Photo by Ezo Renier.

Our culture has an angel problem. People talk about angels incessantly. Angels appear in cinema and on TV shows. Angels are regular features in all manner of popular culture, both high and low brows. You hear about them sometimes in sermons. And all of this chatter is, almost without exception, contrary to the picture of angels that emerges in the Bible. There’s a reason nearly every time angels appear to humans in scripture, the angel begins by saying, “Be not afraid.” Aside from a thing appearing out of nowhere, their appearance is not what you might think. When people think of Angels, they mostly picture a majestic human-like winged being. Cherubs, which are a type of angel also mentioned in the Bible, have been reimagined to fit the image of Cupid — cute babies with tiny wings. According to the Bible, there are different types of angels that surround God. Maimonides, a Jewish scholar from the 12th century, ranked these beings in terms of importance in the hierarchy of Heaven. What arises is a description of four beings from that hierarchy that have been explained in detail in scripture, and the historical circumstances around their conceptualization.

The Cherubim, later shortened to Cherub, is the lowest in rank among the four. The Bible describes these beings as animal-human hybrids, tasked with guarding the Garden of Eden against humankind. In the Book of Ezekiel, the prophet’s vision depicts them as having four faces: that of a lion, an ox, an eagle, and a human. They have straight legs, four wings, and bull hooves for feet that gleam like polished brass. One set of wings covers their body, and the other is used for flight. This description is far from how we imagine the Cherub now.

The term Angel comes from the Greek word Angelos, which originated from the Hebrew word for messenger, Malakh. The Malakim are messengers of God and are the closest looking to us humans. They are third in rank among the four. These named angels are often the ones people think of when asked to imagine one. However, while the Malakim looked like human beings, there was no mention of them having wings in the Bible. The earliest known Christian image of an angel from the mid-third century was without wings.

According to the prophet Isaiah, the Seraphim is an angelic being that surrounds the throne of God singing “holy, holy, holy” in unison to God’s approach. The prophet describes them as having six wings, two of which are for flying, while they use the rest to cover their heads and feet. Seraphim are second highest in rank according to Maimonides’s angelic hierarchy.

The Ophanim, or “the wheels,” is arguably the most bizarre being in the Bible. Ezekiel’s account in the Bible describes them as beings made out of interlocking gold wheels with each wheel’s exterior covered with multiple eyes. They move by floating themselves in the sky. As the highest in Maimonides’s hierarchy, they are tasked with guarding God’s throne.

It’s interesting to take a step back and observe the conception of these beings from a secular standpoint. Centuries of culture, geography, and history have shaped what we have collectively forgotten and re-imagined as angels but we should never forget what they truly are: monstrous.

Story by Laurie Silvey.