In last week’s post, God’s divine council, the angelic beings surrounding his throne with whom He shares graciously his governance of the heavens and the earth, was introduced. There are several ways in which human persons in the Old Testament encounter and interact with the divine council. These encounters and modes of interaction lay the groundwork for a transformed relationship in the New Covenant, which will be the subject of next week’s post. Simply put, every encounter with God the Father in the Old Testament is mediated either through God the Son, as was discussed in a previous series on this blog, or by angelic beings, as will be discussed here.
Though these encounters are far from common, the most common mode of encounter between a human person and the divine council in the Old Testament is for a human person to be brought into a gathering of the council. The vision in which Isaiah receives his prophetic calling is recorded in Isaiah 6. Isaiah sees the Lord enthroned, ‘high and lifted up’. Closest to the throne are the seraphim, whom he beholds worshipping the Lord perpetually. When the Lord speaks, however, it is not to command Isaiah, rather it is to pose a deliberative question to the council gathering in which Isaiah is now present. The question, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” is not dissimilar from the scene in 1 Kings/3 Kingdoms 22:19-20, where the question is posed to the council as to who will persuade Ahab. In that case, a spirit volunteered to go, in this case, Isaiah volunteers to bring the message of judgment to Israel.
Though it is not detailed as such in the Torah, Moses’ meetings with God atop Mt. Sinai is described by later Judaism, including in the New Testament, as entering into such a meeting. The New Testament repeatedly says that the Torah was given by, or through, angels. St. Stephen refers to the Judean authorities as those who have ‘received the law delivered by angels’ and not kept it (Acts 7:53). St. Paul, in Galatians, in describing the addition of the Torah to the Old Covenant, says that it was ‘delivered by angels in the hand of a mediator’, namely Moses (Gal 3:19). Hebrews describes the seriousness of the commandments of the Torah by pointing out that ‘the message declared by angels proved to be reliable, and ever transgression or disobedience received a just retribution’ (2:2). Beyond the New Testament, this was the common understanding of the giving of the Torah in Second Temple Judaism, as seen for example in Josephus, ‘We have learned the noblest of our doctrines and the holiest of laws from the angels sent by God’ (Antiquities xv:136).
Further, however, the Tabernacle in particular was constructed according to the pattern of the place of meeting which Moses beheld on the mountain (Heb 8:5). As seen in Isaiah’s vision, the constant focus of the divine council is on giving glory, honor, and worship to the one who sits upon the throne. The place of worship, and the shape of worship, are then earthly icons of the divine assembly into which human persons enter in worship. The tabernacle’s curtains and veils were decorated with images of angelic beings in worship, culminating in the cherubim atop the ark of the covenant in the most holy place. Likewise in the worship itself, as maintained in the Orthodox Divine Liturgy, there is a conscious awareness and invocation of the fact that worship is a participation in the continual and eternal worship enacted by the divine council in heaven.
In a handful of cases, human persons were actually made members of the divine council either without experiencing physical death, or shortly thereafter as their bodies were taken up. The first of these is Enoch, listed seventh from Adam in the genealogies of Genesis 5:21. The exact nature of what happened is not described in Genesis in detail, which states only that, ‘Enoch walked with God and he was not for God took him’ (v. 24). Sirach says little more, only that ‘Enoch pleased the Lord and was taken up into heaven. He became an inspiration for repentance for all time to come’ (44:16). For Sirach, Enoch is a model of salvation from a sinful world on its way to judgment through a life of righteousness and repentance. Likewise the book of Wisdom understands Enoch to have been taken out of a world full of wickedness before it could corrupt his innocence (4:10-15). Beyond these brief mentions in scripture, however, a vast body of tradition related to the person of Enoch exists in Second Temple Jewish literature. The most well known of these texts is 1 Enoch, though there is a great body of other material, and 1 Enoch itself consists of multiple collections of material brought together into one text. This 1 Enoch material is referenced in the New Testament, minimally in 1 and 2 Peter and Jude, and its basic truth was accepted and referenced by the Fathers universally until the beginning of the 5th century, and quite often even after. In 1 Enoch, Enoch is brought into the divine council and receives a vision of the history of the world and the nature of the cosmos, culminating in him receiving a special place within God’s divine council.
Our understanding of this, and similar events to be discussed in the Old Testament is often obscured by modern pop Christian eschatology in which human persons who die either ‘go up to heaven’ or ‘go down to hell’. This is not, of course, the teaching of the scriptures, which teach bodily resurrection in the world to come following the judgment of the living and the dead. Particularly in the Old Testament, there is no distinction made regarding the fate of individuals who die. Both the righteous and the wicked go to the grave, Sheol in Hebrew or Hades in Greek. Both the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and a wicked king like Omri, are said by the Old Testament, at their death, to ‘rest with their fathers’. This is a situation which will be fundamentally transformed at the resurrection of Christ, and that transformation forms the basis of many of the hymns of Pascha.
It is therefore a misunderstanding to interpret what happened to Enoch as ‘going to heaven without dying’, because those who died in the Old Covenant were not seen to ‘go to heaven’ at all. Enoch, rather, is chosen by God to join the divine council as, then, is the Prophet Elijah. In a previous post, Ezekiel’s vision of God’s throne as a throne-chariot was discussed. God’s throne serves as a chariot because his reign is not limited to one particular location, but ranges throughout the creation. This is likewise true of the divine council, for wherever the Lord is, there are the angelic hosts surrounding his throne and serving him. And so, when Daniel describes his vision of the divine council, he sees thrones, plural, set, and then the Ancient of Days takes his throne, while the council surrounds him on lesser thrones (Dan 7:9). That St. Elias is taken to heaven in a fiery chariot is therefore a way of describing that he has been made a member of the divine council alongside the angelic beings. It therefore became a commonplace of Second Temple Jewish literature that Enoch and Elijah would someday return with an angelic mission related to the coming of the Messiah. Likewise, this is why the iconography of St. John the Forerunner combines both the imagery of the returning Elijah, as referenced in the Gospels (Matt 11:13-14, 17:12-13, Mark 9:13, Luke 1:11-17), and angelic imagery. When he and Moses appear on Mt. Tabor with Christ, they are engaged with him in discussion, as councilors to the king.
The final major figure of the Old Testament is Moses. Unlike Enoch and Elijah, the Prophet Moses experienced physical death, as described in Deuteronomy 34:5, but it is then stated that the God of Israel himself buried the body so that no one knew where it was to the day of the writing of the account (v.6). Though not described in the Old Testament, traditions within early Judaism described the fate of Moses’ body and why it was not found. As mentioned in last week’s post, a portion of the curse placed upon the serpent in Genesis 3 was his consignment to the realm of the dead. This took the poetic form of his consignment to eating dust and ashes of the earth, to which the dead would return (Gen 3:14). The scriptures do not teach that the human soul is the ‘real’ person, while the body is a husk which contains it. Rather, they teach that a human person is a union of body and soul, and that the separation of the two at death is unnatural. This is why, for example, they speak of both soul and body being thrown into Hades (Matt 10:28). Because of human sin and rebelliousness, the devil is able to stake a claim to the dead. Because Moses had lived a life which pleased God, and had repented of his sin, His body was not subject to the devil’s claim, and as we are told in Jude 1:9, the Archangel Michael came and contested Satan’s claim to Moses’ body. This story is told in a more full form in Second Temple Jewish literature such as the Assumption of Moses. This understanding of the human body forms the basis for St. John Chrysostom’s Paschal Oration, that the devil and Hades ‘seized a body’ but encountered God, and were embittered. This also forms the basis for the church’s understanding of the disappearance of the body of the Theotokos after her burial, as celebrated at the feast of her Dormition.
Next week’s post will discuss the transformation of the divine council and humanity’s place in it accomplished through the incarnation, resurrection, and ascension of Christ.