Where Angels Fear To Tread

For many of us, the word “angel” conjures up an image of a perfect divine creature who offers us spiritual guidance. An angel is the essence of selflessness and generosity. In English, we even praise someone who has done something particular nice by saying “you are such an angel”. If, however, we open the Bible we find quite a different picture of what it means to be an angel.

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Angels are found hundreds of times throughout the Bible, and yet there is a great deal of confusion surrounding them. The typical angelic image that many of us have consists of a chubby baby dressed in a white robe adorned with wings and a halo of light. But this adorable celestial being is really the creation of European artists, such as Francois Boucher, above. This is quite removed from the Bible’s image of an angel. So what does the Bible really say about angels?

The vast majority of biblical angels are divine messengers, as seen in Genesis 32:1:

And Jacob went on his way, and the angels of God met him.

וְיַעֲקֹב, הָלַךְ לְדַרְכּוֹ; וַיִּפְגְּעוּ-בוֹ, מַלְאֲכֵי אֱלֹהִים

The Hebrew Bible uses the word malakh מלאך to refer to an angel. But the same word can refer to a human messenger as well, as seen two verses later in Genesis 32:3:

Jacob sent messengers ahead of him to his brother Esau in the land of Seir, the country of Edom.

וַיִּשְׁלַח יַעֲקֹב מַלְאָכִים לְפָנָיו, אֶל-עֵשָׂו אָחִיו, אַרְצָה שֵׂעִיר, שְׂדֵה אֱדוֹם

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Jacob meets Esau, Genesis 33. Illustration from the 1897 Bible Pictures and What They Teach Us: Containing 400 Illustrations from the Old and New Testaments: With brief descriptions by Charles Foster

The root of the word malakh is L-A-K לאכ, is which means “going back and forth”. Implied is the fact that this is hard work, giving rise to another Hebrew word, melacha מלאכה meaning “physical labor”, precisely what is forbidden on the Sabbath according to the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:9-10):

Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns.

שֵׁשֶׁת יָמִים תַּעֲבֹד, וְעָשִׂיתָ כָּל-מְלַאכְתֶּךָ. וְיוֹם, הַשְּׁבִיעִי–שַׁבָּת, לַיהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ: לֹא-תַעֲשֶׂה כָל-מְלָאכָה אַתָּה וּבִנְךָ וּבִתֶּךָ, עַבְדְּךָ וַאֲמָתְךָ וּבְהֶמְתֶּךָ, וְגֵרְךָ, אֲשֶׁר בִּשְׁעָרֶיךָ.

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Archaeological excavations of Biblical Jericho, located in the Jordan Rift Valley, beneath the steep hill known as the Mount of the Temptation.

The implication is that an angel is a messenger who works hard, tirelessly goes back and forth delivering information. Rather than personally descending into the human domain, the God of Israel frequently employs angels as intermediaries who shuttle between heaven and earth. The fascinating thing about the Bible’s image of angels is that they not only have no wings, but they look entirely human. This is precisely the reason why people in the Bible often don’t recognize them to be angels. This happens to in Jericho, when Joshua mistakes a man with a drawn sword for a Canaanite soldier instead of an angel (Joshua 5:13). The same thing happens to Samson’s parents (Judges 13:22).

About the author

Jonathan LipnickJonathan Lipnick believes that a truly comprehensive understanding of Scripture must be capable of penetrating beneath the printed words to reveal the authentic world of the Bible: the landscapes, smells and sounds of ancient Israel. He is the dean of the faculty of Holy Land Studies at Israel Institute of Biblical Studies, and is the author of the course "Exploring the Biblical Land of Israel"

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