by Peter Eisenstadt
I’ve been a little obsessed as of late with the First Book of Enoch, or 1 Enoch, as it is called among connoisseurs of Jewish pseudopigrapha. It is perhaps the most exotic of all Jewish texts. The only complete version is a translation into Ge’ez, the ancient language of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. It was originally written about 300 BCE, and written in Aramaic, a fact demonstrated when hundreds of Aramaic fragments of the Book of Enoch were discovered in the Qumran caves. (The Ethiopian Orthodox Church includes it in their Old Testament, and the Bete Israel, the Ethiopian Jews, also consider it a holy text .)
So why the interest in 1 Enoch? The recent film Noah , directed by Darren Aronofsky, made extensive use of Midrashic and Second Temple Era texts, most notably the Book of Enoch, from which it borrowed the notion of the Watchers, fallen angels who became earthbound. In the Book of Enoch the Watchers were the offspring of angels who desired and mated with “the beautiful daughters of men.” The Watchers, who were of Paul Bunyanesque stature–3,000 cubits in height–“devoured all the toil of men, until men were unable to sustain them. And the watchers turned against them, in order to devour men. And they began to sin against animals, and against reptiles and against fish, and they devoured one another’s flesh and drank the blood from it. Then the earth complained about the lawless ones.” (1 Enoch 6:4–6.) To rescue humanity from the Watchers, God dispatched the angels Michael, Gabriel, Suriel, and Uriel, and through them, the scourge of the Watchers was ended. (Aronofsky, by the way, interpreted the Watchers as positive and benign, the muscle men that protected Noah and enabled him to build and populate his ark.)
The account of the Watchers in the Book of Enoch is related, in some way, to the cryptic account in Genesis 6:1–4 of the giants, the Nephilim, who inhabited the earth before the time of Noah. The account in Genesis is so brief, and so unclear, that it has to be a portion of a larger story-narrative, and some believe that the account in 1 Enoch is less a midrashic elaboration than the original version (or an original version) of the Nephilim story that the redactors of the Torah, perhaps because of the fallen angel angle, cut to a snippet. Whatever its origins, the Book of Enoch is the oldest of the many apocalypses produced during the Second Temple period, the founding document of what some scholars call Enochian Judaism, which culminated in the apocalyptic Judaism of the Essenes.
Why is it more difficult to believe in the existence of angels than in the existence of God? It certainly is for us moderns, for whom belief in God is enough of a challenge without having to add a host of supernatural supernumeraries. Anyway, I am writing for the wrong audience. According to one recent poll, 80% of Americans believe in angels, far more than believe in, say, evolution or global warming.
And fallen angels raise a number of additional questions. They muck up the problem of evil, which is murky enough to begin with. In its classic form, God is perfect, and evil exists because humans have free will and screwed up. But what if, as is the case for the Watchers, evil is the result of bad angels who sleep around with humans? (I wouldn’t blame the women who slept with the angels, by the way. Who could resist an offer to sleep with an angel?) But what are humans to do if evil is the result of bad angels? One answer is what happens in the Book of Enoch, wait for God to send in superior good angels. The struggle for the world is taken out of human hands entirely. And I suspect that is why the redactors and rabbis cut most of the Nephilim story—it muddies the question of moral responsibility.
But there is another way to look at this. Rather than resignation, the problem of fallen angels can be a call to collective action. The standard version of the problem of evil all too often devolves into a game of finger pointing, and assigning guilt and blame, which began in the Garden of Eden. (“Its your fault! No it isn’t, its your fault! You started it! No, you started it! Oh yeah! Yeah!) Lets blame the existence of evil on the fallen angels—its no one’s responsibility, and everyones. In the fight against fallen angels, all of humanity can be on the same side.
This brings me, as almost every post does, to the current situation of Israel and Palestine. Who’s at fault? Who is evil? Who ate the apple? What was the first sin? These questions are profoundly unhelpful, and if they are interesting in an academic sense, they are deeply counterproductive in reaching a resolution. Here’s an idea. Lets say the problem between Israel and the Palestinians, was, at its root, the fault of evil, fallen angels. The evil lies deep, in the basic structures and institutions of society, and the people shaped by them. No simple fix, nothing superficial will be of any use. To make things better, to reverse the damage that these supernatural beings caused, will require a superhuman effort on the part of everyone. What I like about apocalyptic thinking is that it doesn’t underestimate the immensity of problems, and the magnitude of the task needed to eliminate them. So lets agree that the roots of the Israel-Palestinian problem lie in the fallen angels who created it. And only if Jews and Palestinians work together can something be done about it.