I have been writing about the semi-lost Book of Noah, parts of which survive in the Book of 1 Enoch. In trying to understand its role and origins, I would stress its practical role as a valuable textbook for those seeking protection against evil forces.
Much of Noah seems designed for a community deeply interested in different forms of protective magic, and security against demonic forces. Apotropaic magic is the kind of magic used to ward off evil forces, and is usually manifested in charms, spells and amulets. (The word is from the Greek for “turn away”). It usually involves heavy use of sacred or demonic names, of the kind that are presented so abundantly in the Noah portions of 1 Enoch.
Individuals could invoke the archangels for protection, seek defense against particular named demons, or even (a different kind of magic altogether) invoke the demons for their own purposes. Exorcism usually demanded knowing the individual name of the spirit to be evicted.
Obviously, the growing use of this kind of magic may explain the rapid rise in the use of specific names for the angels and archangels. You had to know who you were asking for help, and knowing their real names was essential.
Confirming that this kind of magic contributed to the writing of Noah, we look at the passage quoted in Jubilees in which Noah specifically prays to God for protection against the evil forces besieging his children.
But do Thou bless me and my sons, that we may increase and multiply and replenish the earth. And Thou knowest how Thy Watchers, the fathers of these spirits, acted in my day: and as for these spirits which are living, imprison them and hold them fast in the place of condemnation, and let them not bring destruction on the sons of thy servant, my God; for these are malignant, and created in order to destroy. And let them not rule over the spirits of the living; for Thou alone canst exercise dominion over them. And let them not have power over the sons of the righteous from henceforth and for evermore.
Superficially at least, this resembles a thousand later grimoires, or manuals of ritual magic. Based on many later analogies, the passage sounds like an origin legend for the skills of fighting and resisting evil forces. I paraphrase, but it suggests someone proclaiming that that long ago, Noah prayed for such protection, and we today seek the same powers and protection.
In response to Noah’s petition, the evil lord Mastema likewise prays that nine tenths of the evil spirits should be confined forever in Hell, or a similarly far removed spiritual dungeon place, while the remaining tenth remain on earth to serve Satan.
And we explained to Noah all the medicines of their diseases, together with their seductions, how he might heal them with herbs of the earth. And Noah wrote down all things in a book as we instructed him concerning every kind of medicine. Thus the evil spirits were precluded from (hurting) the sons of Noah. And he gave all that he had written to Shem, his eldest son; for he loved him exceedingly above all his sons.
I have been wondering why a work like Noah arises when it does. Part of the answer must be the movement towards codifying religious truths in written form, in scriptures, and the new emphasis that placed on the written word as a sacred object and source of religious truth. We have seen for instance the textualization of prophecy.
Written works were evidently becoming more common, as were the skills to read them, and the literate class of scribes. As so often in later centuries, literate religious figures presumably walked the line between recording and preserving officially approved texts and supplying popular needs in the general area of magic and spells.
This whole discussion gets into very familiar issues of methodology in Religious Studies. Traditionally, scholars focused on “high” religion, favoring the theological and speculative over the vernacular and popular, and drew a sharp distinction between religion and anything resembling magic or superstition. Those lines are now much fainter, as we explore the realities of lived religion, and a sizable literature examines magic, curses and exorcisms. Even so, it is often hard to recall the very thin boundaries that separate magic and scripture, even within a single text or tradition.
The Book of Noah might perfectly well have served both purposes at once, speculative and thaumaturgical. Yes, it might have answered spiritual questions about the origin of evil. But I think it also served as a highly practical how-to manual.
The early Jewish magical text Sefer Harazim describes the Books of Mysteries given to Noah via the angel Raziel: Michael E. Stone, Aryeh Amihay, and Vered Hillel, eds., Noah and his Book(s) (Society of Biblical Literature, 2010), 21. That Noachic tradition also continues through later Jewish works up to modern times.
There is of course a large and very current literature on ancient Jewish magic. See for instance Gideon Bohak, Ancient Jewish Magic (Cambridge University Press, 2008); Shaul Shaked, James Nathan Ford, and Siam Bhayro, Aramaic Bowl Spells (Brill, 2013); Dan Levene, Jewish Aramaic Curse Texts From Late-Antique Mesopotamia (Brill, 2014). Because of the availability of evidence, all these books focus on periods significantly later than the presumed time of the Book of Noah.