Michael and All Angels
Michael and All Angels. On the Feast of Michael and all Angels, popularly called Michaelmas, we give thanks for the many ways in which God’s loving care watches over us, both directly and indirectly, and we are reminded that the richness and variety of God’s creations far exceed our knowledge of it.
The Holy Scriptures often speak of created intelligences other than humans who worship God in heaven and act as His messengers and agents on earth. We are not told much about them, and it is not clear how much of what we are told is figurative. Jesus speaks of them as rejoicing over penitent sinners (Lk 15:10). Elsewhere, in a statement that has been variously understood (Mt 18:10), He warns against misleading a child, because their angels behold the face of God. (Acts 12:15 may refer to a related idea.)
In the Hebrew Scriptures, it is occasionally reported that someone saw a man who spoke to him with authority, and who he then realized was no mere man, but a messenger of God. Thus we have a belief in super-human rational created beings, either resembling men in appearance or taking human appearance when they are to communicate with us. They are referred to as “messengers of God,” or simply as “messengers.” The word for a messenger in Hebrew is malach, in Greek, angelos, from which we get our word “angel” [Digression: angelion means “message, news” and euangelion means “good news = goodspell = gospel,” from which we get our word “evangelist” used to mean a preacher of the Good News of salvation, and, more narrowly, one of the four Gospel-writers: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.]
By the time of Christ, Jewish popular belief included many specifics about angels, with names for many of them. There were thought to be four archangels, named Michael, Gabriel, Raphael, and Uriel. An alternative tradition has seven archangels (see Tobit 12:15 and 1 Enoch 20). Sometimes each archangel is associated with one of the seven planets of the Ptolemaic system (the moon, Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn). Michael is associated with Saturn and Uriel with the Sun. The other pairings I forget, but I believe that you will find a list in the long narrative poem called “The Golden Legend,” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. (I believe that a pairing is also offered in the opening chapters of the Proof of the Apostolic Preaching, by Irenaeus of Lyons, but I have not the work at hand.)
Michael (the name means “Who is like God?”) is said to be the captain of the heavenly armies. He is mentioned in the Scriptures in Daniel 10:13,31; 12:1 (where he is said to be the prince of the people of Israel); in Jude 9 (where he is said to have disputed with the devil about the body of Moses); and in Revelation 12:7 (where he is said to have led the heavenly armies against those of the great dragon). He is generally pictured in full armor, carrying a lance, and with his foot on the neck of a dragon. (Pictures of the Martyr George are often similar, but only Michael has wings.)
Gabriel (the name means “God is my champion”) is thought of as the special bearer of messages from God to men. He appears in Daniel 8:16; 9:21 as an explainer of some of Daniel’s visions. According to the first chapter of Luke, he announced the forthcoming births of John the Baptist and of our Lord to Zachariah and the Virgin Mary respectively.
Raphael (the name means “God heals”) is mentioned in the Apocrypha, in the book of Tobit, where, disguised as a man, he accompanies the young man Tobias on a quest, enables him to accomplish it, and gives him a remedy for the blindness of his aged father.
Uriel (the name means “God is my light” — compare with “Uriah”, which means “the LORD is my light”) is mentioned in 4 Esdras.
It is thought by many scholars that the seven lamps of Revelation 4:5 are an image suggested by (among many other things) the idea of seven archangels.
What is the value to us of remembering the Holy Angels? Well, since they appear to excel us in both knowledge and power, they remind us that, even among created things, we humans are not the top of the heap. Since it is the common belief that demons are angels who have chosen to disobey God and to be His enemies rather than His willing servants, they remind us that the higher we are the lower we can fall. The greater our natural gifts and talents, the greater the damage if we turn them to bad ends. The more we have been given, the more will be expected of us. And, in the picture of God sending His angels to help and defend us, we are reminded that apparently God, instead of doing good things directly, often prefers to do them through His willing servants, enabling those who have accepted His love to show their love for one another.
Everything You Never Wanted to Know about Angels
The major post-New-Testament source for Christian ideas about angels is a writer (probably a fifth-century Syrian monk) who signed himself “Dionysius the Areopagite.” His writings were taken to be those of a convert of the Apostle Paul, mentioned in Acts 17:34. Accordingly, when he wrote on angels (or any other theological subject), he was assumed to know what he was talking about. His writings had a considerable influence on the portrayal of angels in art and in the popular imagination.
What are the Nine Choirs?
The Apostle Paul writes:
[Christ is seated at the right hand of the Father,] far above all principality and power, and might, and dominion,…. (Eph 1:21)
For by him [the Son] were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by him, and for him. (Col 1:16)
I am persuaded that neither death, nor life, nor angels,nor principalities, nor powers… shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom 8:38f)
For we contend not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against evil spirits in the heights. (Eph 6:12)
…that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places. (Eph 3:10)
And you are complete in him, who is the head of all principality and power (Col 2:10)
And having disarmed principalities and powers, he made a show of them openly, triumphing over them in it. (Col 2:15)
Early commentators tended to take “principalities, powers” etc. as the names of various kinds of angelic beings. Since demons are considered to be fallen or rebellious angels, the quotations from Ephesians 6:12 and Colossians 2:15 are no problem.
Dionysius states that there are nine orders (or choirs) of angels, three triads of three each, in order from highest to lowest as shown in the following table.
The lowest order, called simply angels, are God’s messengers and envoys to (and guardians of) the human race. The highest order, the seraphim, devote themselves to contemplating God, beholding Him face to face, and loving and praising Him. Each order helps to reveal and declare God’s glory to the order below.
Pope Gregory I (see 12 March 604), in his Homilies on the Gospel, lists the same nine choirs, but with a different ranking. Dante (see 15 Sep 1321) in the Convivio gives still a third ranking but affirms the ranking of Dionysius in the Comedy, Canto 28 (I am borrowing heavily from the Sayers-Reynolds notes on this canto.) Aquinas discusses the matter in the Summa T., part I, Q 108.
Note that the term “angels” can refer either to all nine orders, or only to the lowest order, just as the term “soldier” can refer to anyone in the army, or only to the enlisted men (as opposed to the officers). For a little more information, see the book The Discarded Image, by C S Lewis.
Some readers will be familiar with the hymn by J Athelstan Riley beginning:
Ye watchers and ye holy ones, C – C D E C | E F G – – –
Bright seraphs, cherubim and thrones. C – C D E C | E F G – – –
Raise the glad strain, Alleluia. c B A – G – | c B A – G –
Cry out, dominions, princedoms, powers, c – c G G F | E F G – – –
Virtues, archangels, angel choirs. c – c G G F | E F G – – –
Oh, praise Him! Oh, praise Him! F E D – C – | F E D – C –
Alleluia, Alleluia, c B A – G – | c B A – G –
Alleluia. F E D – – – | – – C – – –
You will note that this hymn lists the nine choirs, using the ranking of Gregory.
What is a seraph?
Seraphim are mentioned in the Bible in Isaiah’s vision of the heavenly throne-room (Is 6:1-7), where the LORD is seated between two seraphim. (In Hebrew, most masculine nouns form the plural by adding “-im”.) Each has six wings, and with two he covers his face, and with two he covers his feet, and with two he flies. Later writers identify these functions with poverty, chastity, and obedience. Poverty, in that he veils his face, a sign of humility. Chastity, in that he covers his feet, a standard Hebrew idiom (or euphemism) for the lower body, including the crotch. Obedience, in that he flies to carry out whatever commission he receives from God. The word “seraph” comes from a root meaning “to burn”, and the word is used in Nu 21:6,8; Dt 8:15; Is 14:29; 30:6; where it is translated “fiery serpent.” Probably the Hebrews pictured a seraph as a kind of fiery winged serpent or reptile.
What is a Cherub?
Cherubim are first mentioned in the Bible in Gen 3:24, where Adam and Eve are expelled from the Garden, and two cherubim are set at the gate to guard it, so that no one may enter. The Psalmist says of God:
He rode upon a cherub, and did fly;
he came flying on the wings of the wind. (18:10)
thou that dwellest between the cherubim (80:1)
he sitteth between the cherubim; let the earth quake (99:1)
From this, we infer that they were pictured and thought of as winged creatures flanking or supporting the throne of God.
Ancient Middle Eastern art regularly shows the throne of a king or a god flanked by, or sometimes resting on, two creatures. Typically, each creature has the body of a lion or a bull (often the front quarters of a lion, with claws, and the hind quarters of a bull, with hooves, or vice versa), the head of a man, and the wings of an eagle. For a picture, see the Encyclopedia Britannica, 15th ed., article on “Calah,” vol 2, p 731. We see these creatures, not only flanking a throne, but also flanking the gate or doorway of a city or a temple. They appear to be standard figures, performing the function of honor guards or that of guard dogs.
In Ex 25f and 36f, the Israelites are to make a chest called the Ark of the Covenant, and place on the lid statues of two cherubim, with their wings arching over and meeting in the middle. Aside from the fact that they had wings, we are not told anything about their appearance. It was apparently taken for granted that the Israelites already knew what a cherub was supposed to look like. It is a reasonable guess that they looked like the guard figures already standard in Middle Eastern art, as noted above.
The Ark represented the presence of God, and presumably, the Israelites thought of the cherubim as guarding or flanking or supporting an invisible throne. Thus, the Ark gave two complementary messages. On the one hand, it said, “The LORD cannot be represented by a picture or statue. He is spirit, He is invisible. He is transcendent. The whole universe cannot contain Him.” On the other hand, it said, “Here is the place where the LORD chooses to reveal Himself. This is the place toward which you are to direct your homage, this is the focus of your worship.”
The prophet Ezekiel records two visions (Ez 1 and 10) in which the LORD appears to him, enthroned above four figures identified as cherubs. Each is said to have four faces, one facing in each direction, the face of a man, a lion, a bull, and an eagle.
Cherubs, Griffins, and Grimm Shifts
This section is linguistic. Those who dislike being lectured about the history of words and the development of languages may skip it.
I begin by pointing out that the English sound “ch” as in “chair” is unknown in both Greek and Hebrew. Accordingly, names in the Bible containing a “ch” were originally pronounced with the sound of “ch” in the German name “Bach” (or “kh” in the Russian name “Khrushchev”), and will normally be pronounced in English with a simple “K” sound, as in Christ, orchestra, orchid, chorus, and so on. SOME words that have been thoroughly assimilated into English, such as “cherub” and “Rachel” (compare the pronunciation of “Raquel Welch,” which is much closer to the Hebrew), have the English “ch” as in “chair”, but please note that the Hebrew pronunciation of “cherub” is more like “kerub” or “kherub.” (Kh as in “Khrushchev”)
In Greek folklore, we have a figure known as a griffin, or gryphon. It is usually portrayed as having the head, chest, claws, and wings of an eagle, joined to the hindquarters of a lion. For a picture, see a copy of Alice in Wonderland, preferably one with the traditional illustrations by Tenniel. The root of the word is G-R-F. (The N is an English suffix not found in the Greek.) Similarly, the root of “cherub” is Kh-R-B. Now, these are related roots, related by what is called the Grimm Shift, named for the brothers Grimm, who made a folklore collection known as the Grimm Fairy Tales, but who are also scholars dedicated to the history of languages and the rules that govern their development.
There are twelve sounds known as mutes. They can be placed in a three-dimensional array, 2 by 2 by 3. They are either voiced or unvoiced, either stops or fricatives, either front (labial), middle (dental) or back (palatal).
The fronts are p, b, ph(=f), and bh(=v). They are called labials because they are formed with the lips. P and B are stops because the breath is stopped completely when they are said (the lips are pressed together). Ph and Bh are fricative, because the air passage is not closed completely, but narrowed so that the breath rubs along the passage (friction=rubbing) and makes a sound. B and Bh are voiced because the larynx or voice box vibrates when they are said. P and Ph are voiceless because they are said with the lips and tongue in the same position as for B and Bh but without the vibration of the voicebox.
In English, the fricatives Ph and Bh (or, as more commonly spelled, F and V) are really labio-dentals rather than pure labials, because the air escapes between the lower lip and the upper teeth. However, in other languages (Spanish, for example), the air is forced out between the lips. You place your lips as if to say P and then force the air out between them to get Ph–and similarly for Bh.
The middles are t, d, th, and dh. By Th we mean the initial sound of “thin,” and by Dh, we mean the initial sound of “then.” These are called dentals because they are pronounced using the teeth. T and D are stops, while Th and Dh are fricatives. T and Th are voiceless, while D and Dh are voiced.
The back mutes, or palatals, are k, g, kh, and gh. The last two sounds, the back fricatives, are not standard in English. The Kh sound is found in the German name Bach, and in the “ch” sound in Scottish words, like “Loch Ness, Loch Lomond,” etc. The Gh is the voiced equivalent, and is found in Spanish in words like “cigarro,” and sometimes when an English-speaker says “cigar.” That is, the throat is not completely closed, but only narrowed, so that the G becomes a voiced fricative.
All twelve of the mutes occur in Biblical Hebrew, and they are represented by six letters: Beth and Pe, Gimel and Kaph, Daleth and Tau. Each of these is written with a dot (called a dagesh) in the interior when it represents a stop, and without the dot when it represents a fricative. However, the reader should be warned of two things:
(1) Since the dots and the vowel markings are a later addition to the sacred text, scrolls of the books of the Bible for synagogue use are written without them, and the reader is expected to know the text well enough to manage anyway. Also, since the modern Israeli is expected to know modern Hebrew, and since points are a major nuisance for a typesetter, a book or newspaper written in modern Hebrew will probably be printed without them, unless it is for the instruction of children or beginning Hebrew students.
(2) Since until recently most modern Jews spoke either German or Yiddish (a form of German), modern Hebrew contains only those sounds which occur in German. This means that the fricatives th, dh, gh, are replaced by the corresponding stops t, d, and g. The distinction continues in writing (whenever the points are written) but not in the spoken language.
Now, as a language changes, a middle mute is often replaced by another middle mute, but almost never by a front or a back mute. If you are comparing words in (for example) Latin and English, you will see that a front mute in one word will usually match a front mute in the other. For example, the English word “father” comes from the same primitive root as the Latin “pater,” and we have the correspondence f=p (two labials) and th=t (two dentals). The English word “head” was “heved” in Old English, and it corresponds to the Latin “caput”. The English “h” is as close as we get to “kh”, and the Latin C is pronounced K, so that we have kh=k (back mutes or palatals), v=p (front mutes or labials), and d=t (middle mutes or dentals).
Now the Hebrew word “cherub” has the root Kh-R-B, and the Greek word “gryph” has the root G-R-Ph. We see that the G and Kh are both back mutes or palatals, the R is the same in both words, and the B and Ph are both front mutes or labials. Hence a Gryphon, such as you see in Alice in Wonderland and elsewhere has a history connecting both the form of the creature and its name with the Semitic Cherub.
Cherubs in Revelation
Ezekiel saw four winged creatures, each having the face of a lion, an ox, a man, and an eagle. John, in the book of Revelation (4:6-8), saw four winged creatures before the throne, the first like a lion, the second like an ox, the third like a man, and the fourth like an eagle.
Some have supposed that these creatures (and also those in Ezekiel) represent attributes of God, such as power, love, justice, and wisdom. A more widespread view is that they represent the four Gospels. What I will call the Old Match associates each beast with the beginning of a Gospel. Matthew begins with the human genealogy of Jesus, and so is paired with the Man. Mark begins with John the Baptist preaching in the wilderness, and so is paired with the Lion, a desert animal. Luke begins with Zecharias in the Temple, and so is paired with the Ox, a sacrificial beast. John begins with the Eternal Word, the Logos, in the heaven of God, and so is paired with the Eagle, which soars toward heaven. How old this pairing is, I do not know. It is found in the ornamented initials of Gospel books as early as 900, but I do not know how much earlier it can be traced. What I will call the New Match considers not the beginning of a Gospel, but its overall tone. Thus, Matthew presents Jesus as the promised Messiah, the Lion of the Tribe of Judah. Accordingly, Matthew is paired with the Lion. Mark represents Jesus as the diligent servant, always at work, always about his Father’s business, never pausing for a moment (Mark’s most characteristic word is “straightway” or “immediately”). Hence Mark is paired with the Ox. Luke shows the compassion, the tenderness, the humanity of Jesus (as in the Parable of the Lost Sheep or of the Prodigal Son). Thus Luke is paired with the Man. John presents Jesus as the Eternal Son of God. Hence John is paired with the Eagle. How old this pairing is, I do not know. I suspect that it is no older than 1500. It has the advantage that the order of the beasts as given by John is the same as the standard order of the Gospels.
If the four beasts represent the Four Gospels, it is tempting to ask whether other books of the Bible are represented. Paul wrote letters to seven churches (Rome, Corinth, Galatia, Ephesus, Philippi, Colossae, Thessalonika). Perhaps the seven torches burning before the throne represent the Pauline Epistles. There are 24 elders sitting on thrones around the central throne of the Almighty. Perhaps they represent the Old People of God and the New, twelve patriarchs and twelve apostles. Again perhaps they represent the 24 courses of priests who served in the Temple under the Law of Moses. But perhaps they represent the books of the Old Testament. The modern Protestant canon has 39 books in the Old Testament, the same books that are recognized by the Jews. But they count them differently. The twelve minor prophets are written on a single scroll, and called the Book of the Twelve. This reduces the number by 11, from 39 down to 28. The books of Samuel, Kings, Chronicles, and Ezra-Nehemiah are counted as one book each rather than two, and that reduces the count to 24. Some Jewish writers leave it at that, while others reduce it to 22 by considering Ruth an appendix to Judges and Lamentations an appendix to Jeremiah. The advantage of 22 is that it is the number of letters in the Hebrew alphabet, and this permits all sorts of speculations. However, 24 books is a perfectly well established Jewish count, and there is no reason why John might not have used 24 elders to stand for the 24 books of the Hebrew Scriptures.
At this point, the reader may say, “But what about Acts? What about the four letters of Paul to individuals? What about the seven non-Pauline epistles (including Hebrews)? What about the Book of Revelation itself?” As for the book of Acts, I suspect that John simply thought of it as the second volume of the Gospel of Luke. As for the book of Revelation, I think some readers might find it confusing to have the book referring to itself as already written. As for the omitted epistles, I think one might make out a case for most of them as not yet written when John had his vision. The exception is the Epistle to Philemon, which shows every sign of having been written and sent with the Epistle to the Colossians. But then, John might for that very reason have treated it as an appendix to Colossians, a sort of enclosed note as it were. But all this is speculation. I am probably about to be inundated by letters from list members who will tell me that I have got it all wrong, and who will explain to me the correct interpretation of the Book of Revelation…
At any rate, we can be fairly sure that the imagery of the four beasts (or living creatures) in Revelation 4 is indebted to the imagery of the cherubim in Ezekiel 1 and 10, but beyond that, it is probably a mistake to expect agreement.