Editor’s Note: This is the first post in a series by my friend Stephen Huebscher. Stephen is a doctoral student in Hebrew Bible and is very acquainted with my work and the divine council in general. I hope you enjoy his contributions to the blog! — MSH


“Heavenly Worship” brings to mind texts like Isaiah 6, Psalm 29, or the Qumran Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice. Each of these is appropriate since we are considering the worship in heaven, primarily by groups of heavenly spirits, as recorded in the texts of ancient Israel.1 Since the biblical texts contain brief praises or reports of worship or wishes for worship rather than full-scale liturgies, the term “celestial liturgy” may seem somewhat pretentious. Further, since it is usually associated with texts from the Second Temple or later, it may seem anachronistic to apply it to earlier texts. True, but diachronic study (tracing a word or topic across time periods) is rarely completely pure. However, I have chosen to retain this term since the term accurately conveys the interest of this study, and since this study does include some of the Second Temple texts with which the term is usually associated.

The belief in various forms of celestial/heavenly worship appears to have been common both in ancient Israel and the ancient Near East, as attested by a variety of texts. In such religions, there sometimes appears to be a relationship between the heavenly realm and the earthly realm, as if the earthly were the counterpart of the heavenly. Within the biblical texts of ancient Israel, we see that although several texts explicitly refer to a celestial pattern (Hebrew: tabnith “model” or “pattern”) for the construction of both the tabernacle and the temple, there is less interest in developing a one-to-one correspondence between celestial liturgy and terrestrial liturgy.

Our focus here will be to discern the purposes that these texts reflect, especially the biblical ones. Specifically, I want to see if these texts provide evidence for the assertion that mysticism was practiced by the temple priests in ancient Israel, perhaps even as early as the First Temple. For instance, Philip Alexander argues, “There was mysticism at Qumran. This mysticism arose not at Qumran itself but in priestly circles in Jerusalem, from where it was taken to Qumran and adapted to the community’s particular needs.   . . . Indeed, I would go further and argue that this Second Temple Jewish mysticism belongs also to what Bernard McGinn has called ‘the Jewish matrix’ of Christian mysticism, and so should take its place in the genealogy of Western mysticism.”2

Margaret Barker is similar. She traces the mysticism back to the priests of the First Temple, and believes that it may have had connections with Pythagorus and the Timaeus of Plato.3 Her intent is to argue that “gnosis” (think “Gnosticism”) was the original, true religion of Yahweh, and that rival priestly groups (the bad guys) began to subvert the textual (biblical) evidence as early as the seventh century BC.

I will argue that none of the biblical texts support this assertion of mysticism. Second, I will argue instead that the biblical texts can often be better understood as statements reflecting piety or matters of pastoral concern. Lastly, I will suggest an alternative explanation for the theological speculation that is present in the Hebrew Bible. Specifically, I will suggest that a belief in the divine council as a heavenly, ecclesiological (think, church or people of God) model was part of an interrelated group of exegetically-based, Jewish ideas. These ideas, then, provide a better explanation, at least partly, of the origin of some of the mystical practices outside the Bible.

  1. For examples of acts of piety by individual spirits, see, for example, 1 Enoch. Later texts from Nag Hammadi and Aesclepius also feature this practice.
  2. Philip Alexander, Mystical Texts, Companion to the Qumran Scrolls, no. 7; Library of Second Temple studies (London: T & T Clark, 2006), vii.
  3. Margaret Barker, Great High Priest: The Temple Roots of Christian Liturgy (London; New York: T & T Clark, 2003), 262–93.