Are There Angels?

The Torah employs the term malakh to connote messengers of God. They are known by other names, as well: elohim (Genesis 6:2 and Job 1:6), b'nai elim, kedoshim (Psalm 89:8 and Job 5:1) and even ish (Genesis 32:24-30), a term that means, simply "man." As messengers of God, angels are serve as God's holy retinue in heaven, attending God like courtiers would attend an earthly king. In addition, they serve as conduits for communication between heaven and earth. Students of Biblical literature would point out that they serve to soften the effect of anthropomorphism in the Bible: some of God's more humanlike actions and relationships are attributed to angels. At times the line between angels and God grows a bit hazy, for example when Hagar encounters an angel, but later addresses God (Genesis 16:7, 13 and 21:17ff) or when Abraham is commanded by God to sacrifice Isaac but is later commanded by an angel not to touch the boy (Genesis, chapter 22). Similarly, Gideon speaks at times with God, and at other times with an angel (Judges, chapter 6). For the Rabbis, these seemingly minor variations in the story belie important lessons; for one who is interested in the history of angels, they are an interesting insight into the manner in which angels are used to move a story along and protect against anthropomorphism.

The Torah describes winged creatures called cherubim and seraphim in detail. There is no clear distinction between angels and these heavenly creatures. The "hosts of heaven" clearly included a great many types of divine creatures, but the precise "catalog" is not clear. We do know that they were all beings superior to humans in knowledge and power, but subordinate to God. What is more, sometimes the "host of heaven" seems to refer to angels, but at other times is connotes heavenly bodies.

The Torah knows of angels as creatures that appear in human form to deliver divine messages, such as the angel that spoke to Hagar (Genesis, chapters 18 and 19), the "man" who wrestled with Jacob the night prior to his reunion with Esau (Genesis 31:11ff), and the angel that speaks with Balaam (Numbers 22:22ff).

The pre-Exilic prophets rarely mention angels at all, with one notable exception: Isaiah's vision in 6:1ff features winged seraphim, but there is no further mention of angels or heavenly creatures.

The prophets Ezekiel and Zechariah, however, who were active in the years after the First Destruction and Exile, had important visions involving angels. The first chapter of Ezekiel is famous for its depiction of the Divine Presence seated on a throne supported by four chayot, later identified as cherubim (see chapters 8-11). Similarly, in Zechariah's book, angels appear constantly in Zechariah's many symbolic visions (1:9, 14; 2:1-7; 4:1-5; 5:5-10; 6:4-5).

To the Biblical authors, angels are agents of God. They sense inherently the danger of acceptance of angels, the danger of ascribing independent power to any being outside God. Satan is a prime example. Satan makes his first appearance, by name, in the Book of Job. Here he challenges God but cannot act without God's consent and decree. The names of angels are first given in the Book of Daniel (dated by scholars between 170 and 160 B.C.E.). Indeed, the Book of the Daniel is the only biblical book in which angels have separate names and personalities: Gabriel (8:16; 9:21) and Michael (10:13; 12:1). They appear as attendants to the divine throne (7?10); they save Daniel from the lions (6:23); even the nations have patron angels (10:13, 20; 12:1).

By the time the Dead Sea Scrolls were written, the images of light and darkness, most likely imported from Zoroastrianism in the 6th century B.C.E., were integrated with the theology and outlook of the times. One sees a clear tendency to implant angels of light into the souls of good individuals so that they might be fortified for the ultimate and inevitable showdown with angels of darkness who dominate the souls of evil people. The texts affirm that each human being possesses an angel of light and an angel of darkness. The first promotes good; the other evil. The Sages rejected such notions as fundamentally unJewish because they suggest that goodness and evil are powers outside of and independent from God. Rather, they taught, each individual is inherently endowed with a yetzer tov (inclination to do good) and a yetzer ra (inclination to do evil) and personal salvation is won or lost by the deeds of the individual.

It appears that the last two centuries before the Common Era, and the first two centuries of the Common Era saw an increased concern with angels after the lull of the Second Temple Period with one interesting exception: There is no mention of angels in the Mishnah. When the Rabbis came to the fore, they attempted to reign in speculation about angels to control the apocalyptic hysteria which had proven so damaging during the Roman period. The wildly expansive number of angels threatened to overwhelm God in people's minds, they feared, and so they sought to bring them under control.

For the Rabbis, angels formed a bridge between humanity on earth, and God in heaven. Angels are close to God, but also like humans. Little lower than God, they are much like people. Perhaps angels in this period served to bridge the chasm of understanding of God. In addition, the Rabbis felt a need to "cut angels down to size" in order to fend off the pagan practices of the Persians, Greeks, and Romans, and their cultural heritage.

There is a debate concerning when angels were created:

R. Tanchuma commenced with: For You are great and do wondrous things [Psalm 86:10]. R. Tanchum b. R. Hiyya said: If a gourd has a hole even as small as the eye of a needle, all its air escapes; yet though a human is formed with many cavities and orifices, his breath does not escape through them. Who achieved this? You God alone [Psalm 86:10]. When were the angels created? R. Yochanan said: They were created on the second day, as it is written, Who lays the beams of Your upper chambers in the waters [Psalm 104:3], followed by, Who makes the spirits Your angels [Psalm 104:4]. R. Chanina said: They were created on the fifth day, for it is written, And let fowl fly above the earth [Genesis 1:20], and it is written, And with twain he did fly [Isaiah 6:2]. R. Luliani b. Tabri said in R. Isaac's name: Whether we accept the view of R. Chanina or that of R. Yochanan, all agree that none were created on the first day, lest you should say, Michael stretched [the world] in the south and Gabriel in the north, while the Holy One, blessed be God, measured it in the middle; but I am the Lord, that makes all things; that stretched forth the heavens alone; that spread abroad the earth by Myself [me-itti] [Isaiah 44:24]: [me-itti] [who was with Me?] is written: who was associated with Me in the creation of the world? Ordinarily, a mortal king is honored in his realm and the great men of the realm are honored with him. Wherefore? Because they bear the burden [of state] with him. The Holy One, blessed be God, however, is not so, but God alone created God's world, God alone is glorified in God's universe. R. Tanchuma quoted: For You are great and do wondrous things. Wherefore? Because You God are alone: You alone created the world. Hence, In the beginning God created. [Midrash Rabbah I:3]

In the aggadah, God is pictured as consulting the angels before creating the world:

Rab Judah said in Rab's name: When the Holy One, blessed be God, wished to create humanity, God created a company of ministering angels and said to them: Is it your desire that we make a man in our image? They answered: Sovereign of the Universe, what will be their deeds? Such and such will be their deeds, God replied. Thereupon they exclaimed: Sovereign of the universe, What is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you think of him? [Psalm 8:5] Thereupon God stretched out God's little finger among them and consumed them with fire. The same thing happened with a second company. The third company said to God: Sovereign of the Universe, what did it avail the former [angels] that they spoke to You? The whole world is Yours, and whatsoever that You wish to do in it, do it. When God came to the men of the Age of the flood and of the division [of languages], whose deeds were corrupt, they said to God: Lord of the Universe, did not the first [company of angels] speak correctly? Even to old age I am the same, and even to hoar hairs will I carry [Isaiah 46:4] God retorted. [Sanhedrin 38b]

Indeed, apparently there was great controversy in heaven concerning the creation of humanity:

R. Simon said: When the Holy One, blessed be God, came to create Adam, the ministering angels formed themselves into groups and parties, some of them saying, "Let him be created," while others urged, "Let him not be created." Thus it is written, Love and Truth fought together, Righteousness and Peace combated each other [Psalm 85:11]: Love said, "Let him be created, because he will dispense acts of love"; Truth said, "Let him not be created, because he is compounded of falsehood"; Righteousness said, "Let him be created, because he will perform righteous deeds"; Peace said, "Let him not be created because he is full of strife." What did the Lord do? God took Truth and cast it to the ground. Said the ministering angels before the Holy One, blessed be God, "Sovereign of the Universe! Why do You despise Your seal? Let Truth arise from the earth!" Hence it is written, Let truth spring up from the earth [Psalm 85;12].

All our rabbis say the following in the name of R. Chanina, while R. Phinehas and R. Hilkiah say it in the name of R. Simon: Me'od [very] is identical with Adam, as it is written: And God saw everything that God had made, and behold it was tov me'od [very good] [Genesis 1:31], that is, and behold Adam was good. R. Huna the Elder of Sepphoris, said: While the ministering angels were arguing with each other and disputing with each other, the Holy One, blessed be God, created him. God said to them: What can you avail? The human has already been made!" [Midrash Rabbah 8:5]

The Rabbis envisioned "ministering angels" surround the throne in heaven, and angels controlling prayers, hail, rain, anger, Gehinnom, pregnancy, and childbirth. They believed that each nation had a guardian angels, as did people. Many angels are named: Gabriel, Michael, Raphael, and Uriel are the archangels. Sandalfon, Zagzagael, and Suriel are mentioned rarely. Metatron appear more frequently (tradition holds that Enoch, who was removed from earth to heaven, but never died, was renamed Metatron).

Angels are subject to punishment and expulsion from heaven should they disobey God or betray God's secrets.

Rabbi Morris Margolies , who wrote A Gathering of Angels argues that angels are best understood as a symbols of forces that operate within us, metaphors for the most basic human drives and emotions: love, hate, envy, lust, charity, malice, green, generosity, vision, despair, fear, hope. God doesn't need angels, but mortals do. Angels narrow the chasm that separates us from God: The angels are near God, but not part of God. Perhaps this is best exemplified by a wonderful midrash found in the Talmud, tractate Sanhedrin 119b:

Rabbi Yose Ben Yehudah said: "Two angels, one good and one bad, accompany every man from synagogue to home on Erev Shabbat. If he enters his house and finds the candles lit, the table set, and his bed made, the good angel exclaims, 'May it be thus next Shabbat as well!' and the bad angel must respond 'Amen' in spite of himself. If the case is otherwise, the bad angel exclaims, 'May it be thus next Shabbat as well' and the good angel must respond 'Amen' in spite of himself.

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