Found in the Encyclopedia Judaica


Many biblical writers assume the existence of beings superior to man in knowledge and power,, but subordinate to (and apparently creatures of) the one God. These beings serve as His attendants, like courtiers of an earthly king, and also as His agents to convey His messages to men and to carry out His will.


These beings are clearly designated by the English word "angel." The terminology of biblical Hebrew is not so exact. Mal$akh (Kalm), the word most often used, means "messenger" (cf. Ugaritic lak "to send"). It is applied frequently to human agents (e.g., Gen. 32:4) and is sometimes used figuratively (e.g., Ps. 104:4). This term was rendered in the Greek Bible by angelos which has the same variety of meanings; only when it was borrowed by the Latin Bible and then passed into other European languages did it acquire the exclusive meaning of "angel." Post-biblical Hebrew employs mal$akh only for superhuman messengers, and uses other words for human agents. Apparently for greater clarity, the Bible frequently calls the angel the mal$akh of God; yet the same title is occasionally applied to human agents of the Deity (Hag. 1:13; Mal. 2:7). Elsewhere angels are called $elohim (usually "god" or "gods"; Gen. 6:2; Job 1:6), more often bene $elohim or bene $elim (lit. "sons of gods")—in the general sense of "divine beings." They are also known as kedoshim (qedoshim; "holy beings"; Ps. 89:8; Job 5:1). Often the angel is called simply "man." The mysterious being who wrestled with Jacob is first called a man, then $elohim (Gen. 32:24 (25), 28 (29), 30 (31)); but Hosea refers to him also as a mal$akh (Hos. 12:5). As a result of this diversity, there are some passages where it is uncertain whether a human or superhuman messenger is meant. The Bible also speaks of winged creatures of angelic character called cherubim and seraphim, who serve a variety of functions. A further ambiguity is due to the fact that the Bible does not always distinguish clearly between God and His messenger. Thus, Hagar encounters an angel, but later addresses "the Lord that spoke unto her" (Gen. 16:7, 13; similarly 21:17ff.). It is God who commands the sacrifice of Isaac; later Abraham is addressed by the angel of the Lord from heaven (Gen. 22:1ff., 11:18). The angel of the Lord appears to Moses in the burning bush (Ex. 3:2), but through the rest of the story Moses converses with the Deity. So, too, in the Gideon story, Gideon speaks sometimes with God, sometimes with the angel of God (Judg. 6:11ff.). Some scholars infer from this phenomenon that the angel was not regarded as an independent being, but simply as a manifestation of the Divine power and will. Others suppose that in the earliest version of these stories a human being was confronted directly by God, and that later scribes toned down the boldness of this concept by interposing an angel.


Micaiah describes a vision in which the Lord is seated on His throne, with the host of heaven standing by on His right and left (I Kings 22:19; II Chron. 18:18). But frequently the phrase "host of heaven" means the heavenly bodies (Deut. 4:19; Jer. 8:2, etc.). Similarly, Isaiah (ch. 6) sees the Deity enthroned while the seraphim proclaim His holiness and majesty. One of the seraphim purifies Isaiah by a symbolic act, so that, unlike Micaiah, he becomes not a witness to but a participant in the ensuing deliberation of the council (cf. Zech. 3:7b), and when the Lord, as in Micaiah's vision, calls (like El in the council of the gods in the Ugaritic Epic of Keret) for a volunteer, Isaiah responds. In the ancient cosmic hymn Psalms 89:1–3, 6–19, the goodness of God is praised by the assembly of the holy beings because, the psalmist emphasizes, He is incomparably greater than they and they stand in awe of Him (Ps. 89:6–9). This last is similarly stressed in two other early compositions (see Ex. 15:11 and Ps. 29). Not improbably, the motif arose in an age when it was not yet a platitude that "the assembly of the holy beings" or "the company of the divine beings" (Ps. 29:7) is not a pantheon of real gods. So, no doubt, did the practice of representing those beings as standing before God, who alone is seated (I Kings 22:19; Isa. 6:2; Zech. 3:1–7, especially 3:7 end; Job 1:6; 2:1). The exception, Isaiah 14:13, only confirms the rule: the speaker there is a pagan. Despite the masoretic pointing dina$ ("the Tribunal") in Daniel 7:10, 20, the scruple may have persisted into the second century C.E., since the context favors rather the interpretation of the consonantal graph anyd as dayyana$ ("the Judge"). Related to the deuteronomic idea that the Lord actually assigned the heavenly bodies and the idols to the Gentiles but chose Israel to worship him (Deut. 4:15–20; 29:25), is the remarkable passage (Deuteronomy 32:8–9): "When the Most High gave nations their homes and set the divisions of men, He fixed the borders of peoples according to the numbers of the divine beings (la      ynY; so a Qumran fragment, in agreement with the Septuagint). But the Lord's own portion is His people, Jacob His own allotment." The masoretic reading larRy            ynY "the children of Israel" for the reading of the Qumran fragment and the Septuagint cited above is a conflation of the latter and of a variant la     yrR, "the ministers of God." This variant is not attested directly, but its existence may be deduced from the fact that it would account both for the masoretic reading in Deuteronomy 32:8 and for the use of rR, "minister" in Daniel 10:20 twice, 21; 12:1. For these passages are obviously nothing but a bold development of Deuteronomy 32:8–9. Their doctrine is that the fates of nations are determined by combats among the celestial "ministers" to whom they have been assigned and that (despite Deut. 32:9) Israel also has a "minister," Michael, who is assisted by another angel, Gabriel. In Job, the divine beings appear before God as a body, perhaps to report on the performance of their tasks and to obtain fresh orders; one of them is the Satan, who carries out his functions under God's directions (Job 1:6ff.; 2:1ff.). The angels seen by Jacob ascending and descending the ladder (Gen. 28:12) seem to be messengers going forth on their several errands and coming back to heaven to report.


The narrative books offer many instances of an angel—rarely, two or more—delivering a message or performing an action, or both. The angel appears in human form, and sometimes is not immediately recognized as an angel. The appearance of an angel to Hagar (Gen. 16:7ff.; 21:17ff.) and to Abraham at Mount Moriah (Gen. 22:11ff.) was noted above. Further, three "men" visit Abraham to announce the birth of Isaac; two of them go on to Sodom to warn Lot to flee, and to destroy the city (Gen. 18:1ff.; 19:1, 13ff.). The angel of God appears to Jacob in a dream, says "I am the God of Beth-El," and bids him return to his home (31:11ff.). The angel of God plays a role, not entirely clear, in the events at the Sea of Reeds (Ex. 14:19ff). In the Book of the Covenant, God promises to send His angel to lead the Israelites and to overcome the obstacles to their entrance into the promised land. God's name is in the angel, who must be faithfully obeyed (23:20ff.). When Balaam accedes to Balak's plea for help, the angel of the Lord comes as an adversary to the enchanter. The angel is visible to the she-ass, but Balaam cannot see the angel until the Lord opens his eyes (Num. 22:22ff.). When the "captain of the host of the Lord" appears to Joshua, the latter does not at first realize that his visitor is an angel (Josh. 5:13). The mal$akh of the Lord in Judges 2:1ff., 10 and 5:23 may be a prophet; but the visitor who summons Gideon to leadership and performs wonders is clearly an angel (ibid., 6:11ff.). The same is true of the emissary who foretells the birth of Samson, and whose angelic nature is made manifest only when he ascends to heaven in the altar flame (ibid., 13:2ff., esp. 16, 20). An angel with a drawn sword is the agent of the pestilence in the days of David (II Sam. 24:16–17; I Chron. 21:15ff.; the drawn sword is mentioned also in the Balaam and Joshua incidents). The old prophet pretends he has received a revelation from an angel (I Kings 13:18). An angel appears once in the Elijah stories (ibid., 19:5ff.). The army of Sennacherib is destroyed by the angel of the Lord (II Kings 19:35; Isa. 37:36; II Chron. 32:21). The angel of the Lord appears two times in Psalms: in 34:8, he protects the righteous; and in 35:5–6, he brings doom upon the wicked.


Other references to angels in the Psalms are scattered throughout the book. In a few places, angels are called on to join with the rest of creation in praising God (Ps. 29:1; 103:20–21; 148:2; cf. 89:6ff.; in 96:7, the phrase "families of the nations" is substituted for the "sons of God" of 29:1; Ps. 78:49 and 104:4, most probably refer to forces of nature that perform God's will). In Psalms 91:11–12, God commands His angels to protect the faithful from harm. The other Hagiographa have little to say about angels. The only possible allusion, in Proverbs 30:3, is doubtful. In Job, aside from the references to the "sons of God," angels are mentioned only by the three friends and Elihu. The friends point out that even the angels, the holy ones, are not flawless, and that man is still further from perfection (Job 4:18; 5:1; 15:15). Elihu speaks of an angelic intercessor for man (ibid, 33:23–24), but the passage is obscure. The subject matter of the Five Scrolls is such that no special significance need be attached to their silence on the subject of angels (Eccles. 5:5 is hardly relevant).


The prophets, except Ezekiel and Zechariah, say almost nothing about angels. In all pre-exilic prophecy, there are just two passages in which angels are mentioned. One is the rather obscure reference to the Jacob story in Hosea (12:5–6; contrast v. 14). It has been explained as a satirical attack on the cult of the angel (or divinity) Beth-El (see Ginsberg, in: JBL, 80 (1961), 343–7; cf. Gen. 31:11–12). The other is Isaiah's initial vision (6:1ff.), in which the winged seraphim have a prominent part. Thereafter, Isaiah makes no mention of angels (33:7 is obscure and probably not Isaianic). Jeremiah is completely silent on the subject; so is (according to the critical theory) the roughly contemporaneous Book of Deuteronomy. In the Exilic period, Deutero-Isaiah does not mention angels (Isa. 63:9 does mention the "angel of His presence," but the Greek reads—probably correctly: "No messenger or angel; it was His presence that saved them.") Special significance is attached to the fact that Haggai calls himself (1:13) "the messenger of the Lord with the message of the Lord (mal$akh $Elohim be-mal$akhut $Elohim)—apparently to stress the thought that God's emissary to man is a prophet, not a supernatural being. Malachi's attitude is not entirely certain. His name (meaning "My messenger") may be a pseudonym, and he asserts that the priest is the mal$akh of the Lord of Hosts (Mal. 2:7). The mal$akh of the Covenant (ibid., 3:1–2) may, however, be an angel, though the phrase might also refer to the returning Elijah (ibid., 3:23–24). Finally, it should be noted that the priestly code (regarded by many scholars as post-Exilic, though others consider it very ancient) does not allude to angels, except for the provision that cherubim are to be depicted on the Ark cover. This array of facts cannot be dismissed as mere accident, especially since angels appear so often in the narrative portions of the Pentateuch, in the historical books, and in the prophetic writings of Ezekiel and Zechariah. Perhaps David Neumark overstressed this disagreement as a major issue of biblical thought (see: e.g., his Essays in Jewish Philosophy (1929), 104ff.). But the issue was certainly not unimportant.


In the theophanies described by Ezekiel, the Divine Presence is seated on a throne supported by four fantastic creatures, called in chapter 1 hayyot ("living beasts" or "beasts"), but identified in chapters 8–11 as cherubim. In the latter section, moreover, the destruction of Jerusalem is a task assigned to six armed "men," while a "man clothed in linen with a scribe's inkhorn on his side" is to mark the foreheads of such righteous individuals as are to be saved (9:1ff.). Later, this same man in linen takes live coals from the fire between the cherubim, to be used in setting the city afire (10:1ff.). Chapters 11–39 of Ezekiel do not mention angels. But in the visions of the rebuilt temple (ch. 40–48), the prophet is guided by a man "who shone like copper" (40:3) and who goes about measuring the various courts and buildings and explaining their functions. During the vision Ezekiel also receives instruction directly from God; and after chapter 47:12 the "man" is not mentioned again.

In Zechariah, angels are almost constantly present. The book consists largely of symbolic visions, explained to the prophet by "the angel that spoke with me" (1:9, 14; 2:1–7; 4:1–5; 5:5–10; 6:4–5). The "angel of the Lord" appears several times; he intercedes with God on behalf of Israel (1:12–13); he presides over the rehabilitation of Joshua and rebukes the Satan for accusing the latter (3:1ff.). A number of other angels are reported to be standing by Zechariah also applies the term "man" to angelic beings (1:8ff.; 2:5ff.; the two women with stork-like wings, 5:9, seem to be symbolic figures rather than angels). For the first time in the Bible the angels in Zechariah appear to be acquiring an independent life on their own.


The Book of Daniel repeats much about angels which is found in earlier parts of the Bible. It tells of innumerable attendants around the Divine throne (7:10), and reports that an angel saved the three men in the furnace (3:25, 28) and Daniel from the lions (6:23). It sometimes calls an angel "man"; one angel is described as a man clad in linen (10:5, 12:7; cf. above on Ezekiel). But Daniel has strong affinities with the extra-biblical apocalypses, and so presents many new features in regard to angels. The revelations received by Daniel are either symbolic visions, which an angel interprets (ch. 7, 8), or they are revealed in their entirety by an angel (ch. 10–12). Zechariah, too, had visions which an angel explained. But he also delivered prophecies received directly from God; such a thing never occurs in Daniel. In the latter book, too, angels do not merely carry out orders, but have some powers of initiative: "The matter has been decreed by the ever-wakeful ones, the sentence is by the word of the holy ones" (4:14). Moreover, the angels now have proper names: Gabriel (8:16; 9:21) and Michael (10:13; 12:1). This is the only biblical book in which angels have distinct personalities. Finally, the idea that each nation has an angelic patron, whose actions and destinies are bound up with those of his nation, is encountered for the first time. Mention is made of the patrons of Persia and Greece (10:13, 20); and Michael is the champion of Israel (12:1. On this concept cf. Isa. 24:2).

[Bernard J. Bamberger]