Thursday, October 4, 2012

The Enduring Mystery of the Judeo/Christian Seven Heavens

I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the Third Heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know—God knows. 

- 2 Corinthians 12:2


The Seven Heavens are described in numerous Judeo/Christian Apocryphal books including: 3 Baruch, 2 and 3 Enoch, the Testament of Levi, the Revelation of Moses, the Martyrdom and Ascension of Isaiah, the Apocalypse of St. Paul, and the Apocryphon of John. They are also found in numerous official texts of Judaism too numerous to count. According to Jewish teachings, mainly from the Talmud, the celestial realm is composed of seven heavens called Shamayim. These, along with their literal meanings in English, can be listed as follows:

I. Vilon (וילון) = veil, curtain
II. Raki’a (רקיע) = expanse, canopy
III. Shehaqim (שחקים) = clouds
IV. Zebul (זבול) = habitation
V. Ma’on (מעון) = refuge
VI. Machon (מכון) = city, established place
VII. Araboth (ערבות) = deserts

The names and meanings listed above are considered the standard Jewish (and even Christian) summary of the Seven Heavens of the Biblical God. Throughout the pertinent literature, a certain core tradition emerges from both the official Jewish documents of antiquity and the Judeo/Christian Apocrypha. This can be summarized in fairly simple manner:

I. Vilon is called a veil, or curtain, because it serves as a physical barrier to the upper six realms rendering them invisible.
II. Rakia is called an expanse, or canopy, because that’s ‘where the sun, moon, and stars are fixed’ into place.
III. Shekim is called clouds because upon them lies Paradise, the Garden of Eden and the Tree of Life
IV. Zebul is called habitation because this is where the Heavenly Jerusalem is located
V. Ma’on is called refuge because it is here where most of the Angelic host reside
VI. Makon is called city, or established place, because this where the Angelic University, the City of Angels, has been established
VII. Araboth is called desert because it is very dry and without any air housing the Throne of God and the Seven Archangels

Some theologians and mystics have elaborated far more Heavens than just the standard seven. One scenario admits to only Seven Heavens, but then goes on to include 196 different provinces as well. The Jewish mystical text, the Zohar speaks of ’390 Heavens and 70,000 worlds,’ just as the gnostic thinker Basilides speculated upon ’365 Heavens.’ A figure named Jellenek in the Jewish document called Beth Ha-Midrasch recounts a legends which describes 955 Heavens. One source sums it up in a fairly typical way:

Seven levels of heaven are part of the 196 providences of heaven. The first level of heaven is closest to the Earth. Second level is thought to house sinners awaiting judgment. The third level is where the food of the angels is produced, manna. The fourth level is where the Great Winds are. The fifth level has Samael as the ruling prince. The sixth level of heaven has the Angels of Time, Seas, Rivers, and Crops. The seventh level is the home of ineffable light and is the closest to God.

- Seven Levels of Heavens,

According to the Legends of the Jews, by Louis Ginzberg, Eden alone contains 310 separate worlds along with ‘seven compartments for seven different classes of the pious’. In some later versions of the 2nd Book of Enoch, ten levels are mentioned instead of the traditional Seven Heavens. This is due, however, to later additions to the original document which only described Seven celestial realms. One researcher makes note of these more recent changes from seven to ten as follows:

In Enoch 2 the Heavens number 10. Here the 8th Heaven is called Muzaloth. The 9th Heaven, home of the 12 signs of the zodiac, is called Kukhavim. The 10th, where Enoch saw the “vision of the face of the Lord”, is called Aravoth (Hebrew term for the 12 signs of the Zodiac). The confusion of the Heavens is clear here from the fact that the signs of the zodiac do not lodge in the Heavens named after them.

As already discussed, the age-old idea of God’s abode consisting of ‘Seven Heavens appears in The Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs and other Jewish apocrypha’. At the same time, these Seven Heavens were also a familiar concept ‘to the ancient Persians and Babylonians.’ In particular, the Persians saw their greatest Deity ‘in the highest of the 7 Heavens, seated on a great white throne, surrounded by winged cherubim.’ A possible reason for this happens that they may well have gotten this idea from the Jews themselves, considering the fact that their greatest prophet Zoroaster was thought to be a heretic Jew who was exiled from ancient Judea before founding a new religion in Persia. Basically, there are two dual opposing theories concerning the Jewish concept of Seven Heavens. One side argues it is all a later Pagan (non-Jewish) influence. An example of their unconvincing claims reads as follows:

The pagan concept of the seven layer of Heaven crept into Judaism and the number seven can be found in Judaism more than anywhere else. Why? Because Midrash teaches, there are seven layers of Heaven, obviously an influence of Paganism in Judaism.

- 7 Layers of Heaven, by Bjorn EnFiddle

First of all, it is not at all obvious that the Bible’s repeated and significant use of the number Seven is connected at all to any Pagan influence of Hebrew mythology. Who is to say that the Hebrews and their ancient story of 7-days of Creation and Seven Heavens didn’t affect the Pagans who may well have borrowed from them? A more reasonable side of the debate deliberately notes the following factors about the Persian use of the number Seven as it relates to Judaism:

The number 7 was of special importance in the Zoroastrian religion, where there were 7 creations, 7 regions of the world, 7 Amesha Spenta (who became the 7 archangels of Judaism), and so on. This would have a great influence on the evolution of numerology in Judaism. However, the number 7 was already significant in Judaic numerology, indicating some earlier influence.

-, What is the significance of the number Seven in the Bible?

Indeed, this ‘earlier influence’ may well have been Moses, the original author of the Bible, writing in or near Egypt and unaffected by either Persian or any other Pagan influences. It is more than possible that he mentions and institutes a sacred and holy tradition utilizing the number Seven due to both Divine inspiration and ancient, pre-existing Hebrew legends about the number.
The theological doctrine of the Seven Heavens has been a standard aspect of Christian mysticism for several centuries at least. Not only that, it continues to play a large role in Judaism, most especially in the more traditional Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox religious communities. Indeed, one must concede that the expression, ‘Seventh Heaven’ is, in fact, a fairly popular catch phrase much like the term ‘Cloud Nine’. Most everyone knows that it means something like Nirvana or Paradise and can be used to describe an extremely good feeling, outlook, or situation. As the Dictionary defines it:

Seventh Heaven – n
1. the final state of eternal bliss, especially according to Talmudic and Muslim eschatology
2. a state of supreme happiness [so named from the belief that there are seven levels of heaven, the seventh and most exalted being the abode of God and the angels.]

- World English Dictionary

Considering the fact that most Christians today tend to believe in only one Heaven, it remains quite puzzling as to where this English expression originates. Some may contend it comes from some vague Western awareness of the traditional Seven Heavens found in the Muslim religion. Given the fact most Westerners remain woefully ignorant about their own Christian heritage, let alone Islamic cosmology, it seems far more likely that the early Christian belief in Seven Heavens has never really been erased from memory. Indeed, the general theory of Heaven consisting of Seven different realms can be found not just in the Jewish Apocrypha, but also in several texts usually considered Christian in origin.

Seven Heavens is a part of religious cosmology found in many major religions such as Islam, Judaism and Hinduism and in some minor [Christian-based] religions such as Hermeticism and Gnosticism. The Divine Throne is said to be in or above the seventh heaven in most Abrahamic religions.

- Seven Heavens, Wikipedia

One Jewish writer appears to object to those who would label the theological concept of Seven Heavens as a Muslim doctrine, unique to the Islamic faith. As he states correctly, the whole ‘concept’ of the Seven Heavens is very old. In fact, it had become quite popular many centuries before the ‘rise of Islam, and has deep roots in Jewish tradition.’ Here is a brief summary of these Jewish origins:

Some of the Rabbis of the Talmud had very precise ideas about the structure of the upper regions. They were presumably influenced by the fact that the Hebrew word for “heavens” or “sky” appears only in a plural form: shamayim, implying a multiplicity of heavens. Given the special role of the number seven in the Bible, it was natural that this number should also determine the arrangement of the heavens. The Jewish sages had no trouble finding distinct functions for each of the seven levels. The heavens, mysterious as they are, affect us in many aspects of our daily life, as well as having important religious associations. Thus, according to one quaint itemization, one heaven is required simply to screen off the light at night-time, another to store the rain and snow, and still another to house the planets. Others have more religious uses, accommodating the souls of the righteous and the unborn, as well as various levels of angels, the Heavenly Jerusalem, and the throne of God.

- “In Seventh Heaven”, The Jewish Star, by Eliezer Segal

On a recent Canadian radio broadcast, a caller inquired ‘about the origins of the English expression “seventh heaven.”‘ Unfortunately, he was mistakenly told that this phrase came from Islam and their own religious ‘conception of Paradise, which is divided into several celestial levels, awarded according to the degree of righteousness achieved during one’s mortal lifetime.’ The reality is that Christian theologians throughout the ages have known far more about the originally Jewish legend concerning the Biblical God’s Seven Heavens and this has been reflected with the popular English turn of phrase ‘Seventh Heaven’. Different levels of Heaven (and Hell) has actually been a standard aspect of literary Christianity, mainly due to Dante and his masterpiece, the Divine Comedy. Nonetheless, the Seven Heavens tradition is still predominantly Jewish and firmly rooted in Judaism and ancient Hebrew tradition. One of those traditions concerns the Shechinah which is supposed to be a huge, shimmering celestial aura denoting the actual presence of God. Some Jews believe this ‘aura’ could be seen at the Temple of Jerusalem during its most holy times. One of the more traditional myths about this Shechinah can be described as follows:

When Adam sinned, the Shechinah departed to the First Heaven. The sin of Kayin forced it to the Second Heaven; the Generation of Enosh to the Third; the generation of the Flood to the Fourth; The generation of the Dispersion to the Fifth; Sodomites, to the Sixth; Egypt of Avraham’s day, to the Seventh.

- Bereishis Rabbah 19:7

Another popular story involves the time when the ancient Israelites gathered at the foot of Mount Sinai to meet with God. Legend has it, they were all ‘treated to a glimpse of all seven heavens opened up above them.’ Another slightly amusing story is written in the Talmud. Apparently, a group of scholarly Rabbis debated and discussed the prophet ‘Ezekiel’s mysterious vision of the heavenly chariot’ so eloquently, that a voice from Heaven suddenly proclaimed to them that ‘a place is prepared to you, and a table is set for you–you and your students are admitted to the third level.’

May the LORD God bless you in the name of St. Judas Maccabaeus.

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