Source: H. Graetz, History of the Jews, volume II (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1893) 539-540.
“Like Simlai, Abbahu attacked the Christian dogmas in the most uncompromising manner, and grounded his opposition, according to the manner of the time, upon a verse in the Bible (Numbers xxiii.19): ‘If a man say to himself, ‘I am God,’ he lieth; ‘I am the son of man,’ he will repent it; ‘I go to heaven,’ he will not confirm it.’ The doctrine of the Ascension was especially a disputed point between the teachers of the Church and the synagogue, and its defender in Caesaria was Jacob the Minaean, a physician by profession. In order to authenticate the Ascension, the Christians brought forward the Agadic tradition, according to which Enoch ascended into heaven without dying: in the words of the Bible, ‘and he (Enoch) was not, for God took him.’ They used this ambiguous phrase in support of their opinion. Abbahu, however, proved by parallel verses that, according to the true exegesis, the expression contained in this verse amounted to nothing more than a figure of speech for ‘to die.'”
First, I want to see what Numbers 23:19 actually says.
Here’s what the NRSV has: “God is not a human being, that he should lie, or a mortal, that he should change his mind. Has he promised, and will he not do it? Has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it?”
I can see some parallels between the NRSV and what Abbahu has: “lie,” “mortal/son of man.” For the word lo–“not”–Abbahu probably reads that as another kind of lo–“to himself,” even though the words are spelled differently. Rabbis sometimes interpreted passages based on the words’ sound rather than their spelling. I don’t know how he’s getting the part about going to heaven from this verse, but that would be something for me to look up sometime. In any case, Abbahu is reading the verse in a particular way.
Second, the debate about Enoch interested me, mostly because of my Armstrongite heritage. Unlike most Christians, Armstrongites do not believe that Enoch went to heaven. After all, John 3:13 states that “No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.” That included Enoch. Another Armstrongite argument is that Hebrews 11:13 says “All of these died in faith without having received the promises,” after mentioning Enoch in v 5. For Amrstrongites, “all these died” includes Enoch.
So what about Genesis 5:24’s statement that God “took” Enoch? Or Hebrews 11:5’s statement that “By faith Enoch was taken so that he did not experience death”? Armstrongites contend that God removed Enoch from danger and took him to a safe location. In that sense, Enoch did not experience death, at least not at the hands of his pursuers. Eventually, like all human beings, he passed on.
The Armstrongite interpretation runs against the grain of so much Jewish and Christian interpretation. I-III Enoch, the Secrets of Enoch, and other writings maintain that Enoch went to heaven. I thought every non-Armstrongite believed that way, until two events: (1.) church last Sunday, and (2.) reading Graetz just now.
At my Catholic mass, the priest said that Enoch is not in heaven. Actually, he said we don’t know where he is, but that God is keeping him in a special location so he can reveal him to the world in the last days. For the priest, Enoch will be one of the two witnesses (Elijah will be the other one). That would coincide with what John 3 says about no man having ascended unto heaven.
Then, there is Abbahu, who says that God taking Enoch simply means that Enoch died. I’d like to see what verses Abbahu cites to make his point, but, at the present time, it doesn’t make much sense to me. Genesis 5 says about everyone in the genealogy “and he lived X number of years, and he died”–except for Enoch. That tells me that Enoch is in a different category from those who died.
So much to reconcile–if you want the Bible to be consistent, that is.