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Angel

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This article describes supernatural creatures; for other meanings, see angel (disambiguation).
An angel is a spiritual being which assists and serves God or the gods in many religious traditions. The word originated from the Latin angelus, itself derived from the Greek ἄγγελος, ággelos, meaning “messenger” (written "gg" is spoken "ng" in Greek). The closest Hebrew word for angel is מלאך, mal'ach, also meaning messenger.

Table of contents
1 General information
2 Jewish views
3 Christian views
4 Islamic views
5 Other Religions
6 Related topics

General information

The Biblical name for angel, mal'akh (meaning "messenger"), obtained the further signification of "angel" only through the addition of God's name, as "angel of the Lord," or "angel of God" (Zech. xii. 8). Other appellations are "Sons of God," (Gen. vi. 4; Job, i. 6 [R. V. v. 1]) and "the Holy Ones" (Ps. lxxxix. 6, 8).

In the Hebrew Bible, angels often appear to people in the shape of humans of extraordinary beauty, and often are not immediately recognized as angels (Gen. xviii. 2, xix. 5; Judges, vi. 17, xiii. 6; II Sam. xxix. 9); some fly through the air; some become invisible; sacrifices touched by them are consumed by fire; and they may disappear in sacrificial fire, like Elijah, who rode to heaven in a fiery chariot. Angels appeared in the flames of the thorn bush (Gen. xvi. 13; Judges, vi. 21, 22; II Kings, ii. 11; Ex. iii. 2). They are described as pure and bright as heaven; consequently they are said to be formed of fire and encompassed by light (Job, xv. 15), as the Psalmist said (Ps. civ. 4, R. V.): "Who makes winds his messengers; his ministers a flaming fire."

Appearance of Angels

Though superhuman, angels assume human form; this is the earliest conception. Gradually, and especially in post-Biblical times, angels came to be bodied forth in a form corresponding to the nature of the mission to be fulfilled—generally, however, the human form. They bear drawn swords or destroying weapons in their hands—one carries an ink-horn by his side—and ride on horses (Num. xxii. 23, Josh. v. 13, Ezek. ix. 2, Zech. i. 8 et seq.). A terrible angel is the one mentioned in I Chron. xxi. 16, 30, as standing "between the earth and the heaven, having a drawn sword in his hand." In the Book of Daniel 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 color to polished brass, and the voice of his words like the voice of a multitude" (Dan. x. 5, 6). It is an open question whether at that time angels were thought to possess wings (Dan. ix. 21). In art, they are commonly depicted with halos.

Images of angels in Christian art are identical to prior depiction of gods such as Zeus and Nike, in pre-Christian classical art, and some divine beings in Mesopotamian art. The use of wings suggests an original artistic convention merely intended to denote the figure as a spirit.

Angels are portrayed as powerful and dreadful, endowed with wisdom and with knowledge of all earthly events, correct in their judgment, holy, but not infallible: they strive against each other, and God has to make peace between them. When their duties are not punitive, angels are beneficent to man (Ps. ciii. 20, lxxviii. 25; II Sam. xiv. 17, 20, xix. 28; Zech. xiv. 5; Job, iv. 18, xxv. 2).

The number of angels is enormous. Jacob meets a host of angels; Joshua sees the "captain of the host of the Lord"; God sits on His throne, "all the host of heaven standing by him on his right hand and on his left"; the sons of God come "to present themselves before the Lord" (Gen. xxxii. 2; Josh. v. 14, 15; I Kings, xxii. 19; Job, i. 6, ii. 1; Ps. lxxxix. 6; Job, xxxiii. 23). The general conception is the one of Job (xxv. 3): "Is there any number of his armies?"

An angel statue in a church in BelgiumEnlarge

An angel statue in a church in Belgium

Though the older writings usually mention one angel of the Lord, embassies to men as a rule comprised several messengers. The inference, however, is not to be drawn that God Himself or one particular angel was designated: the expression was given simply to God's power to accomplish through but one angel any deed, however wonderful.

Angels are referred to in connection with their special missions as, for instance, the "angel which hath redeemed," "an interpreter," "the angel that destroyed," "messenger of the covenant," "angel of his presence," and "a band of angels of evil" (Gen. xlviii. 16; Job, xxxiii. 23; II Sam. xxiv. 16; Mal. iii. 1; Isa. lxiii. 9; Ps. lxxviii. 49, R. V.). When, however, the heavenly host is regarded in its most comprehensive aspect, a distinction may be made between cherubim, seraphim, ḥayyot ("living creatures"), ofanim ("wheels"), and arelim (the meaning of which term is unknown). God is described as riding on the cherubim and as "the Lord of hosts, who dwelleth between the cherubim"; while the latter guard the way of the Tree of Life (I Sam. iv. 4, Ps. lxxx. 2, Gen. iii. 24). The seraphim are described by Isaiah (vi. 2) as having six wings; and Ezekiel describes the ḥayyot (Ezek. i. 5 et seq.) and ofanim as heavenly beings who carry God's throne.

In post-Biblical times the heavenly hosts became more highly organized (possibly as early as Zechariah [iii. 9, iv. 10]; certainly in Daniel), and there came to be various kinds of angels; some even being provided with names, as will be shown below.

Purpose

In the Bible, angels are the medium of God's power; they exist to execute God's will. Angels reveal themselves to individuals as well as to the whole nation, in order to announce events, either good or bad, affecting them. Angels foretold to Abraham the birth of Isaac, to Manoah the birth of Samson, and to Abraham the destruction of Sodom. Guardian angels were mentioned, but not, as was later the case, as guardian spirits of individuals and nations. God sent an angel to protect the Hebrew people after their exodus from Egypt, to lead them to the promised land, and to destroy the hostile tribes in their way (Ex. xxiii. 20, Num. xx. 16).

In Judges (ii. 1) an angel of the Lord—unless here and in the preceding instances (compare Isa. xlii. 19, Ḥag. i. 13, Mal. iii. 1) a human messenger of God is meant—addressed the whole people, swearing to bring them to the promised land. An angel brought Elijah meat and drink (I Kings, xix. 5); and as God watched over Jacob, so is every pious person protected by an angel who cares for him in all his ways (Ps. xxxiv. 7, xci. 11). There are angels militant, one of whom smites in one night the whole Assyrian army of 185,000 men (II Kings, xix. 35); messengers go forth from God "in ships to make the careless Ethiopians afraid" (Ezek. xxx. 9); the enemy is scattered before the angel like chaff (Ps. xxxv. 5, 6).

Avenging angels are mentioned, such as the one in II Sam. xxiv. 15, who annihilates thousands. It would seem that the pestilence was personified, and that the "evil angels" mentioned in Ps. lxxviii. 49 are to be regarded as personifications of this kind. "Evil" is here to be taken in the causative sense, as "producing evil"; for, as stated above, angels are generally considered to be by nature beneficent to man. They glorify God, whence the term "glorifying angels" (Ps. xxix. 1, ciii. 20, cxlviii. 2; compare Isa. vi. 2 et seq.).

They constitute God's court, sitting in council with him (I Kings, xxii. 19; Job, i. 6, ii. 1); hence they are called His "council of the holy ones" (Ps. lxxxix. 7, R. V.; A. V. "assembly of the saints"). They accompany God as His attendants when He appears to man (Deut. xxxiii. 2; Job, xxxviii. 7). This conception was developed after the Exile; and in Zechariah angels of various shapes are delegated "to walk to and fro through the earth" in order to find out and report what happens (Zech. vi. 7).

In the prophetic books angels appear as representatives of the prophetic spirit, and bring to the prophets God's word. Thus the prophet Haggai was called God's messenger (angel); and it is known that "Malachi" is not a real name, but means "messenger" or "angel." It is noteworthy that in I Kings, xiii. 18, an angel brought the divine word to the prophet.

In some places it is inferred that angels existed before the Creation (Gen. i. 26; Job, xxxviii. 7). The earlier Biblical writings did not speculate about them; simply regarding them, in their relations to man, as God's agents. Consequently, they did not individualize or denominate them; and in Judges, xiii. 18, and Gen. xxxii. 30, the angels, when questioned, refuse to give their names. In Daniel, however, there occur the names Michael and Gabriel. Michael is Israel's representative in heaven, where other nations—the Persians, for instance—were also represented by angelic princes. More than three hundred years before the Book of Daniel was written, Zechariah graded the angels according to their rank, but did not name them. The notion of the seven eyes (Zech. iii. 9, iv. 10) may have been affected by the representation of the seven archangels and also possibly by the seven amshaspands of Zoroastrianism (compare Ezek. ix. 2).

Jewish views

Angels appear in several Old Testament (Hebrew Bible) stories, in addition to the ones previously mentioned above. These include the warning to Lot of the imminent destruction of Sodom. Many Bible chapters mention an "angry God" who sends His angel to smite the enemies of the Israelites. Traditional Jewish biblical commentators have a variety of ways of explaining what an angel is. The earliest Biblical books present angels as heavenly beings created by God, some of whom apparently are endowed with free will. Later biblical books in the Tanakh present a stunningly different view of angels, as Jewish thought and understanding of such things developed over the many years covered in the Bible. Such a differing perspective on angels is discovered in the Book of Ezekiel, where these angels bear no relation whatsoever to the former understanding of what an angel was.

The archangels named in post-exile Judaism are Gabriel, Michael, Raphael, Uriel, Raguel, Sariel, and Jerahmeel. Gabriel and Michael are mentioned in the book of Daniel, Raphael in the book of Tobit and the remaining four in the book of Enoch.

Maimonides and Rationalism

In the Middle Ages, some Jews developed a rationalist view of angels that is still accepted by many Jews today. The rationalist view of angels, as held by Maimonides, Gersonides, Samuel Ibn Tibbon, etc., states that God's actions are never mediated by a violation of the laws of nature. Rather, all such interactions are by way of angels. Even this can be highly misleading: Maimonides harshly states that the average person's understanding of the term "angel" is ignorant in the extreme. Instead, he says, the wise man sees that what the Bible and Talmud refer to as "angels" are actually metaphors for the various laws of nature, or the principles by which the physical universe operates, or kinds of platonic eternal forms. This is explained in his Guide of the Perplexed II:4 and II:6.

II:4

"...This leads Aristotle in turn to the demonstrated fact that God, glory and majesty to Him, does not do things by direct contact. God burns things by means of fire; fire is moved by the motion of the sphere; the sphere is moved by means of a disembodied intellect, these intellects being the "angels which are near to Him," through whose mediation the spheres [planets] move....thus totally disembodied minds exist which emanate from God and are the intermediaries between God and all the bodies [objects] here in this world."

II:6

"...Aristotle's doctrine that these disembodied spheres serve as the nexus between God and existence, by whose mediation the sphere are brought into motion, which is the cause of all becoming, is the express import of all the Scriptures. For you will never in Scripture any activity done by God except through an angel. And "angel", as you know, means messenger. Thus anything which executes a command is an angel. So the motions of living beings, even those that are inarticulate, are said explicitly by Scripture to be due to angels.

...Our argument here is concerned solely with those "angels" which are disembodied intellects. For our Bible is not unaware that God governs this existence through the mediation of angels...(Maimonides then quotes discussions of angels from Genesis, Plato, and Midrash Bereshit Rabbah)...the import in all these texts is not—as a primitive mentality would suppose—to suggest any discussion or planning or seeking of advice on God's part. How could the Creator receive aid from the object of his creation? The real import of all is to proclaim that existence—including particular individuals and even the formation of the parts of animals such as they are—is brought about entirely through the mediation of angels.

For all forces are angels! How blind, how perniciously blind are the naive?! If you told someone who purports to be a sage of Israel that the Deity sends an angel who enters a woman's womb and there forms an embryo, he would think this a miracle and accept it as a mark of the majesty and power of the Deity—despite the fact that he believes an angel to be a body of fire one third the size of the entire world. All this, he thinks, is possible for God. But if you tell him that God placed in the sperm the power of forming and demarcating these organs, and that this is the angel, or that all forms are produced by the Active Intellect—that here is the angel, the "vice-regent of the world" constantly mentioned by the sages—then he will recoil. For he [the naive person] does not understand that the true majesty and power are in the bringing into being of forces which are active in a thing although they cannot be perceived by the senses.

The sages of blessed memory state clearly—to those who are wise themselves—that every bodily power (not to mention forces at large in the world) is an angel and that a given power has one effect and no more. It says in Midrash Bereshit Rabbah "We are given to understand that no angel performs two missions, nor do two angels perform one mission."—which is just the case with all forces. To confirm the conclusion that individual physical and psychological forces are called "angels", there is the dictum of the sages, in a number of places, ultimately derived from Bereshit Rabbah, "Each day the Holy One creates a band of angels who sing their song before him and go their way." Midrash Bereshit Rabbah, LXXVIII] When this midrash was countered with another which suggests that angels are permanent...the answer given was that some are permanent and other perish. And this is in fact the case. Particular forces come to be and pass away in constant succession; the species of such forces, however, are stable and enduring....[Giving a few more examples of the mention of angels in rabbinic writings, Maimonides says] Thus the Sages reveal to the aware that the imaginative faculty is also called an angel; and the mind is called a cherub. How beautiful this will appear to the sophisticated mind—and how disturbing to the primitive."

One can perhaps say that Maimonides thus presents a virtual rejection of the "classical" Jewish view of miracles; he and others substitute a rationalism that seems more appropriate for 20th and 21st century religious rationalists.

Others might perhaps view Maimonides's statements as being perfectly in keeping with the continued evolvement of Jewish thought over a period of several millenniums.

Christian views

In the New Testament the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary in the traditional role of messenger to inform her that her child would be the Messiah, and other angels were present to herald his birth. An angel appeared at Jesus' tomb, frightened the Roman guards, rolled away the stone from the tomb, and later told the myrrh-bearing women of Jesus' resurrection. Two angels witnessed Jesus' ascent into Heaven and prophesied his return. When Peter was imprisoned, an angel put his guards to sleep, released him from his chains, and led him out of the prison. Angels fill a number of different roles in the book of Revelation. Among other things, they are seen gathered around the Throne of God singing the thrice-holy hymn.

Angels are frequently depicted as human in appearance, though many theologians have argued that they have no physical existence. (Hence the frequently recounted tale of Scholastics arguing about how many angels could fit on a pinhead; if angels possess physical bodies, the answer is "a finite number", if they do not, the answer is "an infinite number".) Seraphim are often depicted as six wings radiating from a center — either concealing a body, or without a body. Starting with the end of the 4th century, angels were depicted with wings, presumably to give an easy explanation for them travelling to and from heaven. Scholastic theologians teach that angels are able to reason instantly, and to move instantly. They also teach that angels are an intermidary to some forces that would otherwise be natural forces of the universe, such as the rotation of planets and the motion of stars. Angels possess the beatific vision, or the unincumbered understanding of God (the essence of the pleasure of heaven). Furthermore, there are more angels then there are anything else in the universe (although when first written this would have probably not included atoms since atomic structure was not known).

Some Christian traditions hold that angels are organized into three major Hierarchies which are subdivided into orders Choirs, and list as many as ten orders of angels. This is particularly clear in the work of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, an unknown 5th century author whose work The Celestial Hierarchy gives the names that have become part of tradition: Angels, Archangels, Principalities, Powers, Virtues, Dominions, Thrones, Cherubim, and Seraphim. In this hierarchy, the Cherubim and Seraphim are typically closest to God, while the Angels and Archangels are most active in human affairs. Many of these names come from verses in the bible which would appear at first to be refrencing a literal thing, although retroactively suggesting that they really mention angels can also make sense in the context. For example the verse in Paul "our struggle is not with earthly things but with principalities and powers" (meaning according to most theologians the fallen angels of those choirs, used as an example of all the fallen angels).

Some Christian traditions also hold that angels play a variety of specific roles in the lives of believers. For instance, each Christian may be assigned a guardian angel at their baptism (although never defined by the Catholic or Orthodox churches, nevertheless it is personally held by many church members and most theologians). Each consecrated altar has at least one angel always present offering up prayers, and a number of angels join the congregation when they meet to pray. In the story of the 40 martyrs of Sebaste, in which 40 Christian Roman soldiers were ordered to stand naked on a frozen lake in the snow until they renounced their faith, angels were seen descending from Heaven placing the crowns of martyrs on their heads.

Certain Christian traditions, especially the Reformed tradition within Protestantism hold that references to the "Angel of the Lord" are references to pre-Incarnation appearances of Jesus Christ.

Some medieval Christian philosophers were influenced by the views of Maimonides, and accepted his view of angels. Today, these views of angels are still technically acceptable within many mainstream Christian denominations. However, for all practical purposes most Christian lay people know little or nothing of these views, and do not accept them.

Satan and the demons are thought by Christians to be angels who rebelled against God and fell from Heaven.

Islamic views

A belief in angels is central to the religion of Islam, beginning with the belief that the Quran was dictated to the Prophet Muhammed by the angel Gabriel.

In the Quran, Jewish and Gnostic angelologies seem to be intermingled. In Muhammed's time the old Arabian goddesses (Al-Lat, Al-Uzza, and Manat) were spoken of as angels and daughters of God (Quran, sura xxxvii. ç 150, liii. ç 20).

The chief of all the archangels is Gabriel (Jibril); Michael comes next; Israfil (Sarafiel) sounds the trumpet of the resurrection; and Izrael is the angel of death (the etymology of the last name is obscure). Instead of four, there are eight angels that support the throne of God (sura xlix. ç 17). Some angels have two, some three, others four wings (sura xxxv. ç 2). "They celebrate the praise of their Lord and ask forgiveness for those that are on earth" (sura xlii. ç 2). "Each man hath a succession of angels before and behind him" (sura xiii. ç 12). The angel, who has charge of hell, is Malik (literally "king," in Arabic). Hell has seven doors (sura xv. ç 44). And the angel, who was in charge of paradise, is Ridwan.

Nineteen angels are set over the fire (sura lxxiv. çç 30-31). Munkar and Nakir are the angels that interrogate the dead; and another angel, Ruman, makes each man write down his deeds.

Other Religions

Angels are also a part of New Age beliefs, and are sometimes referred to as dakini.

Aleister Crowley, who some call the Magus of the New Aeon, tried to teach people to attain what he called "the Knowledge and Conversation of the Holy Guardian Angel". He writes in Magick in Theory and Practice that he chose the name because he thought no one of any intelligence would waste time on the theory behind it. Crowley repeatedly warned students of occult phenomena "against attributing objective reality or philosophic validity to any of them."

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