Those Mischievous Angels

The Bible is full of bizarre passages.

Like the time God tries to kill Moses, and Moses’ wife Zipporah intervenes by circumcising their son and touching the bloody foreskin to Moses’ feet. Yes, that’s really in the Bible (Exodus 4:24-26).

Or the Israelite leader Jepthah, son to a prostitute and a mighty warrior (Judges 11:1). Facing war with the Ammonites, Jepthah presents the LORD with a deal: “If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whoever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return victorious from the Ammonites, shall be the LORD’s, to be offered up by me as a burnt offering” (11:30-31, NRSV). Upon Jepthah’s return, who greets him but his daughter, an only child? Jepthah slaughters her as a sacrifice (11:34-40).

Or the young man, as nameless as Jepthah’s daughter, who flees the scene of Jesus’ arrest. “They” grabbed him, but he left behind the only thing he was wearing, a linen garment (Mark 14:51-52).

These stories defy explanation, but that doesn’t stop interpreters from trying. Indeed, a great deal of the literature of ancient Judaism and early Christianity amounts to the retelling of biblical stories, often including interpretations of the odd ones. Curious by nature, commentators cannot resist the temptation to explain away, to enhance, or even to reformulate biblical stories. Thus ever to texts.

At first glance, two of these weird passages seem to have nothing to do with one another. But they do. Indeed, the relationship has import not only for Jewish and Christian religion but for the Western literary tradition in general.

In 1 Corinthians 11 Paul goes back and forth over a question: When women pray or prophecy in the Christian assembly, should they veil themselves? It’s a convoluted passage. Paul even seems to contradict himself at points. I’ll leave it to you to look up the details in the commentaries. Our interest here lies in one line from the discussion: “For this reason a woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels” (11:10).

Because of the angels?! Paul’s whole argument is hard enough to follow, and this sentence itself is impossible to translate with confidence. (Modern translations include footnotes that point out some of the problems.) But why would Paul name the angels as a reason for women to cover their heads when they spoke in public assemblies?

This question brings us to another fascinating passage, Genesis 6:1-4.

When people began to multiply on the face of the ground, and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that they were fair; and they took wives for themselves of all that they chose. Then the Lord said, “My spirit shall not abide in mortals forever, for they are flesh; their days shall be one hundred twenty years.” The Nephilim were on the earth in those days—and also afterward—when the sons of God went in to the daughters of humans, who bore children to them. These were the heroes that were of old, warriors of renown.

Who are these “sons of God”? Why do their marriages to mortal women provoke God to limit the human lifespan? And who, exactly, are the Nephilim, translated “giants” in the Greek and in much Christian tradition?

Genesis itself might answer some of our questions. For the others, Jews and Christians developed diverse answers over centuries. Apparently something about the union of heavenly beings with mortals concerns God, so much that God intervenes. Their marriages brought forth giants, who accomplished great deeds.

Genesis 6:1-4 immediately precedes the story of Noah and the flood. Many ancient Jews and Christians linked the two stories. We see this process especially in the great apocalypse, 1 Enoch, and in the book of Jubilees. Neither book stands in the Jewish or Christian canon, but both were enormously influential in the centuries surrounding the birth of Jesus and the First Jewish Revolt against Rome. According to these two books, these “sons of God” were really rebellious angels who perverted humankind by introducing forbidden secrets and fostering violence. The ensuing chaos and violence provokes God to send the flood.

The motif of rebellious angels and heavenly conflict surely has antecedents in other Near Eastern cultures. But as far as Jewish and Christian traditions are concerned, this developing tradition provides the foundation for crucial later developments. For example, the New Testament concept of Satan and his army of demons – an idea absent from the Jewish Scriptures – finds its origins here. First Enoch names the leader of these rebellious angels Semjaza, and Jubilees names him Mastema. We might remember that even in the New Testament, Satan also has other names, Beelzebul and Beliar.

A recent collection of essays by Loren T. Stuckenbruck, The Myth of the Rebellious Angels, tracks the multiple ways in which this tradition developed. A world class scholar, Stuckenbruck is one of few who are expert across the full range of ancient Jewish and Christian literature, canonical and extracanonical, along with their broader cultural backgrounds. This is a book for scholars: the bibliography runs over 30 pages, the index of passages from ancient literature over 50. The chapters require Stuckenbruck to track through the possible relationships among an extraordinarily diverse group of texts.

Nonspecialists may not follow Stuckenbruck’s arguments, but they need to hear what he’s saying. The world that produced Judaism and Christianity was extraordinarily complex. Characters like Noah, Abraham, Moses, Isaiah, Elijah, Esther, and Job had literary careers that extended far beyond the boundaries that define our Bible. The Bible was not the end or goal of this process; instead, biblical texts are participants within these intermingling streams. And those angels who created gigantic offspring? Imagine: even before the canonical Gospels it was possible to imagine a wicked angel or spirit siring Jesus, who possessed the kind of magical powers the wicked angels taught humankind. What if, Stuckenbruck wonders, the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke in part responded to such arguments?

So we come back to Paul, women, head coverings, and angels. Most commentators today believe that in 1 Corinthians 11:10 Paul is actually trying to protect women from attack by wicked angels. The “angels” in Genesis 6 looked down and found women beautiful. When we pray or prophecy, our spirits open themselves to the divine, a sort of blessed spiritual possession. Pentecostal and charismatic Christians talk about being “filled with the Spirit.” Presumably, Paul fears that women who participate in sacred speech open themselves not only to the Holy Spirit but also to those lascivious angels. Sounds dangerous.

The wicked angels play an especially critical role in Christian imagination and in Western culture. In 1 Enoch God creates places of punishment for the wicked angels, the antecedents of our understanding of hell. Centuries later, Revelation describes a lake of fire in which Satan and his angels suffer forever – along with their human followers. The Jewish Scriptures have no developed concept of Satan, wicked angels, a final judgment, and hell – concepts that proved extremely important in the emergence of early Christianity. Mystical tours of hell proliferated in Jewish and Christian literature. Apart from this tradition, Dante’s Inferno would have lacked its Lucifer, and Satan could not have appeared in Paradise Lost. There would be no angelic rebellion and no hell. In other words, neither epic poem is conceivable – and Homer Simpson would have no one to stuff him with donuts.

Note: I borrow the language of participation from Eva Mroczek. Also see Annette Yoshiko Reed’s work on the fallen angels.

This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.