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.


John J. Collins on the Invention of Judaism

In ASOR’s publication, The Ancient Near East Today (August 2017, vol. 5, no. 8), John J. Collins provides a very informative summary of his new book:

The Invention of Judaism: Torah and Jewish Identity from Deuteronomy to Paul. Taubman Lectures in Jewish Studies 7. Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2017.

Notably, for Collins, there is something distinctly religious (in concept, if not in name) about being Jewish by the second century BCE:

“In the second century BCE, the Syrian king Antiochus Epiphanes issued a decree proscribing the ancestral laws of Judea…. According to 2 Maccabees, chapter 6 “it was impossible either to keep the Sabbath, to observe the ancestral festivals, or openly confess oneself to be a Ioudaios.”…  It is clear that Epiphanes was not forbidding people to say where they were from. The decree presupposed a normative understanding of what it meant to be a Ioudaios: to observe the Law of Moses, at least in its distinctive practices. What Epiphanes tried to do was to suppress the distinctive identity of the people of Judah, by proscribing the traditional formulation of their way of life.”

Collins then describes how the Jewish Torah (Law) was largely unknown before Ezra’s arrival in Judah (traditionally dated to 458 BCE), and even then its laws were not followed in any literal sense until “the attempt by Antiochus Epiphanes to suppress it”.

It’s a good summary of the early development of Judaism, Jewish identity, and Torah observance: read the article here.

John J. Collins in the Huff Post: Dead Sea Scrolls are Great for Knowledge about Ancient Judaism, Even Better for Fueling Conspiracy Theories

John J. Collins writes a few thoughts about what we have learned from the Dead Sea Scrolls. He makes some points about how they have increased our knowledge of ancient Judaism, such as this one:

The Scrolls provide ample evidence that the kind of apocalyptic and eschatological speculations found in apocalyptic literature, and cherished by early Christians, were at home in Judaism around the turn of the era
– John J. Collins, “Dead Sea Scrolls: What Have We Learned?”, Huff Post Religion, 22 October 2012

And he laments how they have fueled speculations and conspiracy theories about Christian origins – a subject for which the pre-Christian Dead Sea Scrolls offer only secondary evidence:

The area of scholarship that has suffered most from wild speculation is the relevance of the Scrolls for Christian origins. Within a few years of the discovery, claims were made that a figure called the Teacher of Righteousness in the Scrolls was crucified and believed to have risen from the dead. These claims were swiftly discredited, but revived in the 1990s by the British authors Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh, in “The Dead Sea Scrolls Deception,” who claimed that the truth had been suppressed by a Vatican conspiracy. These claims have no basis.
– John J. Collins, “Dead Sea Scrolls: What Have We Learned?”, Huff Post Religion, 22 October 2012

Vatican conspiracies and rival messiahs, John. That’s sooooo 1990s. We’ve moved on to far more adventurous conspiracy theories, as one of your commenters demonstrates:

Thanks to the dead sea scrolls we know a lot more about those giant Nephilim dudes mentioned in Gen 6:4 and their giant daddy’s “the sons of god”. who happened to be mentioned as giant white 6 fingered, 6 toed people in the Mayan, Hopi, Chinese, Babylonian , Sumerian, Akkadian, Assyrian, Caanaite, Olmec, Toltec, Aztec, in can traditions and many,many more. The name Goliath Ring a bell? Time to wake up and smell the aliens you religious people. God exists, just not the one(s) mentioned in the bible or any religious text for that matter.
– Kragen Millsap, commenter to John J. Collins, “Dead Sea Scrolls: What Have We Learned?”, Huff Post Religion, 22 October 2012

Time to wake up and smell the aliens.

"Thanks to the dead sea scrolls we know a lot more about those giant Nephilim dudes mentioned in Gen 6:4 and their giant daddy's "the sons of god". who happened to be mentioned as giant white 6 fingered, 6 toed people in the Mayan, Hopi, Chinese, Babylonian , Sumerian, Akkadian, Assyrian, Caanaite, Olmec, Toltec, Aztec, in can traditions and many,many more"
“Thanks to the dead sea scrolls we know a lot more about those giant Nephilim dudes mentioned in Gen 6:4 and their giant daddy’s “the sons of god”. who happened to be mentioned as giant white 6 fingered, 6 toed people in the Mayan, Hopi, Chinese, Babylonian , Sumerian, Akkadian, Assyrian, Caanaite, Olmec, Toltec, Aztec, in can traditions and many,many more” – Kragen Millsap

Eerdman’s Dictionary of Early Judaism on Giants

Eerdmans Dictionary of Early Judaism
Eerdmans Dictionary of Early Judaism

I just spotted on the shelf of ‘recent arrivals’ the enormous – even gigantic – door-stop of a book, The Eerdman’s Dictionary of Early Judaism (John J. Collins and Daniel C. Harlow, eds, 2010). Applying what is widely known as The Rephaim Rule (that you can judge a book on ancient Judaism by what it says about Giants), I turned to the entry on ‘Giants’ written by John C. Reeves.

Overall, the article provides a fine summary of biblical and other early Jewish texts, and their reception in Talmudic and even Islamic sources. There are brief discussions of Anakim, Rephaim, and King Og in Deuteronomy, Targums, and Islamic sources. No mention of the two Goliaths, though.

But is the following correct?

The Hebrew word usually translated ‘giants’ is gibborim, which usually means ‘strong ones.’ It is glossed in Gen. 6:4 as ‘the famous heroes of antiquity’ (‘ašer me’olam ‘anše haššem).

Well, gibborim certainly appears in Gen. 6.4, but it is translated as ‘mighty men’ in the 400-year-old King James Version (cf. ‘heroes’ in NRSV and the NIV). The word which is rendered as ‘giants’ in Gen. 6.4, rather, is nephilim. Moreover, the only place that the KJV renders gibborim as ‘giants’ apart from the related Num. 13.33 is the odd Job 16.14. By contrast, the KJV renders rapha/rephaim as ‘giant’/’giants’ 17 times (Deut. 2.11, 20 (x2); 3.11, 13; Josh. 12.4; 13.12; 15.8; 17.15; 18.16; 2 Sam. 21.16, 18, 20, 22; 1 Chron. 20.4, 6, 8) and Nephilim as ‘giants’ two times (Gen. 6.4; Num. 13.33) and the NRSV only employs  ‘giant’ or ‘giants’ to render rapha / rephaim. The LXX typically renders both nephilim and gibborim as “giants” in Gen. 6.4, but it is not a usual translation for gibborim in other passages. Moreover, it is not entirely clear (due to the ugly structures of each of Gen. 6.4 and Num. 13.33, which are possibly due to the presence of later redaction or glosses) whether the terms nephilim and gibborim refer to one and the same group of beings, or if they refer instead to fathers and sons. Therefore, I’d say instead: “The term ‘giants’ is usually a translation of the Hebrew word rephaim…”.

Reeves also explains that the understanding of the Anakim from Num. 13.33 as Giants has three grounds. The first two are relatively uncontroversial, being the context of the verse and the way the terms are rendered in the Greek and other versions. But his third ground made me raise an eyebrow:

That these [Nephilim of Num. 13.33] were deemed giants emerges from…the testimony of Qur’an 5.20-26 wherein v. [sic] 22 explicitly terms the promised land’s inhabitants ‘giants’ (jabbarin).

The problem with this reasoning is twofold. First, in what sense can we determine that the Nephilim ‘were deemed’ Giants in the late Persian or early Hellenistic period based on the Qur’an’s paraphrase of Exodus and Numbers in the sixth century AD (i.e. about a millennium later)? Now, what the Qur’an does with this tradition is interesting in its own right, but as an uncritical paraphrase of the meaning of  the biblical text it is of very little value for determining its original meaning. Second, like its ancient Hebrew cognate gibborim, the Arabic jabbarin can mean both ‘giants’ and ‘mighty ones’, and much besides. So does jabbarin refer to the strength of the human inhabitants (Canaanites, Amorites, etc) or to the ‘giants’ (Anakim, Nephilim)? Both groups are mentioned in Num. 13! So to which does jabbarin refer? The employment of jabbarin in Surah 5.22 doesn’t necessarly refer to Giants at all.

Lastly, Reeves provides a fine summary of the typical ideological connotations of the Giant:

The label ‘giants’ is typically applied in proto-ethnographic literature to those persons or peoples who are biologically, chronologically, and/or spatially distant from contemporary cultural norms. Giants are thus freaks and monsters who do not fit within the accepted parameters which govern society. There can even be some question as to whether they should be categorized as human. 

A good summary overall, but a couple of points about which to scratch your head just a little. As for The Eerdman’s Dictionary of Ancient Judaism as a whole, it’s a whopper. It covers the whole period of Second Temple Judaism (538 BC – AD 70), and includes compehensive overview essays on subjects ranging from Jewish History, the Dead Sea scrolls, and early biblical interpretation, before the main feature: a thousand pages of dictionary entries.