The first Torah portion in the first book of the Torah (both called Bereishit, “In a beginning”, in Hebrew) opens with God’s creation of the world. It closes with God’s decision to destroy the world and start over again.
Just before God makes this decision, the Torah gives us a curious story fragment:
And beney ha-elohim saw the daughters of the human, how tov they were, and they took themselves wives from whomever they chose. (Genesis 6:2)
The Nefilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward, for beney ha-elohim came into the daughters of the human, and they bore children to them. They were the mighty ones from long ago, men of renown. (Genesis 6:4)
beney ha-elohim = the sons of God.
tov = good, attractive.
What does “the sons of God” mean? Some traditional commentary claims the phrase refers to superior human men, who make the mistake of marrying an inferior class of women. Other commentators say the “sons of God” are angels, angels of a lower grade than the malachim (“messengers”) that appear in the Torah in human form in order to speak as mouthpieces for God.
What strikes me is that the phrase beney ha-elohim appears only four times in the whole Hebrew Bible: twice in the passage above, and twice in the book of Job. The book of Job begins by describing how upright, good, and God-fearing Job is. Then the scene shifts to the court of God:
One day beney ha-elohim came to present themselves in front of God, and ha-satan came too, in the middle of them. And God said to ha-satan: Where do you come from? And ha-satan answered God, and said: From roving about on the earth and from going back and forth on it. (Job 1:6-7)
ha-satan = the adversary, the obstacle
God pays attention to ha-satan, and does not question any of the other “sons of God”. The Adversary doubts whether Job is genuinely good and God-fearing, and persuades God to test Job’s faithfulness. God assigns the Adversary to strike all Job’s possessions. Ha-satan eliminates Job’s wealth and all his children—for no good reason—but Job still blesses God.
Then one day beney ha-elohim came to present themselves in front of God, and ha-satan came too, in the middle of them, to present itself in front of God. And God said to ha-satan: Where do you come from this? And ha-satan answered God, and said: From roving about on the earth and from going back and forth on it. (Job 2:1-2)
Once again God only converses with ha-satan. The Adversary persuades God to test Job again, this time by afflicting his body, and God authorizes another injustice in order to find out what Job will do.
The book of Job is a theological conversation in the guise of a story about a man who lived long ago and far away. In order to set up the question of whether God is just, the story uses an allegory of God in His court, receiving His sons, the lesser gods (a scene obviously borrowed from one of the pantheistic religions in the region).
But on another level, I see both stories about beney ha-elohim as allegories for the human mind.
In the book of Job, I think God’s court represents the human mind. The decision-making ego is visited by various sub-personalities, including one that takes an adversarial role and obstructs the ego by planting doubt, then tempting the ego to abandon morality in order to find out for sure.
In the book of Genesis, the interaction between “the sons of God” and the “daughters of the human” can also represent the human mind. Like ha-satan in Job, beney ha-elohim in Genesis visit the earth. The purpose of the visit in Job is to observe the human beings from a different perspective than God’s, and bring that perspective into the heavenly court that I think represents the human mind.
The purpose of the visit in Genesis is to marry and “come into” human women. When the book of Genesis says “for beney ha-elohim came into the daughters of the human, and they bore children to them”, we can read it as simply a description of the sons of God having sex with their wives, who then give birth to mighty and famous men. But we can also read it as a representation of subconscious aspects of the mind coming into the consciousness of human women, and inspiring them to give birth to new ideas and notions.
In the Bible divine inspiration, ruach elohim, can be good or bad; good when a prophet is moved to speak out and warn people they are doing wrong, but bad when King Saul is seized by divinely-induced madness. What if divine inspiration comes from different aspects of God, different “sons”? One aspect might give us an impulse to speak out against injustice. Another aspect (such as ha-satan in Job) might give us an impulse to commit any injustice in order to prove a point.
The “sons of God” in Genesis are apparently bad impulses, leading to bad thoughts and actions.
And God saw the abundant badness of the human on the earth, that the shape of every idea of his heart was only bad all the time. And God nicham that It had made the human on the earth, and It was heartbroken. (Genesis/Bereishit 6:5-6)
nicham = had a change of heart, reconsidered. (This verb covers at least two kinds of change of heart: regret, and consolation.)
Before the beney ha-elohim show up, the humans on earth seem like a mixed lot, more good than bad. Cain is a murderer, and his great-great-great grandson Lemekh boasts to his wives about vengeance, but the other people the Torah mentions seem innocent enough. When Enosh is born, people start invoking the four-letter name of God. One of Enosh’s descendants, Enoch (Chanokh), “walked with God”.
Only after the beney ha-elohim influence the human race does God consider the ideas of the human heart “only bad all the time”. Perhaps these “sons of God” are like ha-satan in Job. The Adversary in Job corrupts the ruling god with feelings of doubt. The sons of God in Genesis apparently introduce urges that corrupt the conscious mind of the human “daughter”, and become obstacles to good behavior.
And God said: I will wipe away the human that I created from the face of the earth, from human to beast to creeper to flyer in the sky, because I have nicham that I made them. But Noah found grace in the eyes of God. (Genesis/Bereishit 6:7-8)
In next week’s Torah portion, God decides to start the world over again with Noah and his family (as well as pairs of all the animals). This is like deciding to eliminate all those awkward feelings of beney ha-elohim, and reduce the mind to a single virtuous ego. Yet when the flood ends, God reaches the more mature conclusion that the human mind is always subject to evil, and decides to put up with it.
Today, we all hear the mental voices of divine inspiration inside our own minds. Sometimes they are Adversaries, trying to push us off the right path and make us act out of doubt or resentment or another negative urge. Sometimes they enter with enlightenment, and impregnate us with ideas that lead to good actions.
May we all learn to put up with the many shapes of our ideas, as the god in Genesis did. And may we all become more discriminating about our inner promptings than the god in Job.
4 thoughts on “Bereishit: Inner Voices”
It is curious that not once, but twice does Hashem consider a type of human/reality without evil a good idea, then abandon it. Both in Bereshit (Adam and Eve, then the Flood). Extending your allegorical thinking above (below?), I don’t think humanness or reality without evil means much of anything. All goodness requires a contrast or counterpoint, or tzelem, otherwise it may be good, but it’s not virtuous!
I love your work, Melissa.
Good point! You can only be virtuous by making a choice between two appealing alternatives–and choosing the right one,