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.


Were the men of Sodom into Sodomy?

Sex Between Men

In my Sodomite Challenge, I argued that there is not just one double entendre in Genesis 19:5 but two. One of these double entendres is widely ‘known’. The men of Sodom employ the sexually charged verb ידע (‘to know’, ‘to have sex with’, etc) when they demand to receive the two men or angels staying the night at Lot’s house. The same sexual connotation is even more clearly present in the description of Lot’s two daughters, in Genesis 19:8.

In addition, I argued that there is an earlier sexual double entendre in the verse: the use of the phrase באו אליך הלילה, literally “they [who] came to you [ie. to Lot] tonight”, or to give it its ambiguous sexual connotation, “[the men who] gained entry to you”. On this reading, the men of Sodom believed that Lot had invited the two men/angels into his house, under the cover of night, in order to have sex with them. Why would they presume such a thing? At the very least, we might conclude that there was some presumption that male inhabitants of Sodom, of whom Lot was one, were having sex with other men. And the men of Sodom wanted some of that.

If “[the men who] gained entry to you” in Genesis 19:5a is a double entendre, sex between men must be at the centre of the sin and wickedness which the narrative alleges was being carried out in Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18:20-21; 19:7, 13). This is not to say that sex between men is the sum of the sinfulness of Sodom. Genesis 18:20-21 together with Ezekiel 16:46-50 suggest that Sodom had a reputation for wickedness that was “not reducible to a single act of sin” (Lyons, Canon and Exegesis, p. 235). All I am claiming is that the narrative in Genesis 19:1-11 makes sex between men the special exemplar of this proverbially wicked city.

There has been an attempt in recent scholarship to downplay or even deny the role of sex in the sin of Sodom. Instead, recent scholarship has emphasized other grounds, in particular the gross breach of hospitality against Lot’s two guests. For example:

the Genesis 19 account specifically does not fix the blame upon homosexuality but upon the failure of the Sodomites to honor the law regarding the required hospitality to strangers
– J. Harold Ellens, Sex in the Bible: A New Consideration, p. 114

this biblical story can quite properly be read as having nothing to do with homosexuality
– M. Warner, “Were the Sodomites Really Sodomites?”, p. 9

Sometimes the motif of hospitality is defended with reference to the account of the Levite’s concubine in Judges 19, in which male-male sex is not an issue. Yet such a defence of the sin of Sodom as hospitality depends on (1) the priority of the story in Judges 19; (2) the direction of dependence from Judges 19 to Genesis 19; and (3) an assumption of the close correspondence of the contexts, meanings, and themes of both accounts, rather than any significant rewriting of the tradition that might change its significance. All of these, in particular the third, are highly contestable.

I do not want to contest the fact that the men of Sodom’s threat of violence towards two guests – their gross inhospitality toward strangers – is a part of the gross sinfulness of Sodom and grounds for its destruction. But the presence of a second double entendre in Genesis 19, in the phrase באו אליך הלילה, puts sex between men back at the centre of that “inhospitality”.

The sin of Sodom (and Gamorrah) is only alluded to at first in Genesis 18:20-21. But this sinful reputation of Sodom is explicated in Genesis 19.5a, in particular, by their expectation that Lot had been having sex with the two men. The sin of sex between men is then developed when the men of Sodom demand to get some of what they believe Lot is getting (Genesis 19:5b-9). The Sodomites’ presumption that Lot was having sex with the two men, together with their subsequent demand for sex with the two men, put same-sex intercourse at the centre of the sin of Sodom.

There has been a strategy in liberal Christian biblical interpretation, in recent decades, to draw out, to highlight, to emphasise the ambiguities of any text which might portray same-sex intercourse in a negative light. This applies not only to Genesis 19, but to all of the Old and New Testament texts trotted out in these often heated discussions. That such texts have been used by less liberal Christians as a way to clobber gays and lesbians has, of course, provided the impetus for such complexifying interpretations. But such a strategy may have obscured the (same-)sexual connotations which I argue are indeed present in Genesis 19:5a. Liberal sensitivity to the damaging effects of more conservative interpretation and contemporary use of Genesis 19 has obscured the centrality of same-sex intercourse to Genesis 18-19’s polemics against the sin of Sodom.

The Sodomite Challenge: How to Translate Genesis 19:5

Recently there was a (sometimes heated) discussion about the translation of Genesis 19:5, on a new Facebook group, the Annual Meeting Hotel Lobby: An Unofficial SBL/AAR Member Group.

Genesis 19:5 occurs in the middle of the unusual story about two  men (also described as angels) who stay the night at Lot’s house, in the city of Sodom.

The two angels (Genesis 19)
The two angels (Genesis 19)

The Hebrew MT of Genesis 19:5 reads as follows:

וַיִּקְרְא֤וּ אֶל־לוֹט֙ וַיֹּ֣אמְרוּ ל֔וֹ אַיֵּ֧ה הָאֲנָשִׁ֛ים אֲשֶׁר־בָּ֥אוּ אֵלֶ֖יךָ הַלָּ֑יְלָה הוֹצִיאֵ֣ם אֵלֵ֔ינוּ וְנֵדְעָ֖ה אֹתָֽם

The JPS translates the verse like this:

And they shouted to Lot and said to him, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, that they may be intimate with them.”

The Living Bible goes for the more direct route:

[the men of the city—yes, Sodomites] … shouted to Lot, “Bring out those men to us so we can rape them.”

The translation of this verse raises interesting questions about the rendition of Hebrew double entendres in English translation, and about translation more generally. The Hebrew text of Gen 19:5 contains two probable double entendres, which are both used to describe sexual intercourse.

1. The most obvious double entendre is the use of the verb ידע, which has a variety of meanings, including “to know”, but also “to have sex with”, ie. have carnal knowledge of. The Hebrew verb has been translated very mildly in JPS as “we may be intimate [with them]”, but very explicitly as “we can rape [them]” in the Living Bible. The double entendre (although inherently ambiguous) is made clear by Lot’s subsequent offer of his two daughters as sexual substitutes for the two men/angels in Gen 19:8, and their description of the two daughters as those “who have not known [ידע] a man”.

2. The less obvious double entendre is the use of the phrase באו אליך הלילה, literally “they [who] came to you tonight”, spoken by the men of Sodom to Lot, about the two men/angels who came to Lot’s house in Sodom.  As in Genesis 16:2, the phrase could also refer to “they [who] went into you [Lot]”, ie. “they who had sex with you [Lot]”. The presence of a double entendre is supported by the description of this “entering” occurring at night (הלילה) and by the double entendre that follows concerning the crowd’s desire to “know/have sex with” the two men/angels.

So the story of Sodom in Genesis 19 evokes three types of sexual intercourse, none of which actually occur, but which are only spoken about.

  • First, the crowd infer that Lot had been having sexual intercourse with the two men/angels by night (Gen 19:5a);
  • Second, the crowd of men demand sexual intercourse between them and the two men/angels, and (Gen 19:5b);
  • Three, Lot offers his two daughters for sexual intercourse with the crowd of men (Gen 19:8).

But no actual sexual intercourse takes place until, in a surprising twist, Lot has sex with his two daughters (Gen 19:30-38).

With the exception of the imagined sexual intercourse between Lot and the two men/angels, each of the other three descriptions of sexual intercourse (described or actual) involves rape: the rape of the two men/angels by the crowd of men from Sodom; the rape of Lot’s two daughters by the crowd of men from Sodom; the rape of Lot by his two daughters.

It’s a nasty little story. But I find myself agreeing with the suggestion of “Tom Wrong” that – despite the explicitly violent sexual intercourse (rape) attempted in Gen 19:5 and proposed in Gen 19:8 – the double entendres in Gen 19:5 are best rendered  in a manner that retains their ambiguity while making clear their decidedly seedy  and sordid character. Make no mistake, the story is brutal, violent, and patriarchal in the most extreme sense. So there is a good argument to make this clear, by translating the demand in Gen 19:5 in the most explicit way. On the other hand, a more muted yet sordid translation might have a similar effect, while more closely rendering the inherent ambiguity of the double entendres. So I adopt Tom Wrong’s translation:

And they called to Lot and said to him, “Where are the men who gained entry to you tonight? Bring them to us, so that we may experience them.”

– Genesis 19:5 (tr. Tom Wrong)

But how would you translate this verse? And for what reasons? Do you even think that there are two double entendres in Gen 19:5? I tag the following bloggers, to see how they would translate MT Gen 19:5 in a way that does justice both to its content and its form:

Robert Cargill, Cláudia Andréa Prata FerreiraJim LinvilleJim West, JK Gayle, Caroline Blyth, Roland Boer

See also: “Were the men of Sodom into Sodomy?Remnant of Giants

Noah’s Father Would Not Have Been Able to give His Wife a Satisfying Orgasm after She had Experienced a Gigantic Angelic Penis


On March 15, 2015, Jeremiah Bailey (PhD candidate, Baylor University) presented a stimulating paper at the Southwestern Regional Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature (the Southwest Commission on Religious Studies, or SCRS):

“Untouched by an Angel: Angelic Genitalia and Bitenosh’s Pleasure in the Genesis Apocryphon


The Genesis Apocryphon is a fascinating example of the genre of “rewritten Bible.” However, the fascination with its adherence and divergence from the biblical text has left aspects of its text underexplored. One such underexplored textual feature is found in Column II of the scroll wherein Lamech worries that his son Noah is the illegitimate offspring of the Watchers leading him to confront his wife about the nature of the conception. Most of the work on this passage has focused on its relationship to the version of the story in 1 Enoch 106-107, but the text is interesting even beyond its relationship to a group of stories at Qumran about the birth of Noah.  The Genesis Apocryphon uniquely gives Lamech’s wife, Bitenosh, a chance to answer the accusation of her infidelity.
In 1QAp Gen II, 9-10, 14, Bitenosh defends the legitimacy of Noah by demanding that Lamech remember the sexual pleasure she received during their intercourse. Why this should prove convincing is not immediately clear from the context of the passage. Despite the perplexing nature of the comments, most interpreters have made little more than passing reference to Bitenosh’s argument, and to date there have only been two real attempts—both recent and both dependent on Greek science—to provide a thorough and satisfactory explanation. This essay will provide an alternative interpretation to those currently on offer. It will argue that the key to understanding this passage lies outside Bitenosh herself, both physically and emotionally, and instead is rooted in the physiology of the Watchers and their offspring, specifically, the portrayal of the Watchers as endowed with absurdly large sexual organs.

Jeremiah Bailey’s interpretation comes after Pieter W. van der Horst’s alternative explanation, discussed earlier by Remnant of Giants.

Jeremiah’s suggestion certainly got me thinking again about Bitenosh’s sexual pleasure, and how it was meant to convince her husband Lamech of her fidelity. But I don’t know. It seems to me that Jeremiah is drawing a long bow.

The Earliest Non-Angelic Interpretation of Genesis 6.1-4

The interpretation of the sons of God in Gen. 6.1-4 as angels dominates interpretation in pre-Christian and early Christian times. The Septuagint and 1 Enoch 6ff interpret it this way – possibly in the third century BC – as do many subsequent works and authors, including the pre-Christian Jewish works of Jubilees, the Damascus Document, and Philo, and the post-Christian  Josephus, 2 Baruch, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, etc.

It is often contended that the first Jewish witnesses to a non-angelic interpretation are in Aquila’s and Symmachus’s translations of the passage into Greek, in the second century AD, or perhaps Philo’s interpretation in the first century AD. For example, here’s Robert C. Newman (Grace Theological Journal 5.1 (1984): 13-36):

The earliest extant examples of the nonsupernatural interpretations of Gen 6:2, 4 come from the 1st century AD and thus are later than the earliest specimens of the supernatural interpretation.  Since all come centuries after Genesis was written, it is not possible to be sure which is the oldest.

The non-angelic (and non-divine) interpretation is often also declared to be a result of an anti-angelic bias following the fall of Jerusalem and the subsequent reaction against various Jewish sects with their angelic speculations. For this reason, the non-angelic interpretation is considered a late novation. Thom Stark, in his recent book The Human Faces of God (p. 77), makes mention only of post-70 AD examples of the interpretation of Gen. 6.1-4 as involving human princes.

As Christians continued to regard 1 Enoch as scripture until at least the third century AD, the angelic interpretation of Gen. 6.1-4 continued long after it was rejected in Rabbinic Judaism. Although Julius Africanus mentions the non-angelic interpretation in the early third century AD, it is Augustine who defends it in detail, in Book 15 of the City of God, in the early fifth century AD.

But often overlooked in these discussions is Sir. 16.7 – which appears in a section of Sirach (ca. 180 BC) dealing with God’s “historical” punishment of sinners (Sir. 16.5-10). The New Revised Standard Version renders it:

He did not forgive the ancient giants
who revolted in their might.

The words “ancient giants” (γιγάντων τῶν ἀρχαίων) were only a Greek translation of Jesus ben Sirach’s original Hebrew, carried out by his grandson. The Hebrew (of both mss A and B) reads נסיכי קדם (“princes of old”).

What did Sirach mean by “princes of old” who revolted in their might? While “princes” could possibly refer to angelic princes (cf eg Dan 10.13), all the other examples in this list of ancient sinners are human: Korah and party (16.6), Sodom and Gomorrah (16.8), the Canaanites (16.9), and the exodus generation (16.10). So we might reasonably expect the same in 16.7. In addition, the words “in their might” (ב‍גבורת‍ם) clearly allude to the Gibborim of Gen. 6.4b, thus identifying the princes of old with those Gibborim or “men of renown” – again, mortal humans. In addition, the reference to “revolt” appears to identify the figures in Sir. 16.7 with “the sons of God” in Gen. 6.2, 4 – as it is the sons of God who do the revolting in the biblical passage. Further, the term “sons of God” is most usually a term for human kings or princes, which may explain Jesus ben Sirach’s word choice here.

In conclusion, there is a good case for dating the non-angelic interpretation of Gen. 6.1-4 as early as the writing of Sirach (ca. 180 BC) – and for concluding that, far from a post-70 Jewish reactionary interpretation, the non-angelic interpretation could be as old as the angelic interpretations found in LXX and 1 Enoch.


Update (23 Feb 2012): Jim Davila comments on this issue, and opines that Sir. 16.7 is limited to the giants, and that the “revolt” is also that of the giants (cf. Gen. 6.11) and not the sons of God. We both agree, I think, that Gen. 6.4 distinguishes the Nephilim=offspring=Gibborim=men of renown from the sons of God. But I’d add that in Sir. 16.7’s interpretation of Gen 6:4, the princes/giants are royal heroes, sons of similar royal heroes (themselves “sons of God/s”).

Update 2 (19 March 2012): I just discovered that one of the world’s leading biblical gigantologists, Matthew Goff, has a fairly recent article on the giants of Sirach 16.7 (in JBL 129.4). He has a slightly different take on the nature of the allusion to Genesis 6.1-4 and, as always, some valuable insights.

Update 3 (4 January 2016): Jim Davila notes that Matthew Goff’s paper has been recently uploaded to Academia. Goff makes a case that the princes/giants of Sirach 16.7 are not the Nephilim/Gibborim/men of renown of Genesis 6.1-4, but aboriginal Canaanite rulers with language that evokes Genesis 6″, such as those represented in Num 13. Maybe. But against this interpretation, the list of punished sinners in Sirach 16.7-10 does seem to proceed in more-or-less straightforward chronological fashion: Nephilim/Gibborim/princes of Gen 6:1-4, punished by the Flood (16.7); the people of Sodom, punished in destruction of Sodom (16.8); the Canaanites as great sinners, punished by the invading Israelites (16.9); the desert generation of Israelites, punished by God’s confinement of them to the desert (16.10). I am not finally convinced by Goff’s other arguments in the paper, but the proposal is well worth consideration.