Angels and Demons, Part I

Associate Dean of Religious Life and author Jim Burklo was recently interviewed about Angels and Archangels by the producers of the TV series Supernatural.  We’ll post excerpts from the interview over the course of the week.

The hierarchy of Angels and Archangels seems to mimic the hierarchy of demonology represented through the bible.  Provide a brief primer on what the hierarchical structure for Heaven might be, and why God has selected this level of organization.

First of all, most of what we read about in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures regarding angels and demons are references to mythological beings or stories that aren’t in the Bible at all.  And there is no consistent message or story line about these angels or demons – the references indicate a lot of variation in the ancient legends.  For instance, we read a short reference in Isaiah 14:12 about Day Star, Son of Dawn falling from heaven, and in Luke 10: 18 where Jesus said he saw Satan fall like lightening to the earth,  and in Rev 12: 9 where the archangel Michael and his angels fought the dragon Satan and his angels and cast them to the earth, but nowhere are these stories told in full in the Bible – these are references to extra-biblical stories from the Jewish tradition, and each of them is distinctly different.

Angels and demons are characters in myths within, but mostly outside, of the Bible.  As mythical characters they are expressions of the inner transpersonal spiritual dimension.  The word angel is a Greek word meaning messenger.  Angels can be thought of as mythical expressions of how messages from our unconscious inner realm come into our conscious life.  A great example is the angel who appears to Jacob in the middle of the night in the desert – he’s sleeping and has an encounter with an angel who then wrestles with him – he negotiates an end to the struggle by asking the angel, who is one and the same with God, for a blessing.  This happens at a moment of intense personal struggle within Jacob as he fearfully anticipates a conflict with his estranged brother Esau, whom he is going to encounter the next day.  After the encounter with the angel, Jacob is emboldened to face his brother.  We can understand this “angel” as a manifestation of a message of healing and wholeness that comes to Jacob in a dream.  Many of us receive messages from messengers, call them angels – messengers who give us wisdom or comfort or clarity in dreams, or in the form of potent, timely encounters with people who give us wisdom or encouragement at critical moments of our lives.  Often these “messengers” or “angels” have no idea of the impact they have on us.  They are, in effect, God’s messengers, but unaware of their role.  This can work the other way, too – in which we have encounters with people who, whether intentionally or not, bring evil into our lives.  The challenge for our souls is how to integrate the light and dark, the positive and the scary, messages and messengers that come to us.

There is a powerful image of this kind of integration or balance between the dark and light, the positive and the negative, in the early mythical biblical account of the divine council, the Elohim, the Godhead.  Like the Roman Senate, or the American president’s cabinet, the Godhead consisted of divine manifestations with differing roles.  The hierarchy of heaven is just a copy of the hierarchy of empires on earth.  Satan originally was the Attorney General of God’s cabinet – his assignment was to make sure that the other angels, and that people, were on the up and up.  This idea of Satan prevails today in Islam, for example – the Koran says that the Shaitan will be forgiven at the end of days… he has a job to do on behalf of God, to test people’s moral fiber.  Hence the role of the Satan in the book of Job, where God assembles “the sons of God”, the heavenly council, including the Satan – a generic Hebrew word for the accuser, who has been walking the earth to assess the moral fiber of humanity.  The Satan identifies Job as someone whose true loyalty to God has not yet been put to the test – hence the sufferings that God imposes on him, to answer Satan’s hypothesis.

The idea of Satan falling from heaven is an old non-biblical Jewish tradition, handed down by the rabbis, that says that God ordered all his angels to bow down to his new creation, the human being.  But the Satan refused to do so because he believed he should only bow down to God.  So he was expelled from heaven for his disobedience, which in a way was just extreme loyalty to God.  But of course the timing of this story doesn’t match up at all with the Genesis account of the snake that tempted Adam and Eve:  God curses the snake only after he does the tempting.  God creates the serpent as just one of many animals that God creates – the serpent was the smartest of all the animals below human beings.  We often associate the devil with this serpent – and very often demons or devils are given serpent-like physical features in their representations.  But at this point in the Bible the serpent is not a supernatural being or a member of a hierarchy of demons.  It’s just an earthly creature – which gets cursed for its sin just like Adam and Eve.  The unwritten assumption, again part of Jewish tradition outside the Bible, was that the serpent had arms and legs before it tempted Adam and Eve.  God’s curse on the snake was to lose its limbs and have to crawl on its belly on the ground. This image of a snake with arms and legs corresponds to the later image of Satan as a dragon.

In later Christianity, the image of Satan was partly that of a Jew.  Early Jewish Christians were in conflict with non-Christians Jews, and this conflict is reflected in the gospel writers’ accusations that the Jews were to blame for Jesus’ crucifixion.  As a result, Christians later demonized Jews.  The long nose and beard and mustache on Satan reflect the anti-semitism that developed in Christianity over the centuries.  Unfortunately this anti-Semitic image continues to be depicted in modern media portrayals of devils and demons.

So Satan changed, morphed, over the long course of the composition of the Bible, and long after, too.  The devil or Satan has a number of different personalities, appearances, and functions – it’s not one figure in the scripture.

The same is true for God and the “good” angels.  We see a number of quite different descriptions of God in the Bible.  The Hebrew scriptures have four distinctly different representations of God, woven together in the Torah.  These are 4 different traditions of the early stories of Israel which were edited and woven together later when formerly oral traditions were later written down.  Two of these traditions are written side by side in the opening of the book of Genesis – hence its two contradictory versions of the creation story.  One of these traditions is called the Yahwist – referring to Yahweh, the unmentionable name of the highly particular God of Israel that the Hebrews translated as Adonai, or Lord.  Another tradition is called the Elohist, after another more generic name of God, El or Elohim, which in English is translated as God.  Elohim is a name of God that is used often in the Torah and it is actually the plural form of El, and was used as the name of God in other near eastern religions.  Elohim means The Godhead or the Gods, the assembly of divine beings headed up by the head God, El.  This is reflective of the idea of the Godhead in other Near Eastern religions in biblical times – a council of divine beings dominated by one god, but all the councilors together comprising a Godhead.  Angels could be identified as these divine council members; they functioned as ambassadors of the divine, and therefore shared the being of the divine.  Still to this day, ambassadors are given the privileges of the heads of state that they represent.  But in ancient times, an ambassador was treated as if he was virtually one and the same person as the king he represented – inviolate and sovereign.  This idea prevails today in the fact that ambassadors from other countries to the United States are not required to have drivers licenses, and can’t be prosecuted for crimes they might commit in this country, because they are treated as “sovereigns”, even though they are just representatives of sovereigns.  It would be as if Hilary Clinton was treated by the king of Saudi Arabia as if she was the same person as Barack Obama.  Hard for us to imagine now, but that is the sort of concept that prevailed until only a few hundred years ago.  The angel is one and the same as God who sent the angel.  This image is played out when God comes to visit Abraham – appearing in the form of three men who came up to his tent.  Abraham address them as “my lord” – as if they were not three people, but one.

Likewise, there are some references to the “sons of God” in the Hebrew scriptures – and it is important to know that in ancient times, father and son were much more interchangeable than they are now.  The son inherited the property and the occupation and the social status of the father.  The son of God was God.  So again, in ancient times there was a much stronger identification than we moderns might suppose between the sons or angels of God, and God himself.  Hence for Jesus to be described as the Son of God was to say he was God.

All this points to a big difference between the world-views of people in ancient times and people today, as it relates to the idea of divine or satanic hierarchies.

Angels are typically known and associated with all things benign and historically have been carries of God’s love.  Do Angels ever have a mixture of conflict between carrying out their divine order (from God) and exercising their desire to commit free-will?

Satan is the perfect example of this in biblical and extra-biblical mythical traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.  Satan has the complex task of challenging human beings to test their moral fiber, which inevitably also becomes a test of God himself, since humans were made in God’s image.  God charges Satan with the task of being the accuser, but of course that puts Satan on a collision course with everybody.  Alberto Gonzales was the “accuser” for George W. Bush – his attorney general – but all Gonzales did was nod along with whatever Bush said, and twist the law to suit whatever Bush wanted.  That made him a lousy attorney general.  Then there was Archibald Cox, the lawyer appointed as the special prosecutor in the Watergate case.  He did his job honorably and what was his reward for it?  President Nixon fired him.  Likewise, Satan actually did the job God gave him, and that got him in a cosmos of trouble!

There is nothing in the Bible to suggest anything else about this question – most of what we hear about angels and devils, etc, comes from sources outside the Jewish and Christian scriptures.  Indeed, most of our imagery for angels and devils developed over a long period of time in Christianity after the biblical era.  Television and movies are contributing to this ever-evolving mythology, as we speak!