Tuesday, July 26, 2016

The Angel Metatron and Jewish Theology By William Oscar Emil Oesterley 1907


The Angel Metatron and Jewish Theology By William Oscar Emil Oesterley 1907

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The etymology of this word is the subject of controversy; but it is necessary to form some opinion as to its derivation, for, clearly, the name must originally have given some indication regarding the functions of this personality.

The date of the first mention of the word is not without importance in seeking to fix its derivation. According to the JE (viii, 519), it is Elisha ben Abuyah a who first refers to Metatron under this name; this Rabbi lived during the first half of the second century A.d.; therefore the belief regarding Metatron must have been much earlier than this date, for, as we have had to remark before, the beliefs which are crystallized in the Talmud have a history before their appearance there. This early date of the mention of the word makes it improbable that it was derived from the Latin, for Roman influence upon Jewish literature is not likely to have been sufficiently powerful to have induced Jewish teachers to derive such a word as Metatron from the Latin. A Latin derivation is the less likely in that the first mention of Metatron occurs in the Babylonian Talmud. We cannot, therefore, agree with the writer on this subject in the JE, when he says that " the derivation from the Latin 'metator' (='guide') is doubtless correct." It would be difficult to point to any instance of the Latin word being used in this sense. "Divider" or "Measurer"; is what the word means, but not "Guide." There is, it is true, at least one passage which could be quoted in favour of this derivation when first read, but not on considering it further. The passage is from Bereshith rabbah, c. 5; it is here said that the voice of the Holy One became to Moses a Metator, in order to show him the boundaries of the Promised Land. There is, however, here nothing about dividing or measuring, it is only a question of indicating whereabouts the Promised Land lay; so that the fact that in this passage Metator is used instead of Metatron points to a confusion of ideas, and cannot be said to throw any real light upon the derivation of Metatron. Further, Mr. Herford has shown how untenable is the theory which regards the idea of Metatron as of Gnostic origin, or which identifies him with the "Logos" of the Jewish Alexandrine philosophy. Another improbable theory is that which seeks to identify Metatron with the Zoroastrian Mithra; but how very unlikely this is will be clear to anyone reading, for example, Cumont's Les Mysteres de Mithra. Once more, it is pointed out that the numerical value of the letters of the word Metatron are equal to 314; but this is also the numerical value of the letters of the word Shaddai, "Almighty"; therefore, it is said, the two words are synonymous, Metatron means "Almighty!" This theory is, of course, hardly to be taken seriously, though in favour of it are quoted two passages, one from the Babylonian and one from the Jerusalem Talmud, in which Metatron bears the title of "Prince of the World"; a title which more probably implies that he is the representative of God in the world.

All these theories must be rejected, and one can scarcely doubt that the explanation which Weber gives is the correct one. He holds that Metatron is a hebraized form of the Greek Metathronos or perhaps Metatyrannos, i.e., one who occupies the next rank to the ruler. This explanation accords with the functions of Metatron, which we now proceed briefly to examine:—

The representative of God. This function shows Metatron as one who stands in the closest relationship to God, for he occupies this position by virtue of the fact that he is second to God only; indeed, he is sometimes spoken of in such a way as to make it difficult to see any difference between him and the Almighty; for example, in Sanhedrin 38b, in reference to the words of Exod. 24:1, And he (God) said unto Moses, Come up unto the Lord, it is asked: "Why does not God say: 'Come up unto Me'?" The answer is: "It was Metatron, whose name is equal to that of God, to whom he was bidden to come up." Logically, there is no difference here between God and Metatron. One must remember the significance there was in names among the Jews to realize the importance of this passage; the name was equivalent to its bearer. In the passage just quoted, Metatron is said to bear the " Tetragrammaton," i.e. the four consonants which represent the unpronounceable name of God; another instance of the practical identity between God and Metatron. Elsewhere Metatron is described as the teacher of children, but in other passages this is said to be the duty of God alone. But his function of representing God is perhaps seen most distinctly in the title that is given him of the "Prince of the World" (Sar ha'olam), which shows that he was thought of as the ruler of the world.

The Consoler of God. This function ascribed to Metatron, which to us appears as bordering on irreverence, well illustrates the extremely illogical way in which at one time God is represented as wholly impassible, at another as partaking of human feelings. It is said that when God was lamenting the death of Moses, Metatron comforted Him with the words: "He was Thine in life, in death he is also Thine."

Some extraordinary ideas seem to have been current in the early centuries of the Christian era concerning Metatron and Moses; in the Apocalyptic writing called The Ascension of Moses, for example, we read that Metatron transformed the body of Moses into a fiery figure like that of the angels and led him up through the seven heavens.

Again, when the Temple was destroyed, God is represented as weeping; but Metatron sought to comfort Him, saying: "I will weep, but weep not Thou." But God answered: "If thou wilt not suffer me to weep, I will go whither thou canst not come, and there will I lament." The title "Prince of the Presence," which is applied to Metatron, and which implies that he is the constant companion of God, accounts perhaps for the amazing intimacy between Metatron and the Almighty which the foregoing points to as having existed.

The Mediator between God and Israel. The most characteristic function of Metatron is that in which he appears as mediator. This is very important, for it shows that the idea of Mediation, in quite a Christian sense, was current among the Jews in pre-Christian times.

It is true, that, as far as Rabbinical literature is concerned, this statement could not be made positively, though doctrines of this kind which appear in Talmud and Midrash (let alone the Targums) certainly do not occur there for the first time. What leads to the conviction that the doctrine of Mediation existed in post-biblical Jewish theology in connexion with Metatron is his identification with Enoch, and the teaching on this subject in the Book of Enoch, the latest portions of which are pre-Christian. It must be remembered, too, that the Old Testament offers much on which to found a doctrine of Mediation.

As one who, as we have seen, was so much in the presence of God, and who therefore stands in the closest intimacy with Him, Metatron occupies an appropriate position as Israel's intercessor. It will, therefore, not surprise us to find that in one passage Moses is represented as asking Metatron to intercede with God on his behalf, in order that his life might be prolonged. His office of Advocate of Israel is clearly brought out in Chagigah 15a, where he is represented as writing down, in the presence of God, the merits of the Children of Israel; he is thus spoken of as the "Great Scribe," the advocate who pleads on behalf of his clients before the Judge. In Bemidbar rabbah, c. 12, the term "Mediator" is directly applied to Metatron, and, what is still more significant, he is represented as the reconciler between God and the Chosen People.

Metatron identified with Enoch. In the Jerusalem Targum (Pseudo-Jonathan) to Gen. 5:24 Metatron is said to be the name of Enoch; it says there: "Enoch ascended into Heaven through the Word of God, and He (God) called him Metatron, the great scribe. It is owing to this passage, as Bousset points out, that the figure of Metatron, which plays such a prominent part in the later speculations, first assumes importance in Jewish theology; "for," he goes on to say, "it may be taken for granted that the figure of Metatron and that of the Son of Man, stand in some relation to one another." Another reason for identifying Metatron with Enoch is that both are referred to as the "heavenly scribe"; we have just seen how the title is applied to Metatron, and in reference to Enoch it is found in the Book of Jubilees 4a: "And he (Enoch) was taken away from among the children of men, and we led him into the garden of Eden to renown and honour, and behold, he writes down there the judgment and the verdict upon the world and upon all the evil deeds of the children of men." In the Hebrew writings, according to Ludwig Blau, "Metatron fills the role of Enoch in the Apocrypha in bearing witness to the sins of mankind. Since both sources represent him as a youth, it may be assumed that the first versions of the Hebrew mystical works, though they received
their present form in the Geonic period, originated in antiquity, so that the conception of Metatron must likewise date from an early period."

It is characteristic that while Metatron, or Enoch, appears as the accuser of mankind in general, he occupies the role of intercessor and reconciler as far as the children of Israel are concerned.

Metatron identified with Michael the Archangel. This identification is found in the Jerusalem Targum (Pseudo-Jonathan) to Exod. 24:1; but there are other distinct indications of their identity. He is called Michael in the Ascension of Isaiah 9:21; both appear as advocate and mediator of Israel; we have seen that this is the case with Metatron, and that he is also known as the "great scribe," who writes down in the presence of God the merits of the children of Israel. Michael fulfils precisely the same functions; he is called the "Advocate of the Jews," he is also represented as the High-priest who constantly makes intercession for Israel; as to his filling the office of the "great scribe," see Enoch 89:70, 71, 76, 77. Another mark of their identity is to be seen in their connexion with Moses; thus, we are told that Metatron helped to bury the body of Moses, Jer. Targ. (Jonathan) to Deut. 34:6, and we have seen how he is represented as comforting God on the death of Moses; Michael, it is said, would not bring the soul of Moses to God, because he had been Moses' teacher; the passage does not seem clear, but the point is that he is brought into connexion with Moses, after the death of the latter, just as Metatron is.

In the Prayer-Book of the Jews of Abyssinia there is a very curious account of the death of Moses which is recited as part of the Office for the Burial of the Dead; in this, Michael, the Angel of Death (in a different sense of course from Sammael, and corresponding perhaps to Isis and Nephthys among the Egyptians), plays an important part. Cf. in this connexion Jude 9: But Michael the Archangel when contending with the devil he disputed about the body of Moses. . . .

Metatron one of the angels. In an extraordinary passage (Chagigah 15a) it is shown clearly, if somewhat drastically, that Metatron, in spite of the very pre-eminent position which he seems to occupy, was, in reality, of the angelic order, and nothing more. This passage describes how Elisha ben Abujah entered Paradise, and there "saw Metatron, to whom was given the power to sit and write down the merits of Israel." Elisha ben Abujah said: "It is taught that on high there is no sitting, no strife, no parting, and no joining. Can there be, Heaven forbid! two powers?" Then, we are told, "they brought out Metatron and gave him sixty lashes of fire." This was done, as Mr. Herford points out (quoting Tosaphoth), to show that Metatron was not superior in kind to the other angels, however much he might be in degree. This passage is significant from another point of view altogether, for it bears witness, in an unmistakable manner, to the fact that popular belief did regard Metatron as a being who was, at the lowest estimate, semi-divine. We are often apt, at the present day, to regard as allegorical or parabolic the substance as well as the form of many a belief contained in the Talmud and other kindred writings; it seems to us, nowadays, quite incredible that people in a high state of civilization and religious progress should have actually believed many things which we could not regard as otherwise than the product of fantastic imagination; nevertheless, it is well that we should try and divest ourselves of this erroneous impression; let it be remembered that even in the late Middle Ages—nay, so late as a few generations ago—there was, in the world in general, no clear differentiation between fable and fact; what must, therefore, have been the mental attitude towards all that partook, or was believed to partake, of a supernatural character five hundred years and more earlier? Above all, let it be remembered that the innate religiousness of the Jew, to which reference has already been made in an earlier chapter, necessarily increases the tendency, more or less common to all in an unscientific age, to formulate theories, which soon crystallize into belief, concerning all that has to do with the invisible world of supernatural agencies. The passage to which reference has been made, shows not merely that Metatron was regarded as a personality endued with supernatural powers—that was universal among the Palestinian Jews as well as those of the Diaspora—but that he was by some, at all events, believed to come perilously near equality with God. It was for this latter reason, primarily, as it seems to us, that the passage last quoted was written; and it was designed to show those whom it concerned that great as Metatron was, he was nevertheless, of no higher being than such as was proper to the order of angels.

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