The Function of the Divine Council in Heavenly Worship: Piety, not Mysticism: Part 4

[Note: This post continues where Part 3 left off.  It includes the rest of the main biblical as well as non-biblical ancient Jewish texts.– MSH]


 

Psalm 97:7–9. “All worshipers of images are put to shame, who make their boast in worthless idols; worship him, all you gods!  Zion hears and is glad, and the daughters of Judah rejoice, because of your judgments, Yahweh.  For you, Yahweh, are most high over all the earth; you are exalted far above all gods.”

This psalm focuses on the kingship of Yahweh and uses the imagery of a Divine Warrior.  Vv 1–6 deal with theophany and perhaps victory as a basis for his rule, and as a cause for joy. The problem of the writer seems to have been that not everyone was worshipping Yahweh (vv 10-11). To rectify this situation, the psalmist spoke of the gods who make up the divine council as bowing before Yahweh in praise and submission and recognition of his superiority. Commentators are divided as to whether this bowing should be read as an indicative or an imperative. If indicative, then the gods have already bowed to Yahweh. If imperative, then the psalmist is calling for such action. Why? Because if Yahweh was the true God, the king of heaven, the ruler of all the mighty spirits there; and if these spirits acknowledged that status, then it would make no sense for humans to continue worshiping lesser deities. Perhaps another way to say it is that at least in this psalm, Yahweh’s right to receive worship was linked to the fact that all his closest competitors either already had or at least ought to bow in submission and praise to him. Thus, the mention of gods worshiping Yahweh in this psalm was a key part of the writer’s argument of why humans ought to worship Yahweh, and this desire stemmed from the writer’s own piety.

Psalm 103:20–21. “Bless Yahweh, O you his messengers, you mighty ones who do his word, obeying the voice of his word!  Bless Yahweh, all his hosts, his ministers, who do his will!”

These verses come at the conclusion of this individual psalm of praise. The writer begins and ends with his own need to bless Yahweh. In between he lists various reasons to do so. The mention of “his messengers” and “his hosts” shows that for the writer, even in reflecting on his own need to praise God, he became aware of the inadequacy of such praise, and proceeded to expand the scope to include the faithful doers of God’s work and will in heaven. Perhaps God’s goodness to humans exceeds our greatest capacity to praise him. Or perhaps he thought there should be praise and rejoicing among the heavenly doers of God’s will when their earthly counterparts also do Yahweh’s will and fear him. Whatever the exact reason or combination of reasons, the writer makes it clear that this is linked to his own piety, to his own need to “bless Yahweh.” And somehow, if faithful, heavenly spirits also do that, that is even more fitting.

Psalm 148:1-2. “Alleluia! Praise Yahweh from the heavens, praise him in the heights. 2 Praise him, all his angels, praise him, all his host!”

This psalm is a short call to praise that has a vision of cosmic praise inversely proportionate to its length. The scope of praise includes all the created order, both celestial and terrestrial. The mention of his messengers and “his hosts” (following the plural in an ancient note called the “qereh” reading) draws on the heavenly sphere. In the piety or spirituality of the writer, there is a desire for God to receive the greatest possible amount of praise. Quantity, not just quality, matters also.

Job 38:7. “When the morning stars sang together// And all the sons of God shouted for joy?”

God here recounts his greatness in this section by referring to his glorious work as Creator. The “morning stars,” parallel with “sons of god,” are clear references to the heavenly council. This same parallelism (bn il // pḫr kkbm) is found in one of the texts from Ugarit (CAT, 1.10 i:3–4). By mentioning the divine council, He also introduces the element of his own incomparability. Here it serves to renew and stimulate Job’s piety by humbling him and helping him better grasp his natural insignificance in the cosmic scope of things, especially when compared with Yahweh’s love and concern for him.

Nehemiah 9:6. “You alone are the LORD. You have made the heavens, The heaven of heavens with all their host, The earth and all that is on it, The seas and all that is in them. You give life to all of them And the heavenly host bows down before You.”

This text comes at the beginning of a “doxology of judgment,” and forms part of the basis for the confession of sin at the close. (This is a classic penitential prayer passage, which developed after the exile on the basis of Lev 26:39-40.) The repentant members of the community are preparing to confess their sin and ask for Yahweh’s forgiveness so that they might renew the covenant with him. The heavenly council’s existence is assumed, as is their praising of Yahweh. The thought is that God created everything, from the greatest to the least of creation, and therefore they all praise him. Like some other passages, this points to the incomparability of Yahweh. (The word “heavens” probably refers to heavenly beings, which only strengthens what is already clear.)

 

SECOND TEMPLE (NON-BIBLICAL) TEXTS

Besides the OT biblical passages, there are several Second Temple texts which could be studied, of which these are the most salient.

1 Enoch

First Enoch contains a number of passages that record heavenly praise, both by the author as an individual (e.g., 22:14; 25:7; 39:9-11; 81:3; 90:40) and also by groups of heavenly beings (e.g., 39:5, 7, 12-14; 40:3-10; 41:7; 47:1-4; 61:10-13; 69:25-27). These are mostly praise reports, though one scene records the Trisagion (39:12, cf. Isa 6) and heavenly prayer and intercession is also mentioned several times (e.g., 39:5, 7; 40:6, etc.). Four holy angels seem to be the only ones that can approach God’s throne, and it is to these, who serve as intercessors that prayer is to be made. Some of the angels serve as priests, including Michael, who serves as the eschatological high priest. There are also elaborate descriptions of multi-tiered heavens and various ranks of angels. These elements influenced later ascent writings, such as the Testament of Levi and formed an important transition to the later Hekhalot texts. One of the ways it did this is by changing the role of the seer from essentially passive, as in Ezekiel’s case, to active (1 Enoch 14.8-23). “Historically, this reveals the section to be an important transition from the older Ezekiel tradition of the prophetic call to the much later tradition of Jewish Merkabah mysticism. . . . This active and subjective involvement of the seer in his vision differentiates our text not only from Ezekiel 1—2 but also from other prophetic calls.” (Nickelsburg, 1 Enoch 1, 259.).

Here is a key question: Do elements like this support the claim for incipient mysticism? Many people have answered, “Of course. It’s obvious that they do!” However, if we look at what Enoch is actually doing and trying to achieve, we will see that there are clear differences. In Enoch’s ascent (and those in some of the pre-Hekalot texts influenced by 1 Enoch), the goal of the ascent is not seeing God and becoming one with him (which is considered the classic goal/definition of mysticism). Rather, the goal for Enoch is an audition: receiving a message from God to take back to earth (Schäfer, The Origins of Jewish Mysticism, 84–85). This is a huge difference of kind, not degree, like comparing apples to oranges. In short, 1 Enoch does not record mysticism in ancient Israel, though later on it did become an important source and transition for later works that were indeed mystical.

Qumran

Several texts from Qumran deal with celestial liturgy in some form. The best known of these is the seriesSongs of the Sabbath Sacrifice. The texts deal with the celestial world, and so draw on a variety of texts, of which Ezek 40–48 seems to have been the greatest influence. They contain a series of mysterious, vague  texts apparently intended for recitation of some kind. The exact manner of their use has been debated, though in her commentary on them, Carol Newsom argues that they were used by the Qumran community in mystical ceremonies in which they practiced visionary ascent to God’s presence. However, unlike some texts in which this is experience is the climax, in these texts it is the description of the magnificent appearance of the angels and the sacrifices of the angelic high priest that seems to be the primary focus. Most scholars have interpreted the thirteen texts in Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice as being read by the human worshiping community to heavenly spirits in visionary ascent.

Also, they show a cosmology that is similar to that of the (chronologically later) Christian Gnostics. There are both similarities to and differences from the biblical texts. There is great interest in the throne of God, such as is found in Revelation. One of the striking differences from the Revelation of St. John, however, is the absence of any reference to Isaiah 6:1-3 fromSongs of the Sabbath Sacrifice. Why? We don’t know. Since the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice are pretty fragmentary, it might be merely an accident of preservation. On the other hand, it might be significant.

The Self-Glorification Hymn.

This is another ascent text in which the writer claims to have been seated in heaven above the “gods” or heavenly spirits. There, he is given what seems to be a prophetic commissioning for the purpose of instructing his community and perhaps leading them in worship. This commissioning seems to be climax of his experience. That the writer ascended to heaven is strongly implied, though not actually stated. Although some scholars like Philip Alexander claim that this demonstrates mysticism in ancient Israel, the fact that the focus is on receiving a message for the community rather than on actual union with God or angels seems to contradict such a claim. Alexander does not seem to catch that the inherent contradiction between what he has just written regarding the prophetic commissioning and his own definition of mysticism when he writes, “The ascender takes his seat in heaven above the angels. This is a classic component of mysticism: the ultimate goal of mystical experience is communion or union with the divine.” (Alexander, Mystical Texts, 90).

Philo.

Although Philo of Alexandria was not, strictly speaking, a writer in ancient Israel, we have included him because he was a prolific Second Temple Jewish writer who does seem to have practiced some form of mysticism. In one sense, Philo constitutes a real exception from what we have seen in the other Jewish texts of ancient Israel. The basis for Philo’s thought, however, is not the Jewish texts, but the ideas of Middle Platonism (as distinguished from the earlier, original Platonism proper, and from the later Neo-Platonism, which were both significantly different). Middle Platonism was an extremely widespread and influential paradigm or system of thought among intellectuals during this time period. One of its defining characteristics was a dualism between the body and the soul. This is demonstrated in Philo’s thought, that only the soul ascends to God, leaving the body (Op Mund 70–71). (This is because souls and minds are “good,” but bodies and physical things are “bad”). Philo clearly describes the experience of union with God in strongly erotic language (Cher. 43–50). Everyone agrees that this is mysticism. Even here, however, there are smaller differences from classic definitions of mysticism. For Philo, the soul, is transformed during the experience, and then returns to its former state after the experience (Som. II 232–33). There is no lasting change, and whole person, body and soul, does not experience mysticism. Thus, even in the one clear example of mysticism in ancient Jewish circles (albeit in Egypt rather than in Israel), the link to the body and soul in mystical union is still not established

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