Michael Knopf
Rabbi and editor of 'No Time for Neutrality'

We’ve been here before: What Genesis teaches us about the Kavanaugh travesty

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It may not be immediately apparent, but this piece is ultimately about Brett Kavanaugh, about the outrage and injustice of his confirmation and the process that culminated in his confirmation. It is about how we encounter and move forward in this painful historical moment. It is for Christine Blasey Ford, Deborah Ramirez, and all the victims of sexual violence who have risked everything to speak out against their tormentors, even in a culture that refuses to listen to their voices. And it is for those who, even now (or perhaps especially now), feel bullied into silence.

But first, I need to take a step back. Way back. Almost to the beginning. The first scriptural reading of the annual Jewish liturgical cycle (Parashah) is comprised of the first five chapters of Genesis, plus the first few verses of chapter six. These initial chapters of the Torah are rich with narrative, so when rabbis are tasked with preaching on this first Torah portion, they tend to focus on marquee stories like creation, Eden, and Cain and Abel, ignoring the latter section of the portion altogether. It’s understandable. After all, who wants to teach about ancient geneologies when one could teach about the Trees of Life and Knowledge? And yet these arcane and at times bizarre texts bear important wisdom for our time, if we attend to them and carefully unpack them.

The crucial passage for us to consider is this one:

When men began to increase on earth and daughters were born to them, the divine beings [Hebrew: v’nei ha-elohim] saw how beautiful the daughters of men were and took wives [Hebrew: va-yik’hu lahem nashim] from among those that pleased them [Hebrew: mi-kol asher baharu]. — 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 [Hebrew: v’nei ha-elohim] cohabited with the daughters of men, who bore them offspring. They were the heroes of old, the men of renown. The Lord saw how great was man’s wickedness on earth, and how every plan devised by his mind was nothing but evil all the time. And the Lord regretted that He had made man on earth, and His heart was saddened. The Lord said, ‘I will blot out from the earth the men whom I created — men together with beasts, creeping things, and birds of the sky; for I regret that I made them.’ But Noah found favor with the Lord. (Gen. 6:1-8).

On its surface, this passage is both surprising and strange. For starters, it seems to refer to divine beings other than God, and introduces a mysterious group of beings called Nephilim (who may or may not be the products of the union between the divine beings and human women). God is outraged over humanity’s alleged wickedness, but in focusing on these evidently nonhuman actors, the text does not seem to say what human beings were doing wrong, or that they were acting sinfully at all.

I don’t purport to have a definitive understanding of this passage. It’s one of those biblical texts that defy simple interpretation. However, it seems to me that a few of the difficulties can be resolved through adopting different translations. For example, the Hebrew term for “divine beings,” v’nei ha-elohim, need not have supernatural implications. True, the Hebrew can literally be translated as “children of God” or “children of the gods,” but it is possible that the Hebrew “Elohim” here does not mean God or gods at all. While “elohim” commonly means God or gods in biblical literature, it can also mean powerful or prominent people, especially rulers, judges, and other officials. That is precisely how the renowned medieval French commentator Rashi understands the term as it’s used here. So instead of “divine beings,” let’s translate v’nei ha-Elohim as “prominent/powerful men,” or “princes.”

We must similarly reevaluate what the text says that these princes were doing. The above translation has them noticing and marrying beautiful human women. This, it seems to me, is euphemistic. A more literal translation of the Hebrew would be “The princes saw the human women, for they were beautiful, and they took wives for themselves from among whomever they chose.” The terminology of “taking a wife” may make us moderns uncomfortable, but it is not unusual in biblical literature and doesn’t necessarily indicate force or a lack of consent on the part of the woman involved. It does, however, imply sexual relations, because, in the world of the Bible, intercourse was one of the ways in which a woman would formally become a man’s wife. So, when the term is used in our passage, it is at least in part referring to sexual relations.

Furthermore, there is an inherent power imbalance in our passage between the princes and the “human” (read: average) women, the text underscores that the men are only interested in the women’s bodies, the text adds a phrase emphasizing the men’s agency, and God is evidently unhappy with what is going on. It therefore seems reasonable to interpret what the prominent men are doing as forcefully sleeping with women who are powerless to resist them. This interpretation is supported by the fact that the text reminds us of their average humanity, compared to the status of the princes. The modern commentator Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg adds to this understanding that, when the rabbis of the midrash teach that rampant robbery was the sin that resulted in the Flood, they are really alluding to this widespread culture of rape. Rape, after all, is the robbery of a person’s essential humanity.

And what of the Nephilim? What do they have to do with all this? Along with many commentators, I am skeptical that they are the offspring of the liaisons between the princes and the common women. And, since I don’t understand this passage as a myth about gods and demigods, and I don’t see them as the supernatural offspring of unions between gods and human women. Instead, I think the Nephilim appear in this text for two reasons: One, they are a reference point for the the time-period. The way the text talks about the Nephilim — that they were around, literally, “in those days” — implies that the intended original audience would have known when they lived. The text here is thus setting the story of the princes raping the common women during the era of the Nephilim, which the original audience would have been readily able to identify.

The second reason for the allusion to the Nephilim is to imply that they were complicit in the sinfulness of the princes. We aren’t told much about the Nephilim in this passage, except that they were “the heroes” (or, more literally, the “powerful men”) “of old, the men of renown” (meaning prominent or famous). While it is possible that the clause “the heroes of old, the men of renown,” could refer to the offspring of the princes and common-women, it is more likely describing the Nephilim themselves, given what we know of them from the one other place they are mentioned in the Bible (Numbers 13:33). In other words, the text is saying that, while these princes violated women at will, there were other powerful and prominent men around, too.

And what did these powerful, prominent men do or say while these crimes were being committed? According to the text, absolutely nothing. Here, perhaps, is a good opportunity to mention that the literal meaning of the term Nephilim is “fallen ones.” Perhaps this term is an allusion to their moral failure to bear witness against the sins of the princes? They had the power and the prominence to stop — or at the very least speak out against — the princes’ reprehensible behavior. Instead, they did nothing.

God’s assessment of the situation on earth and subsequent plan of action requires some interpretation in this context. When God sees the behavior of the princes, God says, “‘My breath shall not abide in man forever, since he too is flesh; let the days allowed him be one hundred and twenty years.’” We then learn that God sorrowfully concludes that man is wholly wicked and must be destroyed. Now, if this passage were a myth about gods and demigods, then we would have a hard time explaining why God would respond by punishing humanity. We resolved that difficulty by understanding this as a story about powerful human men preying on human women. In that context, it makes more sense for God to punish human beings. But there seem to be two punishments here, and neither of them seem to target the culprits specifically. How do we explain this?

First, there are not two punishments here. There’s only one. And it’s not even a punishment. It’s only a threat. This interpretation hinges on how we understand God’s statement about restricting the years allotted to humanity to one hundred twenty. One school of thought holds that this means God is responding to man’s sinfulness by limiting each individual human being’s lifespan. But that interpretation makes no sense, considering the Bible records that many subsequent characters had lifespans both less than and well beyond 120 years. Another school of thought is that God here means that humanity will be destroyed for their sinfulness in 120 years; in other words, the timeframe is connected to God’s stated commitment to wipe out humanity. This view is buttressed by the fact that exactly 120 years elapse between God commanding Noah to build an ark and the onset of the flood.

Why destroy all humanity? Why not only punish the princes? This, I think, is part of why we are told about the Nephilim. Because the problem was not just with the behavior of the princes. The problem was both that men of privilege and power were serial abusers and also that other men of privilege and power looked the other way. And, it stands to reason, that when the average person sees that a crime like rape could be committed with impunity, then they, too, could feel free to cast aside norms and perpetrate whatever abuses they desired. Indeed, this is precisely what Scripture implies a few verses later when it says, “The earth became corrupt before God; the earth was filled with lawlessness” (Genesis 6:11). Rashi interprets this to mean that sexual abuse and robbery (which Zornberg says in fact refer to the same sin) had become rampant and widespread; so widespread, in fact, that “all flesh” had become corrupt.

But if these abuses were so commonplace, why would God wait 120 years to destroy humanity? Presumably, a delay like this would give humanity ample opportunity to repent and change course. There is, however, a difficulty with this understanding, because God does not seem to warn humanity of its impending destruction. How can God expect people to change their behavior without first telling them that they are doing something wrong?

Of course, accusing God of failing to warn humanity of the impending cataclysm is disingenuous. Notably, God does tell one person: Noah. Why Noah? We aren’t given a clear answer to this question, other than the fact that he is “blameless in his age” (6:9), implying that he was uniquely innocent of the sins of his era. More important to the message of the narrative, I think, is the fact that Noah says absolutely nothing in response to this shocking Divine decree. In fact, Noah does not utter one word until after the flood, a span of over 120 years! Noah could have saved the world. He could have prophetically spoken out against the behavior of the princes. He could have railed against the complicity of the Nephilim. He could have told his friends and neighbors to change their ways.

Instead, Noah silently watches as humanity destroys itself through rampant sexual violence. He spends a century building an Ark so that he and his family could be saved, and does nothing to help anyone else avoid calamity. Rather than speaking truth to power or pushing back against his society’s worst impulses, he embodies his contemporaries’’ propensity for disregarding others’ humanity and looking the other way. Noah may have been better than his contemporaries, but he is fundamentally no different.

The fact that Noah possesses the same basic character flaw as his contemporaries, that he is unwittingly part of the rape culture of his time, helps explain why sexually abusive behavior wasn’t eradicated by the Flood. Indeed, one of the first recorded events following the flood was a sexual assault perpetrated against Noah himself by his son, Ham, who violates his father when the latter is in a drunken stupor. And the Bible is replete with stories of sexual assault and rape in the generations that follow. To borrow a colorful metaphor from Zornberg, since Noah is also infected by “the sickness of his time,” the disease of rape culture is able to metastasize after the Flood as Noah and his children repopulate the Earth with descendants fashioned in their likeness. It has tragically remained an indelible part of our world ever since.

Perhaps this is why, after the Flood, God pledges to never again destroy humanity (Genesis 9:11). The strategy failed. Noah failed. Rape culture endured. So, ten generations later, with the same sin still prevalent even within a society with a greater veneer of civilization, God adopts a different strategy to transform humanity and repair the world. God calls upon a Mesopotamian man named Abram and his wife Sarai to “be a blessing” to “all the families of the earth” (Genesis 12:2-3), deliberately instructing them to be a prophetic voice for human dignity and uplift to all people, all over the world. They were to speak truth to power. They were to shine a light on the abuses of the powerful. They were to reveal the reality of a solitary, universal God who created all of humanity equally in the Divine image, teaching the world that using and abusing another human being is the highest heresy.

Abram and Sarai did not themselves fully succeed in this mission. The Bible itself relays not only that they were personally imperfect but that they did not accomplish the task with which God had charged them. Their (physical and spiritual) descendants would have to carry on that responsibility. We who claim them as our ancestors, we who strive to follow in their footsteps, are by definition obligated to continue their mission, striving to eradicate the sin that has plagued humanity since the dawn of history.

Over the past few weeks, we have been reminded of this haunting truth about our condition. That Brett Kavanaugh — a man repeatedly and credibly accused of sexual assault and attempted rape; a man who responded to the direct, candid, and corroborated testimony of one of his accusers before the United States Senate with bluster, naked partisanship, contempt, and evasion — was confirmed to a lifetime appointment to the highest court in our land is depressing and obscene but, in a sense, wholly unsurprising. Of course Kavanaugh’s political allies in the White House and the Senate defended and elevated him while dismissing and denigrating his alleged victims: men of privilege and power have been protecting other men of privilege and power, and enabling a culture of rape and abuse that bullies victims into silence at least since the days of Genesis.

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But we who claim Abraham and Sarah as our ancestors, we who strive to follow in their footsteps, are nevertheless still obligated to continue their mission, striving to eradicate the sin that has plagued humanity since the dawn of history. Kavanaugh’s confirmation is evidence that the work is not yet completed. And, indeed, we may not finish the task originally assigned to our ancestors. But neither are we free to desist from it.

About the Author
Rabbi Michael Knopf is co-editor of 'No Time for Neutrality: American Rabbinic Voices from an Era of Upheaval', now available on Amazon, and spiritual leader of Temple Beth-El in Richmond, Virginia. The views expressed in this article are solely his own, and do not necessarily reflect those of his congregation.