In the beginning, there were Watchmen spoilers. There will also be Watchmen spoilers throughout.
We’re on to Watchmen Chapter 3 in the Bestiary, and with a new chapter comes a new chapter title and a new epigraph. While the first two epigraphs came from the world of rock and roll, Chapter 3 casts much further backward, all the way back to the first book of the Bible — Genesis, chapter 18, verse 25: “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Note that this is the King James Version [KJV] translation.)
We’ll get to what this means for Watchmen in a moment, but first let’s take a little time to ascertain the Biblical context of the quote. Genesis splits roughly into two parts, known as the Primeval History (chapters 1-11) and the Patriarchal History (chapters 12-50). The Primeval History narrates the creation myth, Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah’s ark, and the Tower of Babel. Lots of greatest hits. The Patriarchal History, on the other hand, starts with Abram (later called Abraham), then traces his lineage down through a series of patriarchs, in particular Abraham’s son Isaac, Isaac’s son Jacob, and Jacob’s son Joseph. The book tells a handful of stories from each man’s life, culminating in the “Joseph Novel”, which occupies (more or less) chapters 37-50.
Chapter 18, then, is early in the Patriarchal History, in the midst of the stories of Abraham. In this chapter, we find Abraham sitting in his tent, enduring the day’s heat, when he notices three men standing in front of him. Somehow sensing that there is more to these men than meets the eye, Abraham abases himself to them, begging them to partake of his hospitality. When they assent, he has his wife and his servants whip up the finest possible meal for them.
Very quickly, the text makes it clear that Yahweh (translated in various versions as “the LORD”) is among these men, a physical manifestation of the Israelites’ God, who had previously appeared to Abram in visions. After some conversation establishing that Abraham’s barren wife would in fact bear a child (and explaining the origin of the child’s name), the men walk out to look from afar at the city of Sodom. Yahweh wonders, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, seeing that Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him?” (All textual quotes are from the English Standard Version, except where noted.)
Yahweh decides against deception, and lets Abraham know that he intends to evaluate the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, having heard that “the outcry against [them] is great and their sin is very grave. I will go down to see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me.” Now, this is a bit of an odd statement for a deity generally depicted as all-knowing. Yahweh is unusually personified in this section, and seems to share (for the moment) the general human trait of limited knowledge, and the need to investigate to learn more. Various Biblical scholars have come up with rationales to explain this seeming paradox, suggesting that perhaps God was teaching us not to pass judgment before investigating the evidence, or that “if one’s actions are unworthy of God, one is said to be unworthy of his knowledge also.” (Ancient Christian Commentary On Scripture: Old Testament II, pg 68-70)
Whatever the case, Yahweh has a more human presentation than usual, which perhaps emboldens Abraham to approach him on a human level, attempting to haggle over amounts, as was common in his culture. “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?” he asks. “Suppose there are fifty righteous men within the city. Will you then sweep away the place and not spare it for the fifty righteous who are in it?” Warming to his theme, Abraham amps up the rhetoric: “Far be it from you to do such a thing, to put the righteous to death with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” Or, as the KJV would have it, “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?”
Abraham argues Yahweh all the way down to ten righteous, and Yahweh agrees, “For the sake of ten I will not destroy it,” which brings Chapter 18 to a close. Then comes Chapter 19, in which “two angels” arrive in Sodom (seemingly without Yahweh in tow after all), and get harassed by a pack of xenophobes. We don’t get the sense that any kind of thorough examination of the city occurs — there’s no story of seeking righteous people. The text does specify that “the men of the city… all the people to the last man” are part of the mob — apparently women didn’t count in the righteousness census. (And I guess it’s a pretty small city?) In any case, the angels warn in short order that “we are about to destroy this place,” and indeed that morning Sodom is destroyed, with only Abraham’s nephew Lot and his family escorted from the destruction. The Judge of all the earth renders his judgment and punishment, Abraham’s bargaining notwithstanding.
A Panel Of Judges
In Chapter 3 of Watchmen, there are several candidates for “Judge of all the earth.” The first of these is God himself. In the very first panel, Bernie the news vendor asserts, “We oughta nuke Russia and let God sort it out!” Then, a few panels later, the Tales Of The Black Freighter narrator touches a similar theme: “In despair I sank beneath those foul, pink billows, offering up my wretched soul to almighty God, and his judgment.” Later on, that same character concludes that this judgment is in the negative: “I cursed God and wept, wondering if he wept also. But then, what use his tears, if his help was denied me?” The doomsayer (who has not yet been revealed to be Kovacs/Rorschach) doesn’t mention God explicitly, but seems to look to the sort of mysterious signs (“a two-headed cat born in Queens”) that doomsday cults use to predict divine punishment of humanity.
In the context of the Genesis quote, these notions of God’s judgment look rightly ominous. This is the same God who rained down fire on an entire city after his emissaries concluded that there weren’t even ten righteous people (sorry, MEN) within it. No wonder that invocations of his judgment don’t allow much latitude for the possibility of mercy. Yet at least in vendor Bernie’s quote, it isn’t really God who wants to rain down fire — it’s Bernie himself, just using God as a convenient prop to wave away the horror, and suggesting that if humans nuke each other, some higher power will “sort it out.” That brings us to the second category of judge in this chapter: humans themselves.
Late in the chapter, we see Richard Nixon close to following vendor Bernie’s advice. He stares at the Dr. Strangelove map board, contemplating the judgment he could render on Russia, and incidentally Europe and half the U.S. as well. Benny Anger’s audience is in on the bloodthirst too, asking Dr. Manhattan, “If the Reds act up in Afghanistan… will you be prepared to enter hostilities?” to widespread applause. Perhaps we expect a distant God to destroy us in judgment for our sins, but at least as this chapter depicts us, we are scarcely safer when left to our own devices.
Then there is Dr. Manhattan, who is between the poles of divinity and humanity — a human with godlike power, whose changed perceptions remove him further from humanity all the time. Certainly the Russian government seems to have viewed him as, if not a judge, at least a sort of referee, preventing hostile parties from “acting up.” As soon as the news hits that he’s left for Mars, Russia immediately invades Afghanistan (or perhaps counter-invades, given the references to “U.S. adventurism” there in Chapter 1.) Likewise, the U.S. government sees him as “the linchpin of America’s strategic superiority,” a judge who’s already in their pocket, at least until he disappears. Benny Anger’s audience seems to view him as more or less a weapon to be used by the U.S. at will.
So is he a judge? The chapter’s epigraph appears beneath his picture, which certainly suggests that he may be that “Judge of all the earth.” Yet throughout the chapter, he shows poor judgment over and over. Certainly he badly misjudges Laurie’s reactions, both when trying to “stimulate” her, and when talking with her afterwards. Janey Slater seems to have his number when she says, “You know how every damn thing in this world fits together except people!” He apparently becomes convinced during the Nova Express Q&A that he radiates death, and that night judges himself “incapable of cohabiting safely either emotionally or physically.” If he is Earth’s judge, it’s only inadvertently — his presence or absence is as near as he comes to action for or against the planet, and as Laurie well knows, even when he’s present, he can be pretty absent.
The fourth, hidden judge turns out to be Ozymandias, who will in fact rain destruction down upon a city just as the God of Genesis does, but with no intercessor Abraham to plead for the innocent. In fact, Adrian Veidt makes certain that nobody knows about his plan if they have “the slightest chance” of their affecting its outcome. Where Yahweh debates whether to share information with Abraham, and ultimately decides to do so, Adrian feels no such compunction.
Yet Veidt aspires to transcendence, to godhood. He speaks of assuming “the aspect of kingly Rameses, leaving Alexander the adventurer and his trappings to gather dust.” “My new world demands less obvious heroism,” he sneers, anointing himself a world-creator. He engineers much of the story that the other characters find themselves walking through, an authorial presence from behind the scenes, including the pivotal plot advancement of this chapter — Dr. Manhattan leaving Earth.
He describes himself as motivated by the Comedian during the 1966 Crimebusters meeting, and in turn characterizes Blake’s reaction to his plan as “professional jealousy.” But might Veidt be experiencing some professional jealousy of his own? He lives in the presence of Dr. Manhattan, a being of casual godlike power, but one with a total disinterest in remaking the world. How that must eat at Adrian Veidt. To carry out his judgment on humanity, he must remove Dr. Manhattan from the earth altogether.
As soon as this happens, the chapter fittingly turns to ruminations on the absence of God. It starts with the Black Freighter narrator: “That night, I slept badly beneath cold, distant stars, pondering upon the cold, distant God in whose hands the fate of Davidstown rested. Was he really there? Had he been there once, but now departed?” Then we see the return of the doomsayer, who counters vendor Bernie’s assertion that “the world didn’t end yesterday” with, “Are you sure?” Then, with news of Russia’s Afghanistan invasion, we turn to Nixon and his cabinet discussing nuclear scenarios, and the role played by wind, “a force of nature. It’s totally impartial… totally indifferent.”
By the time the chapter ends, our terror comes not from the notion of God’s punishment, but rather the random, meaningless universe we face without the notion of his presence. His most frightening judgment of all is his decision to leave us on our own, in a world that we can never be sure hasn’t just ended. The cliffhanger ending of the pirate comic sets up the narrator’s tragic actions in the next issue. Perhaps Jon’s unwillingness to stop what Adrian sees as the freighter bearing down on humanity — its penchant for self-destruction — prompts Adrian’s own Davidstown actions?
How Do You Plead?
Chapter 18 isn’t the first time in Genesis that God acts as “Judge of all the earth.” His first mass judgment comes in chapter 6, verse 5:
The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the LORD regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the LORD said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens, for am sorry that I have made them.” But Noah found favor in the eyes of the LORD.
Once again, one man has the power to sway Yahweh, and that one man will be spared from the judgment that affects everyone else. These judgments, of wickedness and sin, rely on a starkly binary scale for judgment of humans — everyone is either fully righteous or fully wicked. In the Noah story, only Noah is found righteous — his family is spared for its association with him. In Sodom, only Lot is spared, once again with his family as more or less an accessory. This despite the fact that Lot isn’t exactly virtuous — he offers his virginal daughters to the xenophobe mob, hoping to distract them from his visitors. Perhaps Lot is only spared because he is Abraham’s nephew, thus once again allowing a great patriarch’s relations to be saved for the sake of their connections with him.
The righteous/wicked binary of these chapters is typical of the Old Testament (and some parts of the New Testament, notably Revelation.) The same dualism grounds many a traditional superhero narrative, and Watchmen works to break down this simplistic approach. Rorschach embodies Old Testament moral absolutism in Watchmen, and in yet another Biblical inversion, he finds himself the black and white Abraham to Dr. Manhattan’s morally grey Yahweh at the end of Chapter 12. Unlike Abraham, his only plea is for his own death. He is not saved.
In Genesis, Abraham’s role as bargainer goes well beyond chapter 18. He bargains with Ephron for Sarah’s burial place in chapter 23, and bargains with Lot in chapter 13. We find him in political negotiations at the ends of chapters 14 and 20. He even presumes to plead with Yahweh (in a vision) for a blood heir, in chapter 15.
Yet in all these other scenes, he bargains for himself or his family. In chapter 18, he speaks for a greater humanity. This dynamic gets its Watchmen mirror in Chapter 11, between Laurie and Jon. Yet as usual, it’s a distorted mirror. Laurie pleads with Jon to intercede on humanity’s behalf, to save humankind from itself. Abraham, on the other hand, pleads with Yahweh not to intercede, and to let the righteous, even if they are greatly outnumbered, help influence humans toward a more just path.
They do have in common a sense of false victory. Both Laurie and Abraham manage to sway their gods, but neither of them can stem the tide of slaughter.
Watchmen: Second Genesis
So far we’ve seen how Watchmen offers various judges, including the indifferent Dr. Manhattan and the sociopathic Ozymandias. We’ve seen the moral binarism of Genesis reflected in Rorschach, and we’ve seen the bargaining motif of Genesis both reflected and inverted by Rorschach and Silk Spectre II, as they confront Dr. Manhattan in different scenes.
But Watchmen displays other themes from Genesis, including that book’s strong motif of trickery. Guile and deceit are all over the place in Genesis, and not just in the villainous characters. Sure, there’s the serpent beguiling Eve in the garden, but more often it is the patriarchs themselves who do the tricking. No less than three times (chapters 12 and 20 with Abraham, and chapter 26 with Isaac), a Biblical patriarch convinces a local ruler that the patriarch’s wife is actually his sister. Each time, God afflicts that ruler, even though each time the ruler is the victim of the deception.
In the story of Jacob, Laban, Rachel, and Leah (chapters 29-31), everyone is constantly tricking and swindling each other. Laban tells Jacob to serve him for seven years in order to marry Laban’s daughter Rachel, only to send his other daughter Leah instead, making Jacob serve seven more years for Rachel. Jacob makes a deal with Laban to own all his speckled livestock, then Laban removes all the speckled livestock, then Jacob ensures that more speckled livestock will be born and takes them anyway. Jacob sneaks away from Laban’s estate in secret, Rachel steals her father’s “household gods”, then Laban catches up with them and accuses them of theft, but Rachel fools him by hiding the gods in a camel’s saddle, then sitting on it and saying, “I cannot rise before you, for the way of women is upon me.”
On and on it goes. Jacob’s sons trick Shechem, slaughtering an entire town in revenge for their sister’s rape. Jacob tricks Esau out of his birthright. Joseph’s brothers trick him and sell him into slavery, then he tricks them back after coming into power. Usually it is the agents of God practicing the deception (and giving God credit for the results), but even God himself gets in on the action, tricking Abraham into binding his son Isaac for slaughter before calling him off at the last minute, saying, “now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” (Incidentally, Isaac is Rachel’s only son. Abraham has another son, Ishmael.)
There is only one trickster in Watchmen, and his name is Ozymandias. But oh, what a bag of tricks he carries! From the very first moment of the book, he deceives both readers and characters. The murder that spurs Rorschach’s “mask-killer” theory? A trick. The cancer epidemic that drives Dr. Manhattan from Earth? A trick. The assassination attempt on Veidt himself? A trick. The frame job on Rorschach, the (second) disintegration of Jon Osterman, Adrian’s somber face at Blake’s funeral: tricks, tricks, tricks, all in service of his greatest trick of all.
“Unable to unite the world by conquest,” he boasts, “I would trick it; frighten it towards salvation with history’s greatest practical joke.” He seems to truly believe that his brand of trickery is different from that of Genesis, that he is a different sort of patriarch, a different sort of god. Where Biblical characters practice deception to serve themselves — preserve their lives, build their wealth, gain power over others — Veidt’s sees his trick as preserving humanity at large. Where Yahweh tricks Abraham to ensure he fears what is most fearsome, Veidt tricks Earth into fearing the imaginary, so as to direct their fear away from each other.
On the one hand, Adrian’s self-serving belief seems patently ridiculous. His trick kills millions of the humans he claims to be saving. No Biblical patriarch does any such thing. Every wife/sister con gets retracted and the afflicted ruler recovers. Laban steals years of Jacob’s labor, Rachel steals “household gods”, Jacob steals Esau’s blessing from Isaac, but nobody gets killed by these ruses. The slaughter of Shechem’s town is as close as we get, and this happens on a much smaller scale, and for revenge — no pretense of saviorship. Even God makes sure that Abraham spares Isaac.
On the other hand, Watchmen‘s ending is ambiguous enough that we can’t be certain that Adrian is wrong. Perhaps his monstrous machination does save more people than it destroys? That question brings us to the final parallel with Genesis, the notion of good outcomes arising from evil deeds.
In the “Joseph novel”, Joseph’s jealous and hateful brothers sell him into Egyptian slavery, telling their father Jacob that Joseph was killed by a wild beast. While in Egypt, Joseph becomes a powerful prophet, whose prophecies save Egypt from a famine that afflicts everyone else. His brothers come to Egypt begging for food, and after several rounds of the usual trickery, Joseph finally reveals his identity to his brothers, and reunites with his father, who dies peacefully, knowing his youngest son has survived after all. In the end, those brothers worry (quite logically!) that Joseph will bear a grudge, and try — once again — a trick, telling Joseph that Jacob commanded him to forgive them. Joseph responds to them thus:
Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. So do not fear; I will provide for you and your little ones.
This is the climactic moment of the “Joseph novel”, and the book of Genesis as a whole ends a few verses later. For Joseph, two principles are at work. First, none but God is fit to be “Judge of all the earth.” Second, the harm done by humans can be resolved by God into good, or perhaps more problematically, God prompts humans to harm each other in order to accomplish a greater good down the line. Biblical scholar Bill Arnold sums up the message pretty succinctly: “Joseph represents the conviction that good can come from evil.” (Genesis [New Cambridge Bible Commentary], pg. 389)
This conviction is a central question at the end of Watchmen. Ozymandias believes it, though I doubt he would agree with the concept of an omniscient god prompting his actions. In his mind, he is the omniscient one, or at least the one blessed with a broader perspective than his fellow beings — “the smartest guy in the world.” He feels entitled to be “Judge of all the earth” due to his belief in this greater perspective, and he sees himself as a benevolent shepherd, willing to sacrifice some of his sheep for the good of the whole flock. Rorschach, on the other hand, rejects the notion that good can come from evil. For him, “there is good, and there is evil, and evil must be punished.”
Where does Watchmen itself land? I think it’s closer to Dr. Manhattan, observing it all from Mars. I think it’s closer to this 2003 quote from Alan Moore:
The main thing that I learned about conspiracy theory is that conspiracy theorists actually believe in a conspiracy because that is more comforting. The truth of the world is that it is chaotic. The truth is, that it is not the Jewish banking conspiracy or the grey aliens or the 12 foot reptiloids from another dimension that are in control. The truth is more frightening, nobody is in control. The world is rudderless.
In other words, “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” is the wrong question. There is no “Judge of all the earth” — only us. The real question is, “Shall I do right?” And if so, how?