Ascent to God (II): The Theme of Ascent in the Old Testament

Though as I noted in the first post, I will not be able to proceed systematically through this huge topic, at least for the first few installments I am aiming for some small-scale sequence of ideas to lay the groundwork.  This second post will lay out the basics of the theme of ascent as they are found in the Old Testament, non-Christian philosophy, and  the New Testament.  This bracketed order is deliberate, since whatever non-Christians think of ascent, and how ever Christians may be able to profitably use their insights, we must take our final, infallible cues from Sacred Scripture.  And when it comes time to discuss how the theme of ascent works out in different Christian traditions, the age-old question “What saith the Scriptures?” will be of paramount importance.

Old Testament

Peter Leithart, starting from the language of Genesis 2 that a river “flowed out of Eden,” intriguingly says that the Garden of Eden was located on a mountain,[mfn]Ezekiel 28:12-13 is often held to support this, also.[/mfn] but not at its top (rivers flow down from sources) – meaning that Adam was “created to ascend” to the source of the river.[mfn][/mfn]    Being cast out of the Garden after the Fall would have meant a downward motion for man, thus generating a powerful desire to re-ascend, which we then see in a series of ascents throughout the rest of the Bible.

Leithart portrays Noah as “the first post-diluvian Adam” who “rebuilds humanity from [the ascended position of] Mount Ararat, where he plants a vineyard.”  Noah and his family then descend in order to repopulate the earth.  I add that it is not long after this that men attempt to build the great tower to heaven – an attempt to ascend to the heavens if there ever was one – but are directly prevented from this by God’s confounding of their languages.  It is safe to say from this incident that for biblical religion, man’s innate, created (and so good) desire to ascend can never be accomplished by his own willing and running, let alone on terms he sets for himself.

Next in the biblical record of the godly seed comes Abraham, who ascended in Genesis 22, notably to the very mountain where long afterward the Jews built the Temple.  Note again that both the ascension and its specific form and content were a response to a direct command from God.  Abraham neither initiated the ascent nor made it according to his own parameters, and the end of the ascension featured a gracious interposition of God to fulfill terms that Abraham could not have, since (if I may be permitted a reference to Hebrews) sacrificing a sinful human being would ultimately have availed as little as sacrificing animals in the later Mosaic system ever did.

The next ascension comes quickly in the narrative: in Genesis 28, Jacob had a dream of angels ascending and descending a ladder that went between earth and heaven.  This image has stuck with me for years in my cursory thoughts (prior to the current series, a sustained attempt to work through the issues) about the theme of ascent in biblical religion.  I will say more about this in my post on ascent in the New Testament, but for now, and given the highly speculative manner in which man’s ascension has often worked itself out in Christian theology, I find the comment of Leon R. Kass apropos:

Jacob’s dream turns out to be a perfect (not to say heaven-sent) device for confronting the rational man with the limits of his rationality.  It comes to him when his power is weakest: all alone, in the wilderness, at night, when reason is idling and fears emerge.  The dream occurs, to be sure, “within” his mind, and because it so clearly answers to his needs, it must be suspected of being the mind’s own creation.  Yet the substance of the dream shows precisely the limits of the human mind’s ability to discern the truth about the world and to provide for a man’s most urgent needs.  The sharp-eyed man – and also the sharp-eyed reader – is invited to see the limits of his own sharp-mindedness.[mfn]The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis(New York: Free Press, 2003), pg. 415).[/mfn]

The next major ascent we see in the Old Testament occurs in 2 Samuel 15, when in the midst of his trials with his rebellious son Absalom, David goes up weeping, barefoot, and with his head covered onto the Mount of Olives “to the summit, where God was worshiped” (32).  The first century Jewish historian Josephus remarks that David must have looked down on Jerusalem as he wept, a thought that immediately draws the Christian mind to Christ doing precisely the same thing in Matthew 24.  Moreover, it is quite likely on the same spot of this same mountain that in I Kings 11:7-8, David’s “wise” son Solomon will erect high places for the gods of his foreign wives.

Next we come to 2 Sam. 24, in which David goes up to the threshing floor of Araunah to sacrifice to the Lord because of his (David’s) sin of numbering the people.  The parallel passage in 1 Chronicles 21:16 has the angel of the Lord standing “by” the threshing floor, and David “saw the angel standing between earth and heaven” waiting to destroy Jerusalem.  Here we see again (cp. Jacob’s ladder) the figure of an angel sent down to bridge the ascent between earth and heaven, and the necessity of sacrificial offering to make any true ascent of man possible.

Note again (as with the sacrifice of Isaac story) that this was the place where the Temple would later be built.  The multiple reinforcements we have seen so far of the theme of man’s ascent to God with a specific location is highly significant, especially since throughout the mostly depressing narratives of the kings, shrines to idols tend to built on “high places” and also since the New Testament priesthood, held by Christ Himself, is precisely not identified with a specific location on earth, but is in heaven and draws the eyes of our hearts upward (ascending) to it.

Again, I am not here attempting a systematic, let alone a comprehensive summary of such a vast topic, so I will end this post on the Old Testament setting by noting that there are fifteen Psalms of ascent (120-134), sometimes also called “Pilgrim songs.”   The Hebrew word מעלה (ma’alah) describes upward movement, hence our translation “ascent.”  The Israelites sang these songs on journeys to Jerusalem for festivals, and also on the return ascent from Babylon to Israel after the captivity’s end.   During the time of the Temple, the priests sang them as they climbed the fifteen steps to enter the Temple – which shows the liturgical (here meaning just an ordered, communal participation and response) “step-by-step” nature of ascending to God.   According to one Jewish source,[mfn][/mfn] singers would start each ascent song in a low voice and gradually raise their voice tones.   Notably, the Psalms of ascent played a significant role in the daily liturgies of Medieval monasteries.  At some point in the future, I may write more about these Psalms.

In the next segment, following the bracketed order I mentioned earlier, I will look at the theme of ascent in Greek philosophy, and then close the brackets by turning to the theme in the New Testament.


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