Angels and guardian spirits in the Bible and the ancient Near East (Zechariah 1)

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Illustration: 18th century rendition of a guardian angel

Both the Hebrew and the Greek words that are translated into English as “angel” also mean “messenger”. This reflects the fact that an angel is a messenger from God. It was sometimes difficult to determine whether a messenger from God during Bible times was human or angelic (Judges 13:2-22), since angels were often perceived as humanlike in appearance and evidently seemed to be either male or female (Zechariah 5:9). The situation is also confusing in the case of “the angel of the Lord“, since this being sometimes appears to have been a mere angel but at other times God Himself.

Human messengers in the ancient Near East acted as heralds, envoys and ambassadors, bearing the authority of the sender. In like manner angels functioned in the Bible as God’s representatives. The “message” an angel carried may have been verbal, but it may also have been an action indicative of a judgement (2 Samuel 24:15-17), a ministry to believers (1 Kings 19:5-8) or a service as a guardian of God’s people (Psalm 91:11).

Beings analogous to guardians also appear in the mythology of Israel’s neighbours:

  • Lists of gods from Mesopotamia often name servants of the great gods. These lesser divinities purportedly functioned as messengers and agents for the high gods. Sometimes the myths present these lower gods as a kind of heavenly peasant class who id menial work for the high gods but who, if pushed too hard, were inclined to rebel against their heavenly overlords.
  • Lesser deities or “personal gods” in the ancient world also functioned as protective spirits with regard to individuals (analogous to the idea of guardian angels or patron saints). They were thought to watch over the lives of devotees in return for their allegiance.
  • Another group of lower deities encompassed the gatekeepers, typically depicted as fearsome, hybrid creatires, such as winged bulls or lions with human heads. Colossal statues of such creatures flanked the entrances of temples and palaces and were thought to ward off evil spirits, serving as guardians and attendants of both gods and kings. The British Museum now houses several of these statues, averaging over 3 m in height. Their Egyptian counterparts were the sphinx and the uraeus serpent.

Biblical cherubim and seraphim are analogous to the supernatural gatekeepers of the ancient Near East. Cherubim secured the way into Eden after the expulsion of Adam and Eve (Genesis 3:24), and figures of winged cherubim also symbolically guarded the ark of the covenant and the Tent of Meeting (Exodus 25:18-22, 26:1). Seraphim served as attendants in the heavenly throne room in Isaiah’s vision (Isaiah 6). Cherubim are sometimes described in terms reminiscent of the hybrid creatures of ancient Near Eastern art (Exodus 37:9, Ezekiel 10:1-11), and some interpreters believe that the seraphim were serpentine. Both cherubim and seraphim are closely associated with God’s holiness, sovereignty and purity.



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