Bible Study, Theology, Uncategorized

Interesting Theology: “Theophany” and “The Angel of the LORD”

Last year I got a call from someone from a church small group I used to go to. Like a lot of church groups we had taken it in turns to lead Bible study series. Even though I don’t hold any academic theology qualifications, they had liked the style of the studies I had written for the group and wondered if I would write some for them and send them along. I was wondering what to do with my time, and was only too happy to do so.

I suggested we look at Exodus. I can’t remember why! But they happily agreed. And so I wrote a short 4-part series. The group was largely made up of people who had been Christians for a long time, so rather than start at the beginning of the book and go through it in a basic reading comprehension way (i.e. “who is Moses, who are the Israelites, what happens in the story, what do we learn from this?”) I tried to focus on broader or more difficult topics. This meant doing a lot of studying and research on my own part, which was a lot of fun, and although I came across a lot of questions to which I couldn’t find a definitive answer, I did find out some interesting things. And I’ve been thinking “why not share them on the blog? A lot of my readers are Christians and would be interested.” So over a few posts I intend to do just that, starting with this post on “Theophany and the Angel of the LORD.”

(All Biblical quotations are from the NIV translation of the Bible.)

That title is a bit imposing…

Using the word “Theophany” is a good way to make people nervous. But it expresses a simple idea. The Oxford Dictionary defines it as

Theophany: A visible manifestation to humankind of God or a god.

So to give a simple example, there is a Theophany in Genesis 3, the story of Adam and Eve:

Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the LORD God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the LORD God among the trees of the garden. But the LORD God called to the man, “Where are you?”

In this story “God” is not an abstract figure. He is walking in the garden, and Adam and Eve could encounter him. That’s all a Theophany is: a story in which God is visible to people in some way. There are actually quite a lot of Theophanies in the Old Testament (more on this below). And the gospels that tell the story of Jesus’ life in the New Testament are Theophanies from start to finish!

What piqued my interest in this subject?

When I started thinking about writing studies on Exodus, I already knew of a few topics that I didn’t have a good grasp of myself. One of them was this. In Exodus, at the start of the story of Moses and the giving of the Law at Mount Sinai, we read (Exodus 19 and 20):

The LORD descended to the top of Mount Sinai …
And God spoke all these words: …

What follows is the Ten Commandments, which all the people of Israel hear; after this Moses goes up onto Mount Sinai to talk to the LORD, and receive the rest of the terms of the Mosaic/Old Covenant. But, in the New Testament, we read things like this in Stephen’s speech (Acts 7):

He [Moses] was in the assembly in the desert, with the angel who spoke to him on Mount Sinai, and with our fathers; and he received living words to pass on to us.

Whereas the Exodus passage seems to talk about God descending on Mount Sinai, the New Testament writers (who knew their Old Testament well) talk about Moses receiving the Covenant from an angel. This sounds like quite a difference! So I decided to do a bit of research to try and understand why the New Testament writers say what they do.

The Angel of the LORD

The story of Moses on Mount Sinai starts half-way through the book of Exodus. After reading it, I went back to the beginning of the book . Near the start is the story of the burning bush (Exodus 3&4):

Now Moses was tending the flock… and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the LORD appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush. …

When the LORD saw that he had gone over to look, God called to him from within the bush, “Moses! Moses!” … “I am the God of your father, …”

At this, Moses hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God.

The LORD said, …

This story starts off talking about “the angel of the LORD” , but quickly switches to saying that God spoke to Moses. The passage doesn’t maintain a distinction between “the angel of the LORD” and “God”.

After speaking to God at the burning bush, Moses went to Egypt to speak to Pharaoh. Their first meeting was a disaster. Not only did Pharaoh not listen to Moses, he decided to make the working conditions harsher for the Israelites, who lived in Egypt as slaves. In response (Exodus 5),

Moses returned to the LORD…

This takes place only a couple of chapters after the story of the burning bush, so I think there is every reason to suppose that here Moses talks to God in exactly the same way he had done previously (though this isn’t stated explicitly).

Does this continue throughout Exodus? Asking a more precise question: whenever the text of Exodus says “The LORD said to Moses”, is Moses in conversation with the angel of the LORD, and no distinction is made between the words the angel speaks and God Himself speaking?

I think this is what the New Testament writers understood to have happened, though it sounds a bit strange to modern Western ears.

Questions of Identity

It is one thing to say that the Old Testament tells us that to see the angel of the LORD was in some sense to see God, but quite another to explain it!

The word angel means “messenger”, so in one sense “the angel of the LORD” means “the messenger of the LORD”. However Exodus distinguishes the angel of the LORD from other angels: the LORD tells Moses that His “Name” is in him (Exodus 23), and that if the angel of the LORD is with the Israelites His “Presence” is there with them (Exodus 33).

I don’t fully understand what this means. The angel is clearly God’s representative – a bit like how an ambassador is the representative of a king in a foreign country, and operates in his name and with his authority. But somehow this doesn’t seem quite enough. It’s rather like trying to talk about how Jesus is both human and God: it’s easier to say “it’s a bit like such-and-such an idea; but that isn’t quite right because…” than to positively say what’s correct.

Actually, some writers suggest that the angel of the LORD is a pre-incarnation manifestation of Jesus (e.g. Alec Motyer in “The Message of Exodus” in the “The Bible Speak Today” commentary series). I’m not sure this is right, because the New Testament makes a clear distinction between Jesus and angels (see the start of Hebrews). But perhaps, like with other things in the Old Testament, it is at least fair to think of the angel of the LORD as a kind of “foreshadowing” of that which is fully realised later on in Jesus.

What about other early Old Testament books?

I decided to go through the Bible starting from the very beginning, looking out for Theophanies and references to the angel of the LORD. The Bible is a long book, but scanning through quickly I got a long way into the Old Testament (at least as far as the end of Judges).

What jumped out at me is quite how often similar events to what Moses experienced at the burning bush occur, both before Exodus (in Genesis) and afterwards (in Judges). For example:

  • In Genesis 16, Hagar ran away after being mistreated by Abram’s (Abraham’s) wife Sarai (Sarah). The angel of the LORD appeared to Hagar and spoke to her. And Hagar believed she had seen God.
  • In Judges 6, the angel of the LORD appeared to Gideon, who did not recognise him. When Gideon eventually realises to whom he had been talking, he says “Ah, Sovereign LORD! I have seen the angel of the LORD face to face!” And fears for his life. This story is particularly interesting because of what happens next: even though the angel has disappeared, God speaks to Gideon – suggesting that God chooses to communicate with him in a way other than through the angel.
  • In Judges 13, the angel of the LORD appears to Manoah and his wife. Just like Gideon, they don’t recognise him until after making a burnt offering (a kind of sacrifice) to the LORD and seeing the angel of the LORD ascend up to heaven in the flame. Manoah, who would become Samson’s father, concludes “We are doomed to die! … We have seen God!” His wife has more sense, and points out that if God intended for them to die, He would not have accepted their sacrifice – or sent the angel of the LORD to give them instructions about the son they were going to have!

While none of these stories are identical, they have things in common. Those who see the angel of the LORD often conclude they have seen God Himself. And they often express fear for their life because they have seen God face to face.

There are many other Theophanies and references to the angel of the LORD in the early books of the Bible. One interesting thing is that on at least two occasions we are told that the angel of the LORD spoke to someone on the earth from heaven (Genesis 21 – another occasion on which the angel spoke to Hagar; and Genesis 22 – the testing of Abraham).

Talking to God face to face

At the end of the giving of the Covenant on Mount Sinai, there is this (Exodus 23):

See, I am sending an angel ahead of you to guard you along the way and to bring you to the place I have prepared. Pay attention to him and listen to what he says. Do not rebel against him; he will not forgive your rebellion, since my Name is in him.”

Exodus 33 puts it a different way – “My Presence will go with you…”. This is a promise that was kept. In Judges 2, after the Israelites had entered Canaan under Joshua,

The angel of the LORD went up from Gilgal to Bokim and said, “I brought you up out of Egypt and led you into the land that I swore to give to your forefathers. I said, ‘I will never break my covenant with you, …'”

Just as at the burning bush, for the angel of the LORD to speak is for God to speak.

What happened between Mount Sinai and reaching Canaan? The Israelites had been told to listen to the angel of the LORD. However, the angel of the LORD doesn’t get mentioned (or at least not very often). But there are many statements of “the LORD said to Moses”. At first the LORD met with Moses at a tent set aside for this purpose; this was replaced at Mount Sinai by a special structure called the “Tabernacle” that was built according to a pattern that Moses was shown by God. The LORD is described as being in the cloud in passages like the crossing of the Red Sea (Exodus 13&14). Exodus 33 tells us

As Moses went into the tent, the pillar of cloud would come down and stay at the entrance, while the LORD spoke with Moses. … The LORD would speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks with his friend.

While the angel isn’t specifically mentioned here, I think the idea that Moses was speaking to the angel in these encounters makes sense; as we have seen already the Biblical text doesn’t preserve a distinction between the angel speaking and God speaking. It also gives a literal meaning to Moses speaking to God “face to face”.

Different Degrees of Theophany

Last but not least, a short observation. The Theophanies of the Old Testament show different degrees to which God revealed himself:

  • Gideon and Manoah both met the angel of the LORD. They treated him with respect, but didn’t at first know who he was.
  • When Moses met the angel of the LORD at the burning bush, he was told he stood on holy ground, and had to take his shoes off.
  • When Moses, Aaron and the elders of Israel “saw the God of Israel” and ate a meal in His presence to celebrate the ratification of the Old Covenant, what they saw went beyond the earthly: “Under his feet was something like a pavement made of sapphire, clear as the sky itself.” (Exodus 24)
  • After the incident of the Golden Calf, Moses asked God to show him his glory. He was told “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the LORD, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. But, ” he said, “you cannot see my face, for no-one may see me and live.” Moses was then given a revelation of God on the top of Mount Sinai. (Exodus 33&34)
  • When the Tabernacle had been set up, “Then the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the glory of the LORD filled the Tabernacle. Moses could not enter the Tent of Meeting because the cloud had settled upon it, and the glory of the LORD filled the Tabernacle.”

For someone to simply see the angel of God was in a true sense to “see” God; but greater revelations were possible. The same thing is true in the New Testament with Jesus. Some people saw Jesus but didn’t recognise him; others saw him and recognised who he was; only a very few went up the mountain with him and saw the Transfiguration.

Wrapping it up

I hope you found that interesting. It’s a subject I enjoyed looking into, and one I can’t remember being discussed in a comprehensive fashion in church.

My conclusions about the role of the angel of the LORD above aren’t fixed in stone. They’re the best I came up with after looking up references and thinking about it – but I’m happy to be proved wrong. This is a topic where the Bible doesn’t spell out the details explicitly, and I found it necessary to gather information from lots of different passages and try to synthesize it together. The tricky bit is finding conclusions that satisfy all the evidence. Taking any one passage by itself can give a misleading impression of the overall picture.


That’s it for this post. Feel free to leave comments below or drop me an e-mail. Until next time!

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