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B'reishit 5779: Fallen Angels

B'reishit 5779: Fallen Angels

Oct 07, 2018
Like many precocious children, I went through a phase where I was obsessed with Greek and Roman mythology. This was especially true around the time when the Disney Hercules movie came out in 1997. I had a number of books that described in detail the various gods, demigods and mythical figures that so captured the ancient imagination. There was something appealing about the stories of conflict among the gods and the exploits of super-human characters.

However, I always understood this kind of mythology that features intensive divine-human interaction to not be a feature of the Judaism that I also loved growing up. Judaism, of course, is monotheistic, believing in only one God who speaks and interacts with human beings, but not in the same way that the ancient Greeks of Egyptians or Babylonians believed that their panoply of gods did. Indeed, the Torah primarily focuses on the all-too-human story of the people Israel, not on the occurrences of the supernal realms. Indeed, compared to other ancient Near Eastern writing, the Torah tends to demythologize similar material, putting it in human terms. As Abraham Joshua Heschel taught, “the Bible is primarily not [humanity’s] vision of God, but God’s vision of [humanity]. The Bible is not [humanity’s] theology but God’s anthropology, dealing with [humanity] and what [God] asks of [them].”

But this morning, as we read the beginning of the Torah, we encounter a peculiar passage that challenges this picture of the Torah and how it is distinctive from other ancient religious documents. Toward the end of the Torah reading, we get the genealogy of the generations between Adam and Noah, and then the beginning of the story of the Flood, which will continue next week in Parashat Noah. But stuck in the middle of this otherwise coherent narrative is the following peculiar passage:

“1 Then it happened, as humans began to proliferate throughout the world, and daughters were born to them, 2 that divine beings saw the human girls, and noticed that they were beautiful. They married them as wives—whichever ones they chose. 3 Then YHWH said, “The life-breath I bestow will not dwell in a human forever, insofar as they, too, are flesh; a human’s time will be one hundred and twenty years.” 4 The fallen giants were on earth in those days, and afterwards, too—when divine beings had relations with human women, who bore their offspring. These giants were the mighty ones of old, men of fame. (Genesis 6.1-4, Ben Sommer’s translation).”

What are we to make of this cryptic story? Is the Torah really trying to tell us that some kind of divine beings mated with human women, creating a race of giants, the Nephilim? While there are other stories in Genesis and the Bible of angels interacting with human beings, we have no other story like this, which seems to fit more with ancient Greek myth than the rest of the Torah. My teacher Benjamin Sommer, who teaches Bible at JTS, suggests that this passage, reminiscent of ancient polytheistic myths, was included in the Torah precisely to emphasize how the Torah’s conception of God different from that of its surrounding cultures. “God decrees that mixing of this sort should not occur, and that humans…cannot live forever… Humans are made in the image of God... But they are not divine, and a core idea of biblical literature is that God is utterly unique,” Prof. Sommer suggests. “One way,” he continues, that “the Torah emphasizes this idea is by reminding its audience of stories from the ancient world that portray a mixing of divine and human realms, and then introducing a crucial difference. ”

That crucial difference is that, unlike in those other cultures, the divine and human realms remain separate and distinct. Gods do not become human, and humans do not become divine. The Torah’s first audience would have been familiar with those other cultures that imagined much more fluidity between the human and divine realms. This story might have served to reject that notion.

As Professor Sommer suggests, the Torah’s “ancient audience that they may have heard tales about sexual contact between the heavenly and earthly realms, but this does not change the fact that humans are mortal...Similarly,” he continues, “the giants the audience had heard about may have once existed, but they are in fact mortal beings and not really comparable to God…This passage, in short, reminds us of the mixing between divine and human realms in order to emphasize that in the end, those realms remain separate.”

This is all well and good, and may explain what this remnant of a mythological story is doing in the Torah. But what did our rabbis, reading it a thousand years after it was first written down, make of this story? How did they square it with their own sense of monotheism? Since it was there in the Torah, they couldn’t ignore it or erase it. So their only option was to re-interpret the story to mean something else. And this is mostly what they did.

Rashi, the great medieval exegete, summarizes in his commentary the way most earlier rabbis dealt with the passage. As they do elsewhere in theologically uncomfortable passages, the rabbis understand the word “Elohim,” God, as referring to human powers such as judges, rather than to divine powers. This transforms the story into a human story about the corruption that prompted God to bring the Flood. As Rashi explains, these high-status sons of power and privilege would pick whichever women they wanted and forcibly have sex with them, even if they were on their way to be married to someone else. This fits with the picture of violent depravity that is the setting for the Noah story, and helps this passage cohere with what comes before and after it. One early rabbi, Shimon Bar Yochai, went so far as to curse anyone who said this passage refers to divine beings rather than the human sons of judges or noblemen (Bereshit Rabbah 26:6).

But the rabbis were unable to totally suppress the mythical thrust of this passage. Even Rashi mentions it as an alternative interpretation. Furthermore, it shows up in great detail in an 8th century midrashic text, Pirkei de’Rebbe Eliezer. This midrashic work, according to Dr. Rachel Adelman, who teaches at Hebrew College in Boston, represents a “return of the repressed ”. In this work, narratives and interpretations of the Bible that had been in circulation during the Second Temple period, and which had been ignored or suppressed by the rabbis, unexpectedly turn up in a text within the canon of rabbinic literature.

As Pirkei de’Rebbe Eliezer tells it, then, the descendants of Cain engaged in all kinds of lewdness and sexual immorality. This, in turn, allured the fallen angels, who cohabited with the human women. A race of giants is born from these unions, who then perpetuate the violence that leads to the flood. In sum, this retelling of our Torah passage produces, in Dr. Adelman’s words, “a Jewish version of a supernatural myth filled with giants, demigods, and irresistible seductresses.”

So what are we to make of this? First of all, it’s just interesting that this exists at all, both in its version in the Torah, and in its version in Pirkei de’Rebbe Eliezer that preserves the supernatural interpretation. Our religion is ancient and complex, and contains many different theological ideas. This story represents one of them, not a dominant one, but one that nonetheless exists within the tradition.

Secondly, this story helps us appreciate how decisively the Torah broke with the religious cultures that surrounded it. There are many stories and motifs that it shares with other, more ancient cultures: the story of Noah that we read next week is famously similar to the Epic of Gilgamesh from Babylonian culture. Yet even with all of these similarities, the differences are even more significant. The Torah took material with which its original audience would have been familiar and used it to teach a fundamentally different concept of divinity. Finally, whether you read the story as a human or supernatural drama, it emphasizes sexual immorality as the precursor to the Flood. That is why it is inserted seemingly out of context in the beginning of the story of Noah. Blurring of appropriate boundaries and abuse of power for sexual gain can lead to the kind of lawless, violent world that God sees no other option but to destroy and start over.

As recent events have reminded us, sex and power remain very much intertwined. Too many people, especially but not only women, have experienced harassment and violation that have affected them terribly for the rest of their lives. As the story of Noah reminds us, left unchallenged, a culture where sexual boundaries are routinely violated can have dire consequences. Together, may we work to prevent the next Flood.

B'reishit 5779: Fallen Angels

Genesis 6:1-4

(א) וַֽיְהִי֙ כִּֽי־הֵחֵ֣ל הָֽאָדָ֔ם לָרֹ֖ב עַל־פְּנֵ֣י הָֽאֲדָמָ֑ה וּבָנ֖וֹת יֻלְּד֥וּ לָהֶֽם׃ (ב) וַיִּרְא֤וּ בְנֵי־הָֽאֱלֹקִים֙ אֶת־בְּנ֣וֹת הָֽאָדָ֔ם כִּ֥י טֹבֹ֖ת הֵ֑נָּה וַיִּקְח֤וּ לָהֶם֙ נָשִׁ֔ים מִכֹּ֖ל אֲשֶׁ֥ר בָּחָֽרוּ׃ (ג) וַיֹּ֣אמֶר ה' לֹֽא־יָד֨וֹן רוּחִ֤י בָֽאָדָם֙ לְעֹלָ֔ם בְּשַׁגַּ֖ם ה֣וּא בָשָׂ֑ר וְהָי֣וּ יָמָ֔יו מֵאָ֥ה וְעֶשְׂרִ֖ים שָׁנָֽה׃ (ד) הַנְּפִלִ֞ים הָי֣וּ בָאָרֶץ֮ בַּיָּמִ֣ים הָהֵם֒ וְגַ֣ם אַֽחֲרֵי־כֵ֗ן אֲשֶׁ֨ר יָבֹ֜אוּ בְּנֵ֤י הָֽאֱלֹקִים֙ אֶל־בְּנ֣וֹת הָֽאָדָ֔ם וְיָלְד֖וּ לָהֶ֑ם הֵ֧מָּה הַגִּבֹּרִ֛ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר מֵעוֹלָ֖ם אַנְשֵׁ֥י הַשֵּֽׁם׃ (פ)

1 Then it happened, as humans began to proliferate throughout the world, and daughters were born to them, 2 that divine beings saw the human girls, and noticed that they were beautiful. They married them as wives—whichever ones they chose. 3 Then YHWH said, “The life-breath I bestow will not dwell in a human forever, insofar as they, too, are flesh; a human’s time will be one hundred and twenty years.” 4 The fallen giants were on earth in those days, and afterwards, too—when divine beings had relations with human women, who bore their offspring. These giants were the mighty ones of old, men of fame.

Rashi on Genesis 6:2

(א) בני האלקים. בְּנֵי הַשָּׂרִים וְהַשּׁוֹפְטִים. דָּבָר אַחֵר בְּנֵי הָאֱלֹקִים, הֵם הַשָּׂרִים הַהוֹלְכִים בִּשְׁלִיחוּתוֹ שֶׁל מָקוֹם, אַף הֵם הָיוּ מִתְעָרְבִים בָּהֶם; כָּל אֱלֹקִים שֶׁבַּמִּקְרָא לְשׁוֹן מָרוּת...(ב) כי טבת הנה. אָמַר רַבִּי יוּדָן טבת כְּתִיב, כְּשֶׁהָיוּ מְטִיבִין אוֹתָהּ מְקֻשֶּׁטֶת לִכָּנֵס לַחֻפָּה, הָיָה גָּדוֹל נִכְנָס וּבוֹעֲלָהּ תְּחִלָּה (בראשית רבה): (ג) מכל אשר בחרו. אַף בְּעוּלַת בַּעַל, אַף הַזָּכָר וְהַבְּהֵמָה:

(1) THE SONS OF ELOHIM — The sons of princes and rulers (Genesis Rabbah 26:15). Another explanation of "Sons of Elohim:" these were princely angels who came as messengers from God: they, too, intermingled with them (the daughters of men). Wherever the word אלהים occurs in the Scriptures it signifies authority...

(2)THAT THEY WERE FAIR — Rabbi Yudan said, “It is written here tovat, for when they were being made to appear “good” by being decked out to be taken beneath the marriage canopy, one of the lords would come and carry her off first (Genesis Rabbah 26:5).

(3) OF ALL WHOM THEY CHOOSE — even if it were a married woman or a man or an animal (Genesis Rabbah 26:5).

Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer 22

(ג) רבי מאיר אומר גלוי בשר ערוה היו הולכין דורות של קין האנשים והנשים כבהמה ומטמאין בכל זנות איש באמו ובבתו ובאשת אחיו גלוי ברחובות ביצר הרע ובמחשבות לבם שנאמר וירא ה' כי רבה רעת האדם בארץ. (ד) רבי אומר ראו המלאכים שנפלו ממקום קדושתן מן השמי' את בנות קין מהלכות גלויות בשר ערווה ומכחלות עיניהן כזונות ותעו אחריהן ויקחו מהן נשים שנאמ' ויראו בני האלקים את בנות האדם וגו'.(ה) רבי יהושע בן קרחה אומר...בשעה שנפלו מן השמים ממקום קדושתן כחן וקומתן כבני אדם ולבושן גוש עפר... (ו) רבי צדוק אומר מהם נולדו הענקים המהלכים בגובה קומה ומשלחים ידם בכל גזל וחמס ושפיכות דמים...(ט) אמר להם נח שובו מדרכיכם וממעשיכם הרעי' שלא יבוא עליכם מי המבול ויכרית כל זרע בני אדם

(3) Rabbi Meir said: The generations of Cain went about stark naked, men and women, just like the beasts, and they defiled themselves with all kinds of immorality, a man with his mother or his daughter, or the wife of his brother, or the wife of his neighbour, in public and in the streets, with evil inclination which is in the thought of their heart, as it is said, "And the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth" (Gen. vi. 5).

(4) Rabbi said: The angels who fell from their holy place in heaven saw the daughters of the generations of Cain walking about naked, with their eyes painted like harlots, and they went astray after them, and took wives from among them, as it is said, "And the sons of Elohim saw the daughters of men that they were fair; and they took them wives of all that they chose" (ibid. 2).

(5) Rabbi Joshua said: ... when they fell from heaven, from their holy place, their strength and stature (became) like that of the sons of men, ...

(6) Rabbi Zadok said: From them were born the giants (Anakim), who walked with pride in their heart, and who stretched forth their hand to all (kinds of) robbery and violence, and shedding of blood ...

(9) Noah said to them: Turn from your ways and evil deeds, so that He bring not upon you the waters of the Flood, and destroy all the seed of the children of men.