“On Angels, Men and Priests (Ben Sira, the Qumran Sabbath Songs and the Yom Kippur Avodah)” (A newly published article)

I have just received my copy of the papers from a conference in Zürich in 2015 dedicated to worship and angels in ancient Judaism and early Christianity (Gottesdienst und Engel im antiken Judentum und frühen Christentum [eds. J. Frey & M. Jost; Mohr-Siebeck: Tübingen]). I was invited to speak to the conference on the back of my 2002 book All the Glory of Adam, in which I investigated the role of angels and human transformation in worship in the Dead Sea Scrolls. In All the Glory of Adam(chapters 8–11) I make these three claims about the so-called Angelic Liturgy (or the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice—4Q400–407; 11Q17):

  1. There is a genuine community between angels and human worshippers in the Songs, such that much of the language that others (esp. Carol Newsom the principal editor of the Songs) had taken to refer to non-human, angelic, beings, actually refers to exalted and transformed humans worshipping with the angels.
  2. The Songs presume two concepts that define the worldview and liturgical experience of the Qumran community; concepts that had hitherto been ignored, or denied a place in the interpretation of the Songs. These are, firstly a liturgical worldview in which the temple and sacred space correspond to creation—as a microcosm to the macrocosm, and, secondly, an anthropology according to which human beings were made, in the original order of creation, to be God’s image and likeness; divine in both being and function.
  3. The Songs provide for a kind of liturgical ascent to heaven that climaxes in Song XIII with a vision of God’s glory, not above the throne of God, but in the human priesthood that to a degree now manifests the presence of the Glory of God of Ezek 1:26–28.

I was grateful for the opportunity to engage the texts once more in the light of other specialists’ interaction with, and criticisms of, my arguments. And it is encouraging to report that quite a few others have now adopted an approach to the Sabbath Songs along the lines I advocate, even if not everyone is willing to go as far as I do. Others have been critical of my approach. Most notably Philip Alexander has laid out a series of criticisms in his The Mystical Texts: Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice and Related Manuscripts (2006).

Anyone who reads Alexander’s Mystical Texts carefully will see that, in part, he is persuaded by my approach. For example, he is not very far from my reading of Song XIII when he thinks that, on analogy with what we have in 3 Enoch 9–13 (and 2 Enoch 22:8–10), the human “mystic” is transformed at the climax of the liturgical cycle. However, overall, Alexander is not persuaded by my approach and others have sometimes appealed to his criticisms of it.

In the bulk of the Zürich conference article I take each of Alexander’s criticisms and explain why I reckon them to be invalid and reflective, instead, of erroneous assumptions that he and others typically bring to such Jewish texts. In short, I say,

resistance to the full force of my revisionist, non-dualistic reading comes, I contend, from mistaken judgements about the nature of Biblical theology and emerging post-biblical Judaism; specifically what we think Jews believed about the identity of God, of human beings, of the priesthood, and of the meaning and purpose of temple worship and liturgy.

Alexander thinks that, in important ways, the Sabbath Songs are a departure from the shape of biblical theology, which has, for example, he thinks, no legitimate ascent to heaven. Instead, they anticipate the theology and spirituality of rabbinic-era mysticism (as represented by the Hekhalot texts). I agree that there are important connections between the Songs and later Hekhalot texts, however, I develop the argument of All the Glory of Adam that the Sabbath Songs are deeply indebted to scriptural ideas about what it is to be human and the nature of worship in God’s presence—in the heaven on earth of the temple-as-microcosm.

Besides a point-by-point response to Alexander’s criticisms, one substantially new contribution I make in this article is a series of observations on the ways in which the Sabbath Songs anticipate the piety of the later Synogogue liturgy as that is reflected in the piyyutim for Yom Kippur. For the vision of the high priesthood manifesting the glory of God of Ezek 1:26–28 in Song XIII there is a later parallel in the Mareh Kohen (or Emet Mah Nehadar), an acrostic poem from the Avodah service, that identifies the priest emerging from the sanctuary at Yom Kippur with the glory of God that Ezekiel saw by the river Chebar (Ezek 1:26–28). Here are the first six lines of that acrostic, with the language of Ezek 1:26–28 in the fourth line (line Dalet):

Aleph: As a tent (keʾohel) stretched out among the dwellers on high, was the appearance of the [high] priest (marʾeh kohen).

Beth: As lightning (keberaqim) flashes from the radiance of the living creatures (hahayyot), was the appearance of the Priest (marʾeh kohen).

Gimel: As the greatness of the fringes on the four corners, was the appearance of the Priest.

Dalet: As the likeness of the bow in the midst of the clouds, was the appearance of the priest (kidmut haqqeshet betok ʿanan, marʾeh kohen).

He: As the splendour with which the Rock clothed those he had made (tsur litsurim) was the appearance of the Priest.

Waw: As a rose planted in the midst of a delightful garden, was the appearance of the Priest.

A similar identification between the high priesthood and God’s glory is already made in Ben Sira 50 (v. 7), a text that nicely illustrates the kind of cosmology and theological anthropology that the Sabbath Songs take for granted and which anticipates the liturgical theology of the Mareh Kohen.

Alexander was at the conference and gave his paper after my presentation. I am grateful for the lively interaction there was between us.

I wonder, reading his Mystical Works and other people’s responses to All the Glory whether in part resistance is due to a misunderstanding of my arguments. Certainly, I have been struck by how easily critical readers have missed, and failed to interact with, my contention that these Dead Sea Scrolls should be interpreted in the light of a particular, scriptural, theological anthropology and temple cosmology. I hope that setting out, and offering fresh arguments for, the main lines of my argument in this article will advance discussion of this important material.

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