“All night, all day.
Angels watching over me, my Lord.
All night, all day.
Angels watching over me.”
So goes the chorus of a traditional American children’s song. It’s December, the time of year when angels receive heightened attention because of their association with the birth of Jesus. While angels are found in many religions and mythologies I’ve chosen to focus on their role in the Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
Linguistic Background: The Modern English word angel is sourced from Old English engel (with a hard g) and the Old French angele. Both terms came in turn from Old Latin angelus (literally “messenger”). The root word for all these derivations was a Late Greek word commonly translated in its phonetic form ángelos.
The rendering of ángelos is the Greek Septuagint’s default translation of the Biblical Hebrew term mal’akh, which simply means “messenger.” In the Latin Vulgate, when ángelos or Hebrew mal’akh denote a human messenger, nuntius or legatus are employed: the translators called a supernatural being angelus.
Judaism: A variety of phrases appear in the Torah when it speaks about angels. There’s “messenger of God”; “messenger of the Lord”; “sons of God” and “the holy ones”.
Mal’akh appears elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible. Depending upon the context, it may refer to a human messenger or to a supernatural messenger. Human messengers might be prophets or priests. Supernatural entities include “Malak YHWH,” who is either a messenger from God, an aspect of God’s being or God’s self as the messenger.
Only in the later books of the Hebrew Bible do these names come to identify the benevolent semi-divine beings that are familiar from later mythology and art. For instance, Daniel is the first biblical figure to refer to individual angels by name, mentioning Gabriel (God’s primary messenger) in Daniel 9:21 and Michael (“the holy fighter”) in Daniel 10:13. These creatures figure in the prophet’s apocalyptic visions and are an important part of all literature of that type.
Christianity: In the early days the Christian Church angels were simply messengers of God. Later on some of them are named: Gabriel, Michael, Raphael and Uriel. Then in the space of the 3rd to 5th centuries C.E. the idea of angels took on definite characteristics in both theology and art.
By the late 4th century, the Church Fathers agreed that different categories of angels existed, with appropriate missions and activities assigned to them. However, there was disagreement over the nature of angels. Some people maintained that angels had physical bodies, while others asserted that they were entirely spiritual creatures.
Angels are represented throughout the Christian Bible as spiritual entities that act as intermediaries between the Deity and humankind. They are created beings: “for in [Jesus Christ] all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible or invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities—all things were created through him and for him.” (Colossians 1:16, RSV).
The Christian Bible includes many interactions and conversations between angels and humans. For instance, three separate cases of angelic visitation deal with the births of John the Baptist and Jesus In Luke 1:11, an angel appears to Zechariah to inform him that he will have a child despite his old age, thus proclaiming the birth of John the Baptist. In Luke 1:26 the Archangel Gabriel visits the Virgin Mary in the Annunciation to foretell the birth of Christ. Angels then proclaim the birth of Jesus in the Adoration of the Shepherds in Luke 2:10. Likewise, angelic beings are stationed at the resurrected Jesus’s empty tomb.
Islam: The Quran and Hadith contain numerous references to angels. God entrusts them with specific tasks, such as testing individuals by granting them abundant wealth and curing their illnesses. Although believing in angels remains one of Islam’s Six Articles of Faith there isn’t a dogmatic angelology in Islamic tradition.
Guardian Angels: In the eyes of many people today the idea of having a guardian angel, tasked specifically to watch over their affairs, is a hot topic. However, belief in guardian angels can be traced throughout all antiquity.
The idea that angels guard over particular people and nationalities played a common role in ancient Judaism, while a theory of such beings and their hierarchy was extensively developed in 5th century Christianity. Adherents of Eastern and Western Christianity alike believe guardian angels serve to protect whichever person God assigns them to, and present prayer to God on that person’s behalf.
Guardian angels appear in the Hebrew Bible as God’s ministers who may be commissioned to carry out specific actions. In Genesis 18-19, angels carried out God’s wrath against the cities of the plain but they also delivered Lot from danger; in Exodus 32:34, God said to Moses: “my angel shall go before you.” The role of angels as guides and intercessors is found in Job 33:23-6; in Daniel1 0:13 angels seem to be assigned to certain countries.
In the Christian scriptures angels serve as the intermediaries between God and humans. Examples include the angel who freed the Apostle Peter from prison. Hebrews 1:13-14: specifies the angels’ place in the heavenly hierarchy, while describing their duties: But to what angel has [God] ever said, “Sit at my right hand till I make thy enemies a stool for thy feet?’ Are they not all ministering spirits sent forth to serve, for the sake of those who are to obtain salvation?
Finally, while it appears that in Islam the concept of guardian angels isn’t as developed as it is in Judaism and Christianity, many still Muslims hold that each person has two guardian angels, going in front of and following behind him/her.
Searching “guardian angel” on Google or YouTube yields a cornucopia of sites and videos that claim to aid in contacting or soliciting the help of one’s guardian angel. Those I visited and viewed overwhelmingly fall into the category of New Age spirituality. Their make their intent self-explanatory:
5 Facts You Need to Know About Your Guardian Angel
11 Signs You’re Being Visited by Your Guardian Angel
15 Signs You’re Being Visited by Your Guardian Angel
Guardian Angel Invocation
How to Have a Relationship with Your Guardian Angel
How to Know the Name of Your Guardian Angel
How to Meet Your Guardian Angel
How to Tell If You Have a Guardian Angel
How You can Talk to Your Guardian Angel
Who are our Guardian Angels?
And on, and on, and on . . . The message I sense from the folks that devise such content is that it’s possible to bend these semi-divine beings to human will, thereby obtaining spiritual or material blessings.
My Perspective? It isn’t very exciting. As someone seeped in the study of biblical history and languages, I try to understand what the texts say, not the results of extrapolations and traditions that have grown up around them.
Therefore, I am content to understand angels to be God’s messengers, at times tasked with carrying out God’s will. Nothing more, nothing less.
But “guardian angels”? I don’t buy it.