The Mystery of Daniel's Thrones

Feast of St Gideon the New Martyr of Mt Athos

Daniel_Square_2.jpegAS WE celebrate the Feast of the Incarnation, it behooves us to remind ourselves how startling this doctrine really is. A second century conversation between rabbis, recorded in Chagigah 14a of the Babylonian Talmud, might help us ponder anew this mystery. The dispute has to do with the appearance of “thrones,” in the plural, in Daniel’s heavenly vision of the Ancient of Days.

One verse of Scripture states, “His throne was fiery flames” (Dan. 7:9), but elsewhere it is written, “Till thrones were placed, and one that was ancient of days did sit” (Dan. 7: 9)! No problem, the one is for him, the other for David, in line with what has been taught on Tannaite authority: “One is for him, the other for David,” the words of R. Aqiba.

Said to him R. Yosé the Galilean, “Aqiba, how long are you going to treat in a profane way the Presence of God? “Rather, one is for bestowing judgment, the other for bestowing righteousness.” Did he accept this answer or not? Come and take note, for it has been taught on Tannaite authority: “One is for bestowing judgment and the other for bestowing righteousness,” the words of R. Aqiba.

Said to him R. Eleazar b. Azariah, “Aqiba, what business have you in matters of lore? Go spend your time on rules governing the skin disease [of Lev. 13] and uncleanness imparted through overshadowing of the corpse [{referring to the Pharisaic interpretation of} Num. 19:11ff.]. Rather, one is a throne for a seat, the other for a footstool for his feet, in line with this verse: ‘The heaven is my throne and the earth is my footrest’ (Isa. 66: 1).” (From the translation by Jacob Neusner).

The reason that Rabbis Yosé and Eleazar responded so vehemently to Rabbi Aqiba’s suggestion that the second throne is for David, i.e., for the messianic scion of David, is surely because both of them were well aware that according to the Christians, Jesus had ascended into Heaven, and was now seated at the right hand of God the Father, literally fulfilling Psalm 110:1: “The Lord says to my lord: ‘Sit at my right hand, till I make your enemies your footstool’” (all Scripture quotes are from RSVCE). It’s likely that they also knew that Jesus had taken the title “Son of Man” from the same context (Daniel 7:13). They may even have known that Jesus had cited these texts in His trial before the Sanhedrin, and that this is what had resulted in the charge of blasphemy that brought on His execution (Mark 14:62). In fact, this same conversation between the rabbis is recorded in Sahedrin 38b in the context of matters relating to the Minim, “sectarians,” the Talmudic designation for Christians. Thus, Rabbi Aqiba’s opinion is considered to be untenable because it is far too similar to the Christian interpretation of Daniel 7.

Obviously, the rabbis did not understand the doctrine of the Incarnation. From their point of view, the Christians had profaned the “Presence of God” by enthroning a mere human being in the heavens with the Creator God. For the Pharisees, the Messiah that they awaited would be supernaturally empowered to restore Israel to her ancient glory, but his nature would be wholly human, not divine. Christians, by elevating Jesus, had diminished God’s unique glory, and had violated the greatest commandment, enshrined in the Shema: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is ONE.”




But I think we Christians can learn something from the rabbis. First of all, we need to reflect upon how the doctrine of the Incarnation does not contradict the doctrine of God’s unity. Today, we tend to take the dogma of the Trinity for granted, without stopping to consider how the ancient Church labored to safely draw forth orthodoxy from among the disastrous options of Arianism, Modalism, and Tritheism. The rabbis regarded Christianity, as they understood it, to be blasphemous because it elevated a creature to divinity, thus infringing upon God’s simplicity and unity. Their concern deserves a fair and thoughtful response. Interestingly, I think the rebuke of Rabbi Yosé might provide a road map for us.

Rabbi Yosé says that the two thrones reflect two roles that God exercises in regards to His rule over humanity. The first throne is the throne of judgment. The second is the throne by which He bestows righteousness. Rabbi Yosé likely doesn’t know it, but he echoes St. Paul’s words in Romans 3, where that Pharisee poses the revelation of God in Jesus as the solution to the dilemma of how God’s justice can be squared with His mercy:

21 But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from law, although the law and the prophets bear witness to it, 22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction; 23 since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 they are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as an expiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins; 26 it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies him who has faith in Jesus.

Because of the Incarnation, God can sit in both of Rabbi Yosé’s thrones, both judging us and bestowing righteousness upon us.

But more meaningful to me personally is Rabbi Yosé’s concern that Rabbi Aqiba is profaning God’s Presence by suggesting that a human messiah is enthroned with divinity in heaven. The word translated “God’s Presence” by Neusner is the theologically significant term “Shekhinah.” This is the term that denotes the manifestation of God’s glory. It is derived from the Hebrew word for the tabernacle, “Mishkan,” which is literally the dwelling place of God. So, the Shekhinah is Israel’s experience of God dwelling in her midst, as signified by the pillar of cloud and fire that stood above the Tabernacle, and later over Solomon’s Temple. It was this Shekhinah that Ezekiel saw depart from the Temple and go into exile with Israel in Ezekiel 10. Luke seems to allude to this returning Shekhinah in the annunciation to Mary, when she is told by the angel, “the power of the Most High will overshadow you” (Luke 1:35). John also refers to this Shekhinah: “ the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father” (John 1:14). The word translated “dwelt” is a distinct nod to the Tabernacle-dwelling of God’s Presence in the Old Covenant. So, contrary to what Rabbi Yosé thinks, recognizing that Jesus is enthroned with divinity is not a blasphemy against the Shekhinah, because Jesus is the Shekhinah, the ultimate manifestation of God’s Presence among His people Israel. And thus, He also fulfills Rabbi Eleazar’s interpretation of Daniel 7:9: through means of the Incarnation, God remains enthroned in Heaven, while also claiming His throne on earth, His footstool.

Matthew Umbarger is an Assistant Professor of Theology at Newman University who specializes in Old Testament Interpretation.

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