Thursday, August 23, 2012

Thoughts on Zechariah

Detail of Zachariah: Claus Sluter, Well of Moses, 1395-1405Remember back in those Sunday School days? We kids would try to outdo each other in our Bible knowledge, chiding the ones who foolishly believed that Jesus was born in a manger and sticking up our noses at those who couldn’t pronounce Habakkuk. The subject of angels came up often enough. Movies like It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) and Angels in the Outfield (1994) we believed were leading souls astray by equating those heavenly beings with dead people who’d gone to heaven. We’d roll our eyes and declare that angels were always men and never had wings, let alone had to earn them.

Fast forward a good fifteen years later. For some odd reason, every time I’d read through the Bible in my teens and early twenties, I hadn’t noticed the possible implications of a short passage:
Then I lifted my eyes and saw, and behold, two women coming forward! The wind was in their wings. They had wings like the wings of a stork, and they lifted up the basket between earth and heaven. - Zechariah 5:9 (ESV)
A couple of years ago, when a woman at church mentioned there were no female angels, I posed the question to her: What are these creatures? She couldn’t answer. I made a suggestion.

Now, you might argue that “angel” (מַּלְאָ֖ךְ in Hebrew, ἄγγελον in the Greek LXX) is used for the messenger with whom the prophet interacts throughout the book. The beings in 5:9 are distinctly described as “women” (נָשִׁ֤ים, γυναῖκες), not “angels.” But recall that many beings we call “angels” are just as distinctly described as “men” (e.g., הָֽאֲנָשִׁ֔ים or ἄνδρες Genesis 18:22, אִישׁ in Daniel 10:5, ἄνδρες in Acts 1:10), without “angel” used in the near vicinity or even at all. Often we read the word into the text, assuming that it’s appropriate.

Now the Jews and the Roman Catholics have organized entire hierarchies of angelic beings according to their perceived natures and roles. I have no idea where these two “women” would fit into them. What is questionable is why Christians feel so strong about there never being female-looking “angels.” The argument I remember hearing as a child was that angels had to appear as men in a patriarchal society in order to be respected. Now as an adult, I see that this fails on multiple points:

  1. Human women in positions of authority (at minimum one judge, a number of prophetesses, and a few queens) have the same problem.
  2. Strange men don’t automatically earn people’s respect just because they’re male. (Case in point: Luke 1:18).
  3. Anyone, regardless of apparent sex or gender, doing supernatural things is going to get people’s attention, including the son of a carpenter from the wrong side of the tracks.
  4. Angels obviously have different roles to play.
The final point is the most relevant here. The two “women” seen by Zechariah neither spoke to him nor, to the best of our knowledge, interacted at all with humanity. Only male-looking ones did. No socio-cultural gender boundaries had to be crossed for the beings in 5:9 to get their job done. In other words, I’m puzzled as to why Christians feel so strongly about this controversy over female-looking angels. I just can’t see how it would influence, pro or con, any doctrinal position involving women’s roles and position in the home, church, or abroad.

7 comments:

  1. Glad you shared this Jenny as I wrongly used to say that the bible only taught about Angels who were of male gender. How did I miss that passage from Zechariach.
    Check out this wonderful book by a German lady (nun) on the topic of Angels.
    http://www.amazon.com/The-Unseen-World-Angels-Demons/dp/0800790863

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  2. The Apostle: Thanks for your comment. Yeah, I believe I did the mental equivalent of a face-palm when I read it clearly for the first time a few years ago.

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  3. "For some odd reason, every time I’d read through the Bible in my teens and early twenties,"

    Whats your take on Numbers 31? After Moses and the boys kill all the baby boys, but keep the *virgin* girls for themselves then god helps them divide the spoils.

    Why does god approve of slavery? Exodus 21.

    Is this moral?

    Deuteronomy 25

    25:11 When men strive together one with another, and the wife of the one draweth near for to deliver her husband out of the hand of him that smiteth him, and putteth forth her hand, and taketh him by the secrets:
    25:12 Then thou shalt cut off her hand, thine eye shall not pity her.

    How can a thinking person think the bible is the mind of a god that myth has it, created 200 billion stars in the Milky Way and 100 billion other galaxies? Yup, all that and he says, lets have a human sacrifice in bronze age Palestine. That should get there attention.

    The bible is bronze aged myth - nothing more. Grow up.

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  4. Sads: I suspect that, by asking me these questions, you haven't fully utilized the available resources. Atheist scholars have long hashed out reasons why warfare, genocide, slavery, and corporal punishment were common in ancient societies and justified by their respective religious institutions. They've also offered explanations for human sacrifice, yet you won't find that practice required or condoned in the Bible. If you'd like to read my own views on these passages, then stick around. I'll get to them eventually.

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  5. Sads: Correction if I may: I was thinking of the pronouncements against human sacrifice in the Mosaic Law. The incident involving Abraham and Isaac slipped my mind. However, you didn't specify what passage you were referring to anyway.

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  6. "The bible is bronze aged myth - nothing more. Grow up."

    I was not aware that Jesus lived in the Bronze Age. But, seriously, even if you do not believe the Bible is the true word of God/god, it is an important collection of writings, like many myths are, that provide knowledge and insight, both of the era for which they were written, but also to some degree to this day. Others accept that various practices found in the Bible are wrong, but still accept it as the word of God, believing humans have a changing understanding of God and the meaning of life as much as they do about more mundane scientific things.

    It is a bit too easy to pick a few choice tidbits like this and denounce the Bible (or any religious work) in that fashion. It is not going to convince to many people, even many atheists will find it not very productive.

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  7. Joe: Thanks for your comments. I suspect that Sads was referring to Moses, who is generally dated towards the end of the Bronze Age, IIRC.

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