Turning to the Angels to Save Jewish Mythology

Jonathan Ben-Dov
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Jonathan Ben-Dov

“A holy angel came down from heaven.” This expression, from the Book of Daniel 4:10, offers a look at a rich mythological corpus about the fallen angels and their descent to earth in the generations before the Flood. This myth encompasses an ambivalent attitude among human beings regarding the relationship between God and man, as well as toward curiosity and scientific knowledge. It was handed down to us by way of Aramaic texts from the Hellenistic period in the third and second centuries B.C.E.

Recently revealed finds provide us with a window into the origin of this complex myth and its development among the Babylonians, Arameans and Jews during this little-known period of history.

Aramaic played an important role in preserving the rich cuneiform culture of ancient Mesopotamia. As early as the period of the great Assyrian and Babylonian kings, in the seventh to sixth centuries B.C.E., the inhabitants of the land between the rivers spoke Aramaic, for the most part, while their cultural heritage was recorded on clay tablets in cuneiform and in the Akkadian language.

Knowledge about late cuneiform culture was revealed to scholars bit by bit in later Aramaic texts, written beginning in late antiquity and up through the Middle Ages. However, because Aramaic was written on perishable materials such as parchment and papyrus, most of this originally rich literature has disappeared. Who knows what treasures were preserved in the renowned library of Pergamon ‏(in Turkey‏) before its tragic demolition?

The information that survived and reached us was transferred via one of two channels: Either it was preserved on scrolls in Egypt or the Judean Desert, where the humidity is relatively low, or it was fortunate enough to enter the Jewish stream of transmission, and from there was passed into the Christian tradition. Rarely is there an opportunity to examine the vestiges of an ancient Aramaic myth outside these two possibilities, as is, at least partly, in our case.

Aramaic-Jewish literature was a central means for preserving the historical memory of the ancient empires. Great kings such as Nebuchadnezzar, Sennacherib and Ahasuerus are remembered due to their appearance in the books of Daniel and Esther, as well as in the Book of Ahikar, a non-Jewish Aramaic text that was transmitted in various translations in antiquity.

Most of us, for example, are familiar with the insignificant King Belshazzar, thanks to the dramatic scene of the writing on the wall in the Book of Daniel. But the memory of Mesopotamian kings in Western literature was a mere frozen image. In effect, Westerners ‏(including those in the Levant, Syria and the Land of Israel‏) had no direct way of learning about the history of ancient Mesopotamia. The memory of the Akkadian language disappeared, as did knowledge of cuneiform writing. As far as the residents of the Levant in the Hellenistic period knew, the ancient kings spoke Aramaic, as did the early generations before the Flood. “Rabbi Levi said: Adam spoke Aramaic” ‏(Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 38‏). Although Mesopotamian traditions existed in the collective memory of Syria and the Land of Israel, as we will see below, they were not based on a familiarity with cuneiform writing.

Assyrian and Babylonian imperialism left numerous traces. The great kings systematically exploited the provinces, principally via the cutting down of, and trade in, the cedars of Lebanon, the most cherished commodity in Babylonian temples. The kings commemorated their projects in monumental inscriptions and large stone reliefs, both in Lebanon and all over the Middle East.

Even at the time of their creation, those inscriptions were not understood by Westerners, since few people knew how to read cuneiform, even less so during the Hellenistic period, hundreds of years later. The iconographic tradition of interpreting these works was interrupted, and thus later observers could only guess at their meaning.

A particularly interesting site is the mouth of the Nahr Al-Kalb River in Lebanon, 10 kilometers north of Beirut. Kings began creating inscriptions and reliefs there in the 13th century B.C.E. and continued doing so until the days of Napoleon III, and even later. The site is, in effect, a kind of Disneyland of royal ideology, in which every king tries to overshadow his predecessor.

For one, Herodotus, who visited Syria-Palestine, apparently at this site, tried to guess at the meaning of the hieroglyphics left there by Rameses II.

A rare interpretation of such inscriptions was preserved in the Jewish literature of the Hellenistic period , opening a gateway to an entire world of mythology, sights and images.

A relevant passage is found in the Book of Jubilees, a Jewish text from the mid-second century B.C.E. whose Hebrew source was found in fragmented form at Qumran, but which circulated in various translations in the ancient world:
“... and he called his name Kainan. And the son grew, and his father taught him writing, and he went to seek for himself a place where he might seize for himself a city. And he found a writing which former ‏(generations‏) had carved on the rock, and he read what was thereon, and he transcribed it and sinned owing to it; for it contained the teaching of the Watchers in accordance with which they used to observe the omens of the sun and moon and stars in all the signs of heaven. ‏(English translation by R.H. Charles, 1913‏)

The ancient, engraved images looked to the later observer like a vestige from the world of the Watchers ‏(Aramaic: ‘irim‏), primordial angels who, according to popular mythology, descended to earth in hoary antiquity and bequeathed civilization to mankind. If you will, these are aliens, in a way resembling those recounted by Erich von Däniken in his pseudo-scientific book, “Chariots of the Gods.” In fact, Däniken’s idea − that extraterrestrial powers descended to earth and instructed mankind how to build the pyramids and other notable projects − mirrors various ancient mythologies like the one discussed in the present article.

Babylonian mythology already told of ancient sages who were half-man and half-fish who emerged from the sea and bequeathed civilization to mankind. This old myth was revived in new garb in Lebanon, Syria and the Land of Israel in the Hellenistic period. In its Jewish form, the myth bore a new aspect: the Watchers conveyed forbidden knowledge, brought to human beings in an original sin. The bearers of the knowledge in the present version were not ancient fish who emerged from the sea but the mysterious angels who descended from heaven.

A manual of divination

In the Apocryphal Book of Jubilees, we read a description of a stone inscription in an unclear language, which the writer understood as a manual of divination according to the sun, the moon and the stars. There is an amazing similarity between the fantastic description in the Book of Jubilees and actual stone inscriptions created by Babylonian kings, which have been preserved to this day in Jordan, Arabia and mainly Lebanon. The kings Nebuchanezzar and Nabonidus engraved their images on rock, and topped them with symbols of the sun, moon and stars − the protective deities of the neo-Babylonian dynasty. The scenes were accompanied by a long cuneiform text praising the king’s enterprises.

We, therefore, encounter a rare instance of coordination between a fantastic literary description and a material find that has survived to this day. In the absence of a chain of transmission, the explanation of the mysterious pictures etched in the rock was left to imagination. While the older traditions about the origin of knowledge persisted, they now found a new iconographic garb.

The Jewish writer of the Book of Jubilees considered the inscriptions vestiges from the time before the Flood, because he had no way of knowing that the inscriptions preceded him by about four centuries at most. The sun and moon appearing above the inscriptions are, as he understands them, the subjects of the scientific wisdom carved on the rock.

Accordingly, the giant figure engraved in the rock ‏(originally either Nebuchadnezzar or Nabonidus‏) is no more than the “Watcher,” the primordial angel who descended from heaven and bequeathed wisdom to human beings.

Aramaic writings thus preserved a historical memory of Mesopotamian kings in two ways. While the more direct channel was expressed in the legends of the Book of Daniel, the second, more oblique, channel came by means of the myth of the Watchers, transmitted mainly in the book of Enoch. Here, the ancient angels were portrayed as mythological giants, judging by their artistic representation on the rock reliefs.

The Enochic texts, and foremost the Book of the Watchers ‏(Chapters 1-36‏) were first written in Aramaic in the third century B.C.E. Parts of the original were discovered in Aramaic in Qumran, but the book as a whole is familiar only in translations into Greek and Ethiopic. The Book of the Watchers, like Daniel, assigns pride of place to the sciences of divination and astrology.

Consider one of the basic descriptions of the myth about the Watchers, who revealed the secrets of knowledge to mankind ‏(1 Enoch 8:3‏).

Shemihazah taught spells and the cutting of roots. Hermani taught sorcery for the loosing of spells and magic and skill. Baraqel taught the signs of the lightning flashes. Kokabel taught the signs of the stars. Ziqel taught the signs of the shooting stars. Ara’toqeph taught the signs of the earth. Shamshiel taught the signs of the sun. Sahriel taught the signs of the moon.

According to the The Book of Watchers, these events took place mainly on Mount Hermon, and, in effect, in Lebanon ‏(Enoch 6: 6-7‏), where the watchers descended from heaven, and that is apparently the geographical origin of the myth.

Dreams of forests

Yet another confirmation of the connection with Lebanon is an additional, common motif in the literature of the watchers, one that until now was not completely understood. These books often describe dreams, all of which include a scene of a forest, usually of cedars, which is either cut down or destroyed by flood or fire. Such scenes appear repeatedly: In the Book of Giants ‏(also an Aramaic text from Qumran, with its own surprising transmission history‏), in Daniel 4 and in an Aramaic midrash (apocryphon) on Genesis from Qumran. The ancient authors repeatedly invoke the forest scene, always in a dream account. Particular attention should be given in this regard to Nebuchadnezzar’s stone engravings and reliefs from the site of Brisa in the northern Lebanon valley. Although the reliefs were discovered as early as the mid-19th century, they were not properly documented until recently. This turned out to be most unfortunate, since in subsequent years the reliefs were repeatedly damaged.

When they were photographed and published in 1906, the ensuing assyriological research dealt mainly with the text of the rock inscriptions from Brisa rather than with the reliefs. Recently, Catalonian scholar Rocio Da Riva returned to Lebanon and discovered that the reliefs had suffered heavy damage from shooting, so that almost nothing remains of them today. Nonetheless, she was able to improve on the reading of the inscriptions.

These are large monuments, each one approximately 2.5 meters in height. On one relief, Nebuchadnezzar is described fighting a lion, and opposite it, on the opposite cliff of the riverbed, Nebuchadnezzar is seen standing in solemn pose, next to a large tree with multiple branches. The tree is erect and bare, as though created to fulfill its role in the eyes of Babylonian kings: to provide wooden beams for the temples in Mesopotamia. The tree bears no fruit, nor does it offer shade. The cuneiform inscriptions were not understood already in Antiquity, while it was the image alone that remained to work its effect on the collective memory.

The figure of the giant standing next to the tree threatening to cut it down comprises a frequent scene in generations of literature on the Watchers, such as Daniel 4:10-11 and in the Book of Giants. While the Aramaic source of the latter was preserved only partially, translations of it survived until the medieval period in various sundry versions, from Hebrew to Turkish. In the Hebrew version preserved in Midrash Bereisheet Rabati ‏(Provence, 11th century‏), we read the dreams of two giants. Quite surprisingly, the content of the dreams in this midrash gives a very reliable description of one of the Brisa inscriptions. The text is as follows: “ These two sons of Shemhazai, Hiwwa and Hiyya by name, dreamed dreams. The one saw a great stone which covered the earth, and the earth was marked all over with lines upon lines of writing. An angel came, and with a knife obliterated all the lines, leaving but four letters upon the stone. The other son saw a large pleasure grove planted with all sorts of trees. But angels approached bearing axes, and they felled the trees, sparing a single one with three of its branches.

In the first dream, the rock is covered with many rows of writing, as the angel descends with a knife in hand to erase them. The second dream draws a scene in a forest, with the angel descending with an ax to cut down its trees, until only one remains.

In the Brisa relief, the middle of the figure had already been destroyed in 1906, and therefore there is no way of knowing whether or not the king carried an ax ‏(the text in fact reports that Nebuchadnezzar cut down the trees with his “pure” hands, rather than an ax‏). There is no certainty as to whether the Aramaic text describes this particular inscription or similar inscriptions in Lebanon, but the resemblance is nonetheless quite strking.

Two things become clear, in any case: first, that the Aramaic authors cite the stone engravings and convey them in the form of a dream, for that is their way of giving epistemological validity to the mysterious reliefs. And second, the reliefs were interpreted as a message of divine punishment, represented by the erasure of the writing and the chopping down of trees. The relief in which the king is fighting a lion ‏(which also appears at another site in Lebanon, outside of Brisa‏), is also echoed in the Watchers tradition: both in a description of the violence of the watchers against wild animals ‏(1 Enoch 7: 5, cp. Habukkuk 2: 17‏), and in Daniel 4:12-13, where the king is expelled from the shelter of the tree and sent to confront wild animals.

Origins in Lebanon

The myth of the Watchers, familiar to us mainly from Jewish texts, started out as an Aramaic myth in Lebanon. Most of its elements are best understood against the backdrop of Lebanese folklore and local artistic landmarks, which played an important role in historical memory as early as the Hellenistic period. Jews learned about the myth through apocalyptic circles, only then connecting it with the biblical story of the “sons of God and daughters of man” in Genesis 6.

This evidence is only the tip of the iceberg of a rich reservoir of Aramaic mythology and literature, not presently approachable by us. It was reconstructed here in light of Aramaic inscriptions and iconographic evidence. We thus possess, for the first time, a visual representation of the Watchers, who ended up entangled with the ancient figure of Nebuchadnezzar. This reconstruction is important not only for scholars of ancient Jewish literature, but also for art historians: It is a documented and explicit case of a chain of iconography that was severed, only to be creatively reinterpreted in a later generation. The road is now open for scholars to investigate various representations of the myth of the Watchers and to enrich our knowledge of Jewish mythology in its Aramaic context.

Dr. Jonathan Ben-Dov is senior lecturer in the Department of Bible at the University of Haifa. He studies ancient Jewish literature against its Ancient Near Eastern backdrop.

"Aged Angel" by Odilon Redon (c.1903).
Nebuchadnezzar relief. Such kinds are known thanks to their treatment in the books of Daniel and Esther, among other sources.Credit: Altvorderasiatische Bildstelen und vergleichbare Felsreliefs, Mainz, by J.Borker-Klahn