בני הא־להים and בנות האדם/2/en

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בני האלהים and בנות האדם

Exegetical Approaches

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Commentators struggle to identify the "בְנֵי הָאֱ-לֹהִים" and "בְּנוֹת הָאָדָם" and to comprehend what the story is coming to impart.  Many early Midrashic sources posit that the text is speaking of fallen angels who took earthly women in marriage and brought violence to the world through this union, leading to Hashem's decision to bring the Flood.  Cassuto, in contrast, assumes that there was no sin in the union and hence no punishment. The story appears in Tanakh only as a reaction to mythological tales of gods coupling with humans to form immortal beings.

Others assume that the Torah speaks only of humans.  Rashi, thus, understands the word "אֱלֹהִים" in its secular sense, to refer to men of authority, and claims that the leaders of society abused their positions of power to forcibly take women.  He, too, views the story as an introduction to the Deluge.  Finally, Akeidat Yitzchak asserts that the story speaks of the intermingling of the corrupt line of Kayin with the righteous line of Shet.  As a result, Hashem decided to destroy the world and restart a pure line from Noach.

Mingling of Angels and Humans

The story speaks of the relations between angels and humans which engendered offspring who filled the world with violence.

Meaning of "בְנֵי הָאֱ-לֹהִים" – These sources understand "בְנֵי הָאֱ-לֹהִים" to refer to angels. As evidence, Cassuto points to parallel usages of the term in Tehillim 29:1 and Iyyov 1:6.4
Meaning of "בְּנוֹת הָאָדָם" – This phrase refers to human women.5  They are called the "daughters of man" in contrast to the "sons of God", to highlight that while the latter were angelic, the women were mere mortals.
Evaluation of the action
  • Sinful – Most of these commentators blame the angels for lusting after the women and view their actions as sinful.  Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer, though, has the women share some of the guilt, asserting that they walked around uncovered like prostitutes.  Enoch further suggests that, in addition to the fornication, the angels taught mankind the art of weaponry, makeup, and jewelry, leading them to transgress.  Jubilees, 2Baruch, Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer, and Bereshit Rabbati add that the offspring born of the union were unjust and filled the earth with violence.
  • Neutral – Cassuto, in contrast, asserts that there was no sin in the union.  The verse's language, "וַיִּקְחוּ לָהֶם נָשִׁים", is the normal Biblical terminology for legal matrimony and contains no hint to adultery.  Similarly, the phrase, "מִכֹּל אֲשֶׁר בָּחָרוּ", does not mean that the angels took women against their will, but that each angel chose a woman from among those whom they had favored.
Connection to the Flood – Most of these sources view the Deluge as a punishment resulting from the angel's actions.6  Cassuto, in contrast, does not think that the angels were punished at all,7 and he asserts that the flood came as a result of other sins entirely.8
"לֹא יָדוֹן רוּחִי בָאָדָם לְעֹלָם בְּשַׁגַּם הוּא בָשָׂר וְהָיוּ יָמָיו מֵאָה וְעֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה" – Of these sources, only Philo, Josephus and Cassuto address the verse, with each understanding the role of the 120 years differently:
  • Corrective – Josephus asserts that due to the corruption of mankind, Hashem decided to shorten the lifespans of all those born after the flood to 120 years.9
  • Reprieve – Philo, in contrast, maintains that the shortened lifespan referred only to the generation who were destroyed in the Flood.10 According to him, though, this is not a strict punishment. Hashem could have killed the sinners immediately, but in His kindness, He gave them a chance to repent.
  • Statement of fact – Cassuto assumes that Hashem made no change at all in the status quo.  Hashem was simply emphasizing that, contrary to what some might believe, the children of the angels and women were not immortal,11 and, like all humans, had a normal lifespan of 120 years.12
Who are "הַנְּפִלִים"? Most of these commentators13 assert that the term refers to the giants14 who were born of the union of the "בְנֵי הָאֱ-לֹהִים" and "בְּנוֹת הָאָדָם"‎.  Cassuto opines that they are called "נְּפִלִים" because they all eventually fell to the sword and died.  The others seem to suggest that the word alludes to the fallen angels who bore them.
Giants after the Flood – "וְגַם אַחֲרֵי כֵן"
  • According to Cassuto, coupling of angels and humans, such as that described in these verses, also occurred on occasion after the Flood. 
  • The other sources might suggest, as does Bavli Niddah 61a, that though most of the giants died in the flood, Og survived.15
Purpose of the story
  • Introducing the Flood narrative – According to most of these sources, the story describes the continued deterioration of mankind. As such, it serves to introduce the Flood narrative and Hashem's decision to destroy the world.
  • Anti-mythological polemic – Cassuto asserts that the story is a reaction to mythological tales of gods coupling with humans to form immortal beings.  The Torah, instead, has lesser angels fornicating and producing human, not godly, offspring.
  • Etiological tale – Alternatively, one could suggest that the story comes to explain the origins of giants.
Belief in angels – These sources believe in the existence of angels and apparently assume that they have freedom of choice and are capable of sinning.  Moreover, these sources maintain that angels have the ability to procreate.  Both assumptions, though, are questioned:
  • Can angels sin? Abarbanel claims that angels are pure in their actions and above the behavior described,16 leading him to conclude that the sages who took this position must not have meant for it to be taken literally
  • Can angels procreate? R. Yehoshua in Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer questions how angels, who are non-corporeal, can have relations or bear children. He answers that these angels were fallen angels who assumed the form and body of humans when they fell from holiness.17 Cassuto suggests, instead, that there are many levels of angels, and while those closest to Hashem (מלאכי השרת) do not procreate, the lesser angels do.18

Corruption of Power

The narrative revolves around the abuse of power of the elite and their taking advantage of women of lesser stature.

Meaning of "בְנֵי הָאֱ-לֹהִים" – All these commentators assume that the phrase refers to people of power, but differ in the specifics:
  • Sons of judges – According to most of these sources,20 the "‏בְנֵי הָאֱלֹהִים" are the sons of judges or noblemen.21 As evidence that the word "אֱלֹהִים" connotes authority, Rashi points to Shemot 4:16, while Radak brings Shemot 22:27 where the term is parallel to the word "‎‏נשיא‏‎".22
  • Astronomers – Ibn Ezra asserts that the phrase refers to people who know "דעת עליון", astronomers who can read the signs of the stars and understand from them which women were more likely to bear strong offspring.
  • Giants – Ralbag maintains that the word refers to giants, pointing out that the word "אֱלֹהִים" often comes to amplify something, or express a great size.  As support, he points to the term "הַרְרֵי אֵל" in Tehillim 36:7.23
  • Long-lived and strong – According to Abarbanel, some portions of mankind were especially long-lived, big and strong.  These men were called "בְנֵי הָאֱלֹהִים" since they were similar to celestial beings who are immortal.
Meaning of "בְּנוֹת הָאָדָם" – Women born of the masses without any particular stature (in either position, size, or long life) are referred to as "בְּנוֹת הָאָדָם‎",24 as a contrast to the "בְנֵי הָאֱלֹהִים"‎.25
"וַיִּקְחוּ לָהֶם נָשִׁים" – Ralbag asserts that the word "וַיִּקְחוּ" connotes an abduction or taking by force (and not just marriage).26 As such, the verse is emphasizing how the women were taken against their will.27
"מִכֹּל אֲשֶׁר בָּחָרוּ" – Bereshit Rabbah, Rashi, and Radak learn from this phrase that the "בְנֵי הָאֱלֹהִים" took whomever they wanted, even married women.
Evaluation of the action – All of these sources view the coupling as a sin, viewing the "בְנֵי הָאֱלֹהִים" as abusing their position of power at the women's expense.  The fact that they were supposed to be a moral compass for others made their act all the more heinous.
Connection to the Flood – According to these sources, the actions of the "בְנֵי הָאֱלֹהִים" are what led Hashem to decide to destroy the world. The Sifre suggests that the rape described in these verses typified the violence mentioned as the cause of the Deluge.28  If this is how the leaders of the generation acted, one can only imagine the deeds of the lay people.
"לֹא יָדוֹן רוּחִי בָאָדָם לְעֹלָם בְּשַׁגַּם הוּא בָשָׂר וְהָיוּ יָמָיו מֵאָה וְעֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה" – Most of these sources29 understand that Hashem is explaining that He has decided to destroy the world, but will give mankind a reprieve of 120 years30 in which they will have a chance to repent.31 The sources differ, though, in how they understand both the word "יָדוֹן" and the reason for Hashem's decision:
  • Fight – Radak's father relates "יָדוֹן" to "מדון", meaning fight.32 He explains that Hashem decided to no longer let the spirit which He infused into man be in a constant battle with man's physical  desire. After all, man is a physical being ("בְּשַׁגַּם הוּא בָשָׂר") and therefore lusts after the sensual.. 
  • Judge – According to R"Y Bekhor Shor and Abarbanel, "יָדוֹן" comes from "דין"  and connotes judgement. R"Y Bekhor Shor opines that Hashem is saying that He will never judge man strictly according to his deeds, since he, too, (like those who sinned before him),33 is merely flesh [and cannot handle strict justice].  Thus, Hashem will give mankind a reprieve of 120 years. Abarbanel, in contrast, asserts that Hashem decided that He is no longer willing to judge leniently just because man's physicality is easy prey to desire.34  Rather, barring repentance, He will destroy them in 120 years.
  • Sheathe – Radak alternatively suggests that "יָדוֹן" might be related to the word "נדן", meaning sheath. Due to man's misdeeds, Hashem does not want His spirit to stay in its sheath, the body of man, forever. Therefore He will destroy both (after 120 years).
Who are "הַנְּפִלִים"? These sources differ in the way they understand the term and how it relates to the actions of the "בְנֵי הָאֱלֹהִים":
  • Identical to בְנֵי הָאֱלֹהִים – Ralbag asserts that the "נְפִלִים" and "בְנֵי הָאֱלֹהִים" are one and the same.35 The verse is simply coming to say that such giants can be found in each generation, since when they procreate they bear offspring in their likeness, who, like them, are men of strength and size (הַגִּבֹּרִים).
  • Children of בְנֵי הָאֱלֹהִים – According to Abarbanel, "נְפִלִים" refer to the premature offspring of the union.  Due to the discrepancy in size between the large "בְנֵי הָאֱלֹהִים" and the small women, whenever such a union took place the women's bodies aborted their babies before their time.  Despite the early birth, though, the children that were born were of unusual strength.
  • Unconnected to בְנֵי הָאֱלֹהִים – According to R"Y Bekhor Shor, the "נְפִלִים" are giants, so called because of their wondrous size (from the root פלא), or because others have the sensation that they will fall upon them (from the root נפל)‎.36 They have nothing to do with the actions of the angels and are mentioned only to give the reader a time-frame for the events, explaining that the deeds described happened when the "נְפִלִים" lived on the earth.
Giants after the Flood – Abarbanel suggests that the giants mentioned in the story of the spies are descendants of these. He does not explain, though, how they survived the flood.
Purpose of the story – According to this approach, the story describes the corruption that provides the backdrop for the Flood.
Belief in angels – This position is motivated, in part, by a discomfort with the possibility that the verse refers to angels.  Ralbag is averse to understanding "מלאכים" throughout Tanakh as referring to celestial beings, so it is not surprising that here, too, he prefers an alternative understanding of "בְנֵי הָאֱלֹהִים". The others have more specific issues with this particular story being about angels. Thus, Abarbanel questions how such spiritual beings can have relations or the freedom of choice to sin. From a textual perspective, he further argues that it would not make sense to punish man if the angels were the ones who erred.37

Mixing of Lines

The verses recount how the descendants of the blessed Shet and the cursed Kayin intermarried, leading to the corruption of Shet's line.

Meaning of "בְנֵי הָאֱלֹהִים"
  • Descendants of Shet – Most of these sources40 assert that the term refers to the line of Shet. Ramban and Akeidat Yitzchak explain that the title stems from their having descended from one who was created "‎‏בְּצֶלֶם אֱ-לֹהִים‎".41 Abarbanel and R. Hirsch maintain that it relates to their godly character.42
  • Descendants of Kayin – Shadal, in contrast, assumes that the phrase refers to the line of Kayin, some of whom were extraordinarily strong and tall.43  Due to the fear they instilled in others, they were known as "בְנֵי הָאֱלֹהִים".
  • Neanderthals – Dr. Shimon Spero44 raises the possibility that the "בְנֵי הָאֱלֹהִים" are identical to the extinct species of humans, the Neanderthals.45
Meaning of "בְּנוֹת הָאָדָם"
  • Descendants of Kayin – According to most of these commentators, these women descended from the corrupt line of Kayin.46  Abarbanel claims that they were referred to as "בְּנוֹת הָאָדָם" because their father was a tiller of the land (אדמה‎).47
  • Descendants of Shet – Shadal asserts that "בְּנוֹת הָאָדָם" descended from Shet, whose family was called "בני האדם".  In contrast to Kayin's offspring, they lived together in urban centers, and had not grown particularly strong. Since they were the norm and did not instill fear in others, they did not have any special epithet.
  • Homo Sapiens – Dr. Shimon Spero posits that "בְּנוֹת הָאָדָם" might refer to women born to the newer species of humans, Homo Sapiens48 (in contrast to the older Neanderthal "בְנֵי הָאֱלֹהִים").
Kayin vs. Shet – This approach assumes that the descendants of Kayin were corrupt while those of Shet were righteous.49  Though this is not explicit in the text, Bereshit does oppose the two lines:50 
  • While Kayin's lineage is preceded by a curse, "אָרוּר אָתָּה מִן הָאֲדָמָה", Shet's line ends with a blessing, "זֶה יְנַחֲמֵנוּ מִמַּעֲשֵׂנוּ...  מִן הָאֲדָמָה אֲשֶׁר אֵרְרָהּ ה'‏".
  • Kayin's line is associated with murder, while Shet's descendants are connected to Hashem. Kayin kills Hevel, and Lemekh, the last of his line, appears to have killed both a man and child.51 In contrast, by Shet's son, Enosh, we read, "‏‏אָז הוּחַל לִקְרֹא בְּשֵׁם ה'‏‎‎‏‎‏‎‏‏‎"‎ and regarding Chanokh, the text writes, "וַיִּתְהַלֵּךְ חֲנוֹךְ אֶת הָאֱ-לֹהִים".
"וַיִּקְחוּ לָהֶם נָשִׁים" – Ramban and Shadal assert that the women were taken forcefully, against their will.  R. Hirsch, in contrast, maintains that the word "וַיִּקְחוּ" does not have any negative connotations and is simply normal Biblical terminology for marriage. The taking itself was not problematic; who they took, though, was.
"מִכֹּל אֲשֶׁר בָּחָרוּ" – According to most of these sources, the main problem with the union was that the people did not choose mates based on their good family and accompanying, righteous values, but rather took whomever they desired based on physical traits.  This led to the mixing of the corrupt and cursed line of Kayin with the god-fearing line of Shet.
Evaluation of the action
  • Sinful – These sources all view the marriages as sinful either because of the forceful taking of women, or because of the poor choice of mate and preference for physical beauty and strength over spiritual good. 
  • Neutral – This position, though, could have said that the mingling itself was not sinful, but simply hurtful to mankind, as it caused a deterioration in the quality of those born of the union.  If lesser Neanderthals marry the more advanced Homo Sapiens, or the blessed of Shet marry the cursed line of Kayin, their offspring will suffer.
Connection to the Flood – Most of these commentators view the Flood as the corrective to the mingling.  All the corrupt were to die, leaving the righteous Noach to restart a pure line from Shet.52
"לֹא יָדוֹן רוּחִי בָאָדָם לְעֹלָם בְּשַׁגַּם הוּא בָשָׂר וְהָיוּ יָמָיו מֵאָה וְעֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה"
  • Reprieve – Most of these sources understand that in this verse Hashem expresses that He is ready to punish mankind, but will first give them 120 years to repent.  They differ in their explanations of the specifics:
    • Ramban explains that Hashem decided that His spirit will no longer reside in man, because man is guided by his flesh and, as such, is unworthy. Thus, after 120 years He will destroy mankind.
    • According to Akeidat Yitzchak, Hashem is saying that He will no longer allow His spirit to judge man leniently just because he is disadvantaged by having a physical body, but will instead punish them in 120 years.
  • Shortened life span – In contrast to the above, Abarbanel explains that the sins of the people convinced Hashem to shorten man's lifespan to 120 years.53  Hashem saw that the intellectual spirit that He infused in man would not be able to rule over him constantly because it is attached to the material body.54  As such, He decided to limit man's lifetime, minimizing the intellect's contact with the physical and preventing its deterioration.
Who are "הַנְּפִלִים"? According to most of these exegetes, this term refers to the offspring born to the "‎בְנֵי הָאֱלֹהִים‎".55 They differ regarding the origin of the term "הַנְּפִלִים":
  • Fallen in stature – Ramban and Abarbanel explain that since the children had fallen in size and/or stature from their fathers, they were called "נְפִלִים"‎.56  The text explains that despite this, they were still "הַגִּבֹּרִים", as they were bigger and stronger than the average human. 
  • Fell on others – R. Hirsch suggests, instead, that this term was first given to the giants in later generations, when they were not common.  They were so called either because they fell upon others or because they were so different from the norm.
Giants after the Flood – "וְגַם אַחֲרֵי כֵן"
  • Distinct line but similar origin – Shadal asserts that the giants mentioned later in Tanakh were not descendants of these, but appeared in a similar manner. In later times, too, when civilization was just beginning,  there were wild people living outside of settled areas who grew bigger and stronger than the average and bore children with the smaller civilized women, resulting in continued giants.
  • Later נְפִילִים, not giants – Abarbanel, in contrast, does not think that the verse is speaking of the later giants at all. Rather it is teaching that in the future, too, whenever people marry those lesser than them, "נְפִלִים", inferior children, are produced.
  • Present line of giants –R. Hirsch maintains that the verse is speaking of early history. Both before and after the mixing of lines,57 there were "נְפִלִים" or giants.58  Though the righteous of Shet had hoped that their spiritual side would conquer the physical side of those they married, and that they would not bear such big children, it was not so.
Purpose of the story – According to this approach, the story exemplifies the corruption of mankind that led to the Flood.  Shadal adds that the story also serves to ensure that people do not mistake giants as literal "sons of God" born of Hashem.
Belief in angels – Abarbanel and Shadal dismiss the possibility that incorporeal angels can bear offspring and Abarbanel questions whether they can sin against Hashem. Both further argue that there is no evidence in the text that the angels are punished, which would not be just if they were the ones who sinned.