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SBL e-journal

James A. Diamond





The Human Desire to Be Godlike





APA e-journal

James A. Diamond





The Human Desire to Be Godlike








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The Human Desire to Be Godlike

The stories of Enosh, Noah, Nimrod, the Tower of Babel, and the marriage of the “sons of God” to human women (Genesis 4–11) all feature the Leitwort החל “began,” signaling an attempt to be more than just human.


The Human Desire to Be Godlike

Tower of Babel, Hans Collaert (I), after Jan Snellinck (I), 1643. Rijksmuseum, colorized by hotpot.ai

Soon after the first man is created, God brings the animals for him to name:

בראשית ב:יט ...וַיָּבֵא אֶל הָאָדָם לִרְאוֹת מַה יִּקְרָא לוֹ וְכֹל אֲשֶׁר יִקְרָא לוֹ הָאָדָם נֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה הוּא שְׁמוֹ
Gen 2:19 …He brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that would be its name.

Thus, from the very beginning, humans function as God’s partners in the world, and are clearly differentiated from animals.[1] When the snake tells the woman that if she were to eat from the Tree of Knowledge, וִהְיִיתֶם כֵּאלֹהִים “you will become like divine beings” (3:5), the claim proves irresistible, and the woman, followed by the man, eats from the tree. This prompts God to block human access to the Tree of Life, to keep them from achieving immortality and becoming even more godlike:

בראשית ג:כב וַיֹּאמֶר יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהִים הֵן הָאָדָם הָיָה כְּאַחַד מִמֶּנּוּ לָדַעַת טוֹב וָרָע וְעַתָּה פֶּן יִשְׁלַח יָדוֹ וְלָקַח גַּם מֵעֵץ הַחַיִּים וְאָכַל וָחַי לְעֹלָם.
Gen 3:22 And YHWH God said, “Now that the man has become like one of us, knowing good and bad, what if he should stretch out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever!”

Although removed from the garden, the desire of humanity to be godlike, to aspire for power which is beyond humanity’s reach, continues.[2]

Creating Cain with YHWH

After leaving the garden, Eve gives birth to her first son, and names him Cain, which is etymologically derived from her declaration:

בראשׁית ד:א ...קָנִיתִי אִישׁ אֶת יְ־הוָה.
Gen 4:1 …“I have created (qaniti) a child with YHWH.”

The term ק.נ.ה/י is used to describes God as a creator קֹנֵה שָׁמַיִם וָאָרֶץ, “Creator of heaven and earth” (Gen 14:19).[3] Indeed, Umberto Cassuto (1883–1951) sees Eve’s naming of Cain as a hubristic declaration professing a unique possession of some power on par with God.[4] Eve, who wished to be godlike by eating from the Tree of Knowledge uses her ability to reproduce, to create human life, as an alternative route outside the Garden to a godlike power she so craved inside the Garden that she can no longer access.[5]

“Beginnings” and Attempts to Be Godlike

The human attempt to become godlike is a consistent theme throughout the opening chapters of Genesis. Each further attempt is highlighted by a form of the word ח.ל.ל “began,” which functions as a Leitwort (“Leading word”; מילה מנחה),[6] as Martin Buber called it, “a word or a word-root that repeats meaningfully within a text, a sequence of texts, or a set of texts.”[7]

The term appears five times in Genesis 4–11. After pursuing the repetitions of the term, the text’s “meaningfulness” unfolds as a series of epochal ‘beginnings’ that chart repeated quests for godlike power inaugurated by Adam and Eve to become like God (Gen 3:5,22).

1. Invoking the Name of YHWH (Gen 4:26)

The first ח.ל.ל appears at the end of the short genealogical list that goes from Adam and Eve to their son Seth, to his son Enosh:

בראשׁית ד:כו ...אָז הוּחַל לִקְרֹא בְּשֵׁם יְ־הוָה.
Gen 4;26 …It was then that men began to invoke YHWH by name. (NJPS)[8]

The 12th century commentator, R. Joseph Bechor Shor offers a reading here that highlights the human penchant for overreaching, for some power that would place them in league with God:

שבדורו התחילו לקרוא שמותם בשם הקב"ה, שהיו משתפים שם שמים בשמם, כמו: מחוייאל, מתושאל, ומהללאל.
For in his generation, people started using the name of the Holy One in personal names, namely, they would incorporate the divine name into their names, such as (Gen 4:18) Mehuya-El, Metusha-El, and Mehalal-El.[9]

While such names are not claims to be gods, they do show a desire to connect themselves to God in an essential way.

2. Planting a Vineyard (Gen 9:20)

Skipping the second instance, which will be discussed below, the third instance arrives after Noah disembarks from the ark, when one of his first acts is to plant a vineyard:

בראשׁית ט:כ וַיָּחֶל נֹחַ אִישׁ הָאֲדָמָה וַיִּטַּע כָּרֶם. ט:כא וַיֵּשְׁתְּ מִן הַיַּיִן וַיִּשְׁכָּר....
Gen 9:20 And Noah, the man of the earth, began and planted a vineyard, 9:21 and he drank of the wine and became drunk….

Drunkenness appears elsewhere in the Bible as a symbol of human delusions of grandeur in explicit contrast to legitimate divine grandeur. Thus, Isaiah warns:

ישׁעיה כח:ג בְּרַגְלַיִם תֵּרָמַסְנָה עֲטֶרֶת גֵּאוּת שִׁכּוֹרֵי אֶפְרָיִם.
Isa 28:3 The crown of pride of the drunkards of Ephraim shall be trodden under foot.

Similarly, contemporary studies suggest motivations and effects of male drinking and intoxication are related to empowerment and domination.[10] Noah’s act then amounts to an excessive indulgence in the products of his own creation, whose fruit can offer a heightened sense of empowerment.

This time, the pathetic and weakened state of drunkenness that actually results, is itself the person’s undoing, as his own child, Ham, exploits his vulnerability (Gen 9:22).[11] Ironically, Noah’s curse condemning Ham’s descendants to slavery introduces a new institution where human beings exercise godlike power over other human beings.

3. Nimrod (Gen 10:8)

The fourth “beginning” introduces Nimrod, a great-grandson of Noah, who pioneers acts of conquest and power in human history:

בראשׁית י:ח וְכוּשׁ יָלַד אֶת נִמְרֹד הוּא הֵחֵל לִהְיוֹת גִּבֹּר בָּאָרֶץ.
Gen 10:8 And Cush begot Nimrod; he began to be a mighty one on the earth.

The majority of classical Jewish and Christian traditions, going back to the Second Temple Period, as well as some modern scholars, understand Nimrod as exerting power in opposition to God.[12] This negative understanding of Nimrod is partially based on his name, which contains the root מ.ר.ד “rebel,” and can be translated as “let us rebel.”[13]

Commentators reading the Nimrod account this way, understand the phrase “before YHWH” in the next verse as against YHWH:

בראשית י:ט הוּא הָיָה גִבֹּר צַיִד לִפְנֵי יְ־הוָה עַל כֵּן יֵאָמַר כְּנִמְרֹד גִּבּוֹר צַיִד לִפְנֵי יְ־הוָה.
Gen 10:9 He was a mighty hunter before YHWH, hence the saying ”Like Nimrod, a mighty hunter before YHWH.”

Understood in this manner, the proverb memorializes Nimrod as the archetype of aggressive might that competes with, and therefore erodes, God’s authority. They support this negative reading by pointing to the next verses (vv. 10–12), describing Nimrod as the founder of cities in Assyria and Babylon, the nations that destroyed Israel and Judah respectively.

4. The Tower of Babel (Gen 11:6)

The fifth “beginning” appears soon after the Nimrod passage, strategically embedded in the Tower of Babel narrative. The people build a city with its tower reaching into heaven, a concerted national effort to build a monumental centre in order to “achieve a name” (11:4),[14] imagining that human power has no limits. They aim to create a consummately anthropocentric polis, replacing God with themselves. The attempt is serious enough to warrant a divine response characterizing this effort as another “beginning” which must be curtailed:

בראשׁית יא:ו וַיֹּאמֶר יְ־הוָה הֵן עַם אֶחָד וְשָׂפָה אַחַת לְכֻלָּם וְזֶה הַחִלָּם לַעֲשׂוֹת וְעַתָּה לֹא יִבָּצֵר מֵהֶם כֹּל אֲשֶׁר יָזְמוּ לַעֲשׂוֹת.
Gen 11:6 And YHWH said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is what they begin to do; and now nothing will prevent (batzar) them from what they imagine (zamam) doing.”

The only other instance of the two operative terms batzar (prevent; withhold) and zamam (devise, plan, propose, conspire, imagine) together appears in Job’s response to the revelatory voice of God from the tempest at the end of the book of Job, in which he describes God as the one whose plans cannot be prevented:

איוב מב:ב יָדַעְתִּ כִּי־כֹל תּוּכָל וְלֹא יִבָּצֵר מִמְּךָ מְזִמָּה.
Job 42:2 I know that You can do everything; that nothing You imagine (from zamam) is withheld (batzar) from You.[15]

Job’s use of the same pair of terms reorients the perspective expressed by God’s observation at the Tower, conversely acknowledging that only God’s plans are limitless and attainable, while the tower builders delude themselves into envisaging no bounds to their aspirations.

5. Angel-Human Marriages (Gen 6:1)

We now return to the other passage skipped above, also launched by the term “beginning”—the enigmatic episode about benei elohim, literally “sons of God,” marrying human women:

בראשׁית ו:א וַיְהִי כִּי הֵחֵל הָאָדָם לָרֹב עַל פְּנֵי הָאֲדָמָה וּבָנוֹת יֻלְּדוּ לָהֶם. ו:ב וַיִּרְאוּ בְנֵי הָאֱלֹהִים אֶת בְּנוֹת הָאָדָם כִּי טֹבֹת הֵנָּה וַיִּקְחוּ לָהֶם נָשִׁים מִכֹּל אֲשֶׁר בָּחָרוּ.
Gen 6:1 When men began to increase on earth and daughters were born to them, 6:2 the divine beings saw how beautiful (tovot)[16] the daughters of men were and took wives from among those that pleased them.

Similar to the expulsion from the Garden to prevent humanity from achieving immortality, YHWH reacts by limiting the current human lifespan, since the offspring of these unions would have had the ability to live for an indefinite period:

ו:ג וַיֹּאמֶר יְ־הוָה לֹא יָדוֹן רוּחִי בָאָדָם לְעֹלָם בְּשַׁגַּם הוּא בָשָׂר וְהָיוּ יָמָיו מֵאָה וְעֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה.
6:3 YHWH 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.”

Even so, such offspring gained the reputation of mighty men of legend:

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.
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 term gibor (mighty one) connects this story with the later account of the mighty rebel, Nimrod, while the term shem, “renown”—literally “the name”—connects this story to the Tower of Babel story, where the humans build the city with the giant tower to grant them “a name.” These connections indicate that this story is part of an overarching complex of narratives describing human overreach.

Nevertheless, as Ronald Hendel notes, this story breaks the pattern of the Primeval Cycle of narratives since “humans are not the initiators of the corrupt activity;”[17] the benei elohim take the human women by force. Accordingly, how might this “beginning” fit the pattern that traces human overreach? The key is in another Leitwort, used here and in the creation of Eve in the Garden of Eden story, that expresses the role of women.

Why Was the Woman Created?

After creating man, YHWH sees a problem:

בראשׁית ב:יח וַיֹּאמֶר יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהִים לֹא טוֹב הֱיוֹת הָאָדָם לְבַדּוֹ....
Gen 2:18 And YHWH God said, “It is not good for man to be alone….”[18]

While the simple meaning of the passage is about man’s need for a partner, Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer (§12) identifies the problem as theological, since aloneness presents the single man as a kind of divine being on earth:

וְהָיָה מְטַיֵּל בְּגַן עֵדֶן כְּאֶחָד מִמַּלְאֲכֵי הַשָּׁרֵת. אָמַר הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא, אֲנִי יָחִיד בְּעוֹלָמִי וְזֶה יָחִיד בְּעוֹלָמוֹ, אֲנִי אֵין פְּרִיָּה וּרְבִיָּה לְפָנַי, וְזֶה אֵין פְּרִיָּה וּרְבִיָּה לְפָנָיו, לְאַחַר כֵּן יֹאמְרוּ הַבְּרִיּוֹת הוֹאִיל וְאֵין לְפָנָיו פְּרִיָּה וּרְבִיָּה, הוּא שֶׁבְּרָאָנוּ, לֹא טוֹב הֱיוֹת הָאָדָם לְבַדּוֹ אֶעֱשֶׂה לּוֹ עֵזֶר כְּנֶגְדּוֹ
[The man] was strolling in the Garden of Eden like one of the ministering angels. The Holy One, blessed be He said: “I am unique in my domain and this one is unique in his domain. I do not procreate and he does not procreate. At some point, the creatures will say: ‘since this one does not procreate, he must have created us.’ It is not good for man to be alone, I will make him a partner.”

Rashi, basing himself on this midrash, describes this as the “two domains/two powers” fallacy:

לא טוב היות וגו' – שלא יאמרו שתי רשויות הן, הקב"ה בעליונים יחיד ואין לו זוג, וזה בתחתונים ואין לו זוג.
“It is not good etc.”—so that they (=the animals) don’t say “there are two domains: The Holy One, blessed be He is alone in the upper realm, and he has no partner, and this (=the man) is in the lower realm and has not partner.”

This reading picks up on the underlying tension of how humans resemble the divine in knowledge and language but are not gods. Woman thus functions both as a partner to the man and as a way of turning man into a species instead of just one individual,[19] thus pre-empting any misconception that could lead to a divinization of what is human. This is what made her creation tov.

Commoditization of Daughters

In the benei elohim story, tov marks the attractiveness of the women, who are taken by the benei elohim as mates and end up using them to perpetuate their own “species” of mighty Nephilim, thus subverting YHWH’s plan.[20] The emphasis on בְּנוֹת הָאָדָם “the daughters of man” being tovot, I suggest, implies that fathers were making use of their daughters’ “tov” for their own empowerment , presenting them in such a way as to be attractive to these powerful benei elohim, to increase the power and prestige of their families.[21] It therefore is another attempt to trespass into God’s domain and become godlike.

The use of daughters as sexual commodities also fits with what Karla Shargent observes about the role of daughters in the Bible, that “it is their maturing sexuality that is the focal point of their identification.”[22] Whether the girls wished to marry these benei elohim did not concern the fathers (or the benei elohim), and neither did the fact that this kind of marriage subverts YHWH’s plan for human procreation.[23]

A Story in the Pattern of Primeval History

The benei elohim story is often described as a fragment or narrative standalone, since it is immediately followed by the flood story which seems to have no patent connection to it:

בראשׁית ו:ה וַיַּרְא יְ־הוָה כִּי רַבָּה רָעַת הָאָדָם בָּאָרֶץ וְכָל יֵצֶר מַחְשְׁבֹת לִבּוֹ רַק רַע כָּל הַיּוֹם. ו:ו וַיִּנָּחֶם יְ־הוָה כִּי עָשָׂה אֶת הָאָדָם בָּאָרֶץ וַיִּתְעַצֵּב אֶל לִבּוֹ.
Gen 6:5 YHWH saw how great was man’s wickedness on earth, and how every plan devised by his mind was nothing but evil all the time. 6:6 And YHWH regretted that He had made man on earth, and His heart was saddened.[24]

Read in this larger context of “beginnings,” however, which presents instances of human beings overreaching to become like god, this prelude to the flood story may offer an example of a specific evil that human beings pursue that pushes YHWH to wish to bring their society to an end.

The story then is not simply a mythic tale of benei elohim abducting human women, but rather another instance of human beings longing to achieve some form of godlike status. Fathers exploited their daughter’s beauty to entice the benei Elohim into marrying them and propagating demi-gods instead of marrying their daughters to human men and propagating the human species as YHWH intended.

Expulsion from the Garden apparently failed to quell the urge to become godlike, thus prompting YHWH to resort to a far more drastic remedy, though even this does not quash the impulse, which will come into play yet again in the postdiluvian age.


November 3, 2022


Last Updated

April 12, 2024


View Footnotes

Prof. James A. Diamond is the Joseph and Wolf Lebovic Chair of Jewish Studies at the University of Waterloo and former director of the university’s Friedberg Genizah Project. He holds a Ph.D. in Religious Studies and Medieval Jewish Thought from the University of Toronto, and an LL.M. from New York University’s Law School. He is the author of Maimonides and the Hermeneutics of Concealment, Converts, Heretics and Lepers: Maimonides and the Outsider and, Maimonides and the Shaping of the Jewish Canon.