The following is based on what I wrote in my recent book “Unusual Bible Interpretations: Five Books of Moses.”                                                  


                                                         Angels and demons


Did brilliant well-respected ancient thinkers of all religions have ideas that modern people should reject? Certainly. Aristotle, one of the greatest philosophers, had the despicable incorrect notion that women are inferior to men in every way. Gersonides felt that women are unusual creatures somewhere between animals and men. Yet both had brilliant eye-opening correct ideas as well.

It is obvious that people, being human, cannot be right about everything. Yet, most congregants accept everything their clergy say without thinking of the ramifications of the “lessons” they hear. We need to question every statement that we hear, even from the pulpit: Did God do everything clergy claim God did or were some or all the events triggered by natural causes? What are the implications of what the clergy is saying?  When a clergyman made a remark in the past that I knew was wrong and he says something new today that sounds good, is it based in some way on the ridiculous ideas he has and I should reject it?  Let’s look at the notions of two highly respected rabbis.

The famed biblical commentator Rashi believed angels and demons exist and help and hinder human acts. In Genesis 32:3, Jacob calls an area Machanayim, the plural “camps.” Rashi states that there were two camps there: one for angels who accompanied Jacob from Haran during his trip home after dwelling with his father-in-law Laban for some twenty years. They served as his guard, such as soldiers escorting a king. The second convoy of angels would accompany him when he entered Canaan, for apparently the first group could not aid Jacob in Canaan. Nachmanides, who also believed that angels exist, perhaps bothered by the idea that angels needed two separate camps, interpreted the plural as an additional camp of angels in heaven watching and protecting Jacob, who was camped below, as if the earth-bound platoon of angels might need help. The Bible commentator Arnold Ehrlich, who was convinced that angels do not exist, for God needs no assistants, said more reasonably that the plural “camps” refers to the two camps that Jacob established for safety reasons; if one camp was attacked the second could flee.

This was not the only instance where Rashi sees Jacob relying on the aid of angels. Genesis 32:4 states that Jacob sent malachim with a message to his brother Esau. Malachim could be defined as messengers, the plain reading of the passage, or angels. Rashi opts for the second. Similarly, Rashi contended that the “man” with whom Jacob wrestled in 32:25 was an angel. Maimonides and other rational thinkers recognized that this is impossible; if angels exist and if people could wrestle with them, it is inconceivable that a human could beat a divine being.

Rashi and Nachmanides were also certain that demons exist. Leviticus 16 describes a Yom Hakippurim[1] ceremony: the priest takes two male goats, casts lots to determine what he will do with each goat, and designates one goat for God and the other for Azzazel. The goat that received the lot for God is offered as a sacrifice to atone for misdeeds. The priest lays both of his hands on the second goat and “confesses over him all the iniquities of the Israelites…and puts them on the head of the goat” and lets the goat wander off into the wilderness.

Nachmanides was convinced that Azzazel was the name of a demon. The second goat was sent to the wilderness where the demon lived, as a bribe to convince the demon to persuade God not to punish the Israelites for their past misdeeds. This is base superstition. The interpretation also insults God because it suggests that a demon can influence God and persuade God to do something God had decided not to do. Furthermore, God’s original intension must have been just, because God only does good, and the demon must now be persuading God to do something that is not just.

Commenting upon Genesis 6:19 that Noah saved “every living thing” from the flood, Rashi comments: “even demons.”

Rashi and Nachmanides were not alone in holding that angels and demons exist. There are rabbis in the Talmuds who had this view, although some of their statements should be understood metaphorically.

The biblical book Esther states that Esther revealed to her husband King Ahasuerus that Haman wanted to kill her and her people. Ahasuerus left the room and Haman fell upon Esther’s couch. Ahasuerus retuned saw Haman stretched out near his wife and thought that Haman wanted to injure her. Haman’s falling on Esther’s sofa was uncharacteristic of this haughty man. What happened?

One talmudic view is that an angel pushed Haman so that Ahasuerus would think that Haman was assaulting his wife when he returned. Rashi accepted this idea as the truth because he belied in the existence of angels and that they get involved in human lives. Ibn Ezra, a rational thinker, suggested that the talmudic sage may have used the term “angel” metaphorically, indicating a force of nature. Haman was pushed by natural causes; he became so upset when Esther identified him as her potential killer that he acted unreasonably and his “foolishness” pushed him to beg for his life at Esther’s couch.

Whether we agree with Rashi and Nachmanides or not regarding angels and demons, we should not reject all of their views because of this disagreement. In fact, we should use such statements to prompt ourselves to think how we would like to interpret the event.


[1] The holiday was later renamed as Yom Kippur.