Who is Michael?
July 28, 2014

Michael and his angels fight the dragon and his angels, and expel them from heaven (Revelation 12). Who is this Michael? Michael appears in Qumran texts, and in apocalyptic texts outside the canon. My focus here, though, is on the what the Bible itself says about Michael.

Revelation 12 begins with the birth of a male child who is exalted t0 God’s heavenly throne (v. 5). His enthronement provokes a war with the dragon (v. 6), who has already been in heaven (v. 3). It’s possible that Michael (v. 7) is another name of the child, who otherwise disappears from the scene. The fact that the dragon’s anger is directed at the “woman who gave birth to the male child” (v. 13) suggests that the child is responsible for his expulsion from heaven. Michael is a heavenly name for the Son, a name for Jesus insofar as He leads the angels of God against the dragon and his angels.

That fits the reference to Michael in Jude 9, where Michael is identified as “the archangel” (“chief angel”). The verse refers back to the incident recorded in Zechariah 3, where Satan disputes with the Angel of Yahweh over the impurity of Joshua the high priest. Michael in Jude 9 is a name for the Angel of Yahweh, identified since the patristic age with the to-be-incarnate Son.

But there are oddities. As noted, the child disappears from the scene after rising to heaven (v. 5). The sequence of enthronement followed by war led by Michael could suggest that Michael is a different being from the child, the one who has been assigned the task of securing the child’s throne by expelling the dragon. That seems a smoother way to read the chapter’s plot than thinking that the child turns into Michael: Michael has to fight the war because the prince who takes the throne is still a child whose authority must be defended. Further, the expulsion of the dragon is attributed neither to the child nor to Michael but to “they” who “overcame him because of the blood of the Lamb and because of the word of their testimony” (v. 11). 

Besides, the root of these references goes back to Daniel, and there the identification of Michael with the Angel is harder to make. Michael is mentioned twice in Daniel 10, both times by a figure with a body like beryl (tarshiysh) and a face like lightning and eyes like torches. That visionary figure speaks of the “prince of the kingdom of Persia” who was holding him back, until “Michael” helped. Here is a figure who needs help because of the opposition of another king, and Michael comes to help. Michael “your prince” is the only one who stands strongly against the Persians (v. 21). In Daniel 10, the beryl-man seems a more likely candidate for the title of Angel of Yahweh (he speaks with a voice like a tumult, and compare the description of the beryl-man with Jesus in Revelation 1). Michael isn’t the main figure, but his (angelic?) helper.

Daniel 12:1 says that there will come a time when Michael will “stand” (‘amad) during a time of distress. Everyone’s name that is written in the book will be saved. Michael is the “great prince” (hassar hagadol) who stands over the sons of the people. Michael is a guardian of Daniel’s people, but it’s not clear whether he is an angel, the chief of angels, or the Angel of Yahweh.

Daniel 10:13 has several connections with a reference to a character named Michael in 1 Chronicles 12 who is among those who come to help David during his sojourn in Ziklag.  Seven “captains of thousands who belonged to Manasseh” come to help David “against the band of raiders, for they were all mighty men of valor, and were captains in the army” (v. 21). They were sariym batzatzava’, commanders or chiefs or princes in the host. When they joined David, David’s army became like the army of God (v. 22). The last phrase of verse 22 highlights the parallel between two armies: “To an army great, as an army of God.” (The phrase “captain of host” is used by the angel of Yahweh in Joshua 5:14-15: sar-tzeva’ YHWH.) The best reading of Daniel 10 is that Michael is distinct from (and subordinate to?) the more commanding figure.

Putting Daniel 10 with 1 Chronicles 12, we have this picture: A commanding figure (David, the beryl-man) is involved in a struggle, and is helped by a Michael. The main difference is that Michael of Manasseh is not singled out at all in 1 Chronicles. This may prove to be a far-fetched connection; then again, it may illuminate the relationship between Jesus the Davidic king and his “helper” Michael. 

All this complicates a straightforward identification of Michael with the Angel of Yahweh (and, implicitly, with the Son). Whatever it refers to, the story-line of Revelation 12 recounts the enthronement of a child-king whose kingdom is contested by the dragon and whose kingdom has to be secured by Michael and the hosts of heaven. The dragon is angry because the child now takes his place in heaven, and so he begins to attack the child’s mother and her children.

That way of taking the passage fits with the general “angelic-era” framework of Revelation. Angels do most of the heavy lifting in Revelation because Revelation is the last act of the angelic old covenant. Only in chapters 19 and 20 do we finally move into a fully human covenant, when Jesus rides out with His army and the martyrs take their thrones. 

By some New Testament accounts, the hymns are right: In Jesus’ ascension as Last Adam our nature takes the throne of heaven. Revelation gives this gloss: Our nature doesn’t take the throne until the first martyrs share the throne with Jesus. 

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