The Origin of Evil and the End of the World
by Lloyd Graham
To a large extent, Judaeo-Christian beliefs have shaped the values and morals of the Western world. It is therefore somewhat surprising to find that the Old Testament lacks an account of the origin of evil, and that neither it nor the New Testament provides a convincing reason for the fall of Satan and his cohorts from heaven. One possible allusion – the desire of Lucifer to exalt himself above God, resulting in his being cast down (Isa 14:12-15) – occurs in a context that shows it to refer to the ambitions of a particular King of Babylon. So is there, then, no explanation of evil that dates to Old Testament times? There is, and yet – despite its prominence in apocryphal literature and some scriptural allusions to it – the story remains little known. A passage in Genesis mentions it as follows:
The second outcome of the fall of the angels was the giant and monstrous offspring (Heb. nephilim, ‘fallen ones’) born to Watcher fathers by human mothers, monsters that turned against humanity and the other creatures of the Earth. A passage in Jubilees (Jub 7:21-25) identifies the nephilim with the mighty men of renown (Heb. gibborim) of Genesis 6:4. One of God’s avenging archangels arranged the destruction of the nephilim by inciting them to battle each other; when the giants perished, their souls became the evil spirits and demons that have afflicted mankind ever since (1 En 15:8-16:1; Jub 10:5). The fallen Watchers – now the princes of evil – were imprisoned in torment until the Day of Judgement, and God instigated the Flood in order to purge and purify the earth.
Dates and Words The earliest reference to the Watcher story is probably Gen 6:1-13, and it may date from as long ago as the eighth or ninth centuries BC. Early copies of the Septuagint translation of 270 BC (where the Old Testament and related apocrypha were rendered into Greek) suggest that the Hebrew term bene ha-elohim, ‘sons of God’ or ‘sons of gods’, in Gen 6:2 was translated from the outset as ‘angels of God’. The Book of Enoch contains the earliest detailed account of the full story. It dates to the period 200-100 BC, although 1 En 1-36 (the Book of the Watchers) may have been written in the third century BC.
The term ‘Watcher’ (Heb. ‘irin) occurs mainly in the Old Testament pseudepigrapha that deal with the fallen angels, but it is also found in the Book of Daniel, a canonical book contemporary with 1 Enoch. There the phrase ‘a watcher and an holy one’ (Dan 4:13 & 23) is used to denote a particular class of angel, and precisely the same phrase is found in some fragments from the Dead Sea Scrolls (e.g., 1 QapGen II:1). Most sources identify Azazel and Semyaza as the leaders of the fallen Watchers. The name Azazel appears also in the canonical Old Testament (Lev 16:8-10), where it seems to refer to a wilderness demon of Judaeo-pagan origin. In this respect, it resembles Isa 34:14, the single Old Testament reference to Lilith (see below).
The Christian church later attempted to reinterpret the phrase ‘sons of God’ in Gen 6:2 as ‘sons of Seth’ and ‘daughters of men’ as ‘daughters of Cain’ so that the Watcher story could be dispensed with. In contrast, Josephus (see below) specifies not only that the males were angels but that the women were of untainted lineage – the daughters of Seth. The Church’s re-interpretation also sits oddly with other events in the same epoch, where illicit heterosexual couplings (inter-generational incest, to be precise) were tolerated by God and gave rise to normal offspring (Gen 20:30-38), while ‘unnatural’ unions were punished (Gen 19:1-26). Clearly, there was something more abhorrent about intermarriage between ‘sons of God’ and daughters of men than would be warranted by unions between humans of opposite sex, whatever their lines of descent.
Retellings and Allusions In 1 Enoch, the Watcher story is first given in ch. 6-16, recapitulated in ch. 64-69, and re-told in a disguised form in the Animal Apocalypse (ch. 86-89). In the Book of Jubilees, a work of 153-105 BC, it is given in Jub 4:21-24; 5:1-13; 7:20-27; and 10:1-15. As in 1 Enoch, the fallen Watchers were imprisoned within the earth until Judgement Day. In the final version given in Jubilees, the prince of the nephilim-derived evil spirits is called both Mastema and Satan, and – in a duplication of the imprisonment of the Watchers – these spirits too were bound in the earth until Judgement Day. In this account, God granted Mastema’s request that a tenth of the evil spirits should be left free to roam the earth while the remainder were bound. As a remedy for their corrupting activities, though, God ordered one of his loyal angels to instruct Noah in the science of medicine (Jub 10:10-14).
The Watcher episode also features in sources other than 1 Enoch and Jubilees, appearing also in Wis 14:6, some Dead Sea Scroll texts, the Ethiopic Kebra Nagast, and in the Book of the Secrets of Enoch (2 Enoch, a Slavonic work written after AD 100). Aspects of the Watcher story are also mentioned in the canonical New Testament (e.g., 1 Pet 3:19-20; 2 Pet 2:4-5; Jude 1:6; Rev 12:9; Rev 20:1-3). There are also references in the writings of first century Christians like Tertullian, and of their Jewish contemporary, Josephus. The author of the pseudo-Clementine homilies resolved some of the theological difficulties inherent in the Watcher story by proposing that the angels were not overpowered with sensual passion while in their purely spiritual state (Hom 8:9). He maintained that the angels asked God to endow them with human bodies so that they could descend to earth and rectify the wickedness of mankind. Once they had taken human form, however, they also acquired the weaknesses and passions of mortal men and gave themselves up to the gratification of their lust.
Possible Sources Babylonian myths may date from as early as 3000 BC. The main Babylonian creation epic, Enuma Elish, describes a war between the gods in which those allied with Tiamat and her monsters (enormous serpents … snarling dragons … the worm …) were vanquished by Bel-Marduk. The gods were then divided into two groups by Marduk, ‘three hundred above for the watchers of heaven, … five times sixty for earth, six hundred gods between earth and heaven’. The defeated rebel gods appear to have been the ones assigned to earth. The Babylonians also believed in ‘edimmu’, vampires that were violent giants, which were originally created as a result of intermarriage between human beings and the spirit world. These demons ‘neither eat nor drink’ but ‘are full of violence, ceaselessly devouring blood’. Similarly, in 1 En 15:11-12, we read that the spirits of the giant nephilim ‘work destruction on the earth, and cause trouble: they take no food, but nevertheless hunger and thirst, and cause offences’. In combination, a belief in edimmu and earth-based rebel gods could account for some of the elements of the Enochian Watcher episode. A Babylonian connection is supported by the fact that one of the Watcher-human progeny in the Dead Sea Scrolls’ Book of the Giants is called Gilgamesh, the name of the giant in the eponymous Babylonian epic.
Greek theogony also shares some motifs with the Watcher story. In Greek myths from the eighth century BC, the mating of sky-god (Uranus) with earth-goddess (Gaea) produced the Titans, the Cyclops, and the hundred-handed Giants. Like the fallen Watchers, the Cyclops and Giants were imprisoned within the earth; later, this became the fate of the Titans who had fought with Cronos against Zeus and Prometheus. The latter was subsequently punished by Zeus for bestowing a number of favours, including fire, on mankind. Man was punished, too: the first mortal woman (Pandora) was created so beautiful that – despite being warned – Prometheus’s brother allowed her to stay on Earth. Pandora subsequently unleashed evil into the world.
A Related Theme There are many myths about Lilith, who in Judaeo-Christian tradition is credited as an alternative (or additional) source of the world’s demons. The name, which means ‘wind-spirit’, first appears in a prologue to the Epic of Gilgamesh and recurs as part of a triad of female furies invoked in Babylonian spells. When Lilith was co-opted into Judaic lore during the Babylonian captivity (i.e., after 586 BC), an etymological confusion resulted in her being identified as a night-spirit. Later, Talmudic and Kabbalistic speculation identified her (sometime during the third to tenth centuries AD) as a female who was co-created with Adam (Gen 1:27) and before Eve (Gen 1:22). In this elaboration, she refused to submit to Adam and left Eden. Lilith was reunited with Adam after his and Eve’s expulsion from Eden, and bore him demonic offspring. When Adam and Eve were later reconciled, Lilith lived in a cave near the Red Sea where she copulated with lascivious demons and gave birth daily to hundreds more. In additional (or alternative) stories, Lilith and three other female spirits (Naamah, Igrat, and Mahaath) are seen as consorts to demons, seducers of men, killers of unprotected infants, and as vampires. Lilith is often paired with Samael, the King of Demons, who in some versions has been castrated; there are hints that these two were once an androgynous pair. In her various guises, Lilith is at once a human-like creature who had intercourse with Adam to become the mother of demons, a human mate for demons who begat more of their kind at a prodigious rate, and a demonic succubus who takes unused human semen to impregnate herself or her daughters to create more demons. No doubt many of these attributes are a legacy of Lilith’s Babylonian origin. The Lilith themes have obvious overlaps with the Watcher story, and some may well have been borrowed directly from this source. In the Kabbala, the two legends intersect in a passage on Lilith: ‘For 130 years Adam had intercourse with female spirits, until Naamah came. Because of her beauty the sons of God went astray after her, ‘Ussa and ‘Azel, and she bore from them, and from her spread evil spirits and demons in the world’ (Zohar 1:19b).
A Search for Meaning To recapitulate: the earliest explanation of evil in the Judaeo-Christian tradition involves an original sin of lust on the part of angelic beings called Watchers, which led to a transfer of forbidden skills and knowledge to mankind, but which also led to the birth of monsters who ravaged the Earth (and whose malevolence persists on Earth in the form of demons). Compared with orthodox rationalisations of the Fall, the Watchers’ original sin engenders both more empathy (as a lapse of judgement in the face of overwhelming temptation) and more abhorrence (in its breach of sexual taboo). It is safe to say that traditional alternatives such as Lucifer’s pride (Isa 14:12-15), Satan’s reluctance to pay homage to Adam (The Life of Adam and Eve and the Koran), or Eve’s curiosity about the forbidden fruit (Gen 3:6) pale in comparison. Oddly enough, the Watchers’ position – pure spirits craving the pleasures of the flesh – would later find its complete antithesis in certain Gnostic sects of the first few centuries AD, whose devotees despised flesh as a prison of the spirit. In contrast, people today are more likely to feel compassion for the angels who succumbed to the lure of physical pleasure.
Shorn of its lurid details, the mythic content of the Watcher story is a strong and perhaps surprising statement of the relationship between illicit desire, hidden knowledge, and evil. Above all, though, the Watchers’ crime constitutes disobedience to God. To those who regard the creator-God as a tyrannical Demiurge, such defiance constitutes a laudable act of self-determination. The Watcher myth has sometimes been presented in this light by Satanists, who point out that the forbidden knowledge imparted by the Watchers to mankind serves as the basis for the arts and sciences on which our current civilisation is founded. Their Covenant of Samyaza says that the legacy of the gibborim, known to the fearful as evil spirits or demons, are also known to the wise as ‘guardian geniuses of the great of Earth, who shall inspire the best among Man to great heights, to beautiful works of art, and to further discoveries of Earth and cosmos.’ While this stance may comfort those who are unable to view the rise of human civilisation as anything other than a virtue, it comes at the considerable cost of burdening us with an evil Creator. One does, however, have to wonder about the divinity of a God who feels threatened by the art of writing: ‘for men were not created for such a purpose, to give confirmation to their good faith with pen and ink … but through this their knowledge they are perishing, and through this power it [death] is consuming me’ (1 En 69:10-12). There is in fact a fundamental tension in the myth between the works of man (as encouraged by the Watchers) and the works of God, an opposition that is not alleviated by reversing the moral polarity of the original account (as the Satanists have done). It is noteworthy that one of the versions in the Book of Jubilees (Jub 10:10-14; see above) has been revised to defuse this tension. In the sanitised account, useful arts such as medicine were imparted to mankind by God’s loyal angels to afford us protection against the demons.
The End of the World Perhaps the tension inherent in the authentic Watcher legend is felt most keenly today in the conflict between environmental conservation (preservation of the divine creation) and urban-industrial development (promotion of human progress). Although initiated by lust, the Watchers’ actions led also to great human advancement, just as today the selfish ambitions of those with ability (or in authority) underpin so many of the material advances that benefit our species. However, it is important to remember that the actions of the Watchers led not only to expanded human capabilities but also to uncontrollable consequences that ultimately laid waste to the Earth. In this interpretation, the ancient myth sounds a clear warning about the potentially cataclysmic consequences of using our genius to interfere with nature, a warning that is more valid now than ever before. Perhaps it is to us that Enoch refers in the opening words of his book: ‘from [the heavenly angels] I heard everything, and from them I understood as I saw, but not for this generation, but for a remote one which is to come’ (1 En 1:2-3). The Watcher myth provides an origin for evil in the world. It may also warn of the ultimate and final evil: can we imagine a greater sin than the needless and self-inflicted ruin of our entire planet?
Lloyd Graham was born in Dublin (Ireland) in 1961. He obtained a PhD in biochemistry from Cambridge University (UK) in 1986 and subsequently moved to Sydney (Australia) where he now conducts research in the biotechnology sector. Apart from his scientific papers, he has published in the UK journal Modern Believing and is the author of online articles on the Book of Invasions (an eleventh-century Irish manuscript) and the Tingari Cycle (a Central Australian Aboriginal songline). He has a research paper on Pintupi creation narratives under consideration by the journal Australian Aboriginal Studies. His poetry has appeared online in The Poet’s Cut and in KotaPress Poetry Journal. Lloyd has also created some digital image compositions based on Irish Neolithic tomb engravings.