About a month ago, three of the Ten Republican candidates for presidency raised their hand in reply to the oddly phrased question – Is there anyone on the stage who does not believe in evolution?” And while the Democratic candidates, in the recent debate, focused more on Iraq and immigration – evolution vs. intelligent design is definitely on stage in the current national political arena, more than ever before. Towards the 2008 elections, the Bible is becoming much more than just a book held by those who are sworn into office. What, one wonders, do either camps do with a puzzling verse from this week’s Torah Episode that flaunts reason and describes mythic creators that are described as ‘giants’? Yet again, one word, lost in translation, opens up a portal to a complex narrative and challenging contemporary implications.
The context: Ready to explore the Promised Land prior to conquest, the People Israel send over a delegation of spies, who, upon return, bring back a mixed review. 10 of the 12 give it a ‘thumbs down’: the land is good, but the indigenous people are bad news. There are, in fact, giants, waiting in Canaan. Or so, at least claim most English translations, while others refrain from translating the original and Hebrew word and retain the original – Nephilim. A closer look at this unique word unfolds a bizarre and obscure legend, where Sinai becomes the roaming ground of creatures as literally ‘fabled’ as Shrek. Well, maybe we don’t get ogres in the Torah, but an extinct species that has been identified and interpreted as either fallen angels, supermen, or aliens – shows up in what biblical scholar E. Cassuto described as ‘one of the most puzzling passages in the bible.’
The book of Wilderness, chapter 13, verse 23 describes the report of the returning spies – this is the King James Bible version:
‘And there we saw the giants, the sons of Anak, which come of the giants: and we were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so we were in their sight.’
The Pseudo Jonathan Aramaic translation goes a step further, attributing behavioral ways and racial origins: ‘…and all the people who are in it are giants, masters of evil ways, of the race of the giants;
But most other translations prefer to avoid explaining the mostly unexplainable and keep the Hebrew word – ‘Nephhilim’. Only appearing twice in the Bible, this word stems from the primitive root NFL -‘to fall down’ – in a great variety of applications such as – ‘fallen’, ‘dropped’ or even ‘inferior’, or ‘aborted’.
Where have these giants fallen from? And/or is this a way of saying they are now extinct? Genesis 6:2 gives a clue – describing another mythic mystery – the union of the ‘sons of God with the daughters of men’ a union leading to a new race of hybrids – the original Nephillim. The Aramaic translation over there suggests this radical version: ‘the sons of God are the angels known as Shmachzai and Azaael, who have fallen from heaven, and descended in those days upon the earth.’ Fallen angles? They do not show up explicitly in the Torah, but do show up in the Judaic oral tradition and by the time Christian theology comes around the myth of ‘renegade angels’ that defy God and fall down to earth becomes a very popular story. In fact, it becomes more than just a story – it becomes a way to explain evil on earth – some of us are children of Eve and Adam, but some – according to this narrative – are the children of a different and dark union, the descendents of the Nephillim.
Back to our story: Giants or angels, and according to some conspiracy theorists – aliens – are what the spies see when the view their new reality in Canaan. Either way, they are terrified – and see themselves as insignificant insects in the sight of their potential enemies. Were there real giants there? Sons of evil angels? Or is this an exaggerated report from a group of leaders who are afraid of the future and prefer to cling to the past?
Perhaps this story reflects the way we view ‘other’ and chart our future journeys into unknown territories. When are opponents projected upon to become giant threats when perhaps all they present is simply a new reality?
This reminds us of the quote attributed to Bernard of Charters, a 12th century monk – ‘We are like dwarfs standing upon the shoulders of giants, and so able to see more and see farther than the ancients.”
As each of us journeys towards our version of a Promised Land – who or what are the giants that await? Or are we sitting on their shoulders??