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The idea that the law was given through angels seems common enough in the first century literature:

Galatians 3:19

Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made, and it was put in place through angels by an intermediary.

Acts 7:53

you who have received the law that was given through angels but have not obeyed it.

Hebrews 2:2

For since the message spoken through angels was binding, and every violation and disobedience received its just punishment...

Possibly in Josephus's Antiquities of the Jews XV:163

And for ourselves, we have learned from God the most excellent of our doctrines, and the most holy part of our law, by angels or ambassadors

There is no mention (at least in the translations I checked) of angels in Exodus 19 when the law is given at Sinai. So where does this idea come from? Are there other references to this tradition?

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There is no mention of angels as law-givers/administrators anywhere in torah that I'm aware of (certainly not in Exodus 19-20, where God speaks directly to the people). This is a good question: where did the later writers get that idea? –  Gone Quiet Apr 29 '13 at 13:02
    
+1. Great question. I never realized how sticky of question this is. I've been doing a little reading on the subject and it seems no one knows. –  Matthew Miller May 10 '13 at 6:05

5 Answers 5

up vote 3 down vote accepted

Divine agency

In many Ancient Near Eastern cultures, there was a political concept we call 'agency'. In this, the delegate or ambassador of a god simply spoke in the first person on that god's behalf. The use of agency is only touched on rarely in the broader historical narrative of Genesis–2 Kings, where we sometimes find the Messenger of YHWH speaking about YHWH in the first person.1 Two occasions where this agency concept are found most explicitly are:

"Behold, I send an angel before you to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place that I have prepared. Pay careful attention to him and obey his voice; do not rebel against him, for he will not pardon your transgression, for my name is in him. But if you carefully obey his voice and do all that I say, then I will be an enemy to your enemies and an adversary to your adversaries." (Exodus 23.20-22, ESV translation)

God's name (authority) is in the angel, and when the angel speaks, it is God's words.

Now the angel of the LORD went up from Gilgal to Bochim. And he said, "I brought you up from Egypt and brought you into the land that I swore to give to your fathers. I said, 'I will never break my covenant with you...'" (Judges 2.1, ESV translation)

The angel speaks, but his words are God's words.


Growing interest in angels

Today's critical scholarship generally agrees that the Genesis–2 Kings narrative was compiled and finalized sometime during or shortly after the Babylonian exile. (Second Kings concludes circa 560 BC.) After the exilic period, during the Second Temple era, we find Jewish literature become increasingly interested in heavenly politics and the role of angels.

This is especially the case in the apocalyptic genre. Whereas the earlier prophets claimed to receive their revelations directly from God ('the word of YHWH came to me', 'thus says YHWH', etc.), the Second Temple literature sees a drastic increase in angelic mediators of these revelations (Zechariah, 1 Enoch, Daniel, to name a few).

It's possible that sometime during this Second Temple period, the growing view that God delegated everything through his angels was read backward into those 'agency' seeds of thought found in the biblical narrative. In this way, readers inferred that God must have revealed the Law through an angelic mediator.


The Book of Jubilees

One such Second Temple text was the Book of Jubilees, a retelling of the Genesis-Exodus narrative written sometime in the second century BC.

It is in this book, perhaps, that we find the earliest references to the idea that God gave the Law to Moses through an angelic mediator:2

And [God] said to the angel of the presence, "Write for Moses . . ." (Jubilees 1.27)

And the angel of the presence spoke to Moses according to the word of the Lord, saying, "Write the complete history of the creation, how in six days the Lord God finished all his works and all that he created, and kept Sabbath on the seventh day and hallowed it for all ages . . ." (2.1)

Several more times throughout the book, this angel speaks in the first person:

"I have written in the book of the first law, in that which I have written for you . . ." (6.22)

"For this reason I have written for you in the words of the Law . . ." (30.12)

"All this account I have written for you . . ." (30.21)

"And behold the commandment regarding the Sabbaths — I have written them down for you . . ." (50.6)

". . . as it is written in the tablets, which [God] gave into my hands that I should write out for you the laws of the seasons . . ." (50.13)

Evidently, by the middle of the first century AD, this concept had become commonplace, at least among the Christian sect.


Footnotes

1 For a substantial treatment of this concept as it relates to the Messenger of YHWH, see: René A. López, Identifying the "Angel of the Lord" in the Book of Judges: A Model for Reconsidering the Referent in Other Old Testament Loci.

2 The following quotations from Jubilees have been adapted from the R.H. Charles translation.

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The new testament ἄγγελος can mean messenger. For example, in Revelation Jesus says to the angel of the church of xxx write. This can mean either write this to the pastor or a guardian angel over the church. So here when it says The Law was instituted through the work of angels, could it possible mean the work of prophets? Clearly it was administered through the Prophet Moses and the Levitical Priesthood. It seems more of a stretch to go for the other obvious meaning, more common in English, ἄγγελος meaning heavenly angel.

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interesting point –  Jack Douglas Apr 24 at 21:04

The Hebrew Scriptures identify human beings as temporarily "lower" than the angels (e.g. Ps 8:5, although some translations take the meaning as "lower than God"). Moreover, the OT repeatedly depict angels as purveyors of divine revelation; the term "angel" itself means messenger. That is a very general picture, which James B. Jordan buttresses further by arguing that the serpent who tempted Adam and Eve was an embodiment of the great angel Lucifer, who was sent, not to tempt them, but to instruct them. Instead, he seized his chance to defeat those who were destined to rule over all of God's creation (including angels), but that is another story. Nonetheless, it does make sense of why there is a talking serpent in Eden.

In terms of more specific rationale, Jacob's dream at Bethel was of a ladder between earth and heaven, being ascended and descended by angels (Gen 28:12). He thus identified this place as the house of God and the gate of heaven (Gen 28:17), and made vows that Yahweh would be his God, using language reminiscent of how God later led Israel through the wilderness (28:20–21). Given such connections, it would certainly not be surprising to think that later interpreters made a connection between that Bethel and Mount Sinai, and therefore inferred angelic involvement in God's self-revelation at the latter.

Whatever the source of Paul's notion that the law was given through angels, he certainly held the view in common with others, both in the NT (see e.g. Acts 7:53) and beyond.

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In part, this is derived from Deut. 33:2 and Psa. 68:17.

In Deut. 33:2, it is written,

And he said, "Yahveh came from Sinai, and He rose up from Seir to them; He shined forth from mount Paran, and He came with ten thousands of holy ones; from His right hand, a fiery law for them."

וַיֹּאמַר יַהְוֶה מִסִּינַי בָּא וְזָרַח מִשֵּׂעִיר לָמֹו הֹופִיעַ מֵהַר פָּארָן וְאָתָה מֵרִבְבֹת קֹדֶשׁ מִימִינֹו אשֶׂדת לָֽמֹו

Regarding the phrase מרבבות קדש, "ten thousands of holy ones," Rabbi Avraham ibn Ezra wrote הם המלאכים, that is, "They are the angels." Furthermore, he says that the phrase אשֶׂדת ("fiery law") refers to the Torah [of Moshe] which was given באש וברק, "with fire and lightning" (cp. Exo. 19:16-18).


In Psa. 68:17, it is written,

The chariots of God are twenty thousands upon thousands. The Lord is among them in the holy place of Sinai.

רֶכֶב אֱלֹהִים רִבֹּתַיִם אַלְפֵי שִׁנְאָן אֲדֹנָי בָם סִינַי בַּקֹּדֶשׁ

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This only establishes that God has a heavenly court, so to speak. Where do the Christian scriptures get the idea that these angels are in charge of anything having to do with the covenant? –  Gone Quiet Apr 26 '13 at 19:12
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@MonicaCellio The New Testament apostles and prophets, Stephen and Paul, would likely have gotten that revelation from God Himself. –  Mike Bull Apr 29 '13 at 0:33

It is always God who reveals Himself and speaks to Moses and to the prophets. However, if we take a close look, we may find that even though God is speaking and being addressed as God, He really is represented by His messenger who speaks in His Name and with His authority.

The mention of God´s Angel in Moses´ encounter with God in the burning thornbush teaches us that, while we are careful and eager to make the proper distinctions between Angel and God, the bible and Moses and prophets and apostles are not, at least: not always. (Revelation´s 22:8,9 "I, John, am the one who heard and saw these things. And when I had heard and seen them, I fell down to worship at the feet of the angel who had been showing them to me. But he said to me, "Don't do that! I am a fellow servant with you and with your fellow prophets and with all who keep the words of this scroll. Worship God!" is really an exception in regard to encounters of humans with an angel because the angel here introduced himself as servant angel and not as ambassador in God´s glory. In most other instances (e.g. Exodus 3) it is quite different.

There is no jealousy of God against honour and adoration given to his beloved Sons when they represent His Majesty.

To assume that the Creator of sun and stars should somehow bodily be limited to a - even if burning - thornbush, must have striked impossible not alone to Moses. This, however, did not prevent him from solemn adoration. If, in the end, God shall be All and Everything for All, it would seem very narrow and restrictive to view not His Angels as carrying His Name and Authority rightfully.

(It is impressive and good for us to find that the development of thought in the scriptures does not always follow our lines.)

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While God sometimes speaks through messengers, the law was given directly (Ex. 19-20). The passages in the question, however, claim that the law was given through angels. Can you address that? What you wrote is interesting but it doesn't seem to answer the question, unless I'm missing something? –  Gone Quiet Apr 28 '13 at 17:15
    
The only answer I can see is that God never spoke to humans but through His Mighty Angels. This is why the appearance of the first (and by this singular) Son of God was so unique, even though his coming was in mortality like our own. Giving the Law to Israel and appearing to Moses was by God but thr Angels carried it out. God lives in unattainably bright light. –  hannes Apr 29 '13 at 5:35
    
So what happened in Ex 20? –  Gone Quiet Apr 29 '13 at 13:03
    
It was I believe an appearance of God like the one in Ex 3, where Moses only mentions once (v.2) that it is the Angel who speaks to him. Nevertheless he, Moses and speaks like to the God. God is one with the Angel. –  hannes Apr 29 '13 at 13:15
    
But in 19-20 the text mentions an angel zero times. We're all certainly free to believe what we choose, but I'm asking you to support that from the text. –  Gone Quiet Apr 29 '13 at 13:17

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