Weird Passages in the Bible: Divinities, Procreation, and the Old Testament Annunciation Hypothesis
To many people who have never read the Bible there is a reluctance to look at even one page. Based on their experience with organized religion, they fear it is going to be really boring. They suspect there will be long lists of commandments telling them what you are supposed to do and what you should not do, and stories about holy people who are always doing good or stories about bad people doing bad and who are then getting punished by some sanctimonious leader.
Well, actually there is a lot of that. But there is also a lot more and some of it is downright weird and much more exciting. In the starting chapters of Genesis and in Joshua and in Judges and in many other parts of the Bible, there is material that is personal, about real people with flaws and desires. There are stories that have the character of legend and myth. There are passages about practices and beliefs seemingly at odds with the overt messages and usual norms of Judaism. These stories often have a soap opera quality and a drama series plotline where each week there is a new and more shocking “reveal”.
Commentators have struggled with many of these passages, often trying to cover up the plain words with a façade of moralization and misdirection. Other passages appear innocent but don’t quite make sense. Much of the time the narrative seems driven by an inner logic that we are just not privy to. Other times, it appears the writers couldn’t agree and the text ended up with different renditions of the same events. Interspersed within one story there are sometimes found erratic boulders of another formation. There are also jarring discontinuities, as if the writers assigned a junior editor to the task of proofreading. Yet even what seem like errors are replete with meaning.
This essay will be a short trip into the world of Biblical exegesis told by a travel guide who lacks any official certification, but who has nonetheless put together a tour of interesting sights and who will on occasion pull out and consult more authoritative guides. The focus of this tour is on Biblical passages about the procreative acts of divine beings in consort with humans. Yes, this is about gods and sex.
Sh’ma and Messiah:
But wait you say. This is the Bible. There is one and only one Deity and that Deity creates but does not procreate.
Look at the Sh’ma, the pivotal statement of Jewish faith:
Hear O Israel, the Lord Our G-d, the Lord is One.
It clearly expresses the idea that G-d is One. This is the central concept of the whole religion. With respect to a Messiah, Classic Judaism holds that there eventually will be a Messiah, a savior. However, of critical importance is the point that the Messiah will not be the son of G-d, but will be a descendant of King David. Indeed, even mentioning the idea of divine procreation to produce a human being, could well be considered blasphemy.
The two concepts: first, the unity of the divine and second, the idea that G-d creates but does not propagate human beings, can be claimed as somewhat unique to ancient Judaism. Ancients in many other lands had no trouble ascribing to polytheism, a belief in many gods, and believing humans, usually superhuman heroes, were literal descendants of immortal beings. For example Zeus, the head of the Greek pantheon of gods, was notably prolific and the Japanese Emperor once claimed descent from the gods.
There is a clear contrast with Christianity. The idea of divine procreation of the Messiah is the foundation of the story of Christianity. Christians believe the Messiah was Jesus and the Jesus was the Son of G-d. However, this Father-Son procreative relationship is not a direct physical one: only a spiritual or metaphysical one. Some Christians believe in a Trinity of Father-Son-Holy Spirit. I apologize to all Christians if I have explained this incorrectly. In any event this touches on the central differences between Christianity and Judaism: Christians believe the Messiah has already came and was the Son of G-d, while Jews believe the Messiah will come in the future and definitely will not be sired by the Deity.
Deities Consorting: Having established the Jews believe in one G-d and definitely do not believe in procreation by immortals, how shocking it is then that the Jewish Bible in Genesis 6:2 tells us:
“ gods (Bnai ha’elohim) came to earth and looked at the human women (B’anot Adam) and saw they were beautiful and they took themselves wives of their own choosing.”
What??? The Hebrew Bible tells us there are multiple divinities and that they most assuredly do procreate with humans. There is nothing metaphysical or spiritual about it. As explained in Genesis 6:4
It was then, and later too, that the Nephilim appeared on earth — when the divine beings cohabited with the daughters of men, who bore them offspring. They were the heroes of old, the men of renown.
There it is in the Jewish Bible, very clearly: the motif of deities siring heroes or super beings. (The discussion here is based partly on the book, “And They Took Themselves Wives” by David Bakan)
Of some significance, the act of looking at the women is called Va’Yer’u . This Hebrew word is comprised of the letters, Vav- Yud-Raish-Aleph. This combination often signals some sort of awareness that occurs during interactions between diving beings and human ones. It occurs in many passages in the Bible, and not just those with an overt sexual connection.
This shocking violation of core principles inherent in the sexual interaction of gods and women does not go unpunished. This consorting was followed directly by an age of evil that led G-d to destroy the world in the Flood, leaving only Noah and his family to survive and repopulate the Earth.
The Old Testament Annunciation Hypothesis: There are many stories in the Hebrew Bible about G-d, angels, or Prophets announcing a birth well in advance. These annunciations are forecasts, often ornately laden with seemingly inconsequential details that appear to carry greater import. These are passages we read and often cannot quite grasp the point. Sometimes there are contradictions or miraculous elements in the story. Not to build it up too much, the secret is that the annunciations are all masked retellings of divine procreation with human women.
Why Was Sarah Laughing and What is Laughing Anyway: The central aspect of the Abraham narrative in Genesis is that G-d promises Abraham that through Sarah he will have numerous descendants. After the promise is made, G-d then changes their names from Abram to Abraham and from Sarai to Sarah. Abraham expressed skepticism about the promise of numerous descendants, arguing that he and Sarah are too old. Then in Genesis 18:1 at the start of the Torah portion V’ayerah ( Vav- Yuhd, Raish Aleph) , it says he Lord appeared to him, where “him” is presumably Abraham. He was sitting at the entrance of the tent as the day grew hot. We are not told whose tent it is.
A small sidebar is needed to note the recurrence of the Hebrew word with the letters Vav-Yud-Raish-Aleph. This is the word V’ayera that gives the portion its name. The portion starts “ V’ayayra aylav Adonai” : the Lord appeared to him. We already know the letters signal interaction between heavenly and mortal beings.
The very next verse Abraham looks up and suddenly sees that three men are standing near him. If you examine the Hebrew you will find there are two more Vav-Yud-Raish-Aleph words in that sentence. Back to the story: Abraham asks if he could bring water to bathe their feet and asks to bring bread for them to refresh themselves. They say very carefully “do what you have said” to Abraham. Abraham runs into the tent to Sarah and asks her to knead flour and make cakes. She is left to bake the bread and Abraham then runs off to the herd and selects a calf and gives it to a servant to prepare meat for the visitors. Abraham then takes curds and milk and the calf dish and sets it before them and it says he waited on them while they ate. This seems innocent enough but upon further examination it becomes terribly problematic.
First this meal is decidedly not Kosher: Abraham is mixing meat of a calf with milk possibly from its mother. But this is before the rules of Kashrut were given; so maybe it’s ok. However, what is very strange is that the cakes that Sarah made and that Abraham originally offered are not served. It is a curious omission given that the three men had very explicitly told Abraham to do as he had said.
Commentators have trouble with this. Rashi offers an excuse that Sarah has her monthly period and that would make the bread impure under the rules of Kashrut and so it cannot be served. This is a very odd excuse because it contradicts the fact that Abraham is serving an unKosher meal and more critically it contradicts what was just said: that Sarah is too old to have children.
It gets worse. There is a question of just who is being served. The whole episode started with Abraham seeing the Lord, but now it is not clear if the Lord is still there. Why is Abraham serving men and waiting on them if the Lord is still there? Surely he should offer sacrifices or prayers to Adonai, but Abraham seems to ignore the presence of the Almighty. Or is Abraham serving a meal to G-d along with serving it to the men-angels.
The statement that Abraham served them and they ate is very troublesome. Rashi denies the men ate — he says they only appeared to be eating to comport with local customs. Why is there so much fuss about the men eating and so what if there was a change in menu? Well it is a real problem because as we will soon learn in Genesis 19:1 the men are not just men, but rather at least two of them are angels on a mission to Sodom. It is a definite fact that such immortal beings don’t eat food.
Now let me note something that seems quite off topic but really isn’t. It’s that the Torah as written has a very small number of words that are written with dots over some or all of the letters. Those dots are often taken to mean that the passage may be in error or may have been redacted or that one should read only the dotted letters. We have one of those dotted words in V’ayera in Genesis 18:9 where the word Ey’lav is dotted. The ostensible meaning of the word without the dots is “where is” and is the opening of the question “Where is your wife Sarah”. The Hebrew meaning of the dotted letters is “where is he?” Perhaps they are asking Sarah where is Abraham, but the larger point is that the scribes are telling subsequent readers that more is happening here than meets the eye.
The next part of the story is the Annunciation: one of the men-angels says Sarah will have a son.
Sarah hears this and laughs. In verse 11, it is again stated that Abraham and Sarah are too old to have children. This apparently is providing an explanation in advance for Sarah questioning whether she really will have a child. God then questions Abraham and asks why Sarah laughed. Sarah answers in verse 15. The verse says she lied saying I did not laugh. But he replied saying “you did laugh.” What are we to make of all this? Isn’t Sarah’s plight understandable? She told a little white lie because she was afraid or embarrassed. Why make this such a big deal?
To answer these questions and make sense of the underlying dynamics of the story, it is necessary to look a little deeper at what this laughing is about. The Hebrew root letters are “tzadik — het- kuf” which are also the root letters of Isaac, the name of her son to be born.
It next occurs as a verb in the accusation of Potiphar’s wife against Joseph in Genesis 39:14 that Potiphar had brought a Hebrew man (Eysh Evrey) to “L’tzach’ak “ — again “tzadik-het-kuf”. This is translated as “dally with”, politely indicating a lewd sexual act. If we take this meaning of “tzadik-het-kuf” back to the Sarah story, we see that she is denying sexual activity and not merely innocent laughter. By calling her presumptive non-human consorts men and stating that they ate food, the passage suggests that these angels are quite capable of physical human activities. Rashi puts a symbolic fence around such a suggestive interpretation by flatly denying that they ate.
You can call the Annunciation Hypothesis speculative, but it provides an explanation for the bizarre elements of the passage. If you accept the Documentary Hypothesis that the Torah and not just the Bible was compiled from earlier sources and extensively rewritten, you can postulate which passages were added or altered to hide the theme of divine procreation.
In Part II, other annunciations stories in the Bible will be reviewed. There is a tension in all these stories: before the text is completely canonized, one can hypothesize presumptive editors in Biblical times altering the text to try to repress and hide suggestions of divine descent. However, they are reluctant to alter the old sacred texts too much. More importantly, they cannot completely remove stories that are presumably very popular sagas with a firm place in the oral tradition of the times. Part of the popularity of such stories may stem from their portrayal of national heroes as super-humans who descended from divine beings.
To summarize, the Bible is much more interesting than it might seem and more exciting than it is commonly understood to be. Themes of polytheism, sex, and divine procreation are hidden just beneath the surface and every so often are explicitly revealed. The bizarre nature of several Biblical passages can be explained as the result of presumptive editors trying to reconcile the divine origin stories of popular national heroes with the official theology of the religion. Of course there are other explanations for these passages. Hopefully this discussion has shown that the Old Testament Annunciation Hypothesis is at least worth considering.