Michael Harvey
Former Congregational Rabbi

What are the Nephilim?

The parsha, Noach, actually begins somewhat in the middle of the story of Noah, in Genesis chapter 6, verse 9, whereas the story of Noah seems to begin in the previous parshaBereshit, at Genesis 5:28, which records Noah’s birth, all the way to the words of Genesis 6:6-8 which include:

And Adonai regretted making humankind on earth, and God’s heart was saddened. 7 Adonai said, “I will blot out from the earth the humans whom I created—humans, together with beasts, creeping things, and birds of the sky; for I regret that I made them.” 8 But Noah found favor with Adonai.

The parsha this week is supposed to start with Genesis 6:9, “This is the line of Noah. – Noah was a righteous man; he was blameless in his age; Noah walked with God.”   After that, the story of Noah continues with how the earth becomes corrupt, and God decides to bring the flood.  Now, if you’ve studied with scholars, you’ll have learned that the Noah story is actually two stories combined, with blatant repetitions and differences that we’re just not taught at Hebrew School.  But, I’ll teach that lesson again this year at another time.  This time, however, I’d like to take a look at a few verses we just passed over, Genesis 6:1-4; verses in Genesis that, I can bet, many of you have never read, nor heard, because they are at the very end of the parsha Bereshit, and are missed in the parsha of Noach.   Here they are:

When men began to increase on earth and daughters were born to them, 2 the divine beings saw how beautiful the daughters of men were and took wives from among those that pleased them.— 3 Adonai 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.”— 4 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.

Let’s break down these verses which describe, as the JPS commentary puts it, “Celestial-Terrestrial Intermarriage.”

First of all, before we start to really dig in, let’s focus on the fact that this passage does not seem to belong here.  It occurs right in between the genealogies that take us to Noah, and the Noah story itself.  It has nothing to do with either story.  It is what most modern commentators call a “mythic fragment,” the leftover remnant of an old myth that somehow found its way crammed into our canon.  It is a part of a much larger mythology, a bigger story that has been lost.  Here we see a common Near Eastern myth of gods or divine beings mating with humans, creating hybrid beings, here called Nephilim.  In Greek myths, they were called Titans, super-human giants, such as Hercules, the offspring between Zeus and a human woman.  Our word,  here,  Nephilim, is difficult to translate.  Rashi, our 11th century commentator, relates the word Nephilim to the Hebrew word nafal, to fall, calling the Nephilim the fallen ones.  The Septuagint, the Greek translation of our Bible, defines Nephilim as “giants.”  This situation of divine beings marrying human women and producing giants as offspring is unique to our Torah, let alone our Bible.  The only other time the word Nephilim exists is in Numbers 13:33, when the scouts return from Canaan, reporting that they saw Nephilim and that they “looked like grasshoppers” in comparison.  That passage, however, goes on to explain that the scouts were simply exaggerating out of fear, and that giants did not inhabit the holy land, so there is little to relate to there.

The Woman’s Commentary on the Torah notes that while in Greek mythology the result of gods mating with human women provides a reward of superhuman strength, our Torah appears to portray “such unions as a calamity to be eradicated.”  The punishment that God inflicts upon the human race for marrying divine beings is a reduced human life span to 120 years.  This number of 120 years becomes the “ideal” lifespan, but as we learn in Psalm 90:10, “the days of our years are threescore years and ten,” thus the expected lifespan in our Bible is only 70 years.  Either way, only the humans are punished here for mating and marrying divine beings.

Speaking of, who are these divine beings who marry human women and becoming the fathers of giants?  The word Nephilim, the fallen ones, may indicate fallen angels, but in the Hebrew we see them described as “b’nei HaElohim,” literally, “the sons of God,” or if you see Elohim as the plural, you get “the sons of the gods.”  We see this reference only a handful of times in our Bible, including in the book of Job, 1:6, which states “One day the divine beings presented themselves before Adonai, and the Adversary came along with them.”  This part is overlooked in the Job narrative because the focus is on the bet the Adversary places with God about humanity’s and Job’s goodness.  But there they are, the divine beings.  It happens again in Psalm 82, which can be interpreted as either God’s triumph over other gods, thus the production of Monotheism, or God’s rule over angels.  Psalm 82 begins: “God stands in the divine assembly; among the divine beings God pronounces judgment.”  Later in the Psalm, God addresses those around him, stating, “I had taken you for divine beings, sons of the Most High, all of you; but you shall die as men do, fall like any prince,” apparently telling the divine beings that they will die as a result of bad behavior and are mortal in the eyes of the Almighty

So the question to ask is, what is this passage doing here in our Torah?  It’s mythological, invoking paganism, polytheism, celestial/human interrelations, and is basically never spoken of again.  I decided to search one last place in the biblical realm: the Genesis Apocryphon, the Aramaic writings found in the Dead Sea Scrolls, specifically within “The Book of Jubiliees,” dating from between the 3rd century BCE to the 1st century CE. And, it did not disappoint.  The discussion of the Nephilim is described as follows:

And against the angels whom God had sent upon the earth, God was exceedingly angry, and God gave commandment to root them out of all their dominion, and God bade us to isolate them in the depths of the earth, and behold they are bound in the midst of them, and they are isolated.  And against their children went forth a command from before God’s face that they should be smitten with the sword, and be removed from under heaven.  And God said, ‘My spirit shall not always abide on man; for they also are flesh and their days shall be one hundred and twenty years’.  And God sent a sword into their midst that each should slay his neighbor, and they began to slay each other till they all fell by the sword and were destroyed from the earth.

In other words, the story goes that it was the giants who caused the flood of Noah, in that God was angry with the wickedness of the Nephilim, and thus sent a sword down from heaven in order to have them destroy each other.  Once the children of divine beings, the giants, the offspring of divine beings and humans, were eradicated from the earth, God’s wrath turned to humans, and the story of the Flood begins.

But this doesn’t answer the question as to what this is doing in our Canon.  If we are to believe that the Torah is divine,  we might interpret this as the Torah needing a little passage to discuss why humans no longer lived 500 to 600 years like the first humans on earth. Alternatively, we could look to the Plaut Commentary, which suggests that the passage was retained “possibly because it served as an introduction to the Flood story and as such appeared to say: Humans became giants, achieved renown in their name, and were heroes in their own eyes.  But God, evaluating their development, looked at neither size nor reputation but at the heart and found its devices evil.  Hence, God resolved to make a new start with Noah.” In a country the is ever growing in its divisions, in a world where isolationism seems to be winning over globalism, this is the interpretation that I believe should stay with us tonight. Regardless of your own personal beliefs, we know that humanity, as a collective, while more connected than ever before, has also become so disconnected as to no longer value collaboration over isolation, progress over partisanship, compromise over intransigence. Whether God did in fact send a flood to start over, whether there really was divine intermarriage, doesn’t matter (though my goodness is that interesting!). What matters is that our Torah reminds us of what happens when we believe that WE hold all the right answers. That WE are the giants among humans. The Torah teaches that it is that attitude, more than any other, that can lead to the greatest fall.

About the Author
Rabbi Michael Harvey was ordained by the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in 2015, and earned a Master’s degree in Hebrew Letters from Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion and a Bachelor’s degree in psychology from Boston University. Enrolled at Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership, within the Doctor of Science in Jewish Studies program. Founder of "Teach Me Judaism": educational and animated Jewish lessons on scholarship: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC4vNAB0lVE4munW_znGdEtQ
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