 1-11, 382-3. “[W]e are able in some points to reconstruct an older form of the story than the one transmitted to us: notably Genesis vi. 1-4 is nothing but a torso.” H. Gunkel, The Legends of Genesis, 15.

[2] S. Gillingham, “Biblical Studies on Holiday? A Personal View of Reception History,” in Reception History and Biblical Studies: Theory and Practice, ed. E. England and W. Lyons, 19, 25.

[3] Cassuto calls the multiplication of men “a clear link with chapter v” and connects ʿal-pĕnê hāʾădāmāh (v. 1) with v. 7 of the flood story. U. Cassuto, Genesis, 291. R. Hendel notes that the Leitwörter hāʾādām and lāroḇ (v. 1) link with hāʾādām and rabâ (v. 5); wayyirʾu and ṭoḇot (v. 2) link with wayyarʾ and rāʿat (v. 5). Hendel, “The Nephilim Were on the Earth,” 12-3. The Sethite genealogy, interrupted here to narrate the flood, continues at Gen 9:18.

[4] Cassuto, Genesis, 297-8.

[5] Hendel, 15.

[6] Westermann writes, “The most serious disruption in the narrative is due to the insertion of v. 3 which has no relationship at all to the original course of the story.” Genesis, 366.

[7] Cassuto, 299 and E. A. Speiser, 45. See also comparison with the Atraḥasis epic in Westermann, 374 and Hendel, 23-32; with Arabian and German stories in Gunkel, 59; and with a Hittite myth in T. Gaster, Myth, legend, and custom in the Old Testament, 79-80.

[8] Westermann, 365.

[9] Speiser, 46. Cf. A. Dillmann, 232: “By his acceptance of this history, the author has certainly shown his belief in the possibility of such a horrible perversion of all order. Yet it is undeniable that he does not relate the matter for its own sake, but in order to characterise the perversion into which the antediluvian race of men had fallen. It is only to serve this purpose that the statement is removed from another connection in which it once stood and placed here before the Flood.”

[10] J. Skinner, Genesis, 141. See also Hendel, 17-20; Speiser, Genesis, 83; G. Wenham, Genesis, 139-40; A. Wright, The Origin of Evil Spirits, 94; and Westermann’s list of scholars who agree on this point in Westermann, 372.

[11] Although Cassuto looks to Ugaritic and Canaanite literature to determine that bĕnê-hāʾę̆lohîm are gods, he concludes that in Israelite religion angels replaced the pagan divine pantheon, and therefore in Gen 6:2 bĕnê-hāʾę̆lohîm refers to angels. Cassuto, 292-4.

[12] Dillmann, Genesis, vol. 1, 233.

[13] B. Waltke and C. Fredricks, Genesis, 117.

[14] Another reading of hemmā considers the pronoun to refer to hagiborîm, in which case v. 4 does not identify hanĕp̄ilîm with hagiborîm. Wright, 81-2.

[15] Wright, 62-3. LXX translates bĕnê-hāʾę̆lohîm in Job and Daniel as “angels of God” but in Psalms as “sons of God.” Philo and Josephus likewise identify bĕnê-hāʾę̆lohîm as ἀγγελοὶ. Philo reads Gen 6:1-4 as an allegory of the human struggle between good and evil. Wright discusses the possibility of Philo’s acquaintance with the Book of the Watchers tradition. Wright, 213-14. Josephus clarifies that their children were simply strong, aggressive men, not supernatural giants. A. Y. Reed, 107.

[16] Jubilees 4-5 also preserves the Watchers traditions. Scholars call this “the Watchers tradition” or “the tale of the Watchers,” although it is most likely a conglomeration of multiple traditions. J. Reeves, “Watchers Traditions in Late Antiquity” in The Fallen Angels Traditions, eds. A. Harkins, K. Bautch, J. Endres, 102. J. Milik suggested that Gen 6:1-4 draws from BW, but this opinion has not gained acceptance among modern scholars. Milik, The Books of Enoch, 31; Reed, Fallen Angels, 53.

[17] Jude also references the angelic descent (v. 6). To this day, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church includes BW in their holy writ. Some of these translations fall between the fourth and sixth centuries—after the western church had excluded BW from its canon. Reed, 226-332.

[18] See Reed’s discussion in Fallen Angels and the History of Judaism and Christianity, 116-7.

[19] See F. Harkins, “Magical Arts, Angelic Intercourse, and Giant Offspring,” in The Fallen Angels Traditions, A. Harkins, Bautch, and Endres (eds.), 158; Reed, Fallen Angels, 152. Justin Martyr likewise used BW; for a discussion of early Christian reception of BW, see Reed, Fallen Angels, 123-89.

[20] Reed, 119-20.

[21] Tertullian and Origen also noted Jewish rejection of BW. Reed, 208; see also ibid., 136-8, 206-18.

[22] Africanus worked as a Christian chronographer, trying to reconcile biblical sources with Greek historiography. Reed, 219.

[23] Reed, 198-201, 227, 233-77. See also the excellent chapter by Reeves, “Resurgent Myth: On the Vitality of the Watchers Traditions in the Near East of Late Antiquity,” The Jewish Lore in Manichaean Cosmogony: Studies in the book of Giants Traditions (Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College Press, 1992).

[24] Jerome, De Viris Illustribus, 4; Augustine, De civitate Dei contra paganos, book XV, chapter 23. Reed, 202-4, 218.

[25] Cassian, Collationes patrum, book 8, chapters 20-21, quoted in Reed, 220, 224.

About The Author

Zach is the Chief Editor of the Morning Walk Website. He built and continues to maintain the Website. As Chief Editor, he will attack every word you write. Nothing is safe from this grammar police who will take your words–all of them–and expose them to the greatest torture. Your clauses, phrases, and participles are not safe from him. (Chief Editor's note: The disgruntled Executive Director wrote the polemical portion of this bio.)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.