Thursday, March 10, 2016

The Recording Angel by James Hastings 1908


RECORDING ANGEL by James Hastings 1908

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In all the early literatures of the world the angel is called upon to perform a motley variety of tasks. The universe was recognized to be the scene of a ceaseless divine activity. But it puzzled men to know how God, who was pure spirit and infinite, could come into actual contact with matter, which was impure, imperfect, and finite. Hence arose the notion of the angel, a kind of offshoot of the divine, a being semi-human and semi-divine, standing on a lower rung of divinity than the Deity, mingling freely with earthly creations and exercising over them an influence bearing the strongest resemblance to that which came directly from the Deity. The angel, in other words, bridged the yawning gulf between the world and God. It follows from this that, as the innumerable experiences of man during life and after death were subject to angelic influences, the latter had, in the imagination of early peoples, to be pigeon-holed into separate and independent departments of activity. Each angel had its own specialized task to see to, and each religion particularized those tasks in its own way. The idea of a recording angel charged with a peculiar task of its own and bearing a distinct name or series of names figures in Judaism, Christianity, and Muhammadanism. The function which it performs is, in the main, identical in all the three religious systems, but the details vary considerably.

In Judaism the work of the recording angel is that of keeping an account of the deeds of individuals and nations, in order to present the record at some future time before man's heavenly Maker. The presentation of this record may take place during the lifetime of the individual or nation, or, as is more often the case, after death; and upon this record depends either the bliss or the pain which is to be apportioned in the after life. In the OT there are three passages which form a basis for these ideas. In Mal 3:16 it is said: 'Then they that feared the Lord spake one with another: and the Lord hearkened, and heard, and a book of remembrance was written before him, for them that feared the Lord, and that thought upon his name.' Jahweh hears what His righteous servants say and resolves to reward them at some future time for their steadfastness. The figure of speech is derived from the custom of Persian monarchs, who had the names of public benefactors inscribed in a book, in order that in due time they might be suitably rewarded. In Ezk 9:4 the man 'clothed in linen which had the writer's inkhorn by his side,' is bidden to 'go through the midst of the city, through the midst of Jerusalem, and set a mark upon the foreheads of the men that sigh and that cry for all the abominations that be done in the midst thereof.' This man 'clothed in linen' is one of the six angels sent to exact speedy punishment upon the defiant city of Jerusalem. But the punishment must be discriminating. While the unrepenting are to be slain without mercy, the angel was to 'set a mark' on those who expressed sincere grief for their backslidings and who dissociated themselves from the sinners. This mark was, presumably, to serve as a reference on the day when retribution would be meted out. The third passage is Dn 12:1: 'And at that time shall Michael stand up, . . . and there shall be a time of trouble . . . and at that time thy people shall be delivered, every one that shall be found written in the book.' When this is read in connexion with the succeeding verses, the underlying idea seems clearly that of some future divine judgment when the righteous classes and the wicked classes will each reap their deserts, and the record of 'who's who' will be found written in 'the book,' the angel Michael acting as recorder.


As R. H. Charles puts it, 'the book was "the book of life" . . . a register of the actual citizens of the theocratic community on earth. . . . This book has thus become a register of the citizens of the coming kingdom of God, whether living or departed.'

A rabbi of the Mishnaic epoch, Akiba ben Joseph, summarized and elaborated all these OT conceptions of the account between man and his Maker (without, however, introducing the idea of the recording angel) in a remarkably striking parable, thus:

'Everything is given on pledge and a net is spread for all the living. The shop is open and the dealer gives credit; and the ledger lies open; and the hand writes; and whosoever wishes to borrow may come and borrow; but the collectors regularly make their daily round and exact payment from man whether he be content or not; and they have that whereon they can rely in their demand; and the judgment is a judgment of truth, and everything is prepared for the feast' (Mishnah, Aboth, iii. 16).

The 'feast' refers to the leviathan, on the flesh of which, according to a frequent idea of the Talmud and Midrash, the righteous Israelites will regale themselves in the beyond.

The rich angelologies of the Jews and Christians (as well as of the Muhammadans, who borrowed largely from the OT and the rabbinic writings) built further on these OT references to a recording angel, and transferred the work of recording to some one or other angel bearing a special name, the Deity becoming merely the recipient of the record. In rabbinic theology and in the mysticism of the Zohar and mediaeval Kabbalah generally, the recording angel is kept particularly busy in one great department of activity—viz. prayer. Metatron usually plays this role. According to a statement in Midrash Tanhuma Genesis, as well as in the Slavonic Book of Enoch, it is the angel Michael, originally the guardian-angel of Israel, who was transformed into Metatron, the angel 'whose name is like that of his divine Master' —a piece of doctrine which may possibly have influenced the Christian doctrine of the Logos. So impressive was the work of Metatron that a rabbi of the early 2nd cent. A.D., Elisha b. Abuyah, confessed to seeing this angel in the heavens and thus being led to believe that the cosmos was ruled by 'two powers.' Of course such belief was heresy. According to a Talmudic statement, Metatron bears the Tetragrammaton in himself. This was derived from Ex 23:21, where it is said of the angel who would in the future be sent to prepare the way for the Israelites" 'Beware of him . . . for my name is in him.'

According to a passage in the Zohar (Midrash Ha-Ne'el-am on section Haye-Sarah), Metatron 'is appointed to take charge of the soul every day and to provide it with the necessary light from the Divine, according: as be Is commanded. It Is he who is detailed to take the record in the grave-yards from Dumah, the angel of death, and to show it to the Master. It is he who is destined to put the leaven into the bones that lie beneath the earth, to repair the bodies and bring them to a state of perfection in the absence of the soul which will be sent by God to its appointed place (i.e. the Holy Land where they will again be put into bodies, which have come thither through a process of terrestrial transmigration—a favourite idea of some rabbinic theologians).'

The Book of Jubilees speaks of Enoch as 'the heavenly scribe.' A similar description is applied to Metatron in T.B. Hagigah, 15a, where he is designated as 'he to whom authority is given to sit down and write the merits of Israel.' In the Jerusalem Targum to Gn 5:24 'And Enoch walked with God: and he was not; for God took him,' the rendering is 'And he called his name [i.e. Enoch's] Metatron, the great scribe.' In Targum Jonathan to Ex 24:1 'And he said unto Moses, Come up unto the Lord,' the paraphrase runs 'And unto Moses, Michael the archangel of wisdom said, on the seventh day of the month, Come up unto the Lord'; while in Ascensio Isaice, ix. 21, it is Michael who is honoured with the name of heavenly scribe. From these various references one readily infers that Metatron, Enoch, and Michael were names given to angels who were pre-eminent in the realms of wisdom or scholarship, and who would, as such, be best qualified to act as 'scribes' or 'recorders' of men's deeds.

Passages in the Qur'an bear out this view of a special 'scholarly' angel who writes down the record of men. In surah ii. the role is given to Gabriel, who was so great an adept in the work that the act of writing down the Qur'an for Muhammad's benefit was actually ascribed to him. Man's work on earth and God's work in heaven were brought into touch with one another by the scholarly recording activities of Gabriel. In surah 1. another view is propounded.

'When the two angels deputed to take account of a man's behaviour take account thereof; one sitting on the right hand, the other on the left: he uttereth not a word, but there is with him a watcher ready to note it.'

Two 'recording' angels seem to be in evidence here. The meaning seems to be that, although the dying man may refuse to speak, or be unable to do so, yet the two 'recording' angels can read his inmost thoughts and take complete account of them. Sale puts quite another construction on the text, which, however, seems very far-fetched and improbable.

Quoting from the native commentary of Al-Beidawi, Sale further tells of a Muhammadan tradition to the effect that 'the angel who notes a man's good actions has the command over him who notes his evil actions; and that when a man does a good action, the angel of the right hand writes It down ten times; and when he commits an ill action the same angel says to the angel of the left hand, Forbear setting it down for seven hours; peradventure he may pray, or may ask pardon' (note on surah 1. in Sale's Koran, new ed., London, 1825, ii. 350).

The idea of the 'good' always preponderating over the 'evil' is taught abundantly in the rabbinic writings, as is also the idea of a respite ever being open to the condemned even at the eleventh hour, at the bar whether of human or of divine justice (see T.B. Ta'anith, 11a, where it is said that 'two ministering angels who accompany man, they give witness for him'). In the same passage in T.B. Ta'anith it is further said:

'When man goes to his everlasting home, all his works on earth are passed in review before him, and it is said to him. On such and such a day thou didst do such and such a deed. The man replies, Yes. Then it is said to him. Seal it (i.e. your evidence). He seals it and thus admits the justice of the Divine decree.'

Here man after death becomes his own recording angel—obviously a higher and more philosophical view.

Further references in rabbinical and apocalyptic literature are as follows:

In T.B. Megillah, 15b, the phrase In Est 6:1 about the sleepessness of the king is applied to God 'the king of the world,' who bids that 'the book of records of the Chronicles' be brought to Him. It is then found that 8himshai the scribe has erased the passage recording Mordecai's rescue of Ahasuerus, but Gabriel rewrites it 'for the merit of Israel.' Thus Gabriel becomes here a kind of national registrar. The Testament of Abraham, the Book of Jubilees, Enoch, the Syriac Apocalypse of Baruch, and 2 Esdras all speak of the day of the great Judgment, when angels and men alike will be called store the bar of justice and the book in which the deeds of men are recorded will be opened. According to the Testament of Abraham, this book in which the merits and demerits are written is ten cubits in breadth and six in thickness. Each man will be surrounded by two angels, one writing down his merits and the other his demerits, while an archangel weighs the two kinds against each other in a balance. Those whose merits and demerits are equal remain in a middle state (corresponding to the purgatory of the Church) and the Intercession of meritorious men, such as Abraham, saves them and brings them into paradise. The permanent recorder is Enoch, 'the teacher of heaven and earth, the scribe of righteousness,' and the other two angels are assistant recorders. This is probably the origin of the Qur'an statement alluded to above.

The Pharisaic school of thought, as reflected in the Mishnah, Talmud, and the Jewish liturgy generally, transferred a great deal of the eschatological connotations of the recording angel to man's temporal life on earth. Whilst admitting that man will be judged and his record taken in a hereafter, the rabbis taught that on the Jewish New Year's Day (Rosh Ha-Shanah, the first day of Tishri) the Books of Life and Death lie open before God, who as the Recorder par excellence looks through the records which He has put down against the name of each individual throughout the course of the year and then seals each one's destiny for the coming year. The mediaeval Kabbalah has amplified this doctrine with the addition of large angelological hierarchies into which man's soul enters on New Year's Day to hear its own favourable or unfavourable record from the mouth of hosts of recording angels. But the main trend of Jewish belief is in the direction of that simple but higher faith which holds that there is but one recording angel for or against man—God.

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