“Fall” vs. “Rebellion” (Philip Esler)

A while back I reviewed Philip Esler’s book on the Watchers in I Enoch, and I consider its thesis unassailable. However, at one point Esler notes in passing that

“It is inaccurate to speak of the Watchers’ ‘fall’ from heaven, because it could suggest some kind of accidental or unplanned action. This was not a fall, but a planned descent by the Watchers to earth to marry human women (with whom they defiled themselves), preceded by a joint oath sworn by the Watchers not to turn back from this course (I Enoch 6:4-5).” (p 79)

This caught my eye, as I have always referred to the “fall of the Watchers” without thinking. But I Enoch 6-11 is admittedly different from Genesis 3, where Eve was deceived without any real intent to rebel against God. The serpent tricked her into thinking that God had made her capable of judging right from wrong, and Adam went along with it. Christian theologians would later expand on the Genesis story, where for example in Milton’s Paradise Lost the devil tells Eve that God actually wants her and Adam to eat from the tree, and that his order is simply a test of their courage. In C.S. Lewis’ Perelandra, the Green Lady has no desire to disobey God, but she becomes convinced after long arguments with the devil that God secretly wants her to break his commandment — that God longs for one act of disobedience, so that his creatures may grow up and stand on their own. Thus he has given one special commandment “for the mere sake of forbidding”, precisely so that it may be broken.

The Genesis account, in other words, portrays a second-guessing of God made possible by the lies and deceptions of an evil agent. The Enoch story depicts a straightforward rebellion against God, unprompted by the cunning of an outsider. The Watchers just look down on earth, see beautiful women, and desire them (I Enoch 6:2). Far from trying to persuade the others with trickery, the leader Shemihaza is willing to rebel against God on his own (6:3), but the other Watchers assure him they are on board with his plan, declaring, “Let us all swear an oath, and bind one another with a curse, that none of us turn back from this counsel until we fulfill the deed” (6:4). The Watchers do that, and rebel against God and His court, leaving their home in heaven to mate with womankind on earth (7:1). The giants are born as a result (7:2), and their violence and hideous appetites tear apart the earth (7:3-5), triggering a chain reaction among all God’s creatures (8:1-9:11) — to which God retaliates by destroying the world with the Flood (10:1-3). Where the transgression of Adam and Eve resulted in severe punishment (men will have to labor hard for a living, women will labor painfully in childbirth), the revolt of the Watchers results in the obliteration of all living things.

In this light I can understand Esler’s distinction. The Watchers “broke the rules” more severely than Adam and Eve did. There’s a substantive difference between being led astray and second-guessing God out of confusion, and being purposefully defiant so as to bring about chaos and destruction. But if that’s the distinction we should make, then what about the elves and men in Tolkien’s stories?

“Fall” in The Silmarillion

For those unfamiliar with The Silmarillion (shame on you if you never read it), it’s the history of our world’s First Age, thousands of years before the events in The Lord of the Rings. It narrates the “fall” of the elves and its disastrous consequences — the elves’ rebellion against the gods (the Valar), their exile from paradise (Valinor), their evil oath to pursue the Silmaril jewels and kill whoever stands in their way, and their journey to Middle-earth to make hopeless war on the Enemy (Melkor). Because of the elves’ lust for the Silmarils, Middle-Earth is convulsed by wars over a 600-year period, and eventually all the kingdoms of the elves and men are destroyed. In the final battle, the gods intervene and the devastation is so great that a whole piece of Middle-Earth (Beleriand) is broken apart and swallowed by the sea. The Silmarils are recovered only to be lost again in tragedy.

Tolkien called his story a fall, but if we apply Esler’s distinction, does The Silmarillion depict an unplanned fall or a purposeful rebellion? Both actually, but more the latter. On the one hand there is the evil counselor Melkor (the renegade Vala), who deceives the elves with lies about the Valar. If not for his lies, it is doubtful the elves would have been turned to evil purpose. On the other hand, once the rot sets it, they act resolutely, intending to set up shop for themselves in Middle-Earth where they can rule various kingdoms and wage war to fulfill their hideous oath. In this the elves resemble the Watchers far more than Adam and Eve.

Here’s how the drama unfolds: The evil god Melkor, having recently been put on probation by the Valar (the fourteen gods and goddesses), ingratiates himself with Feanor, the most powerful and gifted elf of all time. Feanor has created the three Silmaril jewels which contain the light of the Two Trees, and Melkor wants them. He seeks to corrupt the Noldor (the high elves) by turning them against the Valar, as well as against their own Noldor kin. So he tells Feanor “secrets” which the Valar have supposedly kept from the elves: that the race of men will soon awaken in Middle-Earth and challenge the elves; and that Manwe (the highest of the fourteen Valar) has been essentially holding the elves captive in paradise, so that the Valar can keep them on a leash, and leave Middle-Earth to the race of men, who are weaker than elves and thus more easily managed from a distance. Melkor also poisons Feanor against his brothers Fingolfin and Finarfin, not least with the lie Fingolfin and his sons are attempting a coup against Feanor and their father King Finwe. Feanor believes the lies, in anger draws a sword on Fingolfin, and is banished by the Valar from the city of Tirion for twelve years. He and his sons and other Noldor go to Formenos in the north, accompanied by King Finwe who can’t bear to part with his firstborn son; Fingolfin is left to rule the city of Tirion. Melkor goes into hiding, since the Valar have now exposed his deceptions. Melkor soon comes to Formenos to ingratiate himself with Feanor again, but Feanor sees through him, rightfully guessing that Melkor lusts after his Silmaril gems, and throws him out. Melkor disappears, going deeper into hiding, and Finwe sends a word of warning to Valmar (the city where the Valar live). But even though Melkor has been outed, the damage has been done. He has sown enough dissent in Feanor and his sons to initiate an elvish “fall” from paradise.

Years later, Manwe tries to heal the feud between the Noldor and summons Feanor to a festival on the high peak of Taniquetil. Feanor is reconciled with Fingolfin, but in that very hour Melkor and the giant spider Ungoliant descend on the Two Trees outside Valmar and destroy them, cutting off light in the world (this was the time before the sun and moon). The Valar ask Feanor for his Silmarils, as they are the only way to restore life and light to the Two Trees. Feanor refuses, highly possessive of his Silmaril gems. But he couldn’t have given them if he wanted to: at that moment messengers arrive from Formenos saying that after destroying the Trees, Melkor hurried to Formenos, killed Finwe, stole the Silmarils, and crossed the sea to Middle-Earth. Feanor curses Melkor, and curses the summons of Manwe which brought him to Taniquetil at this hour. Soon after, Feanor comes with his group of Noldor to Tirion (though his 12-year banishment is still in effect), summons all the Noldor elves to speak to them, and openly rebels against the Valar. With his father Finwe dead, he claims the kingship of the Noldor against his brother Fingolfin, and scorns the decrees of the Valar. For all his hatred for Melkor, he repeats Melkor’s lies as he still truly believes them: that the Valar had tricked the elves in order to confine them in paradise so that men might rule in Middle-Earth. He calls upon the Noldor to leave Valinor and forsake the gods. Then he and his seven sons swear a hideous oath: to pursue the Silmaril jewels at all costs, after which they plan to rule in Middle-Earth as lords of light; and to kill anyone who might stand in the way of their cause. If the drama began like in the book of Genesis, with Melkor leading Feanor astray with cunning lies (as the serpent did to Eve), it ends like in the book of the Watchers, with thousands of elves proudly and defiantly rebelling against the Valar (as the Watchers did in the heavenly court). Feanor and his sons even swear a Watcher-like oath. Then they proceed to the coastal city of Alqualonde and kill many of the Teleri (the sea elves) when they refuse to join the rebellion and supply the Noldor with ships. This is the first kinslaying in history (elf killing elf), signaling beyond doubt that the Noldor have “fallen” from grace.

That’s what happens in the early chapters of the The Silmarillion. The rest of the narrative tells what happens when the Noldor reach Middle-Earth and rule kingdoms in Beleriand. The world is on borrowed time. Like the Watchers in I Enoch, the elves initiate actions that spiral out of control. There are reprieves here and there, but the trajectory is clear: the forces of good continue losing ground to Melkor, they end up doing more harm than good in the name of fighting evil (both intentionally and unwittingly), and after six centuries it finally takes an apocalypse, with the intervention of the Valar, to get Melkor in chains. In the process, the entire realm of Beleriand is destroyed and sunk into the ocean. The forces of good and evil are both decimated.

“Fall” in the Second Age: The Rings of Power and the Elvish Paradises

The story of The Silmarillion is followed by two brief accounts of the Second Age: the creation of the Rings of Power (involving the elves), and the destruction of the island of Numenor (involving the men). Both involve a fall, and in both cases the evil agent is Sauron, who had been Melkor’s lieutenant in the First Age. The idea of a “second fall” seems counter-intuitive. What is there to fall from? The elves and men have already fallen (or rebelled) in the First Age, and they remain in their broken states. Neither race has been reconciled to their original destiny. But in Tolkien’s world it is possible to “fall” lower than before, if one keeps opposing the will of the gods. First let’s consider the elves.

To deceive the elves, Sauron disguises himself with sorcery to look fair, and takes a new name (Annatar), as he wouldn’t stand a chance otherwise. He finds the elves’ weak point in suggesting that they work together to make Middle-earth as beautiful as Valinor. Out of their joint efforts come the Rings of Power, and with the Three Elvish Rings the elves work magic to establish places of refuge: the hidden valley of Rivendell, the enchanted forest of Lothlorien, and the Grey Havens on the western coast where ships sail for Valinor. We know these places from Lord of the Rings, as they are the safest sanctuaries against Sauron and his evil minions. This is especially true in the Third Age, when the elves are free to use their Rings (since the One Ring is lost and Sauron can’t dominate them when they use theirs). Elrond uses the Ring of Air (Vilya) to hide Rivendell and make it a place of healing; Galadriel uses the Ring of Water (Nenya) to make time pass differently in Lothlorien and insulate it from hostile penetration; and Cirdan at the Grey Havens uses the Ring of Fire (Narya) to warm hearts and give people courage. These refuges become the cherished pocket paradises of Middle-Earth, and it’s hard to see anything evil about them.

Yet for Tolkien these sanctuaries represent a second fall of the elves. They were nothing less than

“… a veiled attack on the gods, an incitement to try and make separate independent paradises. In this we see a sort of second fall or at least ‘error’ of the elves. There was nothing wrong essentially in their lingering [in Middle-Earth] against counsel. But they wanted to have their cake without eating it. They wanted the peace and bliss and perfect memory of paradise, and yet to remain on the ordinary earth where their prestige as the highest people, above wild elves, dwarves, and men, was greater than at the bottom of the hierarchy of Valinor.” (Preface to The Silmarillion, xviii-xix)

I remember first reading this explanation decades ago, and it was then that I finally “got” The Lord of the Rings. It wasn’t the feel-good fantasy that was becoming popular in the ’80s. It’s a very somber fantasy about the long defeat of Eru’s (God’s) children, who keep falling and falling despite their best efforts. Sauron may have been defeated at the end of the Third Age, but The Lord of the Rings is about everyone’s defeat: the suffering and passing of Frodo, the foreordained deterioration of men in the Fourth Age — and not least the fading of the elves, as their earthly paradises are rendered impotent by the destruction of the One Ring, which nullifies the power of their own Rings. That’s what it takes to bring the elves back home to the true paradise of Valinor; and that’s why the Grey Havens epilogue is so moving and sad. The elves are finally reconciled to the gods — at the cost of their power.

But what kind of “fall” is this? Is it more akin to Adam and Eve in Genesis, or the Watchers in I Enoch? It seems that in this case the elves are closer to the Genesis model. There is no purposeful rebellion here. The elves don’t defy the Valar, invoke any oaths or curses, or act out in righteous anger. They genuinely believe the Rings of Power are a project for good, until Sauron reveals himself and they realize their error. In Genesis terms, they “see themselves naked for the first time” when Sauron puts on the One Ring. They are exposed and must use the powers of their Three Rings guardedly. There are no apocalyptic consequences to this fall. The elvish paradises are never destroyed. The elves’ punishment rather is that they are now tied to the fate of Sauron and will remain so throughout the Third Age. Their paradises depend on the evil of the One Ring to exist. When Frodo embarks on the quest to destroy the One Ring, the elves fear that outcome; they’re not fully on board with his quest. Galadriel tells Frodo, “Your coming is as the footsteps of doom. If you fail, then we are laid bare to the Enemy. Yet if you succeed, then our power is diminished, and Lothlorien will fade, and the tides of Time will sweep it away. We must depart into the West, or dwindle to a rustic folk of dell and cave, slowly to forget and to be forgotten.” (The Fellowship of the Ring, “The Mirror of Galadriel”) The elves are screwed either way — whether the One Ring is destroyed or re-obtained by Sauron — thanks to their own investment in the Rings of Power.

“Fall” in the Second Age: The downfall of men and destruction of Numenor

To reward the men who fought against Melkor in the First Age, the Valar give them Numenor, a huge island they raise out of the sea about halfway between Middle-Earth and Valinor. They forbid the Numenorean men to sail westward, for fear they will get too close to Valinor which mortal men cannot set foot on. Naturally, this ban — like the ban against eating the fruit of the tree in Eden — is what will lead to their second fall.

This is how Tolkien describes the second fall of men:

“It is partly the result of an inner weakness in men — consequent upon the first fall (unrecorded in these tales), repented but not finally healed. Reward on earth is more dangerous for men than punishment. The fall is achieved by the cunning of Sauron in exploiting this weakness. Its central theme is (inevitably, I think, in a story of men) a Ban, or Prohibition. The Númenóreans must not set foot on immortal lands, and so become enamored of an immortality which their nature could not in fact endure.” (Preface to The Silmarillion, xxi-xxii)

It’s crucial to note that the first fall of men, which is the Genesis account, happened in the First Age, though Tolkien never describes it. (Tolkien didn’t want to explicitly portray the Judeo-Christian myths in his stories.) The transgression in Eden happened 200 years after the elves’ rebellion in Valinor, though where the garden of Eden is on Tolkien’s map is something he never clarified. It’s also noteworthy that Tolkien believes men need special bans to constrain them. While the immortal elves “fall” or “rebel” when they become gods of their creations (the Silmaril jewels, the Rings of Power), mortal men “fall” or “rebel” when they break a commandment to pursue immortality.

Under their first twelve Numenorean kings, the men obey the Ban of the Valar freely and willingly. The 13th king Tar-Atanamir the Great is the first to speak out against the Ban, and also the first who is unwilling to surrender his throne voluntarily before dying. Subsequent kings follow his lead with increased resentment, until they finally rebel under the 25th and last king, Ar-Pharazon, who captures Sauron in Middle-Earth and brings him back in chains to Numenor. Sauron wastes no time corrupting Ar-Pharazon with lies, and soon graduates from prisoner to chief counselor.

Specifically, Sauron denies the existence of Eru (God), saying that the One is a mythical invention of the Valar, and that the Ban is a jealous commandment to keep men small and inferior to the elves and Valar. He starts a new religion in Numenor, building a temple and leading hideous rites of blood sacrifice and necromancy. Finally he convinces Ar-Pharazon to go to Valinor and seize everlasting life. The king begins building a great fleet to attack Valinor, and within ten years he breaks the Ban and sails west. For this outrageous act of blasphemy, he and his warriors who set foot on paradise are buried by an avalanche of falling hills, while the rest of the fleet is swallowed by the sea, and the island of Numenor itself is completely destroyed by the Valar — pulverized by cataclysm and sunk into the ocean.

This “fall” is clearly more a rebellion like that of the Watchers in I Enoch than the ban-breaking in Genesis. Not only is there purposeful defiance, the men actually have the audacity to wage war on the gods. And while it does take Sauron’s lies to bring them to this point, the first grumblings of discontent come naturally, starting with the 13th king, without any prompting or trickery from an outside agent.


Comparing the accounts in Genesis and I Enoch to those in Tolkien’s stories yields the following:

Adam & Eve (Genesis)
The Watchers (I Enoch)
The Elves (The Silmarillion)
The Elves (II) (The Rings of Power)
The Men (II) (Numenor)
Deceived by an evil agent?
Yes (the serpent) No Yes (Melkor) Yes (Sauron) Yes (Sauron)
Unplanned fall or purposeful rebellion?
Fall Rebellion Rebellion Fall Rebellion
Men labor hard to live; women labor hard in childbirth Destruction of the world (the Flood) Destruction of Beleriand (the War of Wrath) Elves are tied to the fate of evil; their powers depend on the existence of the One Ring Destruction of Numenor (Cataclysm and engulfed by the sea)

I have no idea how familiar Tolkien was with I Enoch. But these patterns are striking when we apply Philip Esler’s distinction between “fall” and “rebellion”. While there are serious repercussions to a fall, a rebellion calls forth a divine retribution that is wholly uncompromising: annihilation. I can’t help think the Watchers were in Tolkien’s mind when he wrote the rebellions of the elves and men.

“There cannot be any story without a fall,” wrote Tolkien, and he meant business by that remark. A proper story for him involved alienation from an intended harmony, and miserably unhappy endings. He was obsessed with the consequences of  those who “crave godliness” — whether elves wanting to be gods of their own creations, or men wanting immortality. The result may be fall (men in the First Age, elves in the Second Age) or catastrophic rebellion (elves in the First Age, men in the Second Age), but either way, Tolkien held out precious little hope for the children of Eru.



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.

Dying Words: Jesus and Muhammad

In a video about the famous last words of Jesus and Muhammad, David Wood suggests that we learn a lot about someone by pondering his dying words, especially if the person’s death is painful and agonizing. He’s a Christian apologist but makes an interesting point.

Jesus died by crucifixion, obviously a hideous ways to die, and as he hung on the cross, skin dangling like ribbons from his scourging, he said of his tormentors,

“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing.” (Lk 23:24)

Jesus had told his followers to love their enemies (Mt 5:44), and he practiced what he preached. If you can love and forgive your enemies while being crucified, you’ve pretty much outdone yourself. His words had an impact, as we see when the first Christian martyr Stephen was being stoned to death; he cried out similarly, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them!” (Acts 7:60)

Muhammad’s death was also agonizing. He was poisoned by a Jewish woman whose family had been slaughtered by Muslims, but the poison worked slowly, eating away at his organs. He said:

“May Allah curse the Jews and Christians, for they built the places of worship at the graves of the prophets.” (Sahih al-Bukari 1:8:427)

Muhammad’s dying prayer was not a forgiveness petition like Jesus’, but a curse. He was forbidding his followers to build a mosque on his grave, and made his point by calling down Allah’s curse on Jews and Christians, who were known for doing this sort of thing. Note the irony: Islam’s second largest mosque is in fact built over Muhammad’s grave in Medina. So if Jews and Christians are under Allah’s curse for building places of worship and the graves of their prophets, then so are Muslims. Muhammad in effect cursed not only unbelievers, but Muslims themselves.

For present purposes it doesn’t matter how historical the accounts are in the Christian and Islamic sources. What matters is that this is how Jesus and Muhammad are depicted, and it’s what many Christians and Muslims believe about their savior/prophet. Dying intentions speak volumes, and in these cases one is an act of extreme charity, the other a parting blow.

“If You Call Yourself a Jew”

I love the way RBL reviews come so after the fact. Philip Esler has reviewed Rafael Rodriguez’s work on Romans, which was published back in 2014. It’s a good excuse to revisit the book, which follows the Stowers school that Romans is addressed primarily to Gentiles, rather than (as I believe) a mixed audience of Jews and Gentiles. Why then does Romans sound so Jewish-oriented unlike the rest of Paul’s letters? Rodriguez’s solution is to view the interlocutor (conversation partner) of Rom 2:17 as a gentile proselyte to Judaism — in other words, as Rodriguez claims, someone of Gentile ethnicity but of Jewish religiosity, and who teaches Gentiles to become Jewish proselytes like himself.

As Esler points out in his review, this allows Rodriguez to have his cake and eat it, for the person addressed in Rom 2:17 is both a Gentile and a Jew: “Paul still imagines a gentile in vv. 17 ff., only now this gentile has taken on the yoke of Torah — an individual of gentile origin who wants to call himself a Jew”. But how is this person a transgressor of the Torah, even to the point that his circumcision breaks the law? Rodriguez’s answer is that the circumcision wasn’t performed on the eighth day as required by Lev. 12:3. Esler asks for “some evidence for the idea that a law requiring adult Israelites to circumcise their sons on the eighth day could be, or ever was, invoked as a bar, or indeed have any relevance, to adult non-Israelites wishing to join Israel and willing to be circumcised to do so.” Indeed, I can’t imagine that being an obstacle at all. Not only were there probably Jewish sons circumcised on days other than the eighth, Abraham himself (Paul’s hero) wasn’t understood to be in the Old Testament or intertestamental literature.

Esler also warns about false distinctions between “ethnic” and “religious” Jews, saying that “becoming a Jew/Judean through circumcision and adoption of Jewish/Judean customs meant adoption of Jewish/Judean ethnic identity, not the adoption of a separable and separate Jewish religious identity, which was nonexistent in the first century.” Then there are the Jewish addresses of Rom 16, which Rodriguez (following Stowers) sees as third-party greetings rather than greetings to the actual recipients of the letter — which I agree with Esler asks a bit much.

I admire Rodríguez’s argument as much as I see problems with it. As someone who has spent years on Romans, I’m continually intrigued by various solutions to the audience puzzle. For Rodríguez, Rom 1:18–1:31 addresses the depraved immoral pagan, 2:1–16 the elitist moralizing pagan, and 2:17–29 the gentile proselyte to Judaism. That last allows him creativity at the point of Rom 7:9 which says, “I once lived apart from the law.”

The more plausible outline, as I see it, is to look at the overarching argument of Rom 1:18-3:20, where Paul takes down Gentiles and Jews, but in different ways, so as to put them on the same playing field while underscoring differences so as to reduce competition between the two ethnic factions. One of the key points of Esler’s 2003 book is that in Romans Paul avoids saying, “In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek” (Gal 3:28). He’s more enlightened than he was in I Corinthians and Galatians, and learning from his failures now understands that there should indeed be “Jew and Greek in Christ”, at least to a significant degree, so that differences can be respected rather than erased. On that understanding, the outline of Rom 1:18-3:20 would look like this:

Both groups are judged (1:18-3:20)

1. Gentiles are judged apart from the law (1:18-2:5)

2. Gentiles are subject to a “natural” law written on their pagan hearts, as much as Jews are to the Torah (2:6-16)

1′. Jews are judged by the law (2:17-2:29)

2′. Jews under the law are dominated by the power of sin as much as Gentiles under ungodliness, though in a completely different way: the law accentuates sin when transgression occurs (3:1-20)

The equal attention paid to both Gentile and Jewish factions in Rome is then repeated in Rom 6:1-7:25, this time from the standpoint of baptism and death.

Both groups die (6:1-7:25)

— Both die to the power of sin (6:1-15)

1. Gentiles die to sin and become slaves of God (6:16-23)

2. Jews die to the law and become slaves of the spirit (7:1-25)

Again, both groups are seen to be on the same footing but in different ways. And “dying to the law” in Rom 7 is run parallel to the Eden story in Genesis. Rodriguez’s view that Rom 7:9 — “I once lived apart from the law” — refers to a Gentile proselyte is too superficial for Paul’s overarching purpose.

For reasons that escape me, many persist in denying the focus of the Genesis story. Esler himself is guilty of this, but to me it’s rather clear that Adam looms over the section of Rom 5-8, and comes to particular focus in the parallels of Rom 7:7-13, where “alive” and newly created, he is placed in Eden (Gen. 2:7-9) and “commanded” by God not to eat of the tree of life (Gen. 2:16-17), whereafter the serpent “seizes opportunity” to further its own ends (Gen. 3:1-5) and Eve complains that she was “deceived” (Gen. 3:13). God then kills humanity, punishing it with mortality (Gen. 3:19,22-23). As much as I’ve tried in the past, I can’t escape the conclusion that Paul has deliberately assumed the role of Adam in order to “prove” that life under the Torah replicates Adam/Eve’s failure under the commandment in Eden. His argument is an exegetical one, in effect urging that the traps and snares of the Torah trace back to the horror of the fall, which in turn fulfills his ambitious desire to prove that Jews are no better under the law (7:1-25), than Gentiles are under ungodliness (6:16-23), each requiring the dramatic rescue operation of 8:1-17.

At the very least, Esler’s review is good cause to revisit Rodriguez’s stimulating explanation as to why Paul’s interlocutor “calls himself a Jew”. I have to admit it’s one of the better efforts from the Stowers camp.

Paul’s Death Metaphors: A Conflicted Soteriology

If you need something to read for Good Friday/Easter, make it Stephen Finlan’s The Background and Content of Paul’s Cultic Atonement Metaphors. It’s a detailed analysis of how Paul thought Christ’s death had saving power, and while no single answer emerges, at least one can be safely excluded: the Protestant idea of penal substitution. The idea that “Christ stands in for the sinner” is absent in Paul’s letters, despite his rich variety of death metaphors.

There are four metaphors, as Finlan shows: (1) martyrdom, (2) sacrifice, (3) scapegoat, and (4) ransom payment. For Paul, Christ was a martyr who also functioned as a sacrificial paschal lamb, mercy seat of faith, sin-bearer, and redeemer all in one. The metaphors are different and even at odds with each other, so let’s go through them.

Paul’s favorite metaphor: martyrdom

I call it his favorite because he uses it most. It is best explained in Jeffrey Gibson’s essay, “Paul’s Dying Formula”, cited by Finlan, which argues that Paul inverted the “noble death” theme found in Greek literature (see pp 196-197). “X dies for Y” referred to the warrior ideal by which heroes die for friends, family, city, or religious ideas, though never for enemies. So when Paul says that “Christ died for sinners”, and for his enemies at that (and by submitting to dishonor on the cross rather than going down in combat), he was invoking martyrdom and giving it a brutal twist. Christ died for the benefit of sinners and ungodly people and he went down in shame. The point is that “Christ died for us” doesn’t refer to sacrifice or atonement (far less penal substitution). It refers to martyrdom.

So how does martyrdom benefit the believer? What does Christ’s death “do” for the sinner, if not atone? Surprisingly, Finlan doesn’t mention David Seeley’s The Noble Death, which deals with the subject at some length. Like Gibson, Seeley thinks Paul’s view is closest to that of the Maccabean martyrs and Greco-Roman philosophers. In IV Maccabees the Judean heroes defeat tyranny through defiance and obedience to the Torah, dying for it (IV Macc 1:11; 18:4). In a Greco-Roman context, a philosopher like Socrates dies in prison in order to free humanity from the fear of death and imprisonment (Seneca, Ad Lucilium Epistulae Morales 24:4), an example followed by Cato who kills himself rather than be captured by Caesar. The deaths of the martyrs and philosophers benefit others who follow their example and die virtuously.

And what is the benefit to following Christ’s example? According to Paul, believers die with him at baptism, reenacting his death by destroying the sinful body and gaining release from enslavement to sin (Rom 6:1-11; 8:10). To be sure, Christians have only begun to die — and they’re not literally crucified like Jesus — but the “mimetic pattern”, says Seeley, is exactly the same. Just as copying a martyr gains victory over a tyrant, or copying a philosopher gains victory over fortune, copying Christ gains victory over sin and death. “Christ died for us” means that one can achieve the same victory by dying as Christ did. It does not mean that Christ died as a sacrifice of atonement, or ransom payment… though Paul does happen to believe that Christ’s death functioned in those ways too.

The importance of all four elements

Seeley notes that the idea of sacrifice sometimes creeps in to martyrdom theology. The blood of the Maccabean martyrs served as “an atoning sacrifice” (IV Macc. 17:21-22); the blood of Thrasea’s suicide was sprinkled on the ground as a libation to the gods (Tacitus, Annals 16:35); the blood of Christ was put forward in atonement as the messiah became a new “mercy seat of faith” (Rom 3:25). But Seeley thinks these sacrificial metaphors are subsidiary, supplementing the far more important martyrdom theme.

Finlan refutes attempts to downplay the importance of sacrifice and other elements. Martyrdom may have been Paul’s “favorite” idea, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it was his most important. Martyrdom provided a platform for other ideas that were imperative for him and other Christians of his time: cultic sacrifice, scapegoat, and ransom-payment:

“Martyrdom seems to have been absorbed into these other metaphors, to be interpreted by them; it may be the most fundamental of Paul’s concepts, but its meaning requires the usage of metaphors from the cultic and social realms.” (p 193)

This is the strength of Finlan’s approach, as it takes all of Paul’s ideas seriously, and integrates them without glossing or distorting ideas currently out of favor. Here are the texts pertaining to each metaphor.

(1) Martyrdom/Noble Death — I Cor 8:11, I Cor 15:3, II Cor 5:15 (x2), Rom 5:6-8 (x2), Rom 14:9, Gal 2:20-21, I Thess 5:9-10

(2) Sacrifice — Rom 3:25, I Cor 5:7, I Cor 11:25

(3) Scapegoat — Gal 3:13, II Cor 5:21, Rom 6:6, Rom 7:4, Rom 8:3

(4) Ransom/Redemption — I Cor 6:20, 7:23

Paul believed all of this, and it was a bold fusion on his part. Finlan devotes an entire chapter to distinguishing sacrifices from scapegoats, showing why their fusion in the Christian tradition is radical. Scapegoats were not sacrifices but rather expulsion victims, and opposite in every way. Sacrifices were pure and offered reverently to God; scapegoats impure and driven out harshly to a wilderness demon. The former were spotless and their blood was a cleansing agent; the latter were sin carriers, vile and corrupt (see pp 81-93). To portray an individual as a sacrifice and scapegoat at the same time, as Paul did, would have been an oxymoron. Putting all four together makes this game of metaphors schizophrenic in the extreme.

How sacrifice worked

But how did sacrifice, whether traditional Jewish or Christian, effect atonement? It served a propitiatory function, appeasing an angry God as a “food bribe”. The idea of propitiatory substitution was different from the later (Protestant) idea of penal substitution. In penal substitution the sacrifice “stands in” to take the punishment of the offender, and that’s what most of us today associate with atonement. But propitiatory substitution involves a pure sinless offering, offered as payment to a sovereign deity in order to appease his anger and wrath.

As the Torah became increasingly important, sacrifice also took on a purifying/expiatory role, the cleansing of impurity and sin. Lev 17:11 explains: “For the life of the flesh is in the blood; and I have given it to you for making atonement for your lives on the altar; for, as life, it is the blood that makes atonement.” (Lev 17:11) When harnessed properly, the life-force that resides within blood somehow reverses the anti-life of sin and pollution.

In other words, by the time of the Holiness Code of Leviticus, propitiatory-substitution and expiatory understandings had become fused: tribute payment and animistic cleansing both explained how sacrifice atones for sin. The context of Rom 3:25 shows that Paul believed both. His explanation that Christ is the new mercy seat involves both propitiation (appeasing God) and expiation (cleansing of sinners) (p 135). Gentiles would have probably heard propitiatory themes in the background, while Jews and God-fearers would have heard both (pp 141-143). Propitiatory themes dominate, however, since the cultic act of Rom 3:25 offsets the divine wrath recounted previously at great length in Rom 1:18-3:20 (p 144). But the idea of penal substitution, developed centuries later by Protestant reformers, is alien to Paul’s thought. (The Catholic view of satisfaction substitution is the one that more properly derives from propitiatory-substitution.)

That’s the sacrifice passage of Romans, anyway. What about the sacrifice passages of I Corinthians (5:7 and 11:25), where Christ is depicted not as a mercy seat (for the Day of Atonement), but as a paschal lamb (for Passover)? Passover sacrifice did not atone/forgive; it protected. Yahweh “passed over” those so protected when he came in judgment. The ancient tradition of Israelites smearing lamb blood on the doors of their homes was so that God would deliver his people from oppressors. In the eucharist tradition (I Cor 5:7, I Cor 11:25), the flesh and blood of the passover lamb was replaced by Jesus’ own “body and blood”, in the bread and wine, which was likewise intended to protect (not propitiate or purify as in the rite of atonement) his followers from God’s fiery judgment against Jerusalem and its leaders.

That’s a lot of ideas Paul makes room for, but for all the variety there’s not a hint of penal substitution. The only passage in the New Testament which possibly provides a basis for penal substitution is I Pet 2:24b, which owes to Isa 53:4-5, “by his wounds we are healed”. This may indicate that (for the writer of I Peter), Christ, like Israel’s servant, died in place of others. Aside from this one text, however, there is nothing in the NT pointing to Christ’s death as a penal substitute — certainly nothing in Paul.

The evolution of sacrifice

A fascinating part of Finlan’s book is his discussion of the way sacrifice evolves in practice and thought. Though it irritates many scholars to speak of evolution in a way that suggests “progress through spiritualization”, it’s a matter of fact that “a heightening of intellectual culture brings a heightening of moral sensibility, and calls bloody sacrifice into question” (p 46). Finlan proposes that sacrifice evolves away from its primitive roots in six stages: substitution, moralization, interiorization, metaphorization, rejection, and spiritualization (see pp 47-70):

1. Substitution, occurring when human sacrifice (Gen 22:2) becomes replaced with animal sacrifice (or other foodstuffs) (Exod 13:2,12-13; 34:20; Num 18:15).

2. Moralization (or reformism), attributing new spiritual and abstract meanings to the practice of sacrifice (Psalm 4, Malachi).

3. Interiorization, asserting that what matters to the deity is the right attitude and a clean heart, though sacrifice is not rejected (I Sam 15, Psalm 51, Psalm 141, Proverb 15, Proverb 21, I & II Enoch).

4. Metaphorization, applying cultic ideas to non-cultic practices; sacrifice is valued on a metaphorical level (IV Maccabees, Paul, Philo, Greco-Roman philosophers).

5. Rejection, repudiating the sacrificial cult altogether (Amos, Hosea, Micah, Jeremiah, and Isaiah 1).

6. Spiritualization, interiorizing religious values to the extreme that transformation of the human character has become the chief goal of religious faith (Middle Platonic philosophies, the patristic and Greek Orthodox concept of theosis).

Paul values sacrifice on the metaphorical level, superseding without rejecting the temple cult. In saying that “God put forward Christ in a bloody death as a mercy seat of faith” (Rom 3:25), he claims that the crucified Christ has become for the world what the mercy seat was for Israel. Or in saying that Christ is the new paschal lamb (I Cor 5:7, I Cor 11:25), he claims that the savior’s blood protects believers against the wrath of God poured out on oppressors and the wicked.

Supersessionism is inherent to levels 3/4 (interiorization/ metaphorization), when death and glory are seen simultaneously in the old system (as in II Cor 3:6-11; Philip 3:4b-11). But it gets complicated, because sometimes a view of sacrifice can be found straddling many levels. And there are subtypes within levels. For instance, level 4 metaphorization can involve either typology (Paul) or allegory (Philo). Typology can lean in a direction of level 2/3 (reform/interiorization) or 5 (rejection) without taking sides. Allegory, meanwhile, involves a strategy of replacement along levels 1/3/5 (literal/ interiorization/ rejection). So typology sees fulfillment, whereas allegory sees replacement; each is a variation of the level 4 stage. (See pp 68-70)

Jesus’ thoughts on the matter…?

What would the historical Jesus have thought about all this? Did he have a martyr’s complex and brace himself (and his followers) for a “noble death” as he prepared to take on Jerusalem? Did he have even more radical ideas — cultic ideas which scholars are loathe to attribute to Paul, let alone him? I suspect that, at the very least, Jesus had a martyr’s complex, believing that his suffering and death were part of the tribulation period that preceded the apocalypse. He may also have attributed sacrificial (Mk 14:22-25/Mt 26:26-29) and/or ransom elements (Mk 10:45/Mt 20:28) to his death as reported in the gospels, but I suspect that he didn’t.

Finlan’s book is the best I know of that does justice to Paul’s understanding of Christ’s death. We may have little use for “barbaric” ideas like cultic atonement and bloody sacrifice, but for better or worse they were part of his theology, integrated into a broader framework of martyrdom. The variety of metaphors makes Paul conflicted to say the least, but there you have it.

Babatha’s Orchard

Last week Gloucestershire Live published an article about an “Indiana Jones” biblical scholar who made a great discovery. Usually that’s a warning to count the spoons and brace for impact. But the scholar in question is Philip Esler — just about the last name you would associate with crackpot archaeology. So what is Babatha’s Orchard about?

In the first pages of the book Esler assures us:

“There are no Arks of the Covenant, hidden temple vessels, Holy Grails, lost Gospels or Mary Magdalens here. Instead this is a tale of domestic life. It is the story of how, around 99 CE, Shim’on, Babatha’s father, unexpectedly came to acquire an irrigated date-palm orchard in his village of Maoza, on the southern shore of the Dead Sea, in the kingdom of Nabatea.” (p xvi)

Babatha’s Orchard is exciting to read because it’s real. It offers a window onto everyday life in antiquity, unencumbered by sensationalism. That window is provided by the Babatha collection, discovered in 1961 by a team of archaeologists, which are the possessions of a second-century Jewish woman including sandals, balls of yarn, key-rings, knives, bowls, waterskins, and other items — and also a pouch containing 35 legal documents. These documents are dated between 94 and 132 AD, and consist of various contracts for purchase of property, loans, weddings, and the registration of land.

Esler is concerned with the earliest four documents, Papyri Yadin 1-4, the first of which dates to 94, the other three to 99. P. Yadin 2 and 3 describe the purchase of a date-palm orchard, first by a Nabatean high-ranking official named Archelaus, second by a Judean (Jew) named Shim’on (the future father of Babatha) only a month later — but purchased both times from the same woman. Esler not only reconstructs what went on between P. Yadin 2 and 3, he also argues that P. Yadin 1 and 4 bear on the same issue. “No one seems to have asked,” says Esler, “why the first and fourth documents were found in the archive in the first place.” Why did Babatha, years later, keep copies of these legal documents? They presumably had some relevance to the orchard acquired by her father and should help make sense of that event.

The mystery of P. Yadin 1

P. Yadin 1 describes a transaction in 94 AD that at first blush seems to have nothing to do with the orchard sale (and resale) in 99. Basically a Nabatean named Muqima borrowed money from his wife’s dowry to purchase a lease of property, and to share the investment risk enlisted a partner whose name was Abad-Amanu. What no one seems to have realized before Esler is that the Abad-Amanu of P. Yadi 1 is none other than the father of Archelaus, the buyer of the orchard in P. Yadin 2 — a link that proves of “critical importance in unlocking the mystery behind these documents” (p 111).

The mystery is how Abi-adan (the woman who owned the orchard) sold the orchard to Archelaus (P. Yadin 2) and then only a month later sold it to Shim’on (P. Yadin 3). Scholars have suggested that Abi-adan annulled her agreement with Archelaus when Shim’on offered a better deal, but Esler refutes this, for there is no way Abi-adan could simply have reneged on her deal which gave Archelaus legal rights. Not to mention the extreme unlikelihood that a non-elite woman would act in such a capricious way towards a strategos (a government official charged with both civil and military duties, as Archelaus was) (p 140). No, it must have been that Archelaus himself backed out of the agreement, requesting that Abi-adan annul the contract and refund his money. But why?

Esler spots the reason under our noses in P. Yadin 1 — and the reason for which that seemingly unrelated document is in the Babatha collection to begin with. The partner of that earlier transaction, Abad-Amanu, died soon after Archelaus bought the orchard in 99, and he was Archelaus’ father. At this point the woman (Amat-Isi) was still owed money under the loan agreement with her husband Muqima and Abad-Amanu. Esler argues that Nabatean law provided for universal succession (like the legal systems of Mesopotomia, Rome, and certain Judean provinces), which means that an heir (like Archelaus) received the entire estate of the deceased (Abad-Amanu), benefits and debt included. Amat-Isi would have been calling on Archelaus to pay Abad-Amanu’s debt, and his honor as a strategos was at stake. So he appealed to Abi-adan to rescind the bargain of P. Yadin 2. That turn of fate immensely benefited the Judean (Jewish) Shim’on, who was probably passed over the first go-around in favor of the strategos, and was now waiting in the wings to buy the orchard.

The mystery of P. Yadin 4

That triggers the second mystery, the one of P. Yadin 4, which survives as a fragmentary document without any legible names, but which Esler believes to allow more restoration than scholars have realized. Through brilliant detective work he shows that P. Yadin 4 is a grant (a cross between a gift and a sale, or a transfer of property where the return wasn’t necessarily a purchase price), and indeed the very grant mentioned in P. Yadin 3. Shim’on wanted to buy a larger portion of the orchard than Archelaus did, and Abi-adan was apparently planning to acquire that extra piece of orchard from a certain “son of Lutay”, who would give it to her as a grant. In P. Yadin 4 we have exactly that: someone saying that he will grant an orchard to a female.

More sleuthing on Esler’s part makes everything fall into place, as this “son of Lutay” emerges as the likely husband of Abi-adan. He acknowledges that he is debt to her in P. Yadin 4, and that he will reduce his debt by transferring the extra piece of orchard to her (which he was currently leasing to someone else, to expire in a few months). Esler points out that when men are indebted to women, it’s almost invariably the case of husbands indebted to their wives for having drawn on the wife’s dowry. Also, back in P. Yadin 3, Abi-adan and the son of Lutay are referred to together solely by their first names, which is a familiar manner of designation suggesting a married pair.

The relevance of Nabatean culture

Like any Philip Esler book, Babatha’s Orchard is prefaced by chapters of background history and cultural cues. I hadn’t realized how egalitarian the Nabateans were compared to their contemporaries, and that the ethic apparently pervaded all the way up to the kingship. Esler cites Strabo who describes the Nabatean king as a “man of the people” who served them at banquets, and who accounted for himself at popular assemblies where his means and methods were scrutinized. That’s a humble model of kingship hard to find elsewhere in the ancient Mediterranean.

Esler accounts for this in terms of the nomadic mindset. From their earliest days (in the fourth century BC) the Nabateans jealously guarded their independence and freedom. They were able to take refuge in the desert when forces invaded, and were hard for enemies to overcome because of secret wells they could access. Fredrik Barth has explained how nomadic household leaders had a freedom that was incompatible with the hierarchical structures of agrarian societies.

“Unlike a sedentary community, which persists unless the members abandon their house and land and depart, a camp community of nomads can only persist through a continuous re-affirmation by all its members. Every day the members of the camp must agree in their decision on the vital question of whether to move on, or to stay camped, and if they move, by which route and how far they should move. Every household head has an opinion, and the prosperity of the household is dependent on his decision.” (p 38)

Even after the emergence of a sedentary lifestyle and the kingship (in the second century BC), the Nabateans retained a nomadic dimension to their existence right up into the second century AD. The king and the elites were in sync with this.

This becomes relevant when Esler is able to illuminate things in surprising ways. For example, in his reconstruction, Amat-Isi (the woman of P. Yadin 1) called on Archelaus to collect the debt his father owed her. But Archelaus was a strategos, and in most places in the Mediterranean, it would have been a bold if not suicidal move on the part of a woman (or non-elite man, for that matter) to risk affronting an elite. As a rule, however, the Nabateans disdained elitist superiority and didn’t go out of their way to make life difficult for “presumptuous” commoners:

“Influenced by the nomadic traditions still operative among the Nabatean elite, Archelaus was not someone filled with his own sense of importance and was not likely to hold it against Amat-Isi in the future that she had asked him for the money his father had owed.” (p 224)

Not exactly how things worked in Judea and Galilee.

The Upshot

If I could write a book like Babatha’s Orchard, I’d be very proud. Rarely can scholars piece together missing and obscured information so compellingly, and in a way that allows us to read it as a story. Esler writes that story in the final chapter — how a Jew living in Nabatea bought a date-palm orchard from a woman after a high-ranking official failed to do so — bringing to life a complex web of events, personal motives, and social relations. It’s a story one could easily get a novel from. The book is also impressive as a study for its own sake and not as a means to an end. “I am not concerned,” says Esler, “to interpret New Testament texts against a social context known from the Nabatean legal papyri. Rather, I am seeking to understand better that context itself.” That’s fresh air, and the kind of thing I’d love to see more from our New Testament scholars.

The post-script to Babatha’s story is sad. In the Jewish revolt of 135 AD, she was captured by the Romans and in all likelihood killed or enslaved. But not before hiding her collection in a cave by the Dead Sea, to await discovery in 1961. Esler’s book honors her in the best possible way.

Concession or Critique: “The Poor You Will Always Have With You”

the-woman-anointing-jesus-feetIs Jesus’ saying a concession to the fact of poverty, or a critique of its continuing presence? Ray Vaillancourt argues the latter in his recent blogpost, and I think he’s probably right.

The relevant story is that of Mk 14:3-9/Mt 26:6-13/Jn 12:1-11, in which Jesus retorts, “The poor you will always have with you”, to his disciples, who are furious over a woman’s extravagant waste. The story actually seems to suggest that the disciples were concerned about the poor on that occasion, and not Jesus. The message would then be that followers of Jesus should resign themselves to the eternal reality of poverty — as long as Christians do “something nice for Jesus”, their consciences are clean.

If that’s true, then Jesus was radically revising Deuteronomy 15, sort of like the way Paul revised the figure of Abraham in Genesis 15 (by ignoring the stipulations of Genesis 17). Paul said that circumcision and ethnic commandments did not have to accompany faith. Jesus, if he were pulling a Paul, would be saying that jubilee and other debt provisions were no longer mandatory. Here’s the full relevant passage in Deuteronomy, with verses 4-5 and 11 in bold:

At the end of every third year you shall bring out all the tithes of your produce for that year and deposit them within your own communities, that the Levite who has no hereditary portion with you, and also the resident alien, the orphan and the widow within your gates, may come and eat and be satisfied; so that the Lord, your God, may bless you in all that you undertake. At the end of every seven-year period you shall have a remission of debts, and this is the manner of the remission. Creditors shall remit all claims on loans made to a neighbor, not pressing the neighbor, one who is kin, because the Lord’s remission has been proclaimed. You may press a foreigner, but you shall remit the claim on what your kin owes to you. However, since the Lord will bless you abundantly in the land the Lord will give you to possess as a heritage, there shall be no one of you in need if you but listen to the voice of the Lord and carefully observe this entire commandment which I enjoin on you today. Since the Lord will bless you as he promised, you will lend to many nations, and borrow from none; you will rule over many nations, and none will rule over you. If one of your kindred is in need in any community in the land which the Lord is giving you, you shall not harden your heart nor close your hand against your kin who is in need. Instead, you shall freely open your hand and generously lend what suffices to meet that need. Be careful not to entertain the mean thought, “The seventh year, the year of remission, is near,” so that you would begrudge your kin who is in need and give nothing, and your kin would cry to the Lord against you and you would be held guilty. When you give, give generously and not with a stingy heart; for that, the Lord will bless you in all your works and undertakings. The land will never lack for needy persons; that is why I command you: “Open your hand freely to your poor and to your needy kin in your land.” (Deuteronomy 14:28-15:11)

As Ray notes in his blogpost, verses 4-5 supply a vision which verse 11 acknowledges won’t be realized, due to the conditional requirement: if you observe the law, then there will be no one in need. “Observing the law” in this case includes commandments like the forgiveness of debts every seven years, and the Jubilee redistribution of wealth every 49 years to clean the mounting slate of injustices. In effect, the Deuteronomy passage is saying that “If you cancel debts as required by the law, then there will be no one in need. If you don’t charge loans with interest, then there will be no one in need. If you keep the law in the spirit of Deuteronomy and the prophets (and less by the lights of Leviticus and the scribes), then there will indeed be abundance for everyone in the land.”

But that returns us to the question: was this in fact Jesus’ understanding of Deuteronomy 15, or was he, as our modern Republicans insist, spinning Deuteronomy 15 in a new lais·sez-faire way — saying in effect, “The poor you will always have, so just live with it and don’t worry.” The Republicans have a case, because if anything it’s the disciples who seem to be reinforcing Deuteronomy 15, not Jesus, who is scolding them for sticking up for the poor. The problem lies in their sincerity. Ray cites Malina and Rohrbaugh, who note that a female with free access to a dinner attended by males would be a woman of questionable reputation, and the resentful disciples are simply using poverty rhetoric to shame this woman. They’re more angry at her presumption than her wastefulness. By defending her Jesus is fending off their hypocrisy more than anything else. (Also, in the context of the larger gospel narrative, the oil she’s using isn’t a self-indulgent meal anointing, but a preparation for Jesus’ burial — a devotional act which resounds to the messiah’s honor.) In John’s version of the story, the hypocrisy is made explicit with the character of Judas, who defended the poor, “not because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief and held the money bag and used to steal the contributions”.

In other words, in retorting “The poor you will always have with you,” Jesus brings Deuteronomy 15 into the spotlight in order to hold the disciples to their word. It’s meaningless to get indignant over injustices if you’re not committed to rectifying them, or if you’re just playing the social-justice warrior to cover for self-righteousness or prejudice. The disciples were doing one or the other or both, in over-zealously faulting a woman with good intentions.

Of course, Republicans can always rely on the face-value reading of Jesus’ saying. They can claim that a new day had dawned, and Jesus dispensed with the debt provisions of Deuteronomy — just like Paul later did with the circumcision requirement of Genesis. But I think that’s a heavy lift, given that the gospel testimony is replete for activism on this point, not least in the way Jesus tells disciples to sell everything they have and give to the poor. People like Jesus and Paul were as likely to reinforce scripture as revise it. Paul revised Genesis 15/17 for the benefit of his pagan converts. Jesus reinforced Deuteronomy 15 for the welfare of the poor.