Of Men and Angels: Extract

In the opening pages of Of Men and Angels, the Archangel Gabriel introduces himself and the theme of the novel.

It pleases you to picture me with wings. My natural element is air and humans have literal imaginations. But if you study the myths that have become your scriptures, you will struggle to find a single feather. Whatever the elaborations of later writers, the poets who first brought me to life in Canaan some three or four thousand years ago perceived me as unexceptional. Why else would they have shown Abraham and Lot offering me food, shelter and water to wash my dusty feet? Why else would they have made Sarah doubt my news that she was to bear a child?

It is not just my appearance that has been embellished over time. Having constructed an intricate Creation myth, you then agonised over the angels’ place in it. Were we formed on the first day with the light, on the second with the sky, or on the fifth with the other flying creatures? Furthermore, what part did we play on the sixth day when God created you? That question at least I can answer. It was not we who helped to create you but you who created us. You wanted to bridge the gulf that had opened between heaven and earth. In your oldest stories, you have God walking with Adam, wrangling with Abraham and even wrestling with Jacob. But the more mindful that you grew of the majesty and mystery of God, the harder it was to envisage His approaching you in person. You needed intermediaries and came up with us.

I have the distinction of being the first angel named in your Bible: Gabriel. It may surprise you to learn that only three of us are identified in its pages, the others being Michael and Raphael – and even Raphael’s place is contentious, since Protestants regard the Book of Tobit, in which he features, as apocryphal. In all, I make four undisputed appearances: two to Daniel explaining his visions; one to Zechariah announcing the birth of his son, John; and, of course, one to Mary, heralding the birth of Jesus. Meanwhile, tradition – or rather traditions, since there is no agreement even among adherents of the same faith – credits me with being the anonymous angel mentioned in several other episodes. So, to the Jews, it was I who averted the sacrifice of Isaac and rescued Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego from the fiery furnace. It was I who, according to Ezekiel, was sent to destroy Jerusalem (although, by then, as you shall see, I had experience of civic destruction). To the Christians, it was I who warned Joseph to flee from Herod, I who appeared to Jesus in Gethsemane and who rolled the stone away from His tomb. Nor does my role end with the Bible. Muslims believe that I dictated the Qur’an to Muhammad, accompanied him on his night journey to Jerusalem and was present at his death. Mormons believe that I am the spiritual incarnation of Noah and restored the priesthood keys to Joseph Smith.

My immediate concern is the very first story with which I am associated: that of Abraham and his extended family. Having encouraged the Egyptian slave, Hagar, to return to her mistress, Sarah, and apprised her of the imminent birth of her son, Ishmael, I visited Abraham in his tent, together with Michael and Raphael. Even here, however, there is no consensus about our respective roles. Christian tradition, no doubt anticipating my part in that far more momentous annunciation, depicts me announcing the birth of Isaac to Abraham and Sarah, while Jewish tradition affords that honour to Michael, leaving me with the less edifying task of annihilating Sodom. The ease with which I effect it – shattering the rock on which the sinful city stands with a single finger – is in inverse proportion to the devastation caused, the repercussions of which are still being felt by those trapped beneath the rubble.

It is not for me to question my allotted role. I am no more of a free agent in the human narrative than in the divine plan that it seeks to elucidate. Yet just as I cannot but admire your ability to turn timeworn myths into a subtle and enduring theology, so I cannot but deplore the consequences. And looking back at the earliest account of events in Sodom, I am amazed at the difference from the story that later became canonical. Indeed, my fellow angels and I barely appear at all.