God’s Court and Courtiers in the Book of the Watchers

Philip Esler’s recent top-notch project falls into the category of “elegant arguments demolishing empty theories”. Other examples of this “genre” would include The Stars Will Fall From Heaven, by Edward Adams, which annihilates Tom Wright’s dogma that ancient Jews did not believe the world would come to a literal end; and The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise, by Dario Fernandez-Morera, which easily disproves the politically correct myth that Muslims, Christians, and Jews co-existed fruitfully under an enlightened Islamic rule in medieval Spain. Esler takes on the Book of the Watchers (I Enoch 1-36), for which the dominant stream interprets heaven in terms of the Jerusalem temple. He finds no basis for this at all. When Israelite authors around this time wished to present heaven as a temple, they did exactly that. In the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice and the Testament of Levi, heaven is the temple, God is in the holy of holies, and the angels are priests who sing God’s praises and offer fragrant sacrifices. One looks in vain to find any of these elements in I Enoch 1-36. Yet scholars see them anyway.

God’s Court and Courtiers in the Book of the Watchers is, then, a shot across the bow of a considerable body of scholarship. Its thesis is that heaven is understood in terms of a royal court, in which the king (God) is surrounded by his courtiers (the angels). While some scholars make occasional references to the Enochic heaven as a court, the idea is never taken that seriously, and it’s way eclipsed by the supposed idea that heaven is a temple in which the angels are understood to be priests instead of courtiers. Esler refutes that as follows.

Angelic duties. The duties assigned to the angels in I Enoch 20 have nothing to do with a cult or temple. Uriel is in charge of the world and Tarterus; Raphael is in charge of the spirits of men; Reuel is tasked with taking vengeance on the world of the luminaries; Michael is chrage of the good ones among the people; Sariel deals with spirits who sin; Gabriel is responsible for Paradise, the serpents, and the cherubim; and Remiel is in charge of those who rise. All of these duties are reminiscent of the military or administrative duties assigned to the courtiers of earthy monarchies. (pp 61-62)

Angelic access rights. By the traditional view, the angels are a priesthood who have access rights to God as the Jerusalem priesthood did. This isn’t true. The God of I Enoch 1-36 is a monarch like Louis XIV and Persian kings like Deioces, and the angels have access rights to him in the way that royal courtiers did in the French and Near Eastern courts. Angels like Michael, Sariel, Raphael, and Gabriel are behaving like courtiers when they address God to complain about what the Watchers are doing on earth, and asking God what should be done. “This is very different from the temple of Jerusalem, the inner sanctuary of which was only entered once a year, and then only by the high priest on the Day of Atonement.” (p 70)

Angelic mediation. Received wisdom tells us that the angels are a priesthood whose function is to hear the prayers of victims of the devastation on earth being wreaked by the Giants, and to ask God to intercede for these victims; likewise, Enoch the scribe serves a priestly role, as he writes out the appeal of the Watchers, who want forgiveness from God. The problem with this view is that it assumes the Israelites directed their prayers to God through priests, rather than praying to God directly. This isn’t true. Private prayer and the temple cult happily co-existed with one another, without any involvement by priests in the peoples’ prayers. When priests did engage in intercessory acts, it was primarily through offering sacrifice, which is entirely absent in I Enoch 1-36. On the other hand, courtiers always played an intercessory role between the king and his subjects, and this is how the mediating role of the angels should be understood: they are courtiers to the divine monarch. (pp 73-74)

The Fall of the Watchers: Their “Defilement”. By the traditional view, the marriage of the Watchers to human women reflects a concern with illegitimate priestly marriages going on in the Judaism during the time I Enoch 1-36 was written. Priests were to marry only the virgins of other priests, or at least women from priestly families, and many of them were not doing so. But the problem with the Watchers’ marriages is not their choice of wives, but the fact that they are marrying at all. Human beings need marriage for procreation, but the Watchers are angels (spirits) for whom marriage is inappropriate, period. The Watchers’ “defilement” (impurity) is the result of the boundary transgression involved in spirits having sex with flesh and blood. There is no need, or textual warrant, to import the more limited notion of priestly holiness into the issue. (pp 80-88)

The Fall of the Watchers: Their “Great Sin”. By the traditional view, the “great sin” (I Enoch 6:3) of the Watchers was sex between forbidden degrees (between species), which is intended as an indictment on the Jerusalem priesthood for their sexual relations with non-priestly families. But the proper understanding of the Watchers’ great sin is not priestly impurity, but courtly rebellion. Esler describes various courtly rebellions in the Achaemenid kingdom under Darius the Great and in the Hellenistic kingdoms of the late third century BC, and notes the two kinds of rebellion, one being armed insurrection, the second being open defiance or resistance to an authority or controlling power. The Watchers were engaged in the second kind of rebellion. They were not attempting to bring down God’s rule and supplant it with a new one, but rather to go against his rules and defy the accepted ways of behaving. Their “great sin”, namely, was that: (1) They abandoned their station in heaven where they belong (I Enoch 15:3). This is the most important point. They deserted their post, which in a royal court is a fundamental dereliction of duty and in most cases treason. (2) Then they defiled themselves on earth, by fucking human women, when they have no business fucking at all (as explained in the above point). The image evoked is not of non-priestly women of another caste; the image is more like women who inhabit towns and cities that are captured by a rebelling army, and who are then raped as a matter of course. As a result of these spirit-human unions, the Giants were born (I Enoch 7:2), who grew to slaughter and devour humankind, as well as animal-kind. It’s worth citing the graphic details:

The Giants devoured the labor of all the sons of human being, so that the human beings were not able to supply them. And the Giants assailed the human beings and devoured them. And they began to sin against birds and beasts and creeping things and the fish, and to devour one another’s flesh. And they drank the blood. (I Enoch 7:3-5)

This again evokes the rampage of an invading army (led by a courtier rebelling against his king, for example) to lay waste to those subjugated and take over and eat their food supply. Finally, the Watchers also (3) taught the women sorcery, and charms, and knowledge skills (I Enoch 7:1, 8:1-3), which means they brought knowledge to earth that should have stayed in heaven (I Enoch 9:6), which (again) blurs the divinely established boundary between heaven and earth, and (again) evokes the boundary between royal courts and the masses; what courtiers knew as members of the king’s circle was privileged and not to be disseminated to the people. Taking all these three points, the “great sin” of the Watchers was that they rebelled against their divine monarch and led destructive actions which carried disastrous consequences. It was not that they merely had sexual relations with those of a different kind or caste. (pp 96-104)

The Fall of the Watchers: Their Justice. The way God punishes the Watchers is how Near Eastern kings punished rebelling courtiers. Kings typically dispatched a senior courtier or courtiers to deal with the rebellion. Violent punishment was inflicted on the defeated rebels, to such gruesome lengths that they even saw their children die before their eyes. The punishment was meted out over a period of time, with initial seizure and binding, physical punishment and torture, followed by death. There was no forgiveness against courtly treason; the king’s justice was cruel and merciless. Case in point: Darius ordered Takhmaspada to put down the rebellion of Tritantaechmes, and when the rebellion was squashed, Darius cut off Tritantaechmes’ nose and ears, then put out one of his eyes, imprisoned him, and then later crucified him. What God orders Raphael and Michael to do against the Watcher leaders Asael and Shemihazah is equivalent. Here are the graphic details:

The Lord said to Raphael, “Bind Asael by his hands and his feet and cast him into the darkness. Split open the desert that is in Dudael, and throw him there. Put sharp and jagged rocks under him and cover him with darkness. Let him stay there for an aeon. Cover his face so that he may not see the light. On the day of judgment he will be hurled into fire.” (I Enoch 10:4-6)

And the Lord said to Michael, “Bind Shemihazah and the others with him who mated with the daughters of human beings, so that they were defiled by them through their uncleanness. When their are perishing, and they see the destruction of those they love, bind them for seventy generations in the valleys of the earth, until the day of their judgment and until the final consummation, when judgment will be completed forever. They will be borne away into the abyss of fire, and into the torture, and into the prison for all eternity.” (I Enoch 10:11-13)

These passages are patterned on the completely merciless justice of monarchs (like Darius) in dealing with court rebels. Such justice would be off the scales if the standard view were correct: priestly infringements don’t require unrelenting torture followed by everlasting torment. (pp 104-107)

God’s Abode: Heavenly Temple? We’ve been told that the divine home in I Enoch is a heavenly temple, even though the text doesn’t come close to supporting this view. The first structure Enoch encounters (supposedly the vestibule), is not physically contiguous with the two structures that he comes to next (supposedly the nave and the sanctuary). Enoch goes into the first structure, which is a “wall of hailstones” encircled by “tongues of fire” (I Enoch 14:8-9), and then moves through a distance of space before he gets to the second structure (14:10). The first structure is simply a wall — further evidenced by the fact that there are gates on it (I Enoch 9:2, 9:10, 34:2, 35:1, 36:1) — not an enclosed structure like a vestibule. As for the second and third structures, the “houses”, they cannot be modeled on the temple’s nave and the sanctuary, because in the Jerusalem temple the sanctuary is smaller than the nave. In I Enoch the second house entered (the supposed sanctuary) is larger (I Enoch 14:15) than the first. Not only that, there is no veil mentioned between the two “houses”. And there is no altar anywhere. (pp 115-117, 128-130, 139-140)

God’s Abode: Heavenly Palace. Enoch, therefore, is not looking into the holiest of holies, but into the throne room of a royal palace where the king is seated on his throne (I Enoch 14:18-23). This heavenly palace is modeled on Near Eastern palaces like the one at Pasaragade, built by the Persian king Cyrus (which the exiled Jews in Babylon would have been aware of, and perhaps even made to construct). In both cases, one must first pass through a wall to again access to the building where the king resides. That building in question contains two (not three) stages. At Pasaragade, the first stage consists of four small porticoes (north, south, east, and west) that surround and join the second stage of the large central throne room. In I Enoch, the first stage is an antechamber joining the second stage of God’s throne room. Just as someone in any of the four porticoes at Pasaragade could look into the audience hall and see the enthroned Cyrus, so too Enoch, from the antechamber, looks into the larger hall and sees God on his throne. (pp 131, 142-143, 150-151)

A Community of Scribes against the Temple

Esler argues that the Enochic authors were a scribal community who opposed the temple. Most of his book focuses on the Book of the Watchers, but the last chapter has the entire corpus in view. That corpus was written over three centuries:

3rd century BC Book of Luminaries (1 Enoch 72–82) (Astronomical Book)
3rd century BC Book of the Watchers (1 Enoch 1–36)
175-170 BC Apocalypse of Weeks (I Enoch 93:1-10, 91:11-17)
~160s BC First Dream Vision (I Enoch 83-84)
~150s BC Bridging Exhortation (I Enoch 91:1-10,18-19)
~130s BC Birth of Noah (I Enoch 106-107)
~100 BC Epistle of Enoch (I Enoch 92-105)
~40 BC – 40 AD Book of Parables (I Enoch 37-71)
Late 1st century Eschatological Exhortation (I Enoch 108)

The unifying aspect in the corpus is the hero Enoch, who proudly identifies himself as a scribe. The biblical Enoch was never understood this way, and so the authors of these works are plausibly understood as a community of scribes who reinterpreted a hero from the past in terms of their own profession. (pp 176-182) This group of scribes took the revolutionary step of integrating Babylonian astronomy with Enoch (for which there was biblical warrant: Gen 5:23 says that Enoch lived to be 365 years old — easily construed as a connection to the solar calendar), but going even further, according to Esler. Because Enoch “walked with God” (Gen 5:24), and thus must have been a suitable person to interact with God in heaven, he could pass on heavenly revelations that addressed the bigger questions of human experience. Specifically, the existence of evil and how God would deal with it. The Book of the Watchers is all about that: how evil came into the world under control of a good God.

But these scribes were not connected to the temple, despite what scholars tell us. Just the opposite. Esler notes that Sirach was a pro-temple author who attacked what are probably Enochic works, and that the conflict seems to be an inter-group one, not intra-group — that is, between a group of scribes associated with the temple (Sirach) and another that is not (Enoch). (pp 172-174, 185) Also, in the Apocalypse of Weeks (I Enoch 93:1–10, 91:11–17), the Enochic author blatantly omits the true events of the seventh week: the return of Judeans and the rebuilding of the temple. (pp 185-186) Instead he characterizes the seventh week as a period of dire perversity (I Enoch 93:9-10); the Judeans are cast as a wicked out-group who will be supplanted by “witnesses of righteousness” (i.e. the members of the Enochic community, naturally). No temple-loving Judean would do that.

Interesting corollaries emerge from Esler’s findings. It’s not just the temple metaphor that has to go. Some scholars also tell us that I Enoch 1-36 is a subversive text that is anti-imperial. I don’t see how they get this, and the royal court metaphor renders it nonsense. The Book of the Watchers endorses, without reservation, the legitimacy of God punishing rebellious courtiers with the most extreme and unforgiving violence — just like the violence used by Persian and Hellenistic kings. It valorizes the existence of tyrannical monarchies. (p 108) Another post-script is that with the temple metaphor gone, I Enoch is less representative of the religion “Judaism”, and better understood within a broader ethnic context of “Judeanism”. (pp 12-19) As an ethnic group the Judeans were similar in many ways to other groups in their world, like the Romans, Greeks, Egyptians, Parthians, etc. This  probably explains why scholars have insisted on seeing a non-existent “Jewish” temple cult in the background of I Enoch 1-36, when the courts of the Near Eastern kings are staring them right in the face!

Yet another brilliant book by Esler, and essential reading for anyone who wants to understand The Book of the Watchers.

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