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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