The next “son of God” reference begins in Genesis. In chapter 4, we read that brothers Cain and Abel each made an offering to God. God was pleased with Abel’s offering; Abel sacrificed. Cain, on the other hand, only gave [1]. Cain stewed; and God’s gentle rebuke started him simmering.

Cain didn’t say anything about it but brooded and sulked – and then killed Abel. The first human born on Earth murdered his younger brother: not a promising start for humanity [2].

The text then follows the path Cain and his offspring took: they live how they choose, culminating in Lamech’s declaration. After this, we read that Eve gives birth to Seth, who takes the place of Abel (Genesis 4:25). The text goes on to list the children of Adam and Eve (Hebrew genealogy is reckoned from the male side) descended from Seth.

When God created man, he made him in the likeness of God. He created them male and female and blessed them. And when they were created, he called them “man”.

When Adam had lived 130 years, he had a son in his own likeness, in his own image; and he named him Seth. (Genesis 5:1-3)

The repetition of the phrases “in the likeness of” and “in the image of” is meant to alert the audience to a specific theme. God made Adam and Eve in His image, and Seth was born bearing Adam’s image. In contrast to Cain and the antiestablishment ways of his brood, Seth and his offspring follow God, as we can see with references to two of his descendants: Enoch, who “walked with God” (5:24), and Noah, who “was a righteous man, blameless among the people of his time, and he walked with God” (6:9). This is the sense in which Seth’s descendants are “sons of God”.

In Genesis 6, the distinction between the two lineages is clear:

When men began to increase in number on the earth and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that the daughters of men were beautiful, and they married any of them they chose…

The Nephilim were on the earth in those days – and also afterward – when the sons of God went to the daughters of men and had children by them. They were the heroes of old, men of renown. (Genesis 6:1-4)

Here, the offspring of Seth are called “sons of God” and the offspring of Cain “men”. Here “men” has a different nuance than it does at the start of chapter 5: the words in verses 1-2 reprise of Genesis 1:26-27, where “men” is generic for “all humanity”. This division of descendents into children of God and children of men isn’t saying that one side is perfect and the other isn’t. Rather, it refers to those who follow God on the one side, contrasting it with “men” who don’t. The marrying of one side to the other indicates that the “sons of God” are degenerating from their whole-hearted devotion to God, and are marrying those who don’t worship Yahweh, as some of the Israelites would do: as Sampson did, for example (Judges chapters 14 and 16) [3].

This idea of obedient sons carries on into the New Testament. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells His audience:

Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? (Matthew 5:45-48.)

In his letter to the Romans Paul wrote: “those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.” (Romans 8:14)

When “sons of God” refers to those who follow God’s way, the phrase can refer to an individual or to a group; for example, Jacob and the nation of Israel, respectively. We can see this idea of corporate childhood in verses such as Hosea 11:1 – “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.” [4]

The Bible describes followers of God as sons of God using the metaphor of a father and son. To say someone is the “father of” something means that they possess or control that thing. For example, in Isaiah 9, the child to be born of a virgin, a prediction that Matthew 1:23 interprets as being ultimately fulfilled by Jesus, is called “eternal father”. However, Jesus is the Word, not the Father [5]. So how can the Word be the eternal father? In Hebrew, the phrase is “father of eternity”. In other words, in a realm where existence as we understand it is different, Jesus rules. To say the least of it, Jesus is above and through time and space and all creation; with the Father and Spirit, He is in charge of it all.

We can see this type of father-and-son metaphor in John 8:44:

You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desire. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies.

The devil is the one who began lying; he is the master of lies. But the Satanic sonship of Jesus’ opponents takes a different aspect; their desire to kill him. By his lies, the devil tempted Eve to disobey God, and so to cause her (and through her, Adam) to be separated from God, the source of life. This may be the murder Jesus meant, or He could have meant the devil was behind Cain’s murder of Abel. In any case, in John 8:44, Jesus told His opponents that they were the devil’s children because they sought to murder Him.

But to be a “son of God” doesn’t mean that a person has the essential attributes of deity – all-powerful, all-knowing and all-present – even when it refers to Jesus. Within the metaphor, being a son of God means to be a person after God’s own heart, as God described King David. However, this doesn’t mean that children of God never sin – a glance at the Old Testament shows that Israel was far from being a model child [6] – nor that the children of men can’t do anything good or kind. In Paul’s words, not all who are descended from Israel are Israel: biology doesn’t guarantee a person’s destiny. Similarly, Jesus called the Pharisees who opposed him “sons of the devil” (John 8:44). He acknowledges that they are biological descendants of Abraham but He disallows their claim to be Abraham’s children because they didn’t honour God as Abraham did.

This is also how it is in the Christian Church (and in every religion or group!) today. Not everyone who claims to be a Christian is a Christian. It was like this even in the early centuries of the Church. Aurelius Augustine, bishop of Hippo in north Africa, wrote that the Church will never be completely pure until the end of this age when God will purify her, who is Christ’s bride, for the ultimate wedding [7]. “Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb!” (Rev. 19:9)

[1] I don’t believe God accepted Abel because Abel’s was a blood sacrifice and Cain’s wasn’t; but rather because Abel gave God the first and best of what he produced. Cain just gave some of his produce, not the best. He didn’t put God first and it showed in how he acted.

[2] The question has been asked, “Where did Cain and Seth get their wives from?” The text doesn’t mention the other children of Adam and Eve because that isn’t the focus of the text. The focus is the story of two types of family, epitomized by the lines of Seth and Cain.

[3] Job 1:6 uses the phrase ‘sons of God’ to refer to the angels. As it doesn’t relate to humans, I have not taken this verse into consideration. Secondly, the text doesn’t mention “daughters of God” marrying “sons of men”, possibly because lineage was followed through male offspring, or the author had a theological point to make: the “sons of God” fell by marrying foreigners who weren’t worshippers of Yahweh. I think this reason is the most likely. A third reason, that swapping the “daughters of” and “sons of”, would have been redundant, having just mentioned the marriage of one side to the other.

[4] In Israel the law of primogeniture applied: the firstborn son was the heir, the pre-eminent of all the children. So ‘firstborn’ can be used to denote one’s heir. So God called the nation of Israel His ‘firstborn son’: Exodus 4:22 and Jeremiah 31:9, which actually says ‘Ephraim’. I think this is an example of synecdoche: using a part (the tribe of Ephraim) to indicate the whole (the nation of Israel).

[5] Otherwise this would support modalism, a doctrine that teaches the Father, the Word and the Holy Spirit are merely three masks that God puts on at different times.

[6] God describes the nation of Israel using both male and female gender; sometimes male, as in Hosea l1, and sometimes female, as in Ezekiel 16 and 23.

[7] In The City of God, I think.

copyright 2007 Troy Grisgonelle.