Reading Noah

Reading Noah October 5, 2015

In my last post, I discussed the Book of Noah, a semi-lost text that presently survives in very partial form in the Book of 1 Enoch. Here, I want to suggest some of the things we can learn from reading this book. Why should we read Noah?

I should add that, as I mentioned in the last post, some modern scholars challenge the existence of a Book of Noah as a separate entity, and their views must carry weight. For present purposes, though, it matters little whether we are talking about a single unified book, that may or not have existed, or a connected body of very early Noah-related materials that form a major component of 1 Enoch. (A Book of Noah is indeed referred to in the Aramaic Levi Document, which is probably from the third century BC).

*Assuming that the Book did exist, it tells us about authorship, and suggests the ways in which early writers and editors treated their source materials.

It is commonly held that 1 Enoch was in fact cobbled together from several separate precursor works, usually given as five in number. (The Book of Giants also had some kind of relationship to the material, although it was never actually included in the final book that we know). Yet odds and ends of the Book of Noah have been preserved in multiple sections. Does this perhaps mean that parts of Noah were originally included in the first section, the Book of the Watchers, and later editors added miscellaneous fragments to other sections at a much late date, after the different portions of Enoch were being assembled?

Whatever the exact sequence of events, it suggests that editors felt free to run their source material through a metaphorical blender, ignoring the sequence and structure of the original book, and mixing and matching as they saw fit. That offers a pessimistic lesson for anyone seeking to reconstruct this or any other lost books.

*Although the material is undated and possibly undatable, we can be fairly confident that it existed before about 200 BC. Most scholars would suggest that the date was not long before that point, but we can’t be sure. We can’t even confidently state that it might not actually date from 300 or 350 BC, although such an early date would be controversial. All we can say for certain is that the Watchers material is an expanded narrative meditation on a puzzling passage from Genesis 6, from the First Temple era.

One likely pointer as to date is the use of many specific names for individual archangels. As I have suggested elsewhere, this practice is very uncommon before the third century at the earliest, with examples from Tobit and (later) Daniel. On the other hand, we have very few sources we can date to (say) the period 350-250 BC that would allow us to judge whether that practice was new at the end of the third century. On balance, a late third century BC date looks most probable for the Book of Noah.

*We can only speculate whether the book as we know it was the work of one highly creative individual, or if it represents the end of a long tradition of exegesis and speculation dating back decades or centuries. We face a familiar dilemma: was it composed or compiled, or is that a false distinction?

*Given the likely date, what does that say about the world in which the text was composed or compiled? What were the interests and questions to which it was trying to respond?

Although we can disagree about the exact contents of the Book of Noah as it would originally have existed, we can reliably identify its major themes and narratives. Leonhard Rost offers this summary of the semi-lost Book: “The most important themes are: the fall of the angels and the details of the angels’ pernicious secret arts made known to men at the time of their fall; the threatened Deluge and the vision of a paradisal age of salvation without any messianic figure; and an account of the birth of Noah as being accompanied by miracles.” Each of the likely passages from the Book of Noah describes or recapitulates that primal myth of the rebel angels.

The question then is why, around 220 BC (say), did some author feel that these were issues that particularly demanded to be discussed. Can we legitimately assume that at this time, there was growing interest in such themes as the origin of evil; the nature and power of the heavenly host; the role of demonic forces in creating human civilization; and the continuing power of demonic forces in the material world? That array of interests and obsessions would make excellent sense in terms of how we know Jewish thought developed over the next century or so. It would fit well with the emergence of the Qumran sect, which shared so many of those interests, and which had a lively interest in Enochic texts.

That spiritual package would also make sense in terms of well-known longer term developments within Jewish thought, as God became ever more transcendent, while ever greater interest attached to intermediary figures. Prophets no longer channeled God’s words directly, but rather received revelations from angels. The world was a battleground of competing spiritual forces, good and evil.

*We can legitimately draw some negative conclusions from the text. Among many other points, we note that the authors address the origin of sin and evil without ever once referring to Adam, Eve or the Garden of Eden. (The origin of sin is of course a quite different issue from Original Sin). This fits well with other observations about Jewish thought on this subject, which paid little attention to such themes before the start of the Common Era.

*If in fact the Book dates from the late third century, then it belongs to the Ptolemaic period. Classifying it as “Ptolemaic” is suggestive, in making us seek its context beyond the limits of Jewish thought, or of Jerusalem and its Temple. It also encourages us to consider some kind of Hellenistic (or Egyptian) context or influence.

Nothing in the Book of Noah need necessarily imply that it was written in response to any particular struggle or conflict within Palestine, or the Jewish world. There is no obvious suggestion that any of the demonic figures, such as Azazel and Shemihaza, is meant as a coded reference to any particular king or individual. Even so, we might legitimately understand the emphasis on the forces of evil and on cosmic warfare as indicating real tensions at the time of writing.

As I have written, the late third century was a time of intense and sporadically violent faction fighting in Judea, with each (Jewish) side favoring one or other of the great empires, Seleucid or Ptolemaic. Elite rivals were based in the Temple, and on the aristocratic council, the gerousia. The two empires were at war in the closing decades of the century, culminating in the Seleucid annexation of Palestine in 200. This might make us consider political or partisan aspects to Noah’s narrative, although I would not dare be more precise.

More relevant perhaps, in indicating worldly conflict is the specific kind of evil that the dark angels bring to the world. Scholars point to the Noah passages as being concerned with wisdom, both the wisdom of God, and also the sinister worldly wisdom offered by the rebel angels. (See for instance Michael Knibb, Essays on the Book of Enoch and Other Early Jewish Texts and Traditions (Brill, 2009). Looking forward slightly to the cultural struggles that would erupt in later decades affects our understanding of why it is the evil forces that are credited with bringing so many skills and technologies that we associate with the Hellenistic empires, especially the skills in astronomy and cosmology – not to mention cosmetics. Noah’s readers needed to discern the difference between different forms of Wisdom, and their ultimate source.

*Another reason that made Noah so suitable for the emerging globalized world was the universal nature of his story. Tales of Abraham or Moses were specific to the Jewish people, but by definition, Noah was the ancestor of the whole of humanity: by this account, everyone alive in the year 200 BC was descended from the survivors who had sailed in his Ark. Noah’s story could thus be presented to Egyptians, Greeks or Babylonians, or understood as referring to their origins. No less than Adam, Noah was the Father of all living.

In my next post, I will discuss Noah, demons and exorcisms.


Once again, I will obviously cite Michael E. Stone, Aryeh Amihay, and Vered Hillel, eds., Noah and his Book(s) (Society of Biblical Literature, 2010).


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