Review of C. H. Von Heijne, The Messenger of the Lord in Early Jewish Interpretations of Genesis

Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 13 (2013) - Review

Von Heijne, Camilla Hélena, The Messenger of the Lord in Early Jewish Interpretations of Genesis (BZAW, 412; Berlin: de Gruyter, 2010). Pp. xvii, 417. Hardcover. €129.95. $182.00 ISBN 978-3-11-022685-0.

In this lightly revised Ph.D. dissertation from Uppsala University, von Heijne offers an ambitious and well-executed analysis of early Jewish interpretations of the angel of YHWH in Genesis. Her work joins a crowded field on angelology and the angel (“messenger”) of YHWH in particular, yet succeeds in breaking new ground by focusing primarily on early interpretations, rather than the biblical texts themselves.

Chapter 1 (1–14) delimits her task and approach. Given the immensity of the task, she limits the scope of her study to the book of Genesis and its interpretations from 200 b.c.e. to 650 c.e. In Genesis, von Heijne posits that the messenger or angel of YHWH/Elohim is in some cases “completely interchangeable with YHWH himself” (1). Namely, the angel of YHWH is always anonymous, speaks with divine authority in the first person singular, accepts worship, and is acknowledged as divine. Thus, she sets herself to the task of exploring the early Jewish interpretations of the Genesis texts that present the ambiguous relationship between God and his angel. Her analysis focuses more particularly on early Jewish interpretations of the texts that explicitly mention the angel of YHWH (16:7–14; 21:17–20; 22:1–19; 24:7, 40; 31:10–13; 48:15–16) and Gen 32, which mentions him implicitly. These interpretations fall into roughly three categories: (1) translations, commentaries, or rewriting; (2) use of the same themes or motifs; and (3) explicit allusions or references. Von Heijne begins her analysis in 200 b.c.e. since she believes that the Pentateuch was “most certainly already ‘canonized’” (8) by that point, and concludes in 650 c.e., which coincides with the completion of the Babylonian Talmud and the rise of Islam. Rather than engage in text- and tradition-historical inquiry, she assumes that the texts of early Jewish interpreters were “very similar” to the Masoretic Text (4).

Chapter 2 (15–47) provides a helpful survey of early Jewish exegesis, including such issues as the written and oral Torah, the evolution of the synagogue, the Talmud, the Targums, and midrash. Chapter 3 (49–120) turns to the biblical texts themselves, offering a substantial survey of the angel of YHWH in Genesis and throughout the Hebrew Bible. Rather than attempting to provide a definitive interpretation of the texts, she focuses on illuminating “the problem of the merged identity of God and His angel in the biblical texts” (50). Toward the end of the chapter, von Heijne summarizes modern interpretations, which she groups into three general categories: the interpolation theory, theories that focus on the function of the angel, and theories that focus on the nature of the angel.[1]

In chapter 4 (121–364), von Heijne turns to her primary object of inquiry, an analysis of early Jewish interpretations of the angel of YHWH in Genesis. The chapter is subdivided into six sections: 4.1—the book of Tobit, the Wisdom of Solomon, and the Gospel of Luke; 4.2—the Pseudepigrapha and the Qumran documents; 4.3—Philo of Alexandria; 4.4—the Judean Antiquities of Flavius Josephus; 4.5—the Targums, rabbinic midrash and the Talmud; and 4.6—John 1:51. Chapter 5 (365–77) presents von Heijne's summary and conclusions.

Rather than recount her analyses of each text, the review will focus on several key arguments. Most prominently, she posits that interpretations and interpretive strategies vary, even within the same composition such that “there is no unambiguous or homogenous interpretation of ‘the angel of the Lord’ and his identity in our sources” (377). She contends that, while generally distinguished from “ordinary” angels, the angel of YHWH is not so clearly or consistently distinguished from YHWH himself. The texts sometimes identify him as a divine emissary distinct from God, while other times he seems to be an extension of YHWH, akin to a divine manifestation or hypostasis. While there is a general tendency to identify angels as independent entities, interpretations that equate or at least ambiguate the relationship between God and his angel remain. In addition, many authors and texts are inconsistent in their treatment of angels. For example, Philo generally identifies the angel of YHWH with the divine Logos, yet his depiction of the Logos varies from text to text, such that the Logos appears to be both different from and identical to YHWH.

Rather than being systematic, interpretations tend to be context specific, informed by various factors and concerns. For instance, von Heijne contends that interpreters generally aim to minimize theological and exegetical difficulties in the text. This is on display Josephus's attempt to remove textual ambiguities, whereby he attributes words and activity either to an angel or God, not both. Likewise, Josephus identifies Jacob's opponent at the Jabbok as a phantom or angel, so as to avoid unpalatable anthropomorphisms. Von Heijne also notes that various texts insert angels to smooth over difficulties, e.g., translating elohim as “angels” in Gen 32:30 so that Jacob does not see God face to face and inserting Mastema/Satan into the Aqedah of Gen 22 to explain God's reasons for commanding the sacrifice of Isaac. In addition, in keeping with the rabbinic view that each angel performs only one function, Genesis Rabbah posits two angels in Gen 24, where Eliezer is tasked with finding a wife for Isaac—one to accompany Eliezer on his journey and another to arrange his meeting with Rebekah. Other angelic names and brigades find their origin in linguistic problems and rare words (33).[2] Indeed, she follows Saul Olyan in asserting that much Second Temple angelology has its origins in this type of midrashic activity (36, 365).[3] In short, she demonstrates that early Judaism is characterized by significant diversity, such that we cannot speak of a single interpretation or interpretive method, but many.

Von Heijne is to be commended for a thorough and ambitious undertaking that presents her audience with the fruit of a substantial amount of primary and secondary literature. Throughout, she displays a clear and level head in wading through the data and interpretive difficulties, doing scholarship a great service in presenting all of the data in one place and demonstrating the diversity of early Jewish interpretations. Scholars can certainly use the data she has culled to extend her foundational study in important new directions.

However, while von Heijne should be lauded for giving full voice to the material and its commentators, one might have liked to hear her clear and incisive voice more often and more strongly. Likewise, although the volume concludes with comparative discussion and similar such remarks are interspersed throughout, it would be profitable to extend this discussion, tracing the commonalities and divergences more thoroughly and discussing how and why they might have come about. In addition, although her aim is not to interpret the biblical passages themselves in chapter 3, but to demonstrate the ambivalent relationship between God and his angel, a more robust discussion of the biblical texts would be most welcome. In Genesis, for example, one might situate the divine messenger more firmly in its ancient Near Eastern context and problematize the distinction between the angel of YHWH and other “ordinary” angels. While generally good, her English falters at a couple of points;[4] furthermore, while her bibliography is thorough and helpful, it is somewhat difficult to look up references because of her decision to divide the entries under various subheadings and the occasional mistake (e.g., confusing the order of entries on p. 398). The last couple quibbles aside, my comments in no way detract from the quality or impact of her work. Since no scholar can accomplish everything, especially in a single volume, my comments are offered as an invitation to further research. All in all, von Heijne's work is to be highly recommended for those seeking to understand and study the emergence of angels.

Michael Hundley, University of Munich (LMU)

[1] For a fuller yet somewhat dated summary, see F. Guggisberg, Die Gestalt des Mal'ak YHWH (Lyss: Dach, 1979), 133–56. reference

[2] Citing S. Olyan, A Thousand Thousands Served Him: Exegesis and the Naming of Angels in Ancient Judaism (Texte und Studien zum antiken Judentum, 36; Tübingen: Mohr, 1993), 30, 68–69, 87, 116–17. reference

[3] Ibid., 116–20. reference

[4] E.g., on p. 22 her section heading reads “The Evolvement of the Synagogue.” reference