The Mysterious Origins of the Angel Metatron from the 3rd Book of Enoch | ESOTERICA

Metatron is probably the most powerful and mysterious Angel in Jewish lore. But what are the origins of this being known as the “Lesser Yahweh (יהוה הקתן)” ? In the 5/6th century ce Sefer Hekhalot (Book of Palaces or 3 Enoch), we go on a heavenly journey to the Throne (merkavah) of God with Rabbi Ishmael to learn that the angel Metatron was once Enoch, transformed into a being of fire, witness a host of angelic systems, a tour of the Paradise and She’ol, the Underworld, a glimpse of the Right Hand of the Divine and even a glimpse of all of cosmic history as embroidered on the veil (pargod) covering the very face of God.

While the first Book of Enoch is more famous, the Third Book of Enoch is a true tour de force of apocalyptic visions and the ancient occult mysticism of those that allegedly descended to the Chariot-Throne of the Divine.



Harold Bloom

Angels once were more ambiguous and ambivalent, and traditionally their roles have not always been comforting or protective in regard to us. But they suit us now for many reasons, particularly because, like us, they suffer from (and represent) a condition of belatedness: they are not originary beings. They barely make their way into the Hebrew Bible: almost never by name, and I have noted that frequently they are a redactor’s substitutes for daringly human appearances by God himself, Yahweh in the earliest stratum of biblical text.

The pre-exilic Bible is very much the Book of David the King, who subtly dominates the early Yahwistic text, where however he is never mentioned, since it embraces history from the Creation through the entry into Canaan. The court of David essentially was a military society, with the hero-king presiding over his mighty men and an admonitory prophet or two. In the ensuing age of Solomon, a highly cultivated court surrounded the monarch, who administered a commercial society, urbanized and relatively at peace, but still locating its ideal in the charismatic David. Whatever his actual power, Solomon does not seem to have adopted the full panoply of ancient Near Eastern despotism, with all its hierarchal bureaucracies. But in Babylon the Jews beheld what must have been an immense and elaborate royal court, whose structure mirrored the supposed hierarchy of the heavens. God, after the Babylonian exile, reigns over a cosmos of angelic orders, and is no longer the solitary warrior-god, Yahweh, who employed a handful of the Elohim as his messengers and agents. Out of Babylon came not only angelic names but angel-bureaucrats, princes, and functionaries.

Jewish legends clustered about the idea that the angels had been made on the second day of creation rather than on the first. Implicit in these legends is a polemic against Jewish Gnostic heretics, who wished to attribute the creation to the angels rather than to God, thus insinuating a flaw at the origins. What seems clear is that there can be no definitive or exemplary account of the angels. Shadowy in the biblical text, they emerge most starkly in post-biblical days and haunt the time of, troubles that was the matrix of Christianity. The apocalyptic literature of roughly 200 B.C.E. to 200 C.E. is the true domain of the angels, and is associated with Enoch. Enoch, a mysterious patriarch of whom we are told only that he “walked with God, and then was not, because God took him,” is the single most crucial figure in the long history of the angels, even though he began existence as a man. After God took him, Enoch became an extraordinary angel, perhaps more a god than an angel, because frequently he was called “the lesser Yahweh.” This god-angel, Metatron, sets the pattern for ascents to Heaven by Jacob (first as Uriel, then as Israel), and by Elijah, who became the angel Sandalphon. Saint Francis, according to some of his followers, enjoyed a similar transformation. Perhaps Dante’s Beatrice could be considered a fifth in this remarkable company except that, for her poet, she evidently already was an angel as a young girl, and required no apotheosis. Enoch-Metatron, I will suggest later in this book, may be regarded as the authentic angel of America, which was initially the insight of the Mormon prophet, seer, and revelator Joseph Smith, who identified himself with Enoch, and by now may well be joined in an imaginative unity with his great precursor, if Mormon speculation proves true.

What we now refer to as 1 Enoch is preserved completely only in the ancient Ethiopic language, but fragments discovered among the Dead Sea Scrolls demonstrate that the book’s original language was Aramaic, which was spoken by the Jews as by neighboring Syriac peoples for several centuries before and after the start of the Common Era. Aramaic, by some traditions, is the language of the angels, which makes it appropriate that 1 Enoch should have been composed in that tongue (though other traditions insist that angels speak only Hebrew).

1 Enoch is a savage reading experience, best available now in the translation by E. Isaac in The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha: Apocalyptic Literature and Testaments, edited by James H. Charlesworth (1983). In a remarkable expansion of Genesis 6:1-4, the author of 1 Enoch begins with the descent of some two hundred lustful angels, who come down upon the summit of Mount Hermon in pursuit of the beautiful daughters of men. They are led by Semyaz, later the Greek Orion, thus perpetually punished as an upside-down figure. After mating with earthly women, the fallen angels raise up giant sons of voracious appetite, who successively devour produce, beasts, people, and one another.

Contemplating this horror, and the dreadful teaching of magic and witchcraft by Azaz’el, one of the demons, God sends a deluge upon earth, and orders the archangel Raphael to bury Azaz’el under the stones of the wilderness. At just this point, Enoch the righteous scribe enters the narrative. In a dream vision, the Watchers, or angels, send Enoch to reprimand and warn the fallen angels of what awaits them. But first Enoch ascends to the throne of God, in a region of fire, and is allowed to confront God. A series of heavenly journeys follows, a kind of tour of the angelic realms, and of all the secrets of the cosmos. These include an epiphany of a messianic son of the people (perhaps misleadingly translated by Isaac with the now Christian overtone of “Son of Man”), as well as tableaux of the resurrection of the dead and the final judgment of the sinners.

The Ethiopic Enoch, for all its vividness, is dwarfed by the apocalyptic splendor and rigors of 3 Enoch, a work written in Hebrew probably in the fifth century C.E., and brilliantly translated by P. Alexander in the Charlesworth Pseudepigrapha. This rhapsodic vision purports to be the work of the great rabbi Ishmael, slain by the Romans as one of the preludes to Bar Kokhba’s insurrection in 132 C.E., but undoubtedly the date of composition is much later. As an apocalypse, 3 Enoch belongs to the pre Kabbalistic tradition of Hebraic gnosis called Merkabah mysticism, the Merkabah being the prophet Ezekiel’s term for the chariot that bears the Enthroned Man of his vision. In this tradition, the visionary voyages through the heavenly halls until he comes upon the throne of God, where a revelation is vouchsafed to him. And yet, since we are within the normative rabbinical world, the revelation is severely restricted; the exuberant invention of Gnostic writing would be a violation of decorum and of received scriptural authority.

It is surprising how much mythopoeic invention gets into 3 Enoch anyway, perhaps because we are at an early stage of what will develop, half a millennium later, into the extravagant Kabbalistic imagination. At the imagistic center of 3 Enoch is the radical transformation of Enoch into the archangel Metatron, Prince of the Divine Presence (a title from the prophet Isaiah) and a kind of viceroy for Yahweh himself. In this transmutation, Enoch’s skin is replaced by a fiery Garment of Light, and his human dimensions expand to the length and breadth of the created world. Moshe Idel, the leading contemporary scholar of Kabbalah, shrewdly observes that Enoch’s apotheosis is the point-for-point reversal of the collapse of “the supernal Adam” into the Adam of Genesis, since ancient Jewish texts, both normative and heterodox, initially represented Adam as a god-man whose Garment of Light is replaced by his own skin and the animal skins in which God clothes him, while the primordial giant Adam, whose size and splendor awed and frightened the angels, dwindles into our merely human contours. Idel also notes the irony of another reversal: in some sources the primal Adam “falls” because of angelic sin, since his splendor moves the angels to assert that Adam and God are equal powers.

In 3 Enoch, one interpolated passage records the culpability of Elisha ben Abuya, the second-century C.E. colleague of Ishmael and Akiba. Elisha ben Abuya was condemned as heretical by the Talmud for his supposed Gnostic heresies. Confronting Metatron, Acher (“the other”), as Elisha ben Abuya was called by the rabbis, cries out, “There are two Powers in Heaven!” thus condemning Metatron to a divine chastisement. I would expand Idel’s insight by suggesting that Metatron is not only the new primordial, supernal Adam, but also that Metatron becomes the esoteric link in angelology between the divine and the human, fusing these realms in the manner of the Iranian “Man of Light,” whether Zoroastrian or Sufi. Enoch was renamed Idris by the Koran, and the Sufis identified Idris with the ancient Greek Hermes, remembering that the Hermetic Corpus centered upon the image of Hermes as the Perfect Nature, the union of man and God. Metatron might well be interpreted as the unique angel of reintegration, which is why he became the most important of angels for the Zohar and for all subsequent Kabbalah. I venture that Metatron is the archangel of our moment as we approach the Millennium; all the omens–other angels, prophetic dreams, manifestations of the Resurrection Body–are aspects of his being. As the lesser Yahweh, he is the angel of angels; he is also the celestial interpreter of prophetic dreams; his transfigured form is the astral body of the “near-death experience”; his man-God reintegration restores the supernal Adam and illuminates the messianic aspects of the Millennium.

In 3 Enoch, Metatron is presented with a certain reticence; the apocalyptic impulse in the text is frequently tempered by a normative censor, reflecting the curious nature of this work, which would appear to have a prolixity of authors, some of them evidently later normative redactors. Hence the startling contrast between successive sections of 3 Enoch, 15 and 16. Here is 15:

R. Ishmael said: The angel Metatron, Prince of the Divine Presence, the glory of highest heaven, said to me:
When the Holy One, blessed be he, took me to serve the throne of glory, the wheels of the chariot and all the needs of the Shekhinah, at once my flesh turned to flame, my sinews to blazing fire, my bones to juniper coals, my eyelashes to lightning flashes, my eyeballs to fiery torches, the hairs of my head to hot flames, all my limbs to wings of burning fire, and the substance of my body to blazing fire. On my right–those who cleave flames of fire–on my left–burning brands–round about me swept wind, tempest, and storm; and the roar of earthquake was before and behind me.

The Shekhinah, the feminine element in Yahweh, his in-dwelling presence in the world, is served by Metatron even as he serves the divine throne and chariot. Since the Shekhinah dwells among us, this means that Metatron is the grand vizier of Yahweh on earth even as he is in heaven. The magnificent metamorphosis here of Enoch, a mortal man, into the lesser Yahweh contrasts overwhelmingly with the subsequent whipping and dethronement of Metatron through no fault of his own, since he is in no way responsible for the heretical Acher:

R. Ishmael said: The angel Metatron, Prince of the Divine Presence, the glory of highest heaven, said to me:
At first I sat upon a great throne at the door of the seventh palace, and I judged all the denizens of the heights on the authority of the Holy One, blessed be he. I assigned greatness, royalty, rank, sovereignty, glory, praise, diadem, crown, and honor to all the princes of the kingdoms, when I sat in the heavenly court. The princes of kingdoms stood beside me, to my right and to my left, by authority of the Holy One, blessed be he. But when Acher came to behold the vision of the chariot and set eyes upon me, he was afraid and trembled before me. His soul was alarmed to the point of leaving him because of his fear, dread, and terror of me, when he saw me seated upon a throne like a king, with ministering angels standing beside me as servants and all the princes of kingdoms crowned with crowns surrounding me. Then he opened his mouth and said, “There are indeed two powers in heaven!” Immediately a divine voice came out from the presence of the Shekhinah and said, “Come back to me, apostate sons–apart from Acher!” Then Anapi’el YHWH, the honored, glorified, beloved, wonderful, terrible, and dreadful Prince, came at the command of the Holy One, blessed be he, and struck me with sixty lashes of fire and made me stand to my feet.

Metatron has his throne at the door of the seventh palace because 3 Enoch shares with several ancient Gnostic texts the myth of a heavenly ascent of the soul, in this life in Jewish works such as 3 Enoch, but after death in Gnostic writings. This upward journey is always in seven stages, or palaces in the Merkabah tradition, and yet the journeys are radically different. In a Gnostic text like The Hypostasis of the Archons, the soul is stopped at each of seven spheres, where a negative spirit, the archon, or ruler of that sphere, would block the aspiring soul, unless it knows and speaks the archon’s true name, and shows him the precisely appropriate seal. In 3 Enoch, the heavens are numbered, but go unnamed, though their ruling angels can be addressed by name. The seven palaces (or temples, or heavens) are arranged concentrically, and at their center is the Merkabah, the chariot of God that is also his throne. In front of the throne, a curtain shields the angels from the dangerous radiance of God, and has embroidered upon it the entire span of history from Adam to the era of the Messiah. Rivers of fire flow out from underneath the throne, and the aura of the scene is appropriately stark. The angelic gatekeepers are not quite as overtly hostile as the Gnostic archons, but they certainly are not friendly. Essentially they are barriers between God and man, except for the problematical Metatron, who is as protective of God as the others, but who retains his almost unique status as a transfigured mortal. The Kabbalistic formula became: “Enoch is Metatron,” a shorthand way of implying that the mystic could emulate another human and mount up to the status of the archangel Michael (with whom Metatron sometimes is identified).

As Adam fell, so Enoch was raised, and the demarcation between man and God wavered, and might waver again. For me, the most memorable passage in 3 Enoch comes in section 6, when the angels scorn and protest the apotheosis of Metatron, who was Enoch:

As soon as I reached the heavenly heights, the holy creatures, the ophanium, the seraphim, the cherubim, the wheels of the chariot and the ministers of consuming fire, smelled my odor 365,000 myriads of parasangs off, they said, “What is this smell of one born of a woman? Why does a white drop ascend on high and serve among those who cleave the flames?”

This is a grand, brief summation of what our current sentimentalization obscures and debases: the profound ambivalence of the angels towards us. The angelic derision is provoked by human sexuality: that “white drop” is the contribution of Jared, his father, to the engendering of Enoch. God’s reply to the angels is at once a massive reproof to them and a poignant complaint against us: “This one whom I have taken is my sole reward from my whole world under heaven.”

BLOOM, Harold, “Metatron, who was Enoch”, Omens of the Millenium: The Gnosis of Angels, Dreams, and Resurrection. New York: Riverhead Books, 1996, p. 44-53.