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Earth Etude for Elul 21: The Earth Objects

by Rabbi Charles R. Lightner

“And the giants began to kill men and to devour them. And they began to sin against the birds and the beasts and creeping things and the fish, and to devour one another’s flesh. And they drank the blood. Then the earth brought accusation against the lawless ones for all that was done on it.” (1 Enoch 7:4-6)[1]

“And again I saw them, and they began to gore one another, and the earth began to cry out.” (1 Enoch 87:1)

The Book of 1 Enoch is the oldest work of Jewish apocalypse, portions dating to the fourth century BCE. Its original language was Aramaic, and it was important to the sectarian Jews of the last two centuries BCE. The text was lost to the West early in the Common Era but a copy in Greek was translated into the classical Ethiopian language of Ge’ez. That version was preserved for centuries in both the Jewish and the Christian communities of Ethiopia. Copies of the Ethiopic version were brought to Europe in the 18th century, but it was not until 1912 that R. H. Charles published the first definitive translation.

The book is written from the point of view of the biblical Enoch, the seventh generation of humans from Adam and Eve and the great-grandfather of Noah. Genesis Chapter 6 tells us that divine beings descended to earth in the time of Enoch and began to disrupt the natural order. That disruption and its consequences are the subjects of much of the long text of 1 Enoch. In the biblical account it is that disruption that leads to Gen 6:6, which tells us that the Lord regretted having made humans, and the Lord’s heart was saddened.

In the Genesis account, the Noah story follows immediately. But most of 1 Enoch takes place in the timeless gap between the account of God’s determination to cleanse the earth of all life and Gen 6:8, when Noah is introduced. In that gap, 1 Enoch documents a reaction to the evil and the disruption of the natural order. A reaction that we do not find in Genesis.

In 1 Enoch the earth itself rises up, reacting against violence and disruption. The earth brings angry accusations. The earth cries out in pain. In this earliest of Jewish apocalyptic texts, it is the earth itself that objects to being used for ill purposes. It is that objection, it is the earth’s crying out in Enoch 87 that introduces the cleansing Noah story. This ancient text teaches that offenses against the natural order require repair in the physical realm. It adds a dimension to our understanding of t’shuvah. Atonement and repair in matters of the earth are different from and in addition to the  t’shuvah required in spiritual and human relationships.

[1] Translations from: Nickelsburg, George W. E. 1 Enoch 1. Hermeneia–A Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible. Fortress. Minneapolis. 2001

Charles R. Lightner received rabbinic ordination from the Academy for Jewish Religion in 2008. He currently leads a study group and a Shabbat minyan at Temple Emanuel of Westfield, NJ. He studies and writes about the literature of the Second Temple period with an emphasis on apocalypse.

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