Posted on October 1, 2021
Jeffrey and I finally finished watching the television series Lucifer the other night. Among the themes of the series is the idea of angels and humans producing children together, a strange concept. Would such children be human or angel or something in between? Another take on this theme is Percy Jackson and the Olympians, a series of books for young adults featuring demigods in the modern world, that is, children produced by the union of gods and human beings. These demigods have all sorts of adventures and are able to perform all sorts of heroic feats. They are fun books and some have been made into movies as well. Of course, the Percy Jackson series is based on classical Greek mythology, another place where it is not uncommon to have offspring of gods and humans. Similarly, we are not surprised to find demigods in Roman mythology or in ancient near-eastern mythology, or in other mythologies.
But we do not expect to hear about the descendants of humans and divine beings in the Torah, whether by gods or angels or something else. Yet we read in Genesis 6:1-4: When men began to increase on earth and daughters were born to them, B’nai Ha’elohim, the divine beings (alternative translation: the sons of God) saw how beautiful the daughters of men were and took wives from among those that pleased them.— The LORD said, “My breath shall not abide in man forever, since he too is flesh; let the days allowed him be one hundred and twenty years.”— It was then, and later too, that the Nephilim appeared on earth—when the divine beings cohabited with the daughters of men, who bore them offspring. They were the heroes of old, the men of renown.
What do we make of this, albeit brief, mention in Genesis of the offspring of male divine beings and female human beings?
Interestingly, many of our rabbis reject the premise altogether. Rashi, for example, and many others as well, explains that “B’nai Ha’elohim” in this context does not have to do with sons of God or any kind of divine being at all. Rather it means the sons of princes and rulers; there are other places in the Torah as well where the word “elohim” is properly translated as judge or prince rather than as a name for God These sons of privileged, powerful people just took what they wanted, when they wanted it, including whatever woman caught their eye. The story then becomes a tale of violence and abuse of power rather than a myth of demigods and semi-angels. Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai is quoted as saying that when the elite of the people are themselves guilty of the sins they want the common man to refrain from, their efforts are doomed and society is in trouble.
This message remains, whether the perpetrators are celestial beings taking advantage of their power or whether the perpetrators are the “regular” privileged, taking advantage of their power.
We are back to the beginning. This is the third year of our triennial Torah reading cycle and I invite us to find surprises in the final third of each parashah, the parts that we may not usually focus on.
Rabbi Miriam T. Spitzer