The Function of the Divine Council in Heavenly Worship: Piety, not Mysticism: Part 2

Part 1 of this series can be found here.

 

To introduce the topic and get things moving, there are two points to remember. First, the responsibilities of the divine council include (1) administrating Yahweh’s will to the nations, (2) administering justice, and (3) praising Yahweh. Because of the council’s central role in God’s cosmic administration, it ought to be seen as the most significant example of the praise of God in Scripture. “[T]he council of the Lord is the place where the goal of all creation, praise, begins . . . . If all reality finds its ultimate purpose in the praise of God, the divine assembly leads the choir” [italics original].1

Second, scholars have a hard time defining exactly what mysticism is, but they often define it as (1) seeking direct union with God (unio mystica). Sometimes this is expanded to include (2) union with angels (unio angelica) or (3) union in worship or liturgy (unio liturgica). Phillip Alexander does not use that term as far as I can see, but he clearly supports the concept when he writes, “The mystic desires to . . . join the angels in their worship of God. He longs for union with the angels so that he can share in their communion with God”.2

Now, for the texts. There are three primary categories of texts that are relevant for this study: ancient Near Eastern (ANE), Biblical/Old Testament/Hebrew Bible, and Second Temple (non-biblical) Jewish writings. We will begin with the ANE texts, since they are the oldest category.  (For now, I am not going to include New Testament, early Christian, or Gnostic works.)

In a survey of ANE literature, there are a couple of theological lines that are relevant to celestial praise (and underworldly, or realm of the dead, worship at Ugarit). Most of the references in the ANE to gods ‘worshiping’ other gods do not involve the divine council. Instead, what is presented is individual gods making intercession on behalf of other gods, or perhaps groups of gods playing a dirge for the death of a king or god. I suggest that such instances bear little resemblance to the Israelite understanding of celestial praise. To me, these seem to be classic instances of humans projecting their world into the divine world.

However, there is at least one instance that I have come across that bears some resemblance to the biblical ideas. The late, Babylonian text Enūma Elish focuses on the exaltation of Marduk as king of the gods.3,” in The Context of Scripture, vol. 1, Canonical Compositions from the Biblical World, ed. Hallo and Younger (Leiden: Brill, 2003), 390–91.] Here, the gods bow down to him and hail him. This is similar to the biblical picture of how the heavenly beings are to submit to Yahweh and praise him (for instance, Exodus 15:11).

There is also one other instance that is similar to the negative portrayal of the council in Scripture. The sacrificial lists from Ugarit, which seem to indicate that the divine council itself was the object of sacrifices.4 This matches up with Psalm 82, which records that council members have ceased doing their jobs, and instead have accepted worship for themselves. This was an abuse of their position.

  1. Patrick D. Miller, “Cosmology and World Order in the Old Testament: The Divine Council as Cosmic-Political Symbol,” in Israelite Religion and Biblical Theology: Collected Essays, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement, no. 267 (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000), 440–41.
  2. Alexander,Mystical Texts, 10. The best work I have come across on the topic is Peter Schäfer, The Origins of Jewish Mysticism (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2009). But be warned: this is a strongly academic work.
  3. William W. Hallo, “[Untitled Introduction for Epic of Creation (Enūma Elish)
  4. These texts are listed together and explained in Dennis Pardee, Ritual and Cult at Ugarit, (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2002), 12–16.

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