SPECIAL TOPIC: THE HEAVENS AND THE THIRD HEAVEN
In the OT the term "heaven" is usually plural (i.e., shamayim, BDB 1029). The Hebrew term means "height." God dwells on high. This concept reflects the holiness and transcendence of God.
In Gen. 1:1 the plural, "heavens and earth," has been viewed as God creating (1) the atmosphere above this planet or (2) a way of referring to all of reality (i.e., spiritual and physical). From this basic understanding other texts were cited as referring to levels of heaven: "heaven of heavens" (cf. Ps. 68:33) or "heaven and the heaven of heavens" (cf. Deut. 10:14; 1 Kgs. 8:27; Neh. 9:6; Ps. 148:4). The rabbis surmised that there might be
1. two heavens (i.e., R. Judah, Hagigah 12b)
2. three heavens (Test. Levi 2-3; Ascen. of Isa. 6-7; Midrash Tehillim on Ps. 114:1)
3. five heavens (III Baruch)
4. seven heavens (R. Simonb. Lakish; Ascen. of Isa. 9:7)
5. ten heavens (II Enoch 20:3b; 22:1)
All of these were meant to show God's separation from physical creation and/or His transcendence. The most common number of heavens in rabbinical Judaism was seven. A. Cohen, Everyman's Talmud (p. 30), says this was connected to the astronomical spheres, but I think it refers to seven being the perfect number (i.e., days of creation with seven representing God's rest in Genesis 2:2).
Paul, in 2 Cor. 12:2, mentions the "third" heaven (Greek ouranos) as a way of identifying God's personal, majestic presence. Paul had a personal encounter with God!
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