Nefilim: Privilege, Power and Patriarchy in Genesis

Nefilim: Privilege, Power and Patriarchy in Genesis

Nefilim. Literally “fallen ones.” One of Torah’s great mysteries.

Who are they?

If we read Torah with attention to detail, then we can find some clues.

Nefilim are sons of gods (Gen. 6:1-4). They’re like giants (Num. 13:33). And they’re well-protected (Deut. 3:1-11).

But they are nothing good. Because right after we meet them, God regrets creating human beings.

Why? Torah tries to explain it. But the point is very subtle. So, some of us miss it.

The sons of god saw the daughters of the humans, that they were good. And they took for them women from all whom they chose (Gen. 6:2).

Midrash Rabbah, an early commentary, decodes this for us.

The sons of god are human beings. Aristocrats, wealthy and privileged. Too powerful for others to hold accountable. In their own eyes, above the law. Beyond ethical codes that constrain lesser human beings.

These self-proclaimed favoured “sons of god” do what they want. And if they want a woman, they just take her (Bereisheet Rabbah 26:5).

No wonder they are called Nefilim, fallen ones. Because morally, they have fallen. And no wonder God says, human evil is great (Gen. 6:5). Because it is.

Where did God go wrong? What exactly should God regret?

If we read Torah with attention to detail, then we can find some clues.

Remember back in the Garden of Eden? Where the primordial woman and man lived? The couple whose story tells us all about human nature? They eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. And their meal comes with a heavy price tag of consequences.

To the woman, God says: el ishekh teshukatekh, v’hu yimshol bakh. Your desire will be for your man, and he will rule over you (Gen. 3:16). Or, in plain English. You will look to this man for friendship, love, co-parenting. For respect, approval, appreciation. But – your society being what it is, patriarchal – it’s possible your man will never look up to you. He may even look down on you, as a wealthy ruler looks down on his subjects.

The woman becomes pregnant and gives birth to a son. She names him Kayin, Cain. Why? Because, she says, kaniti ish et-Adonai, I have acquired a man, a God (Gen. 4:1). At least, that’s what the Hebrew says. Cain is a privileged boy. A firstborn son, an amazing being, seen by his mother as something divine.

Cain grows up with his younger brother. Both men offer fruits of their labor to God. And privileged Cain expects God’s approval. But God doesn’t give it. So, vayiflu panav, Cain’s face falls (Gen. 4:5).

Then, God asks, lama naflu panekha? “Why did your face fall?” (Gen. 4:6) Perhaps something inside Cain is falling, too. His feelings. Or his morals. Because God suddenly warns him that strong emotions can lead to sin.

What words does God use? The same ones God used to caution Eve about patriarchy. About sin, God tells Cain, eleicha teshukato, v’ata timshol bo. It will desire you, but you must rule over it. (Gen 4:7). As if God is saying, “Women, men will rule over you; so men, you’ve got to rule over your impulses.”

Think about it, Cain, God says. You were raised to expect approval, appreciation, even adulation. But some things you cannot have. Your mood may fall. Your ethics may fall away. But get a grip on yourself. You must master the impulse to sin.

And then Cain, poor fallen Cain, gets up – vayakam — and kills his brother.

Instead of mastering himself, he masters his brother.

“You’re cursed!” God says. “But, no!” Cain whines, “the punishment is too great for me to bear.” “Okay, then,” God says, “I will protect you.”

Is it any wonder that the descendants of Cain become the nefilim, the fallen ones? Men who expect everything to come their way. When it doesn’t, their faces fall and their hearts sink. Then, they get up and take what they want anyway. But no one holds them accountable. No judge, no jury, not even God.

No wonder God says, “I regret what I did.”

And yet, humans are still here. And so are the nefilim.

How, then, will we lift up our world?

Image: Thanks to members of the midrash class at Vancouver School of Theology, whose discussions led me to make the textual connections I share here.

  1. I don’t thing G-d ever makes mistakes. He always has a plan. For every tiny thing he creates!

    1. This is a very comforting teaching. Thank you, Michelle.

  2. You really made me thinking… Great material to work over the week

    1. Thanks, Ileanah! Very creative things happen when you start thinking.

  3. Well, To lift up your world, overcome sin. I imagine striking out at just about everyone in my life right now. I get it. Everything I believed in seems like a lie, and So here I am, back to Torah for some direction. I probably won’t kill anybody. I guess that is progress. My shalom is on vacation in another universe apparently. Help!!!

    1. Thank you, Jacquelyn. Looks like you are working hard to restore wholeness. Shalom to you.

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