Angels in antiquity: Judaism’s long relationship with heaven’s haloed helpers
While many Jews relegate the supernatural beings to the Christian realm, Prof. Mika Ahuvia reveals a deep cultural and religious connection in a new book
When then-Princeton graduate student Mika Ahuvia was taking a class in Roman religion, she became intrigued by ancient religious stories from the Middle East.
“I learned about stories of ancient Romans stumbling into gods and goddesses in sacred groves and stories of Christian stylite saints speaking with angels from the top of columns,” Ahuvia said. “That made me wonder how and where exactly Jews interacted with angels.”
As it turns out, angels played a significant, underappreciated role in the lives of Jews in late antiquity — which Ahuvia, now a professor of classical Judaism at the University of Washington, reveals in a new book, “On My Right Michael, On My Left Gabriel: Angels in Ancient Jewish Culture.”
Judaism is no stranger to angels. Jewish scriptures only name two — Michael and Gabriel, mentioned in the Book of Daniel, plus Raphael who appears in the apocryphal books of Enoch and Tobit. But the Bible and later writings include hosts of unnamed heavenly messengers who do everything from stopping Abraham from sacrificing his son to wrestling Jacob, not to mention the Angel of Death, plus the guardian angels Seraphim and the fallen angels, or Nephilim.
By late antiquity, Ahuvia’s book makes clear, Jews had significantly expanded their lineup of named angels. Some had special traits, like Azazel (signifying “power”) or Kafziel (reflecting “the right to conquer”), and each nation had its own angel as well, like Persia’s Dubbiel, or “Bear of God.” However, they all had the same lack of free will, the same commitment to doing God’s work, and the same appearance, or lack thereof.
“For Jews in late antiquity, angels were subordinate beings [to God] that always acted in alignment with God’s will, executing obligations from the heavens,” Ahuvia said. “The modern period is really preoccupied with what angels look like. You don’t see that preoccupation so much in ancient Jewish texts. Clearly, they were invisible, made of fire, and changeable.”
And then Christianity came along.
Angels of the Jews
Ahuvia, who grew up in what she calls the secular, radical and socialist Israeli kibbutz of Beit Hashita, said that American Jews and secular Israelis sometimes downplayed angels when she spoke about her work.
“I’d say, ‘I’m working on angels and ancient Judaism,’” said Ahuvia. “They said, ‘What angels? Angels are Christian.’”
“The dominance of Christian art plays a role in Jews not recognizing their heritage,” she said. “It’s certainly one [reason]. I don’t think it should stop [Jews] from claiming angels as part of their culture.” She cites an ancient Jewish cemetery in the Beit She’arim national park in northern Israel: “There were clearly depictions of angelic beings in the cemetery, winged figures on Jewish sarcophagi. Depictions of angels were part of Jewish imagery. It’s just that much less survived centuries of dispersal and persecution.”
To understand the Jewish view of angels millennia ago, Ahuvia said she plumbed “much of the available evidence,” spanning “magical-ritual, liturgical, early mystical, and from early to late rabbinic literature,” from the Hebrew Bible to the liturgical poetry of a Jew named Yannai in Byzantine Palestine. She noted that her book does not represent a comprehensive survey of angels among ancient Jewish sources, adding that this would have called for a multivolume effort.
Ahuvia noted that key parts of Jewish liturgy today have centuries-old links to angels, from the Kedushah prayer to the practice of standing on Yom Kippur while dressed in white.
Other Jewish traditions related to angels have long since faded away, such as incantation bowls from Babylonia, which date from the Mesopotamian region of Mesene in the fifth and sixth centuries CE. About the size of a modern-day breakfast cereal bowl, they were used to seek divine assistance from a variety of sources.
“I found the magical bowls to be the most exciting and fascinating — and the most neglected — in the story of religion and lived experience,” she said. “I wanted to foreground that — the most vivid description of where angels were, what they were doing for people.”
She called this a “provocative choice” in that, because of a Talmudic discussion on the purity of Jewish lineage based on geographic location (Tractate Kiddushin 71b), some people would “not necessarily classify Jews from Mesene and [its city of] Nippur to be Jewish… It foregrounded the need to be more inclusive in our histories of Judaism.”
Protection from in-laws
Through the bowls, Jews found a way to deal with numerous sources of tsuris (troubles) in the supernatural and natural worlds, from demons to in-laws.
“The most popular formula we have found represented, that I see most often, has to be a prayer against the intrusion of in-laws,” Ahuvia said. “Do you really want to pray to God about the issue of your in-laws? It seems a bit beneath God’s majesty. I think where angels are useful is, you just pray to angels about events in your life that are beneath God’s worries.”
Forty percent of the bowls Ahuvia examined contain pleas to the angels — either alongside or beneath requests to God — for help with diverse problems, from gossip to curses to physical illnesses to the health of a marriage.
“Things that kept them awake in the night,” Ahuvia sums up. “They also worried about demons attacking them, attaching themselves to them.”
In the early centuries CE, Ahuvia said, “people lived in a world filled with all sorts of intermediaries. It was not just you and God if you were Jewish. It was you and local authorities, local synagogues, rabbis, ritual practitioners, you and your guardian angels.”
The book cites the Babylonian Talmud (Shabbat 119b) as containing a tradition about angelic visitation attributed to Yose ben Judah that “two ministering angels accompany a man on the eve of the Sabbath from the synagogue to his home, one good (tov) and one evil (ra’). And when he arrives at his house, if a lamp is lit and a table is prepared and his bed covered, the good angel says, ‘May it be like this on another Sabbath too,’ and the evil angel answers ‘amen’ against his will. And if it is not, the evil angel says, ‘May it be like this on another Sabbath too,’ and the good angel answers ‘amen’ against his will.”
In addition, Ahuvia said, “Everybody had a good angel that waits for you to do good things,” as well as “an angel of evil watching out for the transgressions you commit.” On Judgment Day, “the two guardian angels come before God to argue your case.”
She noted that the angel of evil is “not innately evil, just around to monitor events when they happen,” like a “police officer with a speeding ticket, not super-popular but maintaining order in the invisible realm… so they actually look out for justice.”
Ahuvia writes, “Early rabbinic traditions do not provide more commentary on the idea of accompanying angels, whether good or evil… Only much later rabbinic traditions would elaborate on the idea of good and evil angels accompanying Jews.”
A mind of their own?
It appears that early rabbis grappled with popular beliefs about angels — and made some concessions.
“Statements attributed to Rabbi Akiva and other rabbis after him encouraged Jews to focus on God directly and to focus on God’s loving relationship with Israel,” writes Ahuvia. “In the traditions associated with Rabbi Akiva, God was not distant and inimitable but could be a presence for Jews… The development of imitatio dei, the imitation of God, in the writings of rabbis from the Mishnah through Babylonian Talmud shows this endeavor was successful among the sages. Because some rabbis upheld this principle as their highest value, they rejected imitation of angels.”
At the same time, Ahuvia said, “Early rabbinic texts also took it for granted that guardian angels followed them around. Both were true. These attitudes stand in tension with each other.”
Rabbis were also perplexed by narratives of angels intervening with God on behalf of humans, contradicting the perception that they unquestioningly obey divine will — such as the story of Gabriel weeping for Israel in the Talmud.
“How these stories are interpreted, talking about angels as automatons and God as distant, seem to reflect more modern concerns and revisions than ancient beliefs,” Ahuvia said.
She also cites rabbis downplaying an “ancient Jewish myth,” that of the fallen angels or Nephilim — “sons of God that left the heavens and started mating with women.” Ahuvia writes that the sages believed only men, not angels, to possess free will. The angels in this story, however, acted “obviously on their own will. Neither Christian nor Jewish leaders liked this myth.”
Sleeping like an angel
Angels also influenced early prayer liturgy, reflected in the inclusion of the Kedushah in the standing Amidah. Its prayer — beginning with “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts” — comes from Isaiah 6:3, where it is uttered by the Seraphim to God in the Temple in Jerusalem.
Ahuvia describes the Kedushah as eyewitness testimony for many Jews about “how God preferred to be worshipped.”
“Around the time the Babylonian Talmud was redacted and coming together, Byzantine Palestine tried to popularize the Amidah [prayer],” Ahuvia said, referring to the group of Jews in the Land of Israel who were compiling the Babylonian Talmud’s counterpart, the Jerusalem Talmud.
“Part of that was including the Kedushah, the opportunity to pray like angels,” she said. “The Shema and the Amidah, without it, were not really quite enough. It’s a really fascinating moment in the history of liturgy. We do not talk about the liturgy enough today, why it was exciting, how it drew people in, and how it taught people to imagine themselves in relation to the divine realm.”
People also had the bedtime liturgy surrounding the nighttime Shema, which includes the “Hamalach Hagoel” prayer, literally translating to “The angel who redeems [me],” drawn from Jacob’s blessing to his grandsons Ephraim and Menasseh in Genesis 48:16. This liturgy also includes the phrase from which the book’s title is taken.
“My Orthodox friends definitely say this prayer for their children,” Ahuvia said. “Maybe they don’t think about the angels explicitly. In many ways, American Jews, except maybe Orthodox Jews, don’t take this prayer seriously. The implication of angels on all sides seems to be very ancient… You’ll have to read the book and decide if you find the evidence persuasive.”
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