Jewish mysticism involves a personal encounter with God upon his throne, known as the Merkavah, "the Chariot." The throne of God is not perceived in a literal way, but as the generative point of all creation. It was called the Chariot because this vortex of creative energy was conceived of as movable, so that it might be experienced in any place and at any time. The Chariot was the source of God's energy and intelligence, the origin of his power to create and destroy. By focusing one's mind on the Chariot in meditation, sages of the Merkavah sought knowledge and experience of God. This divine reality determines the significance behind any time and place that people might live in. Sensitivity to the presence of God as the Chariot that makes his presence known was a powerful force in the religion of the prophets, which influenced the conception of the spiritual life in both Judaism and Christianity. The chain of tradition that teaches how to become aware of this presence is called the Kabbalah, an ancient term that resonates with mystical meaning to this day.
In its origins, the tradition of thinking of God in this way is more ancient than Israel itself. From Mesopotamia, from the 23rd century B.C.E. and the 15th century C.E., stories are told of kings and courtiers entering the palace of heaven and receiving visions and empowerment there. Israel learned these royal traditions from Babylonia, and converted them into prophetic authorization, especially during the time of Ezekiel (during the 6th century C.E.). Ezekiel himself related his classic vision of the throne of God as a chariot, a Merkabah, and what is usually called Merkabah mysticism derives from his vision (in Ezekiel 1).
The chariots of Israel's enemies might have been impressive, but in Ezekiel's mind the greatest Chariot of them all rolled through the heavens. The steeds of heaven were surreal: "Every one had four faces, and every one of them had four wings, and their legs were straight legs and the sole of their feet was as the sole of a calf's foot, and they sparkled like burnished brass. They had the hands of a man under their wings on their four sides" (Ezekiel 1:6-8). The four faces Ezekiel saw on each beast were those of a man, lion, ox, and eagle (Ezekiel 1:10). (These faces were to become the symbols of the four Evangelists during the 2nd century.) Magnificent wheels supported the four monsters, which propelled the Chariot at the speed of lightning. After Ezekiel, the book of Daniel detailed this vision even further (during the 2nd century B.C.E.). In the time of Jesus, the book of Enoch, found in fragments in Aramaic at Qumran, took that tradition further. The book of Genesis says of Enoch only that "he walked with God, and he was not" (Genesis 5:22). This disappearance is taken as a sign that Enoch enjoyed a vision by ascent into the multiple heavens above the Earth, and was authorized to relate its wisdom to Israel, indeed to act as an intermediary to the angels who had disobeyed God. From Ezekiel, through Daniel and Enoch and on to John and Jesus, there is a growing tradition, a kabbalah (something received), which reflects a deep commitment to the disciplined practice of the vision of God's throne. The fragments of Enoch at Qumran are found in Aramaic, which suggests that the book was used not just by the Essenes (who tended to guard their sectarian documents in Hebrew) but also by a wider audience. In fact, the book of Enoch is also quoted at a later stage in the New Testament, so that there can be no doubt of its widespread use. Another work found in Hebrew at Qumran and widely attested elsewhere, the book of Jubilees, also presents Enoch as a figure of revelation: He himself knows the Torah later communicated to Moses by angelic communication.
Focus on the Merkabah is also evident in the experience of Jesus. Traces of that are perhaps plainest in the story of Jesus' baptism. That takes us back to Jesus' association with John "the Baptist," which means "the immerser" (baptistes in Greek, from the verb baptizomai, "immerse"). Many people came to John for this immersion, most often on the way to the temple along the well-established path of pilgrimage that followed the Jordan Valley. John offered them purification in God's own water, and the assurance that this was the sign of Israel's true purity. For the followers of John, this continual immersion was more than a matter of simple repentance; there was also an esoteric meaning. John conveyed a definite understanding of the final significance that his purification for Israel offered. As John himself expressed it, immersing oneself in water prepared one to receive the spirit of God, which was to drench all Israel with its sanctification. The key to John's preparation lies in the wording attributed to him, "I immerse you in water, but he himself will immerse you in holy spirit" (Mark 1:8; see Matthew 3:11; Luke 3:16).
The link between purification with water and the vindicating presence of God's spirit is explicitly made in the book of Ezekiel, the same book that provides the meaning of the Merkavah (Ezekiel 36:22-27). After all, God's spirit proceeded from his throne, the source of all true judgment.
Jesus' skill in this vision made him one of John's most prominent disciples. The Gospels relate the particular vision of Jesus (Matthew 3:13-17; Mark 1:9-13 Luke 3:21-22). As Jesus was immersed for purification, he came to have an increasingly vivid vision of the heavens splitting open and God's spirit coming upon him. And a voice: "You are my son, beloved; in you I take pleasure." Each of these elements is resonant with the Israelite kabbalah of the divine throne. The heavens are conceived of in the story of Jesus' baptism (as in the Judaism of the time) as multiple hard shells above the Earth, so that any real disclosure of the divine must represent a rending of those firmaments. But once opened, Jesus' vision is not of ascending through the heavens, as in the case of Enoch, but of the spirit, as a dove, hovering over him and descending. That image is a vivid realization that the spirit of God at creation once hovered over the face of the primeval waters (Genesis 1:2) as a bird. The bird was identified as a dove in Rabbinic tradition, and a fragment from Qumran supports the association. The spirit, which would one day come to Israel in Jesus' vision was already upon him, and God took pleasure in him as a "son." The term "son" itself appears extremely frequently in the Old Testament, in order to speak of the special relationship between God and others. Angels can be called "sons of God," Israel is referred to as a divine son (most famously in Hosea 11:1), and the Davidic king can be assured by divine voice, "You are my son, this day have I begotten you!" (Psalm 2:7). All these are expressions, not of a biological relationship, but of the direct revelation that God extends to certain people and angels. Jesus claims that he is of their spiritual lineage within his embrace of John's kabbalah.
Practitioners of divine presence in both Christianity and Judaism embraced these traditions long after Jesus. Jewish mysticism, however, is better attested than its Christian counterpart, because after the Church was embraced as the religion of state during the 4th century, Christian writings as a whole became less personal and intense than their Judaic counterparts. By the Middle Ages, a highly literate form of Jewish mysticism emerged fully, especially in the enriching mix of Judaic, Muslim, and neo-Platonic cultures in Spain and the south of France during the 13th century C.E. By this time two foci of meditation were prevalent. One was on the shiur komah, the "measure of the body." This referred to God's corporeal reality, of which the human body-in the divine image and likeness- provided a reflection. The other focus involved discerning the Sefiroth, the emanations that vibrated outward from God and made all that is, and resonated with the formations of the body. The Kabbalah at this stage represented the highest accomplishment of Judaic mysticism as a philosophical and personal discipline.
Conventional scholarship long sidelined the Kabbalah; even worse, commercial exploitation has trivialized its subtle teaching. But no mystical tradition better explores the intersecting mysteries of human character and divine presence than the medieval Kabbalah.