Angels are messengers of God. This is how they are termed in the Hebrew bible. The Hebrew word mal’akh means ‘one sent as a deputy’. The word may be used of humans (Gen 32:4, Jdg 9:31, 1Kgs 19:2) as well as heavenly beings. A prophet or priest may also be called a mal’akh (Hag 1:13, Mal 2:7).
In earliest Israelite tradition, angels are nameless, without mythological qualities, having neither individuality nor free will. They have no option but to speak and do what God tells them to. This is why whenever angels speak to human beings, there is a strange dual conversation going on, as if both God and the angels are speaking at the same time. A prime example of this is in Genesis 18 & 19, when the three angels visit Abraham. The pronouns and verbs go backwards and forwards between the singular and plural; at once it is the angels, and then God speaking. In the story of Gid`on (Jdg 6:11-23), God and his angel speak interchangeably. So also when Hagar is addressed by an angel, she actually responds directly to God (Gen 16:7-9, 11) – after all, she might as well, because the angel is the mouthpiece of God.
The Sadducees did not believe in angels, and it is possible that the earliest Israelites did not have any developed belief in them. Some scholars say that a belief in angels did not fully develop until after the Babylonian exile, since both the Babylonians and the Persians had a highly developed angelology. However, messengers of God and heavenly beings pervade the stories and legends of the Hebrews, so that belief in the existence of angels is taken as a given, and native to Hebrew thought.
While Israelite religion neither confirms nor denies the existence of angels, and neither encourages nor discourages belief in them, some Yahwist warnings need to be given. Prayer is to be directed only towards YHVH; we are not to pray to angels as if they had the free will and power to make things happen. We may only speak to them if they speak directly to us.
Nor are we to attempt in any way to conjure up angels, because such would be to practice magic, in seeking to control that which we are not meant to control.
And we are not meant to make our faith and belief dependent on the existence of angels, or make life decisions on the existence of angels.
The nature of angels
Though heavenly beings, they assume human form. Angels appear to us in the shape of human beings of extraordinary beauty, and are not always recognised as angels (Gen. 18:2, 19:5; Judges 6:17, 8:6; 2Sam. 29:9); they fly through the air; they can become invisible; they can disappear into the flames of a fire, and they can appear in the flames of a thornbush (Gen. 16:13; Judges 6:21, 22; 2Kings, 2:11; Ex. 3:2). They are pure and bright as heaven; consequently they are formed of fire and are encompassed by light (Job, 15:15), as the Psalmist says (Ps. 104:4): “Who makes winds his messengers; his ministers a flaming fire.” They are immaterial, not being subject to the limitations of time and space.
In the Book of Daniel, probably written 165 B.C., reference is made to an angel “clothed in linen, whose loins were girded with fine gold of Uphaz: his body also was like the beryl, and his face as the appearance of lightning, and his eyes as lamps of fire, and his arms and his feet like in colour to polished brass, and the voice of his words like the voice of a multitude” (Dan. 6:5-6). It is an open question whether at that time angels were imagined to possess wings (Dan. 9:21).
Angels are sometimes referred to as ‘holy ones’. It could be that in heaven, there is little distinction between angels and the heavenly entities which are later born on earth as human beings.
The purpose of angels
According to tradition, some angels deliver messages and visions; others mete out punishment; yet others guard nations and individuals. In heaven, the angels minister to God, and bring our prayers before him as sacred offerings of light. It is thought that Israelites caught onto the existence of angels as a device for personifying the will of God, a device to avoid anthropomorphising God. Angels therefore serve as mediators between a transcendent God and this world – between one reality and the next.
Later Jewish tradition gave names to angels, even though they have no individuality. By tradition, there are seven archangels:
- Mikha’eil – the defender of Israel
- Gabri’eil – the messenger, explains vision, gives insight
- Refa’eil – the healer, the angel of dedication and consecration
- Uri’eil – angel of ministration, repentance and peace
- Sari’eil – the angel of death
- Reia`eil – the angel of God’s judgment after death; guides souls through Purification as they review their lives
- Y’rachme’eil – watches over souls on their way from Purification to heaven
Mikha’eil is the chief prince of the angels (Dan. 10:13), who is also represented as the tutelary prince and guardian of Israel.
Gabri’eil is thought to be second to Mikha’eil. Gabriel is one of the four angels that stand at the four sides of God’s throne and together serve as guardian angels of the four parts of the globe. This angel is an explainer of visions (it explains to Daniel his visions, Dan. 8:16-26, 9:21-27).
Raphael is one of the seven archangels who bring prayers before God (Tobit xii. 15), the angel of healing.
The four angels Mikha’eil, Gabri’eil, Refa’eil, and Uri’eil appear much more often in works of Jewish mysticism. From heaven they behold all the bloodshed on earth and bring the laments of souls before YHVH (Enoch, 9:1-3). From out of the darkness they lead souls to God. They are the four angels of the Presence, and stand on the four sides of YHVH’s throne, where they glorify God (Enoch, xl.,
As for Sari’eil, in ancient tradition, the angel of death is neither good nor evil, it merely takes souls at their appointed time. When the kingdom of God is fulfilled, and the barriers are broken down between heaven and earth, Sari’eil will no longer walk the earth, his duties over.
Reia`eil meets souls after they die, and guides them through the process of purification as they review their lives. Y’rachme’eil then guides purified souls onward to their eternal rest in heaven.
Serafim and kheruvim
Traditionally, a seraf is like a fiery serpent with 3 sets of wings, one covering their faces, one covering their feet, and one for flying. In a vision of the prophet Isaiah chapter 6, Isaiah saw several serafim, their exact number not being given, standing before the throne of YHVH. The serafim cry continually to each other, “holier than the holiest holiness is YHVH of the heavenly battalions: the whole earth is full of His glory” They are not messengers, but rather ministers of the throne of God, beings that glory in God’s holiness.
The number and form of the kheruvim vary in different representations. There seem to be two main types of kheruv. One is like a sphinx, but has the front end of a lion, the back end of a bull, the wings of an eagle bent forward, and the upper body of a human being. This is the type that was represented on the Ark of the Covenant, and guarded the ark in the Temple of Solomon. This type was also carved on the ends of Israelite thrones.
Another type is described by Ezekiel as a tetrad of living creatures, each having four faces—of a lion, an ox, an eagle, and a man—the stature and hands of a man, the feet of a calf, and four wings. Two of the wings extended upward, meeting above and sustaining the throne of God; while the other two stretched downward and covered the creatures themselves. They never turned, but went “straight forward” as the wheels of the cherubic chariot, and they were full of eyes “like burning coals of fire”
In the early days of Israel’s history the kheruvim became the divine chariot, the bearer of the throne of YHVH. They are possibly identical with the storm-winds (Ps. 18:11; 2Sam. 22:11: “And He rode upon a kheruv and flew: and He was seen upon the wings of the wind”.
They were also heaven’s guards and armies. The tseva’ot, so often translated as ‘hosts’, are in fact the battalions or armies of heaven. One of God’s titles is ‘YHVH of the battalions of heaven’.
We cannot know foer cetain what the heavenly beings are or look like; we cannot know for certain their duties or purposes. All we can know is the here and now; for this reason, we should keep our mind focussed on God’s active Presence here and now; because this, we can be sure of.