Saturday, June 5, 2010

Angels & Demons 11: Can Angels “on Earth” Sin, but Not “Angels in Heaven”?

Jesus taught us to pray: “Thy will be done on earth, as it is in Heaven.” Was he implying that all creatures in Heaven do His will perfectly, but that creatures on earth do not do His will perfectly? We can certainly agree that humans (on earth) do not do His will perfectly, but is it also true that angels who find themselves “on earth” do not do His will perfectly, either? I ran into this theoretical snag as I completed my Master’s in Hebrew at Indiana University.

I began writing my Master’s thesis on Fallen Angels in 1973, at Indiana University, but was not able to complete it until 1977. Why did it take me so long? On my Master’s committee, my major professor was Dr. Henry A. Fischel, a renowned Jewish scholar from Germany. He was not the problem. Fischel had personally been confined several months in a Nazi concentration camp, and his mother and 12 other family members died in the Holocaust. He was a former president of the Society of Biblical Literature in Canada and was a pioneer in studying the relationship between Jewish literature and the Hellenistic world. Fischel was always quite happy with the quality of my work in Jewish and Hellenistic literature. A second member of my Master’s committee was a Muslim, Wadie Jwaideh, the Chair of the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Literature at Indiana University. He was not the problem. Having studied at the University of Baghdad and Syracuse University, Jwaideh served as my primary resource on the Koran. Jwaideh had no problem with the quality of my work in Islamic literature. The final member of my committee was the stickler: a Christian, J. Paul Sampley, a professor of New Testament at Indiana University, at the time. He is the author of the commentaries on First and Second Corinthians in the New Interpreter’s Bible and is now Professor Emeritus of New Testament and Christian Origins at Boston University. Sampley insisted unyieldingly that I accept his view of angels in my thesis, despite my findings to the contrary. His view was that while the “angels in heaven” were incapable of sinning or reproducing or having sex, the angels “on earth” were quite a different matter. He thought the New Testament taught that angels who found themselves on earth were capable of sinning.

In the final analysis, after spending four years trying to please Dr. Sampley regarding my comments on angels in the New Testament, I decided that I could not write what I did not believe to be true. I removed all references to the New Testament from my Master’s thesis, so that he would have nothing to object to. I finished my thesis, and he endorsed it—along with Fischel and Jwaideh. I will, here and now, analyze Sampley’s thesis—that angels on earth can sin, unlike their heavenly counterpart.

In Bereshit Rabbah 27:4, Rabbis Judah and Nehemiah disagree on the derivation of the first word in the Genesis 6:6 clause, usually translated, “And the Lord REPENTED that He had made man on the earth.” The word translated “repented” is the word the two rabbis call into question. Rabbi Judah accepts the traditional translation (based on a vocalization from the Nif’al stem) and therefore understands the clause to read “the Lord REPENTED,” as I presented in the translation above. Rabbi Judah explains that if God had created man in Heaven, he would have remained sinless (as the angels are sinless); therefore, there is justification in God’s being sorry. Rabbi Nehemiah, on the other hand, believes that the word should have been vocalized in the Pu’al stem to say, “And the Lord WAS RELIEVED that He had made man on the earth.” Rabbi Nehemiah explains that if God had made man in Heaven, he would have aroused the angels also to revolt against God. Rabbi Nehemiah’s explanation seems to suggest that it is possible for angels (even those in Heaven) to sin (to REBEL, in this instance). Rabbi Judah’s interpretation implies that it was not possible, because—wherever they are—angels are incapable of sin. Either way, however, both are agreed that angels did not sin. Rabbi Aibu’s explanation of the text, then, follows with the idea that God repented because He had made the “evil inclination” in man; otherwise, man would have never have rebelled.

In Angels & Demons 6, I related an “Innocent” Fallen Angel Story. That specific story percolated around Judaism, during the New Testament period, because it allowed Jews to believe the thesis of the Enoch stories (that angels COULD sin) while also believing the strongly monotheistic teaching of the Old Testament and New Testament eras (that angels DID NOT sin). It served as a compromise, or possibly even a step toward a corrected theology of angels. According to the story, the angels were TEMPTED to marry the girl, but the girl outwitted them and the marriage was never consummated. Other rabbinic writings discuss the theological implications of this “Innocent” Fallen Angel Story. In Midrash Agadat Bereshit, we have an extension of the fallen angel account anticipating or involving the “innocent” fallen angels. According to this version, God warned the angels who wanted to descend to earth, “If you were on the earth, as these sons of man are on it, then you would notice the beautiful women also, who are among them; immediately, the ‘evil inclination’ will enter you and it will cause you to sin.” Yalkut I, p. 44, contains another version of the same legend in which God warns the angels, “I know that if you inhabit the earth, the ‘evil inclination’ will overpower you, and you will be more iniquitous than ever men [were].” The pious maiden concocted a scheme, similar to the one I related earlier, whereby she deceived the angels and was placed among the stars. In these two additional versions of the story, however, the angels “were not deterred from entering into alliances with the daughters of men.” In the Chronicles of Jerahmeel (another parallel to the “Innocent” Fallen Angel Story), after the angels had descended to earth, “Forthwith He allowed the ‘evil inclination’ to sway them.” Our maiden-becomes-star motif appears again, followed by the angel’s human marriages. In other words, these accounts were accepting BOTH the “Innocent” Fallen Angel Story AND Enoch’s “Sinning” Fallen Angel Story.

In all three of the variations from the “Innocent” Fallen Angel Story, just reported, it seems clear that so long as the angels remained in Heaven, they were not subject to the ‘evil inclination.’ The ANGELS’ MOTIVE FOR DESCENDING (in all three accounts) was TO PROVE THAT THEY COULD LIVE ON EARTH MORE RIGHTEOUSLY THAN MAN. Perhaps, the reason these versions of the story have the angels wind up sinning, anyway, is to disprove this theological precept (that angels could live on earth more righteously than man). Louis Ginzberg (in volume V, page 24, of his Legends of the Jews) summarizes the theological teaching of the rabbis at the time of the New Testament: “Although man, who is a terrestrial being, is inferior to the angels, he surpasses them by overcoming the ‘evil inclination,’ which the angels do not possess at all (BR 48.11).” The conclusion of rabbinic writings then is that the “pious are therefore greater than the angels.”

Whether or not angels COULD sin was a very real and HOTLY CONTESTED DEBATE ISSUE in the New Testament period. Last week, I discussed the only two (or three) very minor passages from the New Testament (primarily Jude and 2nd Peter) that suggested that angels COULD sin, and found that both (or all three) used the Fallen Angel Story as a sermon illustration. The Fallen Angel Story was NOT used to prove a theological point about angels, BUT to demonstrate that no one (not even an angel) is immune from punishment, if he or she does wrong. I will demonstrate in future commentaries that the gospels present JESUS himself in very specifically theological language DISPUTING ALL THREE MAJOR EXPLANATIONS OF THE SINNING FALLEN ANGEL STORY. Therefore, I do not believe either Jude or 2nd Peter actually believed the Fallen Angel Story that they used as a sermon illustration.

As you can see, however, there certainly were Jewish rabbis in the New Testament period who agreed with Sampley’s position—that angels on earth can sin, unlike their heavenly counterpart, even though the rabbis generally did not believe the angels actually DID sin. As you can also see, there were Jewish rabbis in the New Testament period who even thought it was possible even for angels in Heaven to sin (Rabbi Nehemiah). Bottom line: There were rabbis in the New Testament period who disagreed on the nature of angels just as Sampley and I disagree on the subject.

That does not mean that we are both correct. Sampley’s view (and the view of a FEW Jewish rabbis in the New Testament period) gives more credit to the Book of I Enoch than I (and the vast MAJORITY of Jewish rabbis in the New Testament period) do. I’m pretty sure that Sampley is wrong. Sampley objected when I pointed out that Jesus is quoted in Matthew 22:30, Mark 12:25, and Luke 20:35 as saying that when the righteous are resurrected, they will be like the angels—neither marrying nor giving in marriage. This statement attributed to Jesus by all three synoptic gospels seems to indicate a fairly strong theological position—THAT ANGELS CANNOT MARRY. This position is identical to the position held by the majority of Jewish rabbis in the New Testament period. I will present the evidence from the rabbinic sources that testify to this position, next week.

Is this account of Jesus shooting down the premise of the Fallen Angel Story from I Enoch? I think so. Follow the logic: If angels neither marry nor give in marriage, the “sons of God” who MARRIED the daughters of men in Genesis 6 COULD NOT HAVE BEEN ANGELS. There certainly are many times when “sons of God” refers to humans (Galatians 4:6-7, for example) and only one time when the phrase clearly refers to angels (the book of Job). The dominant Greek translation of the Old Testament during New Testament times—the Septuagint—translates the Hebrew “sons of God” as “angels” in Job, but interestingly enough, NOT IN GENESIS 6, or in other important passages. Job is somewhat different from the rest of the Old Testament, anyway, in that it is a book written from the perspective of the descendents of Esau; whereas, the rest of the Old Testament pertains to the descendents of Esau’s brother, Jacob (a.k.a., Israel).

So, how does Sampley object? He points out that in the Matthew and Mark accounts, it is the angels “IN HEAVEN” who neither marry nor give in marriage. Of course, neither Matthew nor Mark go on to say that angels “on earth” do marry, but Sampley feels safe in the possible inference they provide him by using the phrase “in Heaven.” What is astounding, then, is that Luke—the gospel writer who we seem to think is writing to a more Greek-oriented audience (and who could, therefore, appreciate the Greek religious doctrine that EVEN GODS MARRY human women and other gods)—would have the audacity to state it so clearly: the resurrected do not marry; they are like the angels. No possible room is left for inferring that some angels “on the earth” might marry. For Luke, angels simply do not marry.

Think about it. What angels of whom we are aware were not “on the earth”? Gabriel brought messages to Mary and Joseph, but he had to be “on the earth” to deliver them. The angels who sang to the shepherds on the first Christmas night were at least within the atmosphere of earth. The angel (if that’s what he was) who joined Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the fiery furnace was “on the earth.” The angel who explained the signs of Revelation to John was “on the earth.” The angels who visited Abraham and Lot were “on the earth.” The angel (if that’s what he was) who wrestled with Jacob was “on the earth.” The angels who were involved in inspiring scripture (in I Peter 1:12) were “on the earth.” The angel who rescued Peter from prison was “on the earth.” The angels guarding the empty tomb were “on the earth.” Even the archangel Michael, who apparently remained in Heaven as he cast Satan down to the earth, appears to have been “on the earth” himself in Daniel 10, fighting for Daniel. Does this mean that all of the angels of whom we have ever heard were capable of marrying human women? It’s a little disconcerting to think that we can’t trust any of the angels who came to earth. (They might have the “evil inclination.”)

Luke had it right. Angels cannot marry. With him agree the vast majority of the Jewish rabbis in the New Testament period. I still contend that Sampley (and those few rabbis who agree with him) had it wrong. Matthew and Mark were not trying to hint that there was a difference between angels in Heaven and angels on earth. They were simply using respectful language (such as we use when, in the Lord’s Prayer, we address God as “Our Father who is ‘in Heaven.’” No one would suggest that when God was "on earth" walking with Adam in the cool of the evening, he was a different kind of being, would they?

The author of I Enoch had it wrong when he said in I Enoch 84:4, “The angels of your heaven are doing wrong.”


  1. Romans 8 does much to assert "sons of God" are in fact humans of faith guided by the Holy Spirit; does that necessitate Job's "sons of God" be guided by the Spirit; and though the satan is in their midst he is not numbered with them? If the righteous human sons of God marry the daughters of men who are guided not by the Spirit, will mankind soon fall to a level so low God repents He has created humanity?

  2. It seems to me that angels in heaven have spiritual bodies and that being immortal have no need to reproduce to maintain their numbers

    But when they visit earth and are seen by men, they appear to be men, because they have temporarily put on flesh and taken up human form

    Could it not then be that with the fleshly form comes also the evil inclination attached?

    I'm not sure the text says they married the women. Is not wives and women the same word in Hebrew?