Sons of God

Some things in the Bible are probably unknowable from our current state of knowledge – and conceivably, our future state, too. This may seem hard to accept since the Scriptures are God’s revelation to us, but then nature is also God’s revelation, and the limits of our comprehension themselves remind us to be humble before God. We see through a glass, darkly, but tend to forget that in our pride.One such example is the episode of the sons of God in Genesis 6 (with the Nephilim and all that), which was under discussion on Peaceful Science last week. The two traditional interpretations we have both date from the late second temple period, maybe two and a half thousand years after the ultimate origin of the Genesis proto-history. They are no more likely to be correct than the critical scholars’ documentary hypotheses… well, maybe a little more likely than that. Of course, we must remember the passage made perfect sense to all its original readers.

The two commonest contending explanations are that the “sons of God” are (fallen) angels, or secondly that they are the children of Adam intermarrying with the daughters of Cain (or sometimes vice versa). In the context of Genealogical Adam, where the whole Adamic line is called to a special relationship with God from a race of true mankind outside the garden, the need for the text to mention intermarriage makes more sense than it does with reference to Cain, who was of Adam’s line anyway.

As for the angel theory, the fact that Jesus speaks of the inheritors of the age to come remaining unmarried “like the angels in heaven” casts serious doubt on its feasibility, even if the oddity of the idea of reproductive compatibility between spiritual beings and men did not. The fact is that the text is underdetermined, but that doesn’t preclude exploring the possibilities as far as possible, which is what I’m attempting here.

The underdetermination is because there is no previous mention of “sons of God” in Genesis, nor indeed as far as I can discern in the whole Pentateuch. Elsewhere in Scripture “sons of God” certainly refers, though rarely, to angelic beings (eg Job 1:6, 38:7; Ps 82:6; and in the singular, Dan 3:25), particularly in the context of God’s “heavenly council.” And it is true that there are probable references to this council in the plurals of Gen 1:26, 3:22, and 11:7, and possibly in the presence of the serpent in the garden if that creature be interpreted (as later Scripture does) as an angelic being (see Michael Heiser on the linguistic plausibility that the serpent was always intended to represent a divine being).

But then, to cast doubt on that line of reasoning, Adam is also referred to as “son of God” elsewhere, in Luke 3:38, which is a genealogy linking him to Jesus the Son of God, so that Adam’s descendants in Gen 6 might also be described thus.

These two, however, are not the only uses of the idea of divine sonship, scattered throughout Scripture. If there were a unifying theme to the usage, might that not cast light on the Gen 6 passage? I’ll leave to one side the New Testament references to the eternal Sonship of Christ, the “only begotten” (monogenes), except to note Paul’s slightly odd phraseology in Rom 1:4, in which Jesus is “declared the Son of God with power by the resurrection from the dead, according to the Spirit of holiness, Jesus Christ our Lord.” Is that simply about the resurrection’s public vindication of his pre-existing Sonship, or does Paul mean that he become Son of God in a new way through the victory at Easter?

In Hosea 1:10, the prophet foresees that rejected Israel will, in the last days, become “the sons of the living God.” In 11:1, too, he refers to Israel as his “son” in their call out of Egypt – only to talk immediately of their rebelling more the more he called, as if they had actually never become what they were called to be. When Matthew applies this same passage to Jesus (Matt 2:15), it is as a contrast, because Jesus is faithful and obedient to his calling. Jesus is the new , faithful Israel – reflecting the “three episode” metanarrative of the Bible I laid out here. So could “sonship” somehow refer to the intended purpose of the calling of Adam (failed), the calling of Israel (failed), and the calling of Jesus (achieved)?

The idea of divine sonship is applied to New Testament believers too, and we tend to view that in terms of either our union with Christ, the “one and only” Son, or in terms of God’s Fatherly love for us. But I notice also, as in the Hosea passage, a kind of future orientation, of sonship as something that is still to be achieved. So in John 1:12, those who receive Christ are “given the right (or literally “power” or “authority”) to become children of God.”

Similarly, in that tricky Rom 8 passage, Paul speaks of us waiting eagerly for our “adoption as sons” in the redemption of our bodies, and the creation also waits for the sons of God to be “revealed“, when it will share “the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” This, too, might fit into the “called to rule under God” theme that unites Adam, Israel and Jesus: “if we endure, we will also reign with him (2 Tim 2:12).

When I was doing theology, it was taken as a given that “son of God” was, primarily, a term applied to the kings of Israel. In this way, Jesus being “Son of Man” was more divinely significant than his being “Son of God”, which might only refer to his inheritance of David’s throne. In the skepticism of my old age, doubting most of what the scholars say unless they back it up with evidence, I have to say I don’t see much support for this well-established idea in the Bible, apart from Ps 2, in which God’s anointed is called the son of God. Well, this could apply to David, and one can conceive of the psalm’s being used during the reigns of his descendants as anointed kings.

But given what I have begun to appreciate more and more as an eschatological and Messianic stress and awareness in the OT, I wonder if this psalm is not more about the expected “Son of David” mentioned in the Davidic covenant (2 Sam 17:11-16). The whole biblical history of the kings, including David himself, is about how each one fails to live up to this eschatological role, until the whole line collapses in the Exile, at which point the prophets start plugging the New Covenant and the coming Messiah, or “branch of David” in earnest. Be that as it may, what is clear is that, in this royal context, divine sonship is again about rule: when in Ps 2 the anointed is decreed to be God’s son, the whole earth becomes his possession for the asking.

And, I conjecture, maybe this idea of “divine rule under God” is what unifies all the disparate concepts of “sons of God.” The angelic council were not, after all, literally “sons of God” by very nature (only the Logos is that), but they were nevertheless appointed to rule creation under God.

Yet Adam, too, was created for this role – as Ps 8, as interpreted by Hebrews 2, says, he was in effect being trained in Eden for appointment to the divine council, and that was the reason for Satan’s jealousy. If we consider Luke’s genealogy, it makes little sense as “proof” that Jesus is the son of God because he descends from Adam, who was the son of God. For not only would that apply to everybody in the world as much as Jesus, but Adam was not, ontologically, God’s child but a mere creation of dust. But if Adam was appointed as “son of God” in the sense of “divine councillor”, but lost that dignity (but not the irrevocable calling of God) through sin, then it makes sense that Jesus, who regained that rule under God for mankind, should also be “declared” God’s son in that sense.

This idea also makes sense both of the eschatological sonship of believers in Jesus, and that of the children of Israel promised in Hosea, for “we shall reign with him” and, indeed, judge angels.

If this idea that divine sonship is conceptually linked not so much to ontology as to eschatological rule, is correct, we see Adam’s whole line as “sons gone bad”, as heirs of the royal role to which they are called who have, for the moment, lost their inheritance (but which God means to restore). In that case, it seems plausible to me that the writer of Genesis could write chapter 6 in the expectation that his readers would see the first mention of “sons of God” as referring to the children of Adam, fallen from their royal calling and exiled in parallel fashion to King Jehoiachin of Judah (also Jesus’s ancestor, Matt 1:11).

The intermarriage of angels and Adam’s offspring remains textually possible, of course. But I think this survey shows that we do not need to make that move, in denial both of the teaching of Jesus about angels, and what must in all ages have seemed the commonsense incompatibility of the spiritual with the animal.

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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