Haftarah Parshat Naso
May 18, 2002 in Israel
May 25, 2002 in the Diaspora
The opening of the haftarah is marked by the appearance of an angel to Manoach’s wife announcing the future birth of a son: “An angel of the Lord appeared to the woman and said to her: ‘You are barren and have born no children but you shall conceive and bear a son’”. (verse 3) As the story progresses, this angel is variously described as a “man of God” (verse 6), who “looked like an angel of God, very frightening” (Ibid.), and “a man” (verse 10). While the Biblical story teller certainly expects us to understand that God has sent a divine messenger to the woman, the ambiguity found in these descriptions caused great intellectual and philosophical ferment among the medieval commentators when they sought to explain who this messenger really was.
For these commentators, this question was more than merely a issue of semantics. It also provided an opportunity to examine the viewpoints of these scholars with regard to the philosophical significance of angels. Rabbi Joseph Kara, the 12th century French commentator, states unequivocally that this messenger was an angel. This viewpoint is confirmed by Rabbi David Kimche (Radak), the 13th century Provencal commentator. He, however, emphasizes the dual nature of this angel, who appeared materially in the “form of a great and honored prophet.” According to Radak, only at the end of the story when “the angel of the Lord ascended in the flames of the altar” (verse 21) did Manoah and his wife realize that this man was really an angel. Maimonides, in his philosophical magnum opus ‘The Guide to the Perplexed’ (Part 2, Chapter 6), takes a different view of the nature of this angel. He asserts that the appearance of the angel was a “vision of prophecy” rather than an actual physical occurrence. This explanation is consistent with Maimonides’ viewpoint that angels are a contemplative force rather than actual physical entities. Rabbi Yitchak Abrabanel, the 15th century Spanish commentator and philosopher, in reaction to Maimonides’ naturalistic interpretation, reverts to a more classical posture. He asserts that the messenger was an “angel” who presented himself to the couple in the form of a man.
The most unusual interpretation among the medieval commentators comes from Rabbi Levi ben Gershon (Ralbag), the 13-14th century French commentator and philosopher, whose rationalistic approach led him to the conclusion that the messenger in the story was a prophet rather than an angel. He explains, in a naturalistic way, all of the elements in the plot of the story which seem to contradict this conclusion.
When is an angel really an angel? It depends on how you look at this question. The variety of answers that we find among the commentators of the past and the indeterminacy of their answers must invariably lead us to the conclusion that some things do not yield simple answers. This assertion is certainly true regarding religious issues. It is equally true in other realms of life as well.
* This Torah reading is read on the day following Shavuot in Israel. Outside of Israel it is read on the following Shabbat.