From Angels: A History
The word angel (malach) is simply the ordinary Hebrew word for a messenger. The same is true in Arabic and in Greek. It is the Greek word angelos that is the source for the English word, angel. Philosophers such as Ibn Sina, Moses Maimonides, and Thomas Aquinas were interested in what angels were made of, or what they were not made of. Thomas understood angels essentially as pure intellects, minds without bodies. This is in contrast to human beings, who are, as it were, common, composed of spirit and body. (Creed of Lateran IV) However, the tradition of angels does not begin with this question of what they are made of. It begins with an encounter, with the coming of angels as messengers. According to Augustine, the word, angel, is the name not of a nature but of a role. There is no reason not to call a human being an angel if that person is acting as a messenger. The word has come to mean someone carrying a message from God, but this someone could still be a human being. The Apostle Paul said of himself, You did not scorn or despise me, but received me as an angel of God.
One of the key moments in the story of the Abrahamic faiths is the coming of the angels to Abraham. They came as strangers and as guests, but before they left the Lord told Abraham: I will surely return to you in the spring, and Sarah your wife shall have a son. In the Quran the angels say, Have no fear, and they gave good news of a knowledgeable son. The angels are talking to Abraham, but Sarah overhears, as she is surely supposed to. It is not just a message for Abraham, the father-figure who is sitting with the angels, but perhaps more so it is a message for Sarah, the childless wife who is preparing the meal. Sarah is by this time an old woman. According to the Quran, she looks at her wrinkled skin and says, I am a sterile old woman, and so, when she hears what the angels say, she laughs.
This story is ironic on a number of levels. The intended recipient of the message is hiding in the tent. She only overhears the message. On hearing the message the woman laughs, not with joy but with bitter irony, for the message seems unbelievable. Nevertheless, this laughter will take on a new meaning when the message proves to be true and the child is born. The story is playful, but it is not a cruel playfulness. It is the playfulness that reveals good news indirectly and by hints. This playful or ironic or half-hidden way of communicating is not the exception but it is rather characteristic of the stories of angelic utterances. Even if the message is clear, it is often misunderstood, and, as the story unfolds, it seems that the message has to be understood gradually.
While the story is deliberately playful and domestic, the message is not only of individual significance. The birth of Isaac is not just a moment of joy for the new parents. It also marks the beginning of the story of a people, part of its founding narrative. Abraham’s son is Isaac. Isaac has two sons: Jacob and Esau. Jacob has twelve sons, and each one of these is the father of one of the twelve tribes of Israel. So what seemed to be a merely personal communication, not even heard but overheard, was also an announcement of such significance that it continues to shape the world to this day. This paradoxical mixing of the personal and the universal is also typical of the scriptural stories of angels speaking. The angelic communication is always personal, to one or two people. It is not a public announcement made before crowds or officials. It sits on the boundary of the private and the public: a message given in private but with a public significance.
The same paradoxical character of an angel’s message is found in the story of Moses and the burning bush. Moses sees a bush that is on fire but that is not being burnt up. The mysterious fire is in fact an angel, who speaks to Moses out of the bush. The Lord tells Moses that he has seen the suffering of the people and is sending Moses to liberate them. Moses asks what he should say to people if they ask who has sent him. The Lord replies: I am who I am. Say this to the people of Israel, “I AM has sent me to you.” This seems to be a reply, but others have seen it as a refusal to give a reply. The reply of the angel has left theologians with more questions and arguments than if the angel had never spoken, and yet it also seems to reveal something. The message comes from the One who simply is and from whom all other things have come. The attempt to give this mystery a name is resisted by the angel, but indirectly, by seeming to give a name.