“The Decline and Fall of Humankind”

by Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald

With this week’s parasha, parashat Bereshith, we begin, once again, to read the first of the Five Books of Moses–the Book of Bereshith and the first parasha, parashat Bereshith. It is in this week’s parasha that we read of the creation of the world and of humankind. In addition, we learn of several possible reasons for the decline of humankind and the subsequent destruction of the world in the time of Noah.

In Genesis 6, the concluding chapter of parashat Bereshith, we read of the growing corruption of humankind. The Torah states, Genesis 6:1, וַיְהִי כִּי הֵחֵל הָאָדָם לָרֹב עַל פְּנֵי הָאֲדָמָה, וּבָנוֹת יֻלְּדוּ לָהֶם, It came to pass, when mankind began to multiply on the face of the earth, and daughters were born to them.

In scripture, the Hebrew word, וַיְהִי-(“vah’y’hee”), often indicates that there is trouble ahead. In fact, the rabbis say that the word, לָרֹב-(“lah’rohv”), generally translated to increase, is related etymologically, to the word, רִיב-(“riv”), which means strife and discord. Consequently, the Talmud in Baba Batra 16b interprets this verse to mean, “When humankind began to introduce strife into the world,” leading to its destruction in the time of Noah.

The following verse, Genesis 6:2, is a very complicated and esoteric verse. It reads, וַיִּרְאוּ בְנֵי הָאֱלֹהִים אֶת בְּנוֹת הָאָדָם, כִּי טֹבֹת הֵנָּה, וַיִּקְחוּ לָהֶם נָשִׁים, מִכֹּל אֲשֶׁר בָּחָרוּ. The Gutnick edition of the Chumash translates this verse homiletically to mean that the sons of nobility (violated) the daughters of (common) people when they were beautifying themselves (for their weddings). They took for themselves wives from whomever they chose (even married women, men and animals).

It is at this point, that G-d says to Himself, Genesis 6:3, that He will not remain in conflict for a long time regarding whether to destroy humankind. He will allow humankind to live for 120 years, and if they do not repent, He will destroy them with a flood.

There is much discussion regarding the translation of the term, בְנֵי הָאֱלֹהִים (“v’nai ha’Eh’loh’him”), the sons of Eh’loh’him, previously translated as sons of nobility. Rashi and the majority of the commentators say that the children of אֱלֹהִים–“Eh’loh’him” were the judges, the potentates, the sons of nobility, who took for themselves wives, the daughters of man, maidens of lower rank.

The Midrash, which elaborates on this interpretation, maintains that youths of aristocratic background took as wives, women who were powerless to resist their advances. Since these unions were based on urges that were outgrowths of unrestrained passion and immoral behavior, these marriages signal the moral decline of humankind.

An alternate interpretation is offered by R. Abraham Ibn EzraRadak and Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch. They maintain that בְנֵי הָאֱלֹהִים-(“v’nai ha’Eh’loh’him”) the sons of Eh’loh’him, were the G-d-fearing descendants of Adam and Eve’s third child, Seth. The daughters of men were descendants of the perfidious Cain, who murdered his own brother, Abel.

According to Rabbi Hirsch, although the descendants of Seth bore the Divine spark of G-d and devoted themselves to spiritual callings, they were overwhelmed by the seductive powers of the daughters of man, who subscribed to decadent beliefs, and practiced the immoral actions of their ancestor, the murderous Cain. Alas, all the righteous descendants of Seth were corrupted by the daughters of Cain. With the exception of Noah and his family, all of humankind lost their moral bearings, sunk to the lowest level of depravity, and were ultimately lost in the flood waters that inundated the world.

It is interesting to note that several ancient Jewish authors such as Philo, Josephus and the author of the Book of Jubilees, suggested that these verses confirm the existence of an ancient race of human beings of gigantic strength and stature, who were the offspring of human mothers and celestial fathers. These “mythological” explanations hearken back to heathen fables and to the Greek stories of “fallen angels.” These radical interpretations are rejected by the overall body of Jewish commentators, both classical and modern, with very few exceptions.

The story of the “fall of man” found in parashat Bereshith, sets the tone for what will become the course of human history. It issues a powerful warning to all of humankind, even the “sons of Eh’loh’him,” the extremely moral descendants of Seth. It declares boldly that all of humankind is easily corrupted by temptations, seductions and the beckoning of sin that masquerades as beauty and passion. It is therefore absolutely essential that moral human beings be discerning human beings, who despite being attracted to beauty, need to look beyond the surface, to see the inner core of those who seek to befriend and influence them.

Although the fifty-three forthcoming parashiot that are found in the remaining Five Books of Moses convey many brilliant and revolutionary messages, one of the foremost of these must be the lesson found in Chapter 6 of Genesis. Humankind must not follow the temptations of their hearts and eyes, which often lead them astray. Humankind must look beyond the surface to see the inner core of goodness and righteousness that is present in every human breast and reject the evil and base qualities that are also to be found in every human. Humankind must fan the flames of goodness, and stomp out and extinguish the evil and the immoral.

May you be blessed.

Please note: The name “Eh’loh’him” is written in this week’s Torah message in both Hebrew and English without any changes, since it is not used as the sacred name of G-d.