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Where Are the Angels - Ben Volman
December 13, 2017

By Ben Volman, Toronto Ministry Team and Messianic Rabbi of Kehillat Eytz Chaim / Tree of Life Congregation

We live in an age that’s far too cynical to believe in angels.  Yet at this time of year, the reassuring images of angels are everywhere—and why should we avoid them?  The message of the heavenly heralds from the outskirts of Bethlehem is worth receiving at any season, and any time of life:

“In the highest heaven, glory to God!
And on earth, peace among people of good will!”

And yet, you may well ask, where are they? Where have they been for me? It’s a question that another sojourner on the road to Bethlehem may have been pondering: Ya’akov, renamed as Yisrael—better known as Jacob, son of Isaac, grandson of Abraham—was wandering with his family through these very hills on his way toward Bethlehem almost 2000 years before the birth of Yeshua. And he had good reason to question where his angels were hiding.

 Not long before, he’d been wrestling with an angel—God meeting him face to face—as he was trying to return home, the place of promise blessings. Now he’s seeking the solace of his inheritance.

Jacob had first come this way as a brash, hopeful young man setting out from his father’s house. This was also his first real experience with God (that we know of) giving him a vision of angels on a stairway between heaven and earth.  On that bright morning, heaven had not seemed so far, and the world hadn’t seemed so forbidding. He named the place of his dream “Beth El”—the House of God—saying with wonder: “God was right here and I didn’t realize it” (Genesis 28:16).

Now he’s returning with a deeper, wiser, and more humbling awareness of God and his own character.  He’d already seen angels on this journey home (see Genesis 32:2,3) and received instructions to return the same way he’d come so long before.

"God said to Ya‘akov, 'Get up, go up to Beit-El and live there, and make there an altar to God, who appeared to you when you fled ‘Esav your brother.'  Then Ya‘akov said to his household and all the others with him…  'We’re going to move on and go up to Beit-El. There I will build an altar to God, who answered me when I was in such distress and stayed with me wherever I went.'"

As he enters this time of life, Israel is a changed man—a man of few words. He is confronted by the evidence (from the previous disturbing chapter) that he will no longer determine the fate of his legacy as he once did when he confronted Laban and wooed Rachel.

Now the future will be shaped by his sons, and they are a tough, determined lot who have paid little notice to his stories of miracles from the God of his fathers and his spiritual legacy appears uncertain.

They are the product of two competing sisters—and their two concubines.  His beloved Rachel—the strong-willed beauty who had captured his heart-- had feared that she would be barren.  She cried out to God, “Give me sons or I die;” then she had a son, Yoseph. And as they trekked through the valley roads between the Judean hills, Rachel was pregnant again.

On the way to Efrat, she was overcome with contractions but this time, the joy of a son would end in tragedy. The caravan stopped as Rachel prepared to deliver a child.  Her tragic last moments are captured poignantly in Genesis 35:17ff:

"While she was undergoing this hard labor, the midwife said to her, 'Don’t worry, this is also a son for you.'  But she died in childbirth. As she was dying she named her son Ben-Oni [son of my grief], but his father called him Binyamin [son of the right hand, son of the south].  So Rachel died and was buried on the way to Efrat (that is, Beit-Lechem).  Ya‘akov set up a standing-stone on her grave; it is the standing-stone of Rachel’s grave to this day.  Isra’el continued his travels and pitched his tent on the other side of Migdal-‘Eder."

Ya’akov’s own voice remains silent—only his actions are shown: the renaming of the child and setting up the grave marker. This was almost certainly one of the most tragic moments in his difficult life.  He doesn’t want his son burdened by the painful memory of his mother’s death.  The death and the burial ground lead Israel to remain in the region. He sets up the family tents not far, in the hills near an ancient place called Migdal Eder, the “Tower of the Flock.”

This so called tower was an ancient curiosity off the road near Bethlehem and its remnants were around for hundreds of years.  It looked like the ruins of an ancient defensive tower built over the road for reasons that had long faded into history. It had become a gathering site for shepherds seeking refuge as they watched their sheep.

The hills of Judah appear to be barren. But the mist that comes down at night and lies in great clouds in the valleys, especially during the fall and winter months when the temperatures during the day can be chilly, but it provides ample food for the sheep that are allowed to wander the hills.

There is little in this story to give comfort—and more to give us pause.  How did Israel experience God in the years to come? We know that went through more sorrow before he finally had a surprising sense of restoration in his last years. Is he close to God during these times?  Does he ever wonder, as we would—what happened to the angels who I thought would watch over me?

We get a small glimpse of his spiritual depth in the last blessings shared with his sons in Genesis 49, speaking from his death-bed about the the “last days”—acharit ha’yamim—and leaves them with this vision of a coming future ruler—the Messiah who will spring up from the line of Judah (v. 10):

"The scepter will not pass from Y’hudah,
nor the ruler’s staff from between his legs,
until he comes to whom [obedience] belongs; 
and it is he whom the peoples will obey."

As we get older, God is sometimes harder to see through the confusion of greater challenges.  After he left the ministry, my friend Al Runge tells us that his prayer life had begun to dwindle, and one day he felt God saying, “You don’t talk to me any more.” And he felt embarrassed, but what he was really feeling was something like this: “I wasn’t sure you’d still be interested in hearing me.”

In the days following the loss of Rachel, Israel settled near her tomb, but eventually returned home to bury his father, Yitzhak. The sense of tragedy lingered for many centuries over this place near Bethlehem where Rachel died giving birth to her youngest.  The site was still evident to the Messianic Jewish historian of the fourth century, Eusebius, who noted its place more than a kilometre outside Bethlehem.

But more important, just as the house of David’s claim to parentage of Messiah was so clear in Scripture, a new tradition arose.  Of course, we know that Micah taught that the Messiah would come out of Bethlehem, (Micah 5: 1,2).  But a tradition also grew up around the Migdal Eder, as we read in Micah 4:8:

"You, tower of the flock,
hill of the daughter of Tziyon,
to you your former sovereignty will return,
the royal power of the daughter of Yerushalayim."

We see in this chapter an echo of the great promises of Ya’akov in verse 1—but above all, the direct reference to the sovereignty of David, the shepherd-king who had let his sheep graze in these very hills and wrote, “The Lord is my shepherd.”

And so it came to be a traditional understanding that the Messiah would be revealed at this very spot.  And who were here? This place had become the feeding ground of an unusual group of shepherds, unlike the common type known throughout the land. This was grazing area of flocks destined for sacrifice. This is what we’re told by Alfred Edersheim in his classic volume, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah,: "the flocks, which pastured there, were destined for Temple Sacrifices, and...the shepherds who watch over them were not ordinary shepherds." And we read in Luke 2:8ff, after the birth of Yeshua in Beit-Lechem:

"In the countryside nearby were some shepherds spending the night in the fields, guarding their flocks, when an angel of Adonai appeared to them, and the Sh'khinah of Adonai shone around them. They were terrified; but the angel said to them, 'Don’t be afraid, because I am here announcing to you Good News that will bring great joy to all the people.  This very day, in the town of David, there was born for you a Deliverer who is the Messiah, the Lord.  Here is how you will know: you will find a baby wrapped in cloth and lying in a feeding trough.' Suddenly, along with the angel was a vast army from heaven praising God:  'In the highest heaven, glory to God!  And on earth, peace among people of good will!'”  (CJB)

Where were the angels? On their way. 

But I’ve been around long enough to know that angels aren’t going to make it to the six o’clock news.  Someone’s spiritual call isn’t going to get coverage on our favourite TV show. The answers from heaven that we seek are rarely recorded as history. Except here, in this story—the birth of Yeshua.

The tragedies of Israel and his beloved Rachel echo throughout the story.  The death of innocent babies whom Herod suspects might be the Messiah brings the sound first heard by Jeremiah, of “Rachel, weeping for her children.”  Jeremiah was in mourning because the Jewish people were being deported to Babylon.  But in Matthew’s time, the weeping is for the death of children murdered by a ruthless tyrant. Later, Yeshua’s father will go down to Egypt—fleeing Herod just as Israel’s sons went down to Egypt to flee famine.

When the angels make their declaration to the shepherds, we are meant to see all the beginning of all the Messianic prophecies of Scripture about to converge.  Out of Israel’s spiritual struggle to keep faith over the centuries, a moment of fulfillment has come.

For many of us, our spiritual journey seemed to start out with a feeling that we were in the presence of angels.  As time went on, we became more aware of our faults, our weaknesses, and felt as if we were wearing out.  This is the ultimate lesson of Israel; of ultimate grace.  Angels are coming. There are blessings to come which will certainly bear us up on eagle’s wings and hold onto us “through the valley of the shadow,” as the prophet Isaiah wrote:

"He invigorates the exhausted,
he gives strength to the powerless.
Young men may grow tired and weary,
even the fittest may stumble and fall;
but those who hope in Adonai will renew their strength,
they will soar aloft as with eagles’ wings;
when they are running they won’t grow weary,
when they are walking they won’t get tired."
(Isaiah 40: 29ff)

Filed under: Jewish Festivals, Special Days, Jewish History, Devotional Study


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