In the film Noah (2014) director Darren Aronofsky introduces into the biblical narrative supernatural beings called ‘the watchers’. They are the astral angels whom the Creator punished for helping Adam after the Fall. Originally constituting spirit-lights, the rebellious attendants were cast to earth and imprisoned in petrographic encrustations. The rock-monsters help Cain build cities and upon meeting Noah and learning of his divine revelation turn to help the son of Lamech and his family build and protect the Ark. The angels return to heaven when their gigantic stony shells are broken apart by the marauding army of Tubal Cain and their spirits are once again released from their metamorphic prison.
The ‘watchers’ belong to the myth of the fallen angels found in the book of Genesis. If you turn to the biblical passage, however, you will not find ‘the watchers’ or anything like the myth of the film. Instead, there is a short account of four verses at the beginning of chapter six that describe how the sons of God saw the beauty of the daughters of man and took them as wives. The passage, then, describes how the ‘Nephilim’ (Hebrew meaning ‘fallen ones’) were on earth in those days and subsequently. Those days refer to the period before the flood and the phrase ‘also afterwards’ implies that they survived the deluge. They were the heroes of old and men of renown. The biblical text does not make clear the relationship between the sons of God, the Nephilim, the heroes of old, and the men of renown, but the Dead Sea Scrolls and the pseudepigrapha identify the latter groups as the offspring of divine and mortal union.
Important to the book of Genesis, or more specifically to the J-story (J meaning “Jahwistic” is one of the posited sources of the composition of the Pentateuch), are the reasons given for the destruction of the earth by a flood of waters. It is the multiplication of humans and wickedness on the face of the earth that has caused Jahweh to declare that his spirit will not abide in man forever.
The myth of the fallen angels sits like a dislocated, floating textual fragment in the Genesis narrative. It is comparable to Ancient Near Eastern and Greek mythologies: in the story of Atrahasis, Enlil’s sleep is disturbed by the proliferation and noise of humans, so he becomes angry and plans their destruction; and in Hesiod, Zeus intends to annihilate both mortals and demigods, so that the two would not mate.
In other biblical passages, ‘the sons of God’ appear as divine beings who belong to the heavenly council (Job 1.6; 2.1), and the Nephilim are associated with very tall people, the Anakim, about whom the scouts report during the wilderness period of Israel’s wanderings. In Numbers 13.33 those who went on a reconnaissance of the promised land came back and reported: ‘There we saw the Nephilim (the Anakites come from the Nephilim); and to ourselves we seemed like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them’. The Greek translation of the Hebrew text, known as the Septuagint, renders ‘the Nephilim’ as ‘the giants’. They were also known as ‘Rephaim’ and were the people whom the Moabites called ‘Emim’ (Deuteronomy 2.11). Moses, Joshua, and Caleb drove them out of the hill country (Joshua 11:21-22; 12:4-6; 13:12; 15.14; Judges 1.20).
It is, however, in late- and extra-biblical texts that the myth of the fallen angels finds its developed form. The sons of God are now called ‘the watchers’ (‘irin), a translation of the Aramaic word meaning ‘wakeful ones’. The angels are thought to be vigilant and watch over the people. Different versions of the myth of the fallen angels are found in the prophecy of Daniel, the book of Jubilees, the Damascus Document, the book of Giants, Jude, 2 Peter and many other Jewish and Christian works.
In the Book of Watchers, comprising the first thirty-seven chapters of the composite work known as 1 Enoch, the angels are called ‘the watchers’ and they impregnate human females of choice who then go on to bear them giants three hundred cubits tall (ca. 137 m or 450 ft).
The watchers, presided by the archangel Shemihazah, taught magic, medicine, and the secrets of herbs and plants. Their offspring devoured the produce of the land, and then turned on the people and ate them. They sinned against the birds and the beasts, creeping things and the fish, and they even consumed blood which is forbidden in Jewish law. There were two hundred fallen angels, led by ten chief angels, who descended to earth on the summit of Mt. Hermon. One of the chief angels, Asael, taught men how to make weapons of war and alchemy, while other angels gave instructions on sorcery, spells and astrology.
The fallen angels were opposed by four good angels, Michael, Sariel, Raphael, and Gabriel, who from their heavenly abode heard the cries of the desolate earth and petitioned the God of gods for judgment. As a result, Sariel was commissioned to instruct Noah to hide from the impending destruction by a flood of waters. There is no mention of the Ark; the Ark appears only in the Similitudes (1 Enoch 67.2). Instead, Noah is to survive the flood by seeking refuge. Raphael is entrusted with the task of binding Asael and casting him into the darkness of a wilderness pit. The angel Gabriel is charged to destroy the sons of miscegenation, the sons of the watchers. Finally, Michael is engaged to bind his evil counterpart, the archangel Semihazah, and his company and imprison them in the fiery abyss. Once the earth has been cleansed from all defilement and uncleanness, no doubt after the flood, Michael is tasked to renew the earth, letting every plant and tree regenerate and the sons of men flourish again.
Evil, in the myth of the watchers, originates from the lust of some of the sons of God. The ensuing, forbidden union results in the birth of monsters, half-breeds of an unholy mixing between the divine and mortal. The sons of the watchers, the Nephilim, are bastards that are killed and out of whose corpses come evil spirits. This etiology traces evil to heaven itself, and explains that sin does not originate in man’s strident act of willfulness in the Garden of Eden, but is to be found among the evil inclinations of the divine council.
Aronofsky’s cinematic depiction of the origins of the rock monsters is not the same as the myth of the fallen angels, but there are undeniable influences. As in the myth, so also in the film the angels are called ‘the watchers’. The name of the leader is Samyaza, a variant spelling of Semihazah. In both, they are angels who come down to earth, but the reasons for their sin are different. The film explains that the punishment of the watchers resulted from their pity of Adam and Eve and interference with the Creator’s plans after the fall. Whereas in the myth the angels descend to consort with the daughters of man. In the film the they are said to have taught men all that they knew of creation, so that they rose from the dust and became great and mighty, but the watchers are not responsible for evil. Men turned against the watchers and hunted them down. In the myth, their sexual liaison with humans explains the origins of evil spirits and demons.
Aronofsky’s Noah focuses on the issue of the complete destruction and new beginning of mankind, as well as the issue of the evil inclination of man. It is essentially the story of Genesis, with embellishments drawn from or inspired by the myth of the fallen angels. As such, it touches on but does not develop the storyline that would have appealed most to fans of fantasy and science fiction.
Timothy Lim is Professor of Hebrew Bible & Second Temple Judaism at the University of Edinburgh.