Watching “Watchers” Watch Where Jesus Went … and Why

Some biblical passages have appropriately earned the reputation of straining the capacity of interpreters to understand and apply them. One such section in the first Letter of Peter to the “exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia” (1:1 NRSV) can be found in 3:14-22. Teachers and preachers have scratched their collective heads for generations, attempting to articulate clearly what these words must have meant to the people who first heard them … and then what they might mean to us. And, what difference it makes.

While it seems clear that Peter hopes to encourage those suffering in one way or another for the sake of the gospel, every word in the densely packed central verses of the section is subject to varying interpretations, creating a vast marketplace of possibilities, a veritable plethora of potential explanations. Rather than explore all the options, I want to focus on the most likely scenario exegetically, however novel it may appear at first blush to Adventist readers for whom the dead are dead, period.

In context, our author begins the passage (vs. 14-22) addressing those in his audience who have apparently experienced painful opposition or oppression for their commitment to Christian principles. Believers are blessed if they suffer for doing what is right; this is certainly more noble than suffering the expected outcomes of an evil course of action. The reason for this assertion emerges from the fact of Christ’s sacrifices on behalf of the unrighteous, but also from what is by all counts an intriguing even if complicated travelogue of Christ’s cosmic, post-resurrection journey to address disobedient “spirits in prison” who resisted God and harassed people in the time of Noah, moving then to his triumphal entry into the presence of God, with authority and control over heavenly and earthly powers, including the angels.

So, what in the world is going on here? Or, maybe better, what is going on beneath and beyond the world? Something connected to Genesis 6:1-4 and its description of disobedient “sons of God” who married “daughters of men,” giving birth to the “heroes that were of old, warriors of renown” (Gen. 6:4 NRSV) while the Nephilim (the fallen ones) roamed the land. Something for which Peter’s audience evidently needed no further explanation. Something already part of the theological air the original hearers were breathing. But something that leaves us scratching OUR collective heads.

What is it, then, about the opening of the flood story that connects in any way with Peter and his listeners, and with the suffering and triumph of Christ? Does the answer to this question have anything to do with “spirits” or “prison”? We are confronted in Genesis 6:1-4 by the interpretational dilemma of “sons of God” cohabiting with “daughters of men.” If one understands “sons of God” as they are portrayed elsewhere in the Old Testament (Deut. 32:8; Job 1:6, 2:1, 38:7; Psalms 29:1, 89:6; Daniel 3:25), they should be seen as heavenly beings of some kind. But, however exegetically sound this identification is, what does it mean that angelic beings married humans and had children by them, heroes and warriors? Genesis 6:1-4, not unlike 1 Peter 3, also turns out to be an interpretational Gordian Knot.

Enter the “Watchers.”

While we struggle to understand exactly what Genesis 6 meant, Jewish writers from the time between the testaments “figured it out.” They produced wide-ranging and varied religious books which over time came to be known collectively as the Apocrypha and the Pseudepigrapha. Among the at times unusual documents in the Pseudepigrapha (writings falsely credited to ancient biblical saints), two in particular, the books of Enoch and Jubilees, pick up the themes of Genesis 6 and in doing so introduce us to the “Watchers.”

First Enoch 1-36, known as The Book of the Watchers, derives from the 4th or 3rd century BC, and depicts fallen angels, the Watchers, cohabiting with women who then bear the Nephilim (the fallen ones) and teach humans evil practices, all of which constitute serious enough moral violations as to necessitate punishment and cleansing by the flood. The book then describes the travelogue of Enoch throughout the earth, down into Sheol, and then into the heavens.

The book of Jubilees (chapters 4 and 5) describes the Watchers similarly, attributing the fearsome giants in the land to the marriages between heavenly Watchers and human women, but the book also describes the punishment of these “angels,” by which they are consigned to the depths of the earth, awaiting their unhappy fate.

But this entire scenario of celestial angels and terrestrial women doesn’t end with the time between the testaments. A number of New Testament passages now make more sense in light of these popular theological traditions floating around, whether the stories were perceived as true or not. In particular, Jude 6-7 speaks of angels who left their proper dwelling and, like the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah, engaged in unnatural lust and will suffer punishment in the end. In addition, 2 Peter 2:4-10 shares a number of commonalities with Jude and 1 Peter in its depictions of sinful angels, Noah and the flood, punishment, imprisonment, and the final judgment, all calculated to demonstrate God’s control over evil forces and commitment to rescuing the faithful.

So, we come full circle, back to 1 Peter 3 and to this conundrum of Jesus’ post-resurrection travels on a journey to notify the spirits in prison of the coming judgment and of his ultimate position of power and control over them. Peter’s audience thought immediately of the angelic Watchers, of their moral collapse, of the resulting children, of the mischief they created and still create for the saints, of their imprisonment in preparation for the final judgment. As we watch Watchers watching where Jesus went, we also discover why it mattered at all. For believers suffering for the sake of the gospel, the good news is that whatever trouble these ancient but fallen angelic beings and their offspring might be causing, Jesus made a point of stopping by their prison to notify them that he had suffered, died, been resurrected, and was just then on his way to heaven where he would exercise control over these imps under the authority of God. Suffering saints needn’t worry about forces that stir up oppression and pain because Jesus has already told them off and was sitting at the right hand of God to keep them in check.

Watching Watchers watch where Jesus went, believers in Peter’s audience found themselves encouraged to face anything thrown their way.

Memo to the Watchers: You’re toast!

Memo to the “exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia”: The Watchers are toast! Be of good courage!

PS: Is this a factual account of how things really went down—in Genesis, Enoch, Jubilees, 1 and 2 Peter, or Jude—or are the biblical authors simply using popular stories to make a point about God’s control in order to build our faith? We may just have to ask St. Peter at the gates of heaven; he will know.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/8002

Thank you Doug! My, my, interpreting the Bible in the belief/theological context of the time and place it was written so it would make sense, and not simply be a “proof text” for people to quote in an effort to establish an implausible doctrine.

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Resurrection Victory Lap

I am not so sure warning the Spirits in Prison made any difference in the lives of Christians following the resurrection of Christ. The secular world or the church in early and late Middle Ages did not mature into a peaceful place where evil was constrained.

I suggest that Peter may have had a more fluid understanding of the condition of the dead–those awaiting the judgment. Having seen and talked to Moses and Elijah and perhaps some of the many individuals that arose from the death at the time of Jesus resurrection. Perhaps Peter saw death as transference into another state, with a body and or a Spirit. Peter certainly saw and talked to more embodied dead individuals than any other human since time began to the modern age.

This is such a mysterious part of the scriptures. Genesis describing “sons of God” cohabiting with the “daughters of men.” What in the world? Angelic fallen hosts are fertile? With the Omniscience of God, didn’t He know this would happen? Why do evil angels have the ability to procreate?

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If you are looking for the traditional Adventist take on 1Peter 3:18-20; 4:6; and 2Peter 2:4 I suggest you read Joe Crews’ analysis of these verses in his booklet ‘Answers to Difficult Bible Texts’. (I think you can find it online.)
I once heard a sermon by Doug Batchelor, a student of Joe Crews, on this subject. The gist of it was that Peter is referring to Christ in Spirit preaching to the antediluvian people before the flood urging them to repent and enter the ark. Because they didn’t listen then they are now ‘in prison’ (i.e., dead and so with no chance of eternal life) awaiting the judgment. This view then, asserts that the term ‘sons of God’ does not refer to angels but to antediluvian believing male humans who made the mistake of marrying ‘daughters of men’ (unbelieving women) and thus under the influence of their wives eventually lost their salvation. (Some say the sons of Seth married the daughters of Cain.) This interpretation, of course, aligns with the Adventist view of the state of the dead, i.e., that all dead people are now ‘asleep’ (awaiting the judgment) and so Christ preaching to them at the time of His crucifixion wouldn’t make sense.

Some groups in Judaism also hold to the idea that these ‘sons of God’ were human:

Accepting the idea that these ‘sons of God’ were fallen angels allows for the following possibility: the heavenly host correctly understood from the time of the fall that the future Messiah would be a seed of the woman but also of God (i.e., by the Spirit). He would have to be a god/man, so to speak. They became impatient with the time God was taking to unfold His plan, sensed an opportunity, and so took matters into their own hands and tried to create god/men themselves by using human women. God then rejected this amalgamated race of counterfeit Christs en masse by the flood.

This problem stems from the misreading of Genesis 1 and 2. At creation God created the world and all the animals including humanoids eg men It was only later that he made the garden of Eden and created Adam ( a son of God)

After the fall the descendents of Adam through Seth began to intermarry with the humanoids as Cain had already done and so we had the amalgamation of the subspecies with the more superior Adamic race

Most if not all of the earlier creation died of during the Deluge but possibly Noahs daughters in law had hominid genetics and passed the sinful tendencies on to future generations

It is interesting to note that according to Genesisall the advances in music science etc came from the descendents of Cain

This article reminds of the situation where something said/written is the envelope and the real message is inside.
I gather that this sensational, speculative topic is really a digression and an escapist move to avoid a very uncomfortable subject.

Not a few Protestants embrace the rapture doctrine so they can feel that they will escape the last plagues on Earth before the 2nd coming of Jesus.

It is one thing to have a martyr complex or be fixated/obsessed with paranoia adrenalin and boom in doom eschatology, and another to ignore reality and pessimistic prophecy…such as…

“As the storm approaches, a large class who have professed faith in the third angel’s message, but have not been sanctified through obedience to the truth, abandon their position and join the ranks of the opposition. By uniting with the world and partaking of its spirit, they have come to view matters in nearly the same light; and when the test is brought, they are prepared to choose the easy, popular side. Men of talent and pleasing address, who once rejoiced in the truth, employ their powers to deceive and mislead souls. They become the most bitter enemies of their former brethren. When Sabbathkeepers are brought before the courts to answer for their faith, these apostates are the most efficient agents of Satan to misrepresent and accuse them, and by false reports and insinuations to stir up the rulers against them.” Great Controversy p 608

There were basically 10 stages of Roman emperor driven persecution from Peter’s time through 400 AD.

I mentioned some details about the martyr’s deaths during Sabbath school and they were quite different than the few executions performed in America …(lethal injection, electric chair, gas chamber, hanging)

Ever read about St Telemachus?

“If you have raced with men on foot and they have worn you out, how can you compete with horses? If you stumble in safe country, how will you manage in the thickets by the Jordan?” JER 12:5

i will grant that egw, in an early vision, called the apocrypha “the hidden book”, and said that “the wise in these last days should understand it”, 16MR:34, but i have to say that i think the assumption that peter’s audience had watchers and nephilim in mind when they read peter’s letter to them is a stretch that isn’t required…first of all, if these ancient angelic watchers were in a prison of some kind, why would peter’s audience be concerned about them…being in prison would mean they were quarantined, and without further opportunity to vex anyone…i can’t see that the knowledge that jesus had “told them off” on his way to heaven after his resurrection would add consolation to those who were giving their lives for their faith…

i think it’s much more natural to read 1 Peter 3:18-22 as a bit of word association meandering, indulged in by an uneducated fisherman who wasn’t thinking that what he was writing would be analyzed to death by scholars more than two thousand yrs later…in this bit of meandering, v.18 establishes that peter’s message of suffering for righteousness follows the pattern of jesus, who suffered for righteousness during his mission to “bring us to god”…v.19-20, which deals with jesus’ “travelogue”, can be viewed as a diversion that hinges on the word “spirit”, in which peter is explaining that the way jesus rose from the dead is the way he preached to the antediluvians before the flood…this interpretation has the advantage of harmonizing with 1 Peter 4:6, which explicitly teaches that those who are now dead - the antediluvians - did have the gospel preached to them…it also represents an inverse way of teaching the value of obedience, even if suffering is involved…v.21 (1 Peter 3:21) then uses the resurrection of christ in a second diversion: rising to newness of life and salvation in the ordinance of baptism follows the pattern of christ’s rising from the dead to eternal life in the spirit…

as for Genesis 6:1-4, i see no need to infer angelic sexual relations with humans in the terms “sons of god” and “daughters of men”…eli’s sons were called “sons of belial”, 1 Samuel 2:12, which doesn’t mean that eli’s wife was impregnated by satan…jesus said to the pharisees that their father was “the devil”, John 8:44…this also doesn’t mean that satan impregnated their mothers…i think we’re just dealing with a figure of speech in which one’s actions as a whole indicates spiritual phylogeny…this interpretation is strengthened by the context established in Genesis 6:1, which is that people were populating the earth…that is, “people” were populating the earth, and not watchers and various half spirits like nephilim…

in general, my impression of 1 Enoch is that there are clear reasons why it wasn’t included in the canon…the over-all tone is escapist and trite…it doesn’t read in the same calculated soberness that one sees in some of the older, traditional translations, or in egw…clearly, the author(s) had a working knowledge of parts of Genesis and Daniel, etc., but he was operating on a different plane - perhaps we see a desperate attempt to sound like an inspired prophet for social advantage…i don’t think a satisfactory interpretation of something in the canon can really rest on anything found in the apocrypha, even if it is true that Jude 14-15 quotes 1 Enoch 2:1, and 1 Enoch 46:1 and 47:3 quote Daniel 7:9-10, etc…

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