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Angels in antiquity: Judaism’s long relationship with heaven’s haloed helpers

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When then-Princeton graduate student Mika Ahuvia was taking a class in Roman religion, she became intrigued by ancient religious statuary in the Middle East.

First, she examined statues of Roman gods and goddesses in their local environments (her background is in Roman archaeology in present-day Israel). Next, she studied Christian sculptures of angels, which got her wondering how much Jews thought about angels back then.

As it turns out, angels played a significant, underappreciated role in the lives of Jews in late antiquity — which Ahuvia, now a professor of classical Judaism at the University of Washington, reveals in a new book, “On My Right Michael, On My Left Gabriel: Angels in Ancient Jewish Culture.”

Judaism is no stranger to angels. Jewish scriptures only name two — Michael and Gabriel, mentioned in the Book of Daniel, plus Raphael who appears in the apocryphal books of Enoch and Tobit. But the Bible and later writings include hosts of unnamed heavenly messengers who do everything from stopping Abraham from sacrificing his son to wrestling Jacob, not to mention the Angel of Death, plus the guardian angels Seraphim and the fallen angels, or Nephilim.

By late antiquity, Ahuvia’s book makes clear, Jews had significantly expanded their lineup of named angels. Some had special traits, like Azazel (signifying “power”) or Kafziel (reflecting “the right to conquer”), and each nation had its own angel as well, like Persia’s Dubbiel, or “Bear of God.” However, they all had the same lack of free will, the same commitment to doing God’s work, and the same appearance, or lack thereof.

“For Jews in late antiquity, angels were subordinate beings [to God] that always acted in alignment with God’s will, executing obligations from the heavens,” Ahuvia said. “The modern period is really preoccupied with what angels look like. You don’t see that preoccupation so much in ancient Jewish texts. Clearly, they were invisible, made of fire, and changeable.”

And then Christianity came along.

Ahuvia, who grew up in what she calls the secular, radical and socialist Israeli kibbutz of Beit Hashita, said that American Jews and secular Israelis sometimes downplayed angels when she spoke about her work.

“I’d say, ‘I’m working on angels and ancient Judaism,’” said Ahuvia. “They said, ‘What angels? Angels are Christian.’”

“The dominance of Christian art plays a role in Jews not recognizing their heritage,” she said. “It’s certainly one [reason]. I don’t think it should stop [Jews] from claiming angels as part of their culture.” She cites an ancient Jewish cemetery in the Beit She’arim national park in northern Israel: “There were clearly depictions of angelic beings in the cemetery, winged figures on Jewish sarcophagi. Depictions of angels were part of Jewish imagery. It’s just that much less survived centuries of........

© The Times of Israel

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