We tend to imagine angels as human beings with white wings clothed in white robes—but in the Bible, angels could be flying heavenly snakes or winged bulls with human faces. But more important, it was the angel’s function or role that mattered.
The Hebrew term mal’akh, like the Greek term angelos, means “messenger.” The Hebrew Bible uses the term on rare occasion when speaking of a human messenger (
Biblical authors use additional terms when speaking of such beings, especially those with an animal shape—for example, seraphs (flying heavenly snakes who chant praises of God;
Biblical authors never attribute distinct personalities to these beings, and only rarely do they refer to them by a specific name. When they do, the angel in a few cases is a deity we know from Canaanite religion.
Something similar happens in two passages in Exodus that present variations of a single text. One version of the text,
Some of the latest written texts of the Hebrew Bible start using names for angels, such as Gabriel (
Several biblical passages present a completely different understanding of angels. There mal’akh means a small-scale manifestation of God, and the distinction between the mal’akh and God is murky; this mal’akh is something very similar to an avatara in Hinduism, and one wonders whether “avatar” or “manifestation” might not be a better translation of the Hebrew term when used this way. This mal’akh is not a being separate from Yhwh whom Yhwh sent on a mission but is a part of the deity that can act on its own. This conception of mal’akh appears in
- Rofé, Alexander. Angels in the Bible: Israelite Belief in Angels as Evidenced by Biblical Traditions. Jerusalem: Magnes, 2012. (In Hebrew.)
- Sommer, Benjamin D. The Bodies of God and the World of Ancient Israel. Cambridge, Engl.: Cambridge University Press, 2010. See esp. pp. 40–44.
- Kugel, James. The God of Old: Inside the Lost World of the Bible. New York: Free Press, 2003. See esp. pp. 30–35.
- Rad, Gerhard von. Old Testament Theology. 2 vols. Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd, 1962–65. See esp. vol. 1, pp. 286–88.
- Eichrodt, Walther. Theology of the Old Testament. 2 vols. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1961–67. See esp. vol. 2, pp. 23–29.