Would you recognize an angel if you saw one?
The Hebrew Bible usually calls an angel a malakh (מַלְאַךְ = messenger) of God. A messenger of God appears to a human being and delivers its message, then disappears again. Frequently the angel looks like a man at first, though occasionally it looks unnatural from the beginning, like the burning bush Moses sees,1 or it is only a disembodied voice.2
(Angels with wings appear to Isaiah, but they are called serafim, and each has six wings.)
A malakh of God drives the action in the beginning of the story of Samson in the book of Judges, which is the haftarah reading accompanying this week’s Torah portion, Naso.3 The story introduces a man from the tribe of Dan named Manoach. He and his wife are childless.
A malakh of God appeared to the woman, and he said to her: “Hey, please! You are childless and you have not given birth, but you shall conceive and give birth to a son. So now guard yourself, please, and don’t you drink wine or alcohol, and don’t you eat anything ritually impure. Because here you are, pregnant, and you will give birth to a son. And a razor must not go over his head, because the boy will be a nazir of God from the womb. And he will begin to rescue Israel from the hand of the Philistines.” (Judges 13:3-5)
nazir (נָזִיר) = someone consecrated to God through abstaining from wine, haircuts, and mourning. (From the root verb nazar, נזר = dedicate to a god; exercise abstention.)
Becoming a nazir is a choice, according to this week’s Torah portion. Only an adult man or woman may make the vow to live as a nazir for a period of time.4 Yet in the haftarah, neither Samson nor his mother gets to choose whether or not to make a vow.
After the annunciation, the woman whose status has suddenly changed from childless to pregnant goes into the house.5
The woman came in, and she said to her husband, saying: “A man of God came to me, and his appearance was like the appearance of a malakh of the God, very awesome. And I did not ask him where he was from, and he did not tell me his name.” (Judges 13:6)
Why is the woman outside, where men traditionally worked, while Manoach is inside the house, where women worked?
The woman tells Manoach that the angel looked like a man, but more awesome. She knows an angel when she sees one, and she knows enough not to ask the kind of personal questions you would ask a human traveler, such as where he came from or what his name is.
“And he said to me: “Here you are, pregnant! And you will give birth to a son. And you, don’t you drink wine or strong drink, and don’t you eat anything ritually impure, because the boy will be a nazir of God from the womb until the day he dies.” (Judges 13:7)
It does not occur to Manoach that anyone else might have impregnated his wife, or that she might have actually seen an angel. Furthermore, although she says what the angel told her to do while she is pregnant, Manoach does not take her word for it.
Then Manoach pleaded with God, and he said: “If you please, my lord, the man of the God whom you sent, please may he come again to us, and teach us what we should do for the boy who will be born.” And the God heard the voice of Manoach. And the malakh of the God again came to the woman—” (Judges 13:8-9)
The malakh of God does not appear to Manoach. So his wife runs home and tells her husband what she saw.
And Manoach got up and followed his wife, and he came to the man and he said to him: “Are you the man who spoke to the woman?” And he said: “I am.” (Judges 13:11)
Manoach does not refer to his wife by her name, or even as “my wife”, but merely calls her “the woman”.
I remember the sexism in the United States in the early 1960’s, when it was common for men to refer to their spouses as “the wife” or “the little woman”. I was surprised, as a child, to hear my father refer to my mother that way when he was chatting with a fellow man. The traditional male role in the 1960’s also included working outside the home, as it did in Canaan in the 11th century BCE.
Manoach asks the malakh of God what they should do about the boy. The angel replies:
“From everything I said to the woman she must guard herself: she must not eat from anything that goes out from a grapevine, and she must not drink wine or strong drink, and she must not eat anything ritually impure. Everything that I commanded her, she must observe.” (Judges 13:13-14)
Manoach did not believe his wife, but now that he has confirmation from a strange man, he is satisfied. However, he still does not believe his wife’s assessment that the man is really an angel.
And Manoach said to the malakh of God: “Let us detain [you], please, and we will prepare a goat-kid for you.” But the malakh of God said to Manoach: “If you detain me, I cannot eat your food, and if you prepare a rising-offering, offer it up to God.” Because Manoach did not know that he was a malakh of God. (Judges 13:15)
Manoach still does not grasp the situation. But he is eager to find some way to be polite to the man who has promised his wife a son.
And Manoach said to the malakh of God: “Who— Your name? Because when your word comes [true], then we can honor you.” And the messenger of God said to him: “Why do you ask for my name? It is a mystery!” (Judges 13:17-18)
Manoach prepares a goat-kid and a grain-offering for God, and lights a fire to roast them.
And the flame was climbing from upon the altar toward the heavens, and the malakh of God went up in a flame from the altar. And Manoach and his wife saw, and they fell on their faces to the ground. And the malakh of God did not appear again to Manoach or to his wife. That was when Manoach knew that he was a malakh of God. (Judges 13:20-21)
Why does it take so long for Manoach to realize the visitor was an angel, when his wife notices something numinous about the “man” right away?
Part of the reason must be for comic effect. But I think Manoach’s inability to recognize what is in front of him is also related to his sexism.
The bible portrays society in ancient Israel realistically, so its laws assume that men own all the land, and women are dependent on their men: their fathers before marriage, their husbands during marriage, and their sons after they are widowed. But the bible does not portray women as interchangeable or stupid or unworthy of being listened to. (In Genesis 21:12, God even tells Abraham: “Everything that Sarah says to you, listen to her voice.” And he obeys his wife.)
Maybe if a man cannot listen to his wife, he has trouble listening to a malakh of God. Maybe if he cannot see his wife as a human being who might do something surprising, he cannot see someone who looks superficially like a man as someone who might really be an angel. This applies not just to men, but to women and all humans who classify people into categories instead of being curious about them as individuals.
Would you recognize an angel if you saw one?
- Exodus 3:2-3, which is also an example of how an angel’s voice becomes God’s voice.
- e. the angel who speaks to Abraham in Genesis 22:11-16.
- Every week of the year is assigned its own Torah portion (from the first five books of the bible, the Torah) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the Prophets). The haftarah for Naso is Judges 13:2-13:25.
- See my post Naso: Distanced by Hair.
- For arguments in favor of the angel doing the impregnating, see Marc Zvi Brettler, “Who Was Samson’s Real Father?”, thetorah.com.