Many people wonder about the statement that “the sons of God saw that the daughters of humans were beautiful, and they married any of them they chose” (Gen. 6:2). It is said that out of these unions came the Nephilim, a supposed race of giants that corrupted the earth (Gen. 6:4).
One view of Genesis 6:1–4 does indeed understand the passage as referring to the unions of fallen angels (“sons of God”) with humanity (“daughters of man”) resulting in a race of giants on the ear th. In fact, “sons of God” is used elsewhere as a title for angels (see Job 1:6). Moreover, some maintain that the New Testament affirms this interpretation when it speaks of “angels when they sinned” (2 Peter 2:4) and “did not keep their position of authority but abandoned their proper dwelling” (Jude 6).
But there are some problems with this view. First, the phrase “sons of God” may mean angels but more frequently refers to humanity (Deut. 14:1; 32:5; Ps. 73:15; Isa. 43:6; Hosea 1:10; 11:1; Luke 3:38; 1 John 3:1–2, 10). Second, the New Testament passages more likely refer to angels following Satan in his rebellion against God and not marriage with women. Third, and most important, Jesus taught that angels were not capable of marriage and sexual reproduction (Matt. 22:30).
It seems better to understand Genesis 6:1–4 as referring to the intermarriage of the godly line of Seth and the ungodly line of Cain. The genealogies in the context support this interpretation. The text recounts the line of Cain, the first murderer (Gen. 4:17–24), immediately followed by the line of Seth (Gen. 4:25–5:32), a godly line from which “people began to call on the name of the Lord” (Gen. 4:26). After listing the two genealogies, Genesis 6:1–4 describes the uniting of these two groups (the sons of God and the daughters of man). The result of the merging of these two lines was the Nephilim, a Hebrew word that means “fallen ones,” indicating that both lines were now corrupted. The older translation for these descendants was “giants,” but a better translation is “heroes” or “powerful,” indicating that they became infamous as “men of renown” (Gen. 6:4). It was their corrupting influence on the earth that led to God’s judgment of the world by flood in Noah’s day (Gen. 6:8–8:22).
Although Canaanites are called Nephilim later in Numbers 13:31–33, they were not the physical descendants of those in Genesis 6 because all humanity was destroyed in the Flood that followed the corruption of the earth. Rather, the use of Nephilim in Numbers more likely identifies the Canaanites as a people who were corrupted and powerful.