Many a Bible Study has gotten itself caught up in a tangled discussion while reading through Genesis 5-10. It contains one of the most elusive but intriguing episodes in the entire Old Testament:
When man began to multiply on the face of the land and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that the daughters of man were attractive. And they took as their wives any they chose. Then the Lord said, “My Spirit shall not abide in man forever, for he is flesh: his days shall be 120 years.” The Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of man and they bore children to them. These were the mighty men who were of old, the men of renown. (Genesis 6:1-4)
Who or what are "the sons of God"? And what's up with these Nephilim? For Bible Artists, these questions aren't just a matter of idle speculation. Any adaptation that's seeking to do full justice to Genesis 5-10 has to answer these questions, and that answer could have a significant impact on the shape of the story being told.
So, what are they? And what did they do?
Throughout the history of interpretation, people have understood the passage about the the Sons of God in several very distinct ways. Each of these interpretations has to answer a couple basic questions: who/what are the figures being described? And what exactly is the sin that they're committing? Now, while I don't think all of these interpretations are equally valid from a hermeneutic standpoint, from a storytelling standpoint I think they all present interesting imaginative possibilities:
Oppressive Human Kings
In ancient cultures, it was fairly common for mighty kings to attribute to themselves divine lineage. This is how some interpreters understand "the sons of God" - as "divine" human rulers. If that's the case, the sin of the sons of God is that they're seizing for themselves "any they chose" from among the daughters of normal men - again, a fairly common occurrence in ancient cultures, as testified to by Genesis itself (Genesis 12:10-20; 20:1-18; 26:6-11). Given this interpretation, "the Nephilim" could either be an alternate title for "the sons of God" or a reference to their mighty children.
From a thematic perspective, the Oppressive Kings approach allows for a a closer parallel to the aforementioned episodes later on in Genesis. One could very easily craft a narrative that involves a "Son of God" attempting to take the wife of Noah or one of his sons. Instead of timidly giving in like Abraham or Isaac, however, the hero could trust God and boldly seek to rescue his beloved. Alternatively, the woman who is taken could play the role of a Judith or Jael, striking down her oppressor and demonstrating that he is a mortal like anyone else.
...if the world before the Flood is overrun with misogynistic oppression, audiences would probably be much more disposed to view God's devastating judgment in a sympathetic light.
Such scenarios would offer an interesting mirror of our post-MeToo culture that's become increasing aware of how the arrogance of hyper-privilege men leads to the oppression of women. Audiences would find it particularly appealing to watch a "Judith" type narrative, where the oppressed but empowered woman outwits and destroys her oppressor. Moreover, if the world before the Flood is overrun with misogynistic oppression, audiences would probably be much more disposed to view God's devastating judgment in a sympathetic light.
Fallen Descendants of Seth
Genesis shows a fair degree of concern over family lines and how intermarrying with the wrong people can cause problems (cf. Genesis 24:2-4; 26:34-35; 27:46; 28:6-9; Exodus 34:16; Deuteronomy 7:3-4; 1 Kings 11). In light of this, some have understood "the sons of God" as referring to the children of Seth and "the daughters of men" as referring to the children of Cain. The Sethites sin by failing to maintain the purity of their line, choosing instead to intermarry with their "pagan" cousins, the Cainites. Alternatively (and less supportably from a hermeneutical perspective", the Sethites might be intermarrying with Neanderthals or other highly evolved humanoid species. This interpretation doesn't offer a clear explanation of what the Nephilim are or why they're so valiant.
The Sethite interpretation is also interesting from a thematic perspective. It makes the parallel between innocent Adam & Eve giving in to the temptation to take the fruit more clear, since the Sethites would assumedly be innocent until getting seduced by the Cainites. It also sets up the theme of intermarrying, which may be particularly fitting if the story is set within a frame narrative that takes place right before or during the conquest of Canaan. The storyline could follow the attempted seduction of two Sethites, one who gives in and falls away, the other (Noah or one of his children) who resists the temptation and maintains loyalty to Yahweh. Or there could be a single protagonist who initially gives into the temptation only to repent later on.
But, though interesting from a thematic perspective, the Sethite approach would probably be much more problematic to modern audiences. The "woman as seductress" has fallen out of favor as a narrative trope, in large part due to how it reinforces the over-sexualization of women and the excusing of male lechery. Moreover, the idea of maintaining lineal purity would also be problematic to most modern viewers due to how they would view it through the lens of racism and some of the fundamentalist attacks against "miscegenation."
Stories about gods coming down to teach humans secret knowledge and impregnate their women are also quite common in ancient cultures. This may be why most ancient interpreters (e.g. the Book of Enoch) and many modern ones understand "the Sons of God" as fallen spiritual beings and "the daughters of men" as, just that, human women. Such an interpretation suggests that the sin of the Sons of God involved both oppression (since Spiritual Beings have power over humans) and impurity (since it involved the intermarrying of two different orders of creation). The offspring of these unnatural unions, the Nephilim, have superhuman strength and size as a result, just like the latter giants that the Israelites encounter (Numbers 13:28-32; Deuteronomy 1-2; 1 Samuel 17; 2 Samuel 21).
Just like The Boys or The Watchmen, the story of the Sons of God calls into question whether we should be quite so rosy-eyed toward beings with powers far above and beyond our own.
The Spiritual Being approach would also work well with a frame narrative before/during the conquest or perhaps during the life of David, since it provides an explanatory backstory for the existence of apparently superhuman giants. Thematically, I think you could also still create a parallel to the incidents of kings attempting to seize Sarai and Rebekah, since the Spiritual Beings described could act with a similar degree of barbarity. In fact, when we the later human kings acting this way, we'll realize that there is a sense in which they are descendants of these "gods" - they have inherited the same abusive arrogance.
If framed so as to suggest oppression in the same way that the Human King approach does, the Spiritual Being narrative could also have great relevance to contemporary issues. Moreover, this approach could dovetail with modern interest in the supernatural and superhuman. Just like The Boys or The Watchmen, the story of the Sons of God calls into question whether we should be quite so rosy-eyed toward beings with powers far above and beyond our own.