If Angels Don’t Have Freewill, Do They Know the Difference Between Good and Evil?

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Question:

This question came up after reviewing a chapter in Volume 2 of “Let’s Get Biblical” by Rabbi Tovia Singer: If the messengers don’t have free will, and Gen 3:22 refers to Gd’s heavenly court, how come they know the difference between good and evil? Then the L-rd G-d said: “Behold, the man has become like one of Us, to know good and evil.”

Answer:

When Adam and his wife ate from the Tree of Knowledge, it became impossible for them to remain in the Garden of Eden. They were now fully imbued with principled understanding, possessed full moral knowledge of good and evil, and craved pleasure. Animals do not possess moral awareness. God is omnipotent and omniscient. He created everything, including evil, with no limitation. Moreover, He possesses unlimited knowledge and understanding.

Do angels possess the knowledge of good and evil? As it turns out they do, and one angel was tasked to seduce man into sin. Angels possess the knowledge that man only acquired following the sin in the Garden. Angels do not act upon this knowledge because they do not have free will; they have no independent agency. Angels are, however, supernal beings. They are not subject of the material limitations of death. Moreover, angels have no carnal needs; they do not crave physical pleasure. It is in this sphere that man stands alone as a unique being in the universe. Unlike animals, he fully apprehends the difference between good and evil. On the other hand, like animals, man craves physical pleasure.

If our first parents ate from the Tree of Life, what would have become of them? Man would have “become like one of us,” with one critical distinction: unlike angels, we would crave and pursue physical pleasure and never reach the spiritual heights for which we were created. In essence, if we were not banished from the Garden of Eden, the result would have been an epic disaster.

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One Comment

  1. My understanding is that “angel” is an anglicized version of the Greek “ankelos”, which in turn is taken from the Hebrew “malach”, meaning simply, “messenger”.

    Celestial angels (as opposed to messengers in scripture who are physically indistinguishable from other people) are divine manifestations of G-d. Basically, extensions of His being, like puppets on the end of His hand. As such, it would serve no purpose for angels to know the difference between good and evil if they have no free will with which to exercise them. They neither behave morally, not immorally. They do not act independently of that for which they were programmed.

    In fact, angels are usually named for the fundamental quality they possess (…such as ha-satan, “the adversary”). His/its purpose is adversarial in nature.

    If Job is a parable, as I think it’s generally acknowledged to be in Judaism, the dialog between G-d and the satan is really an inner dialog extended toward our understanding of the parable.

    My take on unnamed angels who appear as regular persons in Scripture, is that they are individuals whom are placed in situations which enable others the opportunity to exhibit virtuous and godly behavior.

    Please correct me if I’m wrong in my assessment, rabbi. I read the article, but I’m not convinced that entities who do not possess free will would need to know the difference between good and evil if they are powerless in and of themselves enact either.

    I’m really surprised you had not interpreted the “us” in “become like one of ‘us'” as a plural of majesty.

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