SBL Ministries Home


Ask DrWinnBible StudiesNewsletters

| BibleJourney | Other Bible Studies | Bible Study Materials |

Bible Studies
Home > Bible Studies > BibleJourney > Genesis > Issue 12

BibleJourney: Genesis

Issue 12

ISSN 1535-5187

Cain, Seth, and the Sons of God—Genesis 4.17-6.8
by Winn Griffin, D.Min.


Observing the Stuff

More and More People
When folks come to the genealogy sections of Scripture, they usually just skip right over them because they do not seem to be the most exciting parts of Scripture to read. Readers may read them once, and after that, well maybe never again.

In this part of the story of Genesis there is a proliferation of people (Gen. 4.17) that has occurred. The tellers of the story used a literary device called a genealogy to give their hearers a quick way of hearing the story. In the Old Testament this list is a group of names, which indicate the ancestors or descendants of the family. It is often a simple registration of names. Old Testament genealogies, it is clear, are not used in the same fashion that modern genealogies are used. Most of the genealogies in the Old Testament are found in the Pentateuch, Ezra-Nehemiah, and the Chronicles.

These Old Testament genealogies range from a list of names (1 Chron. 1.1) to a more common type that links names and will occasionally add some further information (Gen. 5.24) to a fully expanded historical account as we see in the book of Kings.

There are ascending genealogies that use the formula "x the son of…" or descending genealogies which use "x begat…." The latter formula usually includes information about the age and some of the actions of the individuals. The ascending genealogies are often used to trace the ancestry of an individual back to some important person in past history.

As readers of the text of the Old Testament we need to be aware that the genealogies often omit some generations. As an illustration: the genealogy of Aaron in Ezra 7.1-5 omits six names that are given in 1 Chronicles 6.3-14. Ezra uses the word son to mean grandson or descendant

as well as son. Genealogies were a standard feature of the ancient historical tradition. We find genealogies of royal families such as the Kings of Assyria, which spans a thousand years. There is a list of the kings of Babylon and their ancestors, a Kings list from Sumeria Hittite, Ugaritic, and Egypt [ Map ] as well. They are varying lengths and serve various purposes. These lists are not unlike the biblical genealogies in that they omit certain names.

There is no reason to believe that all the genealogies in Scripture claim to be complete since their main purpose was to establish the decent of individuals from some notable ancestor. Therefore, it would not be safe, because the genealogies are abridged, to use them as a basis for some numerical historical purposes like dating.

The genealogies in the story of this section of Genesis enable the storyteller to bring together a group of somewhat disconnected occurrences and make the transition from the stories about Adam to the story of Noah. The genealogies also support the practice that the "people of God" should continue to "have lots of children or fill the earth with people" (Gen 1.28).

Interpreting the Stuff

Cain and Abel's Family Genesis 4.17-26
The storyteller does not tell his readers how the earth was further populated as he continues his story. He just assumes the population to be so. There is an assumption made by the teller of the story that there were in existence others beside Adam, Eve, and Cain. Cain used this known fact as a reason to request God's protection for which he received a mark of protection. The descendants of Cain (his wife was presumably a daughter of Adam and Eve) were credited with significant early technological and cultural advances such as building (Gen. 4.17), Bedouin life (Gen. 4.20, music (Gen. 4.21), and metal working (Gen. 4.22). As the story moves forward, one might conclude that the effects of sin diminished ingenuity in no way.

In the short story about Lamech, we discover the practice of plural marriages (polygamy). There is a note of regression from the monogamy that God established in his creation of humankind in the Garden. Another picture of Lamech demonstrates the continued outcome of sin in the aftermath of the fall. Lamech was a man of colossal anger and revenge in addition to his polygamous lifestyle.

There is a small story insertion about Seth's family in Genesis 4.25-26 that concludes with the statement: "At that time men began to call on the name of the Lord," which demonstrates that the fight of monotheism and polytheism was an old and hard fought battle in humankind.

Cain and Seth Genesis 4.17-26
Cain's Family: 4.17-24. The storyteller does not give his readers any information about the marriage of Cain. The story assumes that the marriage just took place. Cain's wife is not named but was most likely, as we have stated, one of the daughters of Adam that is mentioned in Genesis 5.4. The fear of Cain that he would be killed was not realized. God's grace, which was provided by the sign, had worked. Cain's descendants were many. His genealogy continues from Genesis 4.2. His family tree suggests that God was not visiting the iniquities on the fathers upon the children (Ex. 20.5) at this point in the story of humankind. Cain's family was not caused to suffer because of the sin of Cain.

Together with his oldest son Enoch, Cain built a city. Some have suggested in defiance of God's judgment. However, the text does not show God condemning Cain or showing his displeasure for Cain's endeavors. Others have suggested that God lifted the punishment from Cain and gave him his freedom to establish his roots again. This would surely be in standing with the picture of God's grace in the Old Testament story.

The genealogy of Cain displays an important function. It demonstrates the links that God used to populate the world and create a societal industry. It is within this part of the story that we have the first anatomy of a monogamous marriage. Lamech had two wives. God does not respond to the violation of Genesis 2.24. However, the story records the unpleasant suffering and shattering experiences that are built into this repudiation of God's desired plan. The domestic struggles that followed were devastating. Lamech and his two wives birth four children: three sons: Jabal, Jubal, Tubal-cain, and one daughter, Naaman (a word which means gorgeous). Each of the sons produced some cultural accomplishment. Jabal was a shepherd. Jubal was a musician. Tubal-cain was a metallurgist. This story is an on-going demonstration of the grace of God at work in a fallen world.

Seth's Family: 4.25-26. The first two human characters, Adam and Eve, now reappear in the story and the reader is told that Eve gave birth to Seth. Eve had lost one son to violence and may have seen this birth a replacement for her lost son. Seth's son was named Enosh. Enosh means to be frail. Humankind began to invoke the name of God (Yahweh)-his covenant-keeping name-around the time of the birth of Enosh. Conversation with God (prayer) as a part of worship begins and is separated from making a sacrifice. Some have considered that the consciousness of humankind's frailty, depicted in the name Enosh, heightened the awareness of the need for total dependence on God. This heightened awareness may have led to the need to communicate with God apart from sacrifice. As before, the reader is faced with the ultimate fact of monotheism over against polytheism. Israel should be mindful of such and adopt that stance.

From Adam to Noah Genesis 5.1-32
The genealogy that appears in this chapter establishes the descendents from Adam to Noah through Seth. In the Cainite list (Gen. 4.17), there are seven generations from Cain to Jubal. The present genealogy has ten generations from Adam to Noah. Both lists end with three sons at the conclusion of the list: Jubal, Jubal, and Tubal-cain descendents from Lamech and Shem, Ham, and Japheth as descendents from Noah. In each of the list only one man speaks. The Cainite list exposes Lamech who mocks God because of his curse on Cain. The Sethite lists marks the moaning of Lamech under the curse while looking for comfort (Gen. 4.28-29). This genealogy lists Methuselah as the oldest person mentioned in the Bible. The Sumerian King list (mentioned above) also has individuals of great longevity. One such individual is said to have lived 43,200 years. I know that might bring a smile to your lips and a thought of how ridiculous, but don't forget that 969 years is not short either!

The long lifespan of those in the genealogy of Seth may be a reflection of God's blessing upon them. After all, longevity in the Old Testament was thought to be a sign of the Covenant God's blessing upon the godly (Deut. 4.25; 5.33; 30.20). We should not overlook that Enoch is in the seventh (the perfect position) in the genealogy.

Everyone in the list dies except Enoch who is taken away. This may suggest that longevity may not be the great blessing that it was thought to be, as compared to being taking into the presence of God, which would be far better. Both Enoch (Gen. 5.22) and Noah (Gen 6.9) are reported to have "walked with God." God chose to use each in a different way.

Genesis 5.1-2. The storyteller now establishes for the reader a contrast between the divine creative act and human creative acts. In once sense, Adam did what God did: he created. God created humans and humans procreate. These two verses offer four details about creation. First, God made humankind in his image. Second, God made humankind male and female. Third, God blessed them. Finally, God called them man. The text exhibits the obvious: humankind was created to live in a community. Israel needed to hear this message (as do we) on their way to inherit the land that God had promised their forefathers. In a world gone mad for individualism, the message of Scripture is clear. Individuals find their greatest potential for being an individual inside of God's community.

Genesis 5.3-32. Adam created in his likeness as God had created in his likeness. The capacities and qualities of parents are passed on to their children in natural reproduction. One characteristic in this story should not be overlooked. Each of the generations, with the exclusion of Enoch, died. While God instructed humankind to reproduce, he also placed a limit of time on their life of production after the curse. Here then is a resounding claim from the text: men and women are born and men and women will die. At the conclusion of chapter 5 there is a glimmer of hope imagined in the birth of Noah. He becomes the dominant force in the next part of the story. As Noah walked with God, he found favor in God's eyes.

In Genesis 5.1-32 there is a list of ten generations from Adam proceeding through his son Seth. The genealogies between Adam and Noah, and Noah and Abraham, are each set up to contain ten members, with the last having three sons. We are concerned with the first of the two genealogies here.

Genealogies are usually a registration of names. The genealogies in the Old Testament are not used in the same sense of a modern family genealogy where each person in a line is listed. It was the method of the ancient genealogies to list memorable people and omit others in the family line. We need not think that the genealogy's purpose is to represent every generation, as our modern family trees attempt to do.

The genealogy of chapter 5 helps the teller of the story to make the transition from Adam to Noah and to demonstrate that the command of God in Genesis 1.28, to have lots of children and fill the earth with people, was being fulfilled. Man continues to be born and die, but sin never dies.

The lifespan of the individuals in the genealogy is longer as compared to those after the flood. Other genealogies in the ancient world had the same occurrence of long life spans before a flood and shorter ones after a flood. As an illustration in the Sumerian King List there is a list of eight pre-flood kings who ruled for a total of 241,200 years. The oldest was Enmenuanna who ruled 43,200 years.

This passage speaks about a well-known person named Enoch. In the genealogy everyone else dies, but Enoch is "taken away." There is another comparison in the story:

God chose to use each person in a different way. The text does not say where Enoch was taken, a possible indication that the author did not profess to know.

Observing the Stuff

The Sons of God and The Daughters of Men Genesis 6.1-8
At the beginning of Genesis, humankind tried to become like God and sinned in the garden. Humankind cannot become immortal. In this passage the very opposite happens. Divine beings lower themselves to the level of humans and God again intervenes. The result: the flood and a severe limitation on human longevity. This story of all the stories in Genesis is most difficult for the Western mind to comprehend. The ancient world was full of legends about intercourse between gods and mortal women or between goddesses and men, which resulted in a generation of demigods. At first glance, this story would seem to carry the same idea. However, this highly condensed version of the story is used to combat polytheism. It demonstrates that there is only one God who passes judgment and makes decisions. Unlike the offspring in the other ancient stories, there are no divine qualities. They are flesh and blood like all other humans. Not only are they mortal, their life span is extremely limited as compared with the list of people in Chapter 5.

Interpreting the Stuff

The Sons of God and The Daughters of Men Genesis 6.1-4
Genesis 6.1. The function of this verse is to link the genealogy of Adam in the preceding chapter with the following event. Chapter 5 focuses only on the sons born before the flood, while Genesis 6.1 focuses on the daughters born to men. To say the least, Genesis 6.1-4 has been and appears to remain a baffling passage of Scripture. Some questions that are often asked include: Does this story indicate the reason for the judgment that follows the story, i.e., the flood? Who are the sons of God? What does it mean for God to say "My spirit shall not contend with man forever..."? Who are the Nephilim? Are they the same or different from "the mighty men?" Were the Nephilim contemporary with the mentioned cohabitation or the product of such cohabitation? There have been many answers to questions such as these.

The author of Genesis 1-11, traditionally held to be Moses, intended to produce a readable story for the first readers. This story was to demonstrate the increase of wickedness that occurred after the fall of man. He had interest in the reader knowing that God had created everything good and that nothing evil could be laid at the feet of God. Evil had not come from God but had occurred when man decided to disobey God.

The effects of evil started with Adam and Eve, continued with Cain with the murder of his brother, and within the line of Cain. Lamech sang a song boasting of how many men he had slain-from one murder to multiple murders. It is at this point in the story of Genesis 1-11 that the "sons of God" and "daughters of men" story appears.

Sacred Prostitution
There were many stories told in the ancient world about sexual intercourse between human beings and the gods that produced semi-divine offsprings who had abnormal power and energy. Canaan celebrated divine-human marriage in their sacred marriage rites that took place in their temples. The practice of these rights was to ensure the fertility of the ordinary marriage as well as the fertility of the soil. Fathers would dedicate their unmarried daughters for service in the temple where they served as sacred prostitutes. It is against this background that this story is told.

Literary Genre
One of the questions that should always be asked by a student of Scripture is in what kind of literature is the passage under consideration written? This is the most important question that you can ask of Genesis 1-11. Most interpretations center around two views: Historical and Mythological. The normal Christian reaction to using the word "myth" as related to Biblical text is often that of disdain. One should not jump to conclusions that the word myth is all bad until some research is done by the student of Scripture on the concept of myth in the ancient world. We might ask, "Is myth bad?"

Myth. Myth is usually defined as "stories about gods which have been narrated in a communal setting as occurrences of permanent significance, and which normally presuppose a given view of the world." For more information read the following article: "Myth, Mythology," in Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, 4:333.

The main characteristics of myth that most writers agree on are:

  1. The story is set in a narrative form that expresses ideas or events as tales that embody imaginative features.
  2. The stories are never generalizations or analyses.
  3. They emerge in a communal setting.
  4. In their community setting, myths possess the status of believed truth.

As a Bible student you need to decide if this story is "mythological" or "historical" using the above information. Again, remember to try to lay aside your presuppositions that can often be emotional, and try to view the passage objectively.

Sons of God
There are three different views of the meaning of the phrase "sons of God."

View #1. The "sons of God" were sons of princes. This is the view of orthodox rabbinical Judaism. This is the starting place for an interpretation that suggests that the key to the identity of the "sons of God" is provided by the sacral kings who are so much in the center of interest in studies concerning the ancient near Eastern life and culture. Kings were often regarded as divine, in one way or another, and they were often called the "sons" of various gods. In Genesis 6.1-4 the phrase "sons of God" is a designation for the antediluvian kings and should be translated "sons of the gods."

View #2. The "sons of God" were angels. This view is defended in the following way: The language elsewhere in the Old Testament is unquestionably understood as "angels" (Job 1.6, 2.1, 38.7; cf. Psalm 29.1, 89.7). The strength of this position is based on its desire to allow the language of the passage to take its full weight.

View #3. The "sons of God" was the line of Cain and the line of Seth. This view presupposes that Seth's line was the godly line while Cain's line was the ungodly line. The intermarriage between the lines is seen as a breach of covenant.

The second view was a common way for this passage to be explained during the life of Jesus and his disciples. This seems to be the opinion of Jude in his New Testament book. Jude's references are dependent on 1 Enoch 6-11. He was certainly familiar with these chapters. These chapters in 1 Enoch tell of two hundred angels under the leadership of Semihazah and Asael, who were filled with lust for the beauty of human women. They descended on Mount Hermon and took human wives. Their children, the giants, ravaged the earth, and the fallen angels taught men forbidden knowledge of all kinds of sin. They were responsible for the destruction of the world by the flood that God sent. It should be said that we should not become dogmatic about the identification of the "sons of God" in this passage. At best, we should consider the options.

The stimulus for the behavior of the sons of God was the attractiveness of the daughters of men. Scripture has no shortage of stories about human beauty (Gen. 12.11, 14; 24.16; 29.17; Deut 21.11; Judges 15.2; 2 Sam. 11.2; 13.1; 14.27; 1 Kings 1.3-4; Esther 1.11, 2.7; Job 42.15) not to mention the bride in the Song of Songs.

My spirit shall not remain in man forever…
Verse 3 should be contrasted with Genesis 3.22 where eating of the tree of life would produce immortality. The attempt of this angelic-human intercourse was like eating of the tree of life. It was intended to produce eternal life for humankind. As an attempt to appropriate what belongs only to God, it is severely condemned. Instead of humankind living forever, they are now reduced to 120 years. There seems to be ample evidence that in the post-flood, the recorded ages steadily decline (Jacob: 110 years, Gen. 50.26; Moses: 120 years, Deut. 34.7; Joshua. 110 years, Jos. 24.29; only Aaron exceeds 120 years and lived till 123 years of age, Num. 33.39).

Who are the Nephilim?
The only other reference in Scripture to the Nephilim is in Numbers 13.33. The spies who entered the Promised Land said they saw the Nephilim and in their midst they felt like mere grasshoppers. In the Genesis passage the Nephilim appear to be the offspring of this combination who continue to generate Nephilim in the course of their married lives. The passage in Numbers implies that the people that the spies saw were people of extraordinary physical stature and thus understood as giants. It would be contrary to Scripture to suggest that this race survived the flood whose purpose may have been to destroy such a race. The other name Genesis gives these offspring is mighty men.

Humankind's Wickedness Genesis 6.5-8
This act of wickedness caused the Lord to announce a plan to wipe out humankind and other living creatures (Gen. 6.7). This sin was the culminating sin in a series that began with the first humans eating the forbidden fruit, continued with the murder of Abel by Cain and the unbridled vengeance of Lamech. God's summary was that humankind was incorrigibly wicked and that every human thought was bent toward evil. Human degradation is bluntly spelled out (Gen. 6.5). Because of humankinds degradation God made a decision to destroy his creation. But as with other decrees of judgment (3.15; 4.15), there was a glimmer of hope because Noah found favor in God's eyes (Gen. 6.8).

The placement of this story in Genesis is certainly to introduce the Flood story.

The storyteller has demonstrated how sin has grown from its first instance in the Garden. Sin moves from an individual act to a corporate act with the sons of God marrying the daughters of men. We must remember that the Hebrews lived in a time period in which sacred prostitution occurred which involved fathers dedicating their unmarried daughters for service in the temple. In practice these girls served as sacred prostitutes giving pleasure to priests and other wealthy worshippers.

The phrase "sons of God" has three possible meanings:

  1. They were Sons of princes is the view of orthodox rabbinical Judaism. This view is based on the view that Kings were often regarded as divine. According to the Gilgamesh Epic, Kings had the "right of the first night." He could exercise his right, as representative of the gods, to spend the wedding night with any woman who was being married.
  2. They were angels. This is the language of the Old Testament (Job 1.6, 2.1). This was the common view during the life of Jesus and his disciples. In the ancient world there were many stories told about sexual intercourse between the gods and human beings with the semi-divine offspring of such unions having abnormal energy and power.
  3. They were the "line of Seth," which believes that the line of Seth was a godly line while Cain's was an ungodly line. The intermarriage was a violation of covenant.

The point the story is making is just how degraded humankind had become because of sin. It is to this point that the story of the flood is told. It is clear that this short story demonstrates how wicked the human race had become.

In the story we are told that God's spirit would not remain with man forever. Because sin was compounding, life would now be shortened.

The Nephilim are not an ethnic group, but a description of a particular type of individual. It is most likely that it is a designation of the illicit union's offspring as being strong and powerful.

This story is here to give the reason for what prompted God to send the flood on humankind while saving a family to carry on the human race. The placement of this story in Genesis is certainly to introduce the Flood story.

Doin' the Stuff!
  • Why do you think that you skip over the genealogy sections of Scripture?
  • Why are the arts often seen as being a part of the fallen world? Does the genealogy of Cain give any value to that opinion?
  • How frail do we have to become before we place our dependence in God?
  • How will living and working in a community (the church) improve your relationship with God?
  • Why is this story so difficult to believe at face value? What can you do to lay aside the emotions that may drive your interpretation?
  • At an emotional level, how does "myth in Scripture" make you feel? Why?
  • How would you defend your position of views 1, 2, or 3?
  • What do you think about the issue of immortality being raised in today's medical society?

BibleHandbook: Resourse Stuff!

Read the following Dictionary Articles from Easton's Bible Dictionary, or the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. Easton's is about a century old, therefore, some of the information is not current with newer Bible Dictionaries. ISBE is about seventy-five years old. You might read the articles off-line in a number of different Bible Dictionaries. If you do not own a Bible Dictionary, I would recommend New Bible Dictionary 3rd Edition. If you like lots of color pictures, try The Revell Bible Dictionary now out of print but still can be ordered from One of these should suit your personal needs.



Previous Issue

Next Issue

Copyright © 2003-2019, Winn Griffin. All rights reserved. BibleJourney: An Almost Weekly Bible Study is a service of SBL Ministries. Unless otherwise stated, scripture quotations are from the International Standard Version (ISV) of the Bible®. Copyright © 2001 by The ISV Foundation, 2200 N. Grand Ave., Santa Ana, CA 92705-7016. Used by permission of Davidson Press, Inc. All rights reserved internationally.

Sign up for our eNewsletter
The Chronicler
First Name:


FREE Online Seminar:
Five KEYS to Read Scripture
with Better Results

Sign up for
BibleJourney: An Almost Weekly Bible Study
First Name:


| Home | Ask DrWinn | Reading Thru the Bible | Bible Studies | Newsletters | LifeChanging Seminars |
| BibleJourney | Other Bible Studies | Bible Study Materials |

© 2001-2019 SBL Ministries. Questions? Send Email to Best viewed with Internet Explorer.