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Should people believe in angels?
The Bible mentions angels in chapter 2. Should we interpret this allusion symbolically, and deny the existence of angels? Or, should we take this reference literally, and insist that not only do angels exist but that they are involved in and impact upon our lives?
Jacob and angels
In Genesis 28:12 one can find one of many instances of biblical references to angels. Jacob abandoned his family home fearing the revenge of his brother Esau for taking the blessing his father Isaac intended for him. He has a dream on the first night away from home in which his fear is expressed. He sees a ladder reaching as far as heaven with angels ascending and descending its steps.
The episode is easy for rational thinkers to understand. The Bible is stating that the angels were symbolic figures in his dream, not actual beings. It is obvious to such thinkers that Jacob understands that in his dream the angels are his own feelings of security and his fear is assuaged. The non-rationalist sees the dream as biblical confirmation of the existence of angels.
Various views about angels
The term malakh, which is frequently translated “angel,” literally means “messenger.” The term can be understood as a metaphor for the acts of God or as the forces of nature. On the other hand, people can see the noun describing a supernatural being that is superior to humans in power and knowledge, but not as powerful as God. The latter people may also believe in the existence of incorporeal life forms that perform evil act, frequently contrary to God’s will. They may name them demons or evil angels.
Moses Maimonides (1138–1204) and Moses Nachmanides (1195–1270) express polar opposite conceptions of angels, and there are many other intermediate ideas held by other people. Maimonides rejected the notion that angels are divine-like beings that perform missions for God.
Maimonides felt that it is inconceivable that God would need help from independent beings. God created the laws of nature that accomplished all that God wanted, all that was needed, and all that was good. Furthermore, it is impossible to understand how such divine-like body-less spirits could be seen by man. Just as God lacks any body form, and therefore could not be seen, so, too, angels, who if they existed are said to be incorporeal, would be unseeable.
Maimonides discusses angels in his Guide of the Perplexed 2:6. He states there that angels exist, after all the Bible mentions them, but the word should be understood figuratively. An angel is a force of the laws of nature: “every act of God is described as being performed by an angel.” The word “angel means messenger; hence everything that is given a certain mission is an angel.” The book of Psalms 104:4 makes it clear that even the “elements are called angels, ‘who makes winds, His angels.’” Maimonides explains that when Scripture mentions that someone saw an angel, it simply means that he had a dream or vision. I
Maimonides maintains that his view is identical “with the opinion of [the Greek philosopher] Aristotle. There is only a difference in the names employed.” Aristotle taught that the world functions according to the laws of nature and so did Maimonides.
Nachmanides disagreed. He was convinced that the world does not function according to the laws of nature. God is directly and daily involved in every occurrence on earth, even the most mundane, such as a leaf falling from a tree.
He frequently discusses the ramifications of his belief in his Bible commentaries, in Genesis 17:1 and 46:15, Exodus 13:16, Leviticus 26:11, and other places. Thus, for example, only God and not doctors can heal people (Exodus 21:19).
Nachmanides argued that people can see angels. This happened, he wrote, in Genesis 16:11 when Hagar, Abraham’s concubine, saw an angel. It occurred also to Abraham when he saw three of them in Genesis 18:2. Jacob wrestled with one in Genesis 32:25. Balaam encountered one in Numbers 22:31. Isaac was saved by one who appeared to his father Abraham and stopped Abraham sacrificing him in Genesis 22:11. These are just a few of many examples cited by Nachmanides.
He was also convinced that demons exist and that they interact with people. Since they can harm people, he outlined a method to avoid their harm in Leviticus 16:7.
Nachmanides view also appears in such mystical works as the Zohar. Zohar pictures Abraham accompanying the angels for part of their journey when they left him. “But, if Abraham knew they were angels,” asks Zohar, “why did he accompany them? Because he treated them like human beings.”
Needless to say, one may believe as one chooses. Virtually any idea that one has about angels can find support in the view of some ancient sage. However, one should remember that ideas can have an impact upon human lives. They can encourage people to develop intellectually and motivate them to act properly to improve themselves and society. Alternatively, a wrong belief can give people the assurance that they are surrounded by protective supernatural forces. Such a notion can stifle their behavior and induce them to be passive and indifferent, waiting for divine or semi-divine help; vegetating, instead of improving and aiding others.