Demigods and the Birth of Noah
Personal note from the editors: We are honored to share with you Dr. Rabbi Samuel Z. Glaser z”l’s final piece for TheTorah.com. He submitted this piece almost a year ago, as a follow-up to a previous article, “Isaac’s Divine Conception?” (2018), but unfortunately passed away during the editing process, at age 90. Sam was an avid reader and supporter of TheTorah.com. Ever curious and creative, he was in the midst of planning yet another piece, on the Tower of Babel, when he passed.
Demigods in Mythology
The ancient world is full of myths about demi-gods, the product of the love or lust of a god or goddess for a human being.
Gilgamesh—In Mesopotamian mythology, the most famous demigod is a Sumerian king named Gilgamesh, who was the son of the powerful priest-king Lugalbanda and the goddess Ninsun. As Lugalbanda himself is the son of the sun god Utu, Gilgamesh is more divine than human. This helps explain his extraordinary accomplishments in building the great wall around Uruk, killing the bull of heaven and the giant monster of the Lebanon cedar forest, Humbaba/Huwawa.
Perseus—In Greek mythology, Perseus is the son Zeus and a beautiful girl named Danae, whose father, king Acrisius of Argos, imprisoned her in a tower after he received a prophecy that her son would be the cause of his death. But Zeus managed to visit her anyway by appearing as a shower of gold. Perseus, their son from this union, grew to be a powerful warrior. Famous among his escapades is the killing of Medusa, the Gorgon, who could turn any man that gazed upon her to stone.
Heracles—Also in Greek mythology, Heracles (Hercules in Roman myth), was the son of Zeus and Alcemene, a beautiful but married woman. As the granddaughter of Perseus, Alcemene was the great granddaughter of Zeus, but this did not stop the chief of the gods from transforming himself into the spitting image of her husband Amphitryon, and sleeping with Alcemene while he was away on a military expedition. The child of this union, Heracles, had supernatural strength and is known as a wanderer who fought monsters and went on many adventures.
Such stories may seem strange or quaint to us, much more akin to what we see in movie theaters than what we think about in synagogues, but these ideas were standard fair in the religious of ancient Mediterranean cultures, of which ancient Israel was a part.
Demigods in the Bible
The idea of a divine fathering is not as foreign to the Bible. As I argued in my “Isaac’s Divine Conception,” TheTorah (2018), the story in Genesis 18 and 21 implies that YHWH, or one of his messengers, impregnated Sarah. Eve’s statement that she created Cain “with YHWH” and the story of the angel’s visit to Manoach’s wife also imply conception through a divine father.
These biblical stories avoid the kind of mythological details found in ancient Near Eastern and Greco-Roman accounts of the birth of demi-gods. Most importantly, none of these biblical accounts impute lust to the divine being, and only Samson inherits superhuman powers and behaves like a demigod.
Lustful Divine Beings and the Heroes of Old
The closest thing we have in the Bible to the ancient Near Eastern and Greco-Roman accounts of divine beings feeling lust for human women, taking them, and producing demigods, is in a brief stub found in Genesis 6, immediately preceding the flood story:
בראשית ו:ב וַיִּרְאוּ בְנֵי הָאֱלֹהִים אֶת בְּנוֹת הָאָדָם כִּי טֹבֹת הֵנָּה וַיִּקְחוּ לָהֶם נָשִׁים מִכֹּל אֲשֶׁר בָּחָרוּ... ו:ד הַנְּפִלִים הָיוּ בָאָרֶץ בַּיָּמִים הָהֵם וְגַם אַחֲרֵי כֵן אֲשֶׁר יָבֹאוּ בְּנֵי הָאֱלֹהִים אֶל בְּנוֹת הָאָדָם וְיָלְדוּ לָהֶם הֵמָּה הַגִּבֹּרִים אֲשֶׁר מֵעוֹלָם אַנְשֵׁי הַשֵּׁם.
Gen 6:2 The divine beings saw how beautiful the daughters of men were and took wives from among those that pleased them…. 6:4 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.
The biblical text above seems incomplete and out of context; it does not clearly connect to other stories in the biblical text.
It seems likely that ancient Israelites had much more to say about these heroes or demigods, but much of this material was lost or, more probably, suppressed by the groups responsible for composing the Torah. Monotheistic religion does not easily connect to the idea of demigods, since this not only greatly anthropomorphizes God, but allows for other, lesser gods.
In fact, Rabbinic Judaism tried to suppress the simple meaning of this account by interpreting the term Elohim here not as God or gods, but as its less common meaning, “judges” or “important people” (e.g. Exod 21:6). For example, Genesis Rabbah (26:6) states:
ר’ שמעון בן יוחי קרי להון בני דייניה, ר’ שמעון בן יוחי מקלל לכל מן דקרי להון בני אלהיא.
R. Shimon ben Yochai called them “sons of judges.” R. Shimon ben Yochai put anyone who calls them divinities under a curse.
Thus, among the Rabbinic Sages of the Talmud, the story is about the sin of powerful men coercing vulnerable women into sex—an excellent moral lesson, but hardly the simple meaning of the text.
Return of the Myth
The simple meaning of the myth survived this reinterpretation, however, reemerging in more midrashically or mystically inclined texts such as Targum Pseudo-Jonathan and Pirqei de-Rabbi Eliezer. The great commentator Moses Nahmanides (1194–1270), whose work combines peshat reading with mystical speculation, references the mythical meaning of the story at the very end of his gloss, and comments:
הוא הנאות בלשון הכתוב יותר מן הכל, אלא שיש צורך להאריך בסוד הענין ההוא
This fits better with the language of scripture than the other interpretations, but [explaining it] would necessitate expanding upon the secret meaning of this topic.
Nahmanides even connects this verse with an obscure myth explaining the name of Azazel—the being that receives the scapegoat in Leviticus 16—which referred to in the Babylonian Talmud (b. Yoma 67b):
תנא דבי ר' ישמעאל עזאזל שמכפר על מעשה עוזא ועזאל
The school of R. Ishmael taught: “Azazel—[The offering] atones for the act of Uzza and Azael.”
Rashi (R. Solomon Yitzhaki, 1040–1105) explains this cryptic reference:
עוזא ועזאל – מלאכי חבלה שירדו לארץ בימי נעמה אחות תובל קין ועליהם נאמר ויראו בני האלהים את בנות האדם...
Uzza and Azael—These were destructive angels who came down to earth during the days of Naama, sister of Tubal-cain, about whom it is said (Gen 4:1) “and the sons of elohim saw the daughters of man”…
How did this myth survive in monotheistic Judaism? The answer appears to be found in the switch from gods to angels.
Not Gods but Angels
The meaning of בני אלהים “children of elohim” here could be literal (Elohim’s offspring) or just a term for divinities or gods. Early interpreters, however, understood these beings to be angels, i.e. messengers of God and not “gods” themselves. The word “angel” comes from the Greek ἄγγελος, which means messenger, as does the Hebrew מלאך (from the root ל.א.כ. meaning “to send”).
Once it became accepted in Judaism that other gods do not exist, which was certainly the standard belief in the Second Temple period, the heavenly beings in this story needed to be demoted to the status of lower beings created by god. This understanding of the benei elohim is the basis for the belief in Enoch and Jubilees about the “Watchers,” a term used for the angelic visitors.
Accordingly, the Torah is saying that some of these angels/watchers who had been sent to earth for whatever mission succumbed to their earthly desires and mated with women, thus producing “demiangels” as it were. The worrying possibility of being cuckolded by an angel lies behind an anecdote about the birth of Noah that appears in Second Temple literature.
Was Noah a Demigod?
In 1 Enoch, Lamech, the father of Noah, reacts with panic upon seeing his new son’s magical appearance:
1 Enoch 106:2 And his (Noah’s) body was white like snow and red like a flower of a rose and the hair of his head [was] white like wool… and his eyes [were] beautiful; and when he opened his eyes, he made the whole house bright like the sun so that the whole house was exceptionally bright. 106:3 And when he was taken from the hand of the midwife, he opened his mouth and spoke to the Lord of Righteousness. 106:4 And his father Lamech was afraid of him and fled and went to his father Methuselah. 106:5 And he said to him: “I have begotten a strange son; he is not like a man but is like the children of angels of heaven, of a very different type, and not like us…”
The story continues with Methusaleh going to his father, Enoch, in heaven, to consult about this strange child:
1 Enoch 106:10 …[A] child has been born to my son Lamech whose form and type are not like the type of man… 106:12 And his father Lamech was afraid and fled to me. And he does not believe that he [is sprung] from him, but thinks him to be from the angels of heaven…”
Enoch calms Methusaleh and Lamech down, explaining that Noah’s fantastic appearance is connected to the role he will play in history and the upcoming flood, not to an angelic father.
Genesis Apocryphon: Did Bat-Enosh Have an Affair with a Watcher?
Another version of the story appears in the Genesis Apocryphon (1Q20), a Dead Sea Scroll that retells stories in Genesis. It too begins with a miraculous-looking baby Noah, where Lamech makes his fear explicit to his wife (column 2):
1 הא באדין חש֗ב֗ת֗ ב֗לב֗י די מן עירין ה֗ריאתא ומן קדיֹשין זרעא ולנפיל[ין] 2 ולבי עלי משתני על עולימא דנא. 3 באדין אנה למך אתבהלת ועלת על בתאנוש אנֹת֗ת֗י֗...
1 And then I thought to myself, “The Pregnancy is from the Watchers, and the seed is from the Holy Ones and the Nephilim,” 2 and my mind was greatly disturbed on account of the child. [blank] 3 Then I, Lamech, became perturbed, and I went in to [my wi]fe Bat-Enosh…
12 וכדי חזת בתאנוש אנתתי די אשתני אנפי עלי °°°[ ·· ] 13 ב֗אדין אנס֗ת֗ ר֗ו֗ח֗ה֗א֗ ועמי תמלל ולי תאמר יא מרי ויא אחי [דכרלך] 14 עדינת֗י֗ . י֗א֗מ֗י֗א֗ א֗נ֗ה֗ לך בקדישא רבא במלך שמ[י]א °°°[ ·· ] 15 די מנך זרעא דן ומנך הריונא דן ומנך נצבת פריא֗[ דן ·· ] 16 ולא מן כול זר ולא מן כול עירין ולא מן כול בני שמ֗[ין . למא צלם] 17 אנפיך כדנא עליך שנא ושחת ורוחך כדן עליבא °[ ·· ארי אנה] 18 בקושט ממללא ע֗מ֗ך .
12 Now when my wife, Bat-Enosh saw that my countenance was disturbed 13 she curbed her passion, speaking to me and saying, “O my master, O my brother… 14 my youthfulness! I swear to you by the Great Holy One, by the King of Hea[ven]… 15 that this seed is from you, and this pregnancy is from you, and this planting of fruit is from you!... 16 and not from any stranger, nor from any Watcher or from any of the Sons of Hea[ven… Why is the form of] 17 your countenance so disturbed and deformed, and your spirit so downcast? … 18 I am speaking to you truthfully.”
In this version, Lamech’s wife Bat-Enosh sees his reaction as an accusation and responds pleadingly that the son is his and that she has never been intimate with a heavenly being.
Responding to the Semichut Parashiyot
The choice of Noah for this birth-story reimagining was likely due to what the rabbis call סמיכות פרשיות, the proximity of two units of text. Noah is born at the end of chapter 5, after which we have the brief anecdote about the sin of the benei elohim and the birth of demi-gods, following which we return to Noah and the flood story.
For ancient interpreters, this juxtaposition of passages connected Noah in some way to the demigod story. To avoid saying Noah was actually a demigod, they wrote the story about Lamech believing he was one, but then discovering definitively that he, Lamech, and not an angel, was Noah’s father.
TheTorah.com is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
We rely on the support of readers like you. Please support us.
October 12, 2020
April 11, 2021
Previous in the Series
Next in the Series
Dr. Rabbi Samuel Z. Glaser, z”l, was Rabbi Emeritus of the Elmont Jewish Center and Adjunct Associate Professor at Hofstra University, NY. He earned his Smicha at Yeshiva University and his PhD in Clinical Psychology at St. John’s University, NY.
Essays on Related Topics: