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

| By Pete Enns

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 hishosts.”

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.


About the Author

Pete Enns

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.