If Men Were Angels
1. “The Torah was not given to the ministering angels”
On February 6, 1788, James Madison, the “father of the American constitution,” published Federalist No. 51, in which he outlined his plan for limiting the power of the federal government. “If men were angels, no government would be necessary,” Madison observed; and “if angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.” But Madison understood that men are not angels—he regarded men as creatures of self-interest and ambition, whose integrity could be easily corrupted. That is why he treated seriously the threat of government tyranny.
Thanks in large part to Madison, the founding legal document of the United States espouses a decidedly down-to-earth view of human nature. This perspective is found in many Jewish texts as well. In Genesis, for instance, God fashions man “from the dust of the earth”[i] and declares that “his imaginations are evil from his youth.”[ii] Later in the Bible, Jeremiah bemoans that “the heart is deceitful above all things,”[iii] while David laments having been “formed in iniquity and conceived in sin.”[iv] David, like Madison, recognizes man’s moral shortcomings, and believes that effective legal systems must take these shortcomings into account. Indeed, his praise of the Torah is predicated on precisely this premise: “The Lord’s law is perfect, for it restores the soul! The Lord’s testimony is reliable, for it grants wisdom to fools!”[v]
The notion intimated by these verses—namely, that the Torah addresses man as he is, with all his flaws and weaknesses—is given dramatic expression in a fascinating Midrash:
Joshua ben Levi said: “When Moses ascended to heaven, the ministering angels protested before the Holy One, Blessed be He: “Master of the universe! What is this child of woman doing among us?” Said He: “He has come to receive the Torah.” Said they: “Do you mean to give this treasure that was kept stored away for nine hundred and seventy years, and for four generations before the creation of the universe, to a creature of flesh and blood?”… Said He to Moses: “Provide them with a rebuttal.” Said Moses…: “Master of the Universe, this Torah that You give me—what is written in it…? ‘Do not make for yourself other gods.’ Well, do you angels dwell among foreign nations that worship idols [so that this commandment would be relevant to you]? What else is written in it? ‘Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy.’ Do you angels perform labor, that you require rest? What else is written in it? ‘Do not take My name in vain.’ Do you angels engage in business [that you would be required to take an oath?] What else is written in it? ‘Honor your mother and father.’ Do you angels have parents? What else is written in it? ‘Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not kidnap.’ Do you angels grow envious or possess an evil inclination?” Immediately, the Holy One, Blessed Be He, agreed with Moses…[vi]
In this Midrash, Hazal highlight humanity’s base nature by contrasting men with angels, just as Madison does in Federalist No. 51. This distinction recurs throughout rabbinic literature. “The Torah was not given to the ministering angels,” our sages remind us in at least five Talmudic passages.[vii] We must not blur the fundamental boundaries of ontology, these sources seem to insinuate; men are men, and angels are angels, and never the twain shall meet.
2. “My lord the king is an angel of God”
Yet the angels vs. humans dichotomy may not be as pronounced as the sources that we have consulted until now appear to suggest. When we return to Tanakh, in fact, we discover that the categories are consciously conflated, at least in one character: David. David is lauded by his contemporaries as an “angel of God” on three separate occasions during his lifetime. He is the only Biblical figure to earn this designation. [viii] That is ironic, of course, because as we have already seen, David considers himself to have been “formed in iniquity” and “conceived in sin;” he is aware that he is composed of flesh and blood and is even ashamed of it, to some degree. Why, then, do his colleagues thrust celestial titles upon him? Are they simply hoping to ingratiate themselves with their monarch? Do they genuinely think of David as some sort of demigod? Or, is there another way to interpret their lofty honorifics? To answer these questions, let us carefully consider the contexts in which David is referred to as an “angel of God.”
The first person to address King David as an “angel” is Ahish, the King of the Philistine city Gath. David arrives in Gath seeking refuge from Saul, who wants to execute him for treason. Ahish protects David by granting him political asylum. After several years, however, the Philistines prepare to wage war against the Israelites, and Ahish expects David to fight on his side. But Ahish’s advisors disapprove of this plan, for they fear that David may not have abandoned his loyalties to his own people (as, indeed, he has not). Thus, Ahish is left with no choice. He dismisses David reluctantly, explaining: “I know that you are good in my eyes like an angel of God. Alas, the officers of the Philistines have said, ‘Let him not go up with us into the battle.”[ix]
The second person to address King David as an “angel” is a woman whom the text identifies as the “Tekoaite.” After David’s son, Amnon, rapes his sister Tamar, another of David’s sons, Absalom, exacts revenge by murdering Amnon. Absalom then flees to Geshur, and David refuses to reconcile with him. That is when Yoav, David’s general, intervenes. Yoav wants to make peace between David and Absalom, but he assumes that David will not heed his advice. Therefore, he solicits the help of the Tekoaite, whom he instructs to deliver a cleverly crafted metaphor aimed at stirring the king’s mercy. This Tekoaite concludes her speech with an impassioned request: “Let, I pray, the word of my lord the king be for comfort, for my lord the king is as an angel of God, to discern the good and the bad…”[x]
The third person to address King David as an “angel” is a man named Mephibosheth. Shortly after Absalom returns to Judea, he launches a revolt against his father, David, and attempts to claim the throne for himself. David abandons the palace along with his courtiers, but Mephibosheth—the lame son of David’s best friend, Jonathan—does not accompany the king into exile. Ziba, Mephibosheth’s caretaker, finds David in hiding and accuses Mephibosheth of sympathizing with the usurpers. David takes Ziba at his word and grants him ownership over all of Mephibosheth’s property as a result. But once the rebellion is put down, Mephibosheth approaches David himself, claiming that he has been framed, and that he had remained loyal to David all along. “Ziba has slandered your servant to my lord the king,” Mephibosheth insists. “But my lord the king is as an angel of God: do therefore what is good in your eyes.”[xi]
The three passages we have cited are strewn across the books of I-II Samuel. They are separated from each other by considerable periods of time and they do not share any of the same protagonists, except for King David. There is, however, one critical feature that unites these three narratives: in each of them, David faces a daunting decision.
How can David battle against Ahish, given the hospitality Ahish showed David at a time when David’s own brothers drove him out of his homeland? How, on the other hand, can David neglect his people in their moment of need, especially now that Ahish has granted him leave? How can David forgive the murder of his son, Amnon? How, on the other hand, can he remain estranged from Absalom his whole life, thereby losing not only one son, but two? How can David trust Ziba? Maybe Ziba spread rumors about his wealthy, handicapped master because he anticipated that he would benefit if Mephibosheth fell out of favor with David. How, on the other hand, can David trust Mephibosheth? At the end of the day, Mephibosheth is a descendant of Saul—David’s historic rival—who curiously chose to wait until after Absalom had been defeated before clearing up whose side he was on.
No human can adjudicate between these competing claims with certainty, or even with confidence; to weigh the relative vices and virtues of each position or to determine how the implications of a particular verdict will ultimately unfold is nearly impossible. None of this is lost on Ahish, the Tekoaite or Mephibosheth. These characters demand that David “discern good from bad” and “do what is good in his eyes,” yet they acknowledge that by making this demand, they effectively force David to “play God.” It is for this reason that they refer to him as a malakh elohim—a phrase that most translators render as “angel of God,” but which can also denote “messenger (malakh) of the judiciary (elohim).”[xii] Indeed, both meanings are accurate here. To dispense justice, imply these Biblical characters, is to act angelic; it is to serve as God’s messenger, in a sense. If this is true of the cases in the book of Samuel—which, at least in their plain sense, require no explicit Halakhic reasoning to settle—then it surely applies with regard to religious rulings, when Torah values are at stake!
3. “You have made man slightly less than angels”
Perhaps it is this idea that we find reflected in the eighth chapter of Psalms:
To the conductor, upon the Gittith, a song of David. O Lord, our Master, how mighty is Your name in all the earth, for which You should bestow Your majesty upon the heavens… When I see Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, the moon and stars that You have established, [I wonder]: what is man that You should remember him, and the son of man that You should be mindful of him? Yet You have made him slightly less than the angels [Hebrew: elohim], and You have crowned him with glory and majesty.[xiii]
By no coincidence is David the author of this psalm. The king stares out into space and feels dwarfed by its glory and grandeur. Yet he knows from experience that his role in the cosmic scheme is critical. David is charged with interpreting Hashem’s law for mankind. “One thing has God spoken, yet two have I heard,” David exclaims;[xiv] scripture can be read in many ways—and I, a finite human being, have been asked to select the approach that I find most compelling, and to declare it normatively binding.[xv] What a grave responsibility!
To accept this responsibility is to perform God’s work on earth. “The Torah is not in heaven,”[xvi] claimed Moses near the end of his career; but neither is it on terra firma. The Torah occupies the liminal space between these two dimensions, and Klal Yisrael bridges the gap by drawing legal applications from its sublime principles. Primarily, this work belongs to the judges who preside over Battei Din and the rabbanim who issue pesak. Yet all of us own a share in this holy endeavor. When we sit in the Beit Midrash and struggle over a Tosafot, we too participate in the process of discerning and distilling Torah truth; when we frequent halls of study and pore over devar Hashem day and night, we, too, play a part in bringing Torah down from the heights. Magistrates and litigants, rabbis and congregants, teachers and students, Talmidot Chachamot and Talmidei Chachamim—surely David had all in mind when he asserted that Homo sapiens is “crowned in glory and majesty.” Even those who do not directly administer or execute Torah law are me’at me-elohim. They, too, are “almost-angels.”
Alex Maged is a junior in YC and is staff writer for Kol HaMevaser.
[i] At the same time, of course, the Torah describes man as being created “in God’s likeness.” See Genesis 1:26-27. Translations of Biblical verses adapted from the Judaica Press, available at: www.chabad.org.
[ii] Genesis 8:21
[iii] Jeremiah 17:9.
[iv] Psalms 51:7
[v] Psalms 19:8
[vi] Shabbat 88b-89a. Translation my own.
[vii] See Berakhot 25b, Yoma 30a, Kiddushin 54a (two instances of the phrase), and Meilah 14b.
[viii] The text’s narrative voice refers to Haggai as a malach Hashem in Haggai 1:13, but these words clearly mean “messenger of the Lord,” in context, and are rendered thus by most Biblical translators. The verse is emphasizing Haggai’s role as a messenger, i.e. a prophet, of God; it is not identifying him as an “angel” of God.
[ix] I Samuel 29:9
[x] II Samuel 14:17
[xi] II Samuel 19:28
[xii] Significantly, the very first occurrence of the term elohim in the book of Samuel is used in this vein, i.e. as “judge” and not as “God:” “If man will sin to man, then the judge (elohim) will judge him. If, however, he will sin against God, who will intercede in the judgment in his behalf…?” (I Samuel 2:25). It is also instructive that in all of nevi’im rishonim, the phrase malach Hashem appears twenty times, whereas the phrase malach elohim appears but seven times. David is referred to an “angel” four times—once by Ahish, once by Mephibosheth, and twice by the Tekoatie. That each of these characters addresses David using the phrase “malach elohim” as opposed to with the far more common “malach Hashem” is apparently deliberate.
[xiii] Psalms 8:1-6.
[xiv] Psalms 62:12. See also Sanhedrin 34a, where this verse is adduced as proof for the notion that scripture lends itself to more than one valid interpretation.
[xv] See Berakhot 4a, where Hazal present David as ruling on matters of ritual purity.
[xvi] Deuteronomy 30:12