“Blessed are those who watch for him. For they make themselves like the Angels, whom we call ‘watchers.’”
- Clement of Alexandria (circa 195)
Some of the most powerful creatures in existence. Our imagination has not ceased to develop new ideas about them through the centuries though all of them cannot be true. The angels are a major decoration at Christmas every year and is the subject of countless works of art. They randomly appear at different narratives through the bible and have herald the coming of the Lord.
Angels do make appearances in other narratives in other cultures and nations in the history of the world. Many non-human figures found in hieroglyphics and artifacts may represent a corrupted form of angels. The Roman-Greco world embraced the concepts of many human looking divine creatures.
Angels make an appearance on the biblical stage in both the Old and New Testaments but who are they? What are their jobs? Where did they come from? Our society seems to make a big deal about them but not very many know the history behind them or have a universal doctrine about them.
It is important to note that the Bible gives us very little information about angels, therefore, we must be careful in the conclusions we draw but we do have a tremendous amount of evidence to look at from the Old and New Testament as well as the extra biblical materials. Up front I will say that the Bible is inspired and authoritative but this does not mean that some extra biblical material is not historically accurate. Some of these narratives are simply myth and others are hoaxes but we must examine them none the less.
First the Hebrew word for angel is mala'ak (מַלְאָךְ). According to Strong’s, it can mean ambassador, angel, king, or messenger depending on the context that it used with. It is usually referring to the heavenly being, however not always. [i] It is equivalent to the Greek word, angelos from which the English word “angel” is obviously derived. However, in both Hebrew and Greek, the term simply means "messenger" and was used for both God's messengers as well as those of a king or ruler on Earth.
Three terms are found in the Old Testament for angel. These are probably better understood as species or classifications of Angels. Right now you may be saying to yourself, “three terms?” because you were only taught two. One may be controversial but it is fallacious to ignore it because it is controversial. As we go through, there is an entire section for each of the species of angels for you to have an in depth look at them but here there will be a brief overview. The first species of angel is the Seraphim (שָׂרָף, singular Seraph). The name simply means flame, burning, or fiery serpent[ii] and in the bible it only shows up twice, both times in Isaiah, and both times in one chapter: Isaiah 6.
The second species is more common in the biblical writings, and is transliterated into English as "Cherub." In the bible, these angels are described as having a particularly unusual form. The most descriptive narrative on them appears in Ezekiel 1:4-28. Whether this is their normal appearance, it is difficult to say but probable. They reappear in Revelation in virtually the same form. And are most known by images on the old temple, because they were considered the guardians of the temple.
There is a possible third classification for Angels as well but this is not specifically biblical. I say this because the word in the bible is often used to in referring to idols. However it is possible that this meaning derived from an earlier understanding. This would be the word Teraphim. The etymology of this word is very difficult and has truly challenged scholars through the years. However it does seem probable that this word once referred to Angels that appeared in a human form and then became the idols worship by other pagan cultures. “Teraphim is a loan word from Hit tarpi(s), which “denotes a spirit which can on some occasions be regarded as protective and on other malevolent” and which is parallel in lexical texts to Akk sedu, ‘spirit, demon’”[iii]
Teraphim may refer to a classification of angel that appears completely human and we see in scripture many instances of people seeing angels but they did not know they were angels at first. These would be the Teraphim angels.
Now this Teraphim word has a great dark side to it. In ancient times this word came to be understood with child sacrifice in order to divine information from spirits. The ancient book of Jasher refers to this practice in great detail “And this is the manner of the images; in taking a man who is the first born and slaying him and taking the hair off his head, and taking salt and salting the head and anointing it in oil, then taking a small tablet of copper or a tablet of gold and writing the name upon it, and placing the tablet under his tongue, and taking the head with the tablet under the tongue and putting it in the house, and lighting up lights before it and bowing down to it. And at the time when they bow down to it, it speaketh to them in all matters that they ask of it, through the power of the name which is written in it.”[iv]
In many cultures of ancient times this became a regular practice and they people would place the corpses of the “teraphim” into the walls of their house so that regular communication with the spirit would be possible. “And Pharaoh rose up in the night, he and all his servants and all the Egyptians, and there was a great cry throughout Egypt in that night, for there was not a house in which there was not a corpse. Also the likenesses of the first born of Egypt, which were carved in the walls at their houses, were destroyed and fell to the ground. Even the bones of their first born who had died before this and whom they had buried in their houses, were raked up by the dogs of Egypt on that night and dragged before the Egyptians and cast before them.”[v]
Archaeological evidence for this practice has been found throughout the middle east and it was not restricted to first born sons in many instances. The skulls of young and old, male and female have been used in the differing religious rituals of the area.[vi]
Another term, and not a specific classification, that is generally thought to refer to angels, is translated "the sons of God". How to properly understand the term is a topic of great controversy, especially in Genesis 6:1-4, where the reader is told that the sons of God had sex with the daughters of men:
“And it came to pass, when men began to multiply on the face of the earth, and daughters were born unto them, that the sons of God saw the daughters of men that they were fair; and they took them wives of all which they chose. And the LORD said, My spirit shall not always strive with man, for that he also is flesh: yet his days shall be an hundred and twenty years. There were giants in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare children to them, the same became mighty men which were of old, men of renown.”
Now this is highly contested among scholars today but there is only always one truth. So three possible explanations for this incident have been proposed among schools today. We will examine each one and determine the one that best fits with the ancient writings.
[i] See Genesis 32:6, Numbers 20:14 and Joshua 6:17 for alternate translations.
[ii] Strong's Talking Greek & Hebrew Dictionary. Strong's Number 8314
[iii] Karel van der Toorn, Bob Becking, Pieter Willem van der Horst, Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1999,pg 845
[iv] Jasher 31:41
[v] Jasher 80:44-46
[vi] Michelle Bonogofsky, “Neoloithic plastered Skulls and Railroading Epistemologies,” The Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 331 (August 2003): 1-10