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Yet again I find myself reading one of Margaret Barker's works. And, once more, I've chosen to explore one of her earlier ones. Gate of Heaven (1991) shares many beats with The Lost Prophet (1988), which focused on the noncanonical Enoch literature, and with The Great Angel (1992), which posits that the ancient cult approached divinity with a two-tiered outlook. In fact, many of her points in this book are identical to those in the other works, albeit she arranges them from a different point of view, here placing the First Temple setting front and center. Likewise, many of the primary documents cited are the same. And yet, even if you've read any of her other works, this does not bear the flavor of a retread at all; it remains fresh and engaging, and it flows well.
In the first chapter, Barker outlines the history of the Temple(s), along with that of its furnishings and rituals. This chapter lacks Barker's usual panache and is somewhat dull, in that it is straightforward and workmanlike. On the whole, though, it is a necessary building block to set the stage for the exegesis that follows.
The Temple is the scene of both creation and judgment. In its timeless, mythic dimension, it encapsulates the pristine Garden of Eden and, in its tension with the chaos that surrounds it, it also can induce the conflagration of Saint John's Apocalypse. Hearkening back to Israel's most primitive mythic vision, the Temple stands at the center of the universe, being God's first ordered space, a high place raised out above the Deep. At the Temple's own nexus there exists the Holy of Holies, or the debir, a place of vision and transformation. Within the Temple veil, all time exists simultaneously (111), and entering into it men can perceive heavenly secrets and be glorified. When they emerge again, if they survive, they are angels, messengers bearing revelation (lit. "unveiling") for the earth. What's more, divine beings originating within this state can be expelled and fall from grace; the consequence of this for them is mortality. The judgment of such a creature is described in Ezekiel 28, which may present an archetypal pattern for the tradition of the Fall of Adam in Genesis 3 and the fall of the wayward angels in the Book of the Watchers. Barker ties the eternal significance of this mythic event to Irenaeus's understanding of Christ as a recapitulation of God's first-formed man in heaven and, consequently, of his role in the renewal of humanity on earth (132).
Central to the idea of the intersection that connects heaven and earth is the being who must embark upon the journey between the two. He must necessarily be--at least from the perspective of the earthly side of the veil--a human figure. In earliest times, this figure was likely the Israelite king, whose function was once that of the high priest (75). In keeping with the associated royal framework, there was also at one time a throne within the Holy of Holies, which corresponded to the chariot throne of Yahweh. This is why the throne is so often, in extrabiblical literature, the vehicle of heavenly ascent (98). For some, the anthropomorphic figure on the throne, along with the visions linked to it, presented a danger (135). In particular the Rabbinical Jews, who are heirs to the Deuteronomists and anemic to the concept of an intermediary deity, have historically viewed these First Temple motifs as scandalous and worthy of suppression. Thus they even discouraged the study of the biblical chariot vision of Ezekiel. And yet, at one time, in addition to the king the prophets, priests, and from beyond the veil the Logos were all known to be messengers within this context (159). What I have yet to see Barker offer is an explanation of when, and under what circumstances, the high priestly function of the king might have passed to a specialized high priest. Might the texts provide any indication of what caused the priestly role to be divorced from its original royal connection? Also, might there have been tension between the Temple priesthood and a prophetic figure who experienced visions associated with the Temple but who was not necessarily a priest (such as the First Isaiah)?
Barker delves into angelology, especially in the latter half of the book. She compares various descriptions of the cherubim that either surrounded or constituted the throne. She also weighs in on which description may have been primary (or the more historical)--that of the miniaturized cherubim above the desert ark, or else the description of the two or four cherubim that inhabited the Temple? (She is inclined toward the latter.) Barker also gives a plausible explanation for the thinking behind the cherubim throne: Yahweh was sometimes envisioned as riding upon a cherub (142, Ps. 18).
Her treatment of angels presents the reader with various ways to conceive of the forms of spirits: as winds, fire, men, and sometimes torches (167). Her quotation of a DSS passage describing them as "woven" and "engraved"--a reference to their depiction on the veil of the Temple--perhaps prefigures her examination of the angelic role in creation vis-à-vis the ancient idea of "hwq" and "surot" in Temple Theology: An Introduction (2004). She also treats angels positionally; the descriptions of named angels located around the chariot throne--either at its right hand or its left--may evince a developing Trinitarian schema. Barker even begins to speak of what the essence of angels may be in their relation to God. They are like "a torch kindled from the fire" (176). They have an independent existence while retaining an inseparable affinity to God. This sounds like pre-Christian Christology!
I can offer a few more brief but random points of interest that stuck out to me. Barker identifies Christ's temptation in the wilderness (Lk. 4) as being grounded in Temple imagery (130). Her point here is that Satan, in showing Christ the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time, demonstrates the panoramic quality of the Temple and the veil. But Barker's point rings true more broadly: Satan is masquerading as an angel, and the entire scene has parallels to the Daniel's vision, which is even more undoubtedly a reflection of the Temple. (The linguistic similarities between Luke 4 and Daniel 7:14, and the similarities between the function of Satan and the angel, are cited in George Nickelsburg's Resurrection, Immortality, and Eternal Life in Intertestamental Judaism and Early Christianity.)
Barker analyzes language relating to the Lord's enthronement as King in Psalms 93-99, and she speculates about this scene's connection to an Israelite enthronement ceremony, one that was centered on the harvest and which evoked the psalms' judgment imagery (147). Aside from its punitive dimension, I would have been interested to get her take on the implication of the related features that dominate these same psalms, namely God's justice and righteousness. Much study has gone into Near Eastern kings "doing" righteousness upon their coronation and ascent to the throne. Announced with the lifting of a torch or the blasting of a horn, their enthronement often accompanied acts of beneficence such as releasing prisoners and forgiving debts. Might not this imply an outpouring from the throne that could be viewed in a positive light?
Barker's works always leave room for further reflection and investigation, and Gate of Heaven is no exception. It reconstructs the worldview of the First Temple and links it to the basic and operative understanding of apostles, rabbis, and fathers who lived and wrote long after the Babylonians put an end to the cult. The poetry of Ephrem the Syrian, which was written in the fourth century and which Barker cites, is but one stunning example of the enduring impact that the imagery of the Temple holds for the life of the Church.