The English term archangel is based on a Greek term archangelos which means “chief, or first angel.” Angelos is a Greek term translating the Hebrew mal'ak or “messenger.”
The thrust of the term “angel” in the Hebrew Bible is that of a messenger sent from God. Its primary significance has to do with the function of this agent of God, rather than expressing concerns of the nature or being of an angel. However, a clear distinction between God and the messenger/angel is not easily determined. For example, Hagar encountered an angel, but she referred to the Lord who spoke to her (Genesis 16:7,Genesis 16:13;
Genesis 21:17). God commanded Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, but eventually Abraham is addressed by “the angel of the Lord” (Genesis 22:1,Genesis 22:11,Genesis 22:15). To further complicate the subject, mal'ak can also refer to a human messenger (1 Kings 19:2;
The general circumstances for angel references have to do with a messenger or envoy who is sent to perform specific tasks and speak for God. They include declaring edicts of God to a specific audience (Genesis 22:11-13), announcing special events (Genesis 16:7-12), protecting the faithful (individuals and groups;
Psalms 91:11), and angels also serve as envoys of punishment against the wicked and unfaithful (Psalms 35:5-6). Frequently, they are set within a wider class of celestial beings that include “sons of God” (Genesis 6:2,Genesis 6:4;
Job 38:7), “holy ones” (Deuteronomy 33:2;
Psalms 89:5,Psalms 89:7;
Zechariah 14:5), and “sons of the most High” (Psalms 82:6;
Luke 6:35). On occasion, they are associated with a heavenly court (Joshua 5:13-14;
1 Kings 22:19).
In religious texts dating from the post-exilic period, there appears to be substantial change in perception of angels. Hierarchies emerge in the literature that stressed particular groupings headed by archangels [that is, chief angels] who were counted among number designations such as seven (Tobit 12:15; 4 Ezra 5:20), four (Enoch 4; 87:2-3; 88:1), three (Enoch 90:31). The archangels Michael (Daniel 10:13;
Daniel 12:1; Enoch 9:1; 10:11), Gabriel (Daniel 8:16; Enoch 9:1; 20:7; 40:9), Raphael (Tobit 3:17;
Tobit 12:15; Enoch 10:4; 40:9) and Uriel (Enoch 9:1; 19:1; 20:2) gain particular hero status. These special archangels function as mediators between God and humans, and frequently there is a perceptible character that stands in contrast (but not necessarily in opposition) to the messenger function. The archangels are interpreters of the message. Although angels generally represented a “guardian role,” common to the ancient near eastern world, archangels seem to be of a superior category. In particular, Michael (Daniel 10:13,Daniel 10:21;
Jude 1:9; Assumption of Moses 12:7-9), Gabriel (gabriel, “hero of God”;
Luke 1:19,Luke 1:26), and Raphael (rapael “God has healed”; a chief figure in the book of Tobit, see
Tobit 3:16-17) were cast as important interpreters, advocates, and intercessors.
The New Testament continues the idea of angels as messengers of God. Among the numerous references, an angel advises Joseph of Jesus' birth (Matthew 1:20), and warns of the advisability of the flight into Egypt (Matthew 2:13,Matthew 2:19). The archangel, Gabriel, is the messenger who speaks of the birth of John in
Luke 1:19, and tells Mary of the birth of Jesus (Luke 1:26). The Book of Revelation appears to reflect tradition of archangels found in Enoch (although the term archangelos is found only in
1 Thessalonians 4:16 and
Jude 1:9) that have holy creatures waiting on the throne of God, presiding over the corners of the earth, and are part of the cosmic reordering at the end of time (Revelation 1:4;
Revelation 12:7; Enoch 9:1; 10:1; 40:2; 90:21).