Genesis, Creation, and Ancient Interpreters: What about Angels?

Bookmark and Share

October 20, 2010 Tags: Biblical Interpretation

Today's entry was written by Pete Enns. You can read more about what we believe here.

Genesis, Creation, and Ancient Interpreters: What about Angels?

Angels play a visible role in the Old Testament, but ancient interpreters wondered why nothing is said in Genesis about when they were first created. Genesis is a “gapped” text, as we have seen over the past few weeks, but no mention of angels is a pretty big gap.

God Made Angels according to Psalm 104

What made the matter more pressing for the ancient interpreters was Psalm 104. Verses 2-6 list some of God’s acts at creation, and in the middle is a reference to angels:

You stretched out the heavens like a tent,
You set the beams of your chambers on the waters,
You make the clouds your chariot,
You ride on the wings of the wind
You make the winds your angels,
Fire and flame your ministers.
You set the earth on its foundations.
So that it shall never be shaken.
You cover it with the deep as with a garment;
The waters stood above the mountains (verses 2-6).

In this account of creation we read “you make the winds your angels.” In Hebrew, malakh can mean “angels” or “messengers.” It is very likely that this simply meant that the wind, along with lightning (“fire and flame” in the next line), does God’s bidding or something to that effect. However, since malakh also commonly means angels in the Old Testament, early interpreters took this as an indication that God created angels at the beginning. It was now up to them to discover that message in the creation story of Genesis.

Angels in Genesis 2:1

Ancient interpreters found in Genesis 2:1 one way of connecting the creation of angels to Genesis:

Then the heavens and earth were finished, and all of their host.

This is a summary statement for the first creation story in Genesis 1. In 1:1 the plan to create the heavens and earth is announced and subsequently completed; but 2:1 says a little bit more than 1:1. It adds “host.” What does that mean?

Some early interpreters took this to mean that angels were created sometime during the six days of creation in Genesis 1, even though they weren’t mentioned there explicitly.

It seems pretty clear from the context that “host” refers to whatever God had made to occupy the heavens and the earth. Hence, the NIV has “and all their vast array” and the NRSV “and all their multitude.” The actual Hebrew word is tsaba’, and elsewhere in the Old Testament it is often used this way (Nehemiah 9:6; Psalm 33:6). Other places it seems to refer specifically to the stars (e.g., Daniel 8:10; Zephaniah 1:5).

However, like malakh in Psalm 104, tsaba’ has multiple meanings in the Old Testament. It can also refer to an angelic group of some sort. For example, 1 Kings 22:19 reads: “Then Micaiah said, ‘Therefore hear the word of the Lord; I saw the Lord sitting on his throne, with all the host of heaven standing beside him to the right and to the left of him.’” Again in Psalm 148:2 we read: “Praise him, all his angels; praise him, all his hosts.”

Even though in context “host” in Genesis 2:1 refers to all the things created in the six days (or perhaps stars), the word tsaba’ raised another distinct possibility for early interpreters. Since tsaba’ can mean “angels,” reasoned the ancient interpreters, perhaps that meaning is embedded in Genesis 2:1 as well.

Angels in Genesis 1

With that in mind, all that was left for these interpreters to do was to find more precisely where in Genesis 1 these angels were actually created. Even though Genesis 1 does not mention the creation of angels, a number of interpreters included them among God’s works in the six days.

Early interpreters did not all agree on precisely where in the six-day sequence to place the creation of angels. It seemed logical that they were created before humans. Hence, we read in Sirach 16:26-30:

When the Lord created his “created ones” [angels] in the beginning, their portions he allotted to them; He established their activities for all time, and their dominions forever. They neither hunger not grow weary, and they do not abandon their tasks. They do not crowd one another, and they never disobey his word. Then the Lord looked upon the earth and filled it with good things.

Angels came first, before any other created thing.

Other interpreters were more specific. For example, the book of Jubilees 2:2 connects the creation of angels specifically to Genesis 1:2. The hook is the phrase “spirit of God,” which was interpreted to refer to angels. Augustine, in his City of God 11:9, admits that Genesis is not explicit about the creation of angels, but, it is possible, he says, that they are alluded to in the “heavens” of verse 1 or the “light” of verse 3. The solutions differ, but all are trying to address the problem of where in Genesis 1 the creation of angels is mentioned.

Still other interpreters found the creation of angels in day two when the firmament was created. Since angels resided “up there” somewhere, perhaps they were created along with the firmament. For example, one of the Targums (Targum Pseudo-Jonathan to Genesis 1:26) says explicitly that the angels were created on day two.

Just to round out the discussion, a later rabbinic text Genesis Rabba 1:3 places the creation of angels on day five. Why? Because that is when God created winged birds, and in Isaiah 6:2 we read of angels with two wings who fly about.

As with other examples we have looked at in previous weeks, the Bible itself raises a question without providing a clear answer. Modern readers may say that Genesis simply is not concerned with the creation of angels and leave it at that. I think that is the correct answer, but such an answer did not satisfy early interpreters, especially given what they read in Psalm 104. Even though Genesis is silent, there were enough clues for ancient interpreters to invite them to read more deeply.

For any of us today who might be interested in the same question, these ancient interpreters make for interesting conversation partners.


Pete Enns is a former Senior Fellow of Biblical Studies for The BioLogos Foundation and author of several books and commentaries, including the popular Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament, which looks at three questions raised by biblical scholars that seem to threaten traditional views of Scripture.

< Previous post in series Next post in series >


View the archived discussion of this post

This article is now closed for new comments. The archived comments are shown below.

Loading...
Page 1 of 1   1
Rev. Scott Mapes - #35502

October 20th 2010

Very interesting post, Pete.  It shows that the Genesis account was not trying to give us a comprehensive and rational encyclopedia of knowledge, but to emphasize the fact that God created all that exists, and that all that exists has a purpose in God’s plan.  (Even angels, of course!)


beaglelady - #35503

October 20th 2010

Thanks for this post, Dr. Enns. I’ve often wondered about angels…


Rance Darity - #35519

October 20th 2010

I tend toward the view that angels are part of the elaborate ancient literary fashion of expressing religious ideas. Here’s at least one place where Bultmann gets it right. For example, Cherubim were winged creatures commonly pictured in the ANE, and not confined to the Bible. These were part of the religious imagination to decorate the stories. Angels are especially prevalent in apocalyptic texts.


Your Goddaughter - #35521

October 20th 2010

Very interesting post! Reading all the different options for where to place angels in the process of Creation was food for thought…


Roger A. Sawtelle - #35556

October 20th 2010

IMHO,

Too juch is made of angelogy.  If God is truly all powerful and all knowing God does not need angels.

Angels are messengers, God’s gofers in modern parlance.  They can be seen a intermedaries between God and humans, no longer needed now that Jesus Christ is our Mediator.


Rad - #35569

October 20th 2010

Roger, you are right, God is all powerful and all knowing therefore he does not ‘need’ angels.  God did not ‘need’ us either.  He created us out of His own pleasure. The same can be said of angels.
And yes, angels are used as messengers, as with Gabriel and the annunciation to Mary.


Jon Garvey - #35626

October 21st 2010

“Angels are messengers, God’s gofers in modern parlance.  They can be seen a intermedaries between God and humans, no longer needed now that Jesus Christ is our Mediator.”

I’m sorry, but I have this mental picture of the whole heavenly host being made redundant after the resurrection. It would explain why they do nothing but sit round on clouds playing harps - in fact they’re just bored silly waiting for their welfare cheques, probably getting into drugs and antisocial activity like faking UFO appearances…

...Or maybe it’s wrong to jump to hasty conclusions about whom God chooses to create and why.


Pete Enns - #35634

October 21st 2010

To reign this in a bit, the point of the post was not to talk about angels today, but to highlight the ambiguities of Genesis and how, from very early on, interpreters went about addressing them.  But, if you do want to turn to what you personally think about angels or any other topic I am treating in these posts, try to become hermeneutically self-conscious about about it. Try to look at WHY you say what you do, what sort of gaps in the text are you exploiting, what parts of the Bible are you choosing to bring to bear on the question, etc. Genesis generates its own questions: how do you answer them and why?


Norm - #35652

October 21st 2010

Being that Gen 1-2:3 is a Temple creation account then it seems that the finishing rest requires the defeat of one’s enemies. In this case the enemy appears to be the all-encompassing “chaos and darkness” that prevailed against God’s Host. Therefore the Host of the Heavens and Earth corresponds to the Army of the Lord encamped around the Tabernacle after victory is won. Those who comprise the Host are obviously Israel along with the creatures.  Hosea 2:18 indeed says that Israel will join them in covenant. This is eventually established through Peter’s vision of the creatures in Acts 10.

Hos 2:18 And in that day will I MAKE A COVENANT FOR THEM WITH THE BEASTS OF THE FIELD, AND WITH THE BIRDS OF THE HEAVENS, AND WITH THE CREEPING THINGS OF THE GROUND: and I will break the bow and the sword and the battle out of the land, and will make them to lie down safely.

Notice that the Day of covenant will see the battle accomplished and there will be rest for all at the coming of Messiah. Isaiah 11 reiterates the peaceful coexistence of the clean and unclean animals.

Act 10:11-12 and saw the heavens opened … its four corners upon the earth. In it were all kinds of animals and reptiles and birds of the air.

continued


Norm - #35653

October 21st 2010

Isa 11:1 There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit. … 6 The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together;

Gen 1:26-31 is not about just one man Adam’s creation as the language points toward a plurality of Adam’s who are given servant dominion over God’s creation as His Host/Army encamped around His throne. All of the creatures are given food In the New Covenant not just the Adam’s. 

Gen 1:30 And to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the heavens and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so.

The Messianic battle and victory over the Beast (monster) of the Sea is reaffirmed in Daniel.

Dan 7:26 But the court shall sit in judgment, and his dominion shall be taken away, TO BE CONSUMED AND DESTROYED TO THE END. 
27 And the kingdom and the dominion and the greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven SHALL BE GIVEN TO THE PEOPLE OF THE SAINTS of the Most High; THEIR KINGDOM SHALL BE AN EVERLASTING KINGDOM, and all dominions shall serve and obey them.’


conrad - #36016

October 23rd 2010

Well to bring this up to date and try to correlate it with string theory,.......... our universe exists on one D-brane, which is like a sheet of plastic. We only know what is happening on this 2-dimensional surface.
But there are other D-branes very close to ours.

If the D-branes are thought of as existing like pages in a closed book, and we are the characters in the story, we could actually be touching the other characters in the story on the facing page but never enter their story.

BUT our little cosmic loops might detach from the D-brane and attach their ends to each other and float over to the other page.  [ Not in a real print book of course but in the string theory universe.]

Gravitons may do that now which is why gravity seems to be such a weak force in our universe.

So Angels may be creatures from another universe that detach from their D-brane and float over into our universe attaching to our D-brane temporarily to deliver a message.

NOW IF YOU THINK THIS IS A CRAZY POST,..... DON’T GET MAD AT ME ABOUT IT.
Go complain to guys like Edward Witten, Michio Kaku, Briane Greene and Stepen Hawking.
They started this M-theory ruckus.
But I DO believe it is true,... BECAUSE IT FITS WITH BIBLE ACCOUNTS.


Mark S - #36442

October 25th 2010

Conrad,

I want to start off by first saying that you do have a valid perspective. Your opinions are worthwhile to listen to and quite interesting on one level.

However, what most who interact with the material on this site are trying to understand what the Bible meant to the original audience as well as what interpretation has been like long before modern notions of science.

What many of us would need to overcome to believe what you are saying is that we believe that the Bible had an original audience who understood what was being communicated. Our goal as interpreters, then, is to understand how they understood it.

So, first, if you could help us less scientifically-minded contributors here, please explain why we should believe that the people for whom the Bible was most directly written for had no clue what it was saying. As it stands, I have a hard time understanding how what you are saying has anything to do with biblical interpretation.


David - #36450

October 25th 2010

I do believe that angels were one of the first things created. Probably, the earth we live on then the angels. I am not a theologian, and unfortunately wasn’t raised in the Bible, but this is what I’ve always thought about angels. This was a really interesting article that made me think a lot about the topic. Thanks!


Martin Rizley - #36535

October 26th 2010

What this whole subject illustrates is the fact that God reserves to Himself the right to tell us what our theological questions should be, as well as the right to give us the correct answers.  If He has not told us explicitly at what precise moment He created the angels, then that would suggest it is not a theological question of much importance.  However, if one believes in the interpretive principle of ‘the analogy of Scripture’—that we are to compare text with text to interpret the Scriptures rightly, since the whole of Scripture is inspired by the same Spirit, who does not contradict Himself—then we can say with reasonable assurance on the basis of Job 38:4-7, that the angels were created before God made the earth.  The NIV study Bible comments on this passage that “When the earth was created, the angels were there to sing the praises of the Creator, but Job was not.”  That would suggest that the angels were created in connection with the shamayim—the ‘lifted up things’ of Genesis 1:1.  The main point, however, is that God did create the angels—they are not eternal beings—nor are they co-Creators with God, as some have theorized based on Genesis 1:26—“Let us make manin our image, in our likeness. . .”


Stephen - #37340

October 29th 2010

The role of Angels is a clue in theodicy.  Creationists and atheists both say, ‘Why didn’t God create a perfect, complete world - why did he use the horrors of billions of years of suffering through evolution?’ But who says He didn’t do just this ‘in the beginning’?  What loving God wouldn’t attempt this first?

Who says God didn’t create a perfect, static, complete alternative universe, commonly known as ‘heaven’.  It may sound crazy if the idea of multiple universes wasn’t a common scientific theory today.  Remember, the Bible seems to suggest angels are sexless, static beings inhabiting a non-evolutionary place - e.g. Jesus’ comments re no marriage in heaven because we will be like the angels. 

Why create a second new universe and earth through evolution?  Simple - because the perfect, static model did not work out - Satan’s rebellion.  Our universe essentially is God’s counter to Satan’s charge in Job - prob raised against angels who did not rebel - that beings would only love God if made so.  Our evolution is proof that given free choice, beings would eventually evolve self awareness, and choose to love God.


James Elliott - #37379

October 29th 2010

It seem dark matter is more active and interesting than we thought.  See Scientific American, November 2010, pages 40-45.  “Might dark matter in fact have a rich inner life?”  Perhaps the nature and ministry of angels could be seen in terms of dark matter—largely hid from view but very real.  Genesis 1, then, does not include angels in the drama of creation because they are of a different order and dimension.  The are of the sphere of God, as opposed to the sphere of humans and their immediate environs, the visible universe.  They too are called to praise God.  “Yes, praise the Lord, you armies of angels who serve him and do his will!” (See Psalm 102-19-22)  Satan is a interloper who keeps showing up where he is not wanted, notable in the Garden of Eden and before the courts of heaven where Job is made a contest.  Scripture promises that in new creation this rogue element including moral vice and physical death will be destroyed.  In the meantime, a battle royal rages between Satan and his cohorts and the armies of heaven.  The personal effects on us are like dark matter and its impact on visible matter—hidden but rich and real.


Bryan Hodge - #37409

October 29th 2010

I’ve often wondered why Genesis 1 does not mention angels for another reason. I thoroughly believe that Genesis 1 is a temple text; but it would have been fitting for the author to include angels, since angels appear in the presence of God in heavenly visions and they appear on the Ark of the covenant. One would think that this imagery would have contributed to the picture more vividly. However, it may be that any supernatural beings needed to be removed to emphasize that the victory of God’s work over chaos was His alone en toto. I would not see the “host” as angels either, as I think that saba’ probably just refers to the organization of the cosmos rather than creatures.
Of course an angel does show up out of nowhere in Gen 3, and displays the temple imagery of the garden well.


Page 1 of 1   1