The annunciation of Isaac’s birth begins with the arrival of three travellers at the door of Abraham’s tent. Not kings from the mystic east arriving after the event, as in a later story, but ordinary men; heralds with prophetic insight, able to foresee the birth of Isaac.
But when they leave Abraham they are no longer described as men, but as malachim, a word which can mean messengers, angels or more accurately both, since angels are God’s messengers. And now there are only two of them. The third, according to the Midrash, has returned to heaven. He has fulfilled his mission of announcing Isaac’s forthcoming birth and is no longer needed on earth.
The two angels arrive in Sodom. Lot sees them coming. He gets up to greet them and invite them to lodge with him. They look like men to him, as they do to the inhabitants of Sodom who arrive, demanding to know where they are. They clearly mean to do them harm. Lot tries to appease them, fails, and the Sodomites try to break the door down. The two ‘men’ pull Lot into the house and smite the Sodomites with blindness. They rescue Lot from the city, which God proceeds to destroy.
In these two narratives, the annunciation of Isaac’s birth and the destruction of Sodom, angels have appeared in human guise. The people they meet believe they are men, until they do something supernatural at which time they are revealed to be angels. But the next angel to appear in the Torah does not look like a man. Indeed, he has no physical appearance at all. Hagar and her son Ishmael, Abraham’s oldest child, have been expelled by his wife Sarah from their home. They are in the desert, dying of thirst when God hears the child’s cry. Immediately an angel speaks to her and tells her not to fear, all will work out for the best. God opens her eyes, she sees a well of water, they drink and go on their way.
Interestingly, this is not the first time that an angel has spoken to Hagar. In fact, despite being (or perhaps because she is) a lowly maid servant, used as a surrogate mother by Abraham and Sarah, she is the first person in biblical history to be spoken to by an angel. The episode takes place just before the announcement of Isaac’s birth, after she has found she is pregnant and Sarah has thrown her out for the first time. On that occasion the angel speaks to her three times. This time, only once.
A fourth angel appears in the parasha. This time the intervention is dramatic. Abraham is about to sacrifice Isaac, at God’s command, when an angel calls to him from heaven commanding him to stop. Once again, it is a disembodied angelic voice. Like Hagar’s angel, this one does not appear as a man.
Similarly, the angel who wrestles with Jacob is described as a man. While the voice that speaks to Moses from the Burning Bush, like those who spoke to Hagar and Abraham, is disembodied.
So how do you spot an angel? They might look like men (but never, it seems, women) or they might be disembodied voices. But that is by no means the end of the matter. At the Red Sea, when the Egyptians are pursuing the Israelites, an angel places himself between the two camps. He does so by moving the pillar of cloud which is guiding the Israelites and placing it behind them. The 12th century commentator Ibn Ezra says that this angel is the ‘great prince who travels in the cloud’. As we shall see, he gets this idea from the Book of Daniel.
Angels come in all shapes and sizes. Ezekiel has a vision of the heavenly throne, with various types of angels, Ophanim, Hayyot, Seraphim each with a specific function to fulfil. The most famous of Ezekiel’s angels are the Cherubs, which we all know from Renaissance art are chubby faced, flying babies.
Unfortunately, the biblical cherub doesn’t really fit that image. When Adam and Eve are thrown out of the Garden of Eden, cherubs armed with a spinning, flaming sword are placed at the entrance, to guard the path to the Tree of Life. Rather than chubby babies, these cherubs are fearsome guards. In the wilderness, when Bezalel constructs the Ark of the Covenant he places two golden cherubs with outstretched wings on top. These are real sculptures, not angels, and there is a sexual imagery in the way they face themselves. In Psalm 18 God rides on a cherub. None of these things fit the image of chubby faced babies. But the imagery of a cherub as a baby is at least partly Jewish and not Christian as one might assume. In the Talmud the word cherub is explained as meaning ‘like a youth’.
As we go through the Bible, angels come more into focus. The prophet Zechariah receives all his communication through an angel, unusually for a prophet God doesn’t talk to him at all. But the biggest change is in the Book of Daniel, one of the last books of the Bible, written under Babylonian influence, where, as we have seen, they get names. We meet Gabriel, and the ‘great prince’, Ibn Ezra’s angel in the pillar of cloud, whom the Book of Daniel names as Michael. The Jerusalem Talmud tells us the names of the angels were brought from Babylon. And as we get into post-biblical literature angels become even more numerous.
Of the numerous angelic names recorded in the various books of Palace literature, the best known was that of Metatron. Prince of the Divine Presence, he was the senior angel in the entire empyrean constellation and of a wholly different nature from all his colleagues. For, uniquely among the divine beings, Metatron had once been human. His earthly name had been Enoch; he is recorded in the book of Genesis as the son of Jared and the father of Methuselah, the man famous in the Bible for living longer than anyone else. Unlike his father and his son, however, Enoch did not die. The Bible says as much: ‘Enoch walked with God and was not, for God took him’. This intriguing sentence was enough to spawn dozens of myths and legends about the immortal Enoch. It even gave rise to its own genre of literature. At least three books ascribed to (but not actually composed by) Enoch were written between the second century BCE and the sixth CE.
The other angels grumbled when Enoch was brought into heaven and transformed into Metatron. According to 3 Enoch, Metatron himself told Rabbi Ishmael that Prince Anapiel had been sent to fetch him from the midst of humanity. When he was still 3,650 million parasangs away from heaven (about ten million miles), the heavenly beings smelled his odour. ‘What is this smell of one born of woman?’ they demanded. ‘Why does a white drop ascend on high and serve amongst those who cleave amongst the flames?’
God pacified the rebellion. ‘Do not be displeased at this,’ he commanded, ‘for all mankind has rejected me and my great kingdom and gone off and worshipped idols. This one whom I have removed from them is the choicest of them all. This one whom I have taken is my sole reward from my whole world under heaven.’ The legend is concise and direct. Enoch, to whom the Hebrew Bible devotes just nine words, and of whose actions it says nothing, has been transformed into the most powerful angel of all, by sole virtue of the fact that he ‘walked with God and God took him’.
So, how do you spot an angel? You don’t need to. They will make themselves known.