They Might Be Giants: Bereshit 2015

by Adam J. Rosenbaum

Questions to Start: What are the origins of sin? Is sin a necessary part of human existence, or is it possible to eradicate it? Are we born with the potential for sin, or are we taught evil ideas by elders and peers? Does the Jewish idea that all of us our born with the potential for both good and evil make sense to you, or do your experiences indicate otherwise?

The Torah portion of Bereshit, from the beginning of the book of Genesis, includes a lot of “why things are” stories and anecdotes. Perhaps the most fascinating of these anecdotes attempt to explain why God chooses to destroy the earth and re-start with Noah. Depending on how we interpret this episode of these divine beings — or giants — we can understand more about what causes us to commit wrongdoings and take responsibility for our mistakes.

Text: “When humankind began to increase on earth and daughters were born to them, the [males among the] divine beings saw how pleasing the human women were and took wives from among those who delighted them. Adonai said, ‘My breath shall not abide in humankind forever, since it too is flesh; let the days allowed them be one hundred and twenty years.’ It was then, and later too, that the Nephilim appeared on earth — when divine beings cohabited with the human women, who bore them offspring. Such were the heroes of old, the renowned ones.” (Genesis 6:1-4)

Commentary #1: That sexuality is not seen in Genesis as a primal source of evil can be argued from the strange story that concludes this parasha, the account of the sons of God taking wives from the daughters of men. The Nephilim, the heroes of old and warriors of renown, are the offspring of these unions. … The unions between the Watchers and human women lead to a corruption of humanity further compounded by the Watchers teaching humans the arts of magic and warfare. This corruption of humanity and the created order is what leads to the Flood. References to this myth in the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs compound sexual pessimism with misogyny by portraying the women as seducing the Watchers into sin. However, the brief Genesis version removes all these details and does not pronounce any condemnation on the sons of God, the daughters of men or the Nephilim. — Michael Carden, “Genesis/Bereshit”, from The Queer Bible Commentary, edited by Deryn Guest, Robert E. Goss, Mona West and Thomas Bohache

Commentary #2: “The story of the coupling of the sons of god with the beautiful mortal women reminds us of mythological traditions that were widespread in ancient cultures, including some that were Israel’s neighbors. Canaanite literature tells how the father of the gods, El, had relations with two women. Shachar and Shalem, the progeny of these unions, became gods themselves and joined the pantheon. Classical literature tells the tale of Zeus, the father of the gods, having relations with the mortal Alcamene and fathering Heracles, who ultimately gains divine status and immortality … One sense that the story in Genesis reveals only the bare bones of the tale, as though the writer was unwilling to elaborate.” — Avigdor Shinan and Yair Zakovitch, From God to Gods

Commentary #3: “The sons of God were sent down to teach mankind truth and justice; and for 300 years did indeed teach Cain’s son Enoch all the secrets of Heaven and Earth. Later, however, they lusted after mortal women and defiled themselves by sexual intercourse. Enoch has recorded not only their divine instructions, but also their subsequent fall from grace; before the end they were indiscriminately enjoying virgins, matrons, men and beasts.” — Tanhuma

Follow-Up Questions: Our first commentary wonders what the divine beings did wrong at all; our second commentary indicates that whatever criticism against the divine beings that may exist has been muted; and the third commentary indicates that the divine beings were at fault for giving into lustful desires.

Do you prefer one commentary over another? Does it make sense that these divine beings led humanity astray to the point where God is ready to destroy the world? Or are they scapegoats to distract us from blaming humanity for its role in its downfall? When we commit wrongdoings, how quick are we to blame outside forces? What enables us to take responsibility for our actions? 

Emanu-El Happenings: A friendly reminder: Emanu-El University resumes this Tuesday night (7:00-8:30PM) – even if you haven’t registered yet, just show up and join us! My Talmud class, “A Touch of the Bavli,” resumes this Thursday from 9:30-10:30AM. Also, I invite you to take part in my new adult education initiative, “Torah A La Carte” – you pick the topic, I guide you to resources, and we can both arrange times and places to meet to learn what you’ve always wanted!

The Big Inning at the End: It’s always wonderful when the baseball playoffs coincide with the conclusion of the Fall Jewish holidays. Just like our Torah portion, this week has brought many new beginnings, including the first Chicago Cubs playoff victory in a dozen years. This fan is holding his breath … 

Shabbat Shalom!