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Question from JohnsRiggy

June 7, 2010

Question
Could you explain a verse in Genesis, I don’t know exactly where it is but it refers to the sons of Gods mating with the sons of Men to make a super race of giants. Where is it? Did it really happen?

The verse generally referred to for this is Bereishis (Genesis) Chapter6 verse 2 and verse 4

2. That the sons of the nobles saw the daughters of man when they were beautifying themselves, and they took for themselves wives from whomever they chose. ב. וַיִּרְאוּ בְנֵי הָאֱ־לֹהִים אֶת בְּנוֹת הָאָדָם כִּי טֹבֹת הֵנָּה וַיִּקְחוּ לָהֶם נָשִׁים מִכֹּל אֲשֶׁר בָּחָרוּ:
4. The Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of the nobles would come to the daughters of man, and they would bear for them; they are the mighty men, who were of old, the men of renown. ד. הַנְּפִלִים הָיוּ בָאָרֶץ בַּיָּמִים הָהֵם וְגַם אַחֲרֵי כֵן אֲשֶׁר יָבֹאוּ בְּנֵי הָאֱ־לֹהִים אֶל בְּנוֹת הָאָדָם וְיָלְדוּ לָהֶם הֵמָּה הַגִּבֹּרִים אֲשֶׁר מֵעוֹלָם אַנְשֵׁי הַשֵּׁם:
(Hebrew and translation from Chabad

The more traditional translation, and less accurate, translation is:
ב וַיִּרְאוּ בְנֵי-הָאֱלֹהִים אֶת-בְּנוֹת הָאָדָם, כִּי טֹבֹת הֵנָּה; וַיִּקְחוּ לָהֶם נָשִׁים, מִכֹּל אֲשֶׁר בָּחָרוּ. 2 that the sons of God saw the daughters of men that they were fair; and they took them wives, whomsoever they chose.
ד הַנְּפִלִים הָיוּ בָאָרֶץ, בַּיָּמִים הָהֵם, וְגַם אַחֲרֵי-כֵן אֲשֶׁר יָבֹאוּ בְּנֵי הָאֱלֹהִים אֶל-בְּנוֹת הָאָדָם, וְיָלְדוּ לָהֶם: הֵמָּה הַגִּבֹּרִים אֲשֶׁר מֵעוֹלָם, אַנְשֵׁי הַשֵּׁם. {פ} 4 The Nephilim were in the earth in those days, and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bore children to them; the same were the mighty men that were of old, the men of renown. {P}
(Hebrew and translation taken from Mechon Mamre

Now, the second translation is the one that generally leads to the question posted, and is the one that is found in most Christian sources for example- in the King James version the translation is:
6:2 That the sons of God saw the daughters of men that they were fair; and they took them wives of all which they chose.
6:4 There were giants in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare children to them, the same became mighty men which were of old, men of renown.
O-Bible

(The correlation between the Mechon-mamre version, which is the 1917 JPS translation, and the KJV, is why few use it. It was the first English translation by a Jewish source, and it relied heavily on previous translations. JPS have since released two updates to that translation that have moved further away from the Christian translations and towards the more Jewish translations such as those found on the Chabad website and in sources like the Artscroll Stone edition (only available offline).)

Now, why the discrepancy between the translations? The issue here is the translation of the term בְנֵי-הָאֱלֹהִים “Bnei haelokim”. the traditional translation take this literally as “Sons of G-d’, and thus interpret this to mean angels and thus that the angels came down to earth and had human wives. However, Jewish sources (see Rashi on this verse) do not treat the term “Bnei Elokim” as “sons of G-d”, but as “sons of rulers”. This is consistent with the Hebrew here, since the word Elokim carries multiple meanings:
1) G-d
2) gods
3) rulers

Why is the term Elokim used to refer to rulers? In Jewish thought each of the names of G-d reflects a specific divine attribute. The name Elokim reflects the divine attribute of strict justice, of the fact that Kingship is a function of strict justice. Thus any human king is reflection of this divine attribute (and why there is specific blessing we say on seeing a monarch, be they Jewish or not). Thus the term elokim is used for human rulers as well.

So, with that understanding, the verse is understood this way:
The sons of the rulers (including judges who were rulers and carrried a lot of secular power themselves) abused the power of their parents and took wives from anyone they chose, including the wives of other men! Why the word nefillim? The word is based on the Hebrew word “Nafal”, to fall. The “im” in this case is the suffix indicating a plural. What does this refer to? It refers to these children of rulers, whose parents were rulers and in many cases righteous, and how they had fallen from the state of their parents and into the corruption that engulfed the earth.

However, we understand the Torah in multiple ways- the above explanation would be considered the pshat (simple/literal) explanation. There are a number of other explanations based on the midrash, particularly the midrash known as Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer.

There are two different explanations in Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer based on these verses
First Explanation:
The word “Nefillim” means giants. Who were these giants? These were the direct descendants of Adam. Just as Adam was much larger and perfect of form than other men, so his descendants were larger and of greater form than others. As more generations began, as they moved further away from their progenitor, people diminished in size. Those closest related, those who remained closest to the form of Adam, were the rulers and giants in comparison to others. It is thus these individuals that are being referred to in this verse- the sons of rulers, the most direct descendants of Adam, who despite knowing what Adam knew, despite bearing the closest physical resemblance to Adam and thus having first hand knowledge of G-d, still became corrupted and filled the earth with corruption

Second Explanation:
This is the one with angels! The Midrash in Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer relates that when G-d decided to destroy the world he consulted with his angels (this is a frequent depiction of the heavenly court, and presented not because the angels have power over G-d, but because G-d wishes to teach us that no matter how great a person or ruler is, they should always seek the advice of others). The angles agreed with the destruction of humanity, but disagreed that humanity should be saved through Noach. G-d said to the angels: “Do you believe that you could do better than man if you were in his position?” They replied yes, so G-d clothed some of them in human bodies and sent them to earth. These angels in human form quickly succumbed to the lure of physicality and immorality, copulating with anyone, including animals! G-d, then summoned them back to heaven and stated “It took man three generations till Enosh to succumb to idolatry, it took another generation before they become filled with corruption- it took just moments for you to reach the same point. Does not man deserve to be saved and given the chance to improve themselves? At this, the angels agreed.

Note Please do not print out and discard this page as it contains the name of G-d.

2 Comments
  1. Damian permalink

    very good answer I wondered this myself. Matter of fact there is going to be a discussion at a temple near where I live with an Orthodox Reform and Conservative Rabbi discussing topic IS TORAH THE WORD OF GOD?

    The Reform Rabbi said he had a most difficult time getting a Orthodox Rabbi to even come to our temple!! He also said the Orthodox Rabbi might have a difficult time explaining that scriptur since they take everything literally.

    By the way, which interpertation do you agree with 1 or 2?

  2. Orthodox Rabbis do NOT take everything literally! Such a comment shows a remarkable lack of knowledge of Orthodox Judaism. Orthodox Jews view the Torah as being studied in four levels generally referred to allegorically as “The Orchard” as the acronym PaRDeS describing the four levels means orchard

    P(shat)= literal explanation. generally here we look at the commentaries of Rashi and the Targum Onkelos. However, even this level can have multiple interpretations as sometimes varying meanings of words will alter the understanding of the text; also a literal vs legal meaning of a word can imply different understandings

    R(emes)- this is expounded meanings which are learned from various sources. A short vs long spelling of a word can be used to teach many concepts, missing words, the shapes of letters, the numerical values of words (gematria) etc can all teach something

    D(rash )- the alluded to meanings often found in the Midrash, both oral and written sources. Here you start seeinf some of the more esoteric concepts. allegory is common, metaphor and simile frequently play a part. Common sources for Drash or Midrash rabbah; Midrash Tanchumah; Sifrei, Sifri, Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer, Tana d’Bei eliyahu Rabba and many others

    S(od)- literally meaning secret, this is what we refer to in the modern era as Kabbalah, the received tradition. This is generally only studied by those who have mastered the other understandings of the text and involves the hidden esoteric concepts and ties to the spiritual world within the text which cannot be understood without the correct background.

    Now, the above is the normative Orthodox view- a particular Rabbi might concentrate on a specific aspect, but would not deny the validity of the rest. Thus since three of the levels do not involve literal understanding of the text, it is obvious that trying to claim orthodox only see the Torah literally is just an uneducated and ignorant remark!

    As for an Orthodox Rabbi not coming to a Reform Temple- that is actually standard practice. As a general ruling Orthodox Rabbis will not participate in religious discussions or ceremonies with liberal Rabbis. The only time you will find them on the same platform is for political or secular activities at which there is no religious observance.

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