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Sons of God – Bnei Elohim

September 18, 2015 | by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld

The start of Genesis 6 states that the sons of God took wives from the daughters of men and had giant children. Who are these sons of God – angels? Does this agree with the Christian notion of rebellious, fallen angels?

The Aish Rabbi Replies

Thank you for your very important question. The term the Torah actually uses in Genesis 6 is B’nei Elohim. “Elohim” literally means “powerful ones.” It is often used in the Torah to refer to God, but it is also used in reference to powerful people or to judges, such as in Exodus 4:16, 7:1, 21:6, and 22:8. Likewise, when referring to God, the term emphasizes His power and justice.

Based on this, most of the commentators to the Torah actually understand the verses not to be referring to supernatural beings such as angels, but to the judges and noblemen, the people of power. Their “privileged” sons would forcibly take whomever they wanted as wives. (The “daughters of man” can be understood to mean the lower classes, see for example Psalms 49:3.)

Their wicked behavior was thus symptomatic of the ills of the antediluvian world. The very leaders who should have been upholding the law and setting an example for society became part of the problem – exercising their power to take advantage of the weak and the underprivileged. (See Bereishit Rabbah 26:8, Targum Onkelos, Targum Yonatan, Rashi 1st explanation, Ibn Ezra 1, Radak, Ramban, R. Bechaye, Chizkuni.)

In a similar vein, many of the commentators understand B’nei Elohim as referring to the descendants of Seth, or to the primary descendants of Seth. They were “sons of God” in that they more godly and spiritual than the descendants of Cain. (Compare to Deuteronomy 14:1 “You [Israel] are children to the Lord your God.”) Being more spiritual (at the start), they were also physically superior to the commoners and lived much longer. They thus begat a race of supermen. Thus, the intent of these verses is likewise that the supposedly more religious segment of society stooped to forcibly taking the women of their liking. (See Ibn Ezra 2, Ramban, R. S. R. Hirsch.)

At the same time, there is an opinion in the Midrash that the verses are referring to literal angels – who descended from Heaven, took mortal wives, and begot a race of giants (Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer 22 (p. 50b), alternate explanation in Rashi and Ramban. See also Talmud Yoma 67b.)

This raises an important question. Aren’t angels merely messengers of God? Can they actually rebel? Doesn’t this seem to lend credence to the Christian notion that Satan is a rebellious angel?

There is an important piece in the Midrash which sheds light on this issue (Midrash Aggadat Bereishit intro., brought in ArtScroll Bereishit I, p. 181, footnote 1). It states that when God decided to blot out man with the Flood, two angels, Uzza and Azael, emphatically agreed, saying “What is man that that You recall him, the son of man that You think of him” (Psalms 8:5). They in effect stated that there had been no point creating lowly man to begin with.

The Midrash continues that God responded to them (paraphrased), “If you lived on earth as they and saw the beauty of their women, you would be no better!”

To which they responded, “We will descend and not sin.” They took the challenge – and failed. In fact, the Midrash states that they immediately saw the test was too much for them and begged God to allow them to return to Heaven. But He refused, saying that they were already defiled and would now be banished forever.

Based on this, we can understand how this episode does not contradict Judaism’s understanding of the angels. Angels in Heaven are merely messengers of God; there is no possibility of their rebelling against Him. However, when they assume physical form they become human and prone to sin. In fact, in this case, they descended to earth specifically in order to become physical and to try their hands at human challenges.

As my teacher Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg OBM once pointed out, we do likewise occasionally find the Sages making reference to angels sinning or misstepping – and it is consistently when they assumed physical form – as they sometimes do to fulfill missions on earth. See e.g. Rashi to Genesis 19:22 regarding the angels sent to overturn Sodom. (Note that angels very rarely do assume physical form, even when fulfilling missions for God on earth.)

Thus once again, although the more generally accepted understanding of this episode is that it was describing the sins of mankind, there is a Midrashic opinion which takes the story more literally. Even so, the only implication is that angels in human form can come to sin, not the angels in Heaven.

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