Monday, September 1, 2014

Book Review: Sacred Monsters by N. Slifkin

As I was writing Parshat Bereishit in my ongoing Sefer Torah project, one theme stood out from the story of creation: the Bnei Elohim. The Torah says:

6:2 That the sons of God saw the daughters of men that they were fair; and they took them wives of all which they chose.
6:3 And the LORD said, My spirit shall not always strive with man, for that he also is flesh: yet his days shall be an hundred and twenty years.
6:4 There were giants in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare children to them, the same became mighty men which were of old, men of renown.
The Torah seems to speak negatively of these "sons of God". I quickly realized that although I learn this Parsha every year since I'm a small kid, I never really stopped to think about this.

I suppose my teachers in school intentionally didn't spend much time exploring who these people were. I was told by a very knowledgeable educator that specifically today, in times where Lord of the Rings and other fantasy stories are so popular, there is a point not to explore the theme of giants and unusual creatures mentioned in the Torah. Many educators are afraid kids will start looking at Torah as just another fantasy book, cv"s. 

But even worst than confusing the Torah with fantasy books, kids can find many cartoons and movies inspired in Biblical stories that are visually stunning and often have their own takes on some creatures of the Torah. Most notably, as I a started writing Parshat Noach a few weeks ago, Hollywood released "Noah", a blockbuster movie loosely inspired in the story of Noach. 

Hollywood's Bnei Elohim
These movies can be actually even more dangerous for our kids since they always take artistic license and make up a whole bunch of things. Specifically in "Noah", the film, the Bnei Elohim are depicted as stone monsters made of light, with seven hands (see picture). If we don't teach the "giants" theme for our kids in school, I would say that they should equally not be exposed to cartoons and movies based on Torah stories. 

But not everyone agrees with this mindset. Recently, a Rabbi launched a successful Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for a fantasy book for kids based on the Torah, with the argument that Jewish-fantasy books can be a good alternative to kids who like to read Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings. I disagree. 

So I decided to look for somebody that would shed light in the concept of giants like Bnei Elohim and Og but I found very little resources. The best one I've come across is Sacred Monsters, by Rabbi Natan Slifkin aka Zoo Rabbi. 

For the unninitiated, Rabbi Slifkin was in the epicenter of a huge theological feud a few years ago. He wrote about Creation and how to reconcile the Torah's account with science, based of classical Jewish commentators. Although he got an endorsement from the very respected Rosh Yeshiva of Philadelphia, his book became subject to virulent attacks from a segment of the Haredi world that rejects scientific reconciliation with Torah. I was learning in Ner Yisrael at the time and my Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Aharon Feldman, was a very important figure in this debate. Click here for Rabbi Slifkin's own link list of this controversy.

Be it as it may, Sacred Monsters is a very open and honest discussion about how we should look at the many unusual and strange creatures mentioned in the Torah. Rabbi Slifkin uses a scientific approach and is not afraid of asking questions nor shy to offer unusual answers. 

Og as a real super giant
Rabbi Slifkin discusses how big were the giants mentioned in the Torah. According to some, they were literarily hundeds of meters tall. But he also mentions the Rambam, who says that Og was probably not taller than 5 meters since it's organically impossible to be taller than that. 

Rabbi Slifkin brings many examples of modern day "giants" that measure over 3 meters and notes that the Rambam's estimation would indeed make sense from a scientific point of view. 

Although the book does mention other giants and also the very tall Moshe Rabbeinu, I was disappointed not to see a specific discussion of the Bnei Elohim. After all, they were the first giants mentioned in the Torah and the forebearers of Og. 

After reading almost the entire book, I leave with a feeling that we know very little about most of the unusual creatures of the Torah. There are opinions  that offer some plausible possibilities and Rabbi Slifkin often broadens the discussion bringing in achademics and zoologists, but from the classical Jewish commentators there are many gaps and speculation. 

I do think the book is an excellent resource and introduction guide for those who want to know the a little of everything. It did kind of leave me with even more questions than before but that's not necessarily a bad thing!


Victor A Britto said...

The B'nei Elohim could be simply the "Sons of Judges", given that elohim also means Judge. Also, I think that much of the confusion regarding the word for giants, nephilim, simply means "violent" or "causing to fall" from what I saw and in that case can simply be understood at face value as a group of mighty and horrible men. They would be mighty because they were part of an aristocracy (bnei elohim) and they would be horrible because they would be thieves and rapists (hamas). Regarding other references to them as giants by commentators, it could very well be a confusion with more ancient traditions calling them "giants", which in the mesopotamian world was actually a word for "King". Lugal, the sumarian word for King, merely means "Big Man", lu being man and gal being big or great. Just a possibility for reflection.

YK said...

Interesting. The most difficult part of explaining the Bible is asserting what is allegorical and what is literal, and that is the root of the question. It's tricky to decide it based on what makes sense or not today, as this is ancient history and the world has clearly changed to a certain extent - evolution. But your point is taken

thanks for your input