The importance of the reception history of the sons of god

The feedback I have been receiving from my blog posts so far have been overwhelming and I am beyond grateful for each and everyone of you reaching out to me. There is no greater feeling than sharing something you are really passionate about and meeting other people who are just as excited the topics. The shared enthusiasm and ecstasy is divine. On top of that, this will be my third day in a row where I feel the inspiration flowing through me and keeping me glued to the keyboard. In my heart I want to make this a daily thing, but I know in reality that is going to be difficult to do – even being as committed and stubborn as I am. Some weeks I might only have a couple of posts and I just really need you to know that dear reader. I won’t abandon this quest to dig into all the corners of this subject, but as I wrote in my first post – there may be dry spells as well as these very fruitful times. As some of you know I work, and on Monday I will continue my journey furthering my education and soon I will be reunited with the love of my life, who has been on the opposite side of the planet during this pandemic. So in other words, so much is happening in my life at the moment, but I love this topic and I will always come back to it.

With all of that being said I want to go into something today that I briefly mentioned yesterday, which is the reception history of the sons of god. I couldn’t just serve you a tiny teaser or a side dish worth of information on this, as I said this is a main dish – actually – it’s a several course meal. So I hope that you are hungry. When first I learned about these things I found out I had been starving for years, and this knowledge left me feeling more full than I thought I could be. But with all knowledge I devoured I ended up craving even more dessert at the end, and there are some loose ends that still need attention. But we will get to that.

For those of you who may be unfamiliar with the term “reception history” a short explanation is that it’s the history of how something or some story was received and understood. In this case It is the history of how the story of the sons of god was first understood and interpreted and how that interpretation changed over time, why it changed and what it changed into. Are you starting to get curious about what I am about to write next? Hungry for another line? Skimming through the lines for more sustenance? Good. You are in good company. I will do my best as hostess and serve you well.

One of the best discoveries I made while looking into the sons of god was the magnitude of the importance of the reception history of their story. In this context I want to introduce you to the article that led me down the path of this discovery. ”Primeval History and the Problem of Evil: Genesis, the Book of the Watchers, and the Fallen Angels in Pre-Rabbinic Judaism” in Fallen Angels and the History of Judaism and Christianity: The Reception of Enochian Literature by Annette Yoshiko Reed. To make some of the main points from this article more palatable I have arranged them in rows and columns in a table further down the page. Firstly let me introduce some of the information to you.

The Book of the Watchers, which is chapters 1-36 in the Book of Enoch was written in approximately 150 BC. That is at least the oldest version we have of the text. There may be older versions still uncovered out there, but until we can prove that those exist the academic consensus is that the date for the piece is from the time we have the oldest version of it from. At that time time the sons of gud were blamed for making sin enter the world and where accused for bringing evil into the world through their actions, namely intercourse with the daughters of man, passing on forbidden knowledge and creating the nephilim, which were the offspring of their intercourse with human women.

What is sometimes confusing to some people is how nephilim should be understood. In the analysis of the word we find that it has something to do with “fall”.

”[…] ”Nephilim” because they caused the world to fall (hipilu), they fell (naphlu) from the world, and they filled the world with abortions (nephalim) from their whoring.” (Lesses 2014, 81).

What Rebecca Lesses is explaining is that it’s a descriptive term used to reflect the character of these beings, but also what their existence and actions caused in the world. They themselves are not “fallen angels”, as some sources may have you think – and the reason I have to emphasize this is because there are sources out there saying that they are, so bear over with me, dear reader, if you already knew this. These creatures were described as “giants”, “men of renown” and “heroes of old”. Philo compare them to the Greek mythologies about giants. Again, something I would love to follow up on in further discussion.

This story plays out in Genesis 6,1-4 and in Genesis 6,5 we read about the wickedness and evil God sees in the world because of man – because of all of this that has happened with the sons of god and in Genesis 6,6 it says that God regrets creating man and he was grieved in his heart. What a bold statement. Imagine the evil and disdain it must have been (again, this is a hypothetical emic perspective pondering) in the eyes of God to regret the creation of man. What happened with the sons of god was catastrophic. We all know the impossible climb out of darkness after the first time we really break our parents hearts – perhaps make them regret creating us. The loneliness and despair can make us feel orphaned, but left with the worst part of a parent: their disappointment of us. 

What is also interesting about that story is that God decides to send the flood to cleanse the world of this wickedness. This flood myth is found in other cultures around the world as well. Which is something I would love to dig more into at a later time, but I will leave you with a little nugget now that I just briefly touched upon this. In the account of the flood myth found in the Babylonian tradition for example the reason why the gods chose to send the flood is because (and I am paraphrasing here) “the people were making too much noise”. Similar reasons are found several places in that geographical area from antiquity. Judaism is the only one that has this moral motive as reason for the flood.

Another thing I always found fascinating that I am sure I will have to come back to just because it is a lot of fun to discus – is the fact that the flood was specifically sent to cleanse the world of this wickedness and these horrible “giants” that were the offspring of women and the sons of god. What is fascinating though is later in the old testament we still encounter giants. One can’t help but speculate that – according to this cosmology that the remaining giants are the result of one of three things: 1) either God simply didn’t kill all of them with the flood, although that was the goal.  That raises a whole lot of questions of their own if that is the case. 2) or these giants are still being created, which in turn according to the cosmology means that the procreation of humans and the sons of god is an ongoing problem. 3) or they could simply be “unrelated giants”, which is a wonderfully weird category to be put in, but it is a possibility. It’s nonetheless a subject I would love to dig further into at a later date.

Now, what started this rant on the nephilim was the terrible acts of the sons of god in Genesis and 1. Enoch and I will get back to the timeline now.

So 1. Enoch is written around 150 BC and in the first century before the common era the old testament is translated to Greek, which we know as the Septuagint or LXX for short. It is called that because of the 70 translators who worked on it. During that time as I mentioned in the blog post from yesterday “the sons of god” are translated into “angels”.

During this period women are getting blamed more and more for what the sons of god did. Reed even point to the fact that one of the forbidden arts that the sons of god teach humans is the application of makeup and it is by this makeup the women ”[…] led the holy ones astray” (Reed 2009, 112).

I literally think about the fact that applying makeup is thought to be a forbidden art rebelliously taught to women by the sons of god every time I apply makeup. And whenever someone asks me why I wear makeup I quickly do an analysis of them in my mind to see if they would understand this part of the argument, if not I opt for the easy answer about it being a creative outlet, which is also is. But it’s also keeping an important and forbidden craft alive and well, which is a great pull I must admit. Back to the exegesis: as the women get blamed more and more for being at fault by “asking for it” by being beautiful, the sons of god are getting blamed less as Reed points out is obvious in works like the Book of Jubilees. 

In early Christianity something really interesting happens in the reception history of the story. Christianity is birthed out of Judaism. Jesus saw himself as a jew and as a Jewish messiah in a Jewish context. In this early Jewish cosmology the origin of sin and evil is when women and the sons of god cross boundaries they shouldn’t have and mixed what should have been kept separate. As Christianity comes into its own part of that is to define what it stands for and what its cosmology is. One of the ways that Christianity starts differing from Judaism is by interpreting the old testament in a different light and part of that was to see the story of the Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden as the “actual” time when sin and evil came into the world. This is made further evident by Augustine, who coined the term “the fall of man” and applied it as a title to that incident in Genesis. 

The interpretation of when evil came into the world, the perpetrators, the consequences etc. all speaks volumes to the cosmology they appear in. Let me cut it out for you. In the story of the sons of god we originally have many “bad guys”, who have different names and skills, there are many victims and the consequences are suffered by not just the community but the world. In early Christianity they took all the attributes of previous “bad guys” and poured into a single universal character, the “sinners” were individuals, who would individually pay the price for their deeds. 

Back to the timeline of the reception history before presenting you with the table I made the last point is that in Rabbinic literature, which is from approx. 500 AD all references to “the sons of god” being divine creatures is completely gone. The sons of god are being interpreted as “the descendants of Seth” (Adam and Eve’s third son), and the daughters of man are referred to as the “descendants of Cain”. In some of these texts the sons of god are simply understood as the sons of the wealthy. 

At this point you are probably wondering what correlation there might be between the sons of god and THE son of god/ the children of god. Don’t worry. I have plans on getting into the nitty gritty of that too – but I’m afraid that will have to wait. 

Also, for those of you curious for more details from this reception history I can tell you that if you look closely at Paul’s writings in the new testament (which were written in the first century AD) they confirm how the blame on women had not fully happened yet. Later interpretations of the “fall of man” paints the woman as the villain for tempting the man to eat the forbidden fruit, but during the first century that was not how it was interpreted (and is thus another example of why reception history is so important). For example in Romans 5,12-19 and 1 Corinthians 15,22 Paul obviously blames Adam for the transgression.

1 Enoch 1-36 (The Book of the Watchers) written approx. 150 BC1st century BC during the time when LXX translates “the sons of god” with “angels”Early ChristianityRabbinic literature – approx. 500 AD
The sons of god are the reason that sin and evil enter the world and they are blamed for their responsibility in those acts. The women are getting blamed more and more, while the sons of god are getting “excused” in works like the Book of Jubilees. The story of the sons of god and the daughters of man as the time when evil and sin entered the world is slowly getting replaced by the narrative of the “fall of man” in the Garden of Eden. Instead of many guilty women slowly one guilty woman emerges. Instead of many “satanas” one emerges and he inhabits all the characteristics of the sons of god. “Angels” are slowly being separated from the term “the sons of god”. References to the sons of god as divine creatures are completely gone. The sons of god are being referred to as the descendants from Seth and the daughters of man are referred to as the descendants of Cain. In some places the sons of god are just another term for the children of the wealthy.

By now some of you are probably wondering, well what about the story of the fall of Satan? Where does Satan fit into this? From context you have probably already deducted that this universal character springs out of the reception history of the sons of god. In the book of Enoch the sons of god are all referred to as satans, opponent in plural. One among you may even be quick to mention “well, satan and the rebel angels are mentioned in the Book of Revelations – how does that figure into this?” To that I would reply that even the most optimistic dating of the Book of Revelation places it around 96 AD, which is a relatively late debut considering everything else going on in reception history at the time. It still springs out of a tradition build on these other stories.

Many of you are probably also familiar with “The Life of Adam and Eve”, which is an apocryphal text from somewhere between the 3rd century AD and the 5th century AD, which also has an account of “Satan” in it. Some scholars speculate that this text may be older, but since we don’t have any copies that are older than 3rd to 5th century AD I am reluctant to saying whether or not it is older, because we simply do not know. Still the wildest speculations I’ve heard places it at the earliest at the end of the first century AD, which is still a super late arrival at the party. At that point we already have a couple of centuries of the sons of god on the main stage.

And if there are still people among you eager to mention that “Satan” is mentioned in the old testament I remind you to be careful not to superimpose a late interpretation on a older text. Meaning, satan was a noun and it was a common noun. That is why it is important for us to take all factors into account when analyzing the ancient scriptures. One of those factors is the reception history. How was those text interpreted at the time? Could “satan” just be a noun in the context? Be honest with yourself and ask yourself if you are reading something into the scripture that wasn’t already there. How was the word satan understood at that time? What were the cultural references? Just stay mindful and critical. Also, remember that nowhere in Genesis does it say that the serpent in the Garden of Eden is Satan or the devil or the like. That is all interpretation. I could go on and on about this (and I promise you I will at some point), but I will stop myself, I think you, dear reader, understand what I am trying to say at this point.

Once again, dear reader, I thank you for accompanying me into the depths of yet another exegesis. There are so many more details to this reception history that I would love to unfold – and I will. All in good time. Until then I leave you with these treasure to think about. I hope you got full.

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