(This is a continuation of last week’s post.)
“Look at the Youth who comes forth from behind the throne to greet you! Do not prostrate yourself before him, even though his crown is like his King’s crown, his shoes like his King’s shoes, his robe like his King’s robe.”
These words, taken from an old Hebrew manuscript that survives in tattered fragments, are spoken by an angel. The person being instructed is Rabbi Ishmael, who lived around the beginning of the second century CE but acquired only after his death his reputation as a celestial traveler.
The Jewish mystical tradition preserves books written in this Rabbi Ishmael’s name, telling you how to make the dangerous journey to the merkabah–the “chariot” that Ezekiel once saw, UFO-like, coming down from the sky. Angelic instructions, like the one I’m quoting, are plentiful in these books.
The angels aren’t talking, of course, about space travel in the modern sense. The ancient Jews had no awareness of “space” as we know it, an endless black void in which our earth is an infinitesimal speck. For them, the heavens arched dome-like above the flat disk that was their world. God, “the King in His beauty,” sat enthroned at the summit.
That was where you had to go, if you wanted to see the merkabah. Yet, oddly, you thought of yourself as “descending,” not ascending, to reach it.
Almost as if you knew, intuitively, that your journey was really into the depths of your unconscious.
There, when you’ve reached your goal, you encounter a “Youth” coming out from behind God’s throne. A “Youth” who looks so much like God that, if you hadn’t been warned, you might fall down and worship him.
“The sun goes forth from the belt that is in front of him, the moon from the knots at his back. His eyes blaze like torches, his eyeballs like lamps. His splendor is like his King’s splendor, his glory like his Creator’s glory. … He will take your hand and seat you … on a seat that is fixed in the presence of the throne of glory.”
He has many names–70 of them, according to some reckonings. But the one he’s best known by, about which I blogged last week, is Metatron.
Who is he?
“I am Enoch, the son of Jared”–so he tells Rabbi Ishmael, in what’s often called “3 Enoch,” another of these ancient mystical books. “When the generation of the Flood sinned and turned to evil deeds … the Holy One, blessed be he, brought me up in their lifetime, before their very eyes, to the heavenly height, to be a witness against them to future generations. And the Holy One, blessed be he, appointed me in the height as a prince and a ruler among the ministering angels.”
Once he was human, in other words. A holy man who “walked with God, and he was not, for God took him” (Genesis 5:24). In being “taken,” Enoch wasn’t just exalted. He was transformed.
“I was enlarged and increased in size till I matched the world in length and breadth. [God] made to grow on me 72 wings, 36 on one side and 36 on the other, and each single wing covered the entire world. He fixed in me 365,000 eyes and each eye was like the Great Light.”
He was given a throne like God’s, a robe like God’s, a crown like God’s. He was even given a name like God’s: YHVH ha-katan, the “Lesser YHVH” or “YHVH Junior.” (“YHVH” being the sacred, unpronounceable name of God.)
“[A]t once my flesh turned to flame, my sinews to blazing fire, my bones to juniper coals, my eyelashes to lightning flashes, my eyeballs to fiery torches, the hairs of my head to hot flames, all my limbs to wings of burning fire, and the substance of my body to blazing fire.”
So that when an unwary traveler to heaven named Elisha ben Abuya saw the “Youth” Metatron (who once was Enoch), he declared, “Perhaps, God forbid, there are two divinities!” And, with that utterance, was damned.
(Which is why you must be careful not to prostrate yourself when you see him, lest the same happen to you.)
It’s an extraordinary story. How old it is, we can’t be sure. The Talmud, speaking cryptically of Metatron as a celestial being who shares God’s name (Sanhedrin 38b), seems to know at least the outlines. The pre-Christian Enoch literature foreshadows Enoch’s transformation into something superhuman. “You are the Son of Man who was born to righteousness,” Enoch is told during one of his visits to heaven, “and righteousness remains over you, and the righteousness of the Head of Days will not leave you.”
It’s hard to read these words without thinking of the “one like a son of man” who was really the Son of God, who appeared to the Jewish seer John of Patmos and told him: “He who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I myself conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne” (Revelation 1:13, 3:21). It wasn’t just in the Enoch stories that the theme of exaltation and transformation had its resonance.
(And not just in antiquity. Think of how teenage Peter Parker was transformed, bitten by the radioactive spider. Or maybe don’t think of it–we’re not ready to go there just yet.)
You’ll now understand what I meant in my last post, when I said, playing on the title of Jeff Kripal’s Mutants & Mystics, that Metatron is both a mutant and a mystic, “though probably in reverse order.” He starts out as Enoch, bringing on trance by mumbling to himself something that functions like the incantations of the merkabah mystics. (“I went and sat down … and I read out a record of their petition until I fell asleep,” 1 Enoch 13:7-8). He mutates into something almost beyond human imagining.
Questions abound. What real experiences lie behind Enoch’s fictional adventurings? Does it matter whether the experience is deliberately sought, as with Enoch and the merkabah mystics, or whether the experiencer is caught up in it against his or her (conscious) will, like the otherworldly “abductee” Paul and his modern UFO-bound counterparts? Was Paul also a “mutated mystic”–and is that why he insists that his uncanny experience happened, not to plain old Paul, but to someone he calls “a man in Christ” (2 Corinthians 12:2).
Can we guess at the psychodynamics of the experience? Were the “mutated mystics” replicating what we all undergo at childhood’s end, when the body transforms without our willing it into something with new and fantastic potential? This would neatly explain why the merkabah traditions persistently speak of Metatron as “the Youth.”
It would also explain the rather touching connection between him and Rabbi Ishmael. Once Enoch was as Ishmael is now: a shivering stranger in a grim, frightening paradise. (“Fear covered me and trembling took hold of me. And as I was shaking and trembling, I fell on my face,” 1 Enoch 14:14). Now, fiery lord in this terrifying realm, he extends a helping hand to a newbie.
Isn’t that what we experience as humans, passing from one generation to the next?
And what about Rabbi Ishmael himself? Does there come a time when, like Enoch, he “was not,” never comes back from his celestial odyssey? When he remains in heaven, transformed, ready to welcome some new arrival?
How you answer will depend on whether you’re willing to admit the relevance of a source from outside merkabah mysticism, outside Judaism. A source that gives no nod of acknowledgment to the merkabah or Enoch traditions, even though it seems to draw on them. I’m referring to the Islamic tradition of the “miraj,” the prophet Muhammad’s ascension to heaven.
“[A] ladder was brought to me finer than any I have ever seen. … My companion mounted it with me until we came to one of the gates of heaven called the Gate of the Watchers. An angel called Isma’il was in charge of it, and under his command were twelve thousand angels each of them having twelve thousand angels under his command. … When Gabriel brought me in, Isma’il asked who I was, and when he was told that I was Muhammad he asked if I had been given a mission, and on being assured of this he wished me well.” (From Ibn Ishaq, Life of the Messenger of God.)
“Isma’il” is the Arabic form of … Ishmael.
by David Halperin
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