|Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes at|
Both the primary words in Hebrew (mal'ak) and in Greek (aggelos) have the meaning "messenger". Every time you see the word "angel" in scripture, you could substitute the word "messenger", e.g., "The angel of the LORD" becomes "The messenger of the LORD."
Claus Westermann in God's Angels Need No Wings, writes:
If someone were to ask me if I had ever seen an angel, I am afraid I could not give a very satisfying answer. But should I be asked if I have ever met a messenger of God, then the answer would be an emphatic and unequivocal, "Yes, I have!" Now the Bible speaks about angels -- better said, about God's messengers -- not because it wants us to believe in angels as well as in God but rather so that God can draw near to us.
The importance of "angels" -- at least early in scriptures -- is not themselves, but the message they bring. Quite often their message is: "You are going to have a baby." So some of us may want to reconsider if we really want angels around us. <g>
In some writings, the messengers always appear in visions or dreams -- the books of Zechariah and Revelation are visions. Joseph in Matthew's birth narratives sees angels in dreams. However, in Luke's birth stories, an angel appears and speaks directly to Mary.
There are some indications that heavenly messengers originated from a non-biblical worldview of god and goddesses. The ancients created a heavenly world that was patterned after the earthly one they knew. Before the age of E-mail (or even the telephone or post office), earthly kings would send their messages to other kings or to the people by human messengers (aggeloi or mal'akim). That's how they communicated over a long distance. In a similar way, the people pictured the gods and goddesses (or even demons and Satan) sending messages to each other or to people on earth by messengers. How else would they communicate over such distances?
If we were to create a heavenly picture based on our governmental structure, it might look like this:
chief god = the president
gods = senators
lesser gods = representatives
angels = aides and pages (or telephone and faxes and e-mails?)
Occasionally angels appear as protectors or guides, most notably during the Exodus. In some of these early writings, "angels" are synonymous with "God." Hosea writes that Jacob strove with the "angel" (12:4), but the account in Genesis 32:22-32 doesn't use "angel" but "man" (vv. 24, 25) and "God" (vv. 28, 30). In the account of the burning bush, Exodus 3:2 says that it was the "angel of the LORD," who appeared in a flame of fire; but in v. 4, it is the LORD who sees and speaks from the bush and in v. 6, Moses hides his face because he is afraid to look at God. Often "angels" do not appear as people, but a burning bush or a pillar of fire/cloud. The "angels" were God's personal contact with the world and could be synonymous with God/LORD.
In later years, after the exile, a slightly different concept of angels appeared. God was seen as being more remote -- more out in space somewhere. Between God and humans were different heavenly beings: angels, cherubim and seraphim, and a whole host of heavenly creatures. In these later writings of Ezekiel, Zechariah, and Daniel, the angels often serve as interpreters for visions. As such, they are still delivering messages. Individuals no longer had an intimate, direct contact with God. Instead they related to God through visions and angels, which served as intermediaries between the heavenly and earthly realm.
By the time of Daniel, the last book in the OT to be written, the "angel" is no longer a messenger who comes to earth, but a personal rescuer. "Michael" is not called an "angel" but "one of the chief princes". He doesn't come to earth, but represents the people in heaven. Michael will fight against the "princes" of Persia and Greece. In apocalyptic literature, each city had a heavenly representative. (In Revelation, each church in ch. 2-3 has its own "angel".) The visionary sees what happens between the "princes" in the heavenly realm (who represent their earthly counterparts). Then he knows what will happen with the nations on earth.
Often in Paul, angels are pictured with negative connotations (1 Corinthians 6:3; 2 Corinthians 11:14; 12:7; Galatians 1:8; Colossians 2:18). He also assumes that angels are part of the heavenly hosts (not necessarily good or evil) (Romans 8:38; 1 Corinthians 4:9; 11:10; 13:1). Occasionally the angels are viewed as positive representatives of God (2 Thessalonians 1:17; Galatians 3:19; 4:14).
The Bible never says that angels have wings. In the older stories, they usually appear as human beings. In Genesis 18, three "men" come with a message: "By next year, Abraham and Sarah will have a son." [NOTE: these three men are never called "angels".] From Abraham's reaction, he saw them simply as three travelers on the road.
A similar thing happened to Gideon. While he is hiding in a wine press beating out the wheat for fear of the Midianites. An angel/messenger of the Lord appears to him and says, "The Lord is with you, mighty warrior" (Judges 6:12). Gideon doesn't believe it. "If the Lord is with us, what am I doing in the wine press? Why am I hiding out from the Midianites?" From Gideon's reaction, we might conclude that he didn't see a being in a white robe with wings and a halo. He saw a messenger who appeared quite human.
When an angel/messenger of God comes to announce the birth of Samson (Judges 13:3, 9), the parents-to-be call him a "man" (13:6, 8, 10, 11) because they "don't know that he was the angel of the LORD" (v. 16b). It is only when the "man" disappears in a flash of flame (a puff of smoke? like genies?) do they realize that he was an angel. Then the husband tells his wife, "We shall surely die, for we have seen God." (v. 22).
Sometimes the angel seems to be a disembodied voice from heaven (Genesis 21:17; 22:11; 15 -- all from the E source).
Angels seem to have picked up wings from two sources: from other religions and from combining the idea of God's messengers with the Cherubim and Seraphim, who are not messengers.
Cherubim (about 75 occurrences) are primarily decorations: made from gold for the mercy seat (Exodus 25:18, 19, 20, 22; 37:7, 8, 9; Numbers 7:89; 1 Samuel 4:4; 6:2; and others); woven into fabric of the inner curtains of the tabernacle and the veils (Exodus 26:1, 31; 36:8, 35); two huge ones carved from olive wood for the inner sanctuary; many carved on the walls and doors and panels (1 Kings 6-8; 2 Chronicles 3-5); Ezekiel describes the cherubim as having four faces and four wings (10:14, 21) or two faces (41:20).
The word "seraphim" occurs 7 times. Five of those it refers to "venomous snakes" or "serpents" (Numbers 21:6, 8; Deuteronomy 8:15; Isaiah 14:29, 30:6). As "seraphim," (Isaiah 6:2, 6, where they have six wings) they were probably originally mythological beings pictured as having serpents' bodies -- possibly the personification of lightning, since the root SRPH means "to burn".
Even though they have wings, the pictures of cherubim and seraphim given in the OT do not resemble our modern (nor even the ancient) image of angels.
Our image of angels being winged creatures with halos and glowing in the dark does a disservice to scriptures. God's messengers surprise the individual. God's messengers come to people in the commonness of the day: Abraham is resting, Gideon is working. The messengers look like regular human beings, dressed in ordinary clothing and are usually mistaken for real people.
What difference would it make in our social ministry if we really expected to encounter the messengers of God in the persons we are helping? In Hebrews 13:2 it says: "Do not neglect to show hospitality to stranger, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it." Because we don't see white robed, winged creatures, we might easily discount this verse; but replace "angels" with "messengers," and see if it becomes more believable.
Noting that "angel" is at the middle of "evangelism" and relating to the sending out and return of the 70 in this gospel lesson, we might also consider how we are messengers/angels of God. We don't need wings or halos or white robes -- just a message. However, I'm not sure God would send us to tell a 90-year-old woman that she's going to have a baby, today.
A message that we have from the texts for this day is that Michael and his angels have won. In the cosmic battle between good and evil -- the good has won. Except for cartoons and a few other TV shows, we don't often think in terms of cosmic battles. Both Daniel and Revelation (our canonical apocalyptic books) picture a cosmic battle in heaven which has an earthly counterpart -- and the "good guys" win.
In Genesis 6:1-4 we have "Nephilim," left untranslated in newer versions. Since the root "NPhL" means "to fall," could "Nephilim" mean "fallen ones"? It is also used in Numbers 13:33 where people seem like "grasshoppers" next to them. This may have led the LXX translators to use gigantes = "giants" for "Nephilim".
Beginning like Genesis 6:1, chapters 6-11 of 1 Enoch (2nd century BCE - 1st century CE) greatly expand the Genesis account and include the fall of angels. It begins:
In those days, when the children of man had multiplied, it happened that there were born unto them handsome and beautiful daughters.
And the angels, the children of heaven, saw them and desired them; and they said to one another, "Come, let us choose wives for ourselves from among the daughters of men and beget us children."
About two hundred of them descended led by Semyaz. They took wives who became pregnant and gave birth to great giants (300 cubits tall = 450 feet!).
The account goes on and talks about the wickedness that they brought to the earth, which was seen by Michael, Surafel, and Gabriel who speak to the "Lord of the potentates" about the problem.
As part of the punishment:
And to Michael God said, "Make known to Semyaza and the others who are with him, who fornicated with the women, that they will die together with them in all their defilement. And when they and all their children have battled with each other, and when they have seen the destruction of their beloved ones, bind them for seventy generations underneath the rocks of the ground until the day of their judgment and of the consummation, until the eternal judgment is concluded.
"In those days they will lead them into the bottom of the fire -- and in torment -- in the prison (where) they will be locked up forever. And at the time when they will burn and die, those who collaborated with them will be bound together with them from henceforth to the end of (all) generations.
From this text, it seems that the "fall" of the angels was their own decision to come to earth and that God has put them "in cold storage" underground until the day of judgment where they will be punished by fire.
This punishment of the fallen angels is picked up in Revelation and may be related to "seeing Satan falling" in the gospel reading (Luke 10:18). In contrast the battles of Michael in Daniel and Revelation, which take place in heaven, in Luke, it is the disciples who have authority over Satan and symbols of Satan: serpents, scorpions, etc. while they are on earth.
When I first did a study on angels, my conclusion was that they are literary creatures. They exist primarily in the narrative world of the writing; (as do many other strange creatures in Daniel and Revelation).
In a similar way we have had angels as characters on TV programs: Touched by an Angel; Highway to Heaven; and many years ago I remember Tom Smothers played an angel on a short-lived TV series.
Some other examples of literary creatures are hobbits, elves, Easter bunnies, Bugs Bunny, the tooth fairy, fairy godmothers, Mr. Sandman, Puff the Magic Dragon, Santa Claus, Jerry Seinfeld, Cosmo Kramer, etc.
Such creatures and characters exist in their narrative world of their stories. Some may exist in reality, e.g., the characters on Seinfeld. Most of the others don't really exist. Something similar to the narrative creature may exist in reality, e.g., bunnies, large lizards, godmothers, someone named St. Nicholas.
Do angels exist in reality? Yes. While I believe that God can create a being with an important message to share who materializes at an empty tomb or disappears with a puff of smoke; I think that God is more likely to use flesh and blood people as his angels/messengers in the world today.
Do we have guardian angels protecting us from the wicked one as in Luther's morning and evening prayers? Maybe. Certainly an "angel of the LORD" led and protected God's people during the Exodus, but does that phrase refer to a being who is distinct from God or a way of talking about God?
Probably many of us and many of our people have had strange, hard-to-explain spiritual encounters with God. Some may talk about "angels" to try and explain the unexplainable while others may talk about "God" or the "Holy Spirit" or "seeing Christ" to try and describe the same event. When we have been encountered by the almighty God, our human words and images (e.g., "messenger") will never be sufficient.
Faith Lutheran, Marysville, CA