In Israel's early traditions, God was perceived as administering the cosmos with a retinue of divine assistants. The members of this divine council were identified generally as "sons of God" and "morning stars" (Job 1:6; 38:7), "gods" (Ps. 82) or the "host of heaven" (Neh. 9:6), and they functioned as God's vicegerents and administrators in a hierarchical bureaucracy over the world. Where Israel's polytheistic neighbors perceived these beings as simply a part of the pantheon, the Bible depicts them as subordinate and in no way comparable to God.
The most ancient Israelites would probably have felt uncomfortable in describing all these beings as "angels," for the English word "angel" comes from the Greek aggelos, which at first simply meant "messenger" (as does the Hebrew term for angel, mal'ak). God's divine assistants were often more than mere messengers. Cherubim and seraphim, for example, never function as God's messengers, for their bizarre appearance would unnecessarily frighten humans. On the contrary, God is frequently depicted in early narratives as dispensing with divine messengers, for God deals directly with humans with out intermediaries.
As time passed, however, an increasing emphasis on God's transcendence correlated with an increasing need for divine mediators. These beings who brought God's messages to humans are typically portrayed as being human-like in form, and such a being may often be called a "man.” But as these messengers become more and more frequent, they eventually are provided with individual names and assigned increasingly specific tasks that go beyond that of a messenger. The only two angels named in the Hebrew Bible are in the book of Daniel: Gabriel reveals the future (Dan. 8—9) while Michael has a more combative role, opposing the forces of evil.
The Essenes, who influenced Christianity, and may have written the Dead Sea Scrolls possessed an especially well-developed angel-lore. The increasing role played by angels in the later stages of the Hebrew Bible is found everywhere in the Christian Scriptures. Among Jews and Christians in general, angeology continued to develop so that not only was Satan provided with his own retinue of angels as a counterpart to God, but hundreds of names and functions are also applied to angels in apocryphal texts such as the books of Enoch, written just before the Christian Scriptures.
In the Talmudic period the Biblical angelology was elaborated and enriched in three directions: angelic ministration was frequently inferred in Biblical narratives which made no mention of it, thus broadening the concept of angels as intermediaries be tween man and God; the personality of the angels was more clearly delineated through an effort to describe them, to name the more important ones, and to accord them peculiar spheres of influence, so that we have "princes" of fire, of hail, of rain, of night, of the sea, of healing, and so on; and finally they were appointed man's guardians to accompany him through his daily routine. The Essenes were said to have possessed an especially well-developed angel-lore, and the Enoch literature, reflecting Gnostic sources, had much to say concerning them, and implied their control of nature, man, and the future.
Along with this elaboration of angelology went its practical corollary, the utilization of angels in magic. The Talmud, though speaking often of angelic apparitions, knew nothing of the conjuration of angels as distinguished from the conjuration of demons. At most, there appears to have existed during the Talmudic period the practice of calling upon, or praying to the angels, as intermediaries before God, to intercede in a crisis.
By this later period, Talmudic prayer had been transformed into a magical invocation. This was the foundation upon which thirteenth-century German-Jewish mysticism built an imposing structure of angel-magic.
One characteristic of the angels, in particular, merits attention both because of the frequency with which it was mentioned, and because of its practical consequences for religious and magical rites. Petitions were often addressed to heaven by way of the intervening angels. God, omniscient, comprehends all tongues, but the official language of the celestial court is Hebrew, and unfortunately the angels are monolingual ( or, it may be, if they do have knowledge of foreign languages they choose to ignore communications addressed in them.) This principle was advanced in the Talmud, and since Aramaic was the spoken language of the people, the warning against praying in Aramaic was made especially emphatic. Only in the sick room might one employ other tongues than Hebrew, for there the Shechina, the Presence of God, was believed to hover over the head of the invalid, and received the prayer directly. This belief persisted in the Middle Ages and was utilized to explain, if weakly, the Aramaic prayers that are to be found in the ritual, and in particular, certain Aramaic lines in the Kaddish: they were couched in this language so that they might be unintelligible to the angels, for their contents were such as might annoy them, or arouse their envy of the superlative piety of the Jews. It was this belief too that made necessary the bestowal of a Hebrew name upon every Jew, in addition to his secular name, and the use exclusively of the Hebrew name in the course of a religious rite, for the angels certainly could not be expected to recognize an individual by any other.
Do angels speak English? For our sake, let’s hope not.
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