The Hebrew Bible contains many references to supernatural beings, commonly known as angels. However, the concept of angels is not static or uniform, but rather dynamic and diverse. Angels undergo significant changes in their appearance, function, and status throughout the biblical tradition.
How can we account for these changes, and what do they reveal about the worldview and theology of the biblical authors and readers?
In this article, we will trace the development of the concept of angels in the Hebrew Bible from its origins to its culmination. We will examine how angels evolved from being mere messengers of God to being protectors and intercessors for the people of Israel. We will also explore how angels reflect the changing needs and expectations of humans in relation to God and his creation.
Angels in the Hebrew Bible: God’s Agents
The earliest references to angels in the Hebrew Bible are found in the books of Genesis and Exodus. The word “angel” comes from the Hebrew word malak, which means “messenger” or “envoy”. Angels are thus understood as God’s messengers, who deliver his messages, execute his judgments, or provide his guidance to humans.
For example, in Genesis 16, an angel of the LORD appears to Hagar, the maidservant of Sarah, who is pregnant with Abraham’s son Ishmael. The angel tells her to return to her mistress and promises that her descendants will be numerous.
In Genesis 22, an angel of the LORD stops Abraham from sacrificing his son Isaac and provides a ram as a substitute. In Exodus 3, an angel of the LORD appears to Moses in a burning bush and commissions him to lead the Israelites out of Egypt.
In these stories, angels act as God’s agents, who communicate his will and carry out his plans. They do not have personal names or identities but rather represent God’s presence and authority. They are not worshiped or prayed to, but rather obeyed and respected.
Angels in the Hebrew Bible: Individual Beings
The development of angelic names, such as Gabriel and Michael, reflects the increasing importance and individuality of angels in later biblical texts. These names are not mere titles or descriptions, but rather expressions of their personalities and functions.
For example, in Daniel 8, Gabriel appears to Daniel and explains to him the meaning of his vision of a ram and a goat. The name “Gabriel” means “God is my strength” or “mighty one of God”. Gabriel is thus portrayed as a powerful and knowledgeable angel, who reveals God’s secrets and mysteries. In Daniel 10, Michael appears to Daniel and helps him overcome the resistance of the prince of Persia. The name Michael means “who is like God” or “one who resembles God”. Michael is thus portrayed as a loyal and courageous angel, who fights for God’s people and causes.
In these texts, angels act as individual beings, who have their own names and identities. They do not merely represent God’s presence and authority but rather manifest their own abilities and attributes. They are not only obeyed and respected but also praised and honored.
Angels in the Hebrew Bible: Heavenly Mediators
The role of angels in apocalyptic literature, such as Daniel and Enoch, reveals their function as heavenly mediators, who reveal secrets, fight battles, and mediate between heaven and earth. Apocalyptic literature is a genre of writings that deal with the end times, the cosmic conflict between good and evil, and the ultimate destiny of humans and the world.
For example, in Daniel 7-12, angels reveal to Daniel the future events that will affect the history of Israel and the world. They explain to him the meaning of his visions of four beasts, a son of man, a little horn, a seventy-week prophecy, and a time of trouble. In Enoch 1-36 (also known as 1 Enoch or Ethiopic Enoch), Enoch is taken up to heaven by angels and shown various secrets and mysteries. He sees the throne of God, the fallen angels who sinned with human women, the place of punishment for the wicked, and the coming judgment.
In these texts, angels act as heavenly mediators, who bridge the gap between heaven and earth. They do not only communicate God’s will and carry out his plans, but also reveal his secrets and mysteries. They are not only praised and honored, but also trusted and relied upon.
We have seen how the concept of angels evolved in the Hebrew Bible from being mere emissaries of God to being protectors and intercessors for the people of Israel. Angels are not static or uniform entities, but dynamic and diverse beings. They reflect the changing needs and expectations of humans in relation to God. They also challenge us to think about our own relationship with God, angels, and other supernatural forces.
- Collins, John J. The Apocalyptic Imagination: An Introduction to Jewish Apocalyptic Literature. 3rd ed., Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2016.
- Freedman D.N., ed., The Anchor Bible Dictionary. 6 vols., Doubleday, 1992.
- Kvanvig H.S., Roots of Apocalyptic: The Mesopotamian Background of the Enoch Figure and of the Son of Man. Neukirchener Verlag, 1988.
- Metzger B.M., Coogan M.D., eds., The Oxford Companion to the Bible. Oxford University Press, 1993.
- Newsom C.A., Daniel: A Commentary. Westminster John Knox Press, 2014.