The Function of the Divine Council in Heavenly Worship: Piety, not Mysticism: Part 5

For the previous post and links to earlier parts of this series by Stephen Huebscher, click here. -MSH


 

SUMMARY OF TEXTS. After surveying the most common biblical and Second Temple texts (together with a few older ones from the ancient Near East), we can see that the majority of the biblical texts consist of little more than reports of heavenly praise, or else calls for heavenly praise to be directed to Yahweh. Even the greatest exception to this, Isaiah 6, is remarkably brief. Since there are no indications that these texts functioned in mystical experiences, I take this paucity of description to indicate such things were not important. In other words, if the writers had wanted to show that they were important, they would have had to do something such as provide lengthy, detailed descriptions or state boldly that union with God or the heavenly host was the goal. Therefore, what was important in almost all these texts was that the celestial spirits, in some instances the divine council, were worshiping God. This belief constituted a part of the piety for many of the biblical writers, and in large part explains why they would mention the heavenly activity in passing, but without further explanation. At times, they may also reflect faith in Yahweh and the stability of his cosmic rule. In one sense, this may be interpreted as cosmological stability (“all is right with the world” if the divine council members are doing their job and praising Yahweh). In other texts, the writer expresses a desire for heavenly creatures to worship Yahweh because of his own inability to adequately praise Yahweh’s very greatness. Also, the mention of celestial praise served the role of pastoral care for faithful Israelites struggling in their faith when others around them were worshiping false gods. In a sense, all of these are related.

When we read these texts in this light, we see that there really does not seem to be any interest in mysticism (as generally defined) in Scripture or most ancient Jewish texts. Thus, although we see such concerns much later, and although they may take their inspiration at times from biblical texts, such interpretive moves reflect only the intentions of those later interpreters, not the authors or editors of Scripture.

In surveying non-biblical Second Temple texts, we saw that their interests diverged from Scripture. There was more of an interest in ascending to heaven, and the individuals played an active role in those ascents. The descriptions were also more elaborate of the celestial realm in general, the groups of angels, and the angelic praise and singing. However, in Enoch and the Qumran texts, the goal of the ascent was to gain a message from God, perhaps in conjunction with a prophetic commissioning, and to bring that message back to earth. Although it may seem overly technical, I believe that this emphasis still marks a clear distinction between these ascent texts and the later mystical Jewish (Hekalot) texts. Because of this, contra Margaret Barker and Phillip Alexander, I do not see mysticism as the lore of the First Temple priests, and therefore I argue that even these texts do not present evidence for it (as does Peter Schäfer in his 2009 book).

The one clear exception to this is Philo of Alexandria. The other possible exception is the community at Qumran. According to Carol Newsom, that some kind of mystical ritual was practiced at Qumran seems likely; but that it consisted of ascending to heaven to view God or gaze on his throne/merkabah is not (Newsom, Journal of Jewish Studies (2011), 160-62). However, this would need to be evaluated on its own merits, and the fragmentary nature of the texts makes it difficult to posit more than Newsom states.

NOW WHAT?

Question: If the divine council liturgical passages don’t demonstrate mysticism in Israel both before and after the exile, where did they come from, and why are they there?

Rather than these praise reports of celestial worship being considered evidence for mysticism, I suggest that they be understood within the development of Jewish theology of a corporate or “ecclesiological” model for the people of God that utilizes the “as in heaven, so on earth” line of thinking. In other words, these passages form a core element of the heavenly model of what the people of God (OT Jews, and then NT Christian) should be like on earth. Since they join together to worship the Most High, so should we. This is a key part of what they were created for, and it is also a key part of what we humans were created for.

Another key part of my suggestion is the theory that ancient, righteous Jews equated themselves as the seed of Abraham with the celestial sons of God (so-called “angels”). (For more on this point, see Brendan Byrne, ‘Sons of God’– ‘Seed of Abraham’: A Study of the Idea of the Sonship of God of All Christians in Paul Against the Jewish Background, 64–67.)

The divine council was (or perhaps came to be) seen by ancient Israelites as a model of sorts. We find this idea, this hermeneutical move, in two passages in Deut (4:19-20; 32:8-9). Deut 4 states that God allotted other nations their own gods to worship, especially the sun, moon, and stars. In other words, God gave them their own false gods to worship. Israel was different, however, because God reserved them for himself. The second text, Deut 32, draws a connection between the number of the sons of God and the number of nations in the world, each nation having its own son of God. (According to the Table of Nations in Gen 10, there were 70 nations. When read in light of Deut 32, this would equal 70 sons of God. Ugaritic mythological texts correlate with this understanding of the world, and in fact state that there were 70 sons of the gods.) Deut 32:8 then states that Israel is not included in this, because Yahweh has reserved them for himself. Let’s isolate the logic of what these texts are saying, together with the texts they are interpreting.

Moses (the “author”) is interpreting the events of Gen 10–12—the rebellion at Babel, the Table of Nations, and the call of Abraham—and linking the actions by people to the changes in the heavenly administration/organization of the world. In Gen 1, God originally appointed humanity to rule (Hebrew: mashal) over the earth even though humans were less powerful than the sons of God (Ps 8). But at Babel (Gen 11), God seems to have reversed this somewhat when he apportioned the 70 nations (Gen 10) to the sons of God (Deut 4 & 32), who were members of the heavenly council. Therefore, God called Abraham (Gen 12) to start a new nation to once more bring the blessing of Yahweh’s rule to the world. According to Gen 46:27, there were 70 descendants of Abraham who went down to Egypt. This is probably a kind of typology, showing that God was taking back the nations of the world from the unfaithful sons of God, and perhaps replacing them with the seed of Abraham.

The implication is that the seed of Abraham now become the true and faithful “sons of God.” Thus we have the formula “seed of Abraham = sons of God,” which became very clear in Second Temple literature. (For other biblical examples of this kind of thinking, see Ps 25:14 “council (Hebrew: sod) of the holy ones” = cultic community; Ezek 13:9; Ps 111:1; Prov 3:32; Ps 55:15 [14]).

This is perhaps the key point: pious, orthodox Israelites began to see themselves as the earthly replacement for their rebellious heavenly counterparts (i.e., what people today often call “fallen angels”). Over time, groups that could interpret themselves as the “seed of Abraham” (e.g., both Qumran and early Christians) could also see themselves as the true and faithful Israel, the true sons of God. This was true of the Jewish Essenes at Qumran as well as of the early Christians (though I have not dealt with Christian texts in this blog series). (If this reading is correct, then this theology began at a relatively early date, depending on how one dates Deuteronomy. The “problem” that arises for scholars, however, is that it contradicts modern theories of the development of monotheism from polytheism in ancient Israel, such as those of Wellhausen and later source critics.)

Development in Second Temple Judaism and Early Christianity

Building on this was the idea of “righteous seed of Abraham=a human temple [God dwells among His people],” an idea present in the Old Testament (in a few texts), Qumran, and early Christianity. When combined with the idea of “inheritance=future, eternal life with God like the angels enjoy,” we have the final major puzzle piece in place: God dwells in the midst of his faithful people, who are the new “sons of God” who will someday take their rightful place as the new members of Yahweh’s celestial council.

In short, I have suggested that it is more coherent to see that the biblical texts demonstrate that the divine council came to be seen as an “ecclesiological” and “eschatological” model for the people of God (following Fabry on this point). In this sense, then, the celestial worship may have been a kind of heavenly ideal for pious Israelites. (Jumping forward historically, this seems to have also formed an important part of the both the corporate/ ecclesiological and “last days”/ eschatological theological beliefs of early Christianity as found in the NT.)

Thus, mysticism in its usual definition is neither the only explanation for the kinds of celestial experiences we read about in Old Testament and Second Temple Jewish texts, nor is it even the best. Rather, it seems to me to be a failed attempt, a grasping at straws, to advance the historical “source” of the theory of multiple kinds of orthodox early Christianity (including gnostic ones, such as Bauer and Ehrmann have argued for!) back in an unbroken line to the core of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament. In other words, Margaret Barker clearly argues that the “true” worship of Israel’s God originally was Gnostic, and that later Jewish reformers tried to change and hide this fact (Barker, Great High Priest, xi, 1–2, 315). Obviously, I strongly disagree with this hypothesis, and I think the evidence studied in this series of posts does not support it. This issue is much greater than can be adequately addressed in a short paper like this, and I would guess that because of its appeal, it will enjoy even greater popularity for some time to come.

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