Ancient Jewish Traditions Concerning Angels (Draft for Ensign)

I recently posted on Facebook regarding a small contribution that I made to December’s Ensign magazine.  I had been invited a number of months ago to contribute to an article on angels that has now been published in this issue as “Angels We Have Heard.” The section based on information I provided is “Angels in the Bible and Jewish Tradition” towards the end.

As I explained on Facebook, the small section that appears in the Ensign is actually just a small part of what I originally wrote in my first draft.  There were sections of this first draft that probably would have been too foreign or confusing in such a summarized format to have been helpful for most readers.  I am glad that at least some of the info I provided was found to be useful.

For those who expressed interest in seeing the whole draft, I am posting it here.

Ancient Jewish Traditions Concerning Angels

David J. Larsen

As we look at the history of ancient Jewish traditions regarding angels, we can gain insights into how these beings were understood to function, and better appreciate the revealed truths of the Restoration in their regard. We see in the Old Testament extensive usage of the Hebrew word “malach,” which referred, in a general sense, to a “messenger,” whether mortal or from the celestial realm. Heavenly messengers who bring word from God are often designated “the ‘angel’ (malach) of the Lord,” (Gen. 22:11; Exod. 3:2) or, at times, as the “sons of God” (Job 1:6) or the “saints/holy ones” (Ps. 89:5, 7), among other titles.

Biblical and Jewish literature maintains that there are innumerable angels that make up “the hosts of heaven” (Job 25:3; Ps. 68:17; 2 Kgs. 6:16–17). Later Jewish tradition held that these hosts were highly organized, forming a celestial hierarchy that defined their place, position, and duties. Many ancient texts depict Michael at the head of this hierarchy. In some writings, we see Michael acting as a heavenly high priest, directing the worship of God in the celestial temple.

There are a number of texts that attribute Michael’s priesthood role to other figures, including humans who are taken up into heaven, such as Enoch, Abraham, and Melchizedek. In some of the ancient stories regarding Enoch, labeled by scholars 1, 2, and 3 Enoch, he is taken up into heaven, becomes an angel known as Metatron, is given his own celestial throne, serves as heavenly high priest, and is superior to all the angels. In the Apocalypse of Abraham, Abraham is depicted as having been taken up through the various levels of heaven and trained in the duties of the celestial priesthood. God reveals to Abraham “the idea of the priesthood” and he is taught what to say to cast Azazel (the chief demon) out of their presence (cf. Abr. 1; Mos. 1). Melchizedek, the priest-king of Salem (Gen. 14), appears in several writings as the high-priestly leader of the heavenly worship. In 2 Enoch, Melchizedek is taken up into Paradise to serve later as a chosen high priest (compare JST Gen. 14:32–34). In the Dead Sea Scrolls’ 11QMelchizedek, he is involved in carrying out God’s plans leading up to the final judgment, and is even referred to as a “god.” In many places, we see righteous humans considered to be superior in status to the angels, at times to the point that angels are required to venerate the exalted human (see, e.g., the LatinThe Life of Adam and Eve 13:1-15:3; compare D&C 132:19, 37).

The ancient Jewish view of heaven was generally that it was made up of various “palaces,” or levels, which were represented in the structure of the earthly temple in Israel. Some traditions envisioned a certain classification of angels that lived at each “heaven.” Writings such as the Hekhalot texts and some of the Qumran scrolls indicate that at each heaven there was a gate guarded by angelic sentinels. In The Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice we seem to see the idea that a chief prince along with a secondary prince rule each level of heaven. They each have their own thrones and rule over their respective kingdoms. This concept can be seen as similar to those found in some of the teachings of Joseph Smith and other early Church leaders (see, e.g., D&C 76; 88:26-29, 37, 47; Orson Hyde, “A Diagram of the Kingdom of God,” Millennial Star 9 [15 January 1847]: 23-24).

Latter-day Saints, as they study these ancient traditions regarding angels, can discover avenues for understanding how God works with His children and what He plans for their eternal destiny.

 

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