Enosh, Calling God’s Name, and the Origins of Idolatry

I was studying the book of Genesis and came across the statement that in the time of Enosh, Adam’s grandson, mankind began calling in the name of God (4:26). Can you explain to me what that’s all about and if it has anything to do with Enosh.

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

You are right that it is a bit of a cryptic expression. The commentators offer two basic explanations, ones which are quite at odds with each other.

The first step towards understanding that phrase is in looking at the original Hebrew. The word for “began”, in “mankind began calling…,” is “huchal”. That word has two very different possible meanings – to begin (related to “l’hatchil”), or to become profane (as “chol”, “chulin”). Based on these interpretations, two very different explanations are offered, as follows.

(1) The phrase means that in Enosh’s time it became “profane” to call in the name of God. The reason it became profane is because people began applying the name “god” to non-sacred objects, such as heavenly bodies and human beings. Thus, calling in the name of god in those times had become a profane activity, one of worshipping idols (Rashi based on Bereishit Rabbah 23:10, Targum Yerushalmi).

Maimonides (Hilchot Avodah Zarah1:1) explains how the world sunk to idolatry so quickly, a mere two generations after Adam and Eve. People at first felt that honoring God’s heavenly bodies, which assist God in governing the world, would serve as a means of honoring God Himself – just as people give homage to a king’s ministers. Enosh himself fell for this logic. They began praising the heavenly bodies, bowing to them, and bringing them offerings, all in the name of honoring the God they serve. (Some alternatively explain that since God entrusted the running of the world to other forces, such as the heavenly bodies, mankind began praying directly to them to grant them bounty (Radak, see also Malbim).)

All of this was wrong, however, as honor may only be accorded to God Himself. All else is idolatry. And after time, mankind began serving such heavenly bodies as gods themselves, forgetting altogether the true God behind them.

(2) Based on the other explanation of “huchal” – began, the meaning is that in Enosh’s time mankind began calling out to and praying to the true God (Targum Onkelos, Ibn Ezra, Rashbam). Some of the commentators explain that the implication is likewise that the masses had begun sliding towards idolatry in Enosh’s days; thus, the righteous began calling God’s name and publicizing it to counter the trend (Sforno, Ha’emek Davar).

(3-4) In truth, the Torah’s phrase is so vague that variations of the above two explanations also appear in the commentators. The meaning of huchal can possible be “began” but in a negative sense – that man began calling non-sacred objects god (Targum Yonatan, Radak, possible explanation of Rashi and Midrash). Or huchal could mean profane in the sense that mankind began to look at true God-worship as a profane and pointless activity, instead turning to idols (variation of Onkelos).

Regardless, our tradition is that Enosh’s generation served as a tragic turning point in mankind’s history – in man’s spiritual decline towards idolatry. This tragically occurred quite early – in Adam’s very lifetime. The Sages likewise teach us that God punished that generation with a massive flood which destroyed 1/3rd of the world (Midrash Tanchuma Noach 18) – which unfortunately was a mere prelude and precursor to the much more terrible destruction man would bring upon himself with the Flood.

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