Mortals and Immortals

Bereishit By :  Benjamin D. Sommer Professor of Bible and Ancient Semitic Languages Posted On Oct 17, 2014 / 5775 | דבר אחר | A Different Perspective
Gilgamesh was named from birth for fame. Two-thirds of him was divine, and one-third mortal.
Epic of Gilgamesh*
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.
Hesiod, The Theogony**
Semele . . . having mingled in love with Zeus, bore him a shining son, Dionysos . . . she, a mortal, producing a god; now both are immortals.

We human beings tend not to see something that doesn’t fit our preconceived notions, including when we read the Torah. A banner example occurs at the end of this week’s portion:

Then it happened, as humans began to proliferate throughout the world, and daughters were born to them, that divine beings saw the human girls, and noticed that they were beautiful. They married them as wives—whichever ones they chose. Then Hashem 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.” 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 might ones of old, men of fame. (Gen. 6:1-4)

If we were reading polytheistic literature such as the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh or Homer’sIliad, we wouldn’t be surprised to hear this sort of story, in which gods procreate with humans to produce a race of giants.

But what is a story like this doing in Genesis? The Torah is a monotheistic work. Why, then, does it include this fragment of what sounds like a polytheistic tale? The answer lies in the way that God reacts to this event. 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 parashiyot of Bereishit (Gen. 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, and 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.

Polytheistic stories of the sort that Genesis 6 alludes to assumed that humans could, sometimes, become divine and that immortal beings could also die; this 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, rather, is 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.

When we stop 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.

*Translation from Stephanie Dalley, Myths from Mesopotamia (Oxford University Press, 1989), 51

**Translation from R.M. Frazer, The Poems of Hesiod (University of Oklahoma Press, 1963), 87