Why Don't We Know the Names of the Angels in the Book of Mormon?
Balaam and the angel, painting from Gustav Jaeger, 1836 via Wikipedia
April 19, 2018
KnoWhy #426
Balaam and the angel, painting from Gustav Jaeger, 1836 via Wikipedia
Old Testament Gospel Doctrine Lesson #16
“Behold, an angel of the Lord came and stood before them, and he spake unto them.”

1 Nephi 3:29

The Know

After the Israelites left Egypt, they traveled through the country of the Moabites on their way to the promise land (Numbers 22:1). The king of the Moabites was afraid of the Israelites and asked a prophet named Balaam to curse them (vv. 3–6). As Balaam was on his way to do so, “the angel of the Lord” stopped him, sword in hand (v. 22–23). However, this angel did not do what we might have expected him to do: mention who he was. This may seem strange to modern readers who are used to knowing the names of angels, such as Gabriel, Raphael, and Michael. However, angels in the early books of the Old Testament almost always go unnamed.1

As biblical scholar Carol A. Newsom has noted, “in contrast to later writings,” texts from before the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians “exhibit almost no interest in the heavenly messengers themselves. They are not individuated in any way. They do not have personal names.”2 Angels play a significant role in 29 chapters of these pre-exilic portions of the Bible.3 In all of these instances, the angels are referred to simply as an “angel of God” or an “angel of the Lord,” except in one instance when the angel is described as the “angel which redeemed me from all evil” (Genesis 48:16).4

In fact, it is sometimes difficult even to tell the difference between an angel and God Himself. In Exodus 3:2–4, for example, “the angel of the Lord” appeared to Moses “in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush. ... And Moses said, I will now turn aside, and see ... why the bush is not burnt. And ... God called unto him out of the midst of the bush, and said, Moses, Moses. And he said, Here am I.” In these verses, it seems clear that the “angel of the Lord” is actually God Himself.5 Eventually, named angels would become more common. In the book of Daniel and the New Testament, one begins to find angels being referred to by name, but when Lehi left Jerusalem, biblical texts rarely recorded the names of angels.6

Conversion of Alma the Younger by Gary L. Kapp

Conversion of Alma the Younger by Gary L. Kapp

One sees this pattern of angels going unnamed throughout the Book of Mormon as well.7 Angels are mentioned 145 times in the Book of Mormon, yet their names are never given.8 The closest the reader gets to know the identity of an angel is in Alma 8:15, in which an angel told Alma the Younger that he was the same angel that had appeared to him earlier. Just as in the Old Testament, angels in the Book of Mormon are known simply as an “angel of the Lord” or an “angel of God.”9 Because Lehi left Jerusalem around 600 B.C., it makes sense that the Book of Mormon would reflect this more ancient view of angels, even though it may be surprising to modern readers.

The Why

The way angels are depicted in the Book of Mormon and the Old Testament reminds us of an important truth: the identity of the person speaking truth is sometimes less important than the truths being spoken.

In life, we often find ourselves in situations where we are being taught by various people. Some of these people might be ministering brothers and sisters sharing a message or members of our congregations giving a talk in sacrament meeting. At other times, we might be taught by the wise words of a small child or a grandparent. At times, even the words of strangers can be surprisingly impactful.10 Yet in all these cases, focusing more on the messenger than the message could cause us to miss something important.

By listening with the Spirit to those around us, regardless of their identity, we can learn profound truths from the people we interact with every day. The people that had encounters with angels in the Old Testament and the Book of Mormon did not record the names of the angels that were communicating with them. But that did not matter. What mattered is that they were messengers from God, sent to tell them something important. 

The angel speaking to Balaam spoke for God, and Balaam treated him accordingly, regardless of his actual identity. We could do the same in our own lives, listening carefully to those around us and applying the truths they teach us to our own lives, no matter who they are.

Further Reading

Book of Mormon Central, “Why Does Mormon State that ‘Angels Did Appear unto Wise Men’? (Helaman 16:14),” KnoWhy 187 (September 14, 2016).

Donald W. Parry, Angels: Agents of Light, Love, and Power (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 2013).

Jeffrey R. Holland, “The Ministry of Angels,” Ensign, November 2008, 29–31.

 

Appendix – Angels in Old Testament Narrative

Verses

Title/Name of Angel

Message

Genesis 16:7–11

Angel of the Lord

Told Hagar to return home and that God would bless her posterity

Genesis 19:1, 15

N/A

Helped Lot escape Sodom

Genesis 21:17

Angel of God

Saved Ishmael from death

Genesis 22:11, 15

Angel of the Lord

Saved Isaac from death, blessed Abraham with posterity

Genesis 24:7, 40

N/A

Helped Abraham’s servant find a wife for Isaac

Genesis 28:12

N/A

Angels ascended and descended Jacob’s ladder

Genesis 31:11

Angel of God

Told Jacob in a dream to return to Canaan

Genesis 32:1

Angels of God

Met Jacob, presumably to help him in his upcoming encounter with Esau

Genesis 48:16

Angel which redeemed me from all evil

Jacob asked this angel to bless Joseph’s posterity

Exodus 3:2

Angel of the Lord

Told Moses that He would deliver the Israelites from Egypt

Exodus 14:19

Angel of God

Protected the Israelites from the Egyptians

Exodus 23:20, 23

N/A

Brought Israel to the place which God prepared

Exodus 32:34

N/A

Would go before the Israelites

Exodus 33:2

N/A

Will drive out the inhabitants of the land

Numbers 20:16

N/A

The Lord sent an angel to bring the children of Israel out of Egypt

Numbers 22:22–35

Angel of the Lord

Told Balaam to only say what He tells him to say

Judges 2:1-4

Angel of the Lord

Told the Israelites that He would leave the Canaanites in the land

Judges 5:23

Angel of the Lord

Cursed Meroz for not helping with the war

Judges 6:11–12, 20–22

Angel of the Lord

Told Gideon to go fight the Midianites

Judges 13:6–21

Angel of the Lord

Told Manoah’s wife she would have a son

2 Samuel 24:16–17

Angel of the Lord

Almost destroyed Jerusalem

1 Kings 19:5–7

Angel of the Lord

Gave Elijah food, told him to go to Horeb

2 Kings 1:3, 15

Angel of the Lord

Told Elijah to tell the king of Samaria that he was going to die

2 Kings 19:35

Angel of the Lord

Killed much of the Assyrian army

1 Chronicles 21:15–30

Angel of the Lord

Almost destroyed Jerusalem

2 Chronicles 32:21

N/A

Killed much of the Assyrian army

Psalm 78:49

N/A

God sent angels among the people to punish them

Isaiah 37:36

Angel of the Lord

Killed much of the Assyrian army

Isaiah 63:9

Angel of his presence

Saved the children of Israel

Daniel 3:28

N/A

Saved Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego

Daniel 6:22

N/A

Shut the lion’s mouths to save Daniel

Hosea 12:4

N/A

Jacob beat the angel

Zechariah 1:9–19

Angel of the Lord

Gives Zechariah a guided tour of a vision and begs the Lord to have mercy on Jerusalem

Zechariah 2:3

N/A

Tells Zechariah that Jerusalem will prosper again

Zechariah 3:1–6

Angel of the Lord

Told Joshua the high priest to keep the commandments

Zechariah 4:1–5

N/A

Told Zechariah that Zerubbabel would rebuild the temple

Zechariah 5:5–10

N/A

Guided Zechariah through a vision

Zechariah 6:4–5

N/A

Introduced Zechariah to some spirits