The remainder of the tale of Abraham and his immediate family concerns why Abraham is the father of the monotheistic religions. It is because he rejects the last residues of the pagan tradition, as that is represented by the survival of angels as supernatural creatures, connections between this world and the next, or else to the mysterious world that exists in our dreams and fantasies, and replaces it with the awesomeness of a single God who is primarily the embodiment of morality, even as morality is a two edged sword: a claim that even people can make on God and so transcending God as well as being the same thing as God, God also the personage who can demand absolute and yet voluntary obedience, which might seem to be the opposite of morality in that morality is something to which both God and mankind are bound. This sublime and awesome recognition, something beyond the mere holiness of a god, has been made vivid ever since by the story of Sodom and the story of Abraham and Isaac.
First, why Sodom was destroyed. This is a mystery that is too easily explained away by saying that Sodom was a town rife with homosexuality when really the story is about the mystery of angels. Lot meets the two angels who had left Abraham’s camp when they arrive at the city gates. He does not struggle to identify who they are; rather, he prostrates himself in recognition of their stature. Yet he urges them to go into hiding because they are already in danger, presumably because the people of the city are already aware the city is a dangerous place and distrust any strangers as the agents of some enemy. Moreover, the people of the city may have seen Lot prostrate himself in front of the angels, and so know this a strange occurrence. Or else they saw these angels pretending to be something like people and were wary of them for some other reason.
People on the street in front of Lot’s house ask for the strangers hidden there to be surrendered to the crowd and Lot offers his daughters in their place, an offer rejected by the crowd, which makes it a scene capable of being reworked as prefiguring the crowd’s preference for the release of Barabbas. What is important in the relation of the encounter of the angels with Lot and their earlier encounter with Abraham is that the crowd takes them to be special sorts of people without speaking to them. The significance of that is that it eliminates the possibility that they are known as angels by the way they speak. We are left only with their appearances as making them distinctive. People wanted to come to stare at them, and so recognize whether they were indeed angels or some other strange creatures that the reader already knows are angels because of the previous interchange between God and Abraham.
The import of this story is often taken to be that the crowd in Sodom preferred the angelic men to the daughters, and therefore they must have been homosexual, and so homosexuality is to be seen as an affront to God as well as one of the evils of cities. Even defenders of homosexual rights will often concede that people in Sodom wanted to have sex with the strangers Lot was hiding. The deeper information that has been conveyed, however, is that angels attract immediate attention when they are in human form. They are noticeably different from humans, and they may well have had that special kind of beauty, androgynous beauty, that artists have long identified with innocence and purity and which has come to be identified with homosexual beauty. So far from being a cult of evil, homosexuality can be viewed both historically and aesthetically as a cult of purity: we don’t need women as the vehicle through which to express our sexuality. That would account for Alcibiades, Dorian Gray and a lot in between. So there is no confusion about who these people are: they are visibly special, whether they are gay or angels or even if, as is the case in some pre-literate societies, those who have a sexuality noticeably different from the usual two, are therefore thought to be spiritually inspired and so can serve as shamans. There is something special about these people that the Sodomites can’t quite place, and perhaps that is all that is left of the idea that angels display themselves as notably different, that sense that some people are awesome and a bit peculiar all that is left today (or in the time of Abraham) of the doctrine of angels, although we are more likely today to refer to them as the saints or the righteous who walk among us.
The ascription of androgyny can be justified by one reading of this notoriously turgid text, which goes out of its way to note that every male in Sodom, including the young and the old, had come to Lot’s home to demand to see the angels. It is hard to see how all of them or a majority of them were interested in homosexual rape. So when the crowd calls out for Lot to show the angels so that the Sodomites can “know them”, it may mean that they mean it in the literal sense of to appreciate or look upon them, and that it is Lot who changes the subject by taking the phrase as a euphemism for sexual knowledge and offering his daughters in that spirit so as to deflect interest in viewing angels who are never described as having an aura but only as eating and walking and talking as ordinary people do.
If that is the case, the story does not compel an inference that Lot’s daughters were meant as a substitution of sexual favors but only as a distraction from seeing the angels perhaps because the appearance of the visitors would give away to the crowd that they were angels. The crowd will not be bought off (and the daughters will get even by sleeping with their father after Sodom falls). Indeed, that the interests of the crowd are other than sexual is made clear by the text. They say as much. “This fellow came to sojourn, and he would play the judge!” Lot is already a foreigner who has the nerve to lay down customs for the long time residents. Perhaps they already suspect that they are about to be judged, that disaster is in the offing, and they may perhaps want to do harm to the angels, and if that is not possible, do harm to Lot, who is drawn back indoors by the angels. More important than whether the crowd wanted to use the angels for sexual purposes is that they could not see the holiness of their strangeness, and so were in that way lost to moral life.
That these two creatures are angels who actually trod the earth in the ordinary times that follow those of creation and Eden and the Flood, is therefore only one part of why they are remarkable and so worth gawking at. Not so many of them wander about that it is not a spectacular event when some of them do indeed show up. There were not, in Old Testament times, angels on everybody’s shoulders or even on the shoulders of the fated few. They are as rare as the woman preacher was in the time of Dr. Johnson or Helen Keller at Harvard, singularities rather than a type of creature among the creatures who wander the earth.
There is another way to read the story that makes how the angels look important. Not that many persons, one may presume, are snuck in at night through the city gates. The crowd wants to look at the angels not to see their angelic glow nor to have their sexual way with them. They want to identify them by their clothing or the pattern of their facial hair or in some other visible way as being with one or another of the family clans that exist outside the city and so size up whether one or another group is threatening them. That would make them like raiders in The Law of the Covenant, to be dealt with differently depending on whether they can be recognized for who they are or not. Here, again, “let us know them” is not a euphemism for sex but the overt purpose of the request. Let us place them among the peoples of the area.
Another reason for paying attention to these two angels is the message they bring, which is that Sodom will be destroyed by God. So God does not speak to Lot as he spoke to Noah or will speak to Moses; he sends an angel as his emissary. Maybe these ambassador cannot go incognito because the messenger shines forth or otherwise reveals himself to mankind. Their aura credentialized the messengers. This is another prefiguring of what will happen in the Gospels, the writers of which being quite familiar with the much older stories. Jesus had what would come to be called “charisma” and he recruited snake charmers and magicians as his disciples because they would bring the magic that surrounded their persons to their new mission.
The next angel encountered in “Genesis” and, again, within the overall story of Abraham, is the one who confronts Hagar when she has been sent out of Abraham’s camp. Times have turned darker since the last time she left. The Holocaust of Sodom has intervened. This exile occurs the second time Sarah gets peeved with Hagar. It is years later. She has found Ishmael interacting with Isaac, her own begotten son. The previous story is repeated. Hagar is exiled and is about to die along with her son from thirst when what is identified as “the Lord, the angel of the Lord” appears to her and announces that her son will become the father of a great nation, something God had already confided to Abraham. This retelling or perhaps the stitching in of the same story from a different text, treats God and an angel as the same thing, as if the term “God” referred to the source of the message and the term “angel” referred to the communication itself. Hagar is not disturbed or confused by using the titles interchangeably.
The next time God speaks to Abraham he will ask him to sacrifice his son. The dealings between God and Abraham, one would think, have become too weighty to allow for intermediaries that pass on a message from on high. Rather, Abraham would have to hear this message from God himself to believe it and to be truly shocked by it. He could not avail himself of the recourse of writing off the command as the result of faulty communications. Moreover, the demand by God for the sacrifice of Isaac is treated as a particular test visited by this particular god on this particular man rather than part of some ritual sacrifice whereby sons are regularly sacrificed to gods. And so there is a hint that this is a personal betrayal by God of his promises to Abraham and Abraham nevertheless goes ahead with the procedures needed to carry out this new plan. That Abraham does not call God on not living up to His word that Abraham would found a mighty nation suggests that we are involved in, are observing, a very intimate relationship between God and Abraham, old friends by now, and considering what a friend could do for a friend, and that Abraham may not believe that a trusted friend would actually require him to go through with the deed. God is personal and internalized and so truly abstract, just as any real friend is, existing as an idea in a person’s mind as well as the actual person sitting across the table drinking coffee.
And such is the case. God calls out to Abraham and tells him what he is to do with Isaac. But when God relents, if that is what it is, it is the angel of the Lord who calls to Abraham from Heaven and says “Abraham, Abraham”, doubling the call that God had made to Abraham, Abraham giving the same answer “Here am I”, as if to betoken his continuing obedience or readiness or existential presentness, however one cares to read it. It is the angel of the Lord who then says “Do not lay your hand on the lad…”, and who calls out a second time to Abraham that, “says the Lord”, Abraham will reap rewards for having not withheld his son. The suggestion is that the angel of the Lord and the Lord are interchangeable when they are understood as voices, however different they may be from one another when they walk the earth. The sources may have gotten garbled in the transmission, but the fact that an angel is at this point just a euphemism for the voice of the Lord is clear. The important point is that Abraham had now dealt with God directly on two occasions of great moral moment: debating what might spare Sodom its fate, Abraham taking the moral high ground away from God, which is what can happen when morality is seen as independent of worship, and, then again, giving in to the dubious morality of the sacrifice of Isaac because God, who is moral, would not go through with it (however often in history God has taken a sacrifice from the Jewish people). Angels are no longer needed as intermediaries.
The last angel in “Genesis” is the one who wrestles with Jacob through the night, and then announces that the bout will have to cease because of the coming of the day. That suggests either that there was a convention that Jacob knew whereby angels could appear only at night, sort of like good vampires, and so Jacob had to respect that convention, or else that Jacob did not know that the angel was such until he revealed himself as subject to the convention, though that doesn’t make too much sense because Jacob had been wrestling all night, which suggests touching and smelling the angel, which means he would have picked up the difference between a human being and an angel were there any to notice, and how could it be that an angel did not carry with him some hint of heaven? One way to resolve these difficulties is to regard the reference to the coming day as the time when dreams end. Jacob was wrestling in his dreams, and we continue to use that metaphor to describe how we struggle with ourselves in our dreams the way Jacob struggled with his angel. There is stuff for sermons there.
So the story about Jacob is different from those in which Abraham was involved. We are at the end of the time of angels. Angels are now creatures of dream work rather than messengers about the future. Or else they are messengers about the future only in the sense that dream work is that. This is a sense of dreams well known to Freud, who showed how rich and resourceful are the ways dreams weave together what is known into something of the past that has become so profoundly known that it carries glimpses of the future: how people will look when they get old, what one would do with one’s life if one had the druthers, what your boss is really like, and so how he is to be handled, and so on. Moreover, wrestling with the angel is about a contact with the divine that leaves Jacob crippled rather than restored or wiser. In Jacob, the divine is very far away and only to be seen in dreams; in the other stories from “Genesis”, the divine may walk on earth, but only as a person who speaks as a man does whether or not we are aware of his special qualities. It is like imagining the divine shrouding itself in the earthly as much as possible so as not to be too awful to confront.
The inchoateness of the dream work makes it seem much more a dream, to the modern imagination, than the dreams found at the end of “Genesis” in the story of Joseph, where Joseph finds items in dreams to stand for future events but does not provide any formula for how he got from the item to its meaning. You can’t figure out why the clues mean what they do even after Joseph says what they mean. Joseph is therefore more the magician than the dream interpreter and he is certainly more the policy planner than a prophet. He just knows and we are to see this as a sign of his penetration and foresight. Joseph does not have to be an angel to do what angels do, which is see the future and do the work of God. That makes his work all the more significant; he has stepped out of the tribal world and become the modern secularist, doing God’s bidding without having to be specifically asked, and he does it better than the Egyptians, who otherwise, certainly to Abram, might have seemed the most sophisticated of people. Joseph was able to recognize them as being all too human: adulterous, vain, and superstitious. He beats them at their own game, and so the stories surrounding Joseph are very satisfying to a people that are proud of their ability to hold up their own with their putative betters, a story as old as history and as modern as a children’s reader about successful members of their own group of hyphenated Americans.
Our limited set of encounters between men and angels tells us about major historical changes and not just about the individual encounters. That, after all, is how “Genesis” goes about its business. We have three stages of angels: the first, who are visibly angels and do God’s bidding, whether to prophecy or warn or protect; the second, who live in our minds and with whom we struggle, usually at night, and so metaphors for the way God or the supernatural intrudes in our lives; the third, Joseph, no longer an angel, merely a gifted man who can do everything angels can: prophesy, warn and protect, and picked out by others with great ease as being extraordinary (his brothers, his fellow prisoners, his master’s wife, the Pharaoh). There is no need for any more angels—at least until some moth eaten angels find their way into the Biblical tradition from elsewhere.
If that is the case, then James Kugel is wrong because God is not that differently perceived by the ancients than by the moderns. God’s message gets through only with difficulty, and very rarely is it represented through angels, and only then by angels in very human but not perfectly human guises. “Genesis” is like many other religious documents because the center of the story is the story of world history, as that is engraved in and exposed by the lives of its significant personages. What Kugel might say is the especial genius of the historical religions, that they are about a few events in history that shows a God known through and operating in history, is present from the beginning—or at least as that was redacted, perhaps in the courts of Babylon.
The Christian understanding of angels requires more consideration. Angels, according to the models presented in “Genesis”, do indeed come to the assistance of individuals, but not to everyone, and only in association with some greater purpose than merely to assist the individual. The angels came to see about Sodom and Gomorrah and also to inform Abram that Sarai would produce a child, which was an offhand and therefore ironic reference to what God had previously said to Abram, that he would be the father of a great nation. That is also the promise made to Hagar. Even Joseph’s wrestling with the angel is of some greater moment than a dream precisely because it is included in the “Genesis” tradition as so singular an event that it bears notice as a time when man struggled with God and did not come away unscathed. That is archetypal thinking, a kind of moralizing not usual in “Genesis”, and for that reason worth noting.
Even those few and brief traffickings with angels ends by the time of “Samuel I” and “Samuel II”, that Thucydides like but still pre-Hellenistic account of the early kings of Israel. Eli hears voices that tell him that Saul, his ward or assistant, will grow up to become the first King of Israel. Eli doesn’t see anyone, nor does anyone speak out in their own voice. The voice is cited by Eli rather than by the narrator. The acceptability of awarding legitimacy in this way suggests that the priestly party has become powerful enough so that its announcements of what is said by God or those who speak for God is sufficient assurance that the communication took place. That is certainly the gambit used by other established religions: Mormon elders get revelations and Catholic Pontiffs speak ex cathedra. Part of what it means to be a well organized religion is that only some people can make authoritative religious statements, however much those in the laity are supposed to find a way to square with their own consciences what they have heard via the clergy from on high. Joan of Arc learned that the hard way. The appearance of Mary, the mother of God, at Lourdes, is recognized by the Church at large only because high clerics say that it happened.
Biblical Christianity does not suffer from an abundance of angels, even in the more supernatural sections that describe the birth of Jesus. There is the angel who announces to Mary that she is going to give birth to the Son of God, and so that fits into the idea that an angel is a messenger rather than an operative. The three magi, however, are not angels but just significant personages driven out of their way because they have caught on to the magnificent event that is to occur. Jesus does confront the devil in the desert, but the devil is depicted as a singular figure rather than the fallen member of a host of angels. And the people who find the open tomb after the Resurrection are part of Jesus’ human entourage. Jesus appears in the upper room at Cannae unaccompanied by heavenly attendants.
Whether an angel interfered with the bullet coming at John Paul II would depend on whether there was something so important about his Papacy that God wanted it extended, even if history might claim his most significant work as someone who undermined Communism had already been done. I know Catholics who said at the time that the aging John XXIII was being allowed to live longer than expected because his work was to convene and preside over Vatican II, which was part of God’s plan. On the other hand, when John XXIII died shortly thereafter, the whole direction of the Council changed. The later Council can be said to have subverted what John XXIII did, perhaps most significantly with regard to issues of sexuality, the door quickly closed on contraception or a more expansive meaning for marital sex. So maybe it was God’s plan that John XXIII’s life was not extended. Who is to say what God’s plan really is? And if that is the case, who is to say whether an angel intervened? John Paul II, as far as I know, never confided what Mary or some angel said to him about what he was being saved for, even though that is just what the angels do in “Genesis”: tell those they guide why what the human beings are doing is important.
So there are probably not angels on everyone’s shoulders, for that would mean that there were a very great number of conversations without any particular reason for those to remain undisclosed. There are no secrets in “Genesis” that don’t get told; there are only inferences about the motives of both God and man that have to be drawn by the reader based on his ability to hear voices only in the sense of being able to attend to the voices of the characters in the dramas there unfolded.