Saturday, August 28, 2010

Angels & Demons 20: Jacob’s Ladder, with the Guardian Angels of Each Nation—Rising and Falling


Jacob’s Ladder figured into the Sinless Fallen Angel Story I mentioned earlier in my commentaries—in which the righteous young maiden tricked the angels into giving her their wings and teaching her to pronounce the unpronounceable name of God. She flew away to Heaven and they were left on the earth—UNTIL they found Jacob’s Ladder and climbed back into Heaven. Jacob’s Ladder now, once again, figures into a Fallen Angel Story. This story is related to my previous commentary in which Satan (as the Raiser of World Empires) is chained in the Abyss for 1000 years, “so that HE MIGHT NO LONGER LEAD THE NATIONS ASTRAY until the 1000 years are ended.” Here, however, the angels do not actually “fall”; instead, they just “descend.”

John the author of Revelation is, of course, familiar with the Jewish concept of the guardian angels of each nation—ascending and descending on Jacob’s ladder—and he even agrees with the end of the Jewish story. The story ends with the angel of a certain nation ascending the ladder, but never descending. This is the story of the ascending and descending national guardian angels (also called “princes”) of history’s world empires. Piska 23.2 of Pesikta de-Rab Kahana [hereafter, PRK] provides the following interpretation of the Jacob’s Ladder account from Genesis 28:12:

“Rabbi Berechiah, with Rabbi Ḥelbo, the son of Rabbi Simeon, the son of Yosina, in the name of Rabbi Meir, said: ‘It teaches that the Holy One—Blessed be He—caused Jacob, our Father, to see the prince of Babel (Babylon) ascending and descending, (then the prince) of Media ascending and descending, then (the prince) of Yavan (Greece) ascending and descending, then (the prince) of Edom (Rome) ascending and descending. The Holy One—Blessed be He—said to him (Jacob), ‘Jacob, you are ascending, too.’ In that hour, Jacob, our Father, was afraid, and he said, ‘Would you say that just like what happened to these—a descending—will also happen to me—a descending?’ The Holy One—Blessed be He—said to him, ‘You will not come down, Israel (Jeremiah 30:10). If you go up, there will never be a descent for you.’ But he did not believe, and he did not ascend.”

Clearly, this passage hints at an eternal kingdom by Israel, following upon the fall of Rome. John, in Revelation, paints virtually the same picture. In John’s account, however, the Lion from the Tribe of Judah does, indeed, “conquer” (5:5), ascend to reign over the earth (5:10), stand on Mount Zion (14:1), with his 144,000 from the twelve tribes of Israel (7:4-8), leading the New Jerusalem (21:2) to power. And, he shall reign forever and ever (22:5), John predicts.

A parallel of the PRK account is Leviticus Rabbah 29:2. This version attributes the story again to R. Berechiah (5th generation Amora) and R. Ḥelbo (4th generation Amora) and ultimately to R. Meir (3rd generation Tanna), in agreement with the PRK passage. It identifies Rabbi Simeon ben Menasya (4th generation Tanna) as the secondary source of the story, thus varying from PRK which mentions a Simeon ben Yosina as the father of R. Ḥelbo.

The word “Amora,” incidentally, refers to a Jewish academy leader/scholar who lived and wrote from 219-500 AD. The word “Tanna” refers to a Jewish academy leader/scholar who lived and wrote from 10-220 AD. Therefore, the Tannaim (plural of Tanna) lived closer in time to the New Testament period than did the Amoraim (plural of Amora). Rabbi Meir, for example, lived between 120 and 165 AD. Nevertheless, the rabbis claim that they are simply passing on information that they received from their teachers, so the teachings are understood to have been generated earlier in history than the recording of the teachings.

The Leviticus Rabbah passage is a more abbreviated form of the story. It omits the directive from God for Jacob to ascend and also Jacob’s resulting fright. This time, Jacob addresses God as “Lord of the Worlds,” and proceeds to express his concern about a similar descent for himself. The language used agrees (nearly verbatim) with PRK. God, in reply, again quotes Jeremiah 30:10, but drops the direct address (“Israel”). The conclusion is phrased as follows:

“‘Once you ascend, there will be no descent for you!’ Nevertheless, he was fearful, and did not ascend.”

In another parallel, Midrash Tehillim 78,347 supplies the number of rungs each of the princes climbed, and attributes these details also to Rabbi Meir, as quoted by Rabbi Berechiah, Rabbi Levi (3rd generation Amora), and still another Simeon—Simeon ben Jose (4th generation Tanna). PRK 23.2a provides those same details, but in a midrash belonging to Rabbi Samuel bar Naḥman (3rd generation Amora), paralleled also in Leviticus Rabbah 29:2.

In a similar vein, Bereshit Rabbah 68end refers to the princes of the four empires who ascended and descended and relates this Ladder vision to Nebuchadnezzar’s “image” vision (Daniel 2:31-45). According to the Nebuchadnezzar’s “image” vision, after the fifth kingdom (beginning with the Babylonian Empire) falls, God will establish an eternal kingdom that will never fall.

It is striking that Jewish scholars of the First to Fifth Centuries after the birth of Jesus who continued a tradition that suggests a plan of God to establish an eternal kingdom with a Jewish leader at the helm following the fall of the Roman Empire, failed to recognize that such a kingdom was developing. With the Roman Empire effectively “Christianized” by Constantine, shortly after 300 AD, this tiny sect, led by a Jewish teacher (Jesus)—a child of Israel—was finally catapulted to a position of international repute. It was not until the Renaissance of a thousand years later that Greco-Roman literature would begin to rebound from a situation in which Judeo-Christian literature and thought dominated much of the world. One can almost envision the scene of Jacob’s Ladder:

“The Holy One—Blessed be He—said to him (Jacob), ‘Jacob, you are ascending, too.’ In that hour, Jacob, our Father, was afraid, and he said, ‘Would you say that just like what happened to these—a descending—will also happen to me—a descending?’ The Holy One—Blessed be He—said to him, ‘You will not come down, Israel’ (Jeremiah 30:10). If you go up, there will never be a descent for you.’”

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