Angels and Divine Communication

Author: Esther Ehrman, Cheshvan 5769/Nov 2008

Do angels have an identity? Are they agents of the Almighty? Do human beings really see them? Who may be 'visited' by angels? These questions and more have been addressed by Bible commentators and it seems to be by no means easy to arrive at a consensus on the subject.

In the Torah, it is in the Book of Genesis that the above questions mainly arise. Chapters 18-22, parashat Vayyeira, show just how varied the function of angels can be. If we look at the Commentaries by Maimonides (the Rambam) and Nachmanides (the Ramban), we find very different understandings of the Biblical narrative.

Angels appear in each of these five chapters, from the opening moment, when we find Abraham sitting in the heat of the day, (ch.18) having performed the circumcision on himself, to the episode where the angels rescue Lot from Sodom (ch 19), to the dream of Avimelech (ch 20), to the help given to Hagar (ch 21), to the calls to Avraham at Akedat Yitzchak, the sacrifice of Isaac, (ch 22).

In Chapter 18, the Almighty appears to Avraham, Avraham looks up and sees three 'men, anashim. Rashi explains and the text will show that these 'men' are angels, sent by G-d. They eat – or pretend to eat, the meals disappear, the commentaries tell us, and one of them announces the birth of Isaac. V.10:And he said , I will certainly return to you at that time and Sarah your wife shall have a son....v.13: And the Lord said to Abraham: Why did Sarah laugh...Is anything too hard for the Lord? I shall return to you at that time and Sarah shall have a son. In v16, the 'men' then turn to go towards Sodom and the Almighty speaks with Abraham.

At this point, the text seems to indicate a separate identity for the 'men'

Rambam explains that the opening statement, that G-d appears to Abraham, is a general statement and it is followed by a detailed clarification, namely that this means that three figures appear to Abraham. That would give one identity to the Almighty and His manifestation.

In v 10, the text seems to say that the man/angel will return; in v.13, the text seems to say that the Lord will return. Rashi comments that the angel here is speaking as G-d's agent, just as an angel had told Hagar 'I shall multiply your seed (Gen.16,10). An angel, says Rashi, has no power to do this.

In Chapter 19, there are two figures in Sodom and they are now called malachim, usually translated as angels/ messengers. Rashi explains that they are called 'men' when the shechina, the divine presence is with them, but to Lot they are initially angels. V.12, 13: the 'men'; say: who is still here? WE will destroy...because the cry is great before the Lord and the Lord has sent us to destroy it. – The text clearly states that they are to effect the destruction at the behest of G-d, again indicating a separate identity. In v.17, 18, 19 matters are not so clear. The angels take Lot and his family physically outside and say 'look not behind you...go to the mountain, lest you be consumed. And Lot said to them, aleihem, O not so, my Lord. adonay. Behold now; your servant has found grace in your sight and You have shown mercy saving my life...I cannot escape to the mountain... Rashi explains that Lot here, while apparently speaking TO THEM, is addressing the Lord, 'You have saved my life' , something that only the Lord can do.

In Chapter 20, Avraham is travelling through Gerar and says that Sarah is his sister, who is then taken by the king, Avimelech. In v. 3, Elohim comes to Avimelech 'in a dream by night' and warns the king not to touch Abraham's wife..v.6,7. 'And Elohim said to him in a dream...I also stopped you from sinning'. Rashi's comment is that the angel had stopped him. Why would Rashi replace the 'I' of the text with an angel, unless he understands 'elohim' here to denote an angel.

In Chapter 21, Hagar and her son, Ishmael, have been sent away from the house of Avraham. The water they took is finished and Hagar weeps. V.17 reads 'And elohim heard the voice of the lad and an angel of G-d, malach elohim, called to Hagar out of heaven'....v.19 :'and elohim opened her eyes and she saw a well of water'. Here, too, we wonder about the role of the malach.

Chapter 22 gives the account of the Akeida, the Sacrifice of Isaac.. V.1 reads: 'HaElokim – clearly referring to the Almighty – nasa et Avraham, tried Abraham.' V.12,13 tell us than an angel of G-d, malach H', stays Avraham's hand, 'now I know hat you fear the Lord, ki yr'ei Elokim ata. Samson Raphael Hirsch, quoting Tractate Sanhedrin 93A, explains this as 'Now I, the angel, know that G-d is justified in considering you greater than the angels....The Almighty has prior knowledge of your potential as a G-d –fearing man, but an angel's knowledge can only based on actual – not potential – knowledge'. An angel judges what occurs, the Almighty judges on what may occur. In any case, in 'Now I know', the identity of 'I' is not obvious.

In v. 15, the angel of the Lord calls from heaven to Abraham a second time, v.16,17:'and said, by Myself have I sworn, says the Lord, bi nishbati ne'um H, because you have done this thing.....I will bless you...' The angel in the text seems to be quoting the Almighty.

In all these cases, anashim, malach, malachim, even occasionally elohim, seem to denote beings empowered by the Almighty to announce, act, speak in His name.

That is not how Maimonides, Rambam, understands matters. In his Guide for the Perplexed, Morei Nevuchim , Rambam devotes almost twenty chapters to Prophecy and in several of these he discusses Divine communications. He bases his arguments throughout on the verse in Num.12, v.6 'If there be a prophet among you, in a vision I will make Myself known to him, in a dream I will speak to him, im yihehyei neviachem H', be mar'eh eilav etvada, be chalom adabeir bo. The context of the verse is the rebuke to Aaron and Miriam for speaking ill of Moses. The Almighty tells them that only to Moses does He communicate directly. All other communications are in visions and dreams. These, Rambam stresses, are the only ways, that G-d communicates with other people..

Divine communications that concern such matters as the relationship of the people to the Almighty, the consequences of actions etc are made to prophets, to people who are worthy, fit to receive them, says Rambam. Ordinary people may be given information that relates to them. 'All prophets except Moses receive the prophecy through an angel. Note it' (Guide, II, ch.34). Rambam will elaborate on that. He states 'You must know that whenever Scripture relates that the Lord or an angel spoke to a person, this took place in a dream or in a prophetic vision '( 41) – which would seem to be saying that no one in a waking state ever really saw an angel.

Where an angel or elokim comes to an ordinary person at night, there is no prophecy, just information, e.g.Avimelech, Laban, Bilaam.. Hagar was not a prophetess, nor was the wife of Manoah. 'The speech they heard was like a bat kol, ( a prophetic echo) so frequently mentioned by our Sages' (Ch.42). When Rebecca goes to ask of the Lord about the struggling twins inside her, 'G-d spoke to her through an angel, Eber – for a prophet is sometimes called an angel' (ibid).

In these visions, angels may look like human beings, but even then 'it is in a prophetic vision that the prophet believes that G-d is speaking to him (ch.44)

There are degrees of prophetic communications, from ruach ha kodesh, the spirit of the Divine, to inspiration, as with David or words inspired/dictated by G-d, as in the case of Bilaam. The highest degree that a prophet, other than Moses, can attain, is that he sees an angel addressing him in a vision (ch 45). Everything that happens happens in a vision (ch.46: 'Whatever is said in the account of a vision, that the prophet heard, went forth, came out, said, was told, stood up, sat, went up, went down, journeyed, asked or was asked, all is part of the prophetic vision' (ibid).

Nachmanides, the Ramban, does not accept Rambam's views at all, as he explains in his Commentary to the text of these Chapters (18 -22) of the Book of Genesis.

'According to his (the author of the Morei Nevuchim) words, Sarah did not knead cakes nor did Abraham prepare a bullock, and also, Sarah did not laugh. It was all a vision!...And if all these were part of prophetic visions, then it follows that the account related in the verses 'And the angels hastened well as the entire chapter is but a vision....the author of the Morei Nevuchim thinks that the events took place of themselves, but the conversations relating to all matters were in a vision! But SUCH WORDS CONTRADICT SCRIPTURE . It is forbidden to listen to them, all the more to believe them. Asur lishome' ki le hamin bahem'. Strong language, indeed.

Yet Ramban's views are not in all respects different from those of Rambam.

Ramban makes a distinction between 'angels', which, he agrees, human senses cannot perceive and communications, which, he states, people did actually receive, even though not as clearly as did Moshe. 'When G-d said (Ex.6,3) I appeared to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob....that means that He 'appeared', not an angel'.

Ramban further states that there is a difference between the identities of the Almighty and His angels. G-d tells Abraham to sacrifice his son and then an angel countermands the request. It happens frequently, Ramban says, that G-d tells prophets to do something and that an angel countermands the request. He refers the reader to his commentary on Gen. 48, 16, 'the angel who has redeemed me', but the commentary there does not enter into the subject.

On the verse ' and the angel of the Lord called unto Abraham out of heaven a second time' (Gen.22,15), Ramban explains that it was the angel who called and it was G-d who pronounced the blessing that follows.

However, in a statement that seems to go along with views expressed by the Rambam, Ramban says that those who see angels and speak with them are not necessarily among the prophets. They have a 'vision', called 'opening the eyes', as in the case of Hagar, but also in the case of Abraham seeing a deer to be sacrificed instead of Isaac.

As for the mysterious' men' that are mentioned on occasion – here and in the story of Joseph, for example – '..where the Torah speaks of 'angels' as 'men' all these cases, there was a special glory created in the angels, called...'a garment' visible to human eyes in the case of such pure persons as the pious and the disciples of the prophets'.

Moreover, 'And in those places, where you find the sight of G-d and the speech of an angel, or the sight of an angel and the speech of G-d, in the words of Zecharia (1,14), "I will yet disclose the words of the living G-d in allusions"'.

Visions, opening the eyes, a garment, allusions, all indicate that Ramban, too, makes a distinction between events that take place in everyday reality and Divine communications which, given human nature, cannot be part of everyday reality.

According to both, Rambam and Ramban, the terms, malach, occasionally also elohim, denote a special kind of personal Divine communication. The difference between the views of the two Commentators would seem to be mainly one of emphasis: Rambam stresses the exceptional/supernatural experience of the communication. This worries Ramban, who is concerned that one might not accept the Biblical account as having 'really' occurred. Actually, Ramban goes along with the idea that human beings cannot simply 'see' angels. Ramban's stress is on the distinct roles accorded to words addressed to an individual directly by the Almighty and words or events transmitted or carried out at His behest, where the Divine agent is not simply a manifestation of the Divine. The Biblical text lends itself to either of these perspectives.