Light from the Sidra

Vayetze ('And he left...'). 21st November 2015. 9th Kislev 5776.

Torah: Genesis 28:10-32:3(2*). Hosea 12: 13(12)-14:10(9)*

Angels watching over me

Angels don’t seem to figure a great deal in Jewish thought, especially modern Jewish thought. In Contemporary Jewish Religious Thought, edited by Arthur Cohen and Paul Mendes-Flohr, there’s an entire chapter on ‘Atheism’ but angels are mentioned only twice in the book’s 1,163 pages, and that’s in the chapter on ‘Imagination.’ In the stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer and Sholem Aleichem there are more dybbuks and demons than angels, and the sole exception to the rule appears to be Marc Chagall. Look at any of his paintings or stained glass windows and there’s likely to be an angel or two in there.

Outside Judaism and Christianity, however, there’s a whole publishing and seminar industry devoted to helping those with more money than they know what to do with to get in touch with their ‘angels.’ Angels don’t appear a great deal in the Bible but when they do they are never chubby babies or blonde, blue-eyed, beautiful maidens. The cherubim who guarded the way to Eden in Genesis 3 were terrifying supernatural beings who wielded swords of fire, and the angels who visited Abraham and Lot struck blind a gang of would-be gay rapists.

Angels appear at crucial times in the lives of the patriarchs, however. Today’s Parasha begins and ends with angels. In Genesis 29, after Jacob leaves home for Padan Aram, he has a dream in which he sees angels ascending (which implies the angels have with him all along) and descending (are Jacob’s angelic bodyguards working in shifts?) a stairway to heaven. Twenty years later, in chapter 32, when Jacob sets out for home, the angels of God again appear to him.

Since the Bible has quite a bit to say about angels and since angels are big business these days, it might be helpful to clear up some misconceptions about these remarkable spiritual beings. First of all, although angels take on physical form several times in the Bible, they are not 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 were so, the idea that angels are people who have died and gone to heaven – as in Frank Capra’s seasonal weepie 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 and no doubt do still appear, such visitations are extremely rare and we should never attempt to make contact with them or pray to them. 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 experienced by the patriarch.

Fourth, contrary to the angelology of the New Age movement, 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.’ Ecclesiastes 4:9-12 advises us to make real friends not imaginary ones!

Fifth, not only are there good angels; there are evil ones also. 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 their words may be accompanied by ‘strains of beautiful disembodied ‘celestial’ music.’ The most charitable thing to be said about Ms Virtue’s angelology is that it’s warm, fuzzy, dangerous sewage. Little wonder that Jeremiah warned his people not to ‘learn from the way of the nations’ (Jeremiah 10:2). Israel was to be a light to the nations but the books of Kings and Chronicles, and the Prophets record that the Assyrian and Babylonian exiles were the direct result of Israel and her kings embracing the darkness of paganism.

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 ‘messengers’ – human or angelic – who claim to be in possession of revelations that supersede the Bible are false teachers.

Although angels are ‘messengers’ (Hebrew: malachim), 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. So 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. In 2 Kings 19:35-37, when the Assyrian army laid siege to Jerusalem, the Angel of HASHEM killed 185,000 of them in one night.

I have a Jewish friend who, for a number of years, was into ‘angels’ and other alternative 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 already within her, she says, 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 condemned in the Hebrew Scriptures 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 Jesus the Messiah.

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