Among the most intriguing discoveries from the Dead Sea Scrolls are the thirteen songs of Sabbath sacrifice. These songs address an angelic priesthood, God on his chariot, and an elaborate heavenly temple thronged with spiritual beings. What can we learn from these ancient songs?
In the spring of 1947 the Bedouin Muhammad ed Dib who, while looking for a lost sheep, discovered a cave containing a whole quantity of ancient Hebrew scrolls. His find was made while climbing the cliffs above the west shore of the Dead Sea near the ruins of Qumran. During the next ten years many more caves would be searched and scrolls that had not seen the light of day for two thousand years would be discovered and presented to an amazed world.
In the years since, the mystery of who hid these precious writings and what prevented them from ever returning to claim them has largely been solved. Scholars have combed the evidence and there is general agreement that the Dead Sea Scrolls belonged to the Essenes, one of three major religious sects of Judaism during the time of Christ, the Sadducees and Pharisees being the other two. The Essenes had several communities in Judea, but the one at Qumran was its spiritual center.
Today, one can visit the unearthed ruins of what remains of ancient Qumran, see the synagogue, the baptism pools, and the many water channels required by the lively community devoted to holiness and the study of Scripture. I’ve visited Qumran twice, once in the 80s and then in 2003, each time a moving experience.
The scholars and writers of Qumran never retrieved their hidden scrolls because they were surely killed by the invading Romans around the time of the destruction of the temple in 70 A.D. Some may have joined the resistance at Masada further south, from which there were no survivors. The Qumran community’s scrolls were its most precious possession and the fact that no one ever returned for them can only be explained by the Roman’s complete annihilation of the Essenes at Qumran.
Their treasures of Scripture (fragments from all books of the Hebrew Bible save Esther have been found in addition to hundreds of other manuscripts, books, and commentaries—and the 13 Sabbath songs) remained lost for two millennia. Among the scrolls are the oldest manuscripts of Scripture we have, some of them dating 300 years before Christ. Their discovery is of immense importance to biblical studies and they open a window to better understand one of the major sects during the time of Christ. The community of Qumran was thriving during the ministry of Jesus and must have been well known to him. It was to a cave in that same wilderness area he retreated for his time of testing and temptation.
The scrolls show that the Qumran community called itself the “Covenant” (berit), or “New Covenant.” They saw themselves as the “little Remnant” foretold by the Prophets, i.e. the true Israel. They also called themselves the “Holy Council of God.”
John the Baptist
There is good reason to believe that John the Baptist spent his early years in the Essene community of Qumran. Recall that his father Zechariah was an elderly but still active temple priest in Jerusalem when approached by Gabriel, the angel of “the presence,” to announce that his wife Elizabeth, long past menopause, would have a son. Many devout priests had become fed up with the politicized priesthood and had withdrawn to the community at Qumran. Elizabeth and Zechariah, already in their 70s or 80s, with a baby to care for considered what would be best for the child. They likely had relatives already residing in Qumran and may have felt led to bring their son to grow up among them.
The Gospel of Luke records that John came forth from the desert wilderness and began preaching along the Jordan River, saying, “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” Qumran is in the desert wilderness south of where the Jordan dumps into the Dead Sea. Clearly, The Baptist did not hold to all Essene teachings for he left the community which taught its members to withdraw from society and politics. Instead, The Baptist plunged headlong into direct engagement by actively critiquing and condemning the current religious/political establishment. His comments on Herod’s adulterous behavior finally got him killed, a fate common to God’s prophets.
John was a scholarly prophet, an ascetic, and a dynamic preacher of repentance and the pursuit of holiness—qualities reflecting training and teachings he received from scripture and possibly fromthe discipline of Qumran. He also established his own school of disciples, many of whom later became disciples of Jesus.
Since the Essenes had rejected the corrupt temple establishment in Jerusalem, they had no access to it. Instead, they focused their attention toward the heavenly temple described in the book of Ezekiel (chapters 40-48). They understood that true sacrifice was not limited to offerings of grains and animals offered up in a gilded building, rather in praise and holy devotion to the God to whom the physical temple was dedicated. They believed, as did early Christians, that one could have access directly to the heavenly temple and to Yahweh whose glory filled it; the earthly temple was merely an inferior symbol of that above.
Much emphasis was placed upon understanding this celestial temple and the heavenly host of angels and spiritual creatures that attended it. An elaborate angelogy was developed—based partly on Scripture, partly upon mystic imagination. This sect of Judaism had its strong, mystical elements. Prime among them were notions derived from Ezekiel’s vision of the divine chariot-throne (“merkavah”). Later Jewish mystics would develop a labyrinth of esoteric mystery systems the most well known today being the kabbalah (cabala), formulated in 11th century France.
The history of religions groups is often the story of excesses. Truth carried too far and over-laden with too many manmade inventions. Such was the story of Qumran’s angelogy. Much truth and insight, but lost in a context of fanciful inventions. The discovery of Dead Sea Scroll Cave 4 revealed an amazing song book which prominently featured angels in Essene worship.
Cave 4 contained fragmentary forms of eight manuscripts the oldest of which has been dated to 75-50 B.C. These manuscripts are a liturgical text composed of thirteen separate sections, one for each of the first thirteen Sabbaths of the year. Why just the first thirteen Sabbaths is not known and there is no evidence this series of songs was repeated during the remaining three quarters of the year.
Carol Newsom who’s Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice: A Critical Edition is the definitive work on this topic writes in her introduction: “These thirteen compositions invoke angelic praise, describe the angelic priesthood and the heavenly temple, and give an account of the worship performed on the Sabbath in the heavenly sanctuary.”
These songs aren’t just congregational hymns sung in praise to God; they were apparently regarded as real-time liturgical participation in the heavenly temple’s Sabbath service. Great care was taken to acknowledge and describe the various details of this other worldly divine scene from the vestments of the angelic priesthood, to the temple itself, to the great Merkavah or chariot throne of Yahweh.
A Celestial Sabbath Service
The notion that earthly temples and their service are in some sense dependent upon heavenly prototypes was widespread in the ancient world. Among the Israelites it had biblical precedent as Moses and David were given a divine “pattern.”
The writer of Hebrews, who obviously had priestly experience, wrote: They [human high priests] serve at a sanctuary that is a copy and shadow of what is in heaven. This is why Moses was warned when he was about to build the tabernacle: ‘See to it that you make everything according to the pattern shown you on the mountain’” (Heb 8:5). The writer said that Jesus now “serves in the sanctuary, the true tabernacle set up by the Lord, not by man” (vs 2).
The worshippers at Qumran operated on the principle that the entire earthly apparatus of temple, priesthood, and sacrifices were but types of the great archetype in heaven—the seventh heaven to be precise; true Zion, true Eden, and locus of the true Temple. The leaders of the community were priests and they considered their movement to be a priestly enterprise. The dominant personality of the movement, the Righteous Teacher, was a priest. They saw themselves as a pure priesthood replacing the present pollution of the Jerusalem temple and priesthood.
Newsom writes: “Since the Qumran community could not conduct an actual sacrificial cult [worship, ritual], atonement was effected through the community’s prayer, praise and obedience to the law.” They regarded the community as temple-like by exclusions of the impure, requirements of purity and through distinctions between priesthood and laity. “The development of the idea of the community as a temple was not, to be sure, a matter of spiritualization…the Qumran community anticipated restoration of the Jerusalem cult to a condition of purity in the eschatological age and planned for its reconstitution.” They were a Messianic movement looking forward to the Kingdom of God and toward restoring a purified priesthood.
The function of reciting the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice was to bring the congregation into the heavenly courts and participate in a Sabbath service administered by angelic priests.
“Both the highly descriptive content and the carefully crafted rhetoric direct the worshipper who hears the songs recited toward a particular kind of religious experience, a sense of being in the heavenly sanctuary and in the presence of the angelic priests and worshippers. That this experience is intended as a communal experience of the human worshipping community is made clear by the first person plural forms which appear…’our priesthood,’ ‘the offering of our mortal tongue,’ ‘how shall we be considered among them’…. Even though the Sabbath Shirot [songs] do not appear to have been designed as vehicles for the incubation of visions or of mystical ascent by individuals, the sophisticated manipulation of religious emotion in the songs would seem to have increased the possibility of ecstatic experience among some worshippers…. It [is] possible for one to assume with confidence that the recitation of these Sabbath songs was a major vehicle for the experience of communion with angels ….”
Smoke, Fire, Music, Song
The close coordination between liturgical song and sacrifice was an ancient feature of temple worship. The Chronicler’s account of the purification of the temple by Hezekiah, for example, keyed the Levites’ songs precisely to the firing of the offerings.
“As the offering began, singing to the LORD began also, accompanied by trumpets and the instruments of David king of Israel. The whole assembly bowed in worship, while the singers sang and the trumpeters played. All this continued until the sacrifice of the burnt offering was completed” (2 Ch 29:27-28).
Qumran’s Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice were choreographed to fit within the perceived Sabbath service taking place in heaven. Early Jewish thought associated a special connection between earth and heaven with Sabbath observance. The Sabbath and certain holydays provided a special opportunity for communion with angels in the worship of Yahweh who sat upon his chariot throne. These Essene Sabbath songs exploited this belief in a particularly close relationship between heavenly and earthly worshippers on the Sabbath.
David is also credited with writing many Sabbath worship songs. Hebrew tradition holds that David wrote 3600 psalms to be used for singing before the altar over the whole-burnt perpetual offering every day of the year. He also wrote 52 special Sabbath songs and songs for offerings of the New Moons and Solemn Assemblies and 30 songs for the Day of Atonement. In all David wrote a total of 4,050 songs!
The Thirteen Sabbath Songs describe a heavenly scene not unlike some of those described in the Book of Revelation. They draw heavily from Isaiah’s vision when he “saw the Lord, seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple” (Isa 6:1-7). Isaiah tells of flying seraphs with six wings, voices so loud they shook the temple, fire and much smoke. He thought he would die for his “eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty.”
Ezekiel’s visions provide further material to enrich the canvas the Essenes paint of the heavenly host and their courts. Ezekiel tells of the vision he received in Babylon along the Kebar River. He is startled by a windstorm, clouds, flashing lightning, brilliant light, and at the center fire like glowing metal. Then he sees living creatures with four faces and four wings with hands under their wings. He sees a maze of breathtaking colors and creatures that looked like they were torches of fire. He sees huge intersecting gyroscopic wheel-like creatures that sparkle, move like lightening, and are full of piercing eyes. And above all this he sees an expanse of sparkling crystal and winged creatures whose moving wings create immense noise. Above that he sees a throne of sapphire and above that he sees “a figure like that of a man,” like glowing metal as if full of fire. A brilliant light surrounded him and it had the colors and radiance of a rainbow. Ezekiel exclaimed, “This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord” (Ezk 1:1-28).
In the tenth chapter he continues with his description of the throne chariot of Yahweh with its attending angelic creatures. Later in his book (chapters 40-48) he recounts his detailed vision of an idealized prophetic temple, one often associated with the Messianic age or Millennial Kingdom.
The Beauty of the Qumran Songs
If one could place herself/himself in that desert setting during one of the first thirteen Sabbath day services of the year and try to capture what was taking place, what might be experienced? In the first place you would be considered one of the fortunate elect to participate in this ceremonial assent to the throne of God. This was special knowledge unique to the Righteous Community.
Your assent via the songs of sacrifice would pass you through levels of spiritual powers: seven princes of the seven heavens associated with the then known seven planets, each commanding 496,000 myriads of angels; you would acknowledge the seven orders of the angelic priesthood and their deputies and vast companies of angelic attendants; you would come to the seven chief princes; then you would acknowledge the two highest angelic classes, the angels of the Presence and the angels of sanctification.
You would hear dozens of these angelic powers called by name. Your song would describe and praise the fine details of textures and colors woven into the garments of the angelic priests, the bejeweled furnishings, god-like beings of every description moving about, and music, glorious music. The heavenly temple would be described in such detail you could feel like you were actually in the presence of angels joining them is joyful praise and adoration of Yahweh. You would be shaken by the intense sights and sounds, by chariots of light, shining eagles, Seraphim, Cherubim, Michael, Gabriel–almost too much for your soul.
As you sang the songs the words would meld with your mind’s vision of the angelic host and the heavenly courts. You would marvel at the splendorous color, light, and energy emanating from the celestial scene—a scene you couldn’t have otherwise imagined. Your spirits would soar as you anticipated a glimpse of the Merkavah—his Majesty’s throne chariot and above it, God himself!
The apostle Paul received actual visions and revelations of the heavenly scene, of Paradise, which sights he called “inexpressible things” and sights he was not permitted to publicly describe (see 2 Cor 12:1-4).
Nowadays, with available cinemagrapic high-tech special effects spectacular other worldly scenes can be created. In the deserts of Qumran one only the Scriptures and one’s imagination—and the Essenes put both into creative overdrive. Admittedly, the angelological doctrine of Qumran got a little out of hand.
Some scholars see in it an early form of Jewish Gnosticism. In some of these hymns angels are called “spirits of Knowledge.” Essenes regarded their ascent through the angelic realm to the chariot throne a matter of having the right knowledge in addition to living a pure life of obedience to Torah. Proper Gnosis/Knowledge impregnates the whole of Qumran thought and mysticism.
“They had rules peculiar to themselves which they were forbidden to divulge to postulants without the permission of the overseer; they possessed secret doctrines, revelations reserved to initiates, a higher Knowledge—a Gnosis of salvation—which was the privilege of the elect. From these elect, the brethren admitted to the sect, nothing was to be concealed.”
As I mentioned earlier, the story of religion is often the story of excesses. But we should not miss appreciating some of their spiritual insights and virtues even if we criticize their preoccupation with angels and Gnostic theology.
The thirteen Sabbath songs were artfully arranged in a Heptad, or series of sevens. The content and intensity of the songs peaked at the seventh Sabbath. The two legs of six weeks met at the crowning seventh forming a triangle (see illustration). As we saw, sevens were used throughout the Sabbath songs and are an important part of Jewish apocalyptical tradition, very much like John uses them in the Book of Revelation. The Sabbath or Seventh day has cosmic significance in the biblical world view. Seven is the rhythm of life and emanates from the Creator of Life.
Essene Doctrine and the Early Church
There is no doubt that Paul and the other apostles had to deal with elements of mystical theology and with the beginning stages of Gnostic heresy. In his letter to the Colossians Paul acknowledged the existence of unseen heavenly powers, rulers, and authorities, but noted that Christ was superior to them all. Our focus should be on Jesus, not the lesser unnamed powers he rules (1:16-18). He also takes a cut at asceticism and “the worship of angels” (2:18) which puff people up with idle notions of what they think they have seen and know (Gnosticism?).
To the Ephesians Paul is bold to introduce “God and the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ who has blessed us in the heavenly realms” (1:3). Paul means for us to realize that we have a place next to Christ in the heavenly realms. Our name is written in heaven meaning our place or citizenship is there. We need not genuflect through legions of angelic powers to have an audience with God and his Son. A humble prayer brings us directly to the Merkavah and the face of God.
Again Paul lifts us up to visions like those 13 Sabbath Songs might evoke by saying, “God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms” (2:6). Now how spectacular is that? Do we need to navigate through a hierarchy of angelic hosts to catch a glimpse of the throne? If we are “in Christ” we share his throne!—and Jesus is the head over everything except God himself. Rather than being subordinate to angels, we are called to join Jesus in managing angels in the Messianic Kingdom.
Angels are servants of Yahweh; they follow his orders and are ministers for good. Paul indicated that they may disapprovingly report breaches of decorum and disrespect in how the church conducts its worship of God. They deserve our respect and admiration, but they rarely intrude into our consciousness. The Bible readily discloses their existence and function, but all worship and attention is to be directed toward their God and ours. We should not be preoccupied with discovering details of the angelic world for that is God’s undisclosed domain.
Neither should we be ignorant of angels. They surround us and fill the skies doing God’s bidding. Knowing they exist to protect and serve should impart comfort to us as it did to the terrified servant of Elisha. Remember the story of the poor fellow who looked about to find himself and Elisha surrounded by an army with horses and chariots set to destroy them (2 Kings 6:15-17. Elisha prayed to God on behalf of his servant saying “open his eyes so he may see.” His poor servant saw what he though was reality and was struck with fear. As Elisha’s servant was to learn, there is a greater reality than that we see with physical eyes.
Elisha said to his servant, “Don’t be afraid for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” How true. As soon as God opened up his servant’s eyes to see the spiritual world he “saw the hills full of horses and chariots and of fire all around Elisha.” I recall one of the 13 Sabbath songs described a scene of hundreds of thousands of fiery chariots in the armies of God standing at the ready waiting for His Majesty’s order. I believe such angelic armies exist.
Lessons from the Dead Sea
I fear many of us think too little, not too much, about the heavenly Kingdom of God. I fear our eyes are too low to the ground to see beyond the exigencies of our mundane lives and are too burdened with day to day troubles that seem to box us in.
We could take a lesson from our ancient friends in Qumran. We can stop short of their excesses for we now know Christ who triumphs all principalities and powers giving us direct access to the great chariot throne of God’s grace.
Yet it might do us well to lift up our eyes, let our imagination soar after God’s Kingdom and in our mind’s eye see the majestic and mighty kingdom of which we are a part. Wouldn’t we be both humbled and inspired to sense the spine-tingling reality that we are in actual, direct and daily contact with the Master of the Universe, with his kingdom of amazing spiritual beings of varied powers and descriptions? Perhaps on the Sabbath our singing could be more passionate and worshipful were this reality to intrude into our minds.
This is “real reality.” The real world we need to be aware of isn’t the freeway traffic, the stack of bills on your desk, the people and politics of life, but rather the real world is God and his Son. Jesus said “learn of me”; God said the most important knowledge is all the cosmos is to “know Me and what I am like.”
The writer of Hebrews gives Christians this picture to keep before them as they pray:
“But you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly [singing?], to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the judge of all men, to the spirits of righteous men made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant…so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire!”
I think the Essenes of Qumran could even join us in saying “Amen” to that.
 Both Israeli and Christian archaeologists are nearly unanimous in placing the Essenes at Qumran although one recent dissenter, Yizhak Magen, has challenged that assumption. He believes Qumran was a pottery factory due to the large amount of intact pottery recovered there (see Biblical Archeology Review, October, 2006, p. 26). I doubt his theory will attract much support.
 Philo of Alexandria, b. 30 B.C., the famous Jewish philosopher and theologian, said the Essenes numbered over four thousand and described them as a communal holiness sect, ascetic, scholarly, and withdrawn from the corrupt Jerusalem priesthood and from society in general. Flavius Josephus, who wrote about 70-75 A.D., said “There exist among the Jews three schools of philosophy: the Pharisees belong to the first, the Sadducees to the second, and to the third belong men who intend to cultivate a particularly saintly life, call Essenes.”
 Dupont-Sommer, A, The Essene Wrings from Qumran, translated by G. Vermes, Peter Smith Publishing, Gloucester, Mass, 1973, 428 pages, citation from pp. 42-42
 Mt 3:1-6
 A portion of another Sabbath Shirot (song) was found in Cave 11 and a single large fragment was found in the excavations of Masada.
 Newsom, Carol, Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice: a Critical Edition, Harvard Semitic Studies, Scholars Press, Atlanta, 1985, 495 pages.
 See Exo 25:9 , 40; I Cron 28:19
 Newsom, p 62
 Ibid. p 17-18
 Sanders, J.A., The Dead Sea Psalms Scroll, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, New York, 1967, 174 pages, citation from p.47
 Dupont-Sommer, p. 46
 See 1 Cor 11:10 where that seems to be the issue for Paul’s bringing up angels.
 Jer 9:23-25
 Heb 12:22-24, 28-29