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The Sons of God and the Daughters of Men

Another tidbit from my Bible Introduction.  Old news for a lot of you, I know.  But it’s fun to write this kind of thing up for college students, who have never heard of such a thing!


One of the most mysterious and even bizarre stories in Genesis happens right at the beginning of the flood narrative, where we are told that the “sons of God” looked down among the human “daughters,” saw that they were beautiful, and came down and had sex with them leading to the Nephilim.  The word Nephilim means “fallen ones.”  According to Numbers 13:33, the Nephilim were giants.   So what is going on here in Genesis?  Apparently there were angelic beings (the “sons of God”) who lusted after human women, cohabited with them, and their offspring were giants.  It is at that point that God decides to destroy the world.  The situation was too weird even for him.

This brief episode has parallels in other ancient mythologies.  It is common in Greek myths, for example, for one of the gods to find a particular woman irresistibly attractive, to come down in human guise, have sex with her, and to produce an offspring that is something more than mortal.   One of the most famous stories about such a liaison involves the king of the gods, Zeus, who sees a gorgeous woman, Alcmena, and decides he has to have her.   Her husband, Amphytrion, is a general in the Greek army who is away at war.   Not able to control himself, Zeus comes to Alcmena in the spitting image of Amphytrion himself.  Alcmena assumes that he has returned from battle, and welcomes him with open arms and takes him to bed.  Zeus enjoys the festivities so much that he orders the constellations to stop in their paths, so as to prolong the night.

When he finally has his fill (even Zeus can have too much of a good thing), and the constellations begin again to move, he returns to heaven.  As it turns out, Amphytrion returns home – dismayed and distraught that Alcmena is not overjoyed at seeing him after his long absence, not understanding, of course, that she thinks she has just spend a wild night frolicking with him.

In any event Alcmena has been made pregnant by Zeus.  And who is her child?  None other than the demi-god Heracles (in Latin: Hercules).

The Suffering Servant of Isaiah
Introduction to the Bible: Part 1



  1. Avatar
    ptalbot  July 8, 2012

    I hope your writing is progressing well! The opening chapters of Geneis seem to contain many adaptations and reversals of old Mesopotamian myths from Adapa and the South Wind, Atrahasis, the Epic of Gilgamesh and Enuma Elish. I’ve often wondered if the Genesis account of the sons of God and the daughters of men contains an echo of the opening of the Gilgamesh Epic in which Gilgamesh (himself at least half divine through the union of human king Lugalbanda ang the goddess Ninsun) is “rampantly exercising droit de seigneur over all the nubile maidens in Uruk” (in Henrietta McCall’s memorable phrase in “Mesopotamian Myths”, British Museum Press). But I’m no expert – perhaps there is a closer allusion somewhere in the Mesopotamian mythology? Interestingly, I’ve also read that one of the scrolls found at Qumran names Gilgamesh as one of the resulting nephilim. Any further information on that?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 8, 2012

      Interesting idea. I will, of course, be talking about these other ancient Near Eastern texts in my book (well, Atrahasis, Gilgamesh, and Enuma Elish), though not at great length, since its an Intro on the entire Bible for a one-semester course for 19 year olds! But your idea is an interesting one, and Gilgamesh is certainly much older than Genesis. My hunch is that this is the *kind* of story that lots of people had heard….

      • Avatar
        iginio  August 9, 2015

        I have a theory about the Nephilim. The Ancient Greeks as well as other people in the Eastern Mediterranean area were familiar with the fossils of giant mammals. There were, on the earth, about a million years ago, many species of mammals that dwarf modern day mammals. The fossilized remains of these animals were abundant and close to the surface in antiquity. Quite often when people in antiquity found these fossils they would put them in the temples. In fact, the bones of these large animals can be found in the precincts of ancient temples when archaeologists dig there. They also put up museums and people would travel sometimes quite far to visit these museums. Essentially, people would take vacations and would visit sites where these fossils were displayed.

        The people of antiquity did not know what these creatures were but they were aware that they were very old. They referred to them as giants.

        My guess is that when the bible says that there were giants on the earth in those days it might simply means ONCE UPON A TIME, A LONG TIME AGO.

        The reference to the sons of God, does not necessarily refer to anyone coming from Heaven. I would like to draw your attention to other events in recorded history. When the Spanish conquered Mexico they took wives of all the native women they wanted. How many times has this happened in History? I think that there might be a pattern. The women of a conquered people taken by the conquerers. Perhaps this is a very old memory of such an event and it happened so long ago that the event is placed in an historical era that is thought of as being just about as far back as we can go in human memory. So long ago it was in the time of the giants.

        I am not an authority on the Bible. If you find my explanation simplistic that is fine but please let me know why my theory cannot be true.

        I don’t know why one group of people are called the sons of god and another group the sons of man. This is probably lost in history. I think that one can see patterns in history and I think of the Bible as an historical type of work.

        • Bart
          Bart  August 10, 2015

          I don’t think ancient people had museums did they? And I’ve never heard of skeletons in temples. But yes, it’s possible that giant animal skeletons were widely known and this led to the idea of giants on the earth.

  2. Avatar
    cparmar  July 8, 2012

    I find this tidbit fascinating. Any suggestions for further reading on these Genesis mysteries? Thank you.

  3. Avatar
    rbrtbaumgardner  July 8, 2012

    College students love to hear about sex, especially wild sex. Although I am far past college age, I can hardly wait for your commentary on the Song of Songs. 🙂

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    Mikail78  July 8, 2012

    The sad and frustrating thing is that evangelical/fundamentalist Christians would have no problem believing that this story about Zeus is pure mythology, but when it comes to this story in Genesis, these same christians, who also believe in biblical inerrancy, believe it is 100% historical fact on the level of events such as the assassination of Abraham Lincoln or the Berlin wall falling down.

    Bart, I have a very quick question that I’m embarrassed to ask because it reveals how ignorant I am, but I’ll ask it anyway. Which came first? The Greek mythology such as this one involving Zeus, or the the Genesis mythology? Thanks in advance! I love the blog!

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 8, 2012

      Actually it’s a great questoin, and probably impossible to answer — both because there are so many debates about the dating of the sources of Genesis and because Greek mythology, originally, was oral in form. My guess would give it to the Greeks, but maybe someone here on the the blog has better insights.

      • Avatar
        cparmar  July 9, 2012

        I would think that the myths were probably contemporary with each other? Myths do change over time and really only become static when they are written down, so it is probably impossible to figure out when, in the oral tradition, these myths would have been recognizable to us. However, if we start with the idea that some myth is based on historical events it might help clarify a time frame. Abraham is generally considered a historical figure with scholars dating him (based on Hebrew Scriptures & archaeology ) to the time frame of 2000-1500 BCE. If we assume that the creation myths in Genesis predate Abraham, then we can stretch their origins back prior to the 2000-1500 BCE time period.
        The earliest mention of Zeus in writing appears in the Mycenaean Linear B in the 14th century BCE. No stories exist (to my knowledge), just a mention of his name. Archaeology is revealing that there may have been a temple from around this time period dedicated to Zeus cult activity. Again, we could assume an oral tradition that predates the physical evidence and since the Mycenaean civilization began about 1900 BCE, this puts the possible origins right about the time scholars think Abraham lived.
        If you try to use the first written accounts of the myths in their known forms as a starting date, they are also very contemporary. The Kingdom of Israel first started writing scripture down in about the 8th century. The Mycenaean Civilization collapsed before recording the tales (as far as we know). But, Ancient Greek writers such as Hesiod and Homer recorded their accounts in the 8th-7th century BCE. Seems like it is a dead heat as to whose myth came about first, but I think I’m rooting for Team Genesis as the earlier one.

        I wish I could source my post with references, but it is just the accumulated knowledge of several years of reading and listening to materials such as Teaching Company courses, the occasional article from a scholarly journals and mainstream periodicals like National Geographic and Archaeology.

  5. Avatar
    proveit  July 8, 2012

    Do you have to be careful of your copyright for your books?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 8, 2012

      Not sure what you mean? You mean can I quote chunks from them? I suppose I can before they are copyrighted!

      • Avatar
        proveit  July 9, 2012

        Last November I participated in NANOWRIMO (National Novel Writing Month). They said publishers didn’t want authors to publish in any other sources including the internet because they would not be able to copyright those materials.

      • Avatar
        flshrP  August 29, 2015

        ‘As of January 1, 1978, under U.S. copyright law, a work is automatically protected by copyright when it is created. Specifically, “A work is created when it is “fixed” in a copy or phonorecord for the first time.” ‘
        I assume that the author is free to quote chunks of his book from the instant he starts the first draft.

  6. Avatar
    Gary  July 9, 2012

    Wait a minute. I have read two explanations. One, Sons of God are the descendants of Seth, and the women were the descendants of Cain. This is the conservative Christian interpretation…which figures, since it sounds rather racist (bordering on Mormon theology of the mark of Cain) . Plus it doesn’t really make much sense. Since, supposedly, we are all descendants of Seth, so how come Giants? Then, the other is the Sons of God are fallen angels, who bred giants. This makes sense only if you connect old Greek mythology of Gods impregnating human females, resulting in specially empowered humans. Likely source, unlikely reality. I still think it could lie in oral tradition, of Neanderthals and humans interbreeding. OK, maybe wacko. But Neanderthals and humans co-habitated the areas of Israel. Nephilim could be translated bully, as in robust neanderthal, not giant. And everyone knows that our illustrious relatives found fossils of dinosaurs, and called them dragons or monsters. It is likely that 1000BC, humans inhabiting Israel found neanderthal fossils, and connected the dots…we all know brutes chase after good looking women. The ultimate human fear…loss of their good looking women 🙂 . Tell that to your college students. They can all relate to that…as their girlfriends are stolen by football players.

  7. Avatar
    timber84  July 9, 2012

    What do you think of the attempts to get Bible classes taught in public high schools?

    Have you reviewed the textbook The Bible and Its Influence published by the Bible Literacy Project? If yes, what is your opinion of the book?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 10, 2012

      I’m of mixed feelings about hte Bible in public schools. I think it should definitely be taught. But the problem (an insurmountable problem, especially here in the South) is the *teachers*!! (i.e, it should be taught historically; but no way it will be in many parts of the country).

      I’m afraid I haven’t read the book. Sorry! You’d be amazed at what I haven’t read!

  8. Avatar
    gonzalogandia  July 10, 2012

    I’m a little confused by your take on the Nephilim story. You say the Nephilim were the offspring of the sons of God and the daughters of men. But verse 4 says “The Nephilim were on the earth in those days–and also afterward–when the sons of God went to the daughters to the daughters of men and had children by them. They were the heroes of old, men of renown.” It’s not clear that the Nephilim were the offspring as they “were on the earth” already when the sons of God and daughters of men had children.

    How is this possible? Also, how did the the Nephilim survive the flood as it seems to imply in the part of the verse that says “The Nephilim were on the earth in those days–and also afterward…”? In any case, I can see a fundamentalist Christian having an easier time explaining these 4 verses than some of the other things you have discussed…Christians have bigger fish to fry. (The sons of God can be a euphism for the sons of Adam?). I’d like to hear your quick final take on this story as it can be extremely useful in the “Bible stories as mythology” argument.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 10, 2012

      I think when it says they were on earth in those days, it is normally interpreted (whether rightly or wrongly, I don’t know) as meaning that they were on earth because that’s when they came into the world, as a result of the union of the divine and mortal beings. Why they were around later is a great quesiton, since the point of the flood, in part, was to wipe them out. But no one has (or at least should) called Genesis internally consistent!

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    Pat Ferguson  July 17, 2012

    “… we are told that the “sons of God” looked down among the human “daughters,” …, and came down and had sex with them …. Apparently there were angelic beings … who lusted after human women,….”

    ET’s? Umm, Bart, perhaps you’ve been watching Ancient Aliens on the History Channel too much? 😀

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 18, 2012

      I’ve never seen it! But maybe I should….

      • Avatar
        Pat Ferguson  July 18, 2012

        If you do, you might want to keep a large salt shaker within easy reach 😀
        From Wikipedia: “Some writers have proposed that intelligent extraterrestrial beings have visited Earth in antiquity or prehistory and made contact with humans. Such visitors are called ancient astronauts or ancient aliens. Proponents suggest that this contact influenced the development of human … religions…. that deities from most, if not all, religions are actually extraterrestrials, and their advanced technologies were wrongly understood by primitive men as evidence of their divine status.”
        One of the “experts” commenting in the episodes is Erich von Däniken (Chariots of the Gods).
        Regards . . . . .

  10. Avatar
    walstrom  September 2, 2014

    I see a pre-echo trope of the miraculous birth of Jesus in the Genesis account (of a mating of divinity and humanity.) Naturally there is the problem of compatibility of spirit “genome” and that of humans! Jesus wasn’t a giant (physically), but you could claim his was a greatness of renown. Humans are a “little lower” than angels (whatever the heck that means) and it is easy to conjure a similar analogy to a bestial pairing of apes and humans (as to incompatibility.)
    Certainly the ancient world had only cursory understanding of the laws of heredity or such tales as these would fail to achieve traction.
    Didn’t Jesus preach to those in Tartarus (presumably the drowned Nephilim?) for some reason? Perhaps a stern lecture on concupiscence?
    The titillation of speculations such as these–I posit–are what keeps people going back to scripture. Almost any eisegesis is possible! It reminds me of those “Choose your own adventure” books as a kid.
    QUESTION: Is the apostle Paul’s admonition to women ( I Corinthians 11:10) in the church (head covering) connected to the Nephlim in some bizarre manner (for the sake of the angels) to avoid yet more outbreaks of execrable hybrids, perhaps? (Asked with perhaps a wee bit of tongue in cheek.)

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  September 3, 2014

      Yes, that’s one of the theories — “the angels” means bad angels who have been known to engage in illicit activities with women. Another option is that they are good angels who organize and structure the world we live in. Lots of options.

  11. Avatar
    hopefrees  May 19, 2016

    The book (s?) of Enoch talks (maybe parallels) this account in Genesis. It’s a crazy read (Enoch).

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    mattsanders  June 20, 2018

    Bart, I’m rather new to textual criticism and exploring these writings academically. Where can I access scholarly articles on the old and new testaments? Also, any scholars you would credit/recommend arguing both sides? Daniel B. Wallace for instance.

    Thanks for looking at all this scientifically. Very refreshing.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 21, 2018

      I’d suggest starting with teh standard textbooks, Emanuel Tov on the textual criticism of the Hebrew Bible and Bruce Metzger on the textual criticism of the New Testament. After Metzger, the (large!) collection of essays edited by Michael Holmes and me. When it comes to the scholarship, there really aren’t “two sides” as you’ll see (though varying opinions on lots of things)

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