by Richard Smoley
Originally printed in the Winter 2011 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: Smoley, Richard. "God and the Great Angel." Quest 99. 1 (Winter 2011): 24-28.
Who is the God we worship? Is he really the supreme creator of the universe, or merely an impostor or a fiction?
Such questions seem sacrilegious to believers, but they have been surfacing for millennia. The Jews contend that their God, Yahweh or Jehovah, is the Supreme Being, who deigned to communicate with them and them alone in the covenant at Sinai. Christians and Muslims, their spiritual descendants, have taken up the claim—while insisting that their revelations are the final and complete versions. All of these religions, in their dominant forms, insist that any other god either does not exist or is a demon in disguise.
Sometimes, however, the charges have been reversed to say that the monotheistic God of the Abrahamic faiths is not what he is claimed to be. One of them was H. P. Blavatsky. She writes: "If we are taken to task for believing in operating 'Gods' and 'Spirits' while rejecting a personal God, we answer to the Theists and Monotheists: Admit that your Jehovah is one of the Elohim, and we are ready to recognize him. Make of him, as you do, the Infinite, the one and the Eternal God, and we will never accept him in this character. Of tribal Gods there were many; the One Universal Deity is a principle, an abstract Root-Idea which has nought to do with the unclean work of finite Form" (Secret Doctrine, I, 492n.; emphasis here and in other quotations is in the original). Blavatsky is not denying that the God of the Abrahamic religions exists; rather she is saying that, contrary to what these religions claim, he is not the sole and unique Supreme Being.
In this she echoes the Gnostics of antiquity, who said that the god who created the physical world was the Demiurge (from the Greek d?miourgos, "craftsman"), a second- or third-degree divine emanation who falsely claimed to be the true God. Some Gnostic texts call him Ialdabaoth, a name of uncertain etymology. One common suggestion is "child of chaos" (cf. Secret Doctrine I, 197); another possibility is "begetter of hosts" (Barker, Great Angel, 174). A Gnostic text called Apocryphon of John says of Ialdabaoth: "And he is impious in his madness which is in him. For he said, 'I am God and there is no other God beside me,' for he is ignorant of his strength, the place from which he had come" (Robinson, 105). This is clearly mocking the First Commandment in Exodus 20:2-3: "I am the Lord thy God. . . . Thou shalt not have any other gods before me." [*] Blavatsky equates Yahweh or Jehovah with Ialdabaoth (Secret Doctrine I, 197; cf. Isis Unveiled II, 183ff.).
The origins of Gnosticism, the great adversary of proto-catholic Christianity in the early centuries of the present era, have been hard to trace. Various authorities have sought for its sources in Iranian, Egyptian, and Greek religion, but these views all have serious defects. Margaret Barker, a British biblical scholar with solid mainstream credentials (she is a former president of the Society for Old Testament Study), argues that Gnosticism actually arose out of Judaism (Barker, Great Angel, 167). In fact she argues that Gnosticism is a descendant of the religion of Israel of the First Temple period (c. 950—586 BC).
The conventional view of Judaism in this era is derived from the Hebrew Bible as it now stands. The children of Israel made a covenant with Yahweh to worship him alone, but they kept reneging and worshipping the strange gods of their Canaanite neighbors. Yahweh periodically punished them with invasions by great powers such as Assyria and Babylon . Nonetheless, the Israelites continued to backslide, even defiling the Temple in Jerusalem , which had to be periodically purged.
The most dramatic of these purges took place in 621 bc, under Josiah, king of Judah . Worship in Jerusalem had gone so far astray, according to the Bible, that the Temple had fallen into disrepair and needed to be rebuilt. During this restoration, the lost scroll of the law of Moses was supposedly discovered and read to Josiah. "And it came to pass, when the king had heard the words of the book of the law, that he rent his clothes" (2 Kings 22:11). Shocked by how far his people had strayed from this law, Josiah "commanded Hilkiah the high priest, and the priests of the second order, and the keepers of the door, to bring forth out of the temple of the Lord all the vessels that were made for Baal, and for the grove, and for all the host of heaven: and he burned them without Jerusalem in the fields of Kidron" (2 Kings 23:4). Baal (a Canaanite god whose name simply means "lord"; his real name was Hadd: Patai, 45) is familiar to readers of the Old Testament as a rival god to Yahweh, but the "grove" and "the host of heaven" are puzzling. They are, however, extremely relevant to our story, and we shall return to them.
Most biblical scholars believe that the scroll read to Josiah was not a rediscovered ancient text but a composition written for the occasion. This text is generally identified with Deuteronomy. It is the first part of what is called the Deuteronomic history, which also includes Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, and 1 and 2 Kings. The prevailing scholarly view of this history is that its first version was composed in Josiah's reign and came to a stirring climax with the restoration of the true worship of Yahweh at that time. But the history does not stop here. It continues down through the death of Josiah in 609 bc and the sack of the Temple by the Babylonians in 586 bc. For this reason a second, revised edition of the Deuteronomic account is postulated; it would have been written during the Babylonian exile (586—538 BC).
All of this is, as I say, widely held by mainstream scholars. Even so, they generally accept this Deuteronomic work as a broadly accurate account of the history of Israel in the period of the First Temple . Barker disagrees, saying that the Deuteronomic history was written by innovators who radically altered the Jewish religion and rewrote history to reflect their views. Moreover, the Josianic "reform" of 621 was itself a radical restructuring of the faith. Up to that time, she suggests, the Israelites had worshipped a trinity of gods: El, the high, absolute God; Yahweh, the national god of Israel ; and Asherah, Yahweh's consort. Contrary to what the current version of the Bible says, worship of this trinity was not an aberration, but the nation's standard religion up to that time. The Deuteronomic reform purged the goddess Asherah and conflated El with Yahweh, so that the national god of Israel was now equated with the high God. Monotheism as we know it was born.
These facts have been obscured, Barker says, because all texts in the present-day Old Testament were either written or edited by supporters of this new monotheistic faith. Nevertheless, some biblical texts may retain traces of the original scheme. One of these is Daniel 7:13-14, written in the second century bc: "I saw in the night visions, and behold, one like the Son of man came with the clouds of heaven, and came to the Ancient of days, and they brought him near before him. And there was given him dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, that all people, nations, and languages should serve him: his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away." In Christian theology, the Father is the "Ancient of days" and Jesus Christ is the "Son of man"—but what could it have meant in its original Jewish context? For Barker, the Ancient of Days here could be a relic of El, the transcendent God, from the religion of the First Temple . The "Son of Man" would then be Yahweh, the national god of Israel (Barker, Great Angel, 153-55). The Christians did not make up this mythos; their sole innovation was to equate the "Son of Man" with the man Jesus. Or, if we are to believe the Gospels, Jesus himself made this identification.
Even more remarkably, Barker says there may have originally been no distinction between Yahweh and the Angel of Yahweh. As she points out, many texts in the Old Testament equate the two, for example Judges 2:1: "Now the angel of the Lord went up from Gilgal to Bochim, and said, 'I brought you up from Egypt, and brought you into the land that I had promised to your ancestors. I said, 'I will never break my covenant with you.'" In Genesis 22, with its story of the sacrifice of Isaac, it is "the angel of Yahweh" that calls to Abraham out of heaven (Gen. 22:11), but in the end Abraham names the place where this happened "Yahweh-yireh," or "Yahweh is seen" (Gen. 22:14). In Genesis 48:15-16 Jacob says, "God, before whom my ancestors Abraham and Isaac did walk, the God which fed me all my life long to this day, the Angel which has redeemed me from all evil, bless the lads." In short, "the bulk of the evidence suggests that the Angel of Yahweh and Yahweh had been identical" (Barker, Great Angel, 35).
Sometimes Yahweh was described as being incarnated in the Davidic king, as we learn in Chronicles' account of Solomon's coronation: "And all the assembly blessed the Lord God of their fathers, and bowed their heads and worshipped the Lord and the king" (1 Chron. 29:23). If this was the case, and the tradition had survived among the people of Israel if not in the official cult of the Second Temple (539 bc—ad 70), it would explain why the Gospels stress that Jesus was a descendant of David: as the messiah, he would be the embodiment of Yahweh as the old kings of Judah had been.
These points are highly muted in the current Hebrew Bible, Barker argues, because its texts all passed through the hands of reformers like those who wrote the Deuteronomic history and Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55 is generally regarded to be the work of a different man from the prophet of the first thirty-nine chapters of that book). Indeed when Second Isaiah writes, "I am Yahweh, and there is none else, there is no God beside me" (Isa. 45:5), he is not stating a conventional truth but making a revisionistic theological statement.
What, then, of the goddess Asherah? Her name is probably derived from a phrase from the Ugaritic language spoken in Syria in biblical times: atirat-yammi, "she who treads upon Sea," "Sea" being a personified chaos monster (Cross, 66-67). Canaanite myth usually portrayed her as consort of the high god, El (Cross 15, 37). In First Temple Judaism, however, she appears to have been the consort of Yahweh: dedicatory inscriptions from that era have been found of the form "Blessed be X to Yahweh and his Asherah" (Barker, Great Angel, 55).
The Hebrew Bible sometimes uses asherah not as a proper name but as a common noun for a cult object representing the goddess, possibly a crudely carved wooden image. Indeed one ancient Jewish tradition says that the asherah was either a tree or a tree with a cult object beneath it. Hence translators have rendered asherah variously as "tree" and "grove." Suddenly we remember the Josianic reform: one of the things thrown out of the Temple was a "grove." This was obviously not a literal grove. Almost certainly it was an image of Asherah (Barker, Great Angel, 55).
One interesting piece of evidence about goddess worship in First Temple Judaism appears in Jeremiah 44:17-18. After the Temple's destruction, people who "had burned incense to other gods" tell Jeremiah: "We will certainly do whatsoever thing goeth forth out of our own mouth, to burn incense to the queen of heaven and to pour out drink offerings unto her, as we have done, we, and our fathers, our kings, and our princes, in the cities of Judah, and in the streets of Jerusalem: for then had we plenty of victuals, and were well, and saw no evil. But since we left off to burn incense to the queen of heaven, and to pour out drink offerings unto her, we have wanted all things, and have been consumed by the sword and by the famine." This passage indicates that the worship of the goddess had long been established in Jerusalem and that some, perhaps many, in Judah believed that the Temple was destroyed not because it had been profaned by her worship (as Jeremiah said) but because her worship had been abandoned (Barker, Great Angel, 51).
Who was this Queen of Heaven? Some scholars, such as Raphael Patai in his Hebrew Goddess, suggest that she was Astarte or possibly Anath, two other Semitic deities (Patai, 62—65). Barker, however, argues that the Queen of Heaven was Asherah. Certainly these goddesses were sometimes conflated by the worshippers themselves: a plaque from the Egyptian New Kingdom representing a Semitic goddess names her as both Asherah and Astarte (along with another Semitic goddess called Anat; Dever, 178). Although she was dethroned by Josiah, Barker says, Asherah was never forgotten by the Jewish people. She changed form, mutating first into a personified "Wisdom" (cf. Prov. 8), and later into the Shekhinah, the feminine "presence" of God revered by the Kabbalists. Indeed the medieval Kabbalists taught that the restoration of her worship would inaugurate the messianic age (Barker, Great Angel, 51).
As for the "hosts of heaven," again most scholars agree that the ancient Hebrews envisaged Yahweh as enthroned among a heavenly host (the Hebrew word for "hosts," by the way, is ts'vaoth or Sabaoth, a possible source for the name Ialdabaoth). Barker portrays this host in more precise terms. She notes that one of the central symbols of Judaism is the seven-branched candelabrum known as the menorah. Modern-day Jews often have similar objects in their homes to celebrate Hanukkah, but technically these are not menorahs; they are hanukkiyot or Hanukkah candelabra. They have nine branches, whereas the one in the Temple had seven. Indeed Jews in antiquity were forbidden to have seven-branched candelabra: that was for the Temple alone (Barker, The Older Testament, 221).
The symbolism of the seven is extremely important, and to esotericists it is fairly obvious: it represents the five planets known to antiquity (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn) as well as the sun and the moon. It is extremely likely that the menorah represented this "host of heaven." We do not know what image of the "host" Josiah would have cast out in his purge, but we do know that the symbolism of the seven remained alive and well in Judaism. In the postexilic period the prophet Zechariah has a vision of the menorah with seven branches. An angel asks him, "Knowest thou not what these be? . . . they are the eyes of the Lord, which run to and fro throughout the earth" (Zech. 3:5, 10). The symbolism reappears in Revelation, written in the first century ad: "I saw seven golden candlesticks; And in the midst of the seven candlesticks one like unto the Son of man" (Rev. 1:12-13). Theosophists can relate these seven to the Dhyan-Chohans without any great difficulty.
Thus it is possible that ancient Judaism had a schema of a supernal trinity consisting of El, Yahweh, and Asherah, and a lower set of seven "eyes of the Lord" equated with the seven planets as then known. Astonishingly, this is practically identical to the Kabbalistic Tree of Life, with its ten sefirot or principles, three supernal or "unmanifest" and seven lower or "manifest" (see diagram).
According to Barker's view of Judaism in the Second Temple , the radical monotheists who wrote Deuteronomy and Second Isaiah won the day, and their marginalized opponents preserved a kind of antitradition that is represented in works such as the pseudepigraphical 1 Enoch and in Gnosticism. The Gnostics, repudiating Judaism, would also have repudiated Yahweh, who in their eyes had usurped the position of the true, supernal God, much as Blavatsky claims; hence the stupid, arrogant Ialdabaoth.
Even so, more mainstream forms of Judaism preserved echoes of the older schema in their notion of a deuteros theos or "second God," or the immanent aspect of God. The first-century Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria, borrowing a term from Greek philosophy, called this "second god" the Logos. (Logos is frequently translated as "word," as in the opening of the Gospel of John, but it is more accurately characterized as the structuring principle of consciousness.) Jewish mystical literature from this era represents this "second god" as the mysterious angel Metatron, the "angel of the presence." (The etymology of this name is doubtful, "before the throne.") For Barker, Metatron is merely a mutated form of the original Yahweh—who was not originally imagined as distinct from the angel of the presence.
Most scholars agree that this concept of a deuteros theos was widespread in Judaism of the first century ad. Barker differs in arguing that it had always existed in Judaism. Philo's innovation, she says, was simply to connect this "second god" with the logos of Greek thought. The innovation of Christianity was to argue that this logos was embodied in Jesus, as Yahweh may have been in the kings of the old Davidic dynasty. Hence the emphasis on Jesus as the "son of David."
Barker's portrait of this Temple theology, as she calls it, could clarify a great deal about the history of Western religion. It explains why Jesus could have attained quasi-divine status very soon after his death (cf. Phil. 2:6-11): he would have been the anointed one, the embodiment of Yahweh. It also explains why the Gnostics would have had such an ambivalent, not to say hostile, attitude toward Yahweh. And it goes far toward providing a protohistory of the Kabbalah, which would then be, not an importation of Gnostic or Neoplatonic ideas into Judaism (as various scholars, including Gershom Scholem, have argued), but the survival of the old First Temple theology in an esoteric form.
Why should we today care about such arcane points, which are so far from our life and experience? Actually they are not. Monotheism as it has come down to us in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam has caused endless amounts of grief and bloodshed. Perhaps this conflict is rooted in an underlying contradiction in monotheistic theology: the idea that there is only one God, but that this God has chosen to reveal himself exclusively to my people (or religion) and not to any others. Stated so baldly, this view makes little sense, as Blavatsky, who derided the absolutistic claims of the Abrahamic faiths, well understood. But to a degree it is still held by all these religions, and it is not surprising that religious warfare over the last two thousand years has chiefly taken place in the parts of the world where these faiths are dominant.
Blavatsky's views do not coincide exactly with those of Margaret Barker. Barker is a biblical scholar and is principally concerned with these ideas as they have evolved over the course of centuries, while Blavatsky sometimes speaks as if this upstart Jehovah has a metaphysical reality. In this she resembles Kyle Griffith, author of the underground classic War in Heaven, which claims that the gods of the conventional religions are "Theocrats"—parasitic beings who maintain their existence on the astral plane with energy derived from the worship of devotees.
Whether we ourselves go this far is a matter of individual choice. But I personally believe that the great monotheistic faiths are currently seeing their grandiose and exclusivistic claims unmasked and increasingly derided. The rise of fundamentalism is in many ways a response to this trend: as a religion loses its hold over a populace, the remaining followers become more and more isolated, embittered, and extreme.
A curious Jewish mystical text known as 3 Enoch, dating from the early centuries of the Christian era, describes how Metatron is removed from his throne and demoted to the same rank as the other angels. This may reflect an attempt to reduce Metatron's status in the theology of the time, which was getting too close to that of God himself (Odeberg, 85-88). Whether or not that is the case here, such a fate sooner or later befalls all gods—that is to say, all attempts to conceptualize that which is beyond concepts. We may need these concepts, because that is how our minds work, but sooner or later we will conclude that they are nothing more than that, and we put them on the shelf alongside the other concepts in our mental closets. Only then, perhaps, will we be able to glimpse beyond them.
Barker, Margaret. The Great Angel: A Study of Israel's Second God. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox, 1992.
——. The Hidden Tradition of the Kingdom of God. London : Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2007.
——. The Older Testament: The Survival of Themes from the Ancient Royal Cult in Sectarian Judaism and Early Christianity. London : Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1987.
Blavatsky, H.P. The Secret Doctrine. 3 vols. Wheaton : Quest, 1993 .
Cross, Frank Moore. Canaanite Myth and Biblical Epic. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1973.
Dever, William G. Did God Have a Wife? Archaeology and Folk Religion in Ancient Israel. Grand Rapids, Mich. : Eerdmans, 2005.
. Self-published, 1988: http://www.scribd.com/doc/8146891/War-in-Heaven-by-Kyle-Griffith; accessed Feb. 3, 2010.
Kuyt, Annelies. The "Descent" to the Chariot. TÃ¼bingen, Germany : Mohr Siebeck, 1995.
Odeberg, Hugo. 3 Enoch or the Hebrew Book of Enoch. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1928.
Patai, Raphael. The Hebrew Goddess. 3d ed. Detroit, Mich.: Wayne State University Press, 1990.
Robinson, James M., ed. The Nag Hammadi Library in English. 1st ed. San Francisco : Harper & Row, 1977.
The theology of the First Temple according to Margaret Barker. The supernal god, El, was worshipped along with Yahweh, the national god of Israel , and Yahweh's consort Asherah. Below them are the "host of heaven"—probably the five planets known at the time (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn) along with the sun and the moon. The scheme resembles the Kabbalistic Tree of Life ( far right). The top triangle contains the "supernal" or "unmanifest" principles: Keter (Crown), Hokhmah (Wisdom); and Binah (Understanding). The lower seven principles are associated with the planets: Hesed (Mercy) with Jupiter, Gevurah (Strength) with Mars, Tiferet (Beauty) with the sun, Netzach (Victory) with Venus, Hod (Glory) with Mercury, and Yesod (Foundation) with the moon. Malkut (Kingdom) is the earth. Binah is usually associated with Saturn.
Drawing of an Egyptian New Kingdom plaque from the Winchester College Collection. It shows the goddess riding on a lion and listing her three names: Qudshu ("holy one," another name for Asherah), Anat, and Astarte. Her Egyptian-style wig also appears in many of her images from Canaan. From William G. Dever, Did God Have a Wife?
[*] Biblical quotations are from the King James Version.