BEFORE THE GENESIS FLOOD:
ENOCH'S MONSTROUS EXEGESIS (PART I)
~ Matthew Goff ~
The post-biblical literature associated with Enoch makes the Genesis Flood story much, much more monstrous. Enoch’s wicked angels (also known as Watchers) and gruesome giants move far beyond anything Genesis describes. They are more fantastic, gratuitous, and multi-dimensional than what one sees in the Genesis story. Nevertheless, Enoch's narrative of the flood does fill in gaps and answer questions that Genesis 6:1-4 itself does not adequately address. The Watchers and giants are part of Enoch’s monstrous exegesis of the Genesis Flood.
The Book of the Watchers (1 Enoch 1-36) is a Jewish text generally dated to the third century BCE. This composition offers a terrifying account of life before the flood—with evil, anthropophagous giants wreaking havoc upon the earth. Their heinous crimes, according to the Book of the Watchers, are what trigger Noah’s flood.
The account of the flood in 1 Enoch may seem surprising—the story of Noah’s flood in the book of Genesis has nothing to say about cannibalistic giants rampaging the earth (I wish it did). So here, I would like to reflect on a simple question—why would an ancient Jewish author produce such a monstrous account of the flood? I would like to show that there is very much an exegetical dimension to the account of the flood in the Book of the Watchers. While it is not uncommon in biblical studies to claim that this Enochic text contains a retelling of the flood story, a key implication of this perspective is often not stressed—that an author reformulated the flood story in a way that made it much, much more monstrous. In part II, I will reflect more squarely on the cannibalistic giants of Enochic literature with the help of the burgeoning field of monster studies.
The Primordial Crisis
To assess the monstrous exegesis in the Book of the Watchers, it is important to compare this text to Genesis 6. This text reads:
When people began to multiply on the surface of the earth, and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that they were fair; and they took wives for themselves of all that they chose. Then the Lord said, “My spirit shall not abide in mortals forever, for they are flesh; their days shall be one hundred twenty years.” The nephilim were on the earth in those days—and also afterward—when the sons of God went in to the daughters of humans, who bore children to them. They are the mighty men (gibborim) who are of old, the men of renown.
This passage has long struck scholars as somehow incomplete. Hermann Gunkel called these verses in 1901 a “Torso” compiled by a redactor who disliked the story. While scholars understand the passage in myriad ways, they all generally agree that it is strange. The first story in the Bible about angels, it is also the oddest, depicting them as descending to earth to have sex.
The term that denotes the children of this sexual union is gibborim, which literally means “the mighty ones.” The term nephilim in this passage may also signify these children, but in the Hebrew the relationship between the offspring and the nephilim is ambiguous. Genesis 6:4 provides two tantalizing details about these gibborim—they are “of old” and “men of renown” (literally “men of the name”). Both expressions are reasonably understood as positive descriptions—the “mighty ones” lived a long time ago and they had a great reputation. The reason for their legendary fame is not stated but the term gibor in the Hebrew Bible often denotes exceptionally powerful soldiers (e.g., 2 Sam 23:16). The sons of the angels in Genesis 6 can be compared to mythic warriors in a Greek context such as Achilles or from a Mesopotamian context Gilgamesh, both of whom were powerful warriors whose prowess was explained by the fact that they had one divine parent and one human one, just like the gibborim of Genesis 6.
When one turns from the brief but positive account of the warriors in Gen 6:4 to the next verse one encounters a basic problem—wickedness, it states, spread throughout the earth. There is a basic exegetical problem—what is the relationship between these legendary warriors and the rise of evil?
The Book of the Watchers can be understood as clarifying and filling out key details from the flood story that are never explained in Genesis. Genesis, for example, never specifies how many angels descended, what their names are, or where exactly they arrived when they descended to earth. The Book of the Watchers fills in all of these narrative gaps—it states that there were 200 angels, gives the names of their twenty chiefs, and asserts that they arrived to earth from heaven upon Mount Hermon, a fitting site since it is the tallest mountain in Palestine (2,814 meters above sea level) and thus the closest to heaven.
The central preoccupation in the Book of the Watchers is not the flood itself but rather the spread of evil on the earth that necessitated the flood. 1 Enoch 10:2 states the God has sent an archangel to warn Noah about the flood, but Watchers does not engage many other aspects of the flood itself. For example, the construction or measurements of the ark, the number or kind of animals that got on board, the chronology of the flood, all major tropes in the biblical flood account, never come up at all in Watchers.
In terms of what sort of evil led to the flood, Watchers contains much more detail than Genesis. In 1 Enoch 8, widely and reasonably considered a secondary passage in Watchers, the angels teach their wives divine and illicit knowledge on various subjects. They learn how to procure metals of the earth and how to make swords, and knowledge about types of cosmetic ornamentation, including antimony, a metallic compound, and gems from the earth (8:1). This is a decidedly gendered rendition of the evil that led to the flood. The antediluvian crisis has a ‘male’ dimension, in that the knowledge of more destructive weapons led to more violence, and a ‘female’ dimension, in that advancements in cosmetics, according to the logic of the text, increased sexual temptation.
The children of the angels are very, very different in Watchers when compared to Genesis. The Book of the Watchers retains the idea that they are warriors of a long ago age but gives them an incredibly negative valence. They are uncontrollably violent. They do not simply kill people but eat them as well. This disturbing portrait of the children of the angels makes it very clear how they relate to the evil that led to the flood—they caused it. Earlier I argued that it is not evident in Genesis itself how one should understand the gibborim of Gen 6:4 in relation to the rise of evil of Gen 6:5 that led to the flood. This is not the case in Watchers. The transformation of the gibborim into cannibalistic giants, one can say, solves an exegetical problem.
The exegetical dimension to the portrayal in Watchers of the giants is also evident in the emphasis that the giants consumed blood. Given that they were eating people, one can readily assume that they consumed their blood (they didn’t keep kosher). One wonders why the text brings up this point at all. Blood according to the laws in Leviticus is holy and the property of God. The soul (nephesh) is said to reside in the blood and thus the blood is the seat of life (Lev 17:11) (a rational development since one could observe that if a person loses blood he dies). This explains why blood is treated with such reverence in the sacrificial cult of ancient Israel. Understood against this background, the consumption of blood not only violates a dietary taboo but can also be seen as an affront against God.
Stressing that the giants are consumers of blood also helps make intelligible the account in Genesis 9 of God’s covenant with Noah and his sons after the flood. There God affirms that he will never bring another flood and that humanity will have dominion over the earth, but that they need to keep two conditions. People, God asserts, should not consume blood or commit murder (9:4-6). This reference to blood comes in the context of God allowing people to eat meat, as an expression of humankind’s dominion over other types of animals on the earth (v. 3). But the prohibition against eating blood in Genesis 9, the association the chapter makes between eating blood and murder, as well as the whole issue of bringing up the consumption of meat in the first place, all take on additional significance if one imagines the antediluvian crisis in the manner described in the Book of the Watchers. God’s covenant in Genesis 9 acknowledges, and even regulates, a desire to eat meat. One may do so, but only in prescribed contexts—one may kill animals, not other humans, and when consuming flesh one must never, ever consume blood. Also, since Gen 9:4 is when God states for the first time that people may eat meat, one can plausibly imagine humans before the flood as vegetarians, a context which would make the giants’ act of cannibalism even more disturbing.
An author reformulated the flood story in a way that made it much, much more monstrous
Why would an ancient Jewish author produce such a monstrous account of the flood?
There is another form of exegesis regarding the sons of the angels in the Septuagint, the ancient translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek. The Septuagint translates gibborim with the term gigantes. This helps explain how the sons of the angels came to be known in English as “giants.” The Septuagint also uses gigantes for nephilim, implying the exegetical perspective that gibborim and nephilim both denote the same creatures. The translators’ use of the word gigantes also indicates that they, in an effort to convey the sense of the passage in Greek, turned to Greek myth. While the term gigas in the Hellenistic period became synonymous with “titan,” it refers to a specific set of offspring of Uranus and Gaia who challenged the dominion of the Olympian gods and were defeated in the gigantomachy (Apollodorus 1.6.1; Hesiod, Theog. 176-85). The translation of the Septuagint, at least in terms of the Pentateuch, is commonly dated to the third century BCE. This date roughly is contemporary with the composition of the Book of the Watchers. The decision to translate the sons of the angels in Greek with gigantes allows some room for speculation that the translator was familiar with the Enochic interpretation of the gibborim as dangerous warriors who disobey God and are defeated. As mentioned above, on the basis of Gen 6:1-4 itself one could reasonably understand the gibborim in a positive sense, as legendary warriors. Positing that the Greek translator was familiar with some Enochic interpretative traditions regarding these verses would explain his rendering of these warriors as gigantes, who in a Greek context are not positive at all, but rather are violent creatures who long, long ago rebelled against the gods, and were defeated.
It is a helpful exercise to interpret the Enochic Book of the Watchers as an exegetical text. While one should not impose our modern notion of canon onto the late Second Temple period, it is clear that a prominent aspect of the Judaism of that time was an abiding interest in a set of scriptures that was understood to have an authoritative status. This is evident in a broad range of Jewish writings from the period, such as the Book of Jubilees, the Animal Apocalypse, the Temple Scroll and the Genesis Apocryphon, all of which in various ways engage and interpret scriptural writings. Eibert Tigchelaar has argued that the Judaism of this period is characterized by a broad and comprehensive “scripturalization” through a process of “extending, expanding, and expounding” scriptural texts. Set against this context, the Book of the Watchers is reasonably understood as providing an account of the primordial crisis that led to the flood which at least in part constitutes an effort to fill out and expand upon a scriptural account of this era. Moreover, it appears that the version of Genesis they interpreted differs, at times radically, from our biblical book of Genesis. In this process the warriors of renown in Genesis 6 become cannibalistic giants of the Book of the Watchers. This Enochic text one can say, offers an ancient Jewish example of monstrous exegesis.
This paper was presented at conference on sacred animals and monsters that took place on January 23-24 2014. It was organized by the School of Classics at the University of St. Andrews (Scotland). A revised version of this essay will appear in the conference proceedings, which will be edited by the conference organizers, Drs. Samantha Newington and Sian Lewis. The topics addressed in this essay are treated more extensively in Matthew J. Goff, When Giants Walked the Earth: The Sons of the Watchers in Enochic Literature and Ancient Judaism (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, forthcoming) (in the Journal of Ancient Judaism supplement series). I also thank Austin Ard for her feedback on this paper.
2nd century BCE
The central preoccupation in the Book of the Watchers is not the flood itself but rather the spread of evil on the earth that necessitated the flood