The Benei Elohim, the Watchers, and the Origins of Evil
The flood story begins with YHWH seeing the wickedness of humanity:
בראשית ו:ה וַיַּרְא יְ־הוָה כִּי רַבָּה רָעַת הָאָדָם בָּאָרֶץ וְכָל יֵצֶר מַחְשְׁבֹת לִבּוֹ רַק רַע כָּל הַיּוֹם: ו:ו וַיִּנָּחֶם יְ־הוָה כִּי עָשָׂה אֶת הָאָדָם בָּאָרֶץ וַיִּתְעַצֵּב אֶל לִבּוֹ:
Gen 6:5 And YHWH saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that the inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. 6:6 And YHWH regretted that He had made man on the earth, and it grieved his heart.
The Torah doesn’t say anything specific about this wickedness, but early Jewish interpretation fills in the gaps.
The Book of the Watchers and the Origins of Evil
The earliest work addressing this issue is the Book of the Watchers (250-200 BCE), which now makes up chapters 1-36 of the book of Enoch. (For a brief description of this book, see appendix.) “Watchers” is a translation of the Aramaic עירין (lit. the awake ones) found in Daniel (4: 10, 14, 20) that probably originates from the tradition that angels do not sleep. The angels in question are those who appear as benei ha-elohim in Gen 6:1, in the story that immediately precedes the flood account.
בראשית ו:א וַיְהִי כִּי הֵחֵל הָאָדָם לָרֹב עַל פְּנֵי הָאֲדָמָה וּבָנוֹת יֻלְּדוּ לָהֶם: ו:ב וַיִּרְאוּ בְנֵי הָאֱלֹהִים אֶת בְּנוֹת הָאָדָם כִּי טֹבֹת הֵנָּה וַיִּקְחוּ לָהֶם נָשִׁים מִכֹּל אֲשֶׁר בָּחָרוּ:
Gen 6:1 And it was, when men began to multiply on the face of the earth, and daughters were born to them, 6:2 that the benei ha-elohim (lit. “sons of God”) saw the daughters of men that they were fair; and they took wives from whomever they chose.
ו:ג וַיֹּאמֶר יְ־הוָה לֹא יָדוֹן רוּחִי בָאָדָם לְעֹלָם בְּשַׁגַּם הוּא בָשָׂר וְהָיוּ יָמָיו מֵאָה וְעֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה: ו:ד הַנְּפִלִים הָיוּ בָאָרֶץ בַּיָּמִים הָהֵם וְגַם אַחֲרֵי כֵן אֲשֶׁר יָבֹאוּ בְּנֵי הָאֱלֹהִים אֶל בְּנוֹת הָאָדָם וְיָלְדוּ לָהֶם הֵמָּה הַגִּבֹּרִים אֲשֶׁר מֵעוֹלָם אַנְשֵׁי הַשֵּׁם:
6:3 And YHWH said: “My spirit shall not abide in man forever, for that he also is flesh; and his days be a hundred and twenty years.” 6:4 The nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also after that, when the benei ha-elohim came to the daughters of men, and they bore children to them; these were the mighty men that were of old, the men of renown.
This puzzling passage taken on its own appears to be meant as an explanation for the existence of mythic (but mortal) heroes in the ancient world. This account gave rise to an entire cycle of stories regarding these angels and their sinful behavior, such as being the progenitors of the giant nephilim, mentioned here and in Numbers 13:33.
Three Versions of the Watchers’ Sin
The Book of the Watchers contains three main threads regarding the sin of the angels that reflect earlier traditions:
1. Forbidden Knowledge 1: Make-up and Weapons
In one account, the angel Asael descends to earth and teaches forbidden knowledge to women concerning female adornment, which facilitates lust. He also teaches men how to create weapons, which enables war.
8:1 And Asael taught men to make swords, and daggers, and shields and breastplates. And he showed them the things after these, and the art of making them: bracelets, and ornaments, and the art of making up the eyes and of beautifying the eyelids, and the most precious and choice stones, and all [kinds of] coloured dyes. And the world was changed. 8:2 And there was great impiety and much fornication, and they went astray, and all their ways became corrupt.
This knowledge causes sin that must be wiped out in the Flood.
2. Forbidden Knowledge 2: Magic and Other Forbidden Knowledge
In another thread woven into the story of the Watchers in Enoch, humans are taught magic and other forbidden knowledge:
And they taught them charms and spells, and showed them the cutting of roots and trees (i.e., medicine) (1 Enoch 7:1b).
This again results in sin and the Flood.
3. Mating and Reproducing with Women
The predominant tradition and main thread in the Book of Watchers, into which the other traditions are interwoven, focuses on the desire of the angels, led by Shemihaza, to mate with human women.
6:1 And it came to pass, when the sons of men had increased, that in those days there were born to them fair and beautiful daughters. 6:2 And the angels, the sons of heaven, saw them and desired them. And they said to one another: ‘Come, let us choose for ourselves wives from the children of men, and let us beget for ourselves children.’ 6:3 And Shemihaza, who was their leader, said to them: ‘I fear that you may not wish this deed to be done, and [that] I alone will pay for this great sin.’ 6:4 And they all answered him and said: ‘Let us all swear an oath, and bind one another with curses not to alter this plan, but to carry out this plan effectively.’ …
7:2 And they (=the human women) became pregnant and bore large giants, and their height [was] three thousand cubits. 7:3 These devoured all the toil of men, until men were unable to sustain them. 7:4 And the giants turned against them in order to devour men. 7:5 And they began to sin against birds, and against animals, and against reptiles and against fish, and they devoured one another’s flesh and drank the blood from it. 7:6 Then the earth complained about the lawless ones.
The result of this union is unnatural, as could be expected: the women bear violent giants. The giants’ violence and voracious hunger cause humans tremendous distress, as well as setting off a “domino effect” of violence among all creatures of the world. The final result of all this illicit angelic intervention is the Flood, either to rid the world of contamination or to end the humans’ sin.
In this third version of the story, the giants themselves are killed. Their spirits, however, deriving from immortal heavenly beings (the angels), cannot be destroyed completely, but also cannot return to heaven. They remain connected to earth as evil spirits, wreaking havoc among humankind and causing both physical evil (such as disease) and moral evil (sin):
7:8 And now the giants who were born from spirits and flesh will be called evil spirits upon the earth, and on the earth will be their dwelling. 7:9 And evil spirits came out from their flesh because from above they were created; from the holy Watchers was their origin and first foundation. Evil spirits they will be on the earth, and spirits of the evil ones they will be called. 7:10 And the dwelling of the spirits of heaven is in heaven, but the dwelling of the spirits of earth, who were born on the earth, [is] on earth. 7:11 And the spirits of the giants . . . which do wrong and are corrupt, and attack and fight and break on the earth, and cause sorrow; and they eat no food and do not thirst, and are not observed. 7:12 And these spirits will rise against the sons of men and against the women because they came out [from them].
This story is developed further in the Book of Jubilees, and is reflected in Qumran prayer and incantations that deride the “bastards,” that is, the evil spirits who are the result of the illicit union of angels and human women (as in 4Q510-511, 4Q444, and 11Q11 V.5-11).
Benefits of a Belief in the Fall of the Watchers
Why did this story become so popular in the Second Temple period?
When Human Sin Became Unbearable
This story answers basic questions from the biblical text—not only why the Flood occurred, but also, “Why then?” According to the Watchers story, human evil becomes unbearable as the result of the angels’ actions, actions that are, after all, recounted in the Bible directly before God’s decision to flood the earth.
Why People Sin
Second, this story addresses a much more basic question for Second Temple Jews, as it indicates that these evil spirits are still active in the audience’s “present day”: Why do people sin? This question, never addressed directly in the Hebrew Bible, became a central issue for Jews in the Second Temple period who wished to be righteous – and even defined themselves as righteous – and yet felt the pull of sin.
This tug of war with sin is reflected, for example, in the visceral struggle that underlies the sectarian Songs of the Sage in the Dead Sea Scrolls. Here the speaker calls on God to frighten the “spirits of the bastards” because of the battle between them and the laws of God within his person (Songs of the Sage; 4Q511 48–49 +51 ii.1b–6a).
בינתו נתן [ב]לב[בי ] הודות צדקו ו֯[--]ע֯ה ובפי֯ י֯פחד [כול רוחות] ממזרים להכ֯ני֯ע[--]ט֯י ט֯מ֯אה כיא̇ ב֯ת֯כ֯מי ב֯שרי יסו֯ד֯ ד֯[ וב]גויתי מ̇לחמ̇ו֯ת֯ חוקי אל בלבבי ואועי֯[ל --]ע֯ל כ֯ו֯ל מופתי גבר מעשי אשמה ארשי̇ע[ ]אל ◦◦◦ו֯ת֯ vacat
… [ ] His knowledge he put [in my] hear[t ] the praises of His righteousness, and [ ] and by His mouth he frightens [all the spirits] of the bastards to subdue [ ] uncleanness. For in the innards of my flesh is the foundation of [ and in] my body are battles. The statutes of God are in my heart, and I prof[it] from all the wonders of man. The works of guilt I condemn [ ] God. vacat
The belief in evil spirits, descendants of the Watchers, enables the speaker to both put his struggle into words and to distance his desire to sin from his own essence. In other words, the understanding that the human desire to sin comes, in fact, from powerful evil spirits could explain for a struggling member of the Qumran Community why he, one of the designated righteous, finds it so hard not to sin.
Distances God from Evil
Another benefit of attributing both human evil and all manner of physical evils to evil spirits is the ability to distance God from evil. According to the Watchers story as it developed in the Second Temple period, God is not behind human disease or the human inclination to sin. Instead, Jews can blame evil on spirits that are themselves the result of an angelic transgression against God’s will.
Provides Hope for an End of Sin
Finally, attributing evil to spirits, rather than to the human condition or to God, provides a hope that grew particularly strong during this period: the end of all evil in an apocalyptic battle between good and evil forces.
The End of Evil in the Book of the Watchers
The hope for an apocalyptic cleansing of evil is prominent in the Book of the Watchers’ retelling of the Flood story. When God commands the angel Michael to cleanse the earth with the Flood, the author uses descriptions that are usually reserved for the end-time: all earth will be cleansed of evil and wickedness, all peoples will worship God and everyone will live in peace for eternity (1 Enoch 10:21-11:2):
10:21 And all the sons of men shall be righteous, and all the nations shall serve and bless me, and all shall worship me. 10:22 And the earth will be cleansed from all corruption, and from all sin, and from all wrath, and from all torment; and I will not again send a flood upon it for all generations forever. 11:1 And in those days I will open the storehouses of blessing which [are] in heaven that I may send them down upon the earth, upon the work and upon the toil of the sons of men. 11:2 Peace and truth will be united for all the days of eternity and for all the generations of eternity.
It is difficult to apply this declaration to the generations following the Flood. And yet the author and his intended audience probably drew an analogy between the Flood as a cleansing punishment and the audience’s hopes for the final judgment day. Thus, the reader of the Book of the Watchers could draw hopeful conclusions regarding the eschaton: just as God decreed the Flood to wipe out wickedness, so the eschaton will end any wickedness caused by the demonic descendants of those who, according to the Watchers myth, were the cause of the Flood itself.
Enoch and the Book of 1 Enoch: A Brief Description
The Book of Enoch, also called 1 Enoch, was not composed as a single book. Rather, it is a collection of works centered on the character of Enoch and the mysteries that are revealed to him in heaven. These writings take as their common starting point the unusual description of Enoch within the genealogical list from Adam to Noah in Gen. 5:1–31:
בראשית ה:כא וַיְחִי חֲנוֹךְ חָמֵשׁ וְשִׁשִּׁים שָׁנָה וַיּוֹלֶד אֶת מְתוּשָׁלַח: ה:כב וַיִּתְהַלֵּךְ חֲנוֹךְ אֶת הָאֱלֹהִים אַחֲרֵי הוֹלִידוֹ אֶת מְתוּשֶׁלַח שְׁלֹשׁ מֵאוֹת שָׁנָה וַיּוֹלֶד בָּנִים וּבָנוֹת: ה:כג וַיְהִי כָּל יְמֵי חֲנוֹךְ חָמֵשׁ וְשִׁשִּׁים שָׁנָה וּשְׁלֹשׁ מֵאוֹת שָׁנָה: ה:כד וַיִּתְהַלֵּךְ חֲנוֹךְ אֶת הָאֱלֹהִים וְאֵינֶנּוּ כִּי לָקַח אֹתוֹ אֱלֹהִים:
Gen 5:21 When Enoch had lived 65 years, he begot Methuselah. 5:22 After the birth of Methuselah, Enoch walked with ha-elohim 300 years; and he begot sons and daughters. 5:23 All the days of Enoch came to 365 years. 5:24 Enoch walked with ha-elohim; then he was no more, for elohim took him.
The simple meaning of Elohim here is “God,” but many Second Temple readers understood elohim here as angels, as a Second Temple audience would not believe that a human being could walk with God himself in heaven.
The image of Enoch walking with angels in heaven caused Second Temple Jews to speculate about what heavenly mysteries he could have witnessed. These speculations were the impetus for the various works included in 1 Enoch that attempt to answer the question of what Enoch saw when he “walked with the angels.”
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Dr. Miryam Brand is an Associate Fellow at the W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research in Jerusalem. She is the author of Evil Within and Without: The Source of Sin and Its Nature as Portrayed in Second Temple Judaism and a commentary on 1 Enoch. She holds a Ph.D. in Bible and Second Temple Literature from New York University.
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