Tuesday, February 08, 2011

The Angelus Interpres in Jewish Tradition

The term Angelus Interpres ("The interpreting angel") is not Hebrew, but the
concept certainly is. An angelus interpres is an entity who helps a prophet or other mortal experiencing a revelation to make sense of it. Seems that divine messages often come in garments that conceal their full import - surreal visual images, obscure oracles, or the like, and some explanation is necessary, rather like how when Americans sit through a Moliere play, they need a pamphlet to explain why it's funny.

[Zechariah confronts an angel, painting by James Tissot]

Probably through the influence of priestly spirituality (Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Zechariah were all priests), these angels become a prominent aspect of later prophecy (for a fully discussion of the affinity of Priests for angels, read Rachel Elior's The Three Temples). For example, Ezekiel (40:3-44:4, where an angel guides him through the messianic Temple), Daniel (7:16; 8:16-19; 9:22; 10:14), and Zechariah (chapters 1-6) - these books all feature angels who assist these respective prophets in understanding the visions bestowed upon them. Zechariah is my favorite, primarily because the explanations are at times as opaque as the visions themselves (check out Ch. 4).

We also see these angels in non-Biblical sources, especially apocalyptic writings (many of them also priestly compositions), such as the Book of Enoch. Scholars have offered various theories as to why the angel becomes important, most arguing that as the Biblical period draws to a close, there is a greater sense of God's exalted transcendence, that it is felt an intermediary entity must interface between a perfect God and imperfect humanity. This is the same attitude that made other kinds of divine intermediaries, like the logos, the memra, Wisdom, or Jesus, necessary in the minds of some Greco-Roman believers.

In Judaism, there emerges a kind of "parenthetical" concept of prophecy - that while prophecy brackets the time before and after our time (the Biblical period and the Messianic Age), we live in a period of history when prophecy no longer functions. Here's a diagram:
biblical age prophecy (........now........)messianic age prophecy
Still, lesser forms of revelation continue to be available to us.

Post Biblically, there are any number of entities who can interpret the world for humans - sarei chalom (dream angels), maggidim (spirit guides), ibburim (the spirits of the righteous dead), and bat kols (echoes from heaven). But by far the most common and well known is Elijah, the angel of the convenant. Elijah appears frequently in rabbinic tradition, either to tell what is happening in the celestial spheres, to help someone make sense of an experience, or even to comment on controversies of Jewish law, as in this passage:

[in arguing over the rights of a concubine….] R. Abiathar said [so-and-so], and R. Jonathan said [so-and-so] R. Abiathar soon afterwards came across Elijah and said to him: 'What is the Holy One, blessed be He, doing?' and he answered, 'He is discussing the question of the concubine in Gibea.' 'What does He say?' said Elijah: '[He says], My son Abiathar says So-and-so, and my son Jonathan says So-and-so,' Said R. Abiathar: 'Can there possibly be uncertainty in the mind of the Heavenly One?' He replied: Both [answers] are the word of the living God (Gitten 6a)

Occasionally Elijah can be more decisive than is the case here, but I share this particular passage because it emphasizes that in our age, God opts, more often then not, to defer to human decision-making. The Torah is in our midst, and so too the responsibility to make sense of it and make it work. We are empowered to the point where we are no longer depend on miracles, angels, or heavenly voices to make up our minds. More than that, if we take the process seriously, if all our arguments are made in a spirit of truth, love, and righteousness, argued truly for the sake of heaven, then whatever we may conclude can be considered "the word of the living God."

To learn more, read entries Angels, Bat Kol, Elijah, Ibbur, Maggid, in The Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

The blog is terrific, please continue.

Question...Can you explain the development of the concept of what or who "The Word" of God is?

5:17 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The blog is terrific, please continue.

Question...Can you please comment on the development of the concept of who or what "The Word" of god is? Is it Torah, Jesus, angels, etc...?

5:20 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

coming from a Christian-esque perspective, your conclusion sounds to me very similar to that of the Pope's supposed all-knowingness as the part of God's interprteter. Are you making the statement that all man can, on some level, reach the infallibility of God's speakings, or are you saying thta God himself is sometimes fallible?

12:37 PM  
Blogger Geoffrey Dennis said...

I'm not sure how you got to the concept of infallability from my post, but the answer is 'no', the human interpretations of God's words is not free from error, but it's what God wants from us, otherwise we would be constantly corrected by some kind of divine "spell check" that would pop up whenever we got something wrong. The Rabbis would say that on the human realm, the truth we know is always provisional. We strive for the best approximation of truth we have with what we know. With new understanding, the truth may be subject to future revision.

10:26 AM  
Anonymous alissa said...

I am going to really sit down and read this blog!!! Going on my favorites for sure. This is not easy stuff to digest, but will tackle it with a nice cup of coffee and a quiet house. I am looking forward to it!

9:10 PM  

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