Do Angels Eat? An Interesting Qur’anic Engagement

In this post we shall examine another Qurʾānic engagement with biblical and extrabiblical literature. The core example I will look at was taken from Genevieve Gobillot’s article on Qurʾānic intertextuality and taḥrīf.1 This parallel reflects an ongoing debate about whether or not angels eat food. I found this parallel interesting because it is an example of simultaneous engagement the Hebrew bible and biblical commentary.

Studying any parallel in the Qurʾān first requires us to look at its ‘intertexts’— the texts or traditions with which the Qurʾān seems to be engaging with or responding to. In this case, our intertexts are the book of Genesis and some of its later extrabiblical expansions, namely the Testament of Abraham. In Genesis, Abraham is visited by three angels of God (Genesis 18:1-2). In the spirit of hospitality, he prepares food for his angelic visitors to eat:

Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it. Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate.

Genesis 18:7-8

The biblical account plainly depicts the angels eating real, earthly food. This caused some unease among ancient commentators on the bible. Since they did not want to accept that angels could eat real food, they came up with some creative solutions to explain the biblical account. In the Testament of Abraham, a 1st-2nd century extrabiblical text of Jewish provenance, we see one such creative solution. The angels, knowing that they are unable to eat the food that Abraham serves them, but not wishing to insult their host, complain to God about their dilemma. Consequently, God tells them that He will send down a spirit to consume the food from their hands and mouths, to make it appear as though they are eating:

God said: “Go down to him, and do not worry about this; for while you are sitting with him I shall send upon you an all-devouring spirit, and it will consume from your hands and through your mouth all that is on the table, and you may freely rejoice together with him.”2

Testament of Abraham 4:10

The meal itself is not narrated in depth in Testament of Abraham, however, readers can assume that it went exactly as God promised— the food was consumed by a spirit from God as soon as the angels had placed it in their hands and their mouths. The wording of this statement is extremely important, as we shall see once we turn to the Qurʾānic retelling of the same story:

Our messengers came to Abraham with good news, greeting him saying “Peace!”. He said “Peace”, and did not wait to bring them a roasted calf. But when he saw their hands not reaching for it, he became fearful of them. They said, “Do not fear! We have been sent to the people of Lot…”

Qurʾān 11:69-70

The above verse intentionally undercuts the specific exegetical tradition attested in the Testament of Abraham— by depicting the angels as not even “reaching out their hands”, the Qurʾān denies even the possibility that the angels pretended to eat, as in the Testament of Abraham, where the heavenly spirit consumes the food directly from the angels’ hands.

Whereas the approach to this problem of the angels’ eating by ancient Christian or Jewish exegetes was to furnish the biblical account with some details that allowed them to avoid the plain meaning of the text, the Qurʾānic account directly contradicts the biblical story altogether as well as rejecting any exegetical expansions which seek to solve the same problem about angels eating food. Interestingly, the notion that angels do not eat human food also has support in the bible (Judges 6:21-22, 13:15-16, Tobit 12:19) along with many extrabiblical traditions.

Footnotes

  1. Geneviève Gobillot, ‘Qur ʾ an and Torah: The Foundations of Intertextuality’, in A History of Jewish-Muslim Relations (Princeton University Press, 2013), 611–27.
  2. Dale C. Allison, Testament of Abraham, Commentaries on Early Jewish Literature (Berlin ; New York: Walter de Gruyter, 2003), 126.

4 thoughts on “Do Angels Eat? An Interesting Qur’anic Engagement

  1. “Studying any parallel in the Qurʾān first requires us to look at its ‘intertexts’— the texts or traditions with which the Qurʾān seems to be engaging with or responding to.”

    Given that there was much more variety in Judaism and Christianity than what we find in our source texts, and given that Islam arose in a geographical area far removed from the areas in which those sources were produced, how can we be sure that the Quran was engaging with the specific texts we have, as opposed to other similar texts now lost to us?

    We know there must have been texts and traditions similar to, yet distinct from, the Old Testament and the New Testament, and which have not survived to our time. It is surely a good bet that some of these survived in ancient Arabia, isn’t it? So why not first try to get as much as we can out of the Quran itself, and then look to see how well it compares with our source texts? We might have to conclude that the Quran is engaging with nonstandard texts, considered marginal by currently surviving Jewish and Christian traditions, now lost to us.

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    • I think it’s hard to establish that there’s a text-to-text engagement in the first place. Atleast in some cases it might actually be the case but oral culture was fairly dominant and I’m sure the bulk of these engagements in the Qur’an are intended to be recited and shared in a dialectic oral context in my own opinion. In most literature I’ve read there’s a supposition that the Qur’an is engaging in a tradition that is *represented by* a written tradition witnessed in a certain other text.

      What does ‘non-standard’ mean in this context? Non-canonical? I think Qurʾanic studies has already established that there’s an engagement with non-canonical literature. I think most parallels you can usually map to Jewish or Christian intertexts, be they Syriac church writings, apocalyptic or apocryphal Jewish books etc.

      In the end it’s impossible to know but if there’s Qur’anic engagement with (wider) biblical tradition that seems to map to texts we already have, it would be reasonable to posit a relationship (polemical, confirmatory, etc…), until an even more approximate text is somehow dug up.

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  2. “In the end it’s impossible to know but if there’s Qur’anic engagement with (wider) biblical tradition that seems to map to texts we already have, it would be reasonable to posit a relationship (polemical, confirmatory, etc…), until an even more approximate text is somehow dug up.”

    I agree that it might be reasonable to posit such a relationship, as a tentative hypothesis, for the sake of investigation or exploration. On the other hand, such a relationship to a specific known text in our hands should not be asserted in too strong or definite a fashion, because of the very realistic possibility that the Quran alludes to traditions that are related, but not identical to, any in our hands.

    Another methodological point: the best guide to the ancient Arabian traditions to which the Quran is alluding is surely the Quran itself, rather than whatever happens to have survived in the forms of Judaism and Christianity we are familiar with. We first should reconstruct those traditions as far as possible using the Quranic text, independently of other texts, because that text comes from the very environment and time in which those ancient Arabian traditions flourished. And then we can explore possibilities as to how the ancient Arabian traditions this reconstructed are related to the ones in our currently available texts.

    I worry that we Muslims give far too much authority to the Jewish or Christian traditions we are familiar with, and these become a lens through which the Quran is seen, imposed on it and distorting its meanings.

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