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The Oxford Study Bible Study Bible supplemented with commentary from scholars of various religions.

The Sights of Heaven

At the culmination of the ascent in the Book of the Watchers and many other ascent-apocalypses, the visionary stands before the divine throne and receives a message or revelation from God. In the Book of the Watchers, the message is a message of doom to be delivered to the fallen Watchers. In 2 Enoch, God reveals to Enoch the secret history of creation. In the Ascension of Isaiah, Isaiah is shown the descent and ascent of Christ.

But in at least one apocalypse the very contents of heaven constitute the message. In 3 Baruch, in response to his lament about the fate of Israel, the angelic guide promises to show Baruch the glory of God. Baruch receives no revelation explicitly addressed to the injustice Israel has suffered, but the sights that he sees, from the punishment of wicked souls to the bliss of the righteous to the marvelous entourage of the sun as it travels its course, manifest both God's justice and glory and thus offer an indirect answer to Baruch's complaint.

Even in the apocalypses in which there is an explicit revelation before God's throne, the sights the visionary sees in the course of ascent are a central part of the message of the apocalypse. There is considerable diversity among the apocalypses in the details of their picture of heaven, although there are certain areas of broad agreement. The Book of the Watchers and some of the later apocalypses contain a single heaven, but most of the later works employ a schema of seven heavens. In some cases this allows for the ordering of sights by heavens.

One category of sights, which appears primarily in apocalypses directly indebted to the Book of the Watchers, is natural phenomena like the portals of the winds, the storehouses of rain, snow, and dew, and perhaps most prominent, the paths of the sun and moon. While the early wisdom literature of the Hebrew Bible understood nature as testifying to God's glory in a way that all could understand, this optimism faded in the wake of the exile. In the Book of the Watchers and the apocalypses that follow, these natural phenomena are understood as secrets not ordinarily accessible to humanity, but revealed by God to the righteous visionary. But the meaning of these phenomena is the same as in early wisdom: they are clear evidence of the greatness of their creator.

Another group of sights has to do with the fate of souls after death. The visionary sees the punishments that the wicked experience and the joy of the righteous. Frequently the righteous have become like the angels, and sometimes they enjoy a status even more exalted than that of the angels. In the Ascension of Isaiah, for example, Isaiah discovers that the righteous dead can look on God with steady gaze, while the angels can only glimpse the glory. It is obvious that such a vision serves to encourage the righteous on earth.

Finally, the visionary sees the angelic hosts and the divine presence itself. The angels perform a variety of tasks in heaven, but the most important is offering praise in their role as heavenly priests. Frequently the visionary does not simply observe the angels, but takes a place among them.

The awesome appearance of God's throne receives considerable attention in many of the apocalypses, and some of them even venture descriptions of the figure on the throne. These descriptions make the ability of the visionary to stand in God's presence all the more significant.

The description of the contents of heaven, then, delivers a message of its own, distinct from the explicit message God gives the visionary, although by no means in contradiction to it. The message of the sights is that however gloomy and chaotic things may appear on earth, God is in heaven, and the heavens at least are full of the glory of God.

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