Yesterday’s guest post by Hebrew Bible scholar Esther Hamori began to discuss her new book on the MONSTERS of the Bible and God’s, well, uncomfortably relationship with them.  Today she continues by giving us a revised excerpt from the book itself:  God’s Monsters: Vengeful Spirits, Deadly Angels, Hybrid Creatures, and Divine Hitmen of the Bible..  Now this will make you think…

Esther J. Hamori is Professor of Hebrew Bible at Union Theological Seminary in New York City.

You can get her book at this link, and I recommend you do!  God’s Monsters.



If you know one angel by name, it’s got to be Gabriel. As a Jewish kid with no personal connection to Christianity but seemingly a thousand school Christmas pageants behind me by the eighth grade, I knew Gabriel as well as I knew Superman. Or at least, I thought I did.

As Luke tells it, God sends Gabriel to tell Mary that she’ll give birth to Jesus. After the baby is born, an unnamed angel appears to a group of shepherds. Luke describes the spectacular scene: “An angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified!” The angel tells them not to be afraid, announcing, “I bring you good news of great joy!” A multitude of the heavenly host appear, praising God.

How marvelous it all is! Who are these wondrous divine figures? They follow a long line of benevolent angels in the Hebrew Bible. An angel calls to Hagar from heaven and saves her and her son, Ishmael. An angel leads the Israelites through the desert, guarding them along the way.

Good news of great joy! If we don’t look too closely, these tame moments could make it seem like angels are on our side.

What, then, of all the times angels go around slaughtering people?

This is the problem with angels. Yes, they’re God’s messengers, bringing words of comfort, rescuing people from danger and distress. From Genesis through Revelation, they seem the most benevolent figures in the company of God. But they’re not just messengers and helpers. They’re also the most ruthless of God’s soldiers, the deadliest of all his divine hitmen.

The “we need to talk about Kevin” moment comes the first time we see an angel massacre thousands of innocent civilians. Or maybe it’s when we see an angel in hard pursuit of a single innocent victim. There are so many slaughters it’s hard to choose.

No wonder angels so often need to reassure people when they’re not there to kill them. “Don’t be afraid, Mary,” says Gabriel. “Don’t be afraid,” the next angel tells the shepherds, because “they were terrified.” “Don’t be afraid,” the angel tells the women at Jesus’s tomb, while the guards shake with fear till they pass out. The women, even in their joy at the angel’s message of resurrection, still leave in fear. Because how comforting is it, really, to be reassured that this angel, this time, won’t spell the end of you?

In my guest post yesterday I talked about how God is just as violent in the New Testament as in the Hebrew Bible. Brace yourself, because when it comes to angels it gets worse. In the Hebrew Bible, most angelic slaughter happens in straightforward narrative stories, but in the New Testament, the tradition of angelic violence takes on new breadth. It’s still found in stories, like in Acts where Herod Agrippa is eaten by worms and dies (not the other way around . . . yikes), but it also shows up in the teachings of Jesus, in a letter to a church, and in apocalyptic visions. It’s sprinkled through every section of the New Testament: the Gospels, Acts, the Epistles, and Revelation. Let’s just look at two of those examples: the Gospels and Revelation.

The image is famous: Jesus is teaching by the sea, and so many people gather to listen that he goes to sit in a boat and teach the crowds on the shore from there. It’s a favorite scene for Christian bookstore art. It seems so gentle and peaceful—from a distance. What Jesus is actually saying is that at the end of the age, the Son of Man will send his angels out into the world to collect sinners, “and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Think about that. The parable he’s been recounting is about a field, but the real reapers are angels. Jesus speaks of burning weeds, but says the real fire is the furnace of eternal torment. Some hopeful readers would like to take the whole kit and caboodle as metaphorical, but Jesus’s point is that the reapers burning weeds is the metaphor, and what’s real is angels burning people.

He tells another parable, different in every other way, involving a net and the sea and fish of every kind; good fish are gathered in baskets and bad fish are thrown away. But again, he explains: “So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Different parable, same explanation. The angels will throw people into the fire for eternal torment. Reality.

Jesus’s first explanation also includes another detail: the angels don’t come on their own. The Son of Man sends them.

If this is at all uncomfortable, the book of Revelation won’t help. Over the years, I’ve had a number of students tell me (more or less) that their churches discreetly set aside Revelation like Joseph did Mary. And fair enough, it’s both terrifying and weird. But Revelation is also where so many treasured images come from: the angels surrounding God’s heavenly throne, the Son of Man with a golden crown, the bright-as-crystal river of life!

Here’s the catch. Those images are all part of the apocalyptic imagery of the book, and they’re inextricable from the brutal and bloody violence. This kind of apocalyptic literature is concerned with supernatural conflicts in which God and the armies of heaven are glorified in their victory over, essentially, the dark side. Trying to hold on to the worshiping angels of Revelation without the context of their epic battles is like thinking you know Leia, Luke, and Han from the Yavin medal award ceremony in the throne room alone. The joy, the glory, the trumpets in the throne room—in heaven, as on Yavin 4—are about triumph in cosmic battle. The shining glory of Revelation is part of a story of violence, and you can’t have one without the other. There’s no Star Wars without the Wars.

Revelation is like Exodus on acid. Okay, that’s an oversimplification. Revelation is like Exodus and Joshua and Joel and Ezekiel and a few other books all on acid together. With horrors that are reminiscent of the plagues but explode into global proportions, the book draws from across the Hebrew Bible, each image now gone psychedelic. And God’s signature is inscribed across it all. The tangled images of Revelation, with its strange numbered series and jarring interruptions, are defined by his brutality, with angelic violence punctuating every turn.

In a series of visions, seven seals are opened, each triggering cataclysmic events. When the seventh is opened, it blossoms into its own series of seven global catastrophes. Seven angels standing before God are handed trumpets. Each one blows its trumpet, causing its own special brand of disaster and doom. It’s the battle of Jericho (where seven priests blew horns and the city walls came crashing down) gone global and psychedelic. These catastrophes feature things like, oh, God poisoning water by tossing in a toxic angel essentially named “Cyanide,” an angel releasing jacked-up hell-locusts to torture and kill people, and a quartet of killer angels deployed to kill a third of humankind.

A little later, angels begin pouring out plague-bowls of wrath on the doomed earth. They weaponize everything they strike. One targets the sea, another the sun, another the air—the sea turns to blood that kills everything in it, the sun burns people to death, and the deadly atmosphere triggers the most destructive earthquake that has ever been. Every city on earth is destroyed, and hundred-pound hailstones crush people to death.

Mixed in among these last visions is a gruesome picture of what that final judgment looks like. It looks like a harvest—of people. Jesus’s parable by the seaside described the end of the age as a harvest where the angels would reap people, and we see it now: An angel emerges with a sickle in its hand. Another angel calls out, “Swing your sharp sickle”—its sharpness is mentioned three times in a row—“and gather the grapes from the vineyard of the earth” because they’re “ripe.” Ripe, indeed. The first angel swings its sickle over the whole earth and gathers the harvest. In case you temporarily blocked it out, the harvest is us, human beings. The angel throws the full harvest of people into “the great winepress of the wrath of God.” The winepress is then “trampled,” and blood flows out from it for hundreds of miles all around “as high as a horse’s bridle.” (Once again, the New Testament writer has picked up an image from the Hebrew Bible and gone completely off the rails with it. Here, he takes a poetic metaphor from Joel 3 and turns it into a horrifying vision of something angels will do to human beings.) The angels’ bloody winepress full of people is nothing short of a celebration of ravaged human remains.

These are the angels of God—terrifying, violent, and so widely known for killing that they sometimes start by reassuring people when they’re not there to kill them.

And yet: Gloria in excelsis Deo! Glory to God in the highest! So praise the angels before the shepherds, in a refrain celebrated in works from Vivaldi’s Gloria to “Angels We Have Heard on High.” What joy! Except, of course, that the shepherds are scared out of their wits. Understandably so. (The angel’s attempt at reassurance—another “do not fear”—probably fell flat when suddenly joined by “a multitude of the heavenly host.” If you read yesterday’s guest post, picture the hybrid cherubim roaring, the seraphim swishing serpentine tails. Now that’s a Christmas pageant.)

Gloria! Angels announce, angels call from heaven, angels save! How do we make sense of their profound moral ambiguity? They have the capacity for such good . . . and for such harm.


*Thanks for reading this adapted excerpt from God’s Monsters: Vengeful Spirits, Deadly Angels, Hybrid Creatures, and Divine Hitmen of the Bible, and thank you to Bart for sharing this space for me to guest post about monsters!

Esther J. Hamori is Professor of Hebrew Bible at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. Her book was published, appropriately enough, on Halloween.

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2023-12-18T10:59:47-05:00December 19th, 2023|Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, Revelation of John|

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  1. Ray Robinson December 19, 2023 at 7:16 am

    In the 1 chronicles 21 passage, it appears that the angel didn’t massacre thousands. Instead it appears that it was the pestilence that killed thousands, and that the Lord sent the pestilence. Am I reading this incorrectly? Are all pestilence delivered through intermediaries?

    • EHamori December 19, 2023 at 6:15 pm

      It’s v.12 that explains the connection. Door #3 is “the sword of the Lord: pestilence in the land, and the angel of the Lord destroying throughout Israel.” Translations of that verse are weird, I’ll grant you! But the connection is described explicitly.

  2. dcscct1409 December 19, 2023 at 8:23 am

    I suspect 1st Century Palestinians lived a hand to mouth existence where death and deprivation was a constant companion. These stories of “death angels” were the horror genre of the time, purposefully horrific and meant to scare people into compliance with social expectations or motivate good behavior in children – essentially a boogie man story. As I think of all the uplifting “Jesus” stories I heard during 50 years as a Christian, the tales of avenging angels fit right in, neither are real and both are efforts by people (modern and ancient) with an agenda trying to control others. Granted, Christianity has inspired amazing art, literature and architecture, but it’s all based on stories that have little to do with reality.

  3. Hormiga December 19, 2023 at 8:23 am

    If you haven’t read the never-finished web comic “Apocamon”, you might do so. All sorts of divine monsters from Revelation.

    • EHamori December 19, 2023 at 6:18 pm

      I haven’t. Bookmarking it now!

  4. bluesclues December 19, 2023 at 8:38 am

    In the immortal words of Keanu Reeves: Whoa.

    A familiar topic but I never before thought of in this way. These posts are great reads and funny. I’m gonna have to buy the book.

    • EHamori December 19, 2023 at 6:20 pm

      Hahahaha. I do have a Bill & Ted reference in the Demons chapter. I’m glad at least one person will appreciate it!

  5. brenmcg December 19, 2023 at 3:24 pm

    Jesus’s prophecy of the end of the age should be interpreted in terms of Matthew 6:30 “the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the furnace.” The wicked, like the grass, are destroyed in the furnace at the end of the age; not sent to everlasting torment.

    Revelation is a dream sequence which needs to be interpreted. There is no real dragon or beast with seven heads. And the sword from the mouth of Jesus is the spoken truth which will destroy his enemies at the end of time, akin to Paul in 2 Cor 10:3-5 “For though we live in the world we are not carrying on a worldly war for the weapons of our warfare are not worldly but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every proud obstacle to the knowledge of God and take every thought captive to obey Christ.”

    • EHamori December 19, 2023 at 6:27 pm

      That would be nice and gentle, but it’s not what Matt 13 says. Jesus doesn’t just present parables (different from prophecy) and leave it at that — in ch.13, he carefully explains each, and explains absolutely explicitly that it IS everlasting torment, “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (vv.42, 50). Yikes! Not pleasant, but it’s what the text says.

      • fishician December 19, 2023 at 9:25 pm

        I don’t see Jesus saying the weeping and gnashing of teeth will last forever. Being thrown into a fire is painful, but fire consumes and destroys, it doesn’t keep you alive. It’s like when Jesus quotes Isaiah 66: the worms don’t die and the fire doesn’t go out because there are so many corpses to feed them; it doesn’t mean the people are still alive. Still, your point of the violence and the angels’ part in it is right on. Sounds like an interesting book!

      • brenmcg December 20, 2023 at 6:10 am

        For Matthew both body and soul are destroyed in gehenna; there is no eternal punishment.

        There is weeping and gnashing of teeth in the outer darkness in Matthew also but there is nothing in this darkness. And this darkness along with heaven and earth will pass away. In Matthew only the words of Jesus will never pass away.

  6. kt December 20, 2023 at 4:59 am

    I think we often miss how narratives was used in a way of conveying a more non propositional spiritual message,/ wisdom or “truth” I might think that ancient cultures and traditions used narratives extensively to solidify, to identify or perhaps also theologyfie spiritual, cultural concpets and also theological ideas. I think the problem in a post Descartian world where much are read (even among many theologicans, priests and scholars), understood and methodological are addressed and ,and understood, you hare bound to have challenges understanding many of the biblical stories, both in the Hebrew bible but indeed also in the NT, as in the book of Revelation full of scary, chaotic, violent, monstrous images and/or understood ideas. If we even attempt to understand it in a shallow allegorical way, or even as history or literal, I will say that can end up in a “disaster”.

    The only way I can find reason to this, is by avoiding this perspective, and rather approach it from a non propotional conceptual “truth” but use the narratives as the ancient way of convaying a message. That’s why I think these references,narratives in the OT and NT are rich tapestry of symbolic stories that speak to the “inner” parts of our human experience/. personal spiritual exploration and interpretation.

    In my mind, an understanding and also further exploration of the biblical narrative, with its vivid portrayal of monsters, beasts, and divine violence and what not,,, is more to be understood in a context of a deeply insightful and reflective understanding of the complex nature of our spiritual journey

  7. EricBrown December 20, 2023 at 1:20 pm

    I have an alternate possible take on the terrified shepherds short of presumption of angelic destructive intent.

    Have you ever seen a 2-year old terrified of the awesome power of a shopping mall Santa?

    • EHamori December 20, 2023 at 4:03 pm

      Well, within a tradition in which angels are said to go around slaughtering people, then if an angel appears to a person and they’re terrified… I think it’s a bit of a PR effort to argue that the person’s fear couldn’t have anything to do with being slaughtered.

  8. RJTINGEY December 20, 2023 at 1:56 pm

    Doesn’t Bart argue somewhere that the fire is not eternal torment, but final and irrevocable destruction of the body in fire?

  9. Monarch December 21, 2023 at 4:40 am

    What a fascinating Bible topic to focus on. Thanks for producing an audiobook format; I’ve added it to my list for my next Audible credit.

  10. Serene December 22, 2023 at 8:58 pm

    Good point about why people weren’t
    like “Ooh the sweet-eyed angels!”

    Angel just means messenger in koine Greek — I assume throughout the Bible that they are messengers of leaders addressed with the title of Lord, and even God (not Supreme God), like Akhenaten, Narram-Sim, et cet were. The Levant was a vassal territory since Ebla.

    You don’t say “Hello Governor Yukyuk”, you just say “Hello, Governor”, though there are maaaany governors. Theos, not Obodas Theos.

    Gabriel has the theophoric ‘el name, it’s elite like Gamaliel. Notice how in Judaea there’s few Aramean ‘el names by Jesus’ time — sorry, Immanuel’s time — but plenty in Nabataean royalty? It’s because they’re doubly-Aramean Ishmaelites.

    The Babylonian Talmud codifies a right to an *engaged Jewish virgin* by a foreign official in ketubah 3b.
    Imo, Gabriel is majisterially explaining a doulē contract — a nikah mutah with a Lord (remember, Abraham was called Lord) to produce a lineage heir. This is why Joseph only marries her after the heir is born.

    Also, Herod the Great’s bro had a doulé – so we know that lineage Arabs did it.

    There’s a N Syrian (so, Aramean-Arab) saying “no one rules without the dove” — Ishtar.

  11. Bewilderbeast December 23, 2023 at 4:35 am

    “How do we make sense of their profound moral ambiguity? They have the capacity for such good . . . and for such harm.” Because they’re human. We humans are like that, and these stories were written by us humans. As soon as I realised the Bible was written by old men it made much more sense. ‘Do as I say; and THIS is what will happen if you don’t.’ Yikes! as you also say.

  12. Serene December 23, 2023 at 2:38 pm

    Also, “ There’s no Star Wars without the Wars” is aptly put. Josephus tells us there’s a war between Galilee and Nabataea. It starts *because* Herod Antipas hooks up with Herodias. His long-time wife, the Arab Phaesalis discovers it and through subterfuge escapes. (The subterfuge escaping is one of Josephus’ fav themes, and where um, other texts has guards falling asleep, Josephus discusses subterfuge substances.)

    This conflict happens immediately before the events of Jesus’ mission, and through them — her and her dad’s generals win sometime before 36 AD. So why is there no scholarly commentary about those wars? Are John the Baptist and this war put together in Josephus’ AJ chapter 5 header for no reason besides chronology?

    Herodias and all Herods are lineage Arab too, with some non-patrilineal or distant Jewishness. Cypros the Nabataean mom, Antipater the Idumean dad. How much ‘converting’ folks from these wealthy Arab families really did to a Canaanitized form of Jewishness is up to imagination.

    Herod has that one far-off Hasmonean ancestor that slipped in elephant poo (believe mishnah!) Herodias and Agrippa are the only Jewish heirs, (1/4) and conveniently, matrilineal descent starts to become accepted in the Tannaim period.

    Imo these monsters are usually just “somebody else’s king” fictionalized for deniability, Herod the Great too.

  13. ravenbran December 23, 2023 at 2:48 pm

    Fascinating stuff, and I will buy your book! And speaking of divine hitmen, what about Exodus 4:24-26? The thing that gets me is that we’ve just gone through the whole burning bush thing in Chapter 3, where Moses has to climb Mt. Horeb to talk to God, who is seemingly tied to a flaming shrub, although later he seems to be a voice in Moses’ and Aaron’s heads. Now, suddenly, he shows up as a corporeal attacker at the local Holiday Inn, who actually wants to and is trying to kill Moses. How is that supposed to help the whole free-the-slaves mission? Then Zipporah grabs a piece of flint (at that point in time, pre-Iron Age, the sharpest thing going), she having somehow read God’s mind — oh yeah, my husband is being attacked, so I should immediately circumcise my son — who does that? Anyway, the whole thing is just weird. Are we dealing with different authors between Chapter 3 and 4? Or a different god?

  14. TimOBrien December 24, 2023 at 1:29 pm

    It wasn’t an angelic messenger who made the heavenly pronouncement at the Baptism (Mk 1:11//Mt 3:17//Lk 3:22), but the actual voice of God (sounding in my mind’s ear like James Earl Jones 😏), putting in a personal appearance.

    What possible need could an omnipotent deity have of an intermediary to delver a message? What purpose is served by cherubim bouncers, seraphim hitmen or any other choirs of “helpers”? To help with what?

    Just yesterday I made some observations on the obvious psychopathy of Yahweh — a god only a Hannibal Lecter could love — in a different thread (“No Virgin Birth? Was Jesus ADOPTED by God to be His Son?”)

    That was *before* I read your two, informative posts on the callously violent Powers and Principalities of divine minions. Was it a cosmic coincidence… or a miracle? 😉

    • Serene December 27, 2023 at 1:44 pm

      Luckilee, there isn’t a Yahweh in the New Testament. There’s a Lord and a God (and a Creator God, and a female Holy Spirit). Imo, God/Theos is the healing god that they’ve found many inscriptions to in what’s now Israel, that peak in the First Century Obodas Theos.

      People say God aaaall the time when they mean *their* God, whether it be Visnu or Yahweh.

      Obodas Theos is a Transjordan God — think the Jordan. Even the beautiful poetry and gentleness of the inscriptions matches the Gospels.

      Lord for the Canaanites probably starts out as Baal (in Hosea) and becomes a generic Lord. He’s better than Molech. Then the Yahmad dynasty of Ugarit brings fatherly El closer in the Bronze Age collapse.

      Imo the tetragrammation is likely two names, because the Shepherd Kings worshipped a syncretized god STBL (Seth-Baal).

      YHW — Yahu, with an Akkadian-to-Aramean W could be related to Yahmad’s Yahmu tribes (and their theophoric)

      H – could be Ha the Desert Protector. God of 40 (days) desert passages. Produces miracle food in the desert. Depicted with sword.

      He’s og Libyan, and so are Midianites. And he’s an improvement over Akhenaten, who is called God by the mayor of Jerusalem in the Amarna letters.

  15. dankoh December 29, 2023 at 8:20 pm

    Well, I just finished your book and it was both entertaining and enlightening!

    I do have to say, though, that I wish you had discussed some of the Jewish and Christian theologians dealt with some of the Biblical passages you wrote about, whether they tried to rationalize or excuse or apologize for them in any way. It would have been an interesting contrast your presentation.

  16. Jac January 18, 2024 at 2:55 am

    Loved your book. Read it twice!
    I have often wondered if it was humans who were made in the image of God, or if humans made God in their image with all their capacity for love, kindness, mercy, forgiveness, providing comfort etc but also their capacity for violence, anger, desire for praise and adulation, love of power, jealousy, vindictiveness, rage, fickleness etc. Just a thought.
    I did love your statement:
    “The Bible isn’t a solution to the struggles of life, but a reflection of them.”

  17. Jac January 18, 2024 at 3:17 am

    P.S. Maybe God had to repeatedly kill Leviathan because there was a whole herd of them, and he kept one baby as a pet!

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