Angels in Jewish Tradition

What the Hebrew scriptures and commentaries say about the role of heavenly creatures in a monotheistic faith.

BY: Rabbi David Wolpe

 

Why in the world do we need angels?



Angels seem not to fit inside a monotheistic faith. God can presumably accomplish anything, so what is the function of an angel? If they are doing God's bidding, they are unnecessary, and if they are opposing God, then how can any heavenly creature thwart the will of an omnipotent God?

Jewish teachings about angels are ancient, going back to the first five books of the Bible, the Torah. Cherubim with flaming swords guard the gates of Eden after Adam and Eve are banished (Gen. 3). An angel arrives to tell Abraham he and Sarah will have a child (Gen. 18) and then an angel stays Abraham's hand when he is about to sacrifice that child (Gen. 22). It is an angel who saves Hagar and Ishmael in the desert (Gen. 21), appears to Moses out of the burning bush (Ex. 3), and announces to Samson's mother to be that she is to have an exceptional child (Judges 13). This list is but a sampling of the angelology of the Bible.

God's intermediaries
Why do angels play such a prominent role in Jewish tradition? Some medieval Jewish commentators propose that angels are necessary because they perform tasks that are beneath the dignity of God's "personal involvement." Others, mostly moderns who understand heavenly agents as a way of giving God "cover," assume that angels permit God to distance Himself, in a way, from certain deeds or obligations. But part of the allure of angels is also the colorful and humanly compelling notion of a representative of God who is more humanlike, and therefore more approachable in imagination. For example, as outlandishly otherworldly as Ezekiel's description of angels may seem to us, with its depiction of four faces, animal countenances, four wings, wheels with eyes, fire, and so on, it is still more understandable than a God one cannot see. (For the full fantastic depiction, see Ezekiel 1).

The Hebrew word for angel, "mal'ach," means messenger. One traditional portrait of angels is as functionaries who carry out God's will. The rabbis declare that "wherever the angel appears the

shechina

(the divine Presence) appears (Exodus Rabbah 32:9)." Angels are used to give God distance from the action. Since it is too anthropomorphic (that is, giving God human characteristics) to have God wrestle with Jacob, an angel serves the purpose (Gen. 28).



Continued on page 2: Do angels have independent minds? »

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