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Throne of God

The vision of God sitting on a throne (kisse) is described by several prophets, among them Micaiah (I Kings 22:19), Isaiah (Isa. 6), Ezekiel (Ezek. 1), and Daniel (Dan. 7:9). Talmudic and midrashic sources developed this theme further, and it entered into religious poetry, liturgy, and mystical heikhalot tracts of the early centuries C.E., which speak of the throne as the merkavah, or "chariot" (see *Merkabah Mysticism). Among Jewish philosophers, Saadiah and Maimonides, who objected to all anthropomorphic descriptions of God, attempted to explain the visions of the throne allegorically, in contrast to Judah Halevi who accepted a more literal interpretation of the chariot vision (Kuzari, 3:65) and who used the image of the throne in his religious poems.

Saadiah did not dismiss the throne vision completely, since he viewed it as part of the true tradition of the prophets, but he gave it a new meaning. In accordance with his principles of biblical interpretation, Saadiah maintained that these visions of the throne of God are not to be taken literally, just as "the sea has spoken" (Isa. 23:4) is a metaphor and should not be understood literally. Saadiah quotes an opponent who asks how it is possible "to put such constructions on an anthropomorphic expression, when the Bible itself mentions a form like that of a human being that was seen by the prophets," and when Ezekiel and Micah describe God being seated on a throne and borne by angels on top of a firmament (Book of Beliefs and Opinions, 2:10). In answer to this opponent, who asks Saadiah further whether the prophets did not mean what they said, Saadiah states that a form was created especially for that vision, and it was this form, and not God Himself, that was seen by the prophets. He maintains that "…the throne and the firmament, as well as its bearers, were all produced for the first time by the Creator out of fire for the purpose of assuring His prophet that it was He that had revealed His word to him…. It is a form nobler even than that of the angels, magnificent in character, resplendent with light, which is called the glory of the Lord" (ibid., 2:10: see also Judah b. Barzillai al-Bargeloni, Perush Sefer Yeẓirah, ed. by S.Z.H. Halberstamm (1885), 20ff.). It is this form that Daniel describes (Dan. 7:9) and that the talmudic sages characterized as the Shekhinah. Thus according to Saadiah, the prophets did not actually see God seated on a throne but they saw either a fire created by God in the form of a throne, or lights that were created by God to give the impression of a throne.

Saadiah described the throne as being of fire rather than of some other material because fire was considered by the Neoplatonists to be the most noble and ethereal of the material substances. He specified that the fire was created, in order to indicate that nothing is coeternal with God. He also wanted to avoid the notion of the logos, i.e., of an intermediary between God and the world which is coeternal with Him. J. Dan suggests that Saadiah's created fires, intermediaries between God and the world, are not hypostases, i.e., they do not have a permanent existence (J. Dan, Torat ha-Sod shel Ḥasidei Ashkenaz (1968), 106ff.), and are thus different from Maimonides' ten created separate intelligences that are permanent existents.

Maimonides distinguishes between Ma'aseh Merkavah – the account of the chariot – and the specific visions of the throne of God. Dressing his Aristotelian philosophy in traditional terminology, he uses the mishnaic terms (Ḥag. 2:1) Ma'aseh Bereshit – the account of creation – and Ma'aseh Merkavah to refer to the science of physics and metaphysics respectively (Guide, introd., and introd. to pt. 3). The awe that the rabbis associated with Ma'aseh Merkavah is related by Maimonides to metaphysics, which he believed was above the understanding of the masses, and should therefore be hidden from them.

Whereas Saadiah considered the throne one of the created forms, Maimonides in his Mishneh Torah (Yad, Madda, 2:7) places the throne above them. Dividing the universe into changing substances composed of matter and form, unchanging substances composed of matter and form, and incorporeal intelligences, Maimonides identifies the angels with the incorporeal intelligences. The ḥayyot are the highest angelic beings and only God is above them. However, Maimonides also states that the ḥayyot are said to be beneath the throne, implying thereby that the throne is identical with God. In his analysis of the term throne in chapter 9 of the first part of the Guide, Maimonides gives the term two meanings. According to the first meaning, the throne in biblical usage refers to the sanctuary or the heavens, which are called throne because the grandeur of God manifested itself in these places, and His light and glory descended there. The biblical verse "the heaven is my throne" is interpreted by Maimonides as "the heaven indicates my existence, grandeur, and power": just as a throne indicates the greatness of the individual who is considered worthy of it, so the heavens indicate the existence and grandeur of God. According to the second interpretation, the throne is an allusion to God Himself. For example, when Moses swore "Hand upon the throne of the Lord" (Ex. 17:16), he swore by God Himself. Pointing out that the throne should not be imagined as a thing outside God's essence or as a created being, Maimonides maintains that the throne signifies God's essence. In another passage he identifies the throne with the aravot upon which God is said to ride. The aravot, according to him, are identical with the all-encompassing celestial sphere, and God's "riding" upon it is interpreted to mean that He exists beyond it and in separation from it (Guide, 1:70). Maimonides' interpretation of the throne in his analysis of Ezekiel's vision of the ḥayyot (Guide 3:7) is different from his interpretation in the other parts of the Guide and resembles that of Saadiah. He does not relate the throne to the essence of God, but places the visionary chariot on the level of the separate intelligences. Thus Ezekiel's vision, according to Maimonides, is an apprehension of the glory of God (not of God Himself), of the angels, and the separate intelligences – "the chariot and not the rider." The two meanings of throne in the Guide should be compared to the similar meanings of glory in the Guide (1:64).