The articles in this series are based upon ideas expressed in the Rambam’s Moreh Nevuchim (The Guide for the Perplexed). Numbers in brackets represent the book and chapter of Moreh Nevuchim where these ideas are discussed.
The existence of angels is stated explicitly in many places throughout Tanach. [II, 6] The word “elohim,” meaning “the mighty,” can have a number of referents. One of these is the judges (as in Exodus 22:8) but the word can also refer to the angels. Therefore, when the Torah says, “I am the Lord, your God,” the pronoun “you” refers to humanity. But when God is decribed as “Elohei ha’elohim” and “Adonei ha’adonim,” as in Deuteronomy 10:17, it does not mean that He is “the God of (human) judges” or “the Lord of (human) masters.” And it certainly doesn’t mean that God is superior to false “gods” and idols, since it would be no praise to Him to point out that He’s superior to carvings of wood and stone! Rather, the reference in such phrases is to the angels and to the celestial bodies, which may be loftier than we are but they are still subordinate to God.
Angels, as we normally mean the term, are incorporeal beings. The Hebrew word for angel, however – “malach” – simply means a messenger. God has many messengers carrying out His missions, including both physical beings (like humans) and spiritual ones (like angels):
* The actions of animals when they perform God’s missions are ascribed to angels. For example, the Book of Daniel (6:22) says that God sent His angel and shut the mouths of the lions so that they would not harm Daniel. The action of the lions is attributed to an “angel.” Similarly, the actions of Balaam’s donkey in the Book of Numbers are credited to an “angel.”
* Even the elements, which are inanimate objects with no consciousness whatsoever, can be messengers for God. For example, Psalms 104:4 tells us that God “makes the winds His angels and the flaming fire His ministers.”
* It should go without saying that human beings can assume the role of God’s messengers. We see this is such places as “Jacob sent angels” (Genesis 32:4) and “the angel of the Lord came from Gilgal to Bochim” (Judges 2:1). In these and similar verses, the word malach is used to describe the actions of human messengers.
* Finally, things perceived by prophets in visions are described as “angels.” (This is what most people no doubt mean when they use the word.)
God uses angels as a sort of interface through which He interacts with the world. Accordingly, we occasionally find God speaking in the plural. Familiar examples of this are found in the Book of Genesis, including, “Let us make man in our image” (1:26) and “Let us go down and confound their language” (11:7). The Midrash explains these expressions by telling that, before taking action, God “consults” with His heavenly court. The Rambam is quick to correct the misimpression that some people have. They mistakenly believe that the angels, whom God created, in a sense became partners with Him, or that God somehow required their input or assistance in His actions. The truth of the matter is that the angels have no vote in God’s decision-making process. Their role is strictly limited to carrying out His will. When God “consults” with the heavenly host, He is actually assigning them their orders.
But remember that an “angel” is anything that carries out a mission for God. This includes forces of nature. An angel doesn’t have to be an intimidating, fiery being. God gave the sperm of man and the ovum of woman the ability to combine and to form a whole new human. That ability is also an “angel,” as are all such natural processes. Photosynthesis? That’s an angel. Gravity? An angel. Magnetism? Angel. The Midrash in Bereishis Rabbah (chapter 1) says than an angel only performs one job. That job doesn’t have to be destroying Sodom; it could be peristalsis, centripetal force or condensation.
Another Midrash in Bereishis Rabbah (chapter 78) tells us that every day, God creates a legion of angels who sing to Him and then disappear. This flies in the face of many other statements telling us that angels are immortal and eternal. Of course, this apparent contradiction poses no problem once we remember that there are so many different kinds of angels. Some are permanent while others are transient. By way of example, the Rambam cites Bereishis Rabbah chapter 85, which says that the “angel of lust” caused Judah to approach Tamar. The natural human drive is referred to as an “angel,” and the referent is an admittedly short-lived passing urge.
When it comes to prophetic visions, different prophets perceived angels differently. They might appear like regular humans (as in Genesis 18:3), as terrifying beings (Judges 13:6), as beings of fire (Exodus 3:2), and more. This largely depends on the capacity of the one receiving the vision. Abraham was very great in prophecy, so to him the angels appeared as human. Lot’s spiritual capacity was much less, so the angels appeared to him as far more intimidating beings.
While an “angel” can be anything from person to a force, the spiritual beings we typically call by that name are thinking creatures entrusted with a certain amount of free will to carry out their missions. [II, 7] Their discretion may be limited to their assigned areas, but they do have a degree of leeway in how they fulfill their designated tasks, just as we have free will in how we carry on in our daily lives.