Was Genesis even authoritative for the Book of Watchers? In what sense? John J. Collins

John J. Collins indicates the size of a cubit – the conventional unit of measurement for Giants

John J. Collins writes:

It should be clear that the Torah is one of several sources on which the author [of the Book of the Watchers] drew, although in this case it provides the main frame for the story. The story itself is a moral tale, illustrating the pitfalls of fornication and of illicit knowledge. The understanding of the sin of the watchers as improper revelation provides an obvious counterpart to the proper revelation of Enoch in the rest of the book. The contrast between the watchers and Enoch is spelled  out a little later, when Enoch has his audience with God in 1 En. 15. The watchers are reproached for having left the high and holy heaven and lain with human women. The mystery they revealed was worthless. In contrast, Enoch is a human being who ascends to heaven and lives like the holy ones.

Of course, the career of Enoch, which takes up the greater part of the Book of the Watchers, is itself only loosely based on Genesis. Enoch was famously said to have ‘walked with God’ (Gen 5.22). While the biblical phrase may have meant only that Enoch lived a righteous life, it inspired the story that he had ascended to heaven, even before ‘God took him’ (Gen 5.24). It is widely agreed that he was modeled to some degree on Enmeduranki, king of Sippar, who is said to have been taken up to heaven and shown the techniques of divination and the tablet of the gods. The Book of the Watchers spins a story that he was given a tour of the ends of the earth, guided by an angel. In all of this, motifs that echo the Hebrew Scriptures are freely mixed with Hellenistic and Babylonian traditions.

It is difficult to say whether or in what sense the author of the Book of the Watchers regarded Genesis as authoritative. He mainly treated it as fodder for imagination. This is the way ‘canonical’ texts work in literature: they nourish the imagination of later writers, and constrain it only to a limited degree.

    • John J. Collins, “Torah as Narrative and Wisdom in the Dead Sea Scrolls”, in Reading the Bible in Ancient Traditions and Modern Editions: Studies in Memory of Peter W. Flint, ed. Andrew B. PerrinKyung S. BaekDaniel K. Falk (Atlanta: SBL Press, November 2017), pp. 361-362 (357-380).

What do you think? Was Genesis more like Harold Bloom’s literary canon, to which Collins may here allude? Or was it ‘authoritative’ in some further sense (as Collins still entertains, while also asking “in what sense” Genesis may be regarded as authoritative for the Book of Watchers)?

It is prudent that we avoid importing later senses of ‘canonical’ and ‘authoritative’ and other more dangerous terms such as ‘inspired’ and ‘biblical’, at least in the senses in which they are employed to describe phenomena in the Common Era. But two factors, at least, occur to me that suggest Genesis was also ‘authoritative’ in some sense that exceeds its demonstrated ability to “nourish the imagination of later writers”.

First, the text appeals to the arche or origins, a move which is always, inherently an attempt to justify some present situation, institution, practice, belief, doctrine, etc – to invest our present contingent circumstances with the illusion of some fixed and immovable anchor. This quality is intrinsic to ‘the authoritative’, which always involves the claim that one is standing on the shoulders of giants – which like Quixote’s, are no more than phantoms of the imagination.

Second, we should note the importance of the role of heavenly revelation within 1 Enoch, in particular revelations of heavenly secrets of creation (beginnings) and eschatology (endings), which strongly suggests an attempt to discover the ‘deeper meaning’ of Genesis, not to mention other aNE origin stories; this is a giveaway that the author regards Genesis as authoritative, although ‘authoritative’ in a sense that both overlaps with later ideas of inspiration and contrasts with them, given that the boundaries of what counts as ‘inspired’ are expanding, and by nature are expansive, open to new revelations of heavenly secrets.

Lastly, I note that the Book of Watchers sticks closely to the wording of the verses in Genesis 6.1-4, even while expanding its (authoritative, inspired and inspirational) words in what were probably unforeseen directions. Even the words of Genesis are authoritative, but not at all with the implication that they may not be added to – quite the opposite. As supplement to Genesis 6.1-4, the Book of the Watchers is Derridean, not simply making an addition to the text, but asserting its originary lack, a lack to be filled by a plumbing of deeper origins, and (allegedly) more secret truths of origins that are at once ultimate (eschatological) endings.

Update (8 January 2018): Jim Davila answers my question above. He considers that not only was Gen 6.1-4 ‘authoritative’ for 1 Enoch, but that some earlier version of the Watcher/Giant story was also authoritative for Gen 6.1-4 (although the author of Gen 6.1-4 tried to play it down). Yet like me, Jim also states that this ‘authority’ was a long way from the later canonical authority. See what he wrote here. See also the similar views of J.T. Milik, Paolo Sacchi, Philip Davies, and Helge Kvanvig. On the other side, there are quite a few more other scholars who don’t think that Gen 6.1-4 is an abbreviation of any such story as found in 1 Enoch. Unfortunately, given the brevity of 1 Enoch 6.1-4, the issue is possibly beyond definitive resolution. I tend to think that Gen 6.1-4 is no abbreviation, and is not deliberately suppressing a form of Watcher/Giant story. For it works fine as an allusion to antediluvian heroes known for their reputation as great warriors and womanizers, and the story makes no reference to giants (that’s a much later development in the reception of Gen 6.1-4, prompted by Deut 1-3/Numbers 13, a tradition that develops and comes later than Gen 6.1-4). There is too much supposition required to make a reasonable case for dependence of Gen 6.1-4 on an earlier version of the Watcher/Giant story. On the other hand, it is an intriguing possibility…

Update 2 (9 January 2018): Jim Davila replies to my first update, and points out rightly that Nephilim did come to connote giants – at least by the time that the Bible was complete, and certainly in Modern Hebrew (based, as Modern Hebrew usually is, on the Bible read as a whole and interpreted over 2000 years). But as for whether the meaning of ‘giant’ is primary or secondary, he’s right also that this issue is a difficult one to resolve. The etymology, too, is uncertain – although I think the better etymology sees it as a reduction of the passive adjective (qaṭīl), קְטִיל, as I explained here: and so ‘fallen [heroes]’, that is, heroes fallen in battle. A third biblical text (in addition to Gen 6 and Num 13) which supports this view is Ezek 32:27, with its closely related group of gîbbōrîm nōflîm (fallen heroes). And a fourth text is the Hebrew of Sir 16:7, with its group of nsyqy qdm (“princes of old”) who also were ‘mighty’ (which Jim & I have discussed before). This all provides something short of conclusive evidence, but enough to make me favour seeing the primary meaning of the Nephilim as legendary or autochthonous heroes or princes famed for heroic deeds, maybe but not necessarily gigantic in stature.


Enoch from Antiquity to the Middle Ages

Exciting news for fans of Enoch and the giants. A volume from John C. Reeves and Annette Yoshiko Reed is planned for 1 March 2018 which will provide the first part of a comprehensive compendium of literature from antiquity to the Middle Ages which reference Enoch:

John C. Reeves and Annette Yoshiko Reed, eds., Enoch from Antiquity to the Middle Ages: Sources From Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, Volume I. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018. [432 pages]

There’s some more information on John C. Reeve’s UNC Charlotte project webpage. Reeves describes the aim of the “Enoch from Antiquity to the Middle Ages” project as twofold:

(1) to assemble all the fragmentary extant references to and citations of Enochic works within the aforementioned religious literatures [Jewish, Christian, gnostic, and Muslim] into one convenient collection, and (2) to compare, classify, and analyze these subsequent references and citations in order to gain a clearer picture of the scope and range of what might tentatively be termed the ‘Enochic library,’ or the entire corpus of works attributed to Enoch.

An exciting, not to mention wide-ranging, project!

h/t: Annette Yoshiko Reed

Foetal Dystocia resulting from Watcher-Human Sex: Eric Ondina’s Art

In a piece entitled “Fall of the Watchers”, artist Eric Ondina has managed to capture an aspect of the myth of sex between Watcher angels and human women that usually gets glossed over in renditions of the story.

Eric Ondina, “Fall of the Watchers”

The Book of Watchers tersely summarises that the Watchers “took” the women, “went into” them, and “defiled themselves with” them (7.1ab). The twenty named Watchers are contrasted with the anonymous and unnamed women who they “choose for themselves”. The Watchers act, and the unnamed women are acted upon. Their identities are suppressed, irrelevant to their function within the plot. Their reactions here are limited to their childbearing function: they “became pregnant” and “bore to them gigantic offspring” (7.2).

But what did giving birth to “gigantic offspring” do to these women? The text falls silent, in contrast to the cries of anguish which would have accompanied such extreme foetal dystocia. The birth canal is only important in the story insofar as it satisfies the Watchers’ desires – for sexual intercourse and for children.

But in Ondina’s “Fall of the Watchers”, the effect on the Women is brought to the fore in the artist’s portrayal of an evidently painful, bulging womb. But this pain is combined with a comical characterisation of the women as obsessed with the jewellery that the Watchers gave to them. The combination of extreme discomfort and vain satisfaction is, of course, absurd. And this absurdity provides a visual critique of the tendency in the Watcher myth to belittle or even blame women for the actions of the Watchers.

Ondina himself comments:

I have extracted multiple motifs from this story and melded them into a dynamic composition. The piece is painted in oil on a hand molded, cresting, reinforced plaster slab, which is bordered by a deep cradle frame. It was my intention to make a painting which mirrors this mini-epic in scale, drama and abject gruesomeness. With this in mind I decided to invoke the compositional and painting techniques found in the dynamic baroque of the 17th century while emulating the decisive moment found in 18th century Romanticism. There is also a clear reference to the Northern European Renaissance in the detail, cathedral-esque shape of the substrate, insider humor, and violence. These fuse into a style I have developed in this series which is both contemporary and historically reinforced. While my painting seeks to provide a portal into the past, I seek to do so through a modern lens, injecting subtle to sardonic satire into my subjects. This is readily apparent along the bottom of the painting; in the lower right hand corner an oblivious woman pampers herself with gold and makeup, her stomach bursting at the seams as her hulking half-angel broodling slithers out. She is a sarcastic embodiment of how our contemporary sensitivities are want to perceive this story. The Abrahamic religions are not renowned for their justice towards women, and The Book of Enoch once again exemplifies this ancient trend. Women are the seductresses and the baby factories, the intermediaries and cause of the sinfulness pressed upon the world; because of their erotic allure, mankind suffered nightmarish consequences. My painted jezebel is a mocking testimony to this ancient fear-mongering.

In portraying this extreme foetal dystocia in this manner, Ondina’s “Fall of the Watchers” has drawn attention to an aspect of the Watcher myth that has escaped many commentators, as well as critiquing that very failure to take account of the effects on women implied by the Watcher myth.

The Book of Giants: Ancient Jewish Literary Creativity beyond the Bible

Slaying Humbaba - by Leonard Greco
Slaying Humbaba – by Leonard Greco

Philip Jenkins has written two useful posts on the Book of Giants, the ancient Jewish work which is found in different versions at Qumran and in Manichaeism.

In his first post, Philip provides a brief introduction to the Book of Giants. In his second post, Philip offers his comments on the significance of the Book of Giants for understanding ancient Judaism, Christianity, Gnosticism, and Manichaeism. In particular, I was interested in Philip’s comments on how the Book of Giants sheds light on the development of ancient Jewish literature. Philip refers to works like the Book of Giants as “fan fiction”:

Religious debate and speculation increasingly took the form of writing new texts and pseudo-scriptures, which took the familiar canonized stories and developed them according to contemporary needs and interests. It is scarcely too much to describe some of these pseudepigraphic and apocryphal works as fan fiction.

He then considers the level of invention involved in composing this “fan fiction”:

Not only are writers developing stories, but they are doing so in amazingly florid form, creating whole new mythologies packed with abundant names and titles. Presumably, some authors are sitting down and inventing these names of demons and giants afresh, while others are taking those and adding their own contributions to the expanding mythos. As we know from modern-day fantasy writers, once that process begins, it rapidly spreads and expands.

This is a good point about the Book of Giants, which bears little resemblance to any biblical passage. In fact, while much of the content shares common material with the Jewish work, the Book of Watchers (1 Enoch 1-36), other parts, such as the names of the giants “Gilgamesh” and “Hunbabis” draw from Babylonian myth. Moreover, the story-line in the Book of Giants, so far as it can be reconstructed from the fragments, introduces some highly original and inventive traditions about the giants. So we can’t accurately categorize Book of Giants as “rewritten Bible”: it neither derives straightforwardly or substantially from biblical traditions nor involves mere “rewriting”, but creatively uses older traditions within a new and original narrative.

Philip’s brief comments complement Eva Mroczek’s view in a recent article published in the Journal of Ancient Judaism, “The Hegemony of the Biblical in the Study of Second Temple Literature”.

Mroczek urges that we seek to appreciate early Jewish literature on its own terms, without assuming that its authors were primarily interested in the texts which later became parts of the Bible. She writes:

The absolute centrality of the biblical is a theological, not a historical axiom: a concern with the biblical in the texts that we study must be shown with evidence, not assumed by default. While the history of the field is a history of people seeking the origins, development, and meaning of these iconic texts, the subjects of our study were not necessarily preoccupied with the same things; they were not marching to the biblical finishing line, but living in a culture whose intellectual, religious, and literary creativity cannot be assimilated into one dominant icon. Recognizing this will help us see Second Temple literature more clearly on its own terms.

Mroczek applies these principles to ancient Jewish David traditions. But they apply well to the Book of Giants, too.

Have a read further:

Archie Wright on The Origin of Evil Spirits in Early Jewish Literature

Archie T. Wright has an article up on Bible & Interpretation for April 2015 entitled “The Origin of Evil Spirits in Early Jewish Literature“.

Archie T. Wright
Archie T. Wright

In the article, Archie Wright explains the link made between giants and evil spirits/demons in the Book of Watchers (1 Enoch 1-36):

the Fallen Watcher Angels in 1 Enoch have sexual relations with human women and produce what are described as giant offspring. These offspring begin to literally eat the humans out of house and home. Once they have eaten all the food that humans produce, they turn on the humans and begin to devour them; it is then that the call goes up to heaven for God to deliver humanity from the giants. These giants are considered a hybrid offspring, they are part human and also part heavenly being (angel); although the percentage of division (e.g. 50/50) between the two is unclear. The result of the call to heaven by the oppressed humans brings about the destruction of the physical giants by the Archangels Raphael, Michael, Sariel, and Gabriel. The death of the ‘giants’ is brought about by the Flood event in Genesis, which, at the same time, cleanses the earth of the blood shed by the giants and also eliminates corrupt humanity. However, the hybrid spirits of the physical giants survive the flood and are identified in 1 Enoch, and other early Jewish texts, as evil spirits (or demons). The fathers of the giants, the Watcher angels, are locked in a deep pit identified as Tartarus and are bound there with chains and covered with rocks, thus the image you see in the movie “Noah” of the giant beings who seem to be assisting Noah in various aspects of the Flood episode. The Watchers will be held there until the Day of Judgment – there is no notion in 1 Enoch that the evil spirits are fallen angels, rather the spirits of the giant offspring become the evil spirits or demons of the age.

The article coincides with the revised edition of Archie Wright’s book, The Origin of Evil Spirits: The Reception of Genesis 6:1-4 in Early Jewish Literature (Fortress Press, 1 April 2015). The original edition was a fine read on the subject, so I am sure the revised edition will be very good too.


h/t: Jim Davila

Prometheus (the Film), Ancient Astronauts, and Giant Nephilim

Spoiler alert.


I went to see the 2012 film Prometheus at the movies last year, because it taps into many facets of the current popular reception of giants, Nephilim, and ancient astronaut theory. And as Ridley Scott’s “prequel” to the Alien series, I was curious to find out what he would do with it. My favourite moment in the film is towards the end, when our golden-age ancestors turn out to be  (very white) giants.

I never got around to posting on the film, because I wasn’t sure that I could remember all of its references to the giant-Nephilim-ancient astronaut conspiracy theory (and there are quite a few). But now that it’s out on DVD, it’s up for analysis. And the anonymous blogger at Vigilant Citizen has gone there before me. As Vigilant Citizen does a fairly detailed job of it, albeit with a conspiratorial tone, I’ll just refer readers to his blog and note a couple of interesting points.

Vigilant Citizen notes an interview between director Ridley Scott and The Hollywood Reporter in which the director of Alien and Prometheus acknowledges that he was trying to present “Eric Von Daniken’s ideas of how did we humans come about”. There is no link to the original story, but it can be found here: Scott Roxborough, “Ridley Scott, Michael Fassbender, Noomi Rapace Tease ‘Prometheus’ at CineEurope”, The Hollywood Reporter, 28 June 2011.

The other point is that there is a close connection between the reception of the Greek Prometheus story, about the god who “stole fire from heaven”, gave it to humankind, and was cast down from Olympus and the leader of the Watchers or fallen angels in Genesis 6.1-4, 1 Enoch, etc, who stole knowledge from heaven, gave it to humankind, and fell from heaven. In fact, the earliest interpretation of Genesis 6.1-4 as referring to divine beings (the Septuagint and 1 Enoch) may have itself have been influenced by Greek stories of divine-human hybrids and the origins of human knowledge.

Have a read of the post on Prometheus at Vigilant Citizen.

Darren Aronofsky’s Noah Film to include Giant Angels called Watchers

Empire has the latest on Darren Aronofsky’s Noah Film, scheduled for release in 2014:

Written by John Logan (Gladiator, The Aviator, Hugo and many more) and Aronofsky himself, it’s not a traditional retelling of the age-old bible story but a radical reimagining, complete with giant angels called ‘Watchers’.

Russell Crowe as Noah
Russell Crowe as Noah

Along with Russell Crowe as Noah, Jennifer Connelly will play Noah’s wife, Naameh, Douglas Booth and Logan Lerman play Noah’s sons, Shem and Ham (not sure what happened to Japeth), Emma Watson plays a close friend of Shem’s, Ila, Anthony Hopkins plays Noah’s grandfather Methuselah, and Ray Winstone plays “an as-yet unnamed character who acts as Noah’s enemy”.

“Watchers”, as fans of Remnant of Giants will well know, is the name given to the angels who descend from heaven to earth in 1 Enoch 6-16 (that is, in The Book of Watchers). 1 Enoch 6-16 is one of the earliest “retellings” of a curious episode which is narrated immediately before the story of the Flood in Genesis 6:1-4:

When people began to multiply on the face of the ground, 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 Yahweh 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. These were the heroes that were of old, warriors of renown.

According to 1 Enoch 6, the Watchers were originally angels (i.e., “sons of God”) in heaven with God. But they were enticed by the beauty of human women to come down to earth. Under their leader Shemihazah, they take some of the women as wives and have children by them. Their children are half-breed giants, whose wreck havoc on the earth. However, the bodies of the giants are  later destroyed by the Flood, and only their spirits remain: these evil spirits become what are known as “demons”.

Yet there are at least three other explanations of the origins of the Watchers in ancient Jewish texts. In the Azazel-stratum of The Book of Watchers, the angels provide illicit knowledge to humans, such as metal-working, magic, and astronomical secrets. This is their main crime, rather than their sex with human women. The Life of Adam and Eve provides a third account of the Watchers, explaining that some angels, while in heaven, made a direct challenge to the authority of God, in an attempt to usurp his heavenly throne. What provoked them was their envy of God’s creation of Adam. A fourth account of the Watchers occurs in The Animal Apocalypse, also within 1 Enoch. Here the rebellious angels are first sent to earth by God in order to rule over humankind, rather than rebelling against God. But later on they abuse their legitimate authority, by using excessive force, tyranny, and exercising injustice. Later Christian accounts of the fall of the Watchers tend to emphasise the leader of the Watchers – and this leader becomes known as Satan. Many of the stories of the Watchers declare that, at the end of time, the Watchers will be destroyed in Hell for their rebellion against God. But from the time of the Flood to the end of time, 1 Enoch states that the Watchers were bound in chains in Hades, awaiting their final punishment.

Aronofsky takes elements of each of these accounts of the origin of the Watchers, but creates his own distinct version of why the Watchers came down to earth.

According to the biblical chronology in the Hebrew Masoretic Text of the Bible, Methusaleh died in the year preceding the Flood, some 99 years after Yahweh told Noah to build an ark. The Masoretic Text dates Methusaleh’s death to 1656 Anno Mundi and the Flood to 1657 Anno Mundi. Things get more confusing in some Septuagint versions of the Bible, where  according to the chronology, Methusaleh survives some 17 years after the Flood.

The name of Noah’s wife doesn’t appear in the Bible, and neither do the names of the wives of Ham, Shem, and Japeth. But “Naamah”, identified as the daughter of Lamech and sister of Tubal-Cain, is the name given to the wife of Noah in Genesis Rabbah (בראשית רבה), traditionally dated to the third century AD. In the much earlier, 2nd century BC book of Jubilees (ספר היובלים), Noah’s wife is called “Emzara”, and she is identified as the daughter of Rake’el, son of Methusaleh (Jub. 4.33). The name “Emzara” also appears in a text from Qumran which retells the book of Genesis, 1QApGen (6.7).

See the trailer here: