Enoch’s Walk with God Ends Badly in Babylonia
The Biblical Man Enoch Becomes the Angel Metatron
According to the genealogy in Genesis 5, Enoch, the son of Jared and father of Methuselah, lived in the seventh generation from Adam. The Torah provides two ambiguous references to Enoch’s disappearance and his “walking with God”:
בראשית ה:כב וַיִּתְהַלֵּךְ חֲנוֹךְ אֶת הָאֱלֹהִים אַחֲרֵי הוֹלִידוֹ אֶת מְתוּשֶׁלַח… ה:כד וַיִּתְהַלֵּךְ חֲנוֹךְ אֶת הָאֱלֹהִים וְאֵינֶנּוּ כִּי לָקַח אֹתוֹ אֱלֹהִים.
Gen 5:22 Enoch walked with God after he engendered Methuselah… 5:24 Enoch walked with God; and then he was gone, for God had taken him.
Some ancient exegetes presumed that Enoch was “elevated,” “transferred”, “lifted up”, or somehow “taken” by God, and did not in fact die. The figure of Enoch was thus associated with immortality from early on in the Jewish tradition. In contrast, a possible polemic against the notion of Enoch’s “elevation,” insisting that Enoch did in fact die, is found in rabbinic sources and in Targum Onqelos to Gen. 5:24:
והליך חנוך בדחלתא דיי’, ולייתוהי, ארי אמית יתיה יי’
And Enoch walked in the fear of the Lord, and he was not, for the Lord had killed him.
More than one approach to Enoch exists, however, in rabbinic literature, making it difficult to discern a systematic rabbinic approach to his figure.
Transformation into an Angelic Being
The biblical idea that Enoch was “taken” by God and thus that he ostensibly lives forever was expanded during the Second Temple period.
Enoch as the “Son of Man”
In the section of the book of 1 Enoch known as “Similitudes” (= 1 Enoch 37-71; perhaps 1st cent. BCE), Enoch is explicitly transfigured into a celestial being and ostensibly identified with the eschatological figure referred to as the “Son of Man,” known also from the book of Daniel.
You are that Son of Man who was born for righteousness, and righteousness dwells on you, and the righteousness of the Head of Days will not forsake you (1 Enoch 71:14).
The Slavonic Book of Enoch (2 Enoch; perhaps 1st century CE) is even more explicit in asserting that
(Enoch) had become like one of the glorious ones and there was no observable difference (i.e. between him and the angels) (2 Enoch 22:10).
By identifying Enoch as the eschatological Son of Man, the author of the Similitudes asserts, in effect, that it was himself whom Enoch saw earlier in his vision, of whom we are told, will “overturn the kings from their thrones and their kingdoms” (1 Enoch 46:5).
Enoch as Metatron
In the Jewish mystical work 3 Enoch (final redaction probably ca. 5th or 6th century CE), also called the Hebrew Book of Enoch, Enoch is transformed into Metatron, a semi-divine figure, who sits on a celestial throne, shares the Lord’s glory, and bears his name.
א”ר ישמעאל: אמר לי מטטרון שר הפנים כל זאת עשה לי ה[ק]ב”ה כסא מעין כסא הכבוד ופרש עלי פרש של זיו ושל זהר ותאר ויופי וחן וחסד מעין פרש של כסא הכבוד שכל מיני מאורות שבעולם קבועים בו ושמו על פתח היכל שביעי והושיבני עליו
R. Ishmael said: Metatron, Prince of the Divine Presence, said to me: All this, the Holy One, blessed be he, made for me, a throne like the throne of glory, and he spread over me a coverlet of splendor, brilliance, brightness, beauty, loveliness, and grace, like the coverlet of the throne of glory, in which all the varied luminaries of the word are set. He placed it at the gate of the seventh palace and sat me down upon it (3 Enoch 10:1-2 [ed. Odeberg, 15; trans. Alexander, 263-264]).
א”ר ישמעאל אמר לי מטטרון שר הפנים מתוך אהבה שאהב אותי ה[ק]ב”ה יותר מכל בני מרומים עשה לי לבוש של גיאה שכל מיני מאורות בו והלבשני [בו] ועשה לי מעיל של כבוד שכל מיני תאר וזיו זוהר הדר קבועים בו ועשה לי כתר מלכות שקבועים בו ארבעים ותשע אבני תאר כאור גלגל החמה שזיוו הולך בארבע רוחות ערבות רקיע ובשבעה רקיעים וארבע(ה) רוחות העולם וקשרו על ראשי וקראני ה’ הקטן בפני כל פמליא שלו שבמרום שנאמר “כי שמי בקרבו”.
R. Ishmael said: Metatron, Prince of the Divine Presence, said to me: Out of love which the Holy One, blessed be he, had for me, more than for all the denizens of the heights, he fashioned for me a majestic robe, in which all kinds of luminaries were set, and he clothed me in it. He fashioned for me a glorious cloak in which brightness, brilliance, splendor, and luster of every kind were fixed. He fashioned for me a kingly crown in which 49 refulgent stones were placed, each like the sun’s orb, and its brilliance shone into the four quarters of the heaven of ʽArabot, into the seven heavens, and into the four quarters of the world. He set it upon my head and he called me the Lesser YHWH in the presence of his entire household in the height, as it is written, “My name is in him.” (3 Enoch 12:1-5 [ed. Odeberg, 17; trans. Alexander, 265])
How Enoch becomes Metatron
According to several scholars, the metamorphosis of Enoch and his God-like characteristics in 3 Enoch (redacted ca. 5th or 6th century CE) is part of an unbroken chain of Enochic discourse, beginning in the Second Temple period. As Phillip Alexander put it, “We must postulate in consequence an historical link between the hekhalot mystics and the circles which generated the pseudepigraphic Enoch traditions.”
Conversely, Peter Schäfer has concluded that the identification of Enoch with Metatron and his semi-divine personage should be regarded as the product of Babylonian conjectures from the late Sasanian and early Islamic periods, which must be distinguished from earlier Enochic speculation, stressing the diachronic discontinuity in the evolution of Metatron. Shäfer notes that the vast majority of the Metatron passages are found in the Babylonian Talmud and 3 Enoch, both of which reached their final form in late Sasanian Babylonia. Suffice it in this regard to quote a brief line from B. Sanhedrin 38b (see the full passage below), which attributes to Rav Idith the following claim:
זהו מטטרון, ששמו כשם רבו, דכתיב כי שמי בקרבו.
That is Metatron, whose name is identical to that of his Master, for it is written (Exod 23:21), “For my name is in him.”
The Babylonian provenance of the Metatron traditions can also be corroborated by extra-literary evidence, as Metatron plays a role in the Jewish Babylonian Aramaic incantation bowls found in Iraq. The innovativeness of Metatron speculation and the discontinuity of certain aspects of this discourse with earlier Enochic tradition leads us to seek a synchronic explanation, alongside the diachronic development in the figure of Enoch, for the emergence of Metatron in Jewish Babylonia.
Is Enoch-Metatron a Polemic against The Heavenly Jesus?
Daniel Boyarin and Peter Schäfer have independently concluded that the polemic waged in Talmudic literature against the belief in Metatron and other manifestations of “two powers in heaven” was directed, not against a “wholly-other” heretical theology, but rather against a widespread binitarian doctrine (the notion, which preceded Trinitarianism, that there are two divine personages or manifestations), which was held not only by many ancient Christians (in the form of belief in Jesus and his Heavenly Father), but seems to have been part and parcel of “mainstream” Jewish thought (albeit not necessarily in its Christian guise) and even upheld by distinguished members of the rabbinic community.
Although Jesus is not mentioned by name in the Metatron passages in the Talmud, given the numerous encounters of Jewish Babylonian culture with scriptural, patristic, monastic, and scholastic manifestations of Christianity, scholars have suggested situating the complex of the Enoch-Metatron traditions in the context of Christian theology pertaining to the Son of Man and the Heavenly Jesus.
The Distinct Iranian Features of Enoch-Metatron
While the importance of this trajectory for understanding the evolution of the Enoch-Metatron traditions and their reception in Babylonia cannot be gainsaid, I propose that another fruitful trajectory can be found in the Iranian tradition. Specifically, the distinct features of the Enoch-Metatron traditions in the Babylonian Talmud and 3 Enoch can be significantly illuminated when compared against traditions from the Sasanian and early Islamic periods concerning the figure of Yima, the hero of numerous Iranian and Indic myths reported in Sanskrit, Avestan, Pahlavi, New Persian, Sogdian, and Arabic sources.
The Association of the Jewish Babylonian Metatron and the Zoroastrian Figure Yima
According to an early Iranian tradition found in the Avesta (the ancient Zoroastrian oral “scripture”) (Videvdad 2.4-6), a mythic figure named Yima is said to have been appointed by the supreme Zoroastrian god, Ahura Mazdā, as “protector, guardian, and overseer” of the living creatures, a role which he initially carried out successfully. As king of the golden age, there is said to have been no death during his reign. In the (much later) Persian Rivāyats, Yima (in this text he is called Jamšid) is summoned before God and granted kingship over the world, represented by the three symbols of majesty: the ring, the throne, and the diadem.
Other Persian texts explicitly refer to Yima’s ascent to heaven and portray his enthronement in the divine, or semi-divine, realm. According to a medieval “secular” version of his enthronement attested in the Persian Book of Kings, Yima had a throne made for himself encrusted with jewels (gowhar), which the demons lifted up to the sky at his command. Yima sat in the middle of the air, shining like the sun, with the whole world gathered to gaze at him.
An important aspect of Yima’s character is his luminosity and radiant appearance. The Indic Yama and Iranian Yima are both said to be the sons of a solar figure, a fact which underscores their shining nature. Yima’s radiance was, in fact, so glorious and magnificent that he was eventually deceived by his appearance to believe that he was God and Creator.
Yima’s Glory Leads to His Sin
Yima’s “lie” is first mentioned in the Avesta (Yašt 19.33-34), although it is not entirely clear from the text what the lie was. Yima’s sin and subsequent punishment are elaborated in the Pahlavi and New Persian tradition, in which the lie is explained as the hubris of his self-proclamation as God and Creator. As a result of this dangerous misrepresentation – both to himself and to others – Yima was deprived of his divine Fortune:
This, that Yima (“the Pahlavi form of the name is Jam”), the shining one, son of Wiwangh, who was the most fortunate in this-worldly existence in that work of this-world, and was the preventer of danger and death in all the regions, and was the establisher of agelessness and immortality – (nonetheless) when he was deceived by the lie-demon, then from his (state of) servitude of Ohrmazd he desired the highest lordship. And he attributed to himself the creation of the creatures, and on account of that falsehood he became barred from that brilliance and glory, and he was torn apart by the demons.
And he (=Yima) said: “I created the water, I created the earth, I created the plants, I created the sun, I created the moon, I created the stars, I created the heavens, I created the cattle, I created humanity, I created all the creations of the material world”. And he uttered lies such as must be rejected, such as that he created (the world). But how he created, this he did not know. And through that false speech, his glory and lordship were then taken away from him, and his body fell into destruction at the hands of the demons.
Al-Ṭabari (a prominent Muslim historiographer, scholar, and exegete of Persian origin; d. 923) similarly recalls that Yima was tricked by the Devil to believe he is God and call on people to worship him. Balʿami (a Muslim historian who translated Al-Ṭabari’s History into Persian; d. ca. 992-997) further elaborates on the Devil’s deceit:
“You (=Yima) are the god of the heavens and earth, but you are not aware of it; you were in heavens, you created this earth, you put the heavens in order and came to the earth to straighten the business of the earth, dispense justice, and return to the heavens.”
While Yima is said to have ascended from earth to heaven, where he was appointed lord of all creatures and gained possession of the divine Fortune, the Devil leads Yima to believe that he is, in fact, the Creator himself who descended from heaven to earth in order to rule the world and dispense justice.
Metatron in the Talmud
Rav Idith and the Heretic
With Yima in mind, we can return to Enoch-Metatron. B. Sanhedrin 38b records the following story.
אמר ההוא מינא לרב אידית: כתיב ואל משה אמר עלה אל ה’, עלה אלי מיבעי ליה!
Once a Min said to Rav Idith: It is written (Exod 24:1), “And unto Moses He said, Come up to the Lord.” But surely it should have stated, “Come up unto me!”
The sectarian/heretic in this case seems to be insinuating some sort of binitarian theology, attempting to demonstrate that there are “two powers in heaven”: who else could “the Lord” refer to if God is not referring to himself? Rav Idith suggests that the instruction refers to his ascent to Metatron, who shares the name YHWH with God:
אמר ליה: זהו מטטרון, ששמו כשם רבו, דכתיב כי שמי בקרבו.
He replied: “This is Metatron, whose name is similar to that of his Master, as it is written (Exod 23:21), ‘For my name is in him.’”
אי הכי ניפלחו ליה!
“But if so,” [he retorted,] “we should worship him [Metatron]!”
– כתיב אל תמר בו – אל תמירני בו. –
Rav Idith replied: It is written (in the same passage) (Exod 23:21): ‘Be not rebellious against him,’ i.e., do not exchange Me for him.”
אם כן לא ישא לפשעכם למה לי? –
“But if so,” [responded the Min] “why is it stated (ibid.): ‘He will not pardon your transgression’?”
אמר ליה: הימנותא בידן, דאפילו בפרוונקא נמי לא קבילניה, דכתיב ויאמר אליו אם אין פניך הלכים וגו’.
He answered: “We maintain by oath that we would not accept him (=Metatron) even as a parwanqa, for it is written (Exod 33:15), ‘And he said unto him: “If Thy presence go not etc.”’”
The assumption that Metatron may somehow function as a guide or a leader stems from the explicit reference to the biblical angel (Exodus 23:20-21), who is supposed to protect the Israelites and guide them to the Promised Land. In this context, Rav Idith expresses the notion that Metatron must not to be accepted even in this limited capacity as a guide and leader, let alone as a second divine person.
Rav Idith uses the term parwanqa here, which, as Michael Sokoloff observed, is a loanword from the Persian parwānag, which denotes in some contexts a guide or a leader. The choice of a Persian loanword in this context is noteworthy, as it opens a window onto the Iranian background of the Talmudic narrative and urges us to interpret and contextualize it in this framework.
Rejecting Metatron’s Godlikeness in Conversation with the Yima Traditions
The different interpretations of Metatron’s role in B. Sanhedrin 38b – i.e. his “thin” description as a guide or leader and his “thick” description as a God-like angel – both of which are rejected by Rav Idith, can be significantly illuminated when compared against the backdrop of the Yima traditions.
As we have seen, according to Videvdad 2.4-6, Yima is assigned the relatively minor role of “protector, guardian, and overseer” of the living creatures – comparable with Metatron’s description as a guide and guardian angel – while the later traditions colorfully portray his majestic and divine characteristics – akin to the portrayal of Metatron as a glorious and God-like figure. The Talmudic reference to the Pahlavi term parwānag captures and engages the dual capacity of Yima as guide and protector, on the one hand, and as a majestic and God-like figure, on the other.
When Aher Confused Metatron with God
The most well-known Talmudic passage concerning Metatron tells the story of his conspicuous encounter with the arch-heretic Elisha ben Abuyah, or Aḥer, (b. Hagigah 15a), when the latter ascends to observe the divine “Chariot.”
חזא מיטטרון דאתיהבא ליה רשותא חדא שעתא ביומא למיתב למיכתב זכוותא דישראל, אמר: גמירא דלמעלה לא הוי לא עמידה ולא ישיבה ולא קנאה ולא תחרות ולא עורף ולא עיפוי, שמא חס ושלום שתי רשויות הן. אפקוהו למיטטרון ומחיוהו שיתין פולסי דנורא. אמרו ליה: מאי טעמא כי חזיתיה לא קמת מקמיה?
He saw that permission was granted to Metatron one hour a day to sit and write down the merits of Israel. Said he: “It is taught that on high there is no standing and no sitting, no jealousy and no rivalry, no nape and no weariness. Perhaps, God forbid, there are two powers? [Thereupon] they led Metatron forth and flogged him with sixty fiery lashes, saying to him: “Why did you not rise before him when you saw him?”
When Aḥer encounters Metatron he sees that “permission (רשותא) had been given to him to sit down for one hour a day and write down the merits of Israel.” While the term reshuta clearly refers, in its immediate context, to the permission that was given to him to sit down, Daniel Boyarin has pointed out that a word play is at stake, as the Hebrew term reshut and the Aramaic equivalent reshuta also refer to authority, power, and sovereignty. The latter meaning is clearly invoked when Aher utters: “perhaps, there are two powers” (שתי רשויות). It is, therefore, the sovereignty and authority of Metatron that Aher encounters, expressed by his posture, which ultimately misleads him to mistake Metatron for God.
The Aher Story in 3 Enoch
A much more coherent version of the encounter of Aḥer and Metatron is given in 3 Enoch. Here, the following story is related:
וכיון שבא אחר להסתכל בצפיית המרכבה ונתן עיניו בי והוא מתיירא ומזדעזע מלפני ונפשו מבוהלת לצאת ממנו מפני פחדי ואימתי ומוראי כשראה אותי יושב על כסא כמלך ומלאכי השרת עומדים עלי כעבדים וכל שרי מלכיות קושרים כתרים סובבים אצלי באותה שעה פתח את פיו ואמר וודאי שתי רשויות בשמים.
But when Aḥer came to behold the vision of the chariot and set eyes upon me [i.e. Metatron], 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!” (3 Enoch 16:2-3 [ed. Odeberg, 23; trans. Alexander, 268]).
The implicit Talmudic allusion to the sovereignty and authority of Metatron can be fully comprehended only in the light of more explicit descriptions of his glorious and magisterial throne. In other words, it isn’t only that he is sitting, but he is seated as a king. This does not necessarily indicate that the authors of the Talmudic version relied on 3 Enoch, but simply that the two versions are culturally connected and stem from the very same milieu.
Both versions of the story attempt to devaluate Metatron in one way or another, as both versions stress the punishment of Metatron for misrepresenting himself as God and leading Aher astray. The Talmud relates that “they led Metatron forth and flogged him with sixty fiery lashes,” while 3 Enoch asserts that an angel came at the command of the Holy One and “struck me (=Metatron) with sixty lashes of fire and made me stand on my feet.” The punishment in 3 Enoch, to be sure, stands in direct correlation to the sin: Metatron misrepresented himself as God by sitting (on a throne) and is eventually forced to symbolically rise.
The Majesty of Metatron Shines Through – The Connection to Yima
It is not merely the glorious enthronement of Metatron, his authority over heavenly and earthly creatures, his seat in the heights of the seventh heaven, and his majestic symbols of lordship, which connect the Jewish Babylonian tradition with the Iranian depictions of Yima, but also the description of his sin and subsequent punishment. Both Yima and Metatron are found guilty of misrepresenting themselves as God and as a result, they are cast down from their glorious thrones and, quite symbolically, struck by another heavenly creature.
There are also, to be sure, several differences between the narratives of Yima and Metatron. To mention one example, unlike Metatron who is accused of conveying the wrong impression to Aher, Yima himself is deceived by his majestic and glorious appearance into believing he is God and Creator. This and other dissimilarities notwithstanding, the portrayal of Metatron in the Babylonian tradition is so close to contemporaneous descriptions of Yima that I believe that the two figures were associated, and perhaps even identified, in the minds of the Babylonian authors.
Two Ways to Understand the Emergence of Metatron
In sum, we see that the emergence of Metatron speculation and the accentuated engagement with binitarian theology in Jewish Babylonia during the late Sasanian period may be understood in two different, not necessarily contradictory ways. On one hand, a gradual diachronic development from earlier Enochic traditions going back to the Second Temple period, which describe the transformation of Enoch into the Son of Man or some other heavenly figure, is evident. Although the Babylonian Talmud does not mention the Enoch-turned-Metatron episode recorded in 3 Enoch – perhaps intentionally resisting the idea that a human might be transformed into an immortal being – Metatron’s “early biography” and his connections to Enoch were, in all likelihood, known to the Babylonian rabbis as well and should be seen as background to the Talmudic discussion of Metatron.
On the other hand, when viewed synchronically, it would seem that the Babylonian rabbis and their Jewish coreligionists were in conversation with contemporaneous religious discourse concerning binitarian theology and the existence of a God-like figure alongside the Almighty, which dangerously resembles God and shares his glory and name. While Christian binitarianism would be the obvious candidate for such a reconstruction, we have seen that contemporaneous Zoroastrianism: was also struggling with the same theological concern via a strikingly similar myth.
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Dr. Yishai Kiel is a Blaustein postdoctoral associate and lecturer at the Program in Judaic Studies and the Department of Religious Studies at Yale University. He received his Ph.D. in Rabbinic Literature and Sassanian Studies from the Hebrew University and his rabbinic ordination from the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. He is the author of Sexuality in the Babylonian Talmud: Christian and Sasanian Contexts in Late Antiquity.
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