[NB] Atonement vs. Apocalypse

When Orlov discusses the Slavonic Jewish Apocalptic materials, he makes much of how they relate directly to the Yom Kippur rite of antiquity, to the ritual of atonement. While he doesn’t establish a priority between them, he traces out their parallelism. The same structure appears in Revelations. The rivalry of the Lamb and the Beast, for example, plays an essential role in the book’s development and it, too, derives from the rite of atonement’s logic.

However, what I want to think through here is the nature of that derivation. It seems to be a derivation by way of reply rather than of repetition. The apocalyptic material both comments upon the rite of atonement and elaborates it. Whether we want to call that a development is up in the air, but it is definitely a thorough permutation.

In the Beast, we can see the figure of the sacrifice offered in the wilderness, the proper scapegoat who carries away the sins of the community. In the Lamb, we can see the figure of the sacrifice offered in the Temple. Following out this logic, we can see a tension opening up between the standard tradition of Jesus as scapegoat and Jesus as the Lamb, because in the rite of atonement, the scapegoat goes to the demonic forces and not to the heavens.

In fact, following out the logic of the atonement, it’s worth noting that the parallel between scapegoat and temple sacrifice suggests that the temple sacrifice, too, takes something away from the community, namely their distilled righteousness. In the Zohar, there is some mention of the righteous man being an offering unto God, as set upon the altar for God, and in the atonement rite, it appears that the righteous man sheds their virtue to the offering who carries it to God in his place.

This fits well with the Kabbalistic diagram. The tree models the division of right from left, up and down, east and west, north and south, right and wrong. In the atonement, the division is sustained by firmly drawing it within the community and the community is sustained alongside it. Considering the tree of life diagram, we see in the atonement right the differentiation of good from evil, the separation of Binah and Chokmah. Between that opens the middle pillar, which is also the path through which both the individual and the community manifests and endures.

The apocalyptic accounts, while speaking to that scene, offer something a little different. Revelations in specific describes a rite that stretches beyond the confines of the temple, that opens up channels in the heavens that set in motion process through which all of the differentiations sustained in the rite of atonement are dissolved and transformed. This seems to be the logic of the seven seals. The Lamb, righteous sacrifice, ascends to the heavens and their opens the seals whose actions release destructive and dissolving forces like, death.

So, when we look to the first few sections of the Book of Revelations, we see a complex cycle in action. First, there are the injunctions to the churches to strive toward purity. Second, there is the implicit ritual of atonement in which the sin and virtue of the churches is gathered, divided, embodied, and sacrificed. Third, each force releases its distilled power back into the world, the results of which define the Apocalypse proper.

In the apocalyptic materials, what has been dispatched returns to the world to test and temper it. In this, I suspect, lies the concern with the morality of the churches that opens Revelations. If the virtue of the churches is weak, so too will the virtuous forces that return in the apocalypse be weak.

All of this suggests that there is a reading of these texts which makes them a kind of counterpoint to atonement, a ‘yes and’ appended to its logic. I suspect, too, that we could position both atonement and apocalypse in relationship to prophecy. There is the regulative dimensions of atonement, the critical dimensions of prophecy, and the transformative dimensions of apocalypse, but they are all orchestrated around a common, ritually informed, mode of understanding.

I’m not sure whether that is an accidental or structural triplicity.

Speaking of triplicity, in reference to the candle symbolism mentioned in the previous post, take a look at this Second Temple–era stone tablet featuring a menorah (don’t give the specific numbers too much mind, they are there to emphasize the enumeration that gets us from three to seven to ten in a different fashion; I won’t attempt a proper assignment here):

A stone tablet featuring a menorah. The menorah is numbered to emphasize the potential Kabbalistic associations. There are seven (numbered 4-10) branches and three (numbered 1-3) points at which the branches of the menorah intersect with its trunk.

6 thoughts on “[NB] Atonement vs. Apocalypse

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