The passage in question is this:
6:1 When people began to multiply on the face of the ground, and daughters were born to them, 2 the sons of God saw that they were fair; and they took wives for themselves of all that they chose. 3 Then the Lord said, “My spirit shall not abide in mortals forever, for they are flesh; their days shall be one hundred twenty years.” 4 The Nephilim were on the earth in those days—and also afterward—when the sons of God went in to the daughters of humans, who bore children to them. These were the heroes that were of old, warriors of renown. (Genesis 6:1-4)
Unfortunately we do not know for certain the original context of this passage. Scholars disagree about the exact age of this part of Genesis, or why this section was written. From the simple surface of the text Genesis 6 is written, like almost all of Genesis, in Middle Biblical Hebrew (MBH), which places it anywhere between Solomon and the exile in Babylon (Late Biblical Hebrew). However the same careful scholars that date the final version to that period also view Genesis as an editing, compiling and even translating from older sources, possibly much older sources, from the Ancient Near East. So we do not have any firm historical context other than the place of the story in the finished Genesis narrative, as literally antediluvian (before the flood) history.
One recent sample academic approach to this passage can be found in Perspectives: The Functions of Genesis 6:1–4 in The Sons of God in Genesis 6:1–4 by Bible scholar Jaap Doedens (19 March 2019). The paper by Doedens is one possible view. It is presented as an example, to get a taste of the Ancient Near East (ANE) scholarship relevant to this passage.
Anyway, back to the point about the original context: The conclusion of many of the scholars who have approached this passage is that the authors of Genesis referenced material with a long history in the Ancient Near East about the fall of heavenly beings, such as Titans, material outside the strictly monotheistic frame of Jewish history, and the Genesis authors were interpreting this material as warning against mixing with paganism and polytheism. In a sense this is a contradiction, since why take material which is probably polytheistic and non-Jewish in origin, to reinforce a Genesis story which is monotheistic and Jewish in conclusion? But then that is a method employed elsewhere in the Old Testament prophets when in conflict with idol worship.
Given that we know that the overall objective of Genesis is to present the prehistory of God’s dealings with mankind leading to the Patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and the origins of the nation of Israel, the pre-flood history of man, including the “sons of God” incident, is part of that overall early Genesis narrative of the failure of man’s response to God before Abraham. It is there as back story to the narrative that man before the Abrahamic covenant, and the setting apart of Israel was corrupt. That being so, the later rabbinical reading of the “sons of God” of Genesis 6 as failed pre-Jewish priests (an interpretation documented in Jesus’ day) may not be far from what the scribes in pre-exile Judah (when Genesis was completed) originally intended the reader to understand when they placed this story of fallen Titans and sirens into their introduction to the story of Noah.
But the fact is, we don’t know. There are vague parallels to this story in ANE literature, but that doesn’t explain the presence of this material in Genesis 6, or what it is meant to teach the Jewish reader. In the absence of much information about how and why the Genesis authors would have used this tradition the best we can do is try and interpret it in the light of related commentary elsewhere in the Bible.
Sons of God, angels?
We do fortunately know a lot about how Jews in the time of Jesus viewed, and disagreed over, this passage. Documents of Jesus’ time such as the Dead Sea Scrolls contain several expansions of the Genesis 6:1-4 story expanding the events into the fall of angels and their marriage with women on earth in apocryphal books like Jubilees and 1 Enoch – a strand in Jewish myth sometimes called “Enochic tradition”. Against this we also have rabbinic literature condemning these stories of angels marrying women as superstition.
Interestingly this is one of the few popular Jewish myths on which we have Jesus’ own commentary, where Jesus denies the idea that angels can marry, and identifies men not angels as ‘sons of God’.
For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. (Matthew 22:30)
Indeed they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. (Luke 20:36)
There are those who have argued that these statements by Jesus are not intended as a contradiction of the Jubilees and 1 Enoch stories of angels marrying, and that his statements about angels marrying and sons of God from Jesus are just coincidence. That is a bit difficult to believe. The Enochic literature is one of the strongest strains in Jewish angelology at this period. Fragments of at least seven separate copies of 1 Enoch have been identified at Qumran, more than any other single text in the Dead Sea Scrolls. To say that Jesus simply hadn’t heard of this story is just not credible. To then say that the above statements do not directly contradict the Enochic tradition and align Jesus with the rabbis who rejected the story is also lacking one crucial evidence. If Jesus is not referring to the Enochic tradition of angelic sons of God marrying, then what other story of angels marrying exists in Jewish myth at this period. All surviving fragments, and there are hundreds of them, go back to the same expansion (or midrash) on Genesis 6.
So basically we know Jesus’ view on angels marrying and on who the “sons of God” were from Matthew 22:30 and Luke 30:36.
Sons of God, sons of Seth?
There is a stream in rabbinical and also early Christian interpretation (Augustine and Cyril of Alexandria) reading these phrases ‘Sons of God’ and ‘daughters of men’ as ‘Sons of Seth’ and ‘daughters of Cain’, as being about the intermarriage of the priestly Seth lineage with the worldly children of Cain. As evidence of this it is noted that after Seth begot Enosh, “at that time he began to call on the name of the Lord.” This establishes Enosh as the first dedicated priest in pre-Israel Old Testament times leading to Melchizedek, the king priest who gave bread and wine to Abraham. In favour of this interpretation is that it does not destroy all other Bible teaching about angels, and sin – which is a big point in its favour. Also that it illustrates along the increasing violence of the bronze age children of Cain and their weapons (Lamech, Genesis 4:3) led naturally to the diminishing Seth line with Enoch being whisked away, “so he could not be found”, and Noah having only eight souls saved on the Ark.
This is the naturalistic, and consistent interpretation of Genesis 6:2 which fits with the Genesis 5, and the rest of Genesis 6, from 6:3. Consider God’s response to 6:2. Is it to chain angels in Tartarus (per 1 Enoch 200 BCE) ? Or is it to limit the lifespan of the children of Cain, and Seth, to 120 years? Who is God punishing in 6:3, following 6:2?
3 Then the Lord said, “My Spirit shall not abide in man forever, for he is flesh: his days shall be 120 years.” 4 The Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of man and they bore children to them. These were the mighty men who were of old, the men of renown.
Although those committed to the fallen angel teaching found in Jewish myths like 1 Enoch, or in Jehovah’s Witness interpretation often make light of the rabbis and Augustine’s ‘Sons of Seth’ idea, the fact is that the text surround Genesis 6:2 in Genesis 5 and Genesis 6:3 onwards is all about the sons of Seth vs the children of Cain, with no mention of angels, and certainly not a hint of the Maccabeean era inventions about angels being chained in Tartarus which are unknown in the Old Testament itself.
There were mighty men in those days, but that doesn’t mean they were offspring of angels. The Hebrew terms of Genesis 6:4 are used for many others at various times long after the flood: Nephilim (giants) in Numbers 13:33, men of renown in Numbers 16:2; 1 Chronicles 5:24; 12:30 and mighty men in Genesis 10:8-9; Joshua 6:2; 1 Chronicles 12:1,4,8,21,25,28,30, etc. None of these people were born of angels either.
God’s response in Genesis 6:3 is to warn of the coming destruction of man; it is man that is at fault, not angels (who cannot sin anyway (Psalm 103:20; Hebrews 1:14); if they could sin, they would also die (Romans 6:23), but angels cannot die (Luke 20:35-36)). So the context of Genesis 6 confirms these sons of God are people — people who had been faithful, but who compromised themselves by marrying ‘any they chose’ (Genesis 6:2).
This failure of God’s people is the lesson Jesus Christ draws from the incident as particularly relevant to people in the day of his return: there is more to think about in life than attractive women and other sensory pleasures.
“Just as it was in the days of Noah, so will it be in the days of the Son of Man. They were eating and drinking and marrying and being given in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed them all.” (Luke 17:26-27)
‘Sons of God’, further Old Testament and New Testament usage.
Aside from the key reference above where Jesus uses ‘sons of God’ to refer to believers in the context of angels not marrying, the rest of the Old and New Testament provide copious support for Jesus’ view of the term.
The phrase ‘sons of God’ refers to faithful people in the following verses (among others):
“You are the sons of the Lord your God.” (Deuteronomy 14:1)
In Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. (Galatians 3:26)
We are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. (Romans 8:12-14)
The similar phrase ‘children of God’ also refers to faithful people in the following verses (among others):
To all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God (John 1:12)
Do all things without grumbling or questioning, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God (Philippians 2:15)
See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are…Beloved, we are God’s children (1 John 3:1-2)
So it is consistent to interpret sons of God as faithful people.
Daughters of men
The first thing to not here is that ‘daughters’ implies women, the sin here is intermarriage. This is clearly anachronistic to a pre-flood situation, but it is highly contemporary to the period 900-700 BCE when the text of Genesis as we have it was rendered into Middle Biblical Hebrew and finalized. Then the daughters of man are part of a category of unfaithful people. The non gender-specific phrase ‘children of man’ does carry that meaning in several passages:
The faithful have vanished from among the children of man…On every side the wicked prowl, as vileness is exalted among the children of man. (Psalm 12:1,8)
I lie down amid fiery beasts—the children of man, whose teeth are spears and arrows, whose tongues are sharp swords. (Psalm 57:4)
The heart of the children of man is fully set to do evil. (Ecclesiastes 8:11)
The hearts of the children of man are full of evil, and madness is in their hearts while they live, and after that they go to the dead. (Ecclesiastes 9:3)
“All sins will be forgiven the children of man, and whatever blasphemies they utter” (Mark 3:28)
Genesis 6:2 mentions only faithful sons and unfaithful daughters; this is not because there were no faithful women or unfaithful men, but because it is about marriage and marriage was customarily initiated by the man.
Conclusion; as Jesus said
Fundamentally this is an odd and difficult passage. But the oddness and difficulty isn’t license to read into it lurid stories of angels having sex with human woman and fathering demons – which was popular in Jesus’ day, but which – remember – Jesus rejects saying angels do not marry.
As mentioned above we know very little about the original compilers of Genesis, and what they intended their original audience. Even if we narrow the date of Genesis down to sometime around the reigns of Hezekiah and Josiah, that does not help us in how to understand from this pre-flood story, since the Middle Biblical Hebrew version of Genesis we have clearly draws on many older sources. In other words, we don’t know if the scribes of the Kingdom of Judah simply “left Genesis 6:1-4 in”, whether they changed it, or even whether they added it. We can only trust that they did not intend to contradict the other teaching in Genesis that fundamentally the corruption that caused the flood was due to human behaviour and the righteouness of God, not due to God having lost control of his angels.
Without then a sure fix on the purpose of Genesis 6:1-4 to the original authors, we also cannot be sure of the intended meaning to their original audience. And that leaves all of us – including Jehovah’s Witnesses and other groups that base much of their teaching on the devil and demons on a literal and supernatural reading of these few verses – not being wise to use these verses to contradict the rest of the Bible.
That then again leaves Christian readers going back to the surest anchor point in the entire discussion; which remains Jesus’ own verdict that ‘angels do not marry’ (Matthew 22:30; see Mark 12:25), and ‘sons of God’ are believers (Luke 20:36).
Note: For further discussion of the Enochic material current in Jesus’ day, see also the mention of ‘angels that sinned’ in 2 Peter and Jude. Read superficially those passages are often taken as agreeing with the Enochic fallen angels story which they undeniably reference, but closer examination shows that Peter and Jude were in fact opposing men who taught those ideas in their own terminology, not approving the stories. In other words they agreed with Jesus on angels not marrying.