In the sixth chapter of the Book of Genesis you will find this:
“And the sons of the gods saw the daughters of humans that they were good and they took them as wives, wherever they wanted to. And God said my spirit cannot stand these beings...The Nefilim were on earth at that time and the humans mixed with them and they produced giants. They were the ones that caused devastation at that time. And God saw what a state the world was in and how badly the humans were acting, thinking of evil all day long. And he regretted what had happened so far. And said, ‘I will destroy these people.’” (Genesis 6:2)Of course, there are many ways of interpreting these sentences and trying to figure out who were “the sons of the gods” or perhaps “the sons of judges”. And who were the Nefilim? Some Christian scholars suggest they were the fallen angels (from the Hebrew root NFL meaning to fall) who were cast down from the Heavenly Court with Satan. (See Milton’s Paradise Lost.) There are post-Talmudic midrashim that talk about fallen gods on earth. But let me tell you how I have always understood it.
I think it refers to a much earlier phase of prehistory. The memories had been passed down orally and were incoirporated. In the early stages of human development there were lots of different types of early species, “Homos” of various types: erectus, ergaster, rudolfensis, africanus, pekinensis, to mention only a few. Culminating (some might say regressing) in Homo sapiens, of course. But there were others, such the Neanderthals and doubtless other kinds of “missing links".
I know the theory of evolution has gaps and guesses. Yet all the anthropological evidence that science is accumulating, points to processes of evolution over a long period of time in which some species survived and others did not. Whether this happened under some guiding intelligence or not is as much open to debate now as it was in Darwin’s day. Most religious people see the hand of a divine power.
The interesting question, which was asked in the Bible itself, was whether Homo sapiens could ever self-destruct or go extinct. But before I try to answer that one, there is the easier issue of who these proto- or pseudo-humans were that the Torah refers to.
I have always taken it that the Torah recognizes this early process of evolution physically, which mirrors the process of spiritual enlightenment. This after all is the core message of Torah. Adam, Noah, Abraham, and Moses were stages in the awakening and deepening of a relationship between humans and God. But as a sideline, the Torah talks about earlier forms of life that coexisted with homo Adamus. Even beforehand. In the words of the Midrash Rabba, “God made worlds and destroyed them, made them and destroyed them, until He arrived at this one.”
Not only, but the Torah seems to be saying that these other Homos and Neanderthals mixed and procreated, and some of the results were not very nice. The nastier types, or perhaps the less reflective ones, died out. The successful species learnt to cooperate well. Others cooperated in destructive ways, as the story of the Tower of Babel records.
I saw Hollywood’s latest version of Noah’s flood (Noah, 2014). Darren Aronofsky directed with Russel Crowe as Noah. And the Nefilim get a role too! It is a disappointing production (despite rabbinic credits) with Ray Winstone as a cockney Tuval Cain, the bad guy. He stows aboard the ark, unbeknownst to Noah. But he ends badly. And I wondered whether the evil perpetrated by the Hitlers of humanity could be traced back to this Neanderthal strain that survived the flood! I gather the Neanderthals were not that bad actually.
I have always been interested in paleontology, anthropology, and archaeology. They explain physical things, whereas religion focuses on its strength, spirituality. For this very early period of human history, I recommend Ian Tattersall’s Masters of the Planet. But I have also read Yuval Harari’s Sapiens, an entertaining romp through human history choc-a-bloc with fanciful theories. Some he adopts and others he discards with a recklessness that even he admits to. After reading him you will conclude that there is so much we still don't know. His conclusion is that modern science and technology are changing human capacities. Sapiens is being turned into cyborgs: “Such a cyborg would no longer be human or even organic.” He ended the book with the words: “Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don’t know what they want?”
His latest offering is Homo Deus. According to him, humans invented God and will soon become God. Harari says that “ the free individual is just a fictional tale concocted by an assembly of biochemical algorithms.” Dataism will substitute for free will and God. The useless masses cast aside will pursue a mirage of happiness with drugs and virtual reality. Like Pagans, in fact. An elite class, the super rich, will reap the benefits, editing their genomes and merging with machines. Harari emerges as a cheerleader and perhaps scriptwriter for Hollywood.
The Talmud already wondered about this march of folly. It says that Adam was originally designed to span the universe. But when he disobeyed, made the wrong decisions, God shrank him to the organism we are today. In other words, we have amazing capacities. But we limit ourselves by pursuing selfish goals and bad decisions.
There is another scenario to Harari’s. Whenever throughout history one class or group emerges all powerful and subjugates all the rest, inevitably there follows a decline and fall or a bloody overthrow of the old system. That, I believe, is the message of first of the Nefilim and then Noah’s flood and indeed the repeated warnings in the Bible. Since those early days, history has consistently reiterated the message. The one percent can never sustain its hold on power and assets for long if it ignores the masses.
Religion offers an alternative model—the Messianic idea. Except the whole point of Messianism is that it improves the lot of everyone, of the world, not just of one class or percentile. It is true that many see Messianism as Divine Intervention to prevent a catastrophic collapse. That is indeed a comforting thought for those who have it. But meanwhile it is the universalist and humanist aspect of Messianism, and the Torah itself, of making the world a better place, that might just save the cyborgs from destroying it. But even if they try to. As the story in Bereishit indicates, humanity is resilient (or God is good), and it will rebound!