I think Christians assume that angelology isn’t “for us” because we are told so little about angels in the Bible. But what if the reason the Bible says so little about angels—and the spirit world in general—is actually because it takes for granted a great deal of cultural knowledge which no longer exists?
If that’s so, then studying the topic closely is very beneficial to understanding the Bible better as a whole—because we’re gaining a better understanding of its contemporary milieu. It’s also important because we are surrounded by an invisible spirit world, and as Christians we should have at least a basic grasp of what that world is like and how it affects us.
Most Christians, unfortunately, have inherited their theology of the spirit world from Dante-inspired cultural cliches rather than careful study of the Bible and its contemporary culture. For instance:
- Most Christians think angels are not endowed with the imago dei, and therefore are effectively spiritual automata rather than morally-culpable agents;
- Most Christians think angels are basically the only category of spiritual being;
- Most Christians think that angels are sexless;
- Most Christians deny that the term “god” can legitimately be used of other spiritual beings than Yahweh;
- Most Christians think demons are just angels gone bad;
- Most Christians get really defensive and disturbed if you challenge these beliefs (if that’s you, stop reading).
Some thoughts on all this, in no particular order, and without any comprehensive explanations, because that would require a book:
The Bible was written in a culture that took for granted the existence of a hierarchy of gods
Canaanite religion especially was clear on the existence of a divine council, overseen by El and his vice-regent, Ba’al. El was lord of the cosmos; Ba’al was lord of the gods (you might even say the king of kings). Beneath them were the sons of God (bn il if I am remembering my Ugaritic consonants correctly), who were gods in the more or less conventional polytheistic sense of the word. Beneath them in turn were lesser gods who had artisan functions in creation.
The Bible, of course, does not endorse Canaanite religion, but it would be a mistake to think it completely repudiates it as well. There are clear and direct parallels between certain religious concepts and language in Ugaritic (Canaanite), and certain religious concepts and language in the Hebrew Bible. The Old Testament doesn’t copy from Canaanite religion, nor did it evolve out of Canaanite religion; but it certainly does borrow themes and language from it—often to make a point about how that very religion represents a debased, false understanding of the “spirit world”—and how Hebrew religion represents a pure, correct understanding.
The divine council and the sons of God
For example, Psalm 82 speaks of how God has taken his place in the adat’el—a term which only appears once in the Bible. Scholars have puzzled over its meaning, which is kind of odd really because it is almost certainly a direct cognate of the Ugaratic dt’ilm, meaning “divine council”. This was the meeting (place) of the gods when they held court to administer the affairs of earth. There are also Hebrew cognates of bn il (sons of God) and bn ilm (sons of the gods): beney ha elohim (sons of God), beney elim (basically the same), beney elyon (sons of the most high, which was Ba’al’s title).
Basically the Bible presupposes that this council of gods exists.
This is the Hebrew term often translated “God” or “gods”. Christians object that taking elohim other than Yahweh to actually exist is nothing but polytheism. This is at best simplistic and naive. The categories of monotheism and polytheism are late, Enlightenment inventions; they have no actual basis in the Bible whatsoever. Rather, the Bible treats the beney elohim as elohim, but Yahweh is in a special category of his own. He is the God. He is not just the most powerful of the gods, but is quite separate. They are created beings and he is not.
The elohim are actually in charge of the nations. This is what happens in Deuteronomy 32:8, but you need to read the right translation to get it (the ESV and NET are right here), because many take the Masoretic text as authoritative here rather than referring back to the older Dead Sea Scrolls and Septuagint rendering. Yahweh divides the nations up at Babel according to the numbers of the sons of God—but he keeps Israel for himself.
Without some of these basic facts laid down, it’s essentially impossible to make sense of passages like, for instance, Psalm 82 and John 10:35.
If you’re not familiar with these ideas, this is all going to seem exceedingly strange; even dangerous-sounding. But once you start to become acclimated to the biblical presuppositions in play, you discover this stuff is all through the text. Not just in the Old Testament; the New Testament actually plays off this a great deal and provides some of the more explicit examples (referring to Satan as a god, for instance).
The imago dei
One final thought: the image of God is not an ontological category. Not primarily anyway. It is not something we are; it is something we do. It is not a power or faculty that allows us to make free, morally culpable choices. We are imagers of God inasmuch as we represent his dominion and authority over the creation he has put us in charge of. Obviously that requires such faculties, but the imago dei is not merely the faculties themselves.
So to think that angels, or more pertinently the beney elim, do not have the imago dei, is very strange. Who do we think God was talking to in Genesis 1:26, remembering that there is no royal plural in Hebrew, and the original audience would not have understood the plural in terms of the Trinity? Well, he’s talking to the sons he already created; compare Job 38:7—“stars”, and various riffs thereon, is standard nomenclature for gods in ANE language.