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Angels in the Hebrew Bible

Chester Cathedral choir stalls

We tend to imagine angels as human beings with white wings clothed in white robes—but in the Bible, angels could be flying heavenly snakes or winged bulls with human faces. But more important, it was the angel’s function or role that mattered.

The Hebrew term mal’akh, like the Greek term angelos, means “messenger.” The Hebrew Bible uses the term on rare occasion when speaking of a human messenger (Gen 32:3), but typically the term refers to heavenly beings who serve what the Bible regards as the one true God, Yhwh.

Biblical authors use additional terms when speaking of such beings, especially those with an animal shape—for example, seraphs (flying heavenly snakes who chant praises of God; Isa 6:2-4) and kerubs (often transliterated as “cherubs”) or beings with the body of a bull, wings, and the face of a human, who hold up Yhwh’s throne or fly through the heavens (Ezek 9:3, Ezek 10, Ps 18:10, Ps 99:1). Biblical texts call heavenly beings who praise God qedoshim (“holy ones”; Ps 89:5, Ps 89:7), or b’nei elim or elohim (both of which can be translated as “gods”; Gen 6:2, Ps 29:1, Ps 82:6, Job 1:6).

Biblical authors never attribute distinct personalities to these beings, and only rarely do they refer to them by a specific name. When they do, the angel in a few cases is a deity we know from Canaanite religion. Hab 3:5 mentions Reshep, a god of pestilence mentioned in texts in several ancient languages, including Ugaritic and Phoenician. In Habakkuk, however, Reshep is not a god in charge of a particular cosmic phenomenon but a servant of Yhwh sent on destructive and awe-inspiring missions. Deut 32:24 shies away from viewing Reshep as a person, using the term as an abstract noun meaning “plague.”

Something similar happens in two passages in Exodus that present variations of a single text. One version of the text, Exod 12:23 (which is probably older), mentions hamashchit as “the Destroyer” whom God sends to smite the Egyptians. The other, Exod 12:13, says that God will not allow a plague of destruction (lamashchit) to affect the Israelites; the noun refers no longer to a messenger but to an abstraction, a force without personality. This tendency to downgrade angels from persons to abstract entities or ideas may result from the threat they present to monotheism: if angels are distinct beings, Israelites might believe they have power on their own and therefore might pray to them.

Some of the latest written texts of the Hebrew Bible start using names for angels, such as Gabriel (Dan 8:16, Dan 9:21) and Michael (Dan 10:13). Unlike Reshep, these are not the names of deities in other ancient Near Eastern cultures. By the time the book of Daniel was written in the second century B.C.E., the threat of polytheism within Israel was no longer a major concern, so authors could speak of specific heavenly beings other than Yhwh more freely.

Several biblical passages present a completely different understanding of angels. There mal’akh means a small-scale manifestation of God, and the distinction between the mal’akh and God is murky; this mal’akh is something very similar to an avatara in Hinduism, and one wonders whether “avatar” or “manifestation” might not be a better translation of the Hebrew term when used this way. This mal’akh is not a being separate from Yhwh whom Yhwh sent on a mission but is a part of the deity that can act on its own. This conception of mal’akh appears in Gen 18-19, Exod 3, Exod 23:20-23, and Judg 6.

  • Benjamin Sommer

    Benjamin Sommer is professor of Bible at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. Prior to teaching at the Jewish Theological Seminary, he served as Director of the Crown Family Center for Jewish Studies at Northwestern University. His book The Bodies of God and the World of Ancient Israel (Cambridge University Press, 2009) won several awards. His most recent book is Revelation and Authority: Sinai in Jewish Scripture and Tradition (Yale University Press, 2015).