Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Metatron: Anomalous Angel of the Countenance

[Rahab of Jericho confronted by the Sar Tzevaot, a figure sometimes identified as Metatron. An illustration by E.M. Lilien]

Metatron is a Sar (Princely Angel) who features prominently in Jewish esoteric literature. The name “Metatron” itself is a puzzle, being a Greek derived word meaning either meta-thronos, “beyond the throne,” metator, “guide,” or meta-tetra, “beyond the four [Angels of the Countenance].”

Reflecting the varied ways in which he appears in Jewish literature, Metatron has many other names and titles. Among the most common are Sar ha-Panim (Prince of the Countenance), Sar ha-Olam (Prince of the World), ha-Naar (the Youth), Marei de-Gadpei, (Master of Wings), and Yahoel. In the Merkavah traditions we learn that Metatron has twelve names, corresponding to the twelve tribes. This may account for the overlapping names and titles in the Metatron traditions (Sanh. 38b; Zohar I:21a).

Metatron’s place in the angelic host is anomalous for several reasons. So exalted is his status that in some sources he is referred to as the “Lesser YHWH” (Yev. 16b; Sanh. 38b). He is also unique in that he alone among the angels sits upon a throne, as does God. Because of this, Elisha ben Abuyah mistook him for a god and concludes there are “two powers in heaven” (Chag. 15a). Equally remarkable about Metatron is that, according to some traditions, he was once human – the antediluvian hero Enoch (Gen. 5; Jubilees 4:23; Sefer Hechalot 12:5). In III Enoch, Metatron describes to Rabbi Ishmael how he was transubstantiated from mortal to angelic form: Under the direction of Michael and Gabriel he grew in size until his body filled the whole universe (signaling a reversal of the “fall” of Adam Kadmon). He sprouted 72 wings (for each of the 72 names of God), grew 365,000 luminous eyes (indicating he had became omniscient, symbolized by acquiring 1000 eyes for each day of the year), and his material body burned away to be replace with a form of pure fire. Finally, he is given a crown resembling the crown worn by God. At times Metatron is described as the High Priest in the heavenly Temple, a role ascribed to Michael in other texts:

When the Holy Blessed One told Israel to set up the Mishkan [the portal sanctuary] He indicated to the ministering angels that they also should make a Mishkan, and when the one below was erected the other was erected on high. The latter was the tabernacle of the Naar (Youth) whose name was Metatron, and there he offers up the souls of the righteous to atone for Israel in the days of their exile. The reason then why it is written et ha-Mishkan, [The direct object marker et is read as "with", implying that there is something else unstated that was built with the desert sanctuary] is because another Mishkan was erected simultaneously with it. In the same way it says, The place, Adonai, which You have made for You to dwell in, the Sanctuary, O Lord, which Your hands have established [the parallelism of "place" and "sanctuary" is interpreted to mean two sanctuaries] (Ex. 25:17). (Num. R. 12:12)

In Sefer Zerubbabel, he is explicitly identified with Michael. He also functions as the heavenly scribe, writing 366 books. He teaches Torah to the righteous dead in the Yeshiva on High (A.V. 3b; Seder Gan Eden).

He is involved in events on earth as well as in heaven. He led Abraham through Canaan, delivered Isaac from his father’s knife, Wrestled with Jacob, led the Israelites in the desert, rallied Joshua before Jericho, and revealed the End of Times to Zerubbabel (Sefer Zerubbabel). Abraham Abulafia identifies him with the yetzer ha-tov, the human altruistic impulse.

In the Zohar, Metatron receives his most complex treatment. I am not completely confident I fully understand De Leon's multivalent and allusive teachings regarding Metatron, but I am clear he teaches Metatron is the first “offspring” of the supernal union of God’s feminine and masculine aspects (I: 143a, 162a-b). As such he is the personification of the lower sefirot, an idea obliquely alluded to in this description of Metatron as the "staff" of Moses [i.e., the instrument he uses to deliver the people]:

Similarly of Moses it is written, "And the staff of God was in his hand" [the staff that delivered the Israelites and smote the Egyptians]. This rod is Metatron, from one side of whom comes life and from the other death." [life and salvation flows from the "right" side of the sefirot, death and severity from the "left" side] (Zohar 1:27a).

The figure of Metatron fades in importance after the Zohar, but continues to appear in less prominent roles in later Kabbalism, sometimes in his older guises but more commonly as the angel of devekut [mystical union] (Sefer ha-Hezyanot I:23; Otzer Chayyim folio 111a).