Angels appear hundreds of times throughout the Bible, but the essence and purpose of these celestial beings are not always clear. Much of the problem stems from the fact that artists, since the 14th century, have depicted angels as beautiful creatures adorned with wings and halos of light. Bible study and our sages enlighten the issue.
“In Hebrew, an angel is called malakh (מַלְאַךְ),” noted Roni Segal, academic adviser for eTeacher, an online language academy specializing in Biblical Hebrew, to Breaking Israel News. “The root of this word, lakh (לאך) means “going back and forth”. God frequently employs angels as intermediaries between heaven and earth, God and man. They tirelessly go back and forth between worlds to deliver information and fulfill Godly missions.”
Malakh is also related to the word melakha (מְלָאכָה), which means hard work. Angels created by God are “programmed” to perform a specific task in this world and work hard to fulfill their mission. In fact, the mystics explain that one of the tasks allotted to angels is to transport our prayers and time spent in Bible study to the Heavenly throne.
Amazingly, God is not the only one who can create angels. Man has also been given this power. In the “Ethics of the Fathers” we are told that man creates angels through his deeds. Rabbi Eliezer is quoted as saying, “He who fulfills one mitzvah [Biblical commandment], acquires for himself one angel-advocate; he who commits one transgression, acquires against himself one angel-accuser.”
Angels often appear in the Bible as human beings. For example, when God sends angels to Abraham after his circumcision, they appear as men; “and he [Abraham] lifted up his eyes and looked, and, lo, three men stood over against him; and when he saw them, he ran to meet them from the tent door, and bowed down to the earth.” (Genesis 18:2)
The Sages teach that these men were actually angels sent by God to fulfill individual missions. One angel was sent to heal Abraham from his circumcision. Another was sent to tell Abraham that Sarah would conceive after nearly a century of being barren. The last angel was sent to destroy the corrupt city of Sodom.
“Angels are one-dimensional beings with one mission, performing their Godly duty without any distraction or inclination to disobey,” said Segal to Breaking Israel News. “Human beings, on the other hand, must use their free will to serve God and are placed in this world for many reasons. This is an incredibly high spiritual level.”
As Jewish belief generally states that angels are spiritual beings without physical characteristics, this conflict is resolved by the sages’ understanding that those who experienced angels in human form have earned that experience through reaching a high level of spirituality. Part of the confusion stems from the anthropomorphic descriptions found in prophets. For example, Ezekiel describes his vision of angels has having faces, bodies, wings and more.
Maimonides, the foremost Torah authority of the 12th century, explains that angels are ranked based on the degree to which they comprehend God’s actions and creations. Yet, Segal notes, irrespective of how high a rank an angel receives, man is considered on an even higher level as man is created in the image of God, B’tzelem Elohim בצֶלֶם אֱלֹהִים (Genesis 1:27) while angels are simply assigned a mission by God.
Some angels are known by name. For example, Gabriel is an angel who executes severe Godly judgements. Michael fulfills missions of Godly kindness. Rafael comes to heal the sick, to name a few.
Additionally, angels are bound by location. Concerning the story of Jacob having a dream where he sees angels ascending and descending, “… and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it” (Genesis 28:12), the famous medieval rabbinical authority Rashi comments, “The angels who escorted [Jacob] in the [Holy] Land do not go outside the Land, and they ascended to heaven, and the angels of outside the Holy Land descended to escort him.”
“It is heartwarming to find that most people have some believe in angels,” noted Segal to Breaking Israel News. “By digging deeper into Biblical Hebrew people come to a true understanding of the words of the Bible.”