Torah Narratives with Angels Never Actually Happened: Heretical or Sublime?
God’s Visit to Abraham’s Tent
Genesis 18 tells the story of the announcement of Isaac’s birth to Abraham. The story begins:
א וַיֵּרָ֤א אֵלָיו֙ יְ-הֹוָ֔ה בְּאֵלֹנֵ֖י מַמְרֵ֑א וְה֛וּא יֹשֵׁ֥ב פֶּֽתַח־הָאֹ֖הֶל כְּחֹ֥ם הַיּֽוֹם: ב וַיִּשָּׂ֤א עֵינָיו֙ וַיַּ֔רְא וְהִנֵּה֙ שְׁלֹשָׁ֣ה אֲנָשִׁ֔ים נִצָּבִ֖ים עָלָ֑יו וַיַּ֗רְא וַיָּ֤רָץ לִקְרָאתָם֙ מִפֶּ֣תַח הָאֹ֔הֶל וַיִּשְׁתַּ֖חוּ אָֽרְצָה: ג וַיֹּאמַ֑ר אֲדֹנָ֗י אִם־נָ֨א מָצָ֤אתִי חֵן֙ בְּעֵינֶ֔יךָ אַל־נָ֥א תַעֲבֹ֖ר מֵעַ֥ל עַבְדֶּֽךָ:
1 YHWH appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. 2 He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground. 3 He said, “My lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant…”.
This opening section presents us with some well-known difficulties:
- What is the connection between the appearance of the Lord to Abraham in verse 1 and the appearance of the three men in verse 2?
- Why does Abraham seemingly ignore God’s revelation to him at the entrance of the tent and run off to greet the three men? It seems as if Abraham impudently leaves God behind at the front of the tent!
- If Abraham ran off to meet the three men, why, in verse 3, does he address them in the singular, as “My Lord,” before offering to wash their feet and feed them?
The text become even more confusing when we get to verse 13, when God Himself suddenly speaks.
יח:יג וַיֹּ֥אמֶר יְ-הֹוָ֖ה אֶל־אַבְרָהָ֑ם לָ֣מָּה זֶּה֩ צָחֲקָ֨ה שָׂרָ֜ה לֵאמֹ֗ר הַאַ֥ף אֻמְנָ֛ם אֵלֵ֖ד וַאֲנִ֥י זָקַֽנְתִּי: יח:ידהֲיִפָּלֵ֥א מֵיְ-הֹוָ֖ה דָּבָ֑ר לַמּוֹעֵ֞ד אָשׁ֥וּב אֵלֶ֛יךָ כָּעֵ֥ת חַיָּ֖ה וּלְשָׂרָ֥ה בֵֽן:
18:13 Then YHWH said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, saying, ‘Shall I in truth bear a child, old as I am?’ 18:14 Is anything too wondrous for YHWH? I will return to you at the same season next year, and Sarah shall have a son.”
But where has God been since verse 1?
Many scholars suggest that the story presents one of the three men as God! If so, this text depicts the Israelite God taking on human form, walking about on the earth, having his feet washed, and eating and drinking (verse 8)! I believe that this is indeed the most plausible interpretation. While it does not comport well with most traditional Jewish conceptions about how God manifests, it comports with ancient biblical conceptions of God. Yet, since premodern Jewish biblical scholarship viewed God as incorporeal and took for granted that the Bible did as well, the modern scholarly answer that God is one of the three visitors will not be found there.
What about the Angels?
For medieval exegetes a related difficulty emerged. Putting the “where is God” question to the side for a moment, even if God is not one of the visitors, assuming the visitors themselves are angels, doesn’t that itself pose a problem? If angels are incorporeal beings, how could they eat, drink, and have sandy feet?
Although the medieval exegetes have a number of approaches to this problem, I will here focus on the “rationalist” approach of Maimonides (1138-1204), and on the critique of Ramban (1194-1270). These two diverging approaches to Genesis 18 reflect a far-reaching disagreement regarding how biblical texts should be read, and how important biblical history is.
Maimonides’ Position: A Prophetic Dream
In the Guide of the Perplexed (2:41-44), Maimonides explains the relationship between dream-visions and prophecy:
Know again that in the case of everyone about whom exists a scriptural text that an angel talked to him or that speech came to him from God, this did not occur in any other way than in a dream or in a vision of prophecy (book 2, ch. 41, Pines trans.).
Maimonides applies this general principle to many accounts, including in our text:
“The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre…” For after he (=Moses) had first propounded the proposition that God manifested Himself to him (=Abraham) , he began to explain what the form of this manifestation was; and he said that at first he saw three men and ran, whereupon they spoke and were spoken to (book 2, ch. 42, Pines trans.).
Maimonides understands the first verse, “The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day,” as the Torah’s caption, or general heading for the rest of the chapter. Verse 2 then goes on to describe what Abraham saw in his vision, as he lifted his “prophetic” eyes, rather than his physical eyes. God, then, appeared to Abraham in the ensuing vision.
According to Maimonides, Abraham did not leave God behind at the door of the tent to greet the three men. In fact, he never moved from the front of the tent, and the entire story about the three men who came to visit Abraham and tell him about the birth of a son occurred to Abraham in a prophetic vision.
Explaining the Physical Appearance of God and Angels
Maimonides’ interpretation resolves the problem of the form God appeared to Abraham. It would seem from the text that the greatest of the three men, the one Abraham addresses in the singular as “my Lord,” is the one that represents God. Maimonides, however, was a strict rationalist who could not imagine that God can take on human form and eat and drink. If taken at face value, this would be tantamount to attributing physical characteristics to God, which, for Maimonides, is both religious heresy and philosophical nonsense! By asserting that God performed these activities only in Abraham’s vision—through the mediation of the imaginative faculty—this difficulty is removed.
The problem of God is only the most glaring issue in this story, but Maimonides was also bothered by angels taking physical form, declaring that every story about angels in the Bible is a prophetic vision. Maimonides specifically mentions:
- Jacob’s struggle with the angel at the Jabbok,
- The incident of Balaam and the “miraculous” talking donkey.
Nevertheless, it is reasonable that Maimonides would have included other angel stories from the Torah to his list, such as:
- The binding of Isaac (Genesis 22),
- The story of the burning bush (Exodus 3),
- The Hattan Damim story (Exodus 4).
Maimonides’ View – Mediating Intelligences cannot have Bodies
Maimonides takes the radical step of turning all stories with angels into prophetic visions because, in accordance with the philosophical-scientific thinking of his day, Maimonides identified biblical “angels” with abstract “forms” or “intelligences,” which somehow serve to mediate between the heavenly and earthly realms. Since it is rationally impossible for intelligences to walk, talk, eat, fly, or be seen, biblical stories that depict “angels” in physical terms must, in reality, be accounts of prophetic dreams or visions. Even if the text gives no clear indication that the angel appears in a dream or vision, this must be the case, since the biblical text cannot depict that which is impossible.
Nahmanides Drives Home the Significance of Maimonides' Position and Criticizes it
Angels Can Take Physical Form
Unlike Maimonides, Ramban followed the mystical tradition. He believed that while angels are indeed incorporeal, they also have the unique ability take on special, corporeal “garments” and become physical beings. In their corporeal forms, angels can indeed appear and interact with human beings in the real, concrete world. They can even appear to eat food.
אבל במקום אשר יזכיר המלאכים בשם אנשים כענין הפרשה הזאת, ופרשת לוט, וכן ויאבק איש עמו, וכן וימצאהו איש על דעת רבותינו – הוא כבוד נברה במלאכים, יקרא אצל היודעים “מלבוש”, יושג לעיני בשר בזכי הנפשות כחסידים ובני הנביאים.
But where Scripture mentions the angels as men as in this section and the section concerning Lot and “and a man wrestled with him” (32:25), “and a man found him” (37:15) in the opinion of the Rabbis, in all these cases there was a special glory created in the angels called a “garment” among the mystics, perceptible to the human vision of such persons as the pious and the disciples of the prophets.
The Superfluous Details in Visions
Ramban’s approach coincides more naturally with many of the biblical stories about angels, which give no clear indication that the reported events occurred in a vision. Moreover, Ramban (Gen 18:1) is disturbed by the implications of Rambam’s position. He first spells them out for the readers to make sure they have fully digested Maimonides’ point:
והנה לדבריו לא לשה שרה עוגות ולא עשה אברהם בן בקר וגם לא צחקה שרה, רק הכל מראה. ואם כן, בא החלום הזה ברוב ענין כחלומות השקר, כי מה תועלת להראות לו כל זה?
Thus, following his [=Maimonides’] words, Sarah did not knead cakes and Abraham did not prepare a calf, nor did Sarah laugh. It was all, rather, a vision. If so, this dream came “through a multitude of business” (Ecclesiastes 5:2) like the false dreams, for what is the point of showing him all this?
Ramban is on the attack. He believes that true prophetic visions must have significance in every detail. Nothing can be superfluous. Superfluous or meaningless content is what distinguishes authentic visions from false dreams. Yet many of the details within Abraham’s supposed vision seem irrelevant. For example, what could God be communicating to Abraham by showing him a vision of his wife kneading dough, or him preparing a calf, or Sarah laughing? What was important was for God to relate the message about the future birth of Isaac. All the rest was unnecessary in terms of a divine communication to Abraham. Therefore, according to Ramban, the story must simply be a report of what actually occurred.
Maimonides, however, does not share Ramban’s assumption about prophetic visions. In his Introduction to the Guide, he states as follows:
Know that the figures employed by prophets are of two kinds: first, where every word which occurs in the simile represents a certain idea; and secondly, where the simile, as a whole, represents a general idea, but has a great many points which have no reference whatever to that idea; they are simply required to give to the simile its proper form and order, or better to conceal the idea; the simile is therefore continued as far as necessary, according to the literal sense.
Maimonides is saying here that it is not prudent to always seek out profound significance in every minute detail of prophetic discourse. Sometimes, the details are simply necessary background for the larger message.
Though Maimonides speaks of similes and figures of speech employed by prophets, his purview includes reports in the Torah of visions experienced by prophets. The “kneading” of cakes could be part of the prophetic vision without it having to represent some discrete additional message.
Physical Effects of the Vision
Ramban works to strengthen his point by calling attention to two other stories in which reading the actions as visions would make the story absurd:
Jacob wrestling with the angel – why does he limp?
וכן אמר בענין “ויאבק איש עמו” (לב:כה) שהכל מראה הנבואה. ולא ידעתי למה היה צולע בהקיץ!.. ולמה אמר (להלן לב לא) כי ראיתי אלהים פנים אל פנים ותנצל נפשי, כי הנביאים לא יפחדו שימותו מפני מראות הנבואה….
He said the same thing in the matter of “a man struggled with him” (= the struggle between Jacob and the mysterious nocturnal being at Gen. 32:25), that it was all a prophetic vision. But I do not understand why he was limping when he awoke! And why did Jacob say, “For I have seen a deity face to face and my life was preserved”? The prophets would not fear that they might die from a prophetic vision!…
Lot in Sodom – why does he leave? Why do the Sodomites attack him? Is the city even destroyed?
והנה לפי דעתו זאת יצטרך לומר כן בענין לוט, כי לא באו המלאכים אל ביתו, ולא אפה להם מצות ויאכלו, אבל הכל היה מראה. ואם יעלה את לוט למעלת מראה הנבואה איך יהיו אנשי סדום הרעים והחטאים נביאים, כי מי הגיד להם שבאו אנשים אל ביתו. ואם הכל מראות נבואתו של לוט, יהיה “ויאיצו המלאכים” וגו’ “קום קח את אשתך” “ויאמר המלט על נפשך” “והנה נשאתי פניך” וכל הפרשה כולה – מראה, ויישאר לוט בסדום!
According to this position of his, he would be forced to say the same thing in the matter of Lot – that the angels did not come to his house and he did not bake for them “Mazzot that they ate,” for it was all a vision. Even if we are to bring Lot up to the level of prophet, how could the people of Sodom, who were wicked sinner, be prophets? So who told them that people came to [Lot’s] house?! Now if it was all a prophetic vision of Lot, then the verse which states “the angels urged Lot on saying, Get up, take your wife (and your two daughters who are present, lest you be swept away because of the sin of the city)” (Gen. 19:15); “and the angel said, ‘run for your life…’ (verse 17); “behold I have granted you consideration (that I will not overturn the city that you have spoken of”) (verse 21); and, indeed, the entire chapter, was a vision. In which case, Lot remained in Sodom!
Ramban’s attack against Maimonides focuses here on the textual difficulties that his approach entails. He is mocking Maimonides’ reading, pointing out that the text clearly imagines physical consequences and thus physical actions.
Declaring Maimonides’ Position to be Out-of-Bounds
At the end of Ramban’s summary and critique of Maimonides, he suggests a way to “salvage” Maimonides’ reading, but it seems to be meant tongue and cheek. In any event, Ramban ends by throwing down the gauntlet and declaring Maimonides’ position to be out of bounds no matter how it is read:
ואלה הדברים סותרים הכתוב. אסור לשומעם אף כי להאמין בהם!
Such words contradict scripture. It is forbidden to listen to them, all the more to believe them!
Maimonides Radical Position: How Far Does it Go?
It is not always clear just where Maimonides would draw the line separating events that occurred in prophetic visions from those that occurred in external reality. Where does each vision begin and where does it end?
- Jacob and the Angel – Might Jacob’s statement that he survived his encounter with the angel, and his subsequent limping on his thigh, simply be part of his vision?
- Lot and the Angels – Did the visit of the angels to Lot’s house and the subsequent attack of the city dwellers occur in Lot’s night vision, while the exit from the city, including the miraculous metamorphosis of Mrs. Lot into a pillar of salt, occurred in reality? Or, might Maimonides have believed that the entire narrative of Genesis 19, including the very destruction of Sodom, occurred only in a prophetic dream? Might it even have been the continuation of Abraham’s dream of Genesis 18 rather than a separate dream of Lot?
- The Binding of Isaac – What about the story of the binding of Isaac? Did Abraham bind his son on the altar in reality, then enter into a prophetic trance just as he was about to slaughter him, get out of his trance, release his son and sacrifice the ram, receive another vision in which he was informed that he would be rewarded for his devotion, and then return to reality to descend the mountain? (This possibility of coming in and out of trances seems absurd.) Or did this entire episode from beginning to end also occur one night in Abraham’s tent, in what may be referred to as a “prophetic nightmare”?
That the latter is a real possibility is clear from the following passage of Maimonides:
… if the fact that an angel has been heard is only mentioned at the end, you may rest satisfied that the whole account from the beginning describes a prophetic vision (Guide2:42).
It is not always clear, however, where “the beginning” of the account is. As with so many other matters, Maimonides here as well leaves his readers wondering. It is nonetheless clear that he considers many of the non-angel related details to have occurred only in the mind of the prophet.
Abravanel’s Defense of Maimonides: Prophecy more Important than Reality
In his commentary on the Guide (at ii, 42), Abravanel (1437-1508) offers a lengthy response to the critique of Ramban. Among other things, he states:
וא”כ נודה להרמב”ן שלא לשה שרה ולא עשה אברהם בן בקר ולא צחקה שרה, אבל נאמר, שלא היה מפני זה המראה כחלומות השקר, לפי שהיה צורך בכל מה שהראה לו בזה… ויחשוב הרמב”ן כי מה שהוא במראה הנבואה הוא בדוי ומדומה, ומה שהוא במציאות גשמי הוא יותר נכבד. וזה הפך האמת היא. כי מה שיראה לשכל הנבואה הוא יותר נכבד ממה שהוא נראה לחוש. והתימה מהרמב”ן איך יאמר שהוא אסור לשמעו…
If so, we may concede to Ramban that Sarah did not knead and Abraham did not prepare the bull and Sarah did not laugh. We affirm, however, that the vision was not consequently like false dreams, for there was a need for all the things he showed him… Ramban thinks that that which occurs in a prophetic vision is made up and imaginary, whereas that which occurs in physical reality is more dignified. This is the opposite of the truth. For that which appears to the intellect of prophecy is more dignified than that which appears to the senses. It is astonishing that Ramban should state that it is forbidden to hear this!
This last statement of Abravanel touches, I believe, on the essence of the matter. Rather than simply restate what Abravanel expresses rather clearly, I would like to take the liberty of “translating” it in my own language. The issue that lies behind the disagreement between Maimonides and Ramban concerns the significance of “events.”
Ramban – Torah as Historiography
For Ramban, that which happens in history is the most sublime (נכבד), vitally important and significant. He therefore uses the principle of “the events of the fathers” as determinative for later Israelite history—what actually happened once is related to what will actually happen again. For him the Torah is closely related to “historiography,” or history writing. If central “events” such as the visit of the angels to Abraham’s tent or to Lot’s house, or the binding of Isaac, didn’t really happen, the value of the Torah would be severely compromised.
Maimonides – Torah as Philosophical Truth
Maimonides, in contrast to Ramban, places much less weight on actual history. That which is most sublime (נכבד) is philosophical and ethical truth. Perhaps we might say today that what is of ultimate importance is what should be rather than what was. Thus, for Maimonides, the Torah is an intellectual and spiritual guide rather than a history book. So if certain things didn’t really happen it doesn’t really matter, since that isn’t what the text was “about” to begin with.
Ahistorical Reading – Building on Maimonides’ Solution
In Maimonides’ times, the intellectual challenges to the Torah were more philosophical than historical. Part of Maimonides’ response to these challenges was to suggest that certain philosophically challenging parts of the Torah were really “visions,” partly symbolic and partly imaginative, that came to teach us things rather than events that transpired in the external world,.
Today we face different challenges, some of which come from the historical study of the biblical period. We learn today that much of biblical history is exaggerated or inaccurate. The Bible telescopes events and schematizes them and thereby oversimplifies the highly complex. How are we to respond to these challenges?
I suggest a return of sorts to Maimonides’ position. Maimonides redefined the character of several biblical narratives so that they could be read in way other than factual history. Today as well, we should seek out new ways of defining and characterizing biblical narrative, ways that will allow us to appreciate the significance of the biblical text without worrying about factual accuracy. In so doing, we will be following in the footsteps of “the great eagle” (הנשר הגדול; a popular nickname for Maimonides), who can and should continue to serve as a model and guide of the perplexed students of Torah of our own day.
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October 27, 2015
October 7, 2020
Dr. Rabbi David Frankel did his Ph.D. at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem under the direction of Professor Moshe Weinfeld. His publications include The Murmuring Stories of the Priestly School (VTSupp. 89) and The Land of Canaan and the Destiny of Israel (Eisenbrauns). He teaches Hebrew Bible to M.A. and Rabbinical students at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem.
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