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Visions

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Encyclopedia of the Dead Sea Scrolls What is This? Explores the history, relevance, and meaning of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Visions

Like so much of the terminology in the scrolls, the use of the word vision in the Qumran literature clearly draws its inspiration from biblical precedent. Several different nouns in the Bible are translated into the English word “vision,” such as Hebrew ḥazon, ḥizayon, ḥazot, maḥazeh, and Aramaic ḥezû. All of these usages derive from the verb ḥzh, meaning “to see.” Although this verb is normally used to refer to physical sight in Aramaic, in biblical Hebrew the verb most commonly used for physical sight is r᾽h, while the root ḥzh is more often used in the special sense of “seeing” some revelation from God. It is with this specialized meaning that the word occurs in the Dead Sea Scrolls.

The root ḥzh in its various derivatives is used a little more than fifty times in the scrolls in works of various types. In addition, certain documents from Qumran have been titled as “Visions” works by the team of editors. These works are the Visions of Amrama-f? (4Q543–4Q548), the Vision of Samuel (4Q160), and Visions A, B, and C (4Q556–4Q558). Although the titles might lead one to assume that all these works share certain common characteristics, there is little usefulness in thinking of a kind of genre of visions literature either at Qumran or elsewhere.

This is not to say that the use of the term vision to designate a literary composition has no justification. Indeed, there is some precedent for it in the ancient texts themselves, both biblical and otherwise. The prophetic books of Isaiah and Obadiah begin with the words “The vision of Isaiah” and “The vision of Obadiah,” respectively. Nahum opens with the slightly longer phrase “The book of the vision of Nahum.” That such phrases were understood as actual titles is indicated by 2 Chronicles 32.32, which refers to certain events from the reign of Hezekiah as being “written in the vision of the prophet Isaiah.” Similarly, 2 Chronicles 9.29 states that the deeds of Jeroboam's reign are found in the otherwise unknown “visions of Iddo the seer.”

Outside of the biblical literature, from around the turn of the era, the term vision is used as a title at the beginning of the “Book of Parables,” the second of the five Enochic works that now comprises chapters 37–71 of what is commonly termed 1 Enoch. 1 Enoch 37.1 begins, “The second vision which he saw, a vision of wisdom, which Enoch saw.” The word “second” probably implies that chapters 1–36, the “Book of Watchers,” was also considered to be a visions work, even though it bears no such title in the extant manuscripts (although cf. the reference to a vision in 1 Enoch 1.2 [Greek]). The “Book of Watchers” dates to the early second century BCE. Both the “Book of Parables” and the “Book of Watchers” belong to the genre of apocalypse.

From Jewish-Christian circles in the second century CE, both the Shepherd of Hermas and the Ascension of Isaiah use “vision” as a title for parts of the two works. Thus, chapters 1–24 of the Shepherd of Hermas contain four visions, the last three of which are explicitly so titled. Many scholars believe that these chapters originally circulated independently of the rest. Chapters 6–11 of the Ascension of Isaiah bear the title “The vision which Isaiah the son of Amoz saw.” Scholars debate whether this section ever circulated independently of chapters 1–5. Both the Hermas material and the Isaiah material belong to the literary category of apocalypse.

Of the works from Qumran that have been titled Visions by the team of editors, only the Visions of Amram explicitly bears the title Vision. This Aramaic work opens with the phrase, “Copy of the book of the words of the vision of Amram.” Immediately after this introduction, however, comes not a description of the vision but rather a scene that is clearly testamentary in nature, with Amram, the father of Moses, addressing his sons on “the day of [his] death.” A later fragment, though, returns to the subject of the vision, which consisted of a quarrel taking place between Melchiresha῾ and, apparently, Melchizedek concerning the fate of Amram. During this quarrel, Amram himself is asked to choose between the two angelic leaders. A further fragment contrasts the fate of the Children of Light and the Children of Darkness. The presence of such apocalyptic material in a formal testament reminds one of the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs.

Of the two remaining “visions” works, the Vision of Samuel is written in Hebrew but is not well preserved. Fragment 1 expands upon the account of 1 Samuel 3.1–18 in which Samuel receives a vision from God and the aged priest Eli petitions Samuel to “[let] me know the vision of God” (1.5). It is this very line that has led to the entire document being called the Vision of Samuel. However, it should be noted that the word “vision” is not preserved as a title for the work, nor is the full extent of the work known so that it very well may have contained much more of the Samuel story than just an account of his vision. In light of this consideration, one might better call this work Apocryphon of Samuel, as some scholars have done, to avoid confusion with those works that are certainly titled “visions,” such as the Visions of Amram.

Of Visions A, B, and C very little can be said with confidence. All are written in Aramaic. Visions A is represented by 6 very small fragments, Visions B by 2 fragments, and Visions C by about 144 small fragments. None of the manuscripts preserves any meaningful amount of text. Visions A mentions Gabriel. Visions C contains the phrase “he saw [a vision?] and said.” It also mentions Elijah, Uzziah, Horeb, and Egypt. As an alternative title, Beyer (1994) calls Visions C a “Prophetic History.” Once again, there is no reason to see any connection between these manuscripts and either the so-called Vision of Samuel or the Visions of Amram.

The word vision was used as a title for various types of Jewish writings, such as prophecy, apocalypse, and testament. The title was undoubtedly used to indicate the divine source of the writing, but it was never used in a standardized way to indicate either the content or form of the writing. Of the compositions among the Dead Sea Scrolls titled “visions,” only Vision of Amram certainly deserves the designation. Vision of Samuel and Visions A, B, and C are somewhat arbitrarily titled and could as easily be given other names. Thus, one should not think of a genre of “visions” literature at Qumran.

Bibliography

  • Allegro, John. “The Vision of Samuel.” Qumran Cave 4: I (4Q158–4Q186). Discoveries in the Judaean Desert, vol. 5. Oxford, 1968.
    Editio princeps of Vision of Samuel.
  • Beyer, Klaus. Die aramäischen Texte vom Toten Meer: Ergänzungsband. Göttingen, 1994.
    Publication of Visions of Amram and partial publication of Visions C.
  • Jepsen, A. “Chazah, Chozeh, Chazon.” In Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, edited by G. Botterweck and H. Ringgren, vol. 4, pp. 280–290. Grand Rapids, Mich., 1980.
    A useful survey of the use of ḥzh in the Bible.
  • Milik, J. T. “4Q Visions de ῾Amram et une citation d'Origene.” Revue biblique 79 (1972), 77–97.
    The pioneering study of the Visions of Amram.

Erik W. Larson

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