by Rabbi Shelton Donnell
Another year has passed and the cycle of Torah readings returns to the beginning with Parashat Bereishit in which we read many well-known stories from the creation of the world to that of the human race. Amidst all of these familiar tales – at the very end of the portion hidden between all recounting of the generations following Adam and Eve (the “begats”) and the beginning of the story of Noah – we encounter four very strange and surprising verses: “When human beings began to increase in number on the earth and daughters were born to them, the b’nei elohim saw that the daughters of men were beautiful, and they married any of them they chose. Adonai said, ‘My Spirit will not contend with humankind forever, for the human is mortal; his days will be a hundred and twenty years.’ The Nephilim were on the earth in those days—and also afterward—when the b’nei elohim went to the daughters of men and had children by them. These were the heroes of old, the men of renown” (Gen. 6:1-4).
Who were these “b’nei elohim” and these “men of renown?” It seems like the Torah is speaking about other deities (“children of God/the gods”), but this is impossible. There are those who contend that these verses allude to extra-terrestrials who came to earth in ancient days (a story well-suited to those who enjoy reading science fiction). But, how are we to understand these bizarre verses in any meaningful way?
Biblical scholars see in these verses a vestige of a mythological story reminiscent of those found in Ugaritic (Canaanite) and Greek literature in which there is a comingling of the divine and human realms – something that runs completely counter to our monotheistic perspective and that of every creation story based on the separation and distinction between that which is divine and that which is human. In our story here, the punishment of limiting the human lifespan to 120 years (the number of Moses’ years) serves this purpose as does (ultimately) the coming of the Flood. So, the story found its way into the Torah, but with a clearly negative connotation.
According to Rashi, the expression “b’nei elohim” refers to the nobility and to the judges. As he states, “The term elohim in scripture always denotes authority.” The transition from the understanding of b’nei elohim as referring to divine beings to their being judges as was interpreted in the medieval period is based on the use of the word ידון (Yadun – from which come the word for judge) in Gen. 6:2 and on Psalm 82:1-6:
God presides in the great assembly;
He gives judgment among the “gods”:
How long will you defend the unjust
and show partiality to the wicked?
Defend the cause of the weak and orphan;
maintain the rights of the poor and oppressed.
Rescue the weak and needy;
deliver them from the hand of the wicked.
They know nothing, they understand nothing.
They walk about in darkness;
all the foundations of the earth are shaken.
I said, ‘You are “gods”;
you are all sons of the Most High.’
But you will die like mere mortals;
you will fall like every other ruler.
Saadiah Gaon (writing before Rashi) thought similarly and described the b’nei elohim as “the sons of princes” (i.e. nobility). And so the Ramban and others, who in his commentary wrote that the b’nei elohim were important people and thus their descendants “were the heroes of old, the men of renown.” And more, the Ramban wrote that the situation was all the worse, “because the judges who were entrusted to administer justice acted with wanton wickedness publically and there was no preventing them.” Moreover, immediately following this description we read the introduction to the story of Noah and the Flood, “Adonai saw how great humanity’s wickedness on the earth had become and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time” (Gen. 6:5).
So here the Torah comes to teach us that there is a significant connection between these verses and what follows: if the leaders of a society do not act ethically and do not pursue justice then society itself will surely fall prey to wanton violence and corruption.
- Do you agree with the interpretation that the term b’nei elohim refers to judges and nobility (the elite of society)?
- Is this lesson from the Torah relevant today? Why or why not?
- Who are the “men/people of renown” today? How would you characterize the qualities that make them so?