Here Be Giants! How the Bible Preserves Prehistorical Memory

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, June 8, 2018 / 25 Sivan 5778

Last three weeks of Mishnah Berurah class!

Summary: Rabbi Kosak and Mel Berwin have been meeting with our community’s scientists and medical professionals. They are developing a course for both our twelfth graders and our adult learners to explore the intersection of science and spirituality.

As Conservative Jews, we have an obligation to shine our science on our religion, and our religion on our science. By showing respect to each discipline, we deepen our understanding and develop a genuine faith that is unafraid of truth. This week’s Oasis Songs applies newer scientific discoveries to glean some insights from this week’s Torah parashah. 

Here Be Giants! How the Bible Preserves Prehistorical Memory

It’s on exactly one antique globe from the year 1510. Hic sunt dracones. Here there are dragons! Anyone who’s ever been fascinated by antiquarian paper maps may have also run across many sorts of magical beasts that adorned unexplored regions of the world. That uncertainty plays on our imagination and fears. We are both captivated and horrified at the prospect that we share this world with fearsome beasts larger and more powerful than ourselves.

Our strange and ambivalent attraction earned Steven Spielberg a fortune in 1975 when Jaws was released. Director Jon Turteltaub is undoubtedly hoping for a similar outcome when his film, The Meg, is released this summer, in which a prehistoric megalodon is discovered to still exist. Meanwhile, the continuing Jurassic movie franchise about dinosaurs also points to our endless fascination with large and terrifying things.

These are hardly the concerns of modern people alone. In this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Shelach L’kha, twelve tribal heads are dispatched by Moses to scout out the land of Canaan. When they return, ten of those leaders described the beauty and bounty of the land, but also warned the people that they would not be able to settle the land because of the presence of giants–or at least of humans substantially larger than themselves.

“We cannot attack that people, for it is stronger than we…All the people that we saw in it are men of great size. And there we saw the Fallen Ones (Nefilim)–the Giant Sons of the Fallen Ones–and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we seemed in their eyes.”

(Numbers 13:31-33)

Our classical commentators take their response as a lack of faith. After all, it was God who had assigned them this mission after their long years of slavery. It was time to return to the land where Abraham, Isaac and Jacob had settled, and where Abraham had first purchased land more than four hundred years earlier. The moment to continue our ancient destiny was upon us. A failure of faith in God is being portrayed according to this approach.

Interpreters with a more psychological bent, such as the Kotzker Rebbe, reflect back that if we allow ourselves to get caught up in how others might perceive us, or how we imagine they see us, we will veer off-course. In businesses, relationships and countless other settings, people are beset by imagined terrors that keep us from moving our mission forward. In an age of anxiety, this seems particularly germane.

These are both potent insights. Yet what if our terrors are real? What if our ancestors truly had stumbled upon giants–or at least the offspring of giants? In Genesis 6:4, the Torah explicitly tells us that these Nefilim were the off-spring of human women and divine beings.

To understand how this could be so, we need to turn to the recent best-seller, “Sapiens,” by historian Yuval Noah Harari. He recaps the evidence that there were six different species of human beings. For a long time, scientists put forward the replacement theory. This posits that the other five species of humans became extinct, and only homo sapiens remained. The advantage of this hypothesis is that it assumes all humans are related, and that we can therefore lay aside some of the racist theories that were prevalent in the past.

Unfortunately, reality isn’t particularly concerned with our values or our fears. By the year 2010, a comprehensive study of the Neanderthal genome was completed. Among the surprises this revealed is that people from Europe and the Middle East share anywhere from 1-4% of Neanderthal DNA, while Aboriginal Australians possess 6% DNA from another human species, the Denisovans.

Here’s where it gets interesting. This indicates that at least some homo sapiens had offspring with Neanderthal humans. We interbred. And the Neanderthal species was larger, stronger and possessed larger brains than homo sapiens. They also lived in the Middle East. They were indeed giants. Is the Torah preserving a pre-historical memory of our origins for us? A reminder that we were not the only ones here?

This is compelling, fascinating really. First, ancient humans were an oral culture, and they preserved and passed down faint memories and attenuated stories that even recently many educated people considered to be fairy tales. Yet here it is: our cutting edge science reclaims the possibility of these previously abandoned distant whispers.

Second, in this somewhat quiet manner, the Torah also highlights how frightened groups become by those who are different. Scholars of these early humans now know that yes, there was some level of interbreeding. But primarily, the evidence as it currently stands seems to suggest that our species, homo sapiens, most likely wiped out these other types of humans.

The biology of homo sapiens does not seemed wired for tolerance. As with Jaws and the Meg, our too natural human response is to kill any perceived threat: any one that is different, anything that challenges our conception of our place in the world.

We don’t need to look far to see how this tendency plays itself out. War, terror, racism, genocide, school shootings…

Some might look at today’s scene and the prehistoric evidence and give up hope. That would be the wrong lesson. What we should glean instead is how important it is to develop brakes on our base impulses. We need structures that limit us. Some of those are internal, such as our psychological and moral development. Others are interpersonal–enhancing our capacity for dialogue and communication aid in this. Finally, still more solutions are cultural and sociological, and embodied within our institutions and laws.

Left without these three types of behavioral controls (psychological, interpersonal and sociological), the fate of humanity is indeed bleak. Yet the real history of our species is that we have been on a path of continual improvement. We all ought to do what we can to manage our fears and intolerance by working within and without. Those are the sorts of tikkunim, of repairs that our God and religion expect of us.

Shabbat shalom,

Rav D

Shabbat Table Talk

  1. Has your faith ever been challenged by a scientific discovery? What came out of that encounter?
  2. In what ways has science deepened your religious appreciation?

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