Identifying the Angel of Death

This week we begin reading the Torah anew with parashat Beresheet. Originally, God created a perfect world that was entirely good. He warned Adam not to consume of the Tree of Knowledge, for that would introduce evil—and death—into the world. The First Couple consumed the fruit anyway, thus putting a time limit on their lives, and the lives of all future human beings. A simple reading suggests that death only entered Creation at the time that Adam and Eve consumed the Forbidden Fruit. According to tradition, that took place on the Sixth Day, the self-same day that they were created. It was on the Sixth Day that God completed His work, and said that “behold, it was very good [tov me’od].” (Genesis 1:31) The Midrash (Beresheet Rabbah 9:5) states that Rabbi Meir would read these words not tov me’od, but rather tov mot, “death is good”! God, of course, foresaw all of human history from the very beginning, and intended for death to exist. Therefore, the existence of death, too, is a good thing.

On a deeper level, God had always intended for Adam and Eve to consume the Fruit. Otherwise, He wouldn’t have placed that enticing Tree of Knowledge within their grasp to begin with, nor would He have created the Serpent to seduce them. Ultimately, nothing can take place without God’s approval or knowledge. In a way, God had “tricked” Adam into consuming the Fruit and bringing death into the world. This is precisely what the Midrash (Tanchuma, Vayeshev 4:1) explains:

“Go and see the works of God; He acts circuitously in His doings toward the children of man.” (Psalms 66:5). Rabbi Yehoshua ben Karcha said: Even the terrible experiences You inflict upon us, You bring about circuitously. Come and see, when the Holy One, blessed be He, created the world, He fashioned the Angel of Death on the First Day. How do we know this? Rabbi Berechiah said: We know it from the verse, “And darkness was on the face of the deep…” (Genesis 1:2) “Darkness” refers to the Angel of Death, for he “darkens” the face of man. Yet Adam was created on the Sixth Day, so He “plotted” against him [so to speak], to bring death into the world, as it is said: “For in the day that you eat of it, you shall surely die…” (Genesis 2:12)

The Midrash explains that choshekh, “darkness”, is an appellation for the Angel of Death, who was brought into existence at the very start of Creation—long before Adam brought death into the world on the Sixth Day. While we generally think of God as being entirely good (and this is true), He is ultimately the source of everything in this universe, and that includes “evil”. This would be very difficult to accept if it wasn’t for the fact that God Himself declared this: “I form the light, and create darkness [choshekh]; I make peace, and create evil; I am God, doing all these things.” (Isaiah 45:7) God orchestrates it all—evil and death included—and for good reason, as difficult as it is for us to understand it from our limited viewpoint.

Gustav Doré’s depiction of Death

The Angel of Death is God’s creation, too, of course. While Death is often depicted in Western art as a skeleton in a black cloak, holding a scythe, this is not entirely accurate. The Talmud (Avodah Zarah 20b) describes the Angel of Death as wielding a sword, not a scythe. This is based on the Tanakh, where we read how “God sent an angel to Jerusalem to destroy it… and David lifted up his eyes and saw the Angel of God standing between the Earth and the Heavens, with his sword drawn in his hand, stretched out over Jerusalem…” (I Chronicles 21:15-16) The Talmud adds that the Angel of Death is bedecked with many eyes. However, this is only a uniform. What is the identity of the angel behind the deadly sword?

A Wandering Angel

Although Adam and Eve officially brought Death into the world, no one had yet to die at that moment. The first person to suffer death was Abel, slain by his brother Cain. Following this, God cursed Cain and declared that he would be a “wanderer” upon the Earth (Genesis 4:11-12). Perplexingly, we also read that Cain became the first city-builder, and settled permanently in a place called Nod. How could this be?

The Midrash (Tanchuma, Beresheet 11:2) explains that when God cursed him to be a “wanderer”, it meant that God temporarily turned Cain into the Angel of Death! He would “wander” the globe to take the souls of those bodies that reached their expiration date. This is a fitting punishment for Cain, since he was the first person to cause death in the world. He went on to serve in this role for the next 130 years.

At that point, as is well-known, his descendent Lamech (who was blind) shot an arrow and accidentally killed Cain. Lamech declared that “If Cain was avenged seven-fold, then Lamech seventy-seven-fold!” (Genesis 4:24) He was referring to God’s pronouncement upon Cain, which was to last seven generations (Genesis 4:15), Lamech being the seventh generation from Cain. Lamech argued that, since his murder of Cain was accidental, the decree upon him should be delayed even further; not seven-fold, but seventy-seven-fold.

As an aside, this Midrash also explains why Adam finally decided to have a third child when he was 130 years old (Genesis 5:3). It was after 130 years that Cain was killed by Lamech, leaving Adam childless. The wives of Lamech, Adah and Tzillah, gently rebuked Adam, leading him to have another child, Shet (or Seth), from whom would descend Noah and the rest of present-day humanity.

Handing Over the Sword

The Midrash above says that following those 130 years, Cain was relieved of his duties as the Angel of Death, and henceforth the task went to Lamech. Although the Midrash does not say how long Lamech served as Death, we can calculate that if Cain’s tenure lasted 130 years (“seven-fold”), and Lamech’s was eleven times that (“seventy-seven-fold”), then it would take us right to roughly the time of the Great Flood, which happened in the year 1656 according to tradition. That would be a fitting (and busy) time for a change of personnel.

In fact, a different Midrash (the ancient Ma’aseh Torah, attributed to Rabbi Yehuda haNasi) tells us that there are actually six different angels of death: the angel Gabriel serves as the Angel of Death when it comes to taking the souls of kings and great figures; the angels Kaftziel and Mash’chit over youths and children; Mashbir and Chemah over animals; and the angel Af for everyone else. Sometimes, the demonic couple Samael and Lilith take on the powers of Death (see, for instance, Sha’ar HaPesukim on Tehilim).

More than anyone else though, the one who takes on the role of Death is none other than Satan, the Heavenly “Accuser” or “Prosecutor”. The Talmud (Bava Batra 16a) proves it from the Book of Job:

Reish Lakish said: Satan, the evil inclination, and the Angel of Death are one. He is the Satan, as it is written: “So the Satan went forth from the presence of God, and smote Job with vile sores.” (Job 2:7) He is also the evil inclination, as it is written: “The impulse of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continuously.” (Genesis 6:5) He is also the Angel of Death, as it is written: “Only spare his life.” (Job 2:6) Thus, Job’s life depends upon him…

We see from the Book of Job that God gave Satan permission to harm Job, but not to take his life, implying that Satan is the Angel of Death, too. The Zohar (II, 262b) adds that Satan is one and the same as the Serpent in the Garden of Eden, and describes in more detail how Satan hands over the souls of the dead to Dumah, the angel presiding over Gehinnom (III, 186a). Dumah is alluded to in the Tanakh, as well, for example Psalms 115:17 says that “The dead do not praise God; neither do those that descend to Dumah.”

The Talmud above also associates the yetzer hara, the “evil inclination”, with Satan, proving it by connecting the verse in Genesis to the verse in Job through the key word rak, “only”, that appears in both. (This method of Torah exegesis is known as gzerah shavah, where two different contexts are linked by equivalent terminology to teach us a hidden lesson.) As we’ve explored in the past, at the End of Days, Mashiach will neutralize Satan, destroying the evil inclination and the power of Death along with it (see Sukkah 52a).

We began with the teaching that Death was created on the very first day of Creation, alluded to in the word choshekh, “darkness”. In that same verse, the Torah speaks of the Divine Spirit, Ruach Elohim, that hovered over the waters. Our Sages teach that this refers to the soul of Mashiach, which was created on that same First Day (Beresheet Rabbah 2:4). God created these two opposing forces at the same moment, for it is His way to always “prepare the cure before the disease”, as our Sages taught. At the End, Mashiach will neutralize Death (חשך) with the power of that Divine Spirit (כח רוח אלהים). Beautifully, the gematria of these two terms is equal, both being 328. In the same way, and for the same reason, the gematria of Mashiach (משיח) is equal to Nachash, the Primordial “Serpent” (נחש), both being 358, as the former will neutralize the latter. This will open the doors for mankind to return to the Garden of Eden, eternally basking in God’s light.

For fans of The Matrix, click here to see how the above was wonderfully depicted cinematically in the final few minutes of the film trilogy.

The above essay is adapted from Garments of Light, Volume Three.
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