Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 17 (2017) - Review

Wright, Archie T., The Origin of Evil Spirits: The Reception of Genesis 6:1–4 in Early Jewish Literature (rev. ed.; Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015). Pp. 247. Paperback. US$44.00 ISBN 9781451490329.

This latest edition of Archie Wright's book continues a trend of renewed scholarly interest in spirits and in spirit possession phenomena in Second Temple Judaism. The monograph is a revised edition of The Origin of Evil Spirits published in WUNT 2 in 2005, which is itself a revised edition of Wright's dissertation completed at the University of Durham in 2004. Wright's thesis has three primary components: first he argues that the cryptic episode of the בני־האלהים in Gen 6:1–4 (and perhaps an unrecorded interpretive tradition) served as the foundational myth for the Book of the Watchers (1 Enoch 1–36). Second, he argues that part of the goal of the Book of the Watchers was to explain the origin of a particular kind of ‘categorically evil’ spirit as well as to offer an etiology of evil more generally. Third, Wright also maintains that this perspective from the Book of Watchers was later taken up in texts from the Dead Sea Scrolls and the New Testament.

Wright's book is organized into five sections; the first includes the introduction (chapter 1) and an orientation to the Book of the Watchers (chapter 2). Wright's introduction is brief and while it outlines his structure and approach well, some further theoretical ground clearing would have been helpful. For example, Wright does not offer a definition of one of his key concepts, evil, though it would seem that various conceptions of it are at work—both among the various primary texts and potentially among Wright's readers. Chapter 2 is a review of scholarship on the Book of the Watchers, concentrating on the most influential works of the late twentieth century. Regarding provenance, Wright is minimalist, dating the tradition as old as the third century B.C.E. Acknowledging that the composition accomplishes in part an interpretation of Genesis, Wright also suggests that the Book of the Watchers acted on an already existent belief in evil spirits, which demanded explanations as to origins and intent.

The second section (chapter 3) offers an in-depth, verse-by-verse discussion of Gen 6:1–4 in its various manuscript attestations. Wright argues that while there is no inherent evidence in these four verses that the actions of the בני־האלהים are inappropriate, resources are there for a convinced interpreter to make the case. Wright maintains that the use of existing myths (either foreign or Israelite) allowed the Book of the Watchers and other Jewish traditions to change the plain sense of the biblical text and thus read Gen 6:1–4 as the cause of the flood. I wonder, however, if this pericope's conspicuous location in the wider context of Genesis is the evidence Wright is looking for and thus whether or not deferral to extra-biblical influence is absolutely necessary. As Wright's own review of Second Temple and Rabbinic literature attests, causal connections from the events of Gen 6:1–4 to God's recognition of humanity's irreparable sinfulness in vv. 5–6 and then to the ensuing flood could have been very easily discerned among ancient interpreters and perhaps is intended in the final redaction of Genesis.

The third section encompasses three chapters on the Book of the Watchers and its reception. Chapter 4 discusses the episode portrayed in the Book of the Watchers as concerning a particular class of angels called “watchers.” Following elements of works by Nickelsburg, Hanson, and others, Wright posits the interweaving of two older mythic traditions into the Book of the Watchers: The Asaʾel and Shemihazah traditions. In contrast to those who see coded references to historical events, Wright argues that these myths were appropriated in service of articulating a unique etiology of evil spirits. Wright does not explore the possibility that discerning an origin of evil could have been a function of Second Temple Jewish political critique and, in general, the book does not discuss other factors that likely contributed to the composition of the Book of the Watchers (a critique acknowledged in the new preface). In chapter 5, Wright suggests that the Book of the Watchers' narrative of the rebellious angels victimizing humans is “completely different” from the narrative in Genesis which perhaps implies that “humans were to blame (v. 5) for the previous events in 6.1–4” (p. 146). This is an important distinction for Wright because he goes on to posit the flourishing of the Book of the Watchers' innovative anthropology (including humanity's susceptibility to demonic abuse) in later Judaism. While I agree with Wright that the Book of the Watchers puts a heavier emphasis on the victimization of humans from divine opponents than does the Hebrew Bible, I am not convinced that the two texts are as discordant as he suggests—particularly when we begin reading large portions of the Hebrew Bible in the manner of many Second Temple Jewish scribes, that is, as being mutually informative. From page 1, Wright brackets off texts such as Judg 9:23 and 1 Sam 16:14 because these divine forces are supposedly not autonomous and are, in fact, still in God's employ. God's unilateral control of other divine beings, however, is difficult to establish in many of the instances of divine opposition in the Hebrew Bible (take, for example, 1 Kgs 22:19–23). It is likely that issues of agency and autonomy between God, spirits, and humans remained an undecided and contentious issue in the Hebrew Bible and in Second Temple Judaism without a clear evolutionary progression. Chapter 6 discusses the reception of the Watchers tradition in the Dead Sea Scrolls. It includes a short excursus that discusses three manifestations of dualism in the Qumran literature, and suggests that these worldviews were receptive to the Book of the Watchers' account of evil spirits. While speculation on these origins is minimal, the scrolls do portray a variety of beliefs that spirits habitually compromise the ethical behavior of humans. Wright's discussion of spirit phenomena in the Dead Sea Scrolls is understandably not exhaustive, but his examples are well chosen and include selections from 1QS, CD, the Hodayot, the Songs of the Maskil, a number of apotropaic prayers, as well as other texts.

In the fourth section of the book (chapter 7), Wright explores the possibility that Philo knows and attempts to correct the watcher tradition and its interpretation of Gen 6:1–4. Focusing primarily on Philo's De Gigantibus, Wright shows how Gen 6:1–4 is instrumental in articulating Philo's ethically dualistic anthropology. His more symbolic interpretation of the text is markedly different from the stratified angelic cosmos of the Book of the Watchers and the relentless antagonism of spirits in the Dead Sea Scrolls. The addition of this chapter helpfully clarifies that reading Gen 6:1–4 as an etiology of evil was by no means inevitable in Second Temple Judaism.

The final section is a very brief conclusion (chapter 8), which largely reiterates points made previously in the book and gestures towards future work. One aspect of The Origin of Evil Spirits that may disappoint readers is that though this is a revised edition, almost all of Wright's sources date to before the year 2000. Two particularly unfortunate omissions are Yoshiko Reed's, Fallen Angels and the History of Judaism and Christianity as well as some of the later essays in Stuckenbruck's The Myth of Fallen Angels.[1] Despite these omissions, The Origin of Evil Spirits is a helpful depth probe into an undeniably influential tradition in Second Temple Judaism and should be included on the reading list of any scholar interested in spirits and spirit phenomena in the period.

Reed Carlson, Harvard University

[1]Annette Yoshiko Reed, Fallen Angels and the History of Judaism and Christianity: The Reception of Enochic Literature (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005); Loren T. Stuckenbruck, The Myth of Rebellious Angels: Studies in Second Temple Judaism and New Testament Texts (WUNT, 335; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2014). reference