Merkabah Mysticism

(1) A New Dwelling for God

The Kabod and the Ark Throne
"The kabod [Hebrew: 'body, substance, mass'] was the way that God appeared to the people in theophanies. Moreover, it was associated with crowns, which in the case of the Egyptians, themselves became deified. In Mesopotamia, the 'terrible countenance'...seems actually to have taken on a life of its own."
The origins of the kabod traditions "were traced by von Rad back to a pre-monarchial tent of meeting tradition traced to Hebron."
     - Dr. John T. Strong, "God's 'Kabod': The Presence of Yahweh in the Book of Ezekiel"

"Lift up your heads, O Gates, and be lifted up O eternal thresholds, that the King of Glory may enter!"
Who is this, the 'King of Glory'? It is Yahweh, strong and mighty, Yahweh, mighty in battle."
     - Psalm 24:7-8

"I looked, and I saw a windstorm coming out of the north - an immense cloud with flashing lightning and surrounded by brilliant light. The center of the fire looked like glowing metal, and in the fire was what looked like four living creatures. In appearance their form was that of a man, but each of them had four faces and four wings."
     - Ezekiel 1:4-8

The vision in Ezekiel 1:4-8 "is a depiction of Yahweh's kabod entering into battle, establishing a base camp, and going out into the field to fight chaos in all its forms. The Baal Cycle in the Ugaritic literature is especially helpful in this regard. Specifically, Baal proceeds to battle with Yamm and Nahar, while El remains enthroned. After his victory, he returns to El requesting a palace."
"For Ezekiel, Yahweh Sabaoth, though cut off temporarily from the earth, was still enthroned and would one day again be accessible through his temple on Zion."
     - Dr. John T. Strong, "God's 'Kabod': The Presence of Yahweh in the Book of Ezekiel"

"So the people sent to Shiloh, and brought from there the ark of the covenant of Yahweh Sabaoth, who is enthroned above the cherubim."
     - 1 Samuel 4:4

Metonymy: "the substitution of some attribute or suggestive word for what is actually meant"

As with Psalm 24 "It is this ark-throne and its seated god who goes into battle....The Divine Warrior is 'Yahweh mighty and valiant, Yahweh the Warrior, Yahweh tseba'ot.' The procession of the Ark marks the going forth of the Divine Warrior to battle and his return to his royal seat.' This is the language of mythic war and holy war. Psalm 24 is not unique, but it reflects the pattern scholars have identified from Near Eastern royal and religious literature, particularly that from Ugarit. And outside Psalm 24, biblical texts attest such language. Judges 5:4-5 and Deuteronomy 33:2-3 describe Yahweh, the Divine Warrior, marching from Seir, from Edom, with the earth trembling beneath his feet. Habakkuk 3:3 depicts Yahweh on the march, his hôd (a synonym for kabôd) covering the heavens."
"Ezekiel's use of kabôd yahweh/'elohîm may be related to "various Mesopotamian concepts describing divine and royal presence...Chiefly, I am referring to Akkadian terms such as melammu, puluhtu, rashubattu, and namurratu. For instance, in Mesopotamia, melammu is used in royal and mythic literature to describe the 'radiance, supernatural awe-inspiring sheen (inherent in things divine and royal).' The term can imply both a terrible splendor and a supernatural garment, cloak, or headgear. Namurratu also is a 'numinous splendor emanating from gods, kings, and things divine and royal.' Such terms could be used in metonymy for the god or king from which they radiated, including divine statues. For example, one text says, 'The melammu of my lord Ashur overwhelmed them.'"
     - John F. Kutsko, "Kabôd: The Hypostasis of Things Hoped For, the Evidence of Things Not Seen"

"At the calf of Beth-aven the inhabitants of Samaria tremble, for its people will mourn over it and wail over it, over its kabôd which has gone into exile. The thing itself shall be carried to Assyria, as tribute to the great king. Ephraim shall be put to shame, and Israel shall be ashamed of its idol."
     - Hosea 10:5-6

"The idol and its kabôd are synonymous, the latter being a metonymy for the statue; that is, the quality or attribute replaces the actual object."
The kabôd "is the visionary, if not visible, manifestation as Yahweh Sabaoth, who is enthroned above the cherubim. And Ezekiel envisions a mobile throne, the throne of a divine king going into battle."
     - John F. Kutsko, "Kabôd: The Hypostasis of Things Hoped For, the Evidence of Things Not Seen"

"Above the expanse over their heads was what looked like a throne of sapphire, [or lapis lazuli] and high above on the throne was a figure like that of a man."
     - Ezekiel 1:26

The True House of Israel

"I will be for them a sanctuary in small measure in the lands where they have gone."
     - Ezekiel 11:14-16

"From now on, Ezekiel affirms, it will be among the exiles that Yhwh's presence is manifested at all, albeit in small measure. Yhwh will henceforth be found in the midst of the true house of Israel, which now consists of the community in exile (11:15). Far from abandoning the exiles, Yhwh has abandoned Jerusalem."

"Note that the expression metok ha'esh ('from out of the fire') in Ezekiel 1:4 is elsewhere found only in Deuteronomy (Deut 4:12, 15, 33, 36; 5:4, 22, 24, 26; 9:10; 10:4), where it describes the appearance of Yhwh on Sinai. Certainly, then, we are justified in viewing Ezekiel's inaugural vision, like the Sinai theophany, as a gracious self-revelation of God, all the more remarkable for taking place, not on Sinai or Zion, but in the valley of the river Chebar, in the land of exile."
"Perhaps...Ezekiel presents himself as an inheritor of the spirit of Elijah and Elisha, standing alone as they did between a sinful people and a wrathful God. Parallels between Ezekiel and Moses, the greatest of prophets, are suggested by the encounters in Ezekiel 1 (recall that only here and in Deuteronomy does Yhwh speak 'from out of the fire.' here, to Ezekiel; there, to Moses) and 40 (the 'very high mountain,' as Levenson observes, reflects Sinai as well as Zion themes). Also intriguing in this light is Ezekiel 24:24, where Ezekiel himself is said to have become a mophat ('sign;' 'portent') for the exiles. However, it is the centrality of writing in the book of Ezekiel, and the function of Ezekiel as written text, that may direct us most strongly toward the means of divine presence among the exiles."
     - Dr. Steven S. Tuell, "Deus absconditus in Ezekiel's Prophecy"

Click here for Ezekiel's vision in Chapter 1 by the Kebar River.

(2) Ascending the Throne-chariot of God

The Mystic Vision
"I have proposed that Ezekiel describes a heavenly ascent - that the temple he describes is the original, archetypal dwelling of God. Ezekiel's description of this structure would have served in his community as a substitute for the Jerusalem temple and its iconography. Much as the sight of the Jerusalem temple had provided for pilgrims a connection to divine reality (cf. Ps 48:13-14), Ezekiel's temple description functions as a 'verbal icon' which a people who had thought themselves separated from God could experience and celebrate the divine presence."
     - Dr. Steven S. Tuell, "Deus absconditus in Ezekiel's Prophecy"

In Hebrew, the throne-chariot in which the kabôd of God is seated is called the merkavah. Reverberations of merkavah imagery can be also found in the non-visionary texts of Psalm 93. Called the great royal advent psalm, Psalm 93 is ascribed to King David but scholars generally believe it was written in the early Greek period (beginning with Alexander the Great's conquest - 336-323 BCE.)

"The LORD reigns, he is robed in majesty; the LORD is robed in majesty and is armed with strength. The world is firmly established; it cannot be moved.
"Your throne was established long ago; you are from all eternity.
The seas have lifted up, O LORD, the seas have lifted up their voice; the seas have lifted up their pounding waves.
"Mightier than the thunder of the great waters, mightier than the breakers of the sea-- the LORD on high is mighty.
"Your statutes stand firm; holiness adorns your house for endless days, O LORD."
     - Psalm 93

Near the end of the struggle to drive the the Seuclid Greeks out of Judea, merkavah imagery was central to the Book of Daniel (written ca. 164 BCE.)

"As I looked, thrones were set in place, and the Ancient of Days took his seat. His clothing was as white as snow; the hair of his head was white like wool. His throne was flaming with fire, and its wheels were all ablaze. A river of fire was flowing, coming out from before him. Thousands upon thousands attended him; ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him. "
     - Daniel 7:9-10

"The throne-world is to the Jewish mystic what the pleroma, the 'fullness', the bright sphere of divinity with its potencies, aeons, archons and dominions is to the Hellenistic and early Christian mystics of the period who appear in the history of religion under the names of Gnostics and Hermetics. The Jewish mystic, though guided by motives similar to theirs, nevertheless expresses his vision in terms of his own religious background. God's pre-existing throne, which embodies and exemplifies all forms of creation, is at once the goal and the theme of his mystical vision.
"...The fourteenth chapter of the Ethiopic Book of Enoch...contains the oldest description of the throne in the whole of this literature..."
     - Gershom G. Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (1941/74) p. 44

"And I looked and saw therein a lofty throne: its appearance was as crystal, and the wheels thereof as the shining sun, and there was the vision of cherubim. And from underneath the throne came streams of flaming fire so that I could not look thereon. And the Great Glory sat thereon, and His raiment shone more brightly than the sun and was whiter than any snow. None of the angels could enter and could behold His face by reason of the magnificence and glory and no flesh could behold Him. The flaming fire was round about Him, and a great fire stood before Him, and none around could draw nigh Him: ten thousand times ten thousand (stood) before Him, yet He needed no counselor."
     - 1 Enoch 18b-23a

The pseudepigraphical 1 Enoch is generally believed by scholars to have been written shortly after the book of Daniel.

"God's throne stand in the innermost of seven concentric palaces, the way to which is barred by fierce guardian angels at the gate of each palace. In making the extremely hazardous ascent to the highest heaven and the innermost sanctum, the Merkabah mystic seeks, among other things, to ascend to the Merkabah itself in order to learn the Torah completely and permanently. It is fascinating to not the many similarities between the Qumran texts."
     - James M. Scott, "Throne-Chariot Mysticism in Qumran and in Paul" in Eschatology, Messianism, and the Dead Sea Scrolls (1997), p. 104-105

Click here for the vision of the throne-chariot of God in the Book of Revelation.

Visions of the Merkavah visionaries were traditionally acquired when participants induced shamanistic trance states .

References in Pharisaic Circles
"Interestingly enough, Rabbinic texts seem very wary of Merkabah mysticism and restrict its contemplation to the Torah scholar who understands the matter on his own (cf m. Hagiga 2: 1). As David Halperin [The Faces of the Chariot: Early Jewish Responses to Ezekiel's Vision (TSAJ 16, 1998), p. 157-193] has shown, the reason for this Rabbinic reaction against contemplation of the Merkabah is the idolatry that resulted from it at Sinai; calf worship is a routine hazard of contemplating the Merkabah, especially as practiced by the masses. This comes out most explicitly in a midrash focusing on the golden calf incident (Exod 32:1-35) that refers to the chariot of God as a 'four-mule chariot.' The earliest version of the midrash (Exod. Rab. 43:8) accuses Israel of idolatrously contemplating the Merkabah when God descended to Sinai to deliver the Law to Moses."
     - James M. Scott, "Throne-Chariot Mysticism in Qumran and in Paul" in Eschatology, Messianism, and the Dead Sea Scrolls (1997), p. 105

"The chariots of God are tens of thousands and thousands of thousands; the Lord [has come] from Sinai into his sanctuary."
     - Psalm 68:17

"Here, we have evidence of a synagogue tradition which, in connection with Ps 68:19 [sic], held that God descended on Sinai with the Merkabah that Ezekiel saw, and that the very contemplation of the four living creatures/beasts harnessed to it caused the Israelites to 'unhitch' one of them - the ox with the 'calf's foot' (cf. Ezek 1:7, 10) - and thus to fall into the grievous sin of worshipping the golden calf."
     - James M. Scott, "Throne-Chariot Mysticism in Qumran and in Paul" in Eschatology, Messianism, and the Dead Sea Scrolls (1997), p. 105

"Their legs were straight; their feet were like those of a calf and gleamed like burnished bronze."
     - Ezekiel 1:7
(describing the four living creatures)

"This midrash [Exodus Rabbah 43:8], together with other texts, shows that in Jewish tradition the Merkabah was commonly conceived as a quadriga drawn by the four living creatures/beasts."
     - James M. Scott, "Throne-Chariot Mysticism in Qumran and in Paul" in Eschatology, Messianism, and the Dead Sea Scrolls (1997), p. 105

References to the merkavah in the Talmud include:
Created before the Universe: Pesachim 54a; Nedarim 39b
The Souls of the righteous are stored by the Divine Throne, as part of their Reward after Death: Shabbat 152b
Prohibition against Sculpting the Form of the Divine Throne: Rosh HaShanah 24b
Moshe protected by the Divine Throne and HaShem's Presence on Mount Sinai: Succah 5a
The Techelet dye's color, as reminiscent of the sea, which reminds of the heavens, which reminds of the Divine Throne: Menachot 43b

"And a fire descended from heaven and surrounded them. And the Ministering Angels were leaping about them like guests at a wedding rejoicing before the bridegroom. One angel spoke from out of the fire and said: The Account of the Chariot is precisely as you described it, Eleazar ben 'Arakh!
Immediately all the trees opened their mouths and began to sing ''Then shall all the trees of the wood sing for joy!' (Psalms 96:12)."
     - Palestinian Talmud Hagigah 2:1

(Note: this paragraph is not in the earlier Tosefta Hagigah 2:2 or Mekhilta deRabbi Simeon ben Yohai (p. 158; to Exodus 21:1) which parallel this teaching (Rabban Johanan ben Zakkai and Rabbi Eleazar ben 'Arakh). The Babylonian Talmud gives a somewhat different account:

"Immediately, Rabbi Eleazar ben 'Arakh began the Account of the Chariot and he expounded,

'and a flame descended from heaven and encompassed all the trees in the field.
All broke out in song.'

Which song did they utter?'

'Praise the Lord from the earth, ye sea-monsters, and all deeps...fruitful trees and all cedars Hallelujah.' (Psalms 148:7, 9, 14).

An angel answered from the flame and said: 'This indeed is the Account of the Chariot!'"
     - Babylonian Talmud Hagigah 14b

"The heavenly throne of God symbolizes God's unique sovereignty. In the heavenly throne-room only God sits, the angels stand (the posture of servants). The only figures distinguished from God who sit on his throne are Wisdom and (in the future) the Enochic Son of Man. The latter therefore receives (rather limited) worship."
     - Richard Bauckham, "The Throne of God and the Worship of Jesus"

"Four entered the Orchard (Pardes). They were Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma, the Other, and Rabbi Akiba. Rabbi Akiba warned them, 'When you enter near the stones of pure marble, do not say 'water water', since it is written, 'He who speaks falsehood will not be established before My eyes'' (Psalms 101:7).
Ben Azzai gazed and died. Regarding him it is written, 'Precious in God's eyes is the death of His saints.' (Psalms 116:15)
Ben Zoma gazed and was stricken. Regarding him it is written, 'You have found honey, eat moderately lest you bloat yourself and vomit it' (Proverbs 25:16).
The Other (Elisha ben Abuya) gazed and cut his plantings (became a heretic).
Rabbi Akiba entered in peace and left in peace....
The angels also wished to cast down Rabbi Akiba but the Blessed Holy One said, 'Leave this elder alone, for he is worthy of making use of My glory.'"
     - Babylonian Talmud Hagigah 14b

"Entered the Orchard: They ascended to heaven by means of a [Divine] Name.
Pure Marble: As transparent as clear water. Do not say 'water water: is here and how can we procede?'
Ben Zoma gazed: toward the Divine Presence (Shekhinah).
And was stricken: He lost his mind.
Precious in God's eyes is the death of His saints: This death is harsh in His eyes, since [Ben Azzai] died unmarried. Still, it is impossible that he should not have died, since it is written, 'No man can see Me and live' (Exodus 33:20)."
     - Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki-Yarchi (Rashi: 1040 - 1105)

"[The Sages] use the term 'Orchard' (Pardes, Paradise) to denote the Garden of Eden, the place set aside for the righteous. It is the place in Aravot (the highest heaven) where the souls of the righteous are stored.
"In the Watcher of the Chamber of the Marble Door casts forth thousands upon thousands of waves of water, but actually not even a single drop is there. Rabbi Akiba says, 'It appears as if the waves are of water, but there is actually not even a single drop. All that one sees is the glow in the air from the stones of pure marble, which are included in the Chamber. Their radiance resembles water. But if one says, 'What is the purpose of this water,' he is a blasphemer.'
"They did not actually ascend into heaven, but gazed and saw it in the profound depths of the heart. They saw it like one gazing through a dull mirror.
"Ben Azzai gazed. This means that he continued uttering Divine Names so as to be able to see in a clear mirror, and as a result he died.
"Ben Zomah gazed and was stricken, that is, he lost his mind.
"The Other cut his plantings. Since the place is called an Orchard, the sages say that he 'cut his plantings.' This means that he blasphemed. He saw [the angel] Metatron, who was given authority to sit for one hour to inscribe the merit of Israel. He said, 'I have learned that it is not permitted to sit in that place on high. Perhaps there are two Authorities.'"
     - Rabbi Channel

(Note that the image of a mirror to see the divine was used by the apostle Paul and the early Christian community. For more information, see the Glory of the Lord.)

"We know that in the period of the Second Temple an esoteric doctrine was already taught in Pharisaic circles. The first chapter of Genesis, the story of Creation (Maasch Bereshith), and the first chapter of Ezekiel, the vision of God's throne-chariot (the 'Merkabah'), were the favorite subjects of discussion and interpretation which it was apparently considered inadvisable to make public. Originally these discussions were restricted to the elucidation and exposition of the respective Biblical passages. Thus St. Jerome in one of his letters mentions a Jewish tradition which forbids the study of the beginning and the end of the Book of Ezekiel before the completion of the thirtieth year. It seems probable, however, that speculation did not remain restricted to commentaries on the Biblical text. The hayoth, the 'living creatures', and other objects of Ezekiel's vision were conceived as angels who form an angelologic hierarchy at the Celestial Court."
     - Gershom G. Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (1941/1961) p. 42