Why Are there Demigods in a Monotheistic Torah?
They Might be Giants
We human beings often don’t see things that don’t fit our preconceived notions. This happens in all sorts of settings—including when we read, and especially when we read the Torah. A banner example occurs in the last aliyah of Parashat Bereshit, which includes four verses that many readers seem somehow not to notice:
א וַֽיְהִי֙ כִּֽי הֵחֵ֣ל הָֽאָדָ֔ם לָרֹ֖ב עַל פְּנֵ֣י הָֽאֲדָמָ֑ה וּבָנ֖וֹת יֻלְּד֥וּ לָהֶֽם:
1 Then it happened, as humans began to proliferate throughout the world, and daughters were born to them,
ב וַיִּרְא֤וּ בְנֵי הָֽאֱלֹהִים֙ אֶת בְּנ֣וֹת הָֽאָדָ֔ם כִּ֥י טֹבֹ֖ת הֵ֑נָּה וַיִּקְח֤וּ לָהֶם֙ נָשִׁ֔ים מִכֹּ֖ל אֲשֶׁ֥ר בָּחָֽרוּ:
2that divine beings saw the human girls, and noticed that they were beautiful. They married them as wives—whichever ones they chose.
ג וַיֹּ֣אמֶר יְ-הֹוָ֗ה לֹֽא יָד֨וֹן רוּחִ֤י בָֽאָדָם֙ לְעֹלָ֔ם בְּשַׁגַּ֖ם ה֣וּא בָשָׂ֑ר וְהָי֣וּ יָמָ֔יו מֵאָ֥ה וְעֶשְׂרִ֖ים שָׁנָֽה:
3 Then YHWH said, “The life-breath I bestow will not dwell in a human forever, insofar as they, too, are flesh; a human’s time will be one hundred and twenty years.”
ד הַנְּפִלִ֞ים הָי֣וּ בָאָרֶץ֘ בַּיָּמִ֣ים הָהֵם֒ וְגַ֣ם אַֽחֲרֵי כֵ֗ן אֲשֶׁ֨ר יָבֹ֜אוּ בְּנֵ֤י הָֽאֱלֹהִים֙ אֶל בְּנ֣וֹת הָֽאָדָ֔ם וְיָלְד֖וּ לָהֶ֑ם הֵ֧מָּה הַגִּבֹּרִ֛ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר מֵעוֹלָ֖ם אַנְשֵׁ֥י הַשֵּֽׁם:
4 The fallen giants were on earth in those days, and afterwards, too—when divine beings had relations with human women, who bore their offspring. These giants were the mighty ones of old, men of fame. (Genesis 6.1-4)
If we were reading polytheistic literature such as the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh or Homer’s Iliad, we wouldn’t be surprised to hear this sort of story, in which gods have sex with humans to produce a race of giants. But in the Torah this story comes as a surprise.
Demigods in Polytheistic Literature
The Babylonian epic says of its hero,
Gilgamesh was named from birth for fame. Two-thirds of him was divine, and one-third mortal.
His father, Lugalbanda, was a human king, while his mother, Ninsun, was a goddess. Similarly, Akhilleus (Achilles), the hero of The Iliad, was the offspring of a divine mother, the nymph Thetis, and of Peleus, another mortal king.
In the Greek poet Hesiod’s description of the world’s origin, The Theogony, we read,
Alkmene [a human woman] gave birth to the wonderful strength of Herakles, when she and Zeus of the Storm Cloud had mingled together in love.
Demigods in the Monotheistic Torah
But what is a story like this doing in Genesis? Isn’t the Torah a monotheistic work? The unusual nature of this story, along with the fact that it is so short and at the very end of aparashah (when synagogue-goers’ attention might be waning), lead many readers to overlook it. But paying attention to those parts of the Torah that surprise or disturb us always pays off.
The Torah, in fact, is monotheistic. Why, then, does it include this fragment of what sounds like a pagan myth? The answer lies in the way that God reacts to this event.
The Difference between God and Humans in the Torah
God decrees that mixing of this sort should not occur, and that humans—including the offspring of these divine-human unions—cannot live forever. The two opening parashot of Bereishit (Genesis 1-11) hammer home the message that there is an essential difference between humans and God.
Humans are made in the image of God; they are called on to be like God; they are privileged to interact with God. But they are not divine, and a core idea of biblical literature is that God is utterly unique.
One way the Torah emphasizes this idea is by reminding its audience of stories from the ancient world that portray a mixing of divine and human realms, and then introducing a crucial difference. Pagan stories of the sort to which the Torah alludes here assume that humans could, sometimes, become divine.
Demigods Who Die and Humans Who Become Immortal
Akhilleus died a mortal, but Herakles was eventually inducted into the heavenly club. An early version of The Gilgamesh Epic (the second-millennium Old Babylonian versions) emphasizes that Gilgamesh was fated to die. But the later version (the first-millennium Standard Babylonian version quoted above) assumes that he ultimately became the god responsible for the underworld – as was in fact the case in the later Mesopotamian pantheon.
In Greek literature, a god could even father a deity with mortal woman, whereupon the mother became an immortal, too. For example, Hesiod tells us that,
Semele… having mingled in love with Zeus, bore him a shining son, Dionysos…she, a mortal, producing a god; now both are immortals.
Not only could humans become gods; immortal beings could also die. Zeus killed his own father Kronos in Greek myth; in Enuma Elish, the Babylonian epic of Marduk the creator, younger gods dispatch the deities Apsu, Tiamat, and Qingu. Some immortals become mortal but subsequently revert to immortality: in Sumerian and Babylonian myth Ishtar dies and is later revived, while Tammuz dies and rises every year. Something similar happens to Baal in Canaanite lore.
Parsing the Torah’s Polemic about the Mortality of the Nephilim
It is this sort of thinking that our verses from the end of Parashat Bereshit both call to mind and reject. This passage tells members of its ancient audience that they may have heard tales about sexual contact between the heavenly and earthly realms, but this does not change the fact that humans are mortal; the longest they tend to live is 120 years. (While the Bible acknowledges even longer life spans for people who lived in the first few millennia after creation, even those people died, too.)
Similarly, the giants the audience had heard about about may have once existed, but they are in fact mortal beings and not really comparable to God. The passage implies that they are human beings, destined to live no more than 120 years. This passage, in short, reminds us of the mixing between divine and human realms in order to emphasize that in the end, those realms remain separate.
The Core of Biblical Monotheism
In Greek and Mesopotamian literature, gods become mortals, and humans divine—all of which points to a fundamental similarity between humanity and divinity in these ancient texts. The very core of polytheism is not simply that there are many gods but that gods and humans are made of the same stuff. Conversely, the Bible does not claim that God is the only heavenly being; after all, there are angels.
The core of biblical monotheism, as the German-Jewish philosopher Hermann Cohen and the great Israeli biblical scholar Yehezkel Kaufmann showed, is something else: that God is unique. Even as scripture demands that human beings attempt to imitate God , it also stresses they need to realize they will never fully succeed in doing so. It is for this reason that the Book of Genesis includes this brief and surprising tale.
When we open our minds enough to notice, we see that the relationship between monotheism and polytheism in the Bible is much more complex than we initially assume. So is humanity’s relationship with God. It was hard for ancient people to admit it, and it’s even harder for moderns, but the Torah teaches that humanity has limits, and it’s not our role to play God.
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October 7, 2015
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Prof. Benjamin Sommer is Professor of Bible at the Jewish Theological Seminary and Senior Fellow at the Kogod Center for Contemporary Jewish Thought of the Shalom Hartman Institute. He holds an M.A. in Bible and Ancient Near East from Brandeis University and a Ph.D. in Religion/Biblical Studies from the University of Chicago. Sommer is the author of Revelation and Authority: Sinai in Jewish Scripture and Tradition (Yale, 2015), The Bodies of God and the World of Ancient Israel (Cambridge, 2009), and A Prophet Reads Scripture: Allusion in Isaiah 40–66 (Stanford, 1998). The Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz described Sommer as “a traditionalist and yet an iconoclast – he shatters idols and prejudices in order to nurture Jewish tradition and its applicability today.”
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