Sons of God

views updated


The title sons of God was used outside Israel for beings that belonged to the divine sphere or for men who worshiped a given deity, and in Israel, for beings, heavenly or earthly, who were in some way associated with divine functions; for the members of Israel as objects of the divine election, and for the pious. In the New Testament it is used for those who do God's will and imitate His love for all men, and for those chosen and adopted by God who accept through faith the Redemption by Christ.

Outside Israel. The term sons of God was a common term in the mythologies of the ancient Near East for the divine offspring of a certain god or goddess. Thus, in the Ugaritic texts, el and his consort Asherah are clearly designated as the parents of the gods who are collectively designated as the "seventy children of Asherah" (II Anchor Bible VI 46), "the generation [circle, family] of El," (III K III 1719), or the "circle of the sons of El," (2:17, 34; 107:2). Similarly, in Babylonia, Apsu and Tiamat are the begetters of the gods, Anu is Anshar's first-born, etc. (see J. B. Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, 61).

The term is likewise used of demigods, whether these are represented as the offspring of god and man (Gilgamesh being depicted as two-thirds god and one-third man), or as a kind of god incarnate, as were the kings of Egypt, or the Phoenician Keret, a mortal hero or king who addresses El as his Father (I K 41, 59, 76, 169) and is called "the son of El" and "the offspring of the Beneficent and Holy One" (II K III 1011, 20, 21).

The worshipers of a national god are called the sons of this god, who was considered to be the head of the tribe, family, or house (whence the term "the lord of the house" among the Aramaeans of the 9th and 8th centuries b.c.). Early in the 1st millennium the Aramaeans named their children "Son of (the god) Hadad," a custom that later became very popular among the pagans of Syria and Mesopotamia in the early Christian age. An echo of this widespread practice is found in Nm 21.29, where the worshipers of Chamos, god of the Moabites, are called his sons and daughters (see also Jer 2.27).

Finally, in keeping with the Semitic usage of the word son in the sense of one belonging to a class or group, the title sons of God may stand for the whole assembly of divine beings, for those who belong to the sphere of the divine.

In Israel. In adapting the title sons of God to its monotheistic faith, the Old Testament used it with various meanings.

Applied to the Angels. The title most frequently refers to those heavenly beings who form the court of God, who serve Him, act as His messengers and at times do battle for Him, who were later given the technical title angels [Jb 1.5; 2.1; 38.7; Ps 28 (29).1; 88 (89).7; Dn 3.24; see also 1 Kgs 22.19; Gn 35.7]. This general usage invites taking sons of God in the controverted passage Gn 6.14 in the same sense, particularly in virtue of the contrast there between sons of God and daughters of men. The Septuagint (LXX), later Judaism (esp. the book of Enoch5.110.17), and nearly all the Fathers of the first three centuries concur in this interpretation. The other interpretation that sees in these sons of God the Sethites and in the daughters of men the Cainites dates from the 4th century and is influenced by theological concern for maintaining the spirituality of the angels (h. denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum, 428). For the same reason and also because they find it difficult to admit that the sacred author could have made use of material from a pagan myth, many modern Catholic scholars hold to the latter interpretation. Yet it is generally admitted today that the principle of Biblical inspiration does not exclude the possibility that the sacred author picked up and reworked a preexisting popular tale about a race of giants before the flood. Babylonian and Greek mythologies speak of the gods having intercourse with mortal women; the monotheistic author who used the expression sons of God and the Israelite who heard this section recited would certainly have understood the term in a way compatible with Israelite monotheism, and hence as meaning the angels rather than gods. Far from approving the practice, the sacred author rather uses the tale to climax his illustration of the progression of wickedness upon the earth, which prepares the flood. Moreover, by upsetting the natural order in what is left of the tale (vv. 1, 2, 4, 3), the author reveals his intention to deny these illicit relationships any proper causality in the phenomenon of giants. Thus the author may be said to have used the materials of a myth to reverse the myth's original proposition: a claim to immortality by the physical, procreative transmission of the divine spirit of the gods. Such a claim is impious, for man's spirit is from Yahweh (v. 4), who may withdraw it or limit it at will. (see angels, 1.)

A similar problem is raised by Dt 32.89: "When the Most High assigned the nations their heritage, when he parceled out the descendants of Adam, He set up the boundaries of the peoples after the number of the sons of God; while the Lord's own portion was Jacob, His hereditary share was Israel." The Masoretic Text has "sons of Israel," but the LXX reading, "sons of God," has been confirmed by the Hebrew manuscript of Deuteronomy found in Cave 4 at Qumran. Here again the imagery is borrowed from the ancient conception of the pantheon dominated by the "Most High" God, who apportions to each of the members of the divine court the territories of the different peoples who will be their wards. But that this is a mere poetic device with no intention to admit polytheism is seen from the poem itself, which conceives Yahweh Himself as the Most High and master of human destiny and reduces the gods to "no-gods" (v. 21). Here again, Israel's tradition would have understood sons of God as the angels (Jb 1.6), the members of the heavenly court (as in Dt 32.43), the guardian angels of the nations (Dn 10.13).

Applied to the Judges. The title is applied to men; and, in particular, to the judges, who in God's name render a judgment to those who present their cases "to God" [Ex 18.1519; 22.89; Ps 57 (58).2; 81 (82).1]; even though they bear the titles 'ělōhîm (gods) and b enê 'elyôn (sons of the Most High), they too will be judged [Ps 81 (82). 68].

Applied to Israel and Its King. In Ex 4.22 Yahweh says, "Israel is my son, my first-born." Thus the people of God stand in a relation of sonship to Yahweh [Dt 14.1;32.5; Jer 31.9; Ps 72 (73).15]. The Prophets recall this adoption (Hos 11.1; Jer 31.20) to justify the divine complaint that the sons Yahweh has reared have disowned Him (Is 1.2) and have become lying and rebellious sons (Is 30.1, 9; Jer 3.14, 19). After the captivity God will bring back His sons from distant lands (Is 43.6), and they shall then be called "sons of the living God" (Hos 2.1); for the corollary on God's fatherhood (see Is 63.16; 64.8).

The king also is addressed by Yahweh, "You are my son" (Ps 2.7). Yet never does the Bible use the term "Son (s) of Yahweh." In the creation account of Genesis, man in virtue of his creation is "in the image, after the likeness of elōhîm " (Gn 1.27), but he is notably not given the title son of God. Any polytheistic idea of a direct or equal sharing in the divine nature is thus avoided. Creation is not procreation. Men are not sons of God in virtue of their creation; in the case of Israel and its king, the instatement to sonship supposes a special divine election.

A similar thought underlies the application of the title in later Judaism to individual Israelites who lived virtuous lives in accordance with God's will (Sir 4.10; Wis2.1620; 5.5; Job 1.2325; Enoch 62.11; Psalms of Solomon 13.9; 17.27).

In the New Testament. The Synoptic tradition gives the title sons of God to the peacemakers (Mt 5.9), to those who return good for evil (Mt 5.45; Lk 6.35), and to the just in their risen state (Lk 20.36).

St. Paul, using the legal figure of adoption, identifies the Christian community as the New Israel, object of God's gratuitous election (Gal 4.5, where the obviously intentional use of the article before the abstract υοθεσία not only recalls a well-known truth, but also most probably connects Christian sonship with that of Israel as type and antitype; see also Rom 9.4). It is specifically faith that has made Christians the sons of God (Gal 3.26), and this new title brings with it God's interior gift of the Spirit by which we cry with God's own son, "abba, Father" (Gal4.46; Rom 8.15). That the title is no longer purely juridical appears in its close relationship with the efficacious Spirit and in the obviously intentional switch from υός (son, as one with recognized status and legal privileges) to τέκνον (son or child, as one who has origin or descent or personal relation) in Rom 8.1218. In Rom 8.23, if the traditional reading "the adoption of sons" is correct, it expresses the final consummation looked forward to, but the apparent absence of υοθεσία from the recently published P46 (3rd century) in support of the later D and G manuscripts, makes it highly questionable that Paul used the term in the future sense.

The Johannine literature likewise attributes Christian sonship to a power from God by which those who receive Christ, that is, believe in Him, are made sons of God (Jn1.14). The idea of God's free election is likewise present ("born of the will of God"), but it is also stressed that "children of God" is not just a title but a reality (1 Jn3.12).

See Also: son of god.

Bibliography: p. van imschoot, Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Bible, tr. and adap. by l. hartman (New York 1963), from a. van den born, Bijbels Woordenboek, 228183. j. l. mckenzie, Divine Sonship in the Old Testament (Weston, Mass. 1946); "Divine Sonship of Man in the O.T.," The Catholic Bible Quarterly, 7:326339; "Divine Sonship and Individual Religion," ibid. 3247; "The Divine Sonship of the Angels," ibid. 5:293300. b. s. childs, Myth and Reality in the O.T. (Naperville, Ill. 1960) 4957. m. h. pope, El in the Ugaritic Texts in Vetus Testamentum (Suppl. 2; 1955), 4749. j. b. bauer, "Videntes filii Dei filias hominum," Verbum Domini, 31:95100. j. e. coleran, "The Sons of God in Gn 6.2," Theological Studies, 2:488509. e. g. kraeling, "The Significance and Origin of Gn 6.14," Journal of Near Eastern Studies, 6:193208. p. joÜon, "Les Unions entre les Fils de Dieu et les Filles des hommes (Gn 6.14)," Recherches de sciences religieuses 29:108112. h. junker, "Zur Erklärung von Gn6.14," Biblica 16:205212. c. robert, "Les Fils de Dieu et les filles de l'homme," Revue Biblique, 4:340373, 525552. m. w. schoenberg, "Huiothesia: The Adoptive Sonship of the Israelites," American Ecclesiastical Review, 143:261273; "St. Paul's Notion on the Adoptive Sonship of Christians," Thomist 28:5175.

[g. t. montague]