Every spring, as Jewish families gather to celebrate Passover (Pesach), they retell the story of the Israelites' hasty exodus from Egypt. The ancient holiday takes its English name from God's promise to "pass over" the homes of faithful Israelites while delivering the 10th and most painful plague upon the Egyptians, the death of their firstborn. As it's written in Exodus 12:23:
For the Lord will pass through to smite the Egyptians; and when he seeth the blood upon the lintel, and on the two side posts, the Lord will pass over the door, and will not suffer the destroyer to come in unto your houses to smite you.
In the popular retelling of the Passover story, the "destroyer" is often called the "angel of death," but the words "angel of death" don't actually appear anywhere in the Hebrew Bible, the Christian New Testament or the Islamic Quran.
Does that mean that the angel of death doesn't exist in the monotheistic traditions? Not at all. It only means that our popular conception of the angel of death doesn't come from the standard biblical canon, but from curious texts like the "Testament of Abraham" from the first century C.E., and from tales of the angel of death circulated in the Hadith, sayings attributed to the Prophet Muhammad and his companions.
"Stories about angels move around Jews, Christians and Muslims like nobody's business," says Stephen Burge, a research associate at the Institute of Ismaili Studies in London and author of "Angels in Islam. "There was a lot of overlap and sharing across these traditions in the late antiquity and medieval period."
Very few angels are named in the Hebrew Bible (known as the Old Testament in Christianity) or the New Testament. The angels Michael and Gabriel make appearances in the book of Daniel, and God sends the angel Gabriel to inform Mary that she will be the mother of Jesus. But the authors of the Bible took great pains to emphasize that God was the only one calling the shots, not angels. Indeed, in the Bible, there is no mention of an angel who ushers people from death to the afterlife.
The ancient world was full of polytheistic traditions that portrayed death as its own god with its own agency, explains Annette Yoshiko Reed, a religion professor at New York University and the author of "Demons, Angels and Writing in Ancient Judaism." Mot, for example, was the death god of ancient Canaanites and Phoenicians, and the Egyptian Book of the Dead presents a vast pantheon of gods and fearsome creatures encountered in the afterlife.
"In the Bible, though, the divine world is focused on a singular assertion of divine power, nothing akin to a polytheistic division of labor," says Reed. "The same God who created the world masters both life and death."
That's why the angel in the Exodus Passover story isn't given a name, but rather a role — the destroyer. And it is God himself who passes over the houses of the enslaved Israelites and decides who lives and who dies, not the angel.
Reed says that in the third and second century B.C.E., there was a shift in ancient Jewish literature that gave angels distinct names and personalities, as well as roles. The book of "Jubilees," written in the second century B.C.E., is one of those texts.
"Jubilees" starts out with Noah pleading to God to get rid of the demons that were roaming the Earth after the great flood and tormenting his family. A figure named Mastema, the "chief of the spirits," stepped forward with a proposition that some of the demons remain with him to do his bidding. God agrees that a tenth of the spirits should do this while the rest descend into "the place of condemnation."
In "Jubilees," Mastema is an angel — he's called Prince Mastema — but God employs Mastema and his evil army to tempt and torture humankind, "to do all manner of wrong and sin, and all manner of transgression, to corrupt and destroy, and to shed blood upon the earth."
Mastema is the one that comes up with the idea of testing Abraham's faith by commanding him to sacrifice his son Isaac. And it's Mastema, we learn in Jubilees, who was the "destroyer" of the Passover story.
Still, Reed emphasizes, Mastema is not working against God to counter his divine will, but to be the "bad guy" who carries it out.
"Like Satan in the book of Job, Mastema has a divine role," says Reed. "He's part of the divine justice system."
Nice Try, Abraham. You Can't Fool the Angel of the Death
As time went on, Jewish and early Christian authors played freely with the portrayal of an angel of death. The "Testament of Abraham" was written in Egypt in the first century C.E. and not only personifies Death, but pokes some fun at it.
In this highly entertaining text, the great prophet and patriarch Abraham has lived a full life (995 years) and God sends the angel Michael to inform Abraham of his impending death. Abraham isn't ready to die yet, so he tries to stall death by asking Michael a million questions, some clearly meant to amuse the reader.
For example, when Abraham is shown the wide gate that leads a departed soul to destruction and the narrow gate that leads to eternal life, he cries out: "Woe is me, what shall I do? For I am a man broad of body, and how shall I be able to enter by the narrow gate, by which a boy of fifteen years cannot enter?"
Eventually, God sends Death himself to collect Abraham's soul, but Abraham keeps up his old tricks. He asks Death endless questions about the different types of death (there are 72) and all of the mysterious and gruesome forms that the angel of death takes when collecting the unrighteous (a most gloomy face of a viper, a face of a most terrible precipice, a face of a fierce stormy sea, a terrible three-headed dragon, etc.) Finally, Death has enough:
"Behold, I have told you all that you have asked. Now I tell you, most righteous Abraham, to dismiss all counsel and to cease from asking anything once and for all. Come! Depart with me, as the God and Judge of all has commanded me."
Abraham says to Death, "Depart from me just a little while, so that I may rest on my couch. I am very faint at heart."
In the end, it's Death that plays the final trick, imploring Abraham to "take my right hand, and may cheerfulness and life and strength come to you." The great patriarch takes Death's hand and dies at once.
"In the 'Testament of Abraham,' Death is a personality; that's his job," says Reed. "The figure of Death is at the service of God and only kills Abraham because he tricks him. Between the two of them, the image of the righteous Jew is superior to the figure of Death itself."
Malak al-Mawt, the Angel of Death in Islam
Like the Bible, the Quran only mentions two angels by name, Michael and Gabriel, but the role of angels in Islam is greatly expanded in the Hadith, a collection of teachings and sayings attributed to the Prophet Muhammad and his followers.
Through the Hadith, we learn that there are four archangels in Islam: Michael, Gabriel, Israfil (who blows the trumpet to ring in the Final Judgment) and the angel of death. Although some sources claim the angel of death's name is Azrael, there's no textual proof for that, says Burge. The correct name is Malak al-Mawt, Arabic for "angel of death."
Similar to the angel of death in ancient Jewish and early Christian texts, Malak al-Mawt doesn't choose who lives and who dies, but strictly carries out God's orders. Every soul is assigned an ajal, a fixed date of death that is immovable and unchangeable. Once a year, in the month before Ramadan, God hands Malak al-Mawt a list of all those who will die in the coming year, and it's Malak al-Mawt's responsibility to harvest their souls.
Like the Testament of Abraham, the Hadith contains accounts of other great prophets who tried to elude or cheat death. When Malak al-Mawt comes for Moses, for example, he slaps the angel so hard that one of his eyes pops out. After God fixes the angel's eye, Malak al-Mawt goes back and strikes a deal with Moses that if he goes peacefully, he'll be buried within a "stone's throw" of the Holy Land.
In contrast to Abraham and Moses, when Death comes for the Prophet Muhammad, he submits to his fate. Burge notes that in the Hadith, the angel of death knocks and asks Muhammad's permission before he enters, a sign of ultimate respect for the Prophet. In one Hadith, Death places Muhammad's fate in the Prophet's own hands:
"God has sent me to you, and has commanded me to obey you; if you command me to take your soul, then I will take it; but if you do not want [me to], then I will leave it." [Muhammad] said: "Do [it], angel of death." He said: "Yes, as you command."
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