In religious or mythological cosmology, the seven heavens refer to seven levels or divisions of Heaven. The concept, derived from ancient Mesopotamian religions, can be found in the Abrahamic religions such as Islam, Judaism and Christianity; a similar concept is also found in some Indian religions such as Hinduism. Some of these traditions, including Jainism, also have a concept of seven earths or seven underworlds.
These were associated in ancient times both with the metaphysical realms of deities and with observed celestial bodies such as the classical planets and fixed stars. The number seven corresponds to the seven classical planets known to antiquity. Ancient observers noticed that these objects (Mercury, Venus, the Moon, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn) moved at different paces in the sky both from each other and from the fixed stars beyond them. Unlike comets, which appeared in the sky with no warning, they did move in regular patterns that could be predicted. They also observed that objects in the sky influenced objects on earth, as when movements of the sun affect the behavior of plants or movements of the moon affect ocean tides. Others believe the seven heavens are located to seven stars of the big dipper, according to ancient western astrology.
The concept of seven heavens as developed in ancient Mesopotamia symbolised both physical and metaphysical concepts. In the Sumerian language, the words for heaven (or sky) and earth are An and Ki. Sumerian incantations of the late second millennium BCE make references to seven heavens and seven earths. One such incantation is: “an-imin-bi ki-imin-bi” (the heavens are seven, the earths are seven.)
The understanding that the heavens can influence things on earth lent heavenly, magical properties to the number seven itself, as in stories of seven demons, seven churches, seven spirits, or seven thrones. The number seven appears frequently in Babylonian magical rituals. The seven Jewish and the seven Islamic heavens may have had their origin in Babylonian astronomy.
In general, heaven is not a place for humans in Mesopotamian religion. As Gilgamesh says to his friend Enkidu, in the Epic of Gilgamesh: “Who can go up to heaven, my friend? Only the gods dwell with Shamash forever”. Along with the idea of seven heavens, the idea of three heavens was also common in ancient Mesopotamia.
According to the Talmud, the universe is made of seven heavens (Shamayim)
- Vilon (וילון), Also see (Isa 40:22)
- Raki’a (רקיע), Also see (Gen 1:17)
- Shehaqim (שחקים), See (Ps 78:23, Midr. Teh. to Ps. xix. 7)
- Zebul (זבול), See (Isa 63:15, KJV)
- Ma’on (מעון), See (Deut 26:15, Ps 42:9)
- Machon (מכון), See (1 Kings 8:39, Deut 28:12)
- Araboth (ערבות), The seventh Heaven where ofanim, the seraphim, and the hayyoth and the throne of the Lord are located.
The Jewish Merkavah and Hekhalot literature was devoted to discussing the details of these heavens, sometimes in connection with traditions relating to Enoch, such as the Third Book of Enoch.
The Second Book of Enoch, also written in the first century CE, describes the mystical ascent of the patriarch Enoch through a hierarchy of Ten Heavens. Enoch passes through the Garden of Eden in the Third Heaven on his way to meet the Lord face-to-face in the Tenth (chapter 22). Along the way he encounters vividly described populations of angels who torment wrongdoers; he sees homes, olive oil, and flowers.
The book’s depiction of ten heavens represented an expansion of the ancient seven-heaven model. This expanded cosmology was developed further in medieval Christianity.
An explicit reference to the Third Heaven appears in the Christian New Testament canon. A Pauline epistle, penned in Macedonia around 55CE, describes this mystical experience:
I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows. And I know that such a person—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows—was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat.
— (2 Corinthians 12.2–4 NRSV)
The description is usually taken as an oblique reference by the author to himself. The passage appears to reflect first-century beliefs among Jews and Christians that the realm of Paradise existed in a different heaven than the highest one—an impression that may find support in the original Greek wording (closer to “caught away” than “caught up”).
In the second century, Irenaeus also knows seven heavens (see his Demonstration of Apostolic Preaching 9; cf. Against Heresies 1.5.2).
Over the course of the middle ages Christian thinkers expanded th ancient Mesopotamian seven-heaven model into a system of ten heavens. This cosmology, taught in the first European universities by the Scholastics, reached its supreme literary expression in The Divine Comedy by Dante Aligheri.
The Quran and Hadith frequently mention the existence of seven samāwāt (سماوات), the plural of samāʾ (سماء), meaning ‘heaven, sky, celestial sphere’, and cognate with Hebrew shamāyim (שמים). Some of the verses in the Quran mentioning the samaawat are Q41:12, Q65:12 and Q71:15. The seven heavens are not final destinations for the dead after the Day of Judgment, but regions distinct from the earth, guarded by angels and inhabited by souls whose abode depends on their good deeds (fasting, jihad, Hajj, charity), with the highest layer, the closest to God.
In other sources, the concept is presented in metaphorical terms. Each of the seven heavens is depicted as being composed of a different material, and Islamic prophets are resident in each. The names are taken from Suyuti’s Al-Hay’a as-samya fi l-hay’a as-sunmya:
- Raqi’a: The first heaven is described as being made of water and is the home of Adam and Eve, as well as the angels of each star. According to some narratives, Muhammad encountered the angel Habib here.
- Araqlun: The second heaven is described as being made of white pearls and is the home of Yahya (John the Baptist) and Isa (Jesus).
- Qaydum: The third heaven is described as being made of iron (alternatively pearls or other dazzling stones); Joseph and the Angel of Death (named Azrael) are resident there.
- Ma’una: The fourth heaven is described as being made of brass (alternatively white gold); Idris (conventionally identified with Enoch) and the “Angel of Tears” resides there.
- Di’a: The fifth heaven is described as being made of silver; Aaron holds court over this heaven. Sometimes, the guardian of hellfire is assigned to this place.
- Daqua: The sixth heaven is described as being composed of gold (alternatively garnets and rubies); Moses can be found here.
- ‘Ariba: The seventh heaven, which borrows some concepts from its Jewish counterpart, is depicted as being composed of divine light incomprehensible to the mortal man (alternatively emerald). Abraham is a resident there and Sidrat al-Muntaha, a large enigmatic Lote tree, marks the end of the seventh heaven and the utmost extremity for all of God’s creatures and heavenly knowledge.
There are two interpretations of using the number “seven”. One viewpoint is that the number “seven” here simply means “many” and is not to be taken literally (the number is often used to imply that in the Arabic language). But many other commentators use the number literally.
One modern interpretation of “heavens” is that all the stars and galaxies (including the Milky Way) are all part of the “first heaven”, and “beyond that six still bigger worlds are there,” which have yet to be discovered by scientists.
The Gnostic scriptures in On the Origin of the World state that seven heavens were created in Chaos by Yaldabaoth below the higer realms, and each of them are ruled over by an Archon. During the end times, these heavens will collapse on each and the heaven of Yaldabaoth will split in two, causing its stars to fall upon the Earth, therefore causing it to sink into the Abyss.
According to some Puranas, the Brahmanda is divided into fourteen worlds. Seven are upper worlds, Bhuloka (the Earth), Bhuvarloka, Svarloka, Maharloka, Janarloka, Tapoloka and Satyaloka, and seven are lower worlds, Atala, Vitala, Sutala, Talatala, Mahatala, Rasatala and Patala.
- According to Jain cosmology, there are seven levels of Naraka or hell. These are further divided into 8,400,000 other hellish locations.
- Inanna visited the Sumerian seven-gated underworld.
Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia