From the ancient to the modern world, angels have been the subject of fascination and wonder. Perhaps only second to Michael in fame, the angel Gabriel has enjoyed a long and celebrated history among Jews and Christians alike.
By David L. Everson
Xavier University (Cincinnati, OH)
Angels in the Hebrew Bible
To put it briefly, biblical angels (Heb, malakhim) may be defined as non-divine heavenly messengers whose function it is to relay divine information, accompany God when he appears before humans, and assist or punish humans on God's behalf. Such a portrayal of heavenly messengers is not entirely unique for the messenger deities of ancient Near Eastern literature were often described in similar terms. For example, ancient Near Eastern messenger deities were often portrayed in anthropomorphic terms and dispatched in small numbers (as are heavenly messengers within the Hebrew Bible). Nevertheless, the Hebrew Bible's portrayal of heavenly messengers is distinct from that of ancient Near Eastern literature in a number of important ways: ancient Near Eastern messenger deities were considered divine, regularly possessed personal names, and never spoke to humans. Except for the named angels in the Book of Daniel, none of these characteristics may be applied to angels in the Hebrew Bible.
Though named angels (such as Gabriel) do not appear within pre-exilic biblical literature, a certain precedent is set with "the angel of Lord" who seems to be given special status among the other angels. That is, in addition to carrying out the traditional angelic tasks listed above, the angel of the Lord is also given the special function of theophanic agent. In other words, the angel of the Lord functions as a sort of conduit through which God appears on earth (cf. Genesis 16, 22, 31; Exodus 3; and Judges 6).
Though biblical angels are not described as frightening in appearance within pre-exilic biblical literature (as are Gabriel and Michael in the Book of Daniel), there are a number of heavenly creatures, such as the cherubim and seraphim, that are described in more fantastic terms. The cherubim and seraphim are fantastic creatures, of cultic significance which, by their very presence, demonstrate or reflect the terror and splendor of God. The seraphim are God's attendants who offer praise within the temple, while the cherubim function as God's throne and chariot. In the Book of Isaiah, the prophet is terrified by the Seraphim who appear with God in the temple. They are described as having six wings and when they cry out "holy, holy, holy is the Lord of armies," the foundations of the temple shake. Likewise a fantastic and elaborate description of the cherubim is given in Ezekiel 10. As part of the heavenly throne of God, the cherubim have the wings of a bird (which make a tremendous sound), the hands of a man, four faces, and are covered with eyes.
Angels in Exilic and Post-exilic Literature
During the exilic period, the biblical depiction of heavenly creatures begins to resemble the angelology of the Second Temple period. For example, in the Book of Daniel, angels appear in fantastic numbers, receive names (e.g., "Gabriel"), acquire wings, are frightening in appearance, and battle one another. In the Book of Zechariah, the angel of the Lord functions as an angelus interpres or interpreting angel. In 1 Chronicles 21, God's opponent is given the personal name of Satan. Prior to this period, the Hebrew word śatan had simply been used as an adjective (Num 22) or title (Job 1-2 and Zech 3).
The angelology of the Second Temple period can be characterized as an expansion and appropriation of the various functions of biblical heavenly creatures. Significant developments for this period are the creation of angelic orders and additional names, along with a dramatic increase of angelic numbers. The appearance of angels becomes increasingly fantastic in that their features are often terrifying and wings become increasingly common among angels (i.e., not limited to the cherubim and seraphim). Another significant development is the notion of fallen angels who rebelled against God's will and introduced tremendous evil to humanity. Thus the world was seen as a battlefield between the forces of good (righteous angels and righteous humans) and the forces of evil (wicked angels/demons and wicked humans). Wicked angels were also given names and seen as the personification of evil (e.g., Beliar/Belial, Mastema, and Satan/Satanail). Also, Second Temple angelology can generally be described as increasingly apocalyptic. That is to say that both the righteous and wicked angels are associated with secret information (be it spoken or written) that usually concerns the heavenly realm and/or a final judgment/battle.
Gabriel in the Book of Daniel
The angel Gabriel, whose name means "God is my warrior," appears for the first time in Daniel 8-9 (and probably 10-12 as well) where he is sent to interpret the various visions of Daniel. In general, the depiction of Gabriel within the Book of Daniel should be seen as a development from previous biblical traditions, both consistent with and distinct from those traditions. For example, in Daniel 8:15 he appears in the "likeness of man" and in Daniel 9:21 he is referred to as "the man Gabriel." Such anthropomorphic descriptions of an angel are consistent with previous and subsequent descriptions of angels (cf. Genesis 19:5 and Acts 12:15). However, distinct from previous traditions is the remarkable appearance of Gabriel. For example, in Daniel 8:16-17, in his first encounter with Gabriel, the prophet Daniel is struck with fear and falls upon his face. The text reads, "Then I heard the voice a man beside the Ulai and he said, 'Gabriel, explain the vision to this man.' Then he came to where I was standing and when he came I was terrified and I fell upon my face." Similarly, in Daniel 9:21, Gabriel is said to approach Daniel "in swift flight" (NRSV), presumably, by means of wings. Also distinct from previous traditions is the simple fact that angels, such as Gabriel and Michael, are given names. This development was noticed long ago by Simeon ben Lakish (Palestine, 3rd cent. CE) who concluded that the angelic names of Michael, Raphael, and Gabriel came out of the Babylonian exile (Gen. Rab. 48:9).
Within the Book of Daniel, Gabriel primarily functions as an angelus interpres or interpreting angel. He interprets Daniel's vision of the he-goat and ram in chapter eight and the "seventy-weeks" in chapter nine. Regarding the latter, having explained that the seventy years of Jeremiah 25 are actually seventy weeks of years (i.e. 490 years), Gabriel informs the prophet Daniel of the various empires that will reign during this time period. Also, some believe that the anonymous angel who interprets Daniel's vision in chapters 10-12 should also be identified as Gabriel. Thus the primary function of Gabriel within the Book of Daniel is that of revealer. It should not be surprising, then, to find that Gabriel continues this role in subsequent literature.
Gabriel in Second Temple Literature
Within non-biblical literature from the Hellenistic and Roman eras, the angel Gabriel begins to take on new roles. Generally speaking, within Second Temple literature, angels were believed to exist within a hierarchical order, similar to that of an army or royal court (e.g. 1 Enoch 60:2; 2 Enoch 40:2). The hierarchy itself is never described with any detail but is, rather, referred to generally. One must wait until the literature of Pseudo-Dionysius (ca. 500 CE) or 3 Enoch (fifth to sixth century CE) for such specific information. Whatever its structure, Gabriel was considered to be one of the head-angels (or "archangels") during this time period. Though the term "archangel" does not appear until the first century CE, the roots of this tradition can already be seen within the Hebrew Bible itself where certain angels are singled out and given special status. For example, in Joshua 5:14, the angel of the Lord is referred to as "the captain (Heb, śar) of the host of the Lord." Similarly, the angel Michael is identified as the "prince" (Heb, śar) of Israel in Daniel 10:13 (cf. "the prince of Persia" in Daniel 10:13 and 20). The earliest attestation of four angels possessing special status (later known as "archangels") is found in 1 Enoch 9:1. The four angels are Michael, Gabriel, Suriel, and Uriel. Elsewhere, however, there are said to be six or seven angels possessing special status (1 Enoch 20:1-7; Tobit 12:15), namely, Suriel, Raphael, Raguel, Michael, Saraqael, and Gabriel. What does it mean for Gabriel to be an archangel? It means that Gabriel is either placed in charge of other angels or is given special duties.
Within Second Temple literature, the special angelic duties of Gabriel are primarily related to the final judgment and the Garden of Eden/paradise, the one concept being related to the other. In 1 Enoch 20:1, it is Gabriel who oversees the Garden of Eden, serpents, and the cherubim. In 3 Baruch 4:7, it was Gabriel who planted the apple tree of the Garden of Eden. In 2 Enoch 72:1, Gabriel places Melchizedek into paradise in order to ensure his preservation. Similarly, in the Apocalypse of Elijah 5:5, Gabriel and Uriel are the angels entrusted with task of leading the righteous into heaven. In the Sibylline Oracles 2:215, Gabriel and the other archangels lead the souls of all men to the final judgment. In the Vision of Ezra 54, Gabriel and Michael show Ezra the location of the last judgment before they carry him over into paradise.
Gabriel in the New Testament
Gabriel appears twice in the Gospel of Luke. In Luke 1:11-20, it is the angel Gabriel who foretells the birth of John the Baptist to his father, a priest named Zecharias. In this episode, Gabriel, "who stands in the presence of God," appears beside the altar of incense, which terrifies the priest. The angel informs the priest that God has heard his request and that he and his wife Elizabeth will have a son. Gabriel goes on to inform Zecharias that this child, in the spirit of Elijah, will ultimately serve as a forerunner to Jesus, calling the people to repentance. Similarly, in Luke 2 the angel Gabriel appears before Mary to tell her of her imminent pregnancy and birth. When Mary mentions her virginity to the angel, Gabriel states that she will conceive the child when the Holy Spirit will come upon her and the power of the Most High will overshadow her, adding that "nothing is impossible with God." The portrayal of Gabriel within the Gospel of Luke is consistent with that of Daniel and Second Temple literature. Though neither Zecharias nor Mary has a vision in need of interpretation (as did Daniel), Gabriel does inform these righteous individuals of how God is about to powerfully act in the days to come. Additionally, as was the case in the book of Daniel, Gabriel is described as having a remarkable or terrifying appearance.
Gabriel within Rabbinic Literature
Rabbinic literature was initially quite resistant to the more fantastic portrayal of angels within Second Temple literature. That is, there was no angelic rebellion in heaven, Satan did not serve as God's ultimate angelic nemesis, angels were not described in dramatic terms, and there were very few named angels. It is likely that the rabbis were reacting against the dualistic implications of Second Temple angelology. For example, within the Mishnah (i.e., the earliest piece of rabbinic literature), angels never appear. Similarly, the earliest references to Gabriel and Michael are prohibitions against worshipping such angels (Tosefta, Hụllin 2:18; Gen. Rab. 3:8). Such resistance to Second Temple angelology may also help explain rabbinic passages where the status of Gabriel (among other angels) is downplayed. For example, according to Gen. Rab. 21:5, no angel is capable of distinguishing between good and evil, not even Gabriel. This ability is reserved for humans alone.
In light of this, it is not surprising that when Gabriel appears within rabbinic literature, which is not uncommon, he often serves a literary or exegetical purpose. Accordingly, Gabriel may be used to resolve some difficulty within the biblical text or to identify an anonymous angel that appears within a given passage. For example, it was either Gabriel or Michael who served as Jacob's wrestling partner in Genesis 32 (Gen. Rab. 78:2; Lam. Rab. 3:8), it was Gabriel who accompanied Abraham's servant in order to find a wife for Isaac (Gen. Rab 59:10), and it was Gabriel who delivered Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego from the fiery furnace (Exod. Rab. 18:5).
In addition to serving the purposes of exegesis, Gabriel is also given a number of important tasks within rabbinic literature. For example, Gabriel is included among the other privileged angels who assist in the important task of burying Moses (Deut. Rab. 11:10; Deuteronomy 34:6 of Targum Pseudo-Jonathan). Also, in Pesikta Rabbati 46.3, Gabriel is one of the four angels that are stationed around the throne of God. These four angels (Michael, Gabriel, Uriel, and Raphael) correspond to the four winds and the four standards of the Israelites as they camped in the wilderness. Finally, according to Exod. Rab. 18:5, along with the angel Michael, Gabriel serves as one of the "guardians of Israel."
Beginning with the Book of Daniel, the angel Gabriel has a distinguished place throughout Jewish literature. In the Book of Daniel, he serves as the terrifying interpreting angel who imparts secret knowledge of future events to the prophet. In Second Temple literature, he serves as one of the four (or seven) archangels and is often associated with the final judgment and the Garden of Eden/paradise. In the Gospel of Luke, it is the angel Gabriel who is given the fortunate task of foretelling the births of Jesus and John the Baptist. Finally, within rabbinic literature, though Gabriel often serves an exegetical purpose, he is also given positions of distinction and honor.