Light from the Sidra

Vayetze ('And he left...')

Torah: Genesis 28:10-32:3. Haftarah: Hosea 12:3-14:10

Angels watching over me

There’s an oft quoted incident in Bede's History of the English Church and People about Pope Gregory the Great – before he became head of the Roman Catholic Church – when in the market-place in Rome he was presented with some slaves, with ‘fair complexions, fine-cut features, and beautiful hair.’ On being told they were 'Angles', Gregory is reputed to have replied, ‘That is appropriate, for they have angelic faces, and it is right that they should become joint-heirs with the angels in heaven.’ According to Bede, the encounter led him to launch a missionary effort to convert Britain to the Roman Catholic faith as soon as he became Pope.

The story shows that whether popes or pop stars, few people seem to have even the vaguest notion about what and who angels are. In works of art angels tend to be portrayed either as chubby, curly-haired infants or blonde, blue-eyed Anglo-Saxon maidens (wings optional). In that most iconic of pop anthems that can reduce shaven-headed, tattooed bruisers to blubbering softies, Robbie Williams’ ‘angel’ offers him ‘protection, a lot of love and affection’ whether he is right or wrong. Wherever ‘the waterfall’ takes Robbie Williams, he knows life won’t break him because he’s ‘loving angels instead.’ Yes, I know, I don’t understand it either.

There’s a whole publishing and seminar industry devoted to helping the privileged few who have so much money they don’t know what to do with it to get in touch with ‘angels,’ none of which would be out of place in a pop song or on a Burne-Jones canvas.

However, nonsense and flim-flam aside, angels really do exist and they crop up quite a bit in Genesis. But they never appear in the form of fat babies or beautiful maidens. The cherubim who guard the way to Eden in genesis 3 are terrifying supernatural beings who wield swords of fire, and the angels who visit Abraham and Lot strike a gang of homosexual would-be rapists blind.

Today’s Parasha is book-ended by angels. In Genesis 29, as Israel’s patriarch Jacob leaves home for Padan Aram, he dreams that he sees angels of God ascending (which implies they have with him all along) and descending (are Jacob’s angelic bodyguards working in shifts?) on a stairway to heaven. Twenty years later, in chapter 32, when Jacob sets out on his return journey, the angels of God once again appear to him.

Since the Bible has quite a bit so say about angels and since angels are big business these days, it might be helpful to clear up some serious misconceptions about these remarkable spiritual beings. First of all, although angels take on physical form several times in the Bible, they are not by nature material beings. They are powerful spirit beings who are sent into the world to do the will of God.

Second, although we might wish it to be so, the idea that angels are people who have died and gone to heaven – as in Frank Capra’s weepie movie It’s a Wonderful Life – is without any biblical foundation. According to the book of Job, the angels were present and shouted for joy when God created the universe (Job 38:4-7).

Third, although angels have visited humans (as in today’s Scripture portion) and no doubt do still appear, such visitations are rare. The first time Jacob saw angels was in a dream and the second occasion was two decades later. So far as we know, those were the only two angelic encounters he ever had.

Fourth, angels are not our friends. In fact, they appear distinctly unfriendly in many of the cases recorded in the Bible. Angel ‘expert’ Terry Lynn Taylor, however, advises us to ‘become best friends with your guardian angel! Pretend you have an invisible best friend who witnesses everything you experience and with who you can share insights.’ The operative word here is ‘pretend.’ The Bible advises us to get a real friend not an imaginary one (Ecclesiastes 4:9-12)!

Fifth, not only are there good angels; there are also evil ones. But how can we know the difference? In Angel Visions, New Age guru Doreen Virtue assures us that a real angelic experience will ‘feel natural,’ and ‘warm and cuddly.’ It will, she says, ‘ring true and make sense.’ Angels, says Ms Virtue, usually begin their sentences ‘with the words you or me,’ and their words may be accompanied by ‘strains of beautiful disembodied “celestial” music.’ I think the most charitable thing to say about Ms Virtue’s angelology is that it is warm, fuzzy dangerous nonsense.

Sixth, angels do not reveal new truth and start new religions. Islam and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (aka Mormonism) allegedly began through angelic revelations. But there is only one God and only one Truth. Therefore any person – human or angelic – who claims to be in possession of new truth which supersedes that of the Bible is to be rejected.

Although angels are malachim –‘messengers – in the Bible they rarely speak; and when they do speak they tend to be pretty laconic. In the Hebrew Scriptures, they tend to act rather than speak. They protect God’s people. When the Syrian armies besieged Samaria, in 2 Kings 6:15-18, Elisha’s servant was allowed to see that Israel’s foes were outnumbered by a heavenly host of fiery chariots. When the Assyrian army surrounding Jerusalem, the Angel of Yahweh killed 185,000 of them in one night. There were no warm fuzzies for the Syrians and Assyrians.

I have a Jewish friend who, for a number of years, was into ‘angels’ and other alternate spiritualities in a big way. When she came to see that Jesus fulfilled the promises of the Messiah found in the Hebrew Scriptures, she says she ‘experienced a power so compelling that there was little I could do except respond to it.’

‘I knew this was not simply another spiritual encounter,’ she says, 'but a moment of revelation engineered by God Himself. A driving need that I’d had within me for so many years to find love and acceptance was now being met. . . I was overwhelmed by a sense of holiness; the presence of God was beautiful. I experienced tremendous love, but at the same time I felt impure, aware of a darkness inside me that could not connect with the light of Jesus. I longed for the whole of my being to become wrapped up in this light and love. . .’

However, the ‘angels’ that were within her, says my friend, were less than happy about her finding the Messiah. But, she thought, if the ‘higher powers’ she had previously accessed were good, why were they not happy about her discovery and new-found joy?

‘It became clear,’ she says, ‘that . . . the psychic phenomena I had so earnestly pursued fell into the category of the counterfeit.’ She repented of her involvement with practises that the Hebrew Scriptures condemn and says, ‘It was as though an enormous weight had been lifted from my shoulders. I felt inwardly cleansed and pure again. I dealt with areas of guilt and shame, and enjoyed a sense of joy and freedom that I had never experienced, even in childhood. I knew that God was in my life. I no longer looked to the guidance of spirits and angels; I could connect directly with God.’

And that’s how it was with Jacob after the God of Abraham and Isaac became truly his God. And that’s how it is with everyone who comes to trust in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and in Jesus the Messiah.

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