"Fools rush in where angels fear to tread" wrote Alexander Pope. It is also the opening line in a popular tune many seniors may remember from their youth. The impression one gets from its lyric is that angels are superior to humans in intelligence and discretion. This perception about the superior power of angels is the popular religious legacy transmitted to us throughout the ages. It has led to fantasies of deeds performed by humanlike angels, such as in the popular American TV program "Touched by An Angel."
To test the validity of these popular perceptions, one naturally turns to their primary source in Scriptures, specifically in the Torah. In so doing, we find that not only is this perception open to question, but questions also arise as to what is meant by the term "angels" and the role of angels when in contact with humans. To help answer these questions, we shall proceed to analyze seriatim references to angels as they appear in the Torah.
Our first encounter with angels occurs when Adam and Eve are banished from the Garden of Eden: He placed at the east of the Garden of Eden the cherubim [to prevent Adam and Eve's return] ... to protect the way to the tree of life (Gen. 3:24). The cherubim are not described, leading one to wonder whether they are physical beings, a literary metaphor, or mystical spiritual creatures. Later, in the instructions for the holy Ark, we are told: 'Thou shalt make two cherubim of gold ... at the two ends of the Ark cover.... And the cherubim shall spread out their wings on high screening the Ark cover with their wings with their faces one to the other (Ex. 25:18-20). Their faces are not described, After the expulsion from Eden, came another encounter: The B'nai Elohim [translated as "the sons of God"] saw the daughters of men, that they were fair, and they took them wives, whomsoever they chose (Gen. 6:2). Jewish Bible commentators pay scant attention to this pre-Abrahamic reference to angels, by contending that the B'nai Elohim are not angels at all, but the privileged aristocracy of that era. They interpret Elohim to mean "mighty," as it is sometimes used in Hebrew. (1) Accordingly, in the afore-cited quotation, the B'nai Elohim are interpreted to mean that the privileged nobility crossed over the social barriers by consorting with the underclasses, thereby undermining the very fabric of an ordered society and its sexual mores. Christian theologians, on the other hand, developed an elaborate pantheon of angels stemming from these B'nai Elohim, referring to them as "Fallen Angels" headed by Satan who figures prominently in their belief system. (2) Judaism, however, recognized early on the dangers of these beliefs as being contrary to its strict adherence to the unity and sovereignty of the One God. The concept of rebellious/fallen angels consorting with humans is totally alien to traditional Jewish thinking.
The next encounter with angels is that of Abraham while he is sitting outside of his tent in Mamre: (3) He lifted his eyes and looked, and behold three men stood over him (Gen. 18:2). The three are referred to as anashim [men], yet later they are referred to as malakhim [messengers]: And the two [remaining] angels came to Sodom at eventide (19:1). Which is it? Are these men or supernatural beings? (4) Given that Jewish Bible commentators are much more comfortable discussing Abraham, the first patriarch of Israel, than pre-Abrahamic sources, they are more expansive in interpreting this encounter. They deduce that the three men/angelic visitors are God's messengers commissioned to perform three separate missions: Announcing the miraculous birth of Isaac, destroying the sinful cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, and rescuing Lot, Abraham's nephew. The reason for having three separate angels rather than one performing three different missions is that, according to the Midrash, an angel cannot perform more than one specific task at a time. (5) They have no independent power to initiate missions on their own. …