Image: Stone statue of an angel. (bernswaelz/pixabay)
The word usually translated “angel” in the Bible is the Hebrew malach (mah-LAKH) which means messenger. An angel-messenger appeared to Abraham and Isaac in Genesis 22:10-12:
And Abraham stretched out his hand and took the knife to kill his son, and the angel of the Eternal called out to him out of heaven, and said, “Abraham! Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” And he said, “Do not lay your hand upon the young man, nor do anything to him, for now I know you are a God-fearing man, seeing that you have not withheld your son, your only son, from Me.”
Notice that while the angel is sent with a message, it speaks with the words of God – it is purely a messenger with no personality of its own.
Jacob sees angels in a dream in Genesis 28:12:
And he dreamed, and look! a ladder was set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven; and look! angels of God ascending and descending on it! And, look! The Eternal stood beside him, and said: ‘I am the Eternal, the God of Abraham your father, and the God of Isaac. I will give you the land where you lie, to you will I give it, and to your descendants.
In this case, the angels are the visible accompaniment to a message delivered by God, if we accept the plain meaning of the text. The message of the angels is more ambiguous than the words of God; there is no plain meaning, yet there they are before the words, creating a scene in which Jacob hears the words.
In Numbers 22, we read the story of Balaam’s encounter with an angel. The King of Moab wants Balaam to curse Israel for him. God comes to Balaam at night and forbids him to curse Israel. Finally the King sends armed men to bring Balaam. God comes in a dream and says, “OK, you can respond to the king’s command, but don’t say anything unless I approve it.” God is angry when Balaam goes with the men, and sends a stern message by way of an angel in Numbers 22: 22-35:
God’s anger was kindled because he was going, and the angel of the Eternal took his stand in the road as his adversary. Now he was riding on the donkey, and his two servants were with him. The donkey saw the angel of the Eternal standing in the road, with a drawn sword in his hand; so the donkey turned off the road, and went into the field; and Balaam struck the donkey, to turn it back onto the road. Then the angel of the Eternal stood in a narrow path between the vineyards, with a wall on either side. When the donkey saw the angel of the Eternal, it scraped against the wall, and scraped Balaam’s foot against the wall; so he struck it again. Then the angel of the Eternal went ahead, and stood in a narrow place, where there was no way to turn either to the right or to the left. When the donkey saw the angel of the Eternal, it lay down under Balaam; and Balaam’s anger was kindled, and he struck the donkey with his staff. Then the Eternal opened the mouth of the donkey, and it said to Balaam, “What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?” Balaam said to the donkey, “Because you have made a fool of me! I wish I had a sword in my hand! I would kill you right now!” But the donkey said to Balaam, “Am I not your donkey, which you have ridden all your life to this day? Have I been in the habit of treating you this way?” And he said, “No.”
Then the Eternal opened the eyes of Balaam, and he saw the angel of the Eternal standing in the road, with his drawn sword in his hand; and he bowed down, falling on his face. The angel of the Eternal said to him, “Why have you struck your donkey these three times? I have come out as an adversary, because your way is perverse before me. The donkey saw me, and turned away from me these three times. If it had not turned away from me, surely just now I would have killed you and let it live.” Then Balaam said to the angel of the Eternal, “I have sinned, for I did not know that you were standing in the road to oppose me. Now therefore, if it is displeasing to you, I will return home.” The angel of the Eternal said to Balaam, “Go with the men; but speak only what I tell you to speak.” So Balaam went on with the officials of Balak.
As in the case of Jacob, God speaks for Godself, but angels serve to emphasize the message. While God gives the order “it’s OK to go,” the angels express God’s emotion: anger. It’s all part of the message.
Biblical angels are messengers. In Tanakh, the Jewish Bible, only two are named (Gabriel and Michael) but many of them are in the stories. The prophet Ezekiel has descriptions of divine creatures that sound very much like angels. In the period after the return from Babylon, the literature about angels multiplied into books we now know as Apocrypha: Tobit, Enoch, and Esdras.
Later, the other Abrahamic religions would take up the concept of angels. Both Islam and Christianity have rich traditions about the same angels that are mentioned in Jewish and apocryphal texts.