ANGELS IN THE BIBLE
In the Torah, the Five Books of Moses—often referred to as the Old Testament—we find fascinating references to angels. There is an angel in the key story when God directed Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac. An angel stops Abraham at the last moment from committing the act.
This was seen as a test that Abraham had to pass, and of course this story has been of profound interest to readers over many centuries.
When Abraham sent his servant, Eliezer, to seek out a wife for his son, Isaac, Eliezer was guided by an angel to Rebecca. One of Eliezer’s points to convince Rebecca that her intended soul-mate was Isaac was based on his relating to her that he had been guided to her by an angel.
In yet another well-known story, Isaac’s son Jacob has a dream of angels running up and down a ladder that spans the distance between heaven and earth.
In this story, God promises Jacob—who is running for his life—that he will be protected, and that he will be the father of the nation promised to his own father, Isaac, and his grandfather, Abraham. When Jacob awakens from this dream, he pronounces in his awe: “God is here and I did not know it!”
This is a crucial mystical teaching that says, God is always here, if we only have the eyes to see.
Jacob sets up a pillar to mark this spot, anoints it with oil, and names the place: Beth-El, the house of God. A few chapters later, Jacob recounts that he was visited in another dream by an angel who gave him a vision and then declared, “I am the God of Beth-El….”
This interface between angels who act as messengers and those who identify themselves as God happens on numerous occasions in the Torah to the point where one cannot help but wonder how to clearly distinguish between the two.
Jacob has other encounters with angels. In one, the ordinary translation is “…angels of God met him.”
The mystical interpretation for this verse focuses on the use the Hebrew word “bo,”—meaning “in”—which indicates that the literal translation should read: “…angels of God met in him.” This new reading suggests that Jacob regularly experienced angels in his inner vision and thus he epitomizes the ultimate mystical experience of continuously living in Presence.
A few more well-known mentions of angels in the Torah include the episode of the blessing of Joseph’s sons by their grandfather Jacob, who also goes by the name of Israel.
An angel is invoked in this blessing. The episode of Moses at the Burning Bush has an angel appearing to him out of the flame, and then God speaks to him directly.
There is an angel who accompanies and protects the Israelites on their flight out of Mitzrayim
(which is normally translated as Egypt, but should more correctly be referred to as, “a place of constriction.”) There is an angel with the Israelites during their forty years in the desert. Simply said, angels appear one way or another, in the written or oral tradition, for almost every story of significance.
Direct, explicit references to angels in the Torah use Hebrew words like malach yhvh. Malach means messenger in Hebrew, and the Hebrew letters “yhvh” represent the tetragrammaton, one of the most important names of God, usually pronounced in Hebrew as Ado-noy, or translated into English as “the Lord.” Thus, malach yhvh is commonly read, “angel of the Lord,” and this reference appears many times in the books of Genesis, Exodus and Numbers. In addition, references to angels can be found dozens of times in other parts of the Bible: in Judges, Samuel, Kings, Isaiah, Hoshea, Zacharia, Psalms, Job, Ecclesiastes, Daniel and Chronicles.
The Story of Balaam
The final time in the five books of Moses that we dramatically encounter an angel in the written tradition is in the story of Balaam and his donkey enroute to put a curse on the Israelites.
It was known that Balaam had powerful magic and that his curse would drive them from the land. This is a mysterious story in the Torah and it has evoked an enormous amount of commentary. As it is one of the most significant biblical stories that reveals the nature of angels, let us explore it more closely.
In the short form, the Israelites wandered in the desert for forty years and in so doing encountered various tribes who were settled on the land. Some of these encounters were peaceful and some were not. In the case of the Moabites, Balak, the king, was afraid that the Israelites would be hostile. So he sent his elders to summon the sage, Balaam, who was well versed in the arts of the occult, to put a curse on the potential enemies.
When approached by these elders, Balaam asked them to stay the night so that he could use his magic to ask God (Elohim), what to do. When God appeared to him that night, Balaam reported the request by Balak that he curse the nation of the Israelites. God’s response was that he should not go with these men and he should not curse the nation in question because it was already a blessed nation. So in the morning Balaam sent the elders back to King Balak with his refusal.
However, Balak was insistent, and sent another group, this one larger and with higher rank, with the message to come, whatever the cost. Balaam replied that no amount of wealth would be sufficient to violate the word of God. Nonetheless, Balaam still asked his visitors to stay the night to see what God would say to him the second time around. This time, God said that Balaam could go with these men, but advised him to do only what God instructed him to do.
The next morning, Balaam hurried to saddle his donkey and went with the delegation. At this point, the story turns quite mysterious. In the very sentence in which God tells Balaam he can go, it says: “And God’s anger glowed because he went.” The reader must immediately wonder: “But God said to him that it was o.k. to go.” While there are many interpretations for this story, the commentaries generally agree that Balaam was obviously anxious to go for his own reasons. Otherwise, he already had his message and had no need to check a second time. This proved that he did not accept the initial instruction, but rather was seeking to find a way to do the task requested by Balak.
The nuance here is that although Balaam had occult powers, and even though he was careful in his use of these powers, he was also corruptible by status and wealth. So he looked for a loophole, so to speak, in the earlier instructions. In essence, he had a personal agenda and thus was not completely open to divine guidance.
In the same sentence where God’s anger is revealed, it says that “an angel of God placed itself in the way to block [Balaam];”
but Balaam and the others with him did not see this angel. However, the donkey upon which Balaam was riding did see the angel! Facing this awesome, threatening angel holding a raised sword, the donkey swerved off the road into the adjoining field. Balaam, still blind to the angel, beat the animal to get her back to the road. They moved onto a narrow path in the adjoining vineyard.
The angel, still with a raised sword, switched places and blocked the way on this new path. The donkey leaned to one side, trying to avoid the angel, accidentally crushing Balaam’s foot on the fence. He beat the animal even more. Unfortunately, the path was so narrow, there was no room to move either left or right. At this point, when the donkey saw the angel again, she lay down and would not move. Balaam was enraged and he beat her even more with a stick.
This animal had seen the angel three times; Balaam had not seen it at all. Even with all of his powers and ability to commune with God, Balaam was so focused on his own inner world that he was oblivious to the subtleties of what was happening around him. At this point in the story, we cannot help but wonder why he was unable to realize the presence of the angel? Why was the angel revealed only to the donkey?
A Donkey That Speaks
Now the story becomes quite strange. The donkey is given the power of speech! She asks Balaam, “What have I done to you that you beat me three times?”
Balaam shouts, “You have rebelled against me. If I had a sword, I would kill you!” She replies, “Am I not your donkey that you have always ridden from the beginning until now. Have I ever done this to you before?” And he said, “No.”
The fact that the donkey can talk is astonishing. It raises sublime issues, particularly on the subject of how this world operates. Is it a world in which anything can happen, or is there some order, some universal law that cannot be broken? In our modern view, we are not as astonished about these kinds of things. We see many strange phenomena in science, and some of us might remember seeing as kids Mr. Ed, the talking horse, on television. For the ancient sages, however, a talking donkey sparks an inquiry into the nature of the universe. They went so far as to say that Balaam’s donkey was a one-time-only miracle, created before Creation itself, to do exactly what she did in this encounter with Balaam, and then to die, never to be heard from again.
This incident in the Torah invites us into a philosophical and theological discussion that could easily lead us astray from our theme. With regard to angels, however, it is marvelous teaching story. We learn from it that there are many realities. Each individual carries his or her own reality depending upon the conditioning of that person’s mind. This is why it is difficult to get witnesses to a single event to agree on exactly how the event unfolded. In addition, there is a reality shaped by our intellect, another shaped by our emotions, yet another reality which is a function of our perceptions, and so on. Our realities are shaped also by our beliefs, our judgments and our self-awareness. In addition, it is clear that animals, insects, and other life forms have their own unique views of reality.
Balaam was such an advanced practitioner of the occult arts, he could invite an encounter with a reality in which he could commune with God. Yet, he was unable to experience an angelic presence that his own donkey could perceive. The instant that Balaam was able to realize that his donkey did not deserve the beatings, as soon as he displayed some humility—a trait that requires one to gain greater perspective—then, at that point, Balaam gets his “eyes opened.”
With the ability to see, Balaam finally is able to perceive the angel with the drawn sword, and he is shocked into falling on his face—a sign of profound awe. At this point, the angel repeats the question the donkey had asked, “Why did you beat this beloved donkey who has served you so well?” When the Torah repeats something, it is driving a point home. This is our lesson. When we are lost in our own beliefs and our personal motivations, we miss what is really happening around us. The angel goes on to say, “If your donkey had not turned aside, I would have killed you!”
Balaam is filled with remorse and reflects that if God considers it wrong to do this task, he will return home—but this was already clear from the start. Now things have changed. When he asks yet again, he is still told to go, but “do not say anything other than the exact words I say to you.” (Eventually we will see that instead of cursing the Israelites, Balaam ends up blessing them.)
Thus we have taken a full circle, but in so doing Balaam is now in full contact with the angelic presence. He is no longer functioning on his own agenda; he has truly become a vehicle for the expression of the Divine. This is a powerful teaching that opens gateways for working with the presence of angels. It is interesting to note that the word for angel in Hebrew (for a messenger) is written eleven times in this section on Balaam, more than in any other single section of the Bible.
It is said that every blade of grass has an angel hovering over it, calling to it, saying: “Grow!” The instant the angel calls forth a single urge to grow, it fades away. In the next moment another angel appears over the blade of grass, and it calls out, “Grow!” It too then instantly disappears, while yet another and another and another angel appears, fresh in every moment, urging the grass to Grow!
Thus, every single blade of grass has untold trillions of angels attending it, urging it to live. So too every leaf, every living being, and indeed every atom has its angels urging it to move, to fly, to be whatever it is. Yes, even every wave, every vibration, every nuance of this universe has its mystery which can be described in angelic terms.
The story of Balaam gives us pause to consider the possibility that as we sit or stand right now, where we are, we are surrounded by many angelic forms. This is a teaching that we will work with throughout this book. The donkey that we ride is viewed by some as this body of ours; I prefer to view it as our own minds. The mind carries us to wherever we go. It is a faithful servant, when well handled.
The mind also can be a stubborn ass, it can and often does insist on going its own way. Sometimes it won’t go at all. This is what happens when we abuse our own minds. But the mind can be trained and it can serve us well. There are many tools to work with in this training. One of the primary tools is that of cultivation. The mind can be cultivated like a beautiful field. At first it may take some effort to plow and open things up.
On the spiritual path, the method of cultivation often uses imagination to enter states of mind that help to shift our moods and perspectives. Through the use of memory, for example, we can simulate events that made us happy, joyful, calm, loving and so forth, feelings that induce a change in our thoughts and behavior. Through recognition and repetition we can condition ourselves to various mood states at will. In so doing, we can actually alter the way we respond to certain events and we can build an openness and skillfulness in our own behavior.
As we will see, many angels have specific characteristics that identify them. By learning their stories and by associating certain traits with individual angels, we can begin to use our own imagination to bring ourselves in closer alignment their characteristics. This kind of practice, which is done in many traditions, can be quite powerful