Angels in the Old Testament
Several angels appear in stories throughout the Hebrew Bible (The Old Testament). In the earlier books the angels are described as heavenly beings created by God. As religious beliefs transformed throughout the ages so did the view of the angels. There were angels who brought news of death and destruction and others who killed thousands. There were also stories in the Bible about ministering angels who provided protection, comfort, and delivered words of wisdom from God.
It is said that there were angels who stood with flaming swords at the gates of the Garden of Eden. These guardians wanted to prevent Adam and Eve from returning to eat the fruit from the Tree of Immortal Life after they were expelled from the garden.
As you read the following stories from the Old Testament, allow your own truth to unfold as you learn more about the angels and their roles in history.
Abraham and Sarah
In Genesis 21:14–20, A young woman, Hagar, finds herself pregnant by an important man, Abraham, who has a powerful wife, Sarah. Sarah was not pleased, and when the poor girl Hagar could take no more abuse, she ran away. During her flight, she found a spring on the road to Shur and stopped there to rest and refresh herself. Here she had her first of two encounters with angelic presences, who told her to return home and that she would bear a son named Ishmael. After her son was born, they were cast into the desert. Dying of thirst, Hagar prayed as she had been taught to do. As she did, she heard the voice she had heard earlier: “What is the matter with you, Hagar? Do not fear, for God has heard the voice of the lad where he is,” said the voice of the angel of God, and Hagar took heart hearing this call from heaven. “Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water; and she went and filled the skin with water, and gave the lad a drink. And God was with the lad.”
Abraham's grandson, Jacob, had a difficult experience with an angel. Jacob had a shaded history of bad choices: he cheated his brother Esau out of his inheritance, he tricked his uncle Laban out of all his wealth and possessions, he married twice, and he had illegitimate children. Later in his life Jacob returned home wanting peace and forgiveness with his brother, but he was afraid his brother would kill him. One night, an angel came and Jacob wrestled with the angel all night long. In the end, Jacob prevailed. He then demanded a boon (blessing) from the angel, who gave it without ever identifying itself. But Jacob figured out that his struggle had been with a supernatural being, and since he had won, he concluded that all would be well with his brother. Jacob remained deeply involved with angelic presences all through his life, and when he reached the end of it, reviewing his experiences with the holy ones, he in wonder exclaimed, “God … has been my shepherd all my life to this day, the angel who has redeemed me from all evil.”
This same Jacob is the one famous for “Jacob's ladder.” He saw in a vision the multitude of angels ascending and descending a ladder that reached up to heaven. The Bible does not report whether or not the angels on the ladder in Jacob's vision had wings, but one would presume not, since they were climbing up and down the ladder.
Abraham and Isaac
One of the most famous biblical stories of angels has to do with Abraham and his son Isaac. One day, Abraham heard the voice of God spoken through an angel calling out to him. Genesis 22:11 states, “And the angel of the Lord called unto him out of heaven, and said, ‘Abraham, Abraham’ and he said, ‘Here am I.’” The voice instructed him to sacrifice his son Isaac. It ordered him to take the boy to the top of a remote mountain and slit his throat in the manner of the usual sacrificial lamb, and to let his blood run out as an offering to prove to God that he would surrender to his will. Without question, Abraham took his son to the top of a mountain, laid him across an altar, and when he was ready to sacrifice his beloved son an angel appeared. The angel's voice stopped him and commanded, “Lay not thy hand upon the lad.” Abraham obeyed, no doubt thankfully, and at that moment he spotted a sheep with its woolly fleece entangled in the thorns of a bush. He caught it and sacrificed it, offering it up to God in place of his son.
The only angel mentioned by name in the history books of the Old Testament is the Angel of Death. This angel was an agent of destruction, presumably acting under direct orders from God. At the time of David, the Angel of Death destroyed 90,000 people and on another occasion, in the Assyrian army camp, it killed 185,000 soldiers.
For forty years the Israelites were in bondage in Egypt, and the all-powerful Pharaoh refused to free them from their slavery. Moses, desperate for his people to achieve their freedom, declared, “But when we cried out to the Lord, He heard our voice and sent an angel and brought us out of Egypt” (Numbers 20:16). After having delivered the people of Israel from Egypt and overseen their emancipation from the Pharaoh, the angel did not forsake them. The angel divided the waters of the Red Sea so they could pass through without getting wet. Then when the powerful army of Egypt was in hot pursuit, the “angel of God who had been going before the camp of Israel, moved and went behind them; and the pillar of cloud moved from before them and stood behind them. So it came between the camp of Egypt and the camp of Israel and there was the cloud along with the darkness, yet it gave light at night. Thus the one did not come near the other all night” (Exodus 14:19–20)