Angels can be regarded as an essential part of the religious experience rather than just as some pleasing but fey images used to spell out religious experience. That is because angels can be regarded as part of the lively and continuing interchange between the supernatural and the natural, and so are on a par with the idea of the Mass or the revelations still made every once in a while to the leaders of the Mormon Church. If there are angels, then the age of miracles and miraculous creatures is not dead. Angels are just one of the ways God intervenes in the world. God sends particular supernal beings to intervene in individual lives, just as was the case in pagan myths.
Moreover, in Catholicism, there are a hierarchy of kinds of personages available for these purposes. John Paul II believed that Mary, the Mother of God, had deflected out of its course the bullet that might have killed him. In Evangelical Protestantism, as that is presented by the mass media in such shows as “Touched By An Angel”, any number of angels are sent to guide any number of individual lives. Hollywood, in general, treats angels as a fanciful notion that nonetheless is very closely akin to the idea of faith itself. Santa Claus works at Macy’s and helps people out whether they are believers or not, and even whether they are customers or not.
On the other hand, the age of miracles can be thought of as dead, and good riddance to it. John Kugel, a Jewish scholar, thinks the narrative device used in the stories of the Bible in which angels appear is that there is always confusion about their identities. They are either just the guise God takes on when He makes an appearance to humankind or they are separate creatures who serve as representatives of God. In either case, Kugel concludes, there is a vast disparity between the Old Testament notion of God, where He and other supernatural creatures walk among ordinary mortals, and our modern notion of God, where He is “seen” only in laws of morality and the laws of nature and as the presiding spirit of the universe that intervenes only in some sense in the overall history of mankind. The confusion, however, which Kugel cites, may have been not in the characters within the narrative, but in the redactors who were trying to get rid of the primitive allusions while still remaining “true” to the texts that were before them and so came out with a version that contains allusions to angels that were meant to be and remain obscure.
Let’s go back to the text of the Old Testament to make sense of claims about angels and what we find, contrary to both Kugel and the Christian tradition, is that there are mighty few of them, however much we have learned to sense that the Old Testament is teeming with them, which may well be a reading prompted by the number of angels that appear during many centuries of Christian art. The most august of events and assemblies are there surrounded in the sky and in the corners of the paintings by cherubs and winged angels set off at dizzying angles from the plane of the paintings so as to give a sense of the supernal world as always present and enshrouding the mundane world. This art is yet another sign that Christianity, for more than a millennium, did not so much suppress its anti-supernatural roots but thought it was surpassing them.
The fewer the angels, and the fewer the distinguishing characteristics such as wings and halos, the more sturdy becomes the proposition that the Bible is secular. Angels are a form of supernaturalism and if they are mighty few of them in the Bible, then those that are there are like figures of speech which evoke the voice or presence of God, and then there is nothing but this world and an abstract world of ideas, God being a singular abstraction within that firmament of ideas: the one of them that actually exists in the sense other beings can be said to exist-- or at least that is the way St. Anselm would put the point.
Look, moreover, so as to be precise, only at “Genesis” for your angels rather than at the Bible as a whole. The later books of the Old Testament are heavily influenced by Hellenistic paganism, and so the angels who accompany Daniel can be thought of as gods rather than whatever it is that Hebraic angels were. Furthermore, consult only those stories that concern the appearance and the appearances of personages identified (in the Revised Standard Version of the Bible) as angels. We can therefore leave out the cherubim who guard the gates of Eden after the ejection of Adam and Eve because they are not designated as angels, and are instead, as Robert Alter explains, winged beasts familiar from Near Eastern mythology. William Blake is the one who provides a visualization of that creature as an angel.
Moreover, leave out those stories that involve the manifestation of God or other miraculous events which are visible manifestations of God’s intervention in history. God’s appearances in “Exodus” are already very different from his appearances in “Genesis”. He appears to Moses as a burning bush, which is something very different from his appearance as or his sending of an angel, God presumably already quite removed from the world in which He continues to intervene in “Exodus”, which is a book with an intention, a claim, on being an epic history, rather than just the recounting of legendary and mythic stories tied together by the image of the temptation of and the various flights and return to Egypt. In “Exodus”, the Hebrews do have to escape, not just in their hearts or symbolically, and this is how they did it. The bush through which God appears to Moses, moreover, is never called an angel and, besides, a bush is a bush. The people of Israel are led through the desert by fire and fed manna, but those events are not said to be done through the agency of angels. They are done directly by the Lord.
The “messenger”, which is the way Alter translates what is usually translated as “angel”, who replaces God as presiding over the pillar/cloud which leads or follows the Israelites, is regarded by Alter as a later interpretation to avoid making God incarnate. This is a bit too squeamish a way to look at it. This is one of those few events where God might indeed become visible. The monotheistic God is magnificent when He brings plagues and He brings food as well as wisdom and counsel and punishment. He doesn’t need demi-gods or angels to assist Him. Indeed, the idea of the monotheistic God as an invisible god may have arisen because this god does so many different things all by Himself. He has to be too many places at once and has to reach into so many levels of existence that he cannot be bound by the usual laws of time and space that do seem to apply to pagan deities.
There are only five appearances of angels in “Genesis”, at least according to the Revised Standard Version, and therefore that is all the evidence there is for what an angel is. These five appearances are worth noting because they are quite vivid, and because four of the five visitations appear in the Abraham saga, that worth noting because Abraham is credited with fidelity to an invisible God who appears to him as a voice rather than as a thing. And, in fact, most of the appearances of angels are as the equivalent of voices in that the angels are not very much otherwise described. So even if there are angels in “Genesis”, these angels are consistent with a view of God as invisible, from which might be inferred that God, perhaps, is metaphysical or, even better, the God inherent in reason, though those would be later interpretations of what it is to be an invisible God. So what do Abraham’s angels do and what does the Bible tell us about the nature of these angels?
The first angel appears to advise Hagar after she is banned from Abram’s village of tents while Abram is still called by that earlier name. Nothing is said about the angel other than that it is an angel, which may be a way to account for the generic idea of angels as creatures that are there to be of assistance to individual persons in need. The angel is indeed helpful, convincing Hagar to return to the camp rather than probably die in the desert along with her child. To that extent, the angel is simply a supplier of good counsel, such as might be provided by one’s own reflection on one’s own self-interest, were that to be objectified. The angel also advises that Hagar’s child will become the progenitor of a nation. To that extent, the angel is an agent that prompts or objectifies wishful thinking, and so an angel, in this instance, is just a soliloquy, like Hamlet talking to himself. Hagar refers to the angel as God, which supports the idea that God is like an inner voice, and so very different from the supernal creature that Kugel thinks an angel ought to be, or else this angel is an embodiment of God himself, and so not an angel at all. Who is confused? Not Hagar, and the reader is confused only in that what is described as an angel turns out to be the Lord Himself, which might mean that the two terms are interchangeable and so there is no need for a separate category of angels. Why the introduction of the angel at all other than to indicate that you cannot tell the difference between God and his messenger, one providing an internal voice and the other providing an externalized voice?
Hagar, however, is preoccupied with a different question than whether God is different from an angel. Whichever one the appearance is, Hagar had seen it, and supposed that she might have been struck dead for having done so. That is in keeping with a general view that gods are awesome and fear-inspiring, but also with the idea that their appearance is already so rare and invisible, as had been the case with Noah, that to see the face of God is out of keeping with religious propriety. The secular age is already here right at the dawn of the Hebrew people.
There is another appearance of angels soon after Hagar’s first encounter with angels. This is the first instance in which what angels look like becomes problematic. Three people appear outside of Abraham’s tent, one of which is readily identified as God, even though the three of them seem to be just like one another in appearance. Moreover, immediately before in the narrative God had had a private confab with Abraham, telling him that he would father a son and become leader of a great people. So this visit is not unexpected by Abraham, even if it is unannounced and is unexpected by Sarah, who has not been informed by Abraham of what is going to happen to her. He has also probably not told her that he had asked God in their prior conference to make Ishmael part of his heritage, and that God, perhaps giving in or already decided says that He will make something important out of Ishmael and will not tell Sarai about it. Sarah is a shrewish sort who must be placated even by God.
These angels, again contrary to Kugel, are not a cause of confusion to Abraham. Abraham sacrifices a calf and puts out a meal for the three of them. Abraham offers them extraordinary and liturgically inflected hospitality. He arranges for the three of them to wash their feet and to eat good things. That indicates that they looked alike and looked more or less like humans and they seem to partake in the meal as normal people do. These are not aliens who arouse disgust at their personal habits. Sarah is alone in not treating this occasion with the seriousness with which it is due. She tells what could be taken as a dirty joke when she is informed about the fact that she will give birth. She asks if she will get sexual pleasure at her advanced age, one beyond menopause, from this conception of the first child of a great nation. No one asks if Mary had sexual pleasure from having been impregnated by the Holy Ghost. Sarah catches herself right after her lapse from good taste and she rebukes herself by saying she hadn’t laughed when she had, and Abraham rubs the point in by reminding her that she had.
Sarah was always a difficult woman, as in her insistence that Hagar be put out of the camp, but her remark here is of such poor taste that it is amazing that God did not turn her into a pillar of salt on the spot. Abraham, for his part, may have been surprised that God presents Himself along with some angels as visitors to Abraham’s tent rather than as a voice heard in Abraham’s mind or as a personage encountered alone and leaving no proof of the meeting except the remembered words of the meeting.
God hangs back after the other two, the angels, have gone on their way to Sodom, so that He can tell Abraham what He has in mind for that city. That is what makes the relation between God and Abraham distinctive. God is making an executive decision to inform the man who will become the father of a vast nation of what He plans to do as if that is a courtesy owed to him, not expecting that Abraham might counsel him to change his mind and, more than that, have his mind changed by Abraham’s highly moral plea to spare the city if but ten good people could be discovered to live within it. That is an epiphany in that God has taken moral instruction from a human whom He has favored. It had been foreshadowed by Abram having had the effrontery to ask God whether he could find a role for Ishmael in what He was planning for Abraham, but this time there is much more substance because Abraham’s question raises the entire issue of what justice there is in condemning all of a category of people even though the number of the group for whom this would be an injustice is only a small minority. How many good children did there have to be for Auschwitz to be an abomination?
It is worth noting that the reader knows for certain that those two who had left for the city are angels only because that is what is said of them when they get to the city. The identification of those two as the beings present in the previous scene at Abraham’s tent is allowable because the scenes are treated as part of the same narrative. This is a case of how a reader versed in the ways of reading stories will use information provided later on in a story to cast light on what happened earlier on in the story, and so one may suppose that the redactors lived in a place very familiar with the way stories get told even when they are reduced to print. This is not early storytelling but very sophisticated storytelling, just as is the case when “The Godfather” does not need to use title cards to tell you that you are at a wedding, however much D. W. Griffith’s “Intolerance” puts in title cards to orient its audience to scenes which are so vivid that they do the work of informing the audience where it is all on their own.
Abraham doesn’t just welcome these strangers in. He does not become insulted when the one he knows as the Lord informs him that his wife will give birth to a child, which had already been a sensitive subject in the family and one which a stranger might not feel free to allude to. These strangers are allowed to bring up the issue because they are not making small talk. What they say is presumed to be a prophecy, unbelievable even if well meant, and so to be met with good natured self-deprecating humor. And then they go on their way, their prophecy to be fulfilled. So these angels are recognizable as angelic, though for reasons not made clear, and they are also prophetic, though not in the sense found in the later prophets, who are known for the fact that they spell out the inevitable consequences of violating moral duties, but rather in that other sense, of prophets being seers.
Another indication that Abraham knows who these people are and is not confused by their identity is that they have not offered any credentials as to why they should get special treatment and so it may be something in their appearance, short of wings or emanations, that shows what they are. They also could have appeared to be other than worldly figures because of their aura, the sheen on their skins, or some way in which their features were arranged that would indicate they were not like other men, but something special, just as we would notice a Kardashian or a Vulcan (if he did not cover his ears) who was walking down the street.
Abram does not shunt the three visitors off to the tents of others, as a tribal chief might if he were confronted with visitors. The three present themselves, as out of nowhere, and are taken to be friendly rather than hostile, much in contradiction to the presumption of the Law of the Fathers, as that early text is found in “Exodus”, its later setting. That text describes how nomadic leaders may presume strangers to be raiders from another clan. So Kugel is wrong to think they are not identified as angels and God until later. Angels seem to be normal people and that is a quandry to which Christians, who want to dress them up, do not confront.