Translation commentary on Jude 1:9

To prove his case against these godless people, Jude cites the example of the archangel Michael, who in confrontation with the Devil did not pronounce a severe judgment on him, but simply said “The Lord rebuke you.” The logic seems to be as follows: Michael, who is the chief angel, did not claim for himself the right to pronounce judgment on the Devil, who is the chief of all evil forces, but left the whole matter up to God; therefore there is no justification at all for ordinary human beings to treat the angels in such an insulting way.

The title archangel means “chief angel” or “ruling angel.” In some literature written during the period between the Old Testament and the New Testament, there is a great deal of reference to angels and how these are classified into grades in a descending scale, with archangels at the top. There is also mention of seven archangels, and six of them are named in 1 Enoch 20.2-8: Raphael, Raquel, Michael, Saraqael, Gabriel, and Ramiel. To each of these archangels God assigned a province. Archangel can also be translated as “the chief of God’s messengers.” The phrase when the archangel Michael may be rendered in some languages as “when Michael, who is one of the angels that is greater than the others….” Michael is mentioned in Dan 12.1 as the guardian of Israel. He was thought of primarily as the angel who protected the people of Israel from the power of Satan or the Devil. In Rev 12.7 Michael is the church’s protector against the dragon.

This is the first time in the letter that Jude refers to the Devil. References to the Devil are rare in the Old Testament; they are found in later compositions, as for example in Zech 3.1 and 1 Chr 21.1. During the period leading up to the New Testament, the idea developed that the Devil is the prince of evil, and New Testament usage echoes this understanding. In fact New Testament teaching about the future asserts that, immediately before the final days of this age, the Devil will display his power in order to lead astray even those who already trust in Christ (see, for example, Matt 24.4-18; 2 Thes 2.3-12; 2 Tim 3.1-9; Rev 20.7-8). By the time of the writing of Jude’s letter, the devil has already become a technical name for the prince of evil, and that is the reason why Good News Translation capitalizes the word.

The story about Michael and the Devil fighting over the body of Moses is not found in the Old Testament, which simply states that the burial place of Moses is not known by anyone (Deut 34.6). However, in a composition called “The Assumption of Moses” (written about the first century A.D.), it is related that, when Moses died, Michael was given the task of burying the body. The Devil, however, claimed power over the body, since he was lord of the material order. When Michael refused to hand the body over, the Devil threatened to accuse Moses of being a murderer for having killed the Egyptian (as recorded in Exo 2.12). Michael, however, did not respond by rebuking the Devil, but simply proceeded to bury Moses with his own hands.

The fact that Jude makes reference to this story without any background material for his readers indicates that he assumes his readers are familiar with the story; this need not be because they know of “The Assumption of Moses” but because this story was probably widely known among the Jews at that time.

The words contending and disputed refer generally to a discussion or argument, but they are also used in relation to a legal dispute. In this story it is the Devil who brings a legal case against Moses, accusing him of murder, and therefore of not being worthy of a decent and honorable burial. So the word contending does not really have the sense of “quarrel” as in Good News Translation, which refers to a violent argument, but suggests that Michael “challenged the Devil’s right” to take Moses’ body. Another translation model, then, is as follows: “When he disputed with the Devil, and argued with him as to who….” Did not presume should not be translated as “was not brave enough to,” as the rendering “did not dare” (Good News Translation and New Revised Standard Version) may suggest; rather it means that Michael “did not take it upon himself” or “did not feel that it was his prerogative (or, that he had the authority).”

The word translated reviling is the same word used for “revile” in verse 8, which again is a play on words similar to that on the word “keep” in verse 6. Taken with judgment, some meanings suggested are “he did not pronounce a sentence on blasphemies spoken by the Devil,” “in condemning the Devil, he did not indulge in the language of mere reproach,” “in challenging the Devil, he did not revile in turn,” “he did not condemn him with insulting words,” or “he did not use bad words to reprove the Devil.” This contrasts Michael’s action with that of the godless people: they insult angels, whereas Michael, the chief angel, refrains from insulting the Devil himself; they show no respect for supernatural beings, whereas Michael respected even the Devil.

The expression The Lord rebuke you is quoted from Zech 3.2, where the Lord speaks these words to Satan in reply to Satan’s accusations against the high priest Joshua (see Zech 3.1-10). Rebuke can mean “reprove,” “censure,” or “reprimand,” but perhaps here it has the stronger meaning of “punish” or “condemn.” The whole expression The Lord rebuke you is in the Greek optative mood, expressing a wish or a hope, similar in form to that of blessing or benediction formulas, but used in this context in a negative sense.

An alternative translation model for this verse is:

• Not even Michael, who is one of God’s chief angels (or, messengers), resorted to insult (or, saying bad things against). For when he disputed with the Devil and challenged his right to take the body of Moses, Michael did not feel that he had the authority to condemn the Devil with bad words; instead he said, “May the Lord speak severely to (or, reprimand) you.”

Quoted with permission from Arichea, Daniel C. and Hatton, Howard A. A Handbook on The Letter from Jude. (UBS Handbook Series). New York: UBS, 1993. For this and other handbooks for translators see here .