The Text Detective: Searching for the Hidden Stories in the Biblical Text
Nearly ten years ago, I was a second year student in York University’s Jewish studies program, taking my first university course on the Hebrew Bible. Our homework was to read at least one full biblical book a week to discuss in class so that by the end of the year we would be able to say that we had read the Tanakh through at least once. As a past competitor in the Canadian Jewish National Bible Contest (of which I have many, many stories for perhaps another time) I felt that a lot of the material would be familiar.
This feeling lasted exactly six chapters.
Genesis chapter six verses one through four say (according to the New JPS translation): ‘When men began to increase on earth and daughters were born to them, the divine beings saw how beautiful the daughters of men were and took wives from among those that pleased them. – The LORD said, “My breath shall not abide in man forever, since he too is flesh; let the days allowed him be one hundred and twenty years’ – It was then, and later too, that the Nephilim appeared on earth – when the divine beings cohabited with the daughters of men, who bore the offspring. They were the heroes of old, the men of renown.”
Immediately I was struck by an overwhelming fascination with this section. The text continues, but begins the story of Noah with no further elaboration as to the identities of these Nephilim or the men of renown. The more one looks at the passage, the more one is filled with questions.
Biblical scholars have noted that this passage feels like condensed version of what must have been a much longer and more intricate story. As an undergrad, I couldn’t shake my curiosity on these verses and wound up researching and writing about these verses in an independent study course. My first step was to find texts that had linguistic similarities to the verses I was looking at and in doing so, uncovered a link between parashat Bereshit (the portion to which Genesis 6:1-4 is a part) and this week’s portion, parashat Shelach Lecha. The link is the Nephilim, the beings first identified in Genesis 6 and never discussed again until Numbers 13 (and never again afterwards in the Biblical text).
For mystery lovers, this is where the text becomes a lot of fun. To understand these rather enigmatic characters, we must gather together all our little pieces of information. We learn from Genesis 6 that the Nephilim existed before the flood, and possibly had something to do with the mingling of divine and human kind. From Numbers 13, we learn that the Nephilim are related to Anakites who are described as giants. Even though we are taught that the works of creation were wiped out during the flood, it appears as though the Nephilim were somehow exempt.
This is not the only curious detail about them. Linguistically, the root of the word Nephilim is npl; a fairly common root in the Hebrew Bible with the prime meaning fall. In this particular plural form however, it occurs only in the two instances listed above. Although we know the meaning of the root, this makes for a challenging task for translators. Most biblical translations then go one of two ways: either translating Nephilim as ‘giants’ based on the description in Numbers 13 (as in the New King James or the English Standard for example), or as in the case of the NJPS to simply leave the word transliterated. Some translators, however, prefer the far less cautious and infinitely more exciting phrase: ‘the fallen ones.’ Linguistically, it is easy to see how they arrive at this translation and certainly as a reader it stirs the imagination in a way the other translations do not and although academics would probably not hail these particular translations for their scholarly value, they do tap into something else.
While immersed in my undergraduate research, I came to appreciate that for hundreds and hundreds of years Jews had been looking to these portions of Bereshit and Shelach Lecha as jumping off points to weave incredible stories. The curiosity and intrigue they felt about the Nephilim was not unlike my own, spawning various midrashim and appearances in intertestamental and pseudopigraphic texts. The Torah gave us just enough to whet our creative appetites, and just enough clues to get generations of Jews excitedly asking questions about what it could all mean.
Every week in synagogue we open the Torah and read one selection of text and discuss it. Often enough, the portion are sufficiently meaty that the rabbi can use their entire D’var Torah or sermon slot elaborating on one particularly fascinating aspect of the portion. Sometimes, however, we get a portion that reminds us that the Jewish way to read stories is to read them over and over again, and in doing so we begin to make connections from one portion to another, sometimes several chapters or even several books later. The Torah (like the Talmud) is not linear; the connections between these passages can sometimes strike through the text like lightning, firing up our imagination. In the case of the Nephilim, I feel I found a biblical treasure map. I’ll never forget the excitement that built up as I made my way through ancient text after ancient text, each adding another piece to this incredible puzzle.
This week as we turn to parashat Shelach Lecha, allow yourself to ask the text question after question after question. Allow yourself the space to let your imagination run away with the text for a moment. Allow yourself to be a text detective, gathering together your clues to understand the fuller picture. Most importantly, enjoy this week’s text: it is truly an incredible piece!
Student Rabbi Emily Jurman, to be ordained in July 2015
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.