Claiming Israel’s Angels as their Own: The Angelic Realm and the Religious Identity of the Qumran Sect

Several ancient Jewish texts suggest that a connection, correspondence, or parallel was thought to exist between the faithful angels of heaven and Israel on earth. The Qumran sect put their own stamp on these broader convictions by boldly claiming both fellowship with the angels and that they outranked the angels in some sense.  In doing so, the sectarians bolstered their claims to be the true Israel.

See Also: Angels Associated with Israel in the Dead Sea Scrolls: Angelology and Sectarian Identity at Qumran (Mohr Siebrek, 2019).

By Matthew L. Walsh
Assistant Professor of Biblical Studies
Acadia Divinity College
July 2019

“God loves everyone, but I’m his favorite!” This is one of many bumper stickers that can be read at close-range in rush hour traffic. Is it a cheeky yet harmless attempt at religious humor? Probably, but its insight is profound.  Religious communities are well-known for their claims, both implicit and explicit, to be God’s favorite – and this is far from a recent phenomenon. Ancient Jews and Christians, in sundry ways, made similar assertions, which at times could morph from the relatively tame self-estimation of being favored to the less-subtle consideration that they were God’s true people, that is, the only legitimate people of God. It would be a mistake, however, to conclude that unbridled arrogance is solely responsible for such thinking. It is, of course, much more complex than that, since often bold assertions of religious identity can be mingled with not only expressions of deep-seated humility but also a measure of openness to those traditionally considered outsiders.

A fascinating aspect of ancient Jewish texts is the frequency with which themes of religious identity are combined with equally bold assertions regarding the angelic realm. Given that the Second Temple Period (515 BCE–70 CE) testifies to a heightened interest in angels, including detailed speculation regarding angelic roles and ranks, this is hardly surprising. Angels could be viewed within apocalyptic worldviews that assumed “earthly realities reflect and mirror heavenly ones,”[1] and a related development thought there was a connection, correspondence, or parallel between the faithful angels of heaven and Israel on earth. The intersection of religious identity and speculation regarding the heavenly realm is easily witnessed in several texts from the Dead Sea Scrolls, the extant library of a Jewish sect which likely made its way to the Judaean desert site of Qumran in the early or mid-1st century BCE.[2]  For those interested in Second Temple Period Judaism, generally, and the Qumran sect, specifically, a fruitful avenue of exploration is to compare the compositions written by the sect (so-called “sectarian” texts) to earlier or contemporaneous texts penned by others whose works apparently had broader appeal (so-called “non-sectarian” texts).  Doing so reveals not only a great deal about Jewish angelology between the 3rd century BCE and the 1st century CE but also how the Qumran sect put its own stamp on common beliefs regarding the angelic realm and upheld its membership alone to be the true Israel.[3]

Non-Sectarian Texts

Arguably the most famous non-sectarian Second Temple Period text with a focus on the angelic realm is the 2nd century BCE Book of Daniel. Specifically, Dan 7–12 reveals the conviction that the persecutions of Antiochus Epiphanes are only part of a more robust and mysterious picture: Daniel is informed via dream-visions that the hardships of Israel on earth are the reflection of heavenly skirmishes between national angelic princes. However, as “the people of the holy ones” – a phrase signifying that the people correspond to the angelic “holy ones” and are protected by them – faithful Jews are said to have Michael as their celestial champion, and the decisive judgment of God ensures that Michael in heaven and, therefore, Israel on earth will emerge victorious (Dan 7:13–27; 10:13–14, 21; 12:1).

Another important non-sectarian text, 1 Enoch, is actually a collection of traditions.  One of its earliest components, the 3rd century BCE Book of Watchers (BW), like Daniel after it, proclaims that the faithful can count on Michael for protection (1 En 20:5). In addition to its detailed account of the myth of the fallen Watchers, BW is perhaps best known for its portrayal of heaven as a temple in which angelic priests minister (1 En 14:8–23), a feature only complemented by the fact that the angels are cast as serving in an intercessory capacity (1 En 9:1–11), a priestly function according to the Hebrew Bible (Exod 28:29).  While there is much scholarly debate as to what prompted the depiction, this knowledge of heaven, at minimum, would have been a revelation of inestimable value to those who wrote and heard the text: no matter the difficulties on earth, the heavenly archetype of the Jerusalem sanctuary and its angelic celebrants were functioning for the benefit of faithful Jews on earth. The same value was undoubtedly ascribed to BW’s revelation that the righteous angels had been tasked to incarcerate the chaos-wreaking Watchers until the final judgment (1 En 10:11–11:2).

Priestly concerns are integral to the late 3rd/early 2nd century BCE Aramaic Levi Document (ALD), which is an exemplar of the Second Temple Period impulse to establish the priestly investiture of the Levitical line.  Expanding the account of Levi in the Book of Genesis, the fragmentary ALD casts the patriarch as the recipient of a heavenly dream-vision in which he is brought to an angel (4Q213a 2 15–18).  Affinities with the later Greek composition known as the Testament of Levi, which is thought to be dependent on ALD, may indicate that the “seven” mentioned in Levi’s dream (4Q213b 2; T. Levi 8:1) are high-ranking angelic priests, which would mean that Israel’s priesthood, from its inception, has been commissioned and endorsed by its heavenly counterpart. The connection to heaven underscores ALD’s exhortations to value wisdom, instruction, and morality (4Q213 1 I, 9–11) in that it intensifies the plea for priests on earth to uphold the sanctity of their office.

The 2nd century BCE work known as the Book of Jubilees, a creative retelling of Genesis and Exodus, also highlights the value placed on the angelic realm as it relates to religious identity.  First, Jubilees suggests that Israel has a special connection with the angels who sit at the top of the heavenly hierarchy: the angels of the presence and the angels of holiness. These angelic priests, in addition to keeping the Sabbath, being created, circumcised, and celebrating Shavuot in heaven, serve in closest proximity to God and are the model for the nation’s priesthood (Jub 2:18, 30; 6:18; 15:25–27; 30:18; 31:14). The angels who constitute Israel’s heavenly representatives thus have an honored place within “God’s celestial inner circle,”[4] which amounts to a thinly-veiled statement on Israel’s privileged standing within the created order.  Second, Jubilees showcases the revelatory and guardianship prowess of the (singular) angel of the presence, the presumable leader of the eponymous class of angels just mentioned. Israel is therefore once again presented as the recipient of assistance from an angel of unrivaled commissioning, rank, and ability.

The last non-sectarian example discussed here is the 2nd century BCE composition 4QInstruction, which is Proverbs-like in its focus on the study of wisdom but has affinities with apocalyptic traditions in that it stresses that this wisdom is the product of a special revelation from God. In an important section of the text, the privileged human addressee, who clearly belongs to an enlightened group, is charged to “open a fountain of the holy ones” (4Q418 81 12). There is admittedly debate about the reading of this line and what it means.[5]  However, elsewhere in 4QInstruction, the angels of holiness – a priestly designation – are said to “pursue after all the roots of understanding” (4Q418 55 9).[6]  Thus, it may be that the “fountain” of these angelic holy ones includes the knowledge of the heavenly priesthood revealed for the good of the community of which the addressee is a member. That the addressee has a lot “among the angels” (4Q418 81 4–5) corroborates his honored standing and serves both to distinguish him from those outside of his group and hints at his post-mortem fate, which seems to include fellowship with the angels (4Q418 69 II, 12–14).[7]

Before turning to sectarian texts, it is important to consider how the themes just surveyed contribute to the outlooks of the texts in which they are found. A few observations are noteworthy. First, the compositions discussed thus far vary in their postures toward other Jews and even Gentiles. For example, the authors of Daniel, 1 Enoch, and ALD – for whom the characters Daniel, Enoch, and Levi are literary stand-ins – seem to hold themselves in high regard: to make these biblical heroes the recipients of revelations of the heavenly realm is effectively to claim that God has granted the authors and their groups these insights; and if this is not lofty enough, Daniel’s authors were convinced that they would enjoy a post-mortem existence characterized by exaltation and fellowship with the angels (Dan 12:3), a belief shared by the composers of 4QInstruction, as well as the Epistle of Enoch, the tradition that closes 1 Enoch (1 En. 104:2–6). At the same time, it is difficult to describe the Book of Daniel as hostile toward wider Israel, not least because solidarity with the nation and its historical shortcomings are affirmed (Dan 9:20).  Similarly, scholars have noted that a feature of Jubilees is that the entirety of Israel is elect,[8] an assertion that complements the idea that the nation as a whole – not just Israel’s priests – is privileged to have the high-ranking angels of the presence and angels of holiness as their heavenly counterparts. Perhaps most surprising is that the Book of Watchers, the Epistle of Enoch, and another constituent tradition of 1 Enoch, the Animal Apocalypse, despite their numerous references to the judgment of evil deeds and/or wicked humans, preserve a measure of hope for Gentiles. For instance, the Book of Watchers states that the “plant of righteousness” – biblical language for ethnic Israel (Isa 60:21; 61:3) – “will become a blessing” (1 En 10:16; Gen 12:1–3), which seems to be connected to the statements in verse 21 of the same chapter that “all the children of men will become righteous” and “that all the people will worship [God]” (also see 1 En 90:20–38; 91:14).[9]  This should not be taken to mean that 1 Enoch’s authors did not consider themselves and their own circles special or privileged because of their knowledge of the heavenly realm. But it does suggest that the ministries of angelic guardians and priests, at least in an ultimate sense, were thought to benefit wider Israel and even Gentiles to some extent. To be sure, non-sectarian texts are not homogeneous: Jubilees is clear that Israel exclusively constitutes God’s people and 4QInstruction is even more stringent in that it seemingly restricts the possibility of a privileged status to the authors’ own group.  But in comparison to the sectarian texts that will be discussed below, these and other non-sectarian compositions either 1.) define Israel in a relatively generous manner and, in some cases, are not void of hope for Gentiles or 2.) are not as formally or rigidly exclusivist in their outlooks.[10]

Sectarian Texts

It should be noted from the outset that certain features of the sectarian texts share affinities with non-sectarian compositions.  For example, the Community Rule refers to an angel dubbed the Prince of Lights and God’s Angel of Truth (1QS III, 20–24). Another text, 11QMelchizedek, announces that the people can look forward to the eschatological support they will receive from a certain Melchizedek, who exacts God’s judgments and will contend against hostile angelic forces (11Q13 II, 1–25). It may be that these and other principal angel figures are simply different names for Michael.[11]  Regardless, the Community Rule and 11QMelchizedek insist – as per Daniel, 1 Enoch, and Jubilees – that the faithful can be confident that God has dispatched the most elite of angels for their protection and that he will do so in the eschatological future, as well.

The $1,000,000 question, however, is this: who are the people of God in the sectarian texts?  The question is important because the answer is one of the marks that differentiates the works penned by the Qumran sect from those composed by others. Note the fuller context of the description of the angelic support mentioned in the Community Rule: “From the Angel of Darkness stems the corruption of all the sons of justice, and all their sins, their iniquities, their guilts and their offensive deeds are under his dominion. … and all the spirits of his lot cause the sons of light to fall.  However, the God of Israel and the angel of his truth assist all the sons of light” (1QS III, 24–25).[12]  The “dualistic” language of light and darkness, justice and deceit, and other opposite pairs used here is found in other foundational sectarian documents, a fact that initially prompted scholars of the Dead Sea Scrolls to consider its usage to have been a hallmark of the sect from its inception. While recent work on the Scrolls indicates that the language may have been later adopted by the sect, this by no means minimizes its significance, which is to “absolutize”[13] insiders and outsiders: that is, there is no middle ground. Apart from the dualistic language, the Community Rule presents the sectarian covenant as the reconstitution of Israel, which in and of itself is grandiose.  But to label themselves as the sons of light and their angelic support as the Prince of Lights, while stylizing their enemies as the sons of deceit who are led by the Angel of Darkness, is to draw the theological line in the sand with unmistakable clarity; and as the true Israel, the sectarians claimed as their own the angelic assistance that in other texts benefits Israel more generously defined.  Even in comparison to the exclusivist non-sectarian text 4QInstruction, the efforts of the sect to set itself apart as the true Israel particularly stand out.

With these themes in mind, a key sectarian composition to consider is the War Scroll, an eschatological text that anticipates a series of final battles. The opening line of the document articulates the text’s general tenor: “the first attack by the sons of light will be launched against the lot of the sons of darkness, against the army of Belial” (1QM I, 1).[14]  The dualistic language establishes the sect as the people of God, but here they are commissioned to deliver the decisive counterstrike against not just human but also angelic forces of evil, as it is stated that they will be combating the armies of Belial, a Satan-like figure mentioned elsewhere in the Scrolls. Most important is how the sect will accomplish this monumental task, since it is obvious that the War Scroll has more than angelic guardianship in view.  In fact, a distinguishing feature of the text is that it presents the sectarians as the comrades of the angels; that is, they are privileged to serve with the angels in a single martial unit.  Several passages underscore this arrangement (1QM I, 10; VII, 6; XII, 8–9), but the most important statement comes near the end of the extant document: “Today is His appointed time to subdue and to humble the Prince of the dominion of wickedness.  He will send eternal assistance to the lot to be redeemed by Him through the might of an angel:  He has magnified the authority of Michael in eternal light, to light up in joy the covenant of Israel, peace and blessing to the lot of God, so as to raise among the gods the authority of Michael and the dominion of Israel over all flesh” (1QM XVII, 5–8).[15] What is telling is that two Michael/Israel parallels (in italics) flank a reference to the “lot of God.” Here, the sectarians have usurped both the designation “Israel” and Israel’s angelic champion, Michael. What is more, the sectarians are not simply the beneficiaries of Michael’s assistance but have boldly proclaimed themselves to be a part of the army he leads; and as the “lot of God,” the combined forces of heaven and earth will defeat evil in all its forms. Thus, with incredible confidence, the sect has claimed for the impending eschatological war what Daniel, 1 Enoch, and 4QInstruction suggest is something that will have to wait for post-mortem existence: fellowship with the angels.  Indeed, for a group that considered itself to be the true Israel, what better way to assert itself as such than to claim martial fellowship with Israel’s angelic guardians and heavenly counterparts?

But as bold as the claims of the War Scroll are, the boasts of the Thanksgiving Hymns (or Hodayot) and related texts are bolder still, as they indicate that another type of fellowship with the angels, fellowship of a liturgical nature, was considered a present feature of sectarian life. A prime example is the following: “I thank you, Lord, that you have redeemed my life form the pit, … so that I walk about on a limitless plain.  …  And a perverted spirit you have purified from great sin that it might take its place with the host of the holy ones and enter into community with the congregation of the children of heaven … that he might praise your name in a common rejoicing …” (1QHa XI, 21–24).[16]  That the purpose of this fellowship with the angels is to praise God “in a ‘common’ rejoicing” not only underscores the human-angel dynamic of the sectarian community but also is likely a Hebrew play-on-words with the sectarian self-designation “the Yahad” (1QS I, 1; II, 22; VIII, 11), coined in part because commonality or togetherness with the angels was such a cherished aspect of sectarian life. While the Hodayot are well-known for their statements of intense humility (1QHa IX, 23–29; XI, 24–26), scholars have suggested that these so-called “doxologies of lowliness”[17] function partially as a rhetorical foil to the claims of extreme privilege of praising God together with the angels.[18] In other words, a lofty standing with the angels is even more staggering if those who are granted this privilege are, on their own merits, pond scum (to use a modern expression).  A privileged standing with the angels in the here and now also serves as another powerful reminder of “who’s in” and “who’s not.”

It needs to be pointed out, however, that it is not just “any old angels” with whom the sectarians claim to commune.  In one of the hymns, scholars ascribe to the sectarian leadership, the writer boasts that God has brought the sect into a “common lot with the angels of [the] presence, without an intermediary between them” (1QHa XIV 16). It will be remembered that, in Jubilees, the angels of the presence are the priests of the heavenly sanctuary and the ideal to which Israel’s priesthood should aspire. Again, what better way for the sect to promote itself as the true Israel than to boast of fellowship with the angels who were regarded as the models for the nation’s priests? Another work that is widely considered to be a sectarian composition is the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice (SSS), which corroborates the angelic fellowship claims of the Hodayot via its overwhelming descriptions of the angels worshipping in heaven, including those who serve in closest proximity to God. While SSS notes the humility of the human worshippers, an underappreciated aspect of the text is that the human worshippers are also resolute in their exultation of God and are not dissuaded from exhorting the angels to continue with their exemplary praise (4Q401 14 I, 5–8; 4Q400 2 1–8).[19]

Claims of angelic fellowship are bold. But it is something quite different to suggest that humans somehow outrank the angels, and that is precisely what the lofty Self-Glorification Hymn (SGH) asserts. While scholars have proposed that there are two editions or recensions of this work, the focus here will be on the recension that is associated with the Hodayot. Much could be said, but the hymn is known for the infamous challenge of its first-person speaker: “who is like me among the heavenly beings?” (4Q427 7 I, 8).[20] Remarkable is that the speaker seems to be elevating himself above the angels with whom he is claiming fellowship. Two brief observations are necessary. First, even if the boast originated with an esteemed leader and his spiritual experiences, the section of the Hodayot scroll (1QHa) in which SGH is placed may suggest that the speaker’s elevated status had relevance for the average sect member.[21] Second, SGH’s boast should be considered in light of the other angelic fellowship claims of the Hodayot, including that of 1QHa XIV, which, as just noted, claims that sectarian membership included fellowship with the priestly angels of the presence. Taken together, the sectarians not only thought of themselves as having liturgical fellowship with the angelic priests to whom Israel’s priesthood correspond and should aspire but also may have convinced themselves that they outranked these angels. For a group that considered itself to be the true Israel, the only claim more identity-shaping and identity-asserting than the claim of fellowship with the angels would be to declare that one of its leaders – and maybe even its membership-at-large – had attained a status that surpasses the elite angles who serve as the model for Israel’s priesthood. Indeed, the sectarians may have made their way to the Judaean desert over two millennia before the advent of bumper stickers, but there was no question at Qumran as to who God’s favorites were.

[1] Darrell D. Hannah, “Guardian Angels and Angelic National Patrons in Second Temple Judaism and Early Christianity,” in Angels: The Concept of Celestial Beings – Origins, Development and Reception, ed. Friedrich V. Reiterer, Tobias Nicklas, and Karen Schöpflin, DCLY (New York: de Gruyter, 2007), 420.

[2] Jodi Magness, The Archaeology of Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls, SDSSRL (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002).

[3] This essay adapts and significantly condenses aspects of my forthcoming study, Angels Associated with Israel in the Dead Sea Scrolls: Angelology and Sectarian Identity at Qumran, WUNT 2 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck).

[4] Joseph L. Angel, Otherworldly and Eschatological Priesthood in the Dead Sea Scrolls, STDJ 86 (Leiden: Brill, 2010), 38.

[5] See Loren T. Stuckenbruck, “‘Angels’ and ‘God’: Exploring the Limits of Early Jewish Monotheism,” in Early Jewish and Christian Monotheism, ed. Loren T. Stuckenbruck and Wendy E. S. North, JSNTSup 263 (London: T & T Clark, 2005), 63–66.

[6] Translations of 4QInstruction are from Matthew J. Goff, 4QInstruction, WLAW 2 (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2013).

[7] See Goff, 4QInstruction, 17–18, 237–238.

[8] See Todd R. Hanneken, The Subversion of the Apocalypses in the Book of Jubilees, EJL 34 (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2012), 97–104, 292.

[9] Translations of 1 Enoch are from George W. E. Nickelsburg, 1 Enoch 1: A Commentary on the Book of 1 Enoch, Chapters 1–36, 81–108, Hermeneia (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001).

[10] On the “rather generous” outlooks of some of the Aramaic Dead Sea Scrolls (e.g., Aramaic Levi) vis-à-vis the “more narrowly-focused sectarian works,” see Daniel A. Machiela, “Situating the Qumran Aramaic Texts from Qumran: Reconsidering their Language and Socio-Historical Settings,” in Apocalyptic Thinking in Early Judaism: Engaging with John Collins’ The Apocalyptic Imagination, ed. Sidnie White Crawford and Cecilia Wassén, JSJSup 182 (Leiden: Brill, 2018), 92.

[11] See Annette Steudel, “Michael,” The Encyclopedia of the Dead Sea Scrolls, 2 volumes, ed. Lawrence H. Schiffman and James C. VanderKam (Leiden: Brill, 2001), 1:546–548.

[12] Translations of the Community Rule are from Florentino García Martínez and Eibert J. C. Tigchelaar, The Dead Sea Scrolls: Study Edition, 2 volumes (Leiden: Brill; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 1:69–99.

[13] George W. E. Nickelsburg, “The We and the Other in the Worldview of 1 Enoch, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and Other Early Jewish Texts,” in The “Other” in Second Temple Judaism: Essays in Honour of John J. Collins, ed. Daniel C. Harlow et al. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011), 273.

[14] Translations of the War Scroll are from García Martínez and Tigchelaar, The Dead Sea Scrolls: Study Edition, 1:112–145.

[15] Translations of these lines of the War Scroll are from Yigael Yadin, The Scroll of the War of the Sons of Light against the Sons of Darkness, trans. Batya and Chaim Rabin (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1962), 340.

[16] Translations of the Hodayot are from Hartmut Stegemann, Eileen M. Schuller, and Carol A. Newsom, ed., 1QHodayota: With Incorporation of 1QHodayotb and 4QHodayota-f, DJD XL (Oxford: Clarendon, 2009).

[17] These passages were influentially dubbed “Niedrigkeitsdoxologien” (“doxologies of lowliness” in English) by Heinz-Wolfgang Kuhn, Enderwartung und gegenwärtiges Heil: Untersuchungen zu den Gemeindeliedern von Qumran mit einem Anhang über Eschatologie und Gegenwart in der Verküngdigung Jesu, SUNT 4 (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 1966).

[18] See Carol A. Newsom, “Religious Experience in the Dead Sea Scrolls: Two Case Studies,” Experientia, Volume 2: Linking Text and Experience, ed. Colleen Shantz and Rodney Werline, EJL 35 (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2012), 212–215; and Kyle B. Wells, Grace and Agency in Paul and Second Temple Judaism: Interpreting the Transformation of the Heart, NovTSup 157 (Leiden: Brill, 2015), 124.

[19] See Carol A. Newsom, “He Has Established for Himself Priests,” in Archaeology and History in the Dead Sea Scrolls: The New York University Conference on the Dead Sea Scrolls, ed. Lawrence H. Schiffman, JSPSup 8, JSOTMS 2 (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1990), 115.

[20] Translations of SGH are from Eileen M. Schuller, “4Q427,” in Qumran Cave 4.XX: Poetical and Liturgical Texts, Part 2, DJD XXIX, ed. Esther Chazon et al. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1999), 99.

[21] See Schuller, “4Q427,” 102.

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