Evil Origins

I remember well the eerie, uncanny feeling I had as a child reading Genesis 6.1-4.  This wasn’t a story we heard in Sunday School, and it wasn’t in any children’s Bible or Arch Books.  It was mysterious and strange, and not understanding what sex was made it even weirder.  The sons of God, or perhaps angels, came down from Heaven to mate with human women.  Although not stated directly, their offspring seem to have been giants.  Abruptly the story ends.  Archie T. Wright was clearly fascinated by this story as well.  His book, The Origin of Evil Spirits: The Reception of Genesis 6:1-4 in Early Jewish Literature, isn’t so much about demons as it is about the influence of this very brief, extremely odd story.

As a young person I knew about the book 1 Enoch.  Living in a rural town with no bookstore and no library (there was one in the town three miles away, but I didn’t drive and out-of-towners had to pay for a card), I had no way to read it.  Wright writes quite a bit about it here.  (In case you’re wondering, yes, in subsequent years I did read it.)  His history of transmission is a little suspect, but he explores the impact of these four brief verses on what can perhaps best be described as a diegesis.  This universe includes Watchers (the first part of 1 Enoch is called The Book of the Watchers), archangels, angels, evil spirits, giants, and demons.  Later Judaism moved away from this world, while early Christianity grew fascinated with it.  The mythology that emerged from it is sprawling and quite bizarre.  All encapsulated in a few verses before the flood.

Wright’s book is academic; it’s a revised dissertation.  Still, it’s a source more credible than a lot of what you find on the internet.  This particular biblical episode is an example of what happens when you don’t explain enough.  Granted, the writer likely had no idea that this brief account—shorter than a blog post—would eventually make it into a book that some people would consider from the anthropomorphic mouth of God himself, but because of this brevity questions, like angels, hung in the air.  As Wright shows, these verses were incorporated into ways of explaining the existence of evil in the world.  It was known by many names, and even took on personification in the form of Satan and his ilk.  This is a world of the unexpected, and it readily took me back to a childhood of wonder concerning the inexplicable passages in the Good Book.

Enoch Enough

For a person referenced so little in the Bible, Enoch captured popular imagination in a way difficult to comprehend.  Even in ancient times speculation about him was rampant.  The seventh generation from Adam, and great-grandfather of Noah, Enoch lived a remarkably short 365 years before “he was not, for God took him.”  Now, there are lots of obscure people in the Bible.  Many of them have very little afterlife in later tradition.  Enoch, however, became the putative author of a collection of booklets that goes by the name of 1 Enoch.  This book fed speculation in antiquity and became a vehicle for many esoteric traditions that continue even into the present day.  It might seem that there’s little information to go on for an entire book, but James C. VanderKam’s Enoch: A Man for All Generations finds plenty of material with which to work.

A careful scholar like VanderKam doesn’t delve much into speculation, and he rather cautiously examines many of the ancient texts that discuss Enoch and draws some basic conclusions.  There’s a lot of information in this book.  With my own fascination concerning the Bible and popular culture, what stood out to me was how Enoch went from the “mere” man who didn’t die to become, in some traditions, the Metatron, or “the lesser Yahweh.”  Having been a fan of Dogma since teaching at the perhaps too sanctimonious Nashotah House, I’d never researched the late, great Alan Rickman’s character.  I supposed the Metatron was a character like the Muse—some extra-biblical quasi-divine functionary thrown in for fun.  I didn’t doubt such a figure was known in early Jewish or Christian writings, but I had no idea that Enoch had been promoted to that level.

Since I’ve been researching demons lately, the book of 1 Enoch has been a major source of interest.  One of its sections, The Book of the Watchers, expands on that odd story from Genesis 6 where the sons of God lust after the “daughters of men.”  Ever coy, the biblical passage doesn’t directly say that their offspring were giants, but this idea was developed by sources like 1 Enoch.  And these fallen angels—the nephilim—in some traditions, become demons.  Studying Enoch is a fine introduction to a mythological world every bit as rich as Dogma.  These characters—Enoch, nephilim, watchers, and demons—populated the imagination of early readers of the Good Book as much as they do modern speculators’ worlds.  Not bad for a character barely mentioned at all in the Bible.

Problematizing Noah

As I continue to Tweet the Bible, I’ve been working through the story of Noah. Considering the number of children’s items imprinted with the friendly, smiling Noah and Mrs., and the cute, predatory animals they’re taking aboard their private yacht, the utter belligerence of the story is frequently lost. There is one seriously peeved God behind this. “And it repented the Lord that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart,” Genesis 6.6 states. And it only gets worse from there: “I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth… for it repenteth me that I have made them.” Indeed, the wrath of God is emphasized more than the wickedness of the humans that have spawned it. No matter what is done, it seems, God will still be in a rage.

The truly striking aspect of this account comes, however, when Noah is instructed on whom to save. “Thou shalt come into the ark, thou, and thy sons, and thy wife,” verse 18 dictates. Men first. Now, we cannot judge a product of the past against standards of the present day, but it is quite clear why many women find the biblical text less-than-friendly. Even the animals are explicitly paired from the start do not receive the radical disjointing that the women receive from the men. If the purpose is to procure a new generation, arguably pregnant women could have done that with the men treading water above the remains of Eden. If survival is the point of the story, as the saying goes, ladies first.

The flood story is a complex account of a deity with anger management issues and a preference for the company of men. Although theologians may say with a wink that God has no gender, clearly the Bible begs to differ.

Humans and animals alike are victims of the divine wrath, and even though humanity survives the flood can the relationship with deity ever be the same again? How do humans face a creator turned destroyer, knowing that they will never really please him again? The weight of such divine displeasure is surely greater than all that water pressing our ancient cousins into fossils on the primeval sea bed. I think back to all the children’s toys with the happy little animals and a smiling Noah and I know they resemble the biblical version only in the most fleeting of fashions. Yet the myth lives on.

What shape is your ark?

Layers

I’m all for not offending anyone. I became P.C. in principal just as soon as my consciousness was raised that the very basics of English grammar caused distress to others (often women), based on its androcentric orientation. It does seem, however, that God is even more easily offended than humans. This raises some tricky questions when it involves the highest perceived authority within or outside of the universe, the font of all morality. Some of the things that offend God, if the sources are to be believed, are most unusual. Last night I attended one of those you-should-send-your-child-to-Europe-while-in-high-school seminars that remind you that being a good parent always involves a touch of poverty. The trip is a very expensive bargain, giving your daughter or son a lasting set of life-changing memories. So far I’m on board. And, what is a trip to Europe without visiting some of the great cathedrals that exhausted local, medieval economies but left modern companions to Stonehenge all around the continent? Okay. Having seen my fair share of European cathedrals, that’s perfectly understandable. Then the kicker: since these are religious places, there is a dress code.

Anyone familiar with mainstream culture even in America is aware of this idea. To attend a place where God is supposed to be present, you must dress for the occasion. The Simpsons can throw around the phrase “Sunday clothes” and everyone knows what they mean. Attend a religious service dressed down and you’ll immediately discover it. Some traditions raise this to a high sartorial art—some Episcopalians I know are so fastidious that the very statues of Jesus seem decidedly underdressed. Since your child will be in Europe and be in cathedrals, you mustn’t offend God in a foreign land. No jeans. As the parent of a teen that means buying a whole new wardrobe to add to the pricetag. Apparently the Levi-Strauss tribe is not the same one in the Pentateuch. I spent some time in Israel a number of years back. The dress code is very strict around sacred spots. No shorts or visible shoulders. In the hot climate of the Middle East wearing excessive layers, well, it’s no wonder some folks get a little irritable. God’s standards are high. Celestial even.

Nowhere is God’s discriminating taste more evident in the required “modesty” of women. Nobody told me, but apparently women are quite a turn-on to gods. Read Genesis 6 and see if you don’t agree. The burden of public hiding beneath cloth falls on them. A man’s calf doesn’t excite God nearly so much as a lady’s. In Jerusalem they used to hand our hooded cloaks to wear over your street clothes for visiting holy places, just in case. Lord knows we wouldn’t want any unrest in the Middle East!

Having lived in Europe for three years, I know about and despise ugly Americans. At home I find our culture and manner of dress fascinating. Most of us don’t think what it says about our religion. If you ever catch a priest in church wearing jeans you’ll have your own local, mini culture-shock. I’d like to figure out why God is so easily offended by human fashion, but there is no time. I’m off to the street corner with my tin cup to try to raise money to buy clothes so my child won’t offend God in Europe.

No shoes, no shirt, no salvation.