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 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).
Gods or goddesses; powerful supernatural figures worshipped by humans.
migration of the ancient Israelites from Egypt into Canaan
A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.
The set of Biblical books shared by Jews and Christians. A more neutral alternative to "Old Testament."
Associated with a deity; exhibiting religious importance; set apart from ordinary (i.e. "profane") things.
Visible or tangible form of something ethereal, abstract, or invisible.
A program of good works—or the calling to such a program—performed by a person or organization.
A religious system characterized by belief in the existence of a single deity.
The belief in multiple deities.
related to the city of Ugarit
The name of Israel's god, but with only the consonants of the name, as spelled in the Hebrew Bible. In antiquity, Jews stopped saying the name as a sign of reverence. Some scholars today use only the consonants to recognize the lost original pronunciation or to respect religious tradition.
Jacob Sends Presents to Appease Esau
3Jacob sent messengers before him to his brother Esau in the land of Seir, the country of Edom,
2Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew.3And ... View more
3Now the glory of the God of Israel had gone up from the cherub on which it rested to the threshold of the house. The Lord called to the man clothed in linen, w ... View more
God's Glory Leaves Jerusalem
1Then I looked, and above the dome that was over the heads of the cherubim there appeared above them something like a sapphire, in ... View more
10He rode on a cherub, and flew;
he came swiftly upon the wings of the wind.
Praise to God for His Holiness
1The Lord is king; let the peoples tremble!
He sits enthroned upon the cherubim; let the earth quake!
5Let the heavens praise your wonders, O Lord,
your faithfulness in the assembly of the holy ones.
7a God feared in the council of the holy ones,
great and awesome above all that are around him?
2the sons of God saw that they were fair; and they took wives for themselves of all that they chose.
The Voice of God in a Great Storm
A Psalm of David.
1Ascribe to the Lord, O heavenly beings,
ascribe to the Lord glory and strength.
6I say, “You are gods,
children of the Most High, all of you;
Attack on Job's Character
6One day the heavenly beings came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came among them.
5Before him went pestilence,
and plague followed close behind.
The teeth of beasts I will send against them,
with venom of things crawling in the dust.
23For the Lord will pass through to strike down the Egyptians; when he sees the blood on the lintel and on the two doorposts, the Lord will pass over that door ... View more
13The blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you live: when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall destroy you when I strike the ... View more
16and I heard a human voice by the Ulai, calling, “Gabriel, help this man understand the vision.”
21while I was speaking in prayer, the man Gabriel, whom I had seen before in a vision, came to me in swift flight at the time of the evening sacrifice.
13But the prince of the kingdom of Persia opposed me twenty-one days. So Michael, one of the chief princes, came to help me, and I left him there with the princ ... View more
A Son Promised to Abraham and Sarah
1The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day.2He looked ... View more
Moses at the Burning Bush
1Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Ho ... View more
The Conquest of Canaan Promised
20I am going to send an angel in front of you, to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place that I have prepared.21Be a ... View more
The Midianite Oppression
1The Israelites did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, and the Lord gave them into the hand of Midian seven years.2The hand of Mid ... View more