The Shekinah is the primordial light of creation, the heavenly glory of divine wisdom and the inspiration for prophecy. She is also the world soul, manifest through the divine sparks of her light which comprise human souls and thus unites us all. With roots in the wisdom goddesses of the ancient world, the Shekinah is the manifestation of feminine divinity from the unnamed Wisdom Goddess of the Hebrew Bible and early Jewish wisdom literature found in the Jewish mystical systems known as the Kabbalah and Merkavah mysticism.“I learnt it all, hidden or manifest, for I was taught by Wisdom, by her whose skill made all things.” ~ Wisdom of Solomon, C1st BCE, trans. Schäfer.
The name Shekinah first appeared in material found in the Onkelos Targum, which dates from the first-second century CE. This text, by an unknown author, was misnamed during the medieval period after Onkelos the Proselyte (35-110 CE), who translated the Bible into Aramaic. In the Onkelos Targum the term Shekinah is used to illustrate a divine presence which is separate from Yahweh, as in the paraphrase of Exodus 25:8; “And they shall make before me a sanctuary and I shall cause my Shekinah to dwell among them.”
The first glimpse of the power or function of the Shekinah is seen in the meaning of her name, which is derived from the Hebrew root Shakhan meaning ‘to dwell’. This meaning hints at her tangible presence as a visible manifestation of the light of wisdom in the books of the Hebrew Bible, as the burning bush seen by Moses, in the Ark of the Covenant and in the Temple of Solomon. Her name was also Aramaized to Shekinta in some texts like the Targums, which are Aramaic translations of the Bible that often included commentaries.
The Shekinah is first hinted at as the unnamed Wisdom Goddess of the books of the Hebrew Bible, as well as being named in apocryphal and pseudoepigraphical books from the latter part of this period, spanning a thousand years from the seventh or sixth century BCE through to the third or fourth century CE. Whilst it has been suggested that the Shekinah was simply a hypostasis of God’s glory, personifying his qualities, the traces found in these ancient writings make it clear that she was much more than this.
By exploring the myths and deities of the ancient Middle East, it becomes clear that the origins of the Shekinah may be found in several earlier goddesses associated with wisdom in civilizations such as the goddess Inanna in Sumer, the goddesses Isis and Maat in Egypt and the goddess Asherah in Canaan. From the rich cultural cross-fertilization between these civilizations sprang the Shekinah.
The most prominent and wide-ranging descriptions of the Shekinah, her influence and roles may be found in the teachings of the Kabbalah, and Merkavah (‘Chariot’) mysticism. Merkavah mysticism is a Jewish system of practices which formed the basis of the Kabbalah, and whose origins may be traced back to around the second century BCE. Merkavah mysticism encouraged the practitioner (called a Merkavah rider) to use amulets, prayers and repetitious chanting of divine names to enable their soul to ascend through the seven palaces or heavens to the presence of God, as described in the Biblical Book of Ezekiel.
The main Merkavah texts, called Hekhalot (‘heavenly palace/hall’) texts were largely written in the period from the third-ninth century CE, and provide many of the richest and most useful descriptions of the Shekinah. These texts include Book of 3 Enoch or Sepher Hekhalot (C2nd-C6th CE), Hekhalot Rabbati (C3rd-C7th CE), Maaseh Merkavah (C3rd-C9th CE), Re’uyot Yehezkiel (C4th CE) and Shiur Qoma (C7th-C12th CE)
Prior to the medieval period the earthly Shekinah was viewed more as the perfection man had lost and strived to regain. She was seen both as the glory of God shining in heaven, and on earth shining forth from the Ark of the Covenant, and as a symbol of the lost Garden of Eden. This is why the pseudoepigraphical Book of 3 Enoch, a major early source of Shekinah material (containing sections dating from the second to the sixth century CE) describes the first families of man as dwelling at the gate of Eden to behold the brightness of the Shekinah (3 Enoch 5:3, C2nd-C6th CE).
Subtleties of phraseology, often lost in translation, have sometimes hidden the presence of the Shekinah. This has resulted in numerous replacements of the occurrence of the divine feminine, such as the name of the goddess Asherah, the Canaanite predecessor of the Wisdom Goddess (and hence the Shekinah), who is found forty times in the Hebrew Bible, her name being translated as ‘grove’, and likewise Shekinah being translated in the New Testament as ‘tabernacle’ (Revelations 21:2-3, C1st CE.):
“And I saw the holy city, the New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘See, the Shekinah of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them.”
At times Israel too was described in the Hebrew Bible as the bride of Yahweh, resulting in passages with multiple meanings depending on which interpretation the reader decided on. These writings demonstrate the shift away from the Canaanite goddess Asherah as the consort of Yahweh, emphasised by the strictures against her in books such as 1 Kings, 2 Kings and Deuteronomy. This process took centuries, as may be seen by such textual references and in archaeological evidence.
Following the ongoing removal of the worship of Asherah from the Hebrew tribes, we see the unnamed Wisdom Goddess effectively replacing Asherah as the divine bride. This is made clear in the third century BCE writings of Proverbs and contemporary Jewish wisdom literature, several centuries later than the biblical books containing Asherah references which date more to the period of seventh-sixth century BCE.
The Wisdom Goddess (and later the Shekinah) may initially seem a more discrete partner for Yahweh, emphasising wisdom rather than such challenging powers as fertility and sexuality, which were associated with Asherah. However this did not entirely succeed, as can be seen by the erotic nature of the Biblical Song of Solomon, which has some very explicit symbolism woven into its beautiful verses, and also by the sexual symbolism later associated with the Shekinah in the Kabbalah.
The transition from unnamed Wisdom Goddess to named divine feminine wisdom as the Shekinah occurred around first-second century CE, contemporary with the Gospels, the earliest Merkavah texts (such as the Revelation of Moses), the first Kabbalistic text (Sepher Yetzirah) and the proliferation of Gnostic texts. From the moment when the Shekinah is named as the divine feminine wisdom, her influence may be seen again and again in subsequent centuries, expressed through such phenomenon as the Holy Spirit and the power of prophecy, and found in religious, magical and poetic writings. www.cosmicshekinah.co.uk David Rankine
About the Authors
Sorita d’Este and David Rankine have both been exploring the history of religion, magic and mysticism for as long as they can remember. They have been working together since late 2000, producing hundreds of articles for journals, magazines and part-works; facilitating workshops and lecturing on the Kabbalah, Mysticism and Magic at national and international events. Between them they have authored more than 30 published books to date, many of which are on the subject of renaissance and medieval magic, ancient religion, mythology and folklore.