“The Lord appeared to him by the oaks of Mamre as he sat in the tent door in the heat of the day.” There is a dream-like quality to the beginning of this sedra as Abraham looks up and sees three men standing over him. He runs to welcome these guests. But are they men, angels (melachim) or a vision of God?
The Rabbis (Rashi, Talmud and Midrash) embellish the scene. Abraham, aged 99, is in pain: this is the third day after his circumcision, recounted at the end of the previous sedra, and he is tying and untying his bandages. When he runs to prepare a feast for his guests with “a calf, tender and good”, this means there were three calves. Why? So as to provide each of them with a calf’s tongue, served with mustard. Did the men/angels really eat – on the basis that when in Rome you do as Rome does – or merely appear to eat?
Malach – like the Greek angelos – means “messenger”. But are these men – called “melachim” in the text only after they have left Abraham for Sodom – truly separate beings, or a manifestation of God himself? The text is inconsistent. “Angels of God” sometimes speak as God, sometimes as humans who are addressed as God. “The angel of the Lord” calls out to Abraham from Heaven to prevent him from sacrificing Isaac. The confused narrative expresses a mystery beyond the apparent reality.
Our sedra’s homely melachim don’t match prophetic visions of Cherubim and Seraphim and Chayot with wings and multiple faces, cherished by our mystics and in the Zohar. Yet at climactic moments in our daily prayers we invoke and proclaim their awe-inspiring hosts around the heavenly throne.
In medieval times angels were central in Jewish theology, mysticism and magic. But Moses Maimonides refused to take angels literally. In the “Guide for the Perplexed” he explained them as incorporeal “separate intelligences”, as conceived by Aristotle. Biblical descriptions of angels as corporeal beings – flying, winged and so on – were to be understood merely as figures of speech.
The term “malach” embraced all natural and psychic forces, such as the elements, or the formative power which produces and shapes the limbs of an embryo. The rabbinic statement, “Every day God creates a legion of angels; they sing before Him and disappear” [Gen. R. 78:1], was taken by Maimonides to describe “the natural and physical forces in transient individuals.”
Angels abound in Kabbalistic literature and are also central to Jewish magic and superstition. It was supposed that the world was densely populated by angels: everything on earth, animate or inanimate, had its “deputy angel” (memuneh) – and the activities of the world were reflections of their acts.
Modern theologians tend to disregard angels entirely, or – like Louis Jacobs – to be somewhat uneasy about them. They – and we – prefer to treat angels as expressing poetry or symbolism of the awe and mystery surrounding God – not to be taken literally and, therefore, not posing a problem.
And yet: can we be so sure that there are no messengers of God? – which seems so well to describe what many of us will have experienced when a person appears out of the blue and changes the course of one’s life?
Michael Rose is a Vice President of Masorti Judaism and a founding member of New North London Synagogue.