Cultivating Visions through Biblical Meditations

The following extract comes from, “Cultivating Visions through Exegetical Meditations” by Dan Merkur, an article from “With Letters of Light: Studies in the Dead Sea Scrolls, Early Jewish Apocalypticism, Magic, and Mysticism” by Daphna V. Arbel and Andrei A. Orlov (Eds.)

What I found fascinating in this article is Merkur’s suggestion of direct correlations between the letters to the seven churches and the vision of the seven seals in the book of Revelation, and more, that they reveal the visionary meditation method of the author as being not so far removed from lectio divina and even less so from my own less formulaic approach. He says,

The monastic practice of converting concepts into images as a prelude to meditation is demonstrable, centuries prior to the rise of the monastic movement, in the New Testament book of Revelation. Whether the text is, as Marshall (2001) plausibly argues, Jewish and not Christian, it dates to the late first century, the precise period of Yochanan ben Zakkai and his students, whose legends are narrated in the second chapter of Hagigah.

Revelation asserts the allegorical character of many of the images in its visions. The first vision, which accomplishes John’s commission as a prophet, concludes with the statement: “As for the mystery of the seven stars which you saw in my right hand, and the seven golden lampstands, the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches and the seven lampstands are the seven churches” (Rev 1:20). In this manner, Revelation, like Daniel 7, appropriated the mythological tropes of the ascension apocalypses and invested them with allegorical meanings. Among the topics that John allegorized, I suggest, was the praxis of exegetical meditation. Let us attend closely to the motifs of seven letters and seven seals.

John is told to compose seven letters that are to be addressed to the angels of seven churches. Each letter is different, and there are no manifest connections among them . They are presented simply as a collection of unrelated letters that an angel happened to reveal to John (Rev 2:1-3:21). Next comes a vision of a throne in heaven, with one seated on the throne, surrounded by twenty-four elders and four living creatures (4:1-11). The enthroned being holds a scroll that is sealed with seven seals (5:1). John then mourns.

And I saw a strong angel proclaiming with a loud voice, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it, and I wept much that no one was found worthy to open the scroll or look into it. Then one of the elders said to me, “Weep not; lo, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.” (Rev 5:2-5)

These verses express the interplay between meditative technique and its revelatory response. John cannot open the scroll, because he cannot produce revelations. Only a heavenly being can open the scroll. Like mental imaging, however, weeping was a means by which seers might pray or prepare for revelation. The mixing of metaphors, by which the Lion of Judah (Rev 5:5) is a Lamb (5:6, 8) who opens the seals (6:1), emphasized the psychological nature of the vision. Like Pharaoh’s dreams of seven cattle and seven sheaves of grain (Gen 41:1-7), the Lion and the Lamb were mental images that were equivalent or interchangeable for John’s purposes. John constructed the mental image of the Lamb in the hope that it would function as a vehicle of revelation within a vision. He could as easily have meditated on another image such as a Lion.

Following these prefatory indications about mental imagery in general, John proceeded to the details of each of the seven seals . Scholars have not previously noticed that some of the verbal contents of the seven letters correspond to some of the images on the respective seven seals.

1 . The letter to Ephesus, the first church, states “To him who conquers, I will give permission to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God” (Rev 2:7b) . The image of the first seal was a rider on a white horse, who had a bow and a crown. The text states that “he went conquering and to conquer” (6:2). In this way, the image on the first seal allegorized the ideas in the first letter, transforming a topic of abstract verbal conceptualization – “conquest” – into a mental image that could be used in meditation in order to cultivate a vision .

2 . The second letter, addressed to Smyrna, includes the statements: “Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life” (Rev 2:10-11). The second seal portrays a rider on a red horse, who is given a great sword, and removes peace from the earth, so that people kill one another (6:4). Once again, the image allegorizes ideas in the corresponding letter. The concepts of the devil and tribulation were expressed as the mental image of a sword-bearing rider who kills people.

3 . The third letter and seal introduce a new detail regarding the selection of imagery for meditation. Instead of having the motifs of the seal repeat the motifs on the letter, the second sets of motifs contrast with the first. The third letter refers to church members at Pergamum “who hold the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, that they might eat food sacrificed to idols and practice immorality” (Rev 2:14). The third seal (6:5-6) similarly addresses the topic of food; but it does so differently, by portraying famine. Within the third seal, the visual image of scales to weigh food is inconsistent with the auditory reference to the cost of grain by volume (Aune 1998: 396). Discrepant doctrinal ideas are similarly juxtaposed. In 1 Cor 8, Paul permitted eating food sacrificed to idols, on the grounds that idols have no real existence; although he allowed that some individuals might be led into sin through the practice. In 1 Cor 10:23-11:1, Paul again permitted eating food sacrificed to idols; he acknowledged, however, that on-lookers might thereby be led into sin. John’s criticism of Balaam and Balak may have been addressed to followers of Peter and Paul (Himmelfarb 1997: 90). Certainly the phrase “stumbling block” alluded to Paul’s teaching that Mosaic law is a stumbling block for Jews (Rom 9:32-33) . Through its image of famine as a rider on a black horse who holds a pair of scales (6:5), the third seal alludes to a different criticism of rabbinic teaching. Scores of rabbinical sayings discussed good and bad deeds as earning merits and demerits that were recorded in a heavenly Book of Life. By the first century B . C . E ., imitatio dei had translated this trope about divine retribution into a practice of judgmentalism within the Jewish community . The mishnaic teaching, “Judge all men on a scale of merit” (Abot 1:6) was explicitly rejected by Jesus’ saying, “Judge not, that you be not judged” (Matt 7:1; compare Luke 6:37) .

4 . The fourth letter, addressed to Thyatira, includes a discussion of the process of divine retribution: “those who commit adultery… I will throw into great tribulation, unless they repent… I am he who searches mind and heart, and I will give to each of you as your works deserve” (Rev 2:22-23). The letter’s description of “this teaching” as “what some call the deep things of Satan” (2:24) referred, I suggest, to God’s purpose in creating Satan. In Job and rabbinic teaching, Satan furthers God’s purposes by exacting retribution on God’s behalf . The fourth seal allegorizes these ideas of divine retribution in its image of a rider on a pale horse. His “name was Death, and Hades followed him; they were given authority” (6:8). As an abstract concept, retribution could not be converted directly into a mental image; the somewhat far-fetched reference to “the deep things of Satan” provided the opportunity, however, to portray Satan as the rider named Death . The identification was rabbinic: “Rabbi Simon ben Laqish said: Satan, the evil inclination, and the angel of death are one and the same” (b. Baba Batra, 16a).

5 . The fifth letter, addressed to Sardis, advocates the perfection of works. The letter ends with the promise that those who “are worthy” will “walk with me in white” garments (Rev 3:4) . This image recurs on the fifth seal. On the seal, “the souls of those who had been slaughtered for the word of God” (6:9) are given white robes (6:11) .

6 . The sixth letter, to Philadelphia, promises deliverance in the endtimes. “I will keep you from the hour of trial which is coming on the whole world, to try those who dwell upon the earth” (Rev 3:10). The abstract concept of a trial could not be expressed as a mental image that was suitable for use in meditation. Because individual trials could be pictured in their concreteness, the sixth seal conveyed the general idea of trial by portraying disaster on a cosmic scale: “there was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood, and the stars of the sky fell to the earth as the fig tree sheds its winter fruit when shaken by a gale; the sky vanished like a scroll that is rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place (6:12-14). The motif of trial occurred within the mental image as direct speech. Men call “to the mountains and rocks…the great day of…wrath has come, and who can stand before it?” (6:17).

7 . The seventh letter, addressed to the church in Laodicea, demands repentance. “I know your works… .For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing; not knowing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked… .Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline; so be zealous and repent” (Rev 3:15, 17, 19). As an abstract concept, repentance was unsuitable for representation by a mental image that could be used in meditation. The seventh seal instead portrayed the worship of God. “When the Lamb opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour” (8:1) . The motif alluded both to the revelation of the “still small voice” to Elijah on Mount Horeb in 1 Kgs 18:11-12, and also to Ps 65:2, “to You silence is praise,” which the Qumran Songs of Sabbath Sacrifice interpreted as the worship distinctive of the highest angels in heaven (Alexander 2006: 22, 38, 41, 98 n . 3).

The correspondence of the seven letters and the seven seals is tidy. The seals expressed concepts in pictorial imagery that the letters had formulated verbally. Because the letters to the seven churches alluded, among other texts, to the letters of Paul (Charles 1920: 94-95; Fiorenza 1985: 151), the seven seals provided object lessons in the procedure of exegetical meditation on the letters of Paul, as well as on the seven letters of Rev 2-3. Revelation indicated how to prepare scripturally based, abstract ideas in forms that could be visualized as mental images for the purpose of cultivating visions. The first two seals presented simple examples of the procedure that depended on literal correspondences between texts and images. More sophisticated procedures were illustrated in the further examples. The third letter borrowed a phrase from Paul, but the third seal devised an image that alluded to a contrary teaching by Jesus. The fourth letter, on divine retribution, briefly mentions the concept of “the deep things of Satan”; the fourth seal was wholly devoted to exploring this doctrinal curiosity. The fifth, sixth, and seventh letters each mentioned abstract concepts whose pictorial representation by the corresponding seals required still greater ingenuity. By these examples, the seven letters and seals together comprise an introduction to the practice of exegetical meditation.

The procedures of exegetical meditation that were outlined in Revelation can also be discerned in midrashic descriptions of visions. In Mechilta d’Rabbi Ishmael, Rabbi Akiba resolved the apparent paradox in Exod 20:18, “And all the people were seeing the sounds,” by explaining: “Seeing and hearing that which is given to sight; they saw a word (Hebrew Diber) of fire coming out of the mouth of the Gevurah (= dynamis) and being hewed on the Tables” (as cited in Gruenwald 1980: 73, n . 1). According to this midrash, the Israelites at Sinai heard the ten commandments and mentally imaged an archangel whose mouth spewed fire that carved the two tablets of stone. The Sinai revelation was not an instance of synesthesia, when sensory channels are confused. The Israelites saw a coherent symbolic vision that portrayed the miraculous carving of the words in stone, precisely as though they had been performing exegetical meditations.

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