The Sin of the Bnei HaElohim

Introduction

Sandwiched between an account of the lineage of Sheth the son of Adam and the story of the Flood, lies the strange chapter of the Bnei HaElohim.

 

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And it came to pass, when men began to multiply on the face of the earth, and daughters were born to them, that the [Bnei HaElohim[2]] saw that the daughters of men were fair; and they took them wives of all whom they chose.  And the Lord said, My spirit shall not always strive on account of man, for that he also is flesh: and his days shall be a hundred and twenty years. [3]

 

At first glance, the story seems to be a preface to the story of the Generation of the Flood, a harbinger of the evils to come; a morality lesson on the evils of hedonism.  It has all the requisite parts:

         A sociological backdropin this case, a population explosion that sets the stage for the sin to come. And it came to pass, when men began to multiply on the face of the earth.

         Sinnersthe Bnei HaElohim.

         A motive steeped in physical pleasure[they] saw that the daughters of men were fair.

         The sin of unrestrained physical desireand they took them wives of all whom they chose.

         The punishmentMy spirit shall not always strive on account of manand his days shall be a hundred and twenty years.

 

The association between the B'nei HaElohim and the corruption (and subsequent destruction) of the Earth by flood seems to be further reinforced by their textual proximity.  While the two stories are in separate parshiyot, [4] which implies separate topics, their contiguous positioningBnei HaElohim followed immediately by the Generation of the Floodmight indicate that the sins of the former are the initial sparks of corruption that would inevitably envelop the latter.  Additionally, by introducing Noah in the first verse of the parshiya of Bnei HaElohim, the Torah seems to be indicating a thematic linkage.[5]

A Different Sin

A second possibility exists: that the independent parshiya of the B'nei HaElohim tells an independent story, different from the story of the Flood, and unique in its sociological setting, sin, consequence, and moral implication.  A careful reading of the Bnei HaElohim passage reveals a tone distinctly different from the story of the Flood, and a number of incongruities further set this parshiya apart.  First and foremost is the nature of the mysterious Bnei HaElohim.  One gets a sense of the supernatural, and in fact the dispute as to whether HaElohim describes flesh and blood beings or supernatural ones dates back to the earliest biblical commentary, as we will explore.  The incongruity is compounded when we realize that the Bnei HaElohim, the perpetrators of the sin, are totally absent from the story of the Flood and its consequences, whereas the victims (man and his daughters) are punished.[6]

 

A contextual and textual analysis of the story also leaves the reader with the sense that this is not merely a prelude to the sins of the Generation of the Flood.  Textually, an accurate reading of the sin leads to the following translation: and they took for themselves from all (i.e. the entire set) that they had selected,[7] rather than and they took them wives of all whom they chose.  Rather than describing acts of uncontrolled sexual indiscretion, of absolute female subjugation and enslavement, the Torah seems to describe a surgical extraction of a subset of women from a previously selected subset of the total female population.  This selection within a selection hints at a sin that is quite different from the hedonism of the Generation of the Flood. 

 

Contextually, the final verse of the parshiya creates more questions than it answers. 

 

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 There were Nefilim [fallen ones[9]] in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the distinguished men [Bnei HaElohim] came in to the daughters of men, and they bore children to them; the same were mighty men of old, men of renown. 

 

What is the purpose of this verse?  Is it part of the punishment, forcing continual conflict with the fallen ones and their progeny, as described in Bamidbar, Devarim, and the various books of the Prophets?  Is it merely a short anthropology lesson about the extraordinary offspring of the two species or social groups?  If so, the lesson is obscured by the delineating of three distinct historical eras: in those days, also after that and of old. In those days presumably refers to the age when the sin was actively being committed.  Also afterwards can mean the time leading up to the Flood, or might extend afterwards.[10] Finally, of old is particularly unclear.  To put it simply, why does the Torah need to relate the progeny of the sin, when no such information is provided regarding the sinners of the Generation of the Flood?

 

Finally, the Torah does not repeat lessons.  The Netziv, in his introduction to Sefer Bereishit, explains that the actions of our forefathers are those required to keep the earth in existence.  Conversely, the Torah relates stories of sin and sinners to warn us of the actions and motivations that negatively affect Gods creation.  If not a single letter in the Torah is redundant, certainly the story of the Bnei HaElohim must provide a new lesson about sin and consequence, unique within the Five Books of Moses.

Hubris and Hedonism

In his 1969 lecture on the Book of Esther, Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik teaches that mans desire for sin is driven by one of two motives: hubris or hedonism.  Man strays from his own humanity either in the desire for power and authority or in the quest for unlimited enjoyment of life.  In his quest for either of these goals, says the Rav, he becomes oblivious to the fact that he is a finite and mortal being.  The Rav points out that both quests are present at the original sin:


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And the serpent said to the woman, You shall not surely die:  for God knows that on the day you eat of it, then your eyes shall be opened, and you shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.  And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit, and did eat, and gave also to her husband with her; and he did eat.

 

Present in these verses are the two motivations to sin. Then your eyes shall be opened, and you shall be as gods.  Here the verse speaks of Mans desire for the power to, in the words of Rav Soloveitchik, define his own rules of good and evilaccepting that with which he agrees, and rejecting that with which he does not agree.[12]  Alternatively, the Torah tells us that Havah is affected by a different motivation: hedonism.  And when the woman saw thatit was a delight to the eyes The Torah then presents us with two distinct generations that personify these two primal motivations to sin: the Generation of the Flood and the Generation of the Dispersion.  The former generation represents Mans desire for boundless hedonism, for an unceasing orgiastic experience. The latter generation represents mans desire to rule over his fellow man in a desire to attain the ultimate power and dethrone the Almighty. 

 

By attempting to classify the sin of the Bnei HaElohim within the framework of these motivations, we can reveal the storys unique message. 

The Case for Hedonism

Harbinger of the Flood

As mentioned before, the story of the Bnei HaElohim, based on its textual position preceding the story of the Flood, seems to be a prologue to the story of the generation of the Flood.  The Ramban states this most clearly, commenting on Noahs appearance in the first verse of the parshiya:

 

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When the Torah mentioned Noah and his sons and set out to explain the topic of the flood, it stated that as soon as man became many they began to sin, and they persisted in their sins for many a day

 

According to the Ramban, the sin of the Bnei HaElohim falls squarely in the arena of hedonism.  It is the first manifestation of the hedonistic sins that humanity will persist in for many a day.  While there is an aspect of power-lust in the Bnei HaElohim,[14] their motivation for wielding power is not an end in itself (i.e. to usurp Gods authority), but a means of enabling their hedonistic desires.  More specifically, the purpose is to dominate the daughters of man (and, de facto, man himself) for the sake of unbounded physical pleasure.  This principal of power for pleasures sake is clearly stated by Ramban: 

 

The Torah is telling of the rulers, who have the ability to apply laws; their children did larceny, and no one could prevent them. 

 

According to Ramban, the parshiya is less about a definition of their sins, which will be more fully described in the story of the Flood, and more about a demonstration of how a lack of checks and balances in a societys authority structure leads invariably to a breakdown in the societys moral structure.

Evil Personified

Rashi, based on the Medrash Bereishit Rabba,[15] takes a more extreme view of the hedonism of the Bnei HaElohim, describing all whom they chose as acts of adultery and bestiality.  He understands their sins as far more insidious than the proto-transgressions and corrupt social engineering described by the Ramban.  In fact, he says, their actions are an evil so intense as to be indistinguishable from the acts of the Generation of the Flood.  The Bnei HaElohim didnt simply introduce the socio-political structure that would one day lead to the evil of the Generation of the Flood; the Bnei HaElohim created this transcendent level of hedonistic evil, essentially inventing the Generation of the Flood.  As authors of evil, the Bnei HaElohim swell from mere humans into supernatural beings, capable of introducing or inventing heretofore-unknown sins.

 

Elohim is often used in the Torah to indicate flesh and blood rulers or judges.[16]  More often, though, Elohim is also used to indicate the spiritual or supernatural.  When describing the supernatural, Elohim can be a name for God or it can indicate supernatural beings, be they real (for example, angels[17]) or false (for example, elohim acheirim).  The Eben Ezra lays out this dichotomy clearly:

 

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Bnei HaElohim: Sons of rulers, who applied (enforced) the rule of law.  And there are those who say HaElohim in this place is spiritual

 

Rashi suggests that the Bnei HaElohim were supernatural.[18] 

 

They are the officers who serve as messengers for God, even they were involved [up] with them.[19] 

 

Rashis preference is grounded in the final verse of the parshiya, which discusses the Nefilim, or fallen ones. In our parshiya the Nefilim are the progeny of the Bnei HaElohim.  In Bamidbar, the Nefilim, who terrified the scouts sent to spy out Israel, are described as the progeny of the giants (Haanak).[20]  Bnei HaElohim are therefore synonymous with giants.  Moshe, stating that Refaim are like the giants,[21] ensures the term giants is taken literally, rather than as hyperbole or a poetic description of their prowess in war.  Moshe states only Og King of Bashan remained of the remnant of the Refaim; behold, his bed[22] nine cubits is the length of itafter the cubit of a man, [23] i.e., twice the size of a typical human.

 

It is no wonder, then, that Rashi describes the Nephilim in Bamidbar 13:33 thus:

 

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Giants from the children of Shamchazai and Azazel who fell from the heavens in the days of the generation of Enosh. 

 

In light of the Torahs clear descriptionthe simple pshatthat the Nefilim are supernatural, Rashis extremely guarded language in Bereishit 6:1 regarding their progenitors is surprising: officers who serve as messengers for God Rashi remains circumspect in verse 6:4, commenting on the Nefilim: By merit that they fell and pulled down the world.

 

A clue to the source of Rashis careful language can be found in the aforementioned Bereishit Rabbah 26:5, upon which Rashi bases his commentaries on this parshiya:

 

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Rabbi Shimon ben Yohai called them sons of judges.  [Further] Rabbi Shimon ben Yohai cursed anyone who called them children of gods [angels]

 

Rashi is affected by the schism between the Torahs straightforward description and Rabbi Shimons declaration that the Bnei HaElohim and the Nefilim are flesh and blood, an opinion followed by most of the classic commentators.  Why would Rabbi Shimon suppress what appears to be the simple pshat?[24]

The Book of Hanoch

At the heart of Rabbi Shimons strident curse lies the strange phraseology used by the Torah to describe Hanoch, the father of Methushelach.  Twice, the Torah says and Hanoch walked with HaElohim.[25]  The second repetition is followed by the mysterious and then he was not, because God [Elohim] took him.  The combination of the enigmatic walked with HaElohim and the story of the Bnei HaElohim were the inspiration for the Book of Hanoch.  The Book of Hanoch, excluded from Tanach, describes the rebellion of a group of angels against God.  These angels descend to and corrupt the earth, and ultimately, along with their offspring, are punished by God.  Hanoch is taken by Gods loyal angels to witness the evil of the fallen ones and the righteousness of the justice of God, and to prophesy the final justice to come.

 

The events in the Book of Hanoch are an obvious reexamination of the parshiya of the Bnei HaElohim.  Chapter six of the Book of Hanoch starts And it was when man became many, and daughters were born to them, exactly the phraseology of Bereishit 6:1.[26]  Further, the sins of these fallen angels are clearly defined as acts of lust driven by hedonism.  The full verse reads

 

And it was when man became many, and beautiful and pleasant daughters were born to them.  And the angels, the children of the heavens, saw them and desired them and said one to another: come, let us take women from the daughters of Man and have born to us sons. 

 

Little is left to the imagination regarding the depths of physical corruption produced by these fallen angels and their half-human, half-angel giant progeny. 

 

They taught them [women] sorcery and incantations, how to cut roots and plants.  And they gave birth to mighty giants 3000 cubits high. [The giants] ate all that men could make until men could not longer sustain them.  Then the great ones turned against and ate the men.  And they began to sin against birds and beasts and crawly things, and to drink human blood.   And Azzazael taught the children of men to make shields and armorand taught them to make up their eyes and dyes, and of precious stones

 

Bestiality, cannibalism, war, and seduction; these mirror the sins of the Generation of the Flood:

 

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And God looked upon the earth, and, behold, it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted its way upon the earth.

 

The author of the Book of Hanoch then explicitly ties the story of the Bnei HaElohim to the story of the Flood by describing how God sends the loyal angel Uriel to warn Noah of the impending doom.

Drash vs. Pshat

The Book of Hanoch is almost certainly of Jewish origin; however, it became a cause celebr of the early Christians.  The book defines a pantheon of supernatural beings with free will.  Great battles between good and evil are described, and evil beings are cast down into fiery pits while retaining their potential for further evil.  Doom, destruction, and redemption in the end of days are prophesied.  These concepts became a foundation of Christian belief.  The poet John Milton, in his philosophical masterpiece, Paradise Lost, uses the themes in the Book of Hanoch to ponder matters of good and evil, fate and free will.  As the Book of Hanoch became a major point of contention between Judaism and its heretical offspring, it was rejected by mainstream Jewish thought, becoming a biblio non grata.  In his introduction to the Book of Hanoch, A. Kahana notes that while the Talmud sometimes quotes apocryphal literature (e.g., the Wisdom of Ben Sira),[28] the Book of Hanoch is never cited.

 

One reason for such a disproportionate rejection of the Book of Hanoch might be a backlash to a perversion of the books original purpose.   The Christians treat it as a divinely inspired historical and metaphysical treatisethey regard it as pshat.  In reality, it is almost certainly drash; i.e., a homiletic discourse on the moral decay of the Generation of the Flood. 

 

Often more important than the events related in Tanach are the spiritual, psychological, sociological, and political environment affecting and affected by the events.  Rather than spelling out these lessons, the Tanach employs subtle textual deviations, relying on our fluent knowledge of the entirety of the Scriptures to infer the correct message.  Medrashic literature focuses in on these deviations, identifies the implications, and relates extra-textual stories that clarify them.  Medrashic stories are rarely, if ever, meant to be understood as pshat.  An example: In the Book of Samuel, David rejects Mefiboshets claim of loyalty without due process,[29] and strips away half of ex-king Sauls ancestral lands in favor of the accuser and servant Tziva. The medrash relates that at that moment a heavenly voice rang out and decreed the division of Israel between North and South in the days of Yeravam and Rechavam.[30]  The medrashic sages are not implying that an actual voice came from the heavens.  They are elucidating the Navis subtle message: the lack of jurisprudence by Davidwhere investigation could have ascertained the truth[31]was perceived as a slight against the old monarchy and created irreparable distrust among the northern tribes.  In fact, the incident was followed by the rebellion of Sauls tribesman Sheva ben Bichri.[32]  While the rebellion was suppressed, David was forced to appoint, for the first time, a tax collector to administer the northern tribes.[33]  This same tax collector would be killed some 50 years later during the rebellion between Yeravam and Rechavam.[34]  Yeravams rebellion was successful, and the split predicted by the heavenly voice was realized. 

 

However, even the Book of Hanochs misinterpretation as pshat seems unlikely grounds for its complete excision.  Another factor must be considered.  In my opinion, our Sages discarded the Book of Hanoch because it is philosophically, morally, spiritually, and medrashically wrong.

Absolutions

The Book of Hanoch tells us that we are not to blame for our sins.  The consequences of transgressions are not our fault. We are merely pawns in a game being played by powers out of our control.  The primary message of the Book of Hanoch is antithetical to explicit statements in the Torah, and the moralities that flow from our written and oral traditions.  Here are some examples:

         The Torah tells us that a man, either Lemach the son of Metushael or Lemachs son Tuval Cain, invented the arts of war and weaponry.[35]  In contrast, the Book of Hanoch places the blame squarely on the fallen angel Azzazel.

         According to the Book of Hanoch, Azzazel is once again the instigator, perhaps even the inventor of the objectification and subjugation of woman.  In contrast, our Medrashic sages tell us that man is to blame.  Once again, Lemach the son of Metushael is the central figure.[36]

         The Torah, according to most commentators, ascribes the introduction of idol worship and the transformation of nature by sorcery to Adams grandson Enosh.[37]  The Book of Hanoch blames the fallen angel Shamchazai.

 

According to the Book of Hanoch even the punishment of the Flood is not a consequence of our actions; rather it is a reflection of the irreversibly degenerate state of the Earth in the hands of the fallen angels.  Redemption, too, is brought about not by our own attempts to follow the Torahs moral lessons, but rather as a wholly unjustified act of grace by God. 

 

Ultimately, I believe that the Book of Hanoch is not only mistaken about Jewish philosophy.  It is mistaken about the story of the Bnei HaElohim from which it derives its incorrect worldviews.

Hubris: An Alternate Motive

As mentioned above, a number of elements seem to be out of synch with the supposition that the Bnei HaElohim are a precursor to, or the embodiment of, the hedonism-minded Generation of the Flood.  By enumerating these discrepancies, and then evaluating them, a different picture of the Bnei HaElohim emerges.

         The crime doesnt fit the modus operandi of unrestricted hedonism.  A careful reading of verse 6:2 describes a sub-selection, drawn from a prior winnowing of women.  This is different from the unrestricted orgiastic experience pursued by the Generation of the Flood.

         The result of the sin is not reflective of post-hedonistic culture.  The result is not a destroyed earth, but an earth filled with powerful, famous, and giant progeny who continue to plague mans existence until King Davids time.  The results of their sin are rather successful!  (Also, if the Bnei HaElohim are not supernatural beings, why would the progeny of two human social castes be superhuman in strength and height?)

         The punishment doesnt fit the crime of unlimited hedonism.  It is generally accepted that crimes committed against man, being more immoral than crimes committed against God, engender a more severe punishment.  However, rather than the total destruction exacted from the Generation the Flood, God merely limits mans longevity to 120 years.[38]

         Noahs appearance at the head of the parshiya seems strangely out of place considering his reintroduction in the next parshiya of the Flood.  If his mention here is a completion of the lineage of Shethas Archbishop Langton would have itit should appear in a separate parshiya, as do all the other descendants.

The Crime

Eban Ezra provides an alternate explanation of the crime, which matches the idea of winnowing, rather than enslavement and sexual depravity.  After enumerating the possible translations for the ambiguous Bnei HaElohim, he introduces his preferred explanation:

 

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Those who understood a higher knowledge chose for themselves the wives that fell under the influence of specific astrological signs, and their descendents were like them, thus mighty ones came from them.

 

Eben Ezra describes a process of manual selection based on astrological signs.  Men and women with shared astrological signs were paired, increasing their offsprings internalization of the chosen signs influence.  The process continued until mighty children were produced.  Rather than dismissing this as medieval superstition, the Chizkuni provides a shockingly modern variation on Eben Ezras words:

 

Wise in the higher wisdom, they chose for themselves women that were similar to themselves to have mighty children like them.

 

The idea is astounding:  the Bnei HaElohim were scientists, controlling evolution through manual genetic selection!  The Chizkuni and Eben Ezra are so troubled by these implications that both cap off their comments with a short return to the more accepted idea of forceful seizure.  Nonetheless, their revolutionary interpretation is so loyal to the text, and merges so seamlessly with the rest of the parshiya that it cannot be ignored.

The Result

Lets imagine for a moment that Gregor Mendel, the father of modern genetics and heredity, had more than a half of a millennium to experiment with his beans.   Mendel, an Augustinian monk, was forced to return to the monastery and abandon his experiments after only seven years.  His work on heredity was published in 1866; but without his continued involvement, the work would not be rediscovered until 1900 by the Dutch botanist Hugo de Vries, and not until 1920 was Mendels complex thesis fully understood. 

 

Imagine Aristarchus of Samos, the Greek astronomer who asserted a heliocentric solar system, continuing to work and thrive in a scientific community of knowledge.  Would Copernicus discovery of a heliocentric solar system have been necessary?  Further, would there have been a time like the Dark Ages, when it was possible to suppress scientific discovery?   Imagine Isaac Newton continuing his experiments in optics and gravity throughout the 18th and 19th century! 

 

The major impediments to scientific progress are biological and logistical, i.e., the deterioration and death of a single scientist.  The scientist is limited by his own lack of continuity.  While pseudo-continuity was achieved via teacher-student relationships, not until the spread of technologies to record and disseminate information did consistent scientific progression appear. 

 

The Bnei HaElohim had none of Gregor Mendels problems; they were free to continue their experimentation with human genetics until the fruits of their efforts were realized.  The Radak cites a Medrash that says that part of the Bnei HaElohims sin was the wasting of their precious extended time.  I believe the opposite is true.  Rather than wasting their gift of longevity, perhaps they used it all too well, with a distinct and evil purpose: the ultimate hubris of recreating the human race in their own image.

The Punishment

The Ramban is so bothered by this lack of parity between crime and punishment that he changes the penalty from shortened life span to death by flood.  The sins, he explains, come to climax in the 480th year of Noahs life (neatly resolving the mystery of Noahs mention at the head of this parshiya), giving them 120 years until the deluge.  Textually, however, the punishment of the Bnei HaElohim seems intentional, and not coincidental.  If the sins had climaxed 50 years later, would the Torah would have stated, and mans life will be 70 years? Additionally, 120 years is a significant number in Jewish philosophy, indicating the lifespan of a perfect person (e.g. Moshe[39]).  The designation of 120 years by the Bnei HaElohim is an unlikely coincidence.

 

measure for measureis an underlying principal of crime and punishment.  The expectation is that a sin engenders a fitting punishment; that a punishment is not arbitrary, but an inevitable metaphysical or spiritual consequence of breaking Gods law.  The Generation of the Flood, having wholly corrupted the earth in pursuit of unbounded orgiastic experience, brought about the Earths destruction as a consequence.

 

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And God looked upon the earth, and, behold, it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted its way upon the earth.  And God said to Noah, the end of all flesh is come before me; for the earth is filled with violence before through them; and, behold, I will destroy them with the earth.

 

Since the Bnei HaElohim abused their gift of longevity to rebel against God, eradicating that longevity was the just consequence, measure for measure.  In limiting mans life, God limited his ability to theorize, experiment, and evolve his scientific knowledge towards the hubristic end of becoming like God. 

 

The punishment verse is still enigmatic.  The word and the phrase are problematic, and the Meforshim struggle to fit the difficult phraseology into a comprehensible punishment.  Perhaps the focus on might indicate a sin of physical alteration, describing a hubristic desire to control flesh, rather than a hedonistic desire to corrupt it.

Noah

At the risk of fitting a verse to a theory, rather than letting the theory grow organically from the verses, I would propose that Noahs introduction at the start of this parshiya is not meant to connect the Bnei HaElohim to the story of the Flood.  I believe the Torah is focusing on Noahs frame of mind and moral reaction to the hubris of the Bnei HaElohim, rather than on Noah himself.  In contrast to the descriptions of Sheths other descendants, Noah waits 500 years before having children.  The average age of childbirth among the previous nine generations is only 95 years.  The median age is 87.  In fact, the Torah (which is almost surely skips over large expanses of family trees to focus on key people[41]) describes a decrease in the childbirth age until Methushelahs time.  Interestingly, Methushelah and his son Lemach, who do little in the Torah other than reverse the decreasing childbirth age, are described positively in Medrashic literature.[42] 

 

Lemach begins to recognize the specific sin of his generation and hopes to find a savior in his son.

 

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And he called his name Noah, saying this one shall comfort us for our [deeds] and the toil of our hands, because of the ground which the Lord has cursed.

 

Lemachs reference to toil ("), from which he seeks salvation, refers not to the hedonism of the Generation of the Flood, but to Mans original sin: his drive for Godlike power. 

 

While Lemach waits 182 years to have Noah, Noah abstains from procreation for 500 years.[44]  Noah fully recognizes the evil of his generation, and rebels against it using his usual modus operandi, conscientious objection.  Noah is never driven, like Avraham, to convert the masses; he simply recognizes evil and abstains.  While Medrash Tehilim, chapter one, states that the fear of his sons death by flood caused Noah to abstain, most other medrashim say merely: due to the sins of his generation that he saw. 

 

Noahs abstinence may have been prompted by fear, as well as moral objection.  The Medrash cited by Rashi on the opening verse of our parshiya implies that Noah does not consciously abstain; rather, God prevents him from having children.  Two reasons are given:

 

These reasons seem to fly in the face of self-determination.  Also, is it possible that God is worried about the difficulty of hailing a ship?   However, if we transfer the motivation from God to a subconscious decision by Noah to abstain, the two reasons seem very astute.  Noah feared that his children would either take part in the sin or be absorbed by it.  And, if absorbed into a population that grows geometrically each generation, salvation becomes quantitatively more and more remote.

Hubris and Hedonism Revisited

Two questions remain.  If the sin is one of hubris:

 

Hubris or hedonism: what new moral instruction is the Torah trying to impart?  I believe that the Bnei HaElohim introduce a sin that is a fusion of hubris and hedonism. 

 

The generation of the Dispersion was not hedonistic; Rav Soloveitchik teaches that it was their very asceticism that allowed them to wage war against the heavens.  Comparing them with the followers of Mao Zedong and Ho Chi Minh, the Rav says: If they would have subscribed to the code of orgiastic man, they couldnt have fought a war against the United States!  They wouldnt have sacrificed their lives!  Conversely, the Generation of the Flood was not interested in ruling over others.  In fact they wished to shuck off all social norms in order to enable an unlimited quest for pleasure. In contrast, the Bnei HaElohim fused both of these desires.  By wresting the authority of creation from God, and molding their flesh in their own image, they could define their physical needs and control their physical pleasures.

 

Religious students often grapple with the relevance of Torah stories.  They see them as true Jewish history, certainly divinely inspired, but with no direct application to modern times.  This is particularly true of the more fantastic-seeming stories, whose characters and storylines have little in common with the world we know, constricted by scientific discoveries and modern knowledge.  However, based on this analysis, the moral lesson is eminently relevant to our modern-day scientific reality.  Although we are enjoined to perfect nature[45] it is necessary to be conscious of the possibility of distorting it in our desire for power and pleasure.  We are forewarned as we inevitably return to the capabilities of the Bnei HaElohim.



[1] Bereishit, 6:1 6:3.

[2] The Jerusalem Bible translates Bnei HaElohim as distinguished men; however, since the dispute over the translation is one of the subjects of this article, and will be examined in detail later, I have chosen to substitute a transliteration. 

[3] All translations, unless otherwise specified, are from the Jerusalem Bible, Koren Publishing, Jerusalem.

[4] Parshiya refers to the partitioning of the Torah into a series of passage blocks called petuchot and setumot. A petucha starts a new topic, and a setuma introduces a sub-topic of the previous petucha.  The story of the Flood begins with a petucha describing the pervasive evil of man on earth and Gods decision to destroy all save Noah.  The story of the Bnei HaElohim is in the last setuma of the topic starting with the lineage of Sheth the son of Adam.  See Rabbi Menachem Liebtags Sefer Breishit Introductory Shiur: The Importance of Parshiot at http://www.tanach.org/brint.htm for more on petuchot and setumot.

[5] Archbishop Stephen Langton, definer of the well-used chapter and verse partitioning of Tanach, places the introduction of Noah at the end of the previous chapter, i.e. 5:32.  This probably reflects his belief that Noah was not directly involved (thematically or otherwise) with the Bnei HaElohim, and that Noah is introduced to complete Sheths lineage.  In contrast, our tradition places this verse as the introduction of the Bnei HaElohim story.  The prima facie implication is that the sins of the Generation of the Flood and the Bnei HaElohim are identical.  We will consider an alternative theory further on.

[6] The Ramban resolves this problem by stating that the punishment given to the Bnei HaElohimdescribed as a reduction in lifespan to a maximum of one hundred and twenty yearsis in fact death by Flood.  We will analyze the Ramban on the Bnei HaElohim more fully; however, from a textual perspective the Ramban is difficult since the Bnei HaElohim are absent from the story of the Flood.

[7] My translation.

[8] Bereishit 6:4.

[9] My translation of the transliterated Nefilim.

[10] This phrase may be the crux of the medrash that has the giant Og hitching a ride behind Noahs ark.

[11] Bereishit 2:4.

[12] If we translate KElohim as God instead of gods or rulers, the motivation becomes more extreme: the desire for ultimate authority.

[13] Noah is introduced in 5:32, which is the first verse of the parshiya.  Rambans commentary is on 6:1.

[14] Rav Saadya Gaon translates Benot Haadam as daughters of the masses.  One opinion of the Eban Ezra defines Bnei HaElohim as the line of Sheth, and Man as the line of Kayin.  Both opinions understand HaElohim as humans in position of power, e.g. judges, princes or rulers; those who wield socio-political power over the masses.

[15] 26:5.

[16] Shemot 21:6, 22:7; others.

[17] See Bereishit 3:5, Eben Ezra, Rashi, Rav Sadya Gaon.  Also see Onkelos for a different interpretation.

[18] Rashi, like the Eban Ezra, presents both possibilities for HaElohim; however, the opinion that they are supernatural is introduced with Davar Acher, a phrase which generally indicates that Rashi has found a problem with the former opinion, or simply prefers the latter one.

[19] Rashi on Bereshit 6:2.

[20] See Bamidbar 13:28, Bamidbar 13:33, and Devarim 1:22 1:25.

[21] Devarim 2:11.

[22]  Eres often translates as bed (Tehilim 6:7) but can also mean crib!

[23] Devarim 3:11.

[24] One might assume that a textual comparison with Iyov (1:6 and 2:1) might resolve the issue inasmuch as the Bnei HaElohim there are clearly angels.  Unfortunately, the Talmud (in Baba Batra 15:1) debates whether the events described in Iyov actually occurred or are meant as parable.  If the latter is true, the same uncertainties about the identity of the Bnei HaElohim apply.  It is therefore unsurprising  that none of classic commentaries in our parshiya cite Iyov as proof either way.

[25] Bereshit 5:22 and Bereshit 5:24.

[26] No original Hebrew text of the Book of Hanoch exists; however, A. Kahanas Hebrew translation of apocryphal literature leaves little room for doubt that the original Hebrew matched Bereishit 6:1.

[27] Bereishit 6:12.

[28] The citations of these apocryphal texts are limited to historical or secular references.

[29] Shmuel II 19:25 19:31.

[30] Yalkut Shimoni, Shmuel II, Remez 151.

[31] Notice the suddenness of Davids speech in 19:30, which uncharacteristically interrupts the conversation with a petucha break.  Also, notice Davids impatience implied by the repetition of the word Davar, and the unusual attention the Navi places on Mefiboshets public lack of hygiene in verse 19:25.

[32] Shmuel II 20:1; also Shmuel II 19:42 -19:44.

[33] Shmuel II 20:24.

[34] Melachim I 12:18.

[35] See Rashi, Bereishit 4:22. 

[36] See Rashi on Bereishit 4:19 regarding Lemachs two wives, Adah and Tzila.

[37] See Rashi on Bereishit 4:26.

[38] My high school students often argue that having ones life span reducedlike someone who discovers he has only a few months to liveis a far worse punishment then dying without knowing what hit you.  I explain about the preciousness of each second described by King Davids cry: Afflict me terribly, God, just dont let me die. (My translation of Tehillim 118:18, based on Rav Chaim Schmuelevitz Sichat Musar, VaEira 5631).  I stress the importance of sharing ones final moments with loved ones.  Nonetheless, its not an argument Im likely to win with every adolescent.

[39] See also the Medrash Tanchuma, Parshat Matot, Siman 4 on the lifespan of Yehoshua bin Nun.

[40] Bereishit 6:11 6:12.

[41] See Rambam, Moreh Nevuchim section 2 chapter 47.  Also, see Ramban on Bereishit 5:4.

[42] Bereishit Rabbah, Seder Olam Rabba, and others.

[43] Bereishit 5:29.

[44] Medrash Tanchuma, parshat Bereishit states Noah was so worried about involvement in sin that he refused even to marry.

[45] Maharal, Tiferet Yisrael, chapter 2.