In Israel's early traditions, God was perceived as administering the cosmos with a retinue of divine assistants. The members of this divine council were identified generally as “sons of God” and “morning stars” (Job 1.6; 38.7), “gods” (Ps. 82) or the “host of heaven” (Neh. 9.6; cf. Rev. 1.20), and they functioned as God's vicegerents and administrators in a hierarchical bureaucracy over the world (Deut. 32.8 [LXX]; cf. 4.19; 29.26). Where Israel's polytheistic neighbors perceived these beings as simply a part of the pantheon, the Bible depicts them as subordinate and in no way comparable to the God of Israel.

The most ancient Israelites would probably have felt uncomfortable in describing all these beings as “angels,” for the English word “angel” comes from the Greek aggelos, which at first simply meant “messenger” (as does the Hebrew term for angel, malʾāk). God's divine assistants were often more than mere messengers. Cherubim and seraphim, for example, never function as God's messengers, for their bizarre appearance would unnecessarily frighten humans. On the contrary, God is frequently depicted in early narratives as dispensing with divine messengers, for he deals directly with humans without intermediaries (See Theophany).

As time passed, however, an increasing emphasis on God's transcendence correlated with an increasing need for divine mediators. These beings who brought God's messages to humans are typically portrayed as anthropomorphic in form, and such a being may often be called a “man” (Gen. 18.2; Josh. 5.13; Ezek. 9.2, 11; Dan. 9.21; 12.6–7; Zech. 1.8; Luke 24.4). The members of God's council are the envoys who relay God's messages and perform tasks appropriate to their status as messengers (1 Kings 22.19–22; Job 1.6–12). In some narratives of encounters with supernatural beings, there is reluctance to identify them by name (Gen. 32.29; Judg. 13.17–18). But as these messengers become more and more frequent, they eventually are provided with individual names and assigned increasingly specific tasks that go beyond that of a messenger. The only two angels named in the Hebrew Bible are in the book of Daniel: Gabriel reveals the future (Dan. 8–9; cf. Luke 1) while Michael has a more combative role, opposing the forces of evil (Dan. 10, 12; Jude 9; Rev. 12.7). The angelic hierarchy becomes more and more explicit and elaborate (Dan. 10.13; Eph. 6.12; Jude 9; 1 Pet. 3.22; See Archangels), and each human being has his or her own protecting angel (Matt. 18.10; Acts 12.15). The term “messenger” (Grk. aggelos; Hebr. malʾāk) is used so frequently to depict these beings in their encounters with humans that it becomes a generic term to describe all supernatural beings apart from God, whether or not they actually functioned as messengers.

Angels are depicted as having the freedom to make moral choices, for they require judicial supervision (1 Cor. 6.3; Jude 6) and God himself is reluctant to trust them (Job 4.18). The Bible records a number of angelic rebellions or perversions (Gen. 6.1–4; Ps. 82; Isa. 14.12–15; Ezek. 28; 2 Pet. 2.4; Rev. 12.4–9), as a result of which some rebel angels are already incarcerated (Jude 6).

“The Angel [or Messenger] of the Lord” is a problematic figure. The ambiguous Hebrew phrase is best translated without the definite article, that is, “an angel [messenger] of Yahweh” (as do the Septuagint and NJV; cf. Matt. 1.20; 2.13, 19; 28.2; Acts 8.26). Later Christian theology tended to see the preincarnate Christ in this figure (hence the definite article), but the phrase probably referred vaguely to any mediator sent by God. He may be human (Hag. 1.13; Mal. 2.7). When the figure is clearly referred to as superhuman, he does not always function as a messenger but instead talks and behaves as if he were God, even failing to introduce his words as the message of another who sent him. Since early stories are internally inconsistent, identifying the figure as both God and God's messenger (Gen. 16.7–13; 22.11–12; 31.11–13; Exod. 3.2–4; Judg. 6.11–23), it is probable that some of these stories originally described God at work but were modified through time to accommodate God's increasing transcendence as one who no longer casually confronted humankind.

The increasing role played by angels in the later stages of the Hebrew Bible is found everywhere in the New Testament. The voice of God (the Father) is only exceptionally heard in the New Testament, unlike earlier biblical traditions. Instead, angels bring God's message to humans (Matt. 1.20; Luke 1.11, 26; 2.9; Acts 8.26; 10.3) and assist Jesus (Matt. 4.1; Luke 22.43) and his followers (Acts 5.19; 12.7). Angels have limited knowledge (Matt. 24.36; 1 Pet. 1.12), and when they appear to human beings, they may be described as descending from heaven (Matt. 28.2; John 1.51; cf. Gen. 28.12). Although Jesus alludes to the absence of the institution of marriage among angels (Matt. 22.30), angels are sexual beings (Gen. 6.4; Zech. 5.9). Some Jews, particularly the most conservative, denied their existence (Acts 23.8). But among Jews and Christians in general, angelology continued to develop so that not only was Satan provided with his own retinue of angels as a counterpart to God (Matt. 25.41; 2 Cor. 12.7), but hundreds of names and functions are also applied to angels in extrabiblical texts such as the books of Enoch.

Samuel A. Meier