Commentary Magazine


Cedars of Lebanon: The Apocalypse of Gorgorios

The writings of the Falashas, the “Black Jews” of Ethiopia, strongly reflected the influence of the Ethiopic-Christian environment in which they lived. This description of Heaven and Hell, which forms the first part of the Falasha Apocalypse of Gorgorios, contains elements that can be traced back to the 3rd-century Christian Apocalypse of St. Paul, and is itself a Jewish version of an as yet undiscovered Christian-Ethiopic Apocalypse of the 14th century.

This is the second selection from the writings of the Falashas to appear in the “Cedars of Lebanon.” Like the first (the beautiful legend “The Angels Bury Moses,” in our last issue), it is reprinted from the Falasha Anthology, translated and edited by Wolf Leslau, and just published by Yale University Press as Volume VI of the Yale Judaica Series on the Louis M. Rabinowitz Foundation. The text appears with the publisher’s permission.—Ed.

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Blessed be God, the Lord of Israel. [This is the book] of the prophet Gorgorios.

I said to the angel Michael: “Tell me about death and how [the soul] goes forth from the body.” He said to me: “I shall tell thee how the soul leaves the body,” and he said to me: “Death is bitter and painful to the righteous and the sinners as well, but for the man of good deeds it is salvation and rest when soul and body are separated. . . .

“The death of the sinner is desolate. His departure from this ephemeral world is as follows: the angels of calamity who have no mercy, the ill-favored, disfigured, are sent to him. The soul of the sinner is entrusted to them in a terrible punishment. Then the evil spirits who were with him and devoured him come to him. When the man sees them he will repent that he did not accomplish good deeds in his lifetime. More punishment is inflicted upon him, and they raise his soul to Heaven in great pain and sore calamity and smite it with sticks of fire.” . . .

Then I saw an old good man who had died, and the angels raised his soul aloft. This soul was as bright as the sun. The angels received it and said joyfully: “O soul, thine affliction passed away because of God’s word, and thou wilt find mercy at His side forever.” After they had raised this soul to Heaven, all the angels shouted and said: “Praise to God alone, the Holy.” And they said to this soul: “Peace and felicity to thee, forever,” and they blessed the angel who was with her. Then I heard God’s voice saying: “Bring this soul that she may rejoice [and receive] the fruit of her deeds and find her reward.” The soul then prostrated herself with fear. The angel said to her: “Fear not, O soul, for thou hast accomplished good deeds before they raised thee. It will be reckoned to thee as righteousness [and thou shalt receive] the treasures of grace full of joy and gladness.” I also heard God saying: “Place this soul with the [souls of the] hermits who are secluded and live on the mountains and hills serving God.”

Then the angel said to me: “Look.” And behold, I saw smoke and sulphur rising from the earth to Heaven, thousands and thousands of spirits disfigured, angels with dark faces from whose mouths burning charcoal came forth and who held sticks of fire in their hands. I saw it and was frightened and said to the angel: “What is this terrifying sight?” He said to me: “[It is for] a bad king who abandoned justice and was iniquitous. And the order came from God to take his soul by force at the hand of bitter Death. And these, the angels of calamity and of wrath, were sent to him.” Then I saw a dark one whose odor was bad and whose teeth and nails were of fire. As for the soul, she shouted and lamented: “Pity me, pity me.” When she shouted they poured upon her burning charcoal from Heaven. When she drew nigh a sheet of fire like a wave of the sea came and hit her and brought her down to earth. Then the angels said: “Let us take her away.” And I saw the angels and the spirits raise her as before, and they brought her to Heaven and said: “Bring not in this soul. She is unclean, since she was rebellious against her Creator and chose the earthly kingdom in vain rather than the Heavenly Kingdom and followed the commandments of Satan.” Then a voice came from Heaven saying: “Say to this unclean and bad soul that she confess her faults and the sins she has committed.” The soul answered, trembling: “I did things in my kingdom which were not proper, without thinking of the future or of the judgment that will overcome me.” . . . The angels said to her: “When thou didst walk upon the earth we were gracious to thee there. Hadst thou made thy ways and doings good, thou wouldst have inherited the Heavenly Kingdom, but now thou wilt be rewarded according to thine actions.” Then I heard the voice of God saying: “Bring this soul to the rebellious, iniquitous, transgressors, and unclean so that she be there in her punishment until the day of retribution.” . . .

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Then the angel Michael said to me: “I have shown thee the departure of the souls of the sinners and of the just. And now follow me and I shall let thee see the place where the good and pure live.” Then he held my hand and brought me into a wide place, the charm of which was like a precious pearl of various colors that shines like bright stars and like lamps that ravish the eyes. There were in it thousands of doors of sapphire brighter than the sun. The floor of this place was white as silver and as mirrors. Behold, a large stream and small springs flowing with light, and the stones of this stream were precious pearls, topazes, carbuncles, hyacinths, and emeralds. And around this stream were tall and short trees. It seemed a valley. Among all the trees there was not a dry one nor a fallen-down leaf nor a spoiled fruit. The odor of these trees was sweeter than all the odors upon the earth. When the dead in the graves smell this odor they will wake up and live. That place had no sun nor moon [but its light] exceeded the light of the sun, and the darkness of the night came not near it and found it not Then I marveled, praised and blessed God. The angel said to me: “Marvel not, O Gorgorios. This is the Paradise in which Adam and Eve lived; in it there is neither odor nor cold nor sadness. If they had not transgressed the commandment of God they would have remained in it, they and their children, without affliction, sorrow, sickness, death, sin, or iniquity. God knew in advance what would happen.” I said to Michael: “Who lives in this place?” He said to me: “Those who observe the law of God will stay here.” . . .

The angel said to Gorgorios: “Now thou wilt see something that is greater than anything that is on earth and in Heaven. [They are] those who serve God with a pure heart. Who can know God?” I perceived a sound of songs and melodies that rejoiced the heart, praise, hymns, and a light that appeared like lightning, and a fragrance that revived the dead. Then I turned back and behold [there was] a woman dressed in purple and no eye could look at her because of her splendor. I marveled, praised God, then fled and knew not where I was. And when my mind was restored I said to the angel: “What is this marvel?” And he said to me: “This is the Heavenly Jerusalem.” I said to the angel: “For whom is it prepared?” He said to me: “Read what is written on the door of the tabernacle of the sanctuary.” And behold, I saw a Roman inscription written in various lights that said: “This is the Heavenly Jerusalem for the one who gave himself for God’s word, for those who despised the glory of the ephemeral world, for those who retired to the hills and caverns, and for the hermits who served God.”

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Then Michael said to me: “Now come and follow me and I shall show thee the punishment of Hell for the men who denied God, for the rebellious, the evil, and disobedient who did bad deeds before God.” The angel took me and placed me on the top of a high mountain and said to me: “Turn back and look to thy right.” And behold, I saw a big deep river flowing with pitch, dark as lead; burning charcoal came out of it, and it boiled like a pot; it was fetid. It flowed like the river of Egypt. Men were in it, suspended by their feet, and their heads were turned downward. They trembled and fainted. Then I wept and wailed; I fell on my face and said to the angel: “Who are those, O Lord?” He said to me: “These are those who denied God and returned to sin. They will undergo this punishment that thou seest forever.”

The angel then said to me: “Turn back and look to thy left.” I turned and behold, a river as great as the preceding one flowing with pitch and asphalt. Waves of fire reaching the sky were in it; men were lying down in the fire that hit them. Their bodies withered away so that nothing but their bones remained; God again created flesh above them; the waves of fire came back and their bodies withered away as before. Their wailing was great. I said to the angel: “Who are those?” He said to me: “Those who honored not His Holy Name and those who despised refuge in the name of God, the most high.”

And I saw in this river black men standing up with pails of fire in their hands. They drew it and poured it upon them forever. I said to the angel: “Who are those, O Lord?” “These are the kings of the earth, the iniquitous and the oppressors.”

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Then the angel said to me: “Turn backward and look.” And behold, I saw a great darkness, and cries and shouts came out therefrom. And the angel said: “I say to thee, O darkness, I was sent to thee by God in order that I may show to Gorgorios everything that is inside of thee; unveil thyself and then shalt thou become as before.” The darkness was unveiled and behold, the bottom in all its length and width appeared, and it was entirely inflamed with darkness and fire. It was fetid. And men were in it, each of whom underwent a particular punishment. Some of them burned, their tongues were split and reached their chest. I said to the angel: “Who are those, O Lord?” “Those who bore false witness against men.”

Some of them were in a great cold worse than the fire and their teeth chattered; they trembled and wept bitterly. I said to the angel: “Who are these, O Lord?” [He said to me:] “These are the mighty who afflicted the houses of the poor and the strangers with cold and frost.” . . .

Some of them stood on one foot; they wept bitterly and their teeth chattered. Water dropped upon water [and fire] upon fire. The angels came to them carrying pearls and rings of fire. Their bodies were frightened. He said to me: “They are those who believed in man and abandoned Him and His law.”

Some of them had their hands spread in the middle of the fire and vipers of fire bit them. “Who are those, O Lord?” “Those who stole the belongings of others.”

Some stood in fire up to their knees; they shouted and wailed, saying: “Woe unto us, we took and inherited the eternal punishment.” I said to the angel: “Who are those, O Lord?” He said to me: “Those who judged in iniquity and took bribes.”

Some knelt on their knees in the fire and the angels slapped their faces with burning charcoal. They wept bitterly. I said to him: “Who are these, O Lord?” He said to me: “Those who were zealous for divinities other than God.” . . .

Others hung by their feet and their heads were downward. Flames hit them from every side; serpents of fire with doglike heads bit them; angels struck them with swords of fire, dispersed their bodies and flaming charcoal fell upon them like hailstones. I said to him: “Who are those and what is their sin?” He said to me: “Those who killed the just and shed innocent blood.”

Other [angels] took flaming charcoal and threw it into their mouths from all sides. [I said to him:] “Who are these, O Lord, and what is their sin?” “Those who fornicated with the body of their flesh, who committed adultery, who lusted exceedingly.” . . .

Gorgorios said: “Trembling overtook me, and I knew not where I was. And behold, I found myself alone in the cave on my couch. Then I praised and glorified God. I felt sad and great sorrow overcame me for I had perceived the places of the holy and I had seen the great punishment of Hell prepared for the sons of men. Then I wrote down this spiritual story and sent it to all the countries so that it might be of use to all those who accept knowledge. God is gracious to those who do good deeds and who fear the day of reward and of the last judgment so that they may be prepared for the Heavenly Kingdom. I, Gorgorios, glorify and praise the holy God, the onlv, the gracious and merciful Lord.”

We prav and beseech him that he free us from bad deeds, that he help us to accomplish his will, and give us the heritage through grace and pity forever.

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