Ascent to the Eighth Heaven in The Apocalypse of Abraham

This is the third follow-up to the post, “Gagarin and the Seven Heavens“. The first follow-up post is here. The second follow-up post is here. The third follow-up post is here.

To start, here is some Fra Angelico to reinforce just how we don’t see images of Jesus in the sky the way that everyone before Copernicus did:

It is difficult –almost impossible– to read the excerpt from The Apocalypse of Abraham without importing the cosmic imaginary of the modern period into the way we visualize the events.

The Apocalypse of Abraham was written circa A.D. 70-150. There, Abraham is brought up to the eighth heaven, and there he is told to look beneath the eighth firmament:

19. And a voice came to me out of the midst of the fire, saying, “Abraham, Abraham!” and I said, “Here I am!” And he said, “Look at the expanses which are under the firmament to which you have now been directed and see that on no single expanse is there any other but the one whom you have searched for or who has loved you.” And while he was still speaking, behold, the expanses under me, the heavens, opened and I saw on the seventh firmament upon which I stood a fire spread out and a light and dew and a multitude of angels and a host of the invisible glory, and up above the living creatures I had seen [from Ezekiel]; I saw no one else there. And I looked from on high, where I was standing, downward to the sixth firmament. And I saw there a multitude of spiritual angels, incorporeal, carrying out the orders of the fiery angels who were on the eighth firmament, as I was standing on its elevation. And lo, neither on this firmament was there in any shape any other host, but only the spiritual angels. And the host I saw on the seventh firmament commanded the sixth firmament and it removed itself. I saw there, on the fifth (firmament), hosts of stars, and the orders they were commanded to carry out, and the elements of earth obeying them.

20. And the Eternal, Mighty One said to me, “Abraham, Abraham!” And I said, “Here I am!” And he said, “Look from on high at the stars which are beneath you and count them for me and tell me their number!” And I said, “When can I? For I am a man.” […]

21. And he said to me, “Look now beneath your feet at the firmament and understand the creation that was depicted of old on this expanse, (and) the creatures which are in it and the age prepared after it.” And I looked beneath the firmament at my feet and I saw the likeness of heaven and the things that were therein. And (I saw) there the earth and its fruit, and its moving things and its things that had souls, and its host of men and the impiety of their souls and their justification, and their pursuit of their works and the abyss and its torments, and its lower depths and (the) perdition in it. And I saw there the sea and its islands, and its cattle and its fish, and Leviathan and his realm and his bed and his lairs, and the world which lay upon him, and his motions and the destruction he caused the world. I saw there the rivers and their upper (reaches) and their circles. And I saw there the garden of Eden and its fruits, and the source and the river flowing from it, and its trees and their flowering, making fruits, and I saw men doing justice in it, their food and their rest. And I saw there a great crowd of men and women and children […]. [Transl. R. Rubinkiewicz, in The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, Volume 1: Apocalyptic Literature & Testaments ed. James Charlesworth (New York: Doubleday, 1983), 698-699]

Abraham asks more questions about what is depicted on this image of creation (Orlov compares it to the Pargod, “the mysterious curtain of the celestial Holy of Holies, an entity which, according to some traditions, reflects all human history from the beginning to the eschatological end”). If Orlov is right about this identification, it is the celestial counterpart of the earthly veil that is, or was, in the temple in Jerusalem, covering the holy of holies (that veil had four colors, which Josephus and Philo took to represent the four elements — given this comprehensive representation, all of creation was taken to be summarized on that veil). In the end, there are narrations about the “wormy belly” that is the lot of some future humans in the underworld — which is depicted as a place under the earth. We can concur with Andrei Orlov when he writes that the vision in these chapters is “a distinctive cosmological revelation of a different nature intending to communicate to the patriarch the structure of the entire world.” Although containing ostensibly historical events, the vision is not historical in focus. It is most likely a vision of the cosmos as a temple, as Orlov argues. The association of water with the outer court, the earth with the holy place, and paradise with the holy of holies, seems to be the best explanation. Rabbinic sources liken the white and blue marble of the outer court with the sea; Ezekiel 47 and Psalm 36:8-9 seem to be behind this symbolism, too. (It may be that the Hekhalot texts are interacting with this tradition in their warnings about the “dangerous vision” of water for the one who practices heavenly ascent techniques, and who mistakes one of the tesselated crystalline walls of the celestial temple –either the final or the penultimate gate before the divine throne, if I recall– with a vision of water.) Scholem, in the second lecture of his Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, sees the Apocalypse of Abraham as one of the earliest testimonies to the pre-Kabbalistic Jewish mysticism that flourished from around the first century and had mostly expired into mere textual commentary by the 9th.

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Header image found here.

14 thoughts on “Ascent to the Eighth Heaven in The Apocalypse of Abraham

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