by Malcolm Goodwin
In part 1, I closed with Jesus’ reminder that the God of the Bible is the ‘God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.’ For Jesus, it was a sign of life. This God he was talking about was still the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of the living and not of the dead. The one who is with us, and the one who journeys with us. (Mt.22:32) And Jesus was living proof of that promise being kept, for he was Emmanuel, literally ‘God with us.’ (Mt.1:23) To Moses, this phrase was part of the identification of God which included referential (how God identifies himself), existential (how God describes himself) and nominal (how God names himself) elements; it was how Jehovah chose to describe and introduce himself to Moses.
‘I am the God of your forefathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ (Ex.3:6)
‘I AM WHO I AM…Tell them that I AM has sent you.’ (Ex.3:14)
‘And God spoke to Moses and said to him, ‘I am Jehovah.’ (Ex.6:2. The LORD in most translations)
Here I want to consider the “God of Jacob” as this part of the referential element rests comfortably with the subject of theophany, which is what I want to study with you in this article.
For those who wish to consider theophany more deeply, I want to commend a book to you. It is somewhat academic, but if you persevere, you will gain a lot from its reading. The book is ‘God at Sinai: Covenant and Theophany in the Bible and Ancient Near East’ (Studies in Old Testament Biblical Theology) by Jeffrey J. Niehaus (Amazon UK link)
Definition of Theophany
Put simply, theophany means for God to appear, and comes from the word theo meaning ‘god/God’ and phaínein meaning ‘to appear.’ Although this word is not a Bible word, there is a word that is closely associated with biblical theophany which uses the passive form of the root ראה (r’h, ‘to see’) [pronounced ra’ah] in the Hebrew Scriptures. See Vines’ dictionary (pg 344 “To See, Perceive”) for a useful definition of this word; Vine says that ‘Basically ra˒ah connotes seeing with one’s eyes’ This word is often used in the context of theophany in the Old Testament, eg Gen.12:7; Num.16:19,42 & 2Chr.7:12
Overall, the word theophany refers to a manifestation of God in sensible form i.e. detectable by the senses whether it be visual, auditory, psychological (vision/dream) or physical (i.e. natural event like an earthquake is experienced physically) or multiples thereof. When we find true theophany in scripture, we can identify it by its correspondence to the following elements (most, if not all) being present in the immediate context.
1. The account describes God’s appearing (e.g., Gen 3:8)
2. God speaks the recipient’s name (e.g., Gen 3:9)
3. The response of the recipient (e.g., Gen 3:10)
4. God’s self-declaration (e.g., Gen 15:7)
5. The quelling of human fear by the God (e.g., Gen 26:24)
6. God’s assertion of his gracious presence (e.g., Gen 26:24)
7. The hieros logos (holy word) addressed to the particular situation (e.g., Gen 26:24)
8. Inquiry or protest by the recipient (e.g., Gen 3:12)
9. Continuation of the hieros logos with perhaps some repetition of prior elements (e.g., Gen 3:13)
10. A concluding description in the account (e.g., Gen 3:20–24)”
(“Theophany” in The Lexham Bible Dictionary) 1
Categorisation of Theophany
Now that we have the elements to identify when and that scripture is describing a theophany, we can now turn our attention to how it depicts the different types of theophany.
Both Christian and Jewish traditions categorise theophany in broadly the same way. There are basically 5 forms/types of theophany encountered in Scripture.
- Literary theophany – Poetic descriptions of a past event which are difficult to ascribe as literal due to the poetic nature of the language employed. E.g. Nah. 1:2a,3b-4a,5, Mic. 1:3-4 cf. Psa.97:5; Judg.5:4-5; Ps.18:9-14; 68:7-8; 77:16-19; Deut.33:2-3; Hab.3:3-4.
- Vision theophany – is similar to the literary form above, and is theophany encountered in a dream or vision. Again, the nature of the event/language/situation is difficult to absolutely ascribe as literal because of the implication of it being a dream or vision state.
- Naturalistic theophany – When theophany occurs there are naturalistic phenomena that either constitute the theophany or accompany it. This theophany may include or be constituted by God appearing as or accompanied by
- Storms with thunder & lightning (Exod 19:16; 2 Sam 22:12–16; Psa 18:9–12 [MT 10–13]; Amos 1:2; Zech 9:14);
- Fire (Gen 15:7; Exod 3:2; 19:18; Deut 1:33; Judg 6:21; 2 Chr 7:1; Neh 9:12, 19)
- Smoke (Exod 19:18; 2 Sam 22:9; Psa 18:18; Isa 4:5; 6:4)
- Volcanic activity (Exod 19:18; Deut 4:11; Psa 97:5; 104:32; Nah 1:5, 6)
- Earthquakes (Exod 19:16–25; Psa 68:7–8; Isa 29:5–6)
- Clouds (Exod 13:21; 34:5; Num 9:15–22; Ezek 1:4)
(It would seem that God’s imminence has an effect!!)
- Human form theophany is also to be found in both the Hebrew and Greek scriptures including Adam & Eve ‘hearing’ God walk in the garden (Gen.3:8) [strictly, one could argue this is auditory theophany], the three men of Mamre visiting Abraham (Gen.18:1-2) which I’ve mentioned earlier in respect of hospitality being given, and Moses seeing the back of God (Ex.33:18-23). Below, I consider the episode where Jacob wrestles with God which would fall into this category of theophany or perhaps the next, angelic form.
- Angelic form theophany includes agents conveying divine messages (Gen 16:7–12; 21:17–18; Num 22:32–35), or divine warriors either for or against Israel (Exod 15; Deut 33:2; Psa 24:8 cp. Isa 9:8–10:11 [MT 9:7–10]; Mic 1). However, these Angelic theophany’s sometimes turn out to be God himself!
The God of Jacob & Theophany
Jacob has several theophanic experiences. His first is the dream about the ladder with Angels ascending and descending. (Gen. 28:10 – 22.) Here he encounters the Lord Jehovah standing above the ladder and using his divine name for identity.
However, his most poignant moment, is when he encounters the Angel of the Lord and wrestles with him resulting with his hip being put out of joint! (Gen. 32:22-32) Now, on the face of it, this passage does not seem to fit the criteria for defining it as theophany. This is an example where only one or two elements can be used to identify theophany are present, but the reader should also note that the theophany should be read in the full context of the story of Jacob after separating from Laban’s household. Verse 24 clearly calls the wrestler with whom Jacob strove “a man.”
However, the earlier hints in the Patriarchal narratives should have us on alert that this is a theophany and not just merely a marauder that Jacob happens upon. (See Gen.32:1 cp. previous theophanic appearances.) Hosea 12:4 tells us that Jacob strove with the angel and spoke with God at Bethel. At first glance, it is not clear whether an angelic being or a human messenger is in mind, which are the possibilities from the translation of mal’ak (Heb.= angel or messenger)
However, what is more interesting and revealing is what Jacob says (v30):
‘So Jacob called the place Peniel [the face of God] saying, ‘For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” (Gen.32:30, NRSV)
Literally ‘face to face’ means, well, face to face! The Hebrew for the action of wrestling used in the text indicates that the two were struggling on the ground. Now, we might be tempted to think this was just two men fighting, except for what Jacob says at the end – ‘“…and yet my life is preserved.’ One commentator points out:
‘The passive voice of the Hebrew verb, ‘was spared’ (niph, wattinnāsēl) suggest that Jacob admitted that he lived only because God’s grace preserved him.’ (Mathews, K.A., 2005. Genesis 11:27–50:26, Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.)
God’s grace in these situations is testified elsewhere in scripture:
[Manoah said to his wife,] ”We shall surely die, for we have seen God.’ But his wife said to him, ‘If the Lord had meant to kill us, he would not have accepted a burnt offering and a grain offering at our hands, or shown us all these things, or now announced to us such things as these.” Judg.13:22-23 (ESV)
So how do Jehovah’s Witnesses respond to this?
Well, not in a dissimilar fashion to the early rabbinical commentators who could not tolerate Jacob wrestling with God directly. They, like the Witnesses, were compelled to describe the “man” as an angel, though the Witnesses use their usual rubric of “materialisation” to couch the language:
“The Scriptures abound with examples of those who put forth concerted efforts in seeking Jehovah. One such person was Jacob, who strenuously grappled with God’s materialized angel till dawn. As a result, Jacob was given the name Israel (Contender with God) because he “contended,” or “persisted,” “exerted [himself],” “persevered,” with God. The angel blessed him for his earnest endeavor.—Genesis 32:24-30, footnote.” (The Watchtower – w03 8/15 p25 – “Are you earnestly seeking Jehovah?”) [bold text mine]
Theological Significance of Theophany
The significance of theophany, and disagreements about it, will depend on the group you are engaging with. Judaism would tend to support the notion that theophany are manifestations of God, and the historical development of their teachings on this is something I return to in a subsequent article. They would resist calling these Christophanies – that is appearances of Christ as Yahweh.
However, when discussing this with JW’s, while they are happy to classify the manifestations as Christophanies, that is, these ‘angelic’ manifestations (as they frame them) are seen as manifestations of Jesus/Michael prior to his earthly birth, some Witnesses are usually (if informed) reluctant to define them as ‘theophany’s’ without qualifying the ‘theo’ as ‘god – small-g.’ I find it perfectly acceptable to go with them at this point and agree that they are Christophanies as it consolidates a point of agreement that is to our advantage…we can later show that the pre-incarnate manifestations of Jesus can be identified both as the appearances as God (by virtue of the actions taken being actions of God alone) and the manifested ones are called YHWH or God directly.
However, for completeness, the Christian message holds that theophany is theologically significant because it links to the subject of God’s journeying from the uncreated realm to the created realm, journeying with and tenting with his creation. Ultimately, this climaxes through the incarnation, in the person of Jesus embodying that presence of God fully in flesh so as to manifest his role as true mediator between man and God through total identification with his creation.
Implications & Applications in Discussions with JW
To Christians, the implications of this divine identity of the theophany and ‘the Angel of the Lord’ being called YHWH and otherwise identified as or called God, seem obvious. Seemingly obvious also is recognition that these theophany’s are sometimes clearly Christophanies. They are part of our clear understanding of Trinitarian theology. But those specific points, when fully realised by JW’s, are fatal for Witness theology as their Unitarianism and henotheism are undone. Similarly, their angelology is also felled when they discover that the identity of the Archangel Michael is in fact the Archangel Michael! But this is our opportunity to usher in the gospel, for now they have to discover who the real Jesus is.
In the next article I would like to explore one particular form of theophany, namely the “Angel of the Lord” theophanies. Later in the series I will pick these studies up separately when considering the development of Jewish understanding about Theophany and Messianic speculation that existed at the time of Jesus, and to relate this to the “Word” of God in the Targummim (singular Targum; plural = Targummim). The Targummim can the thought of as follows:
“TARGUM* An Aramaic translation of the OT. While technically this Hebrew word may be used to refer to any translation, targum commonly designates an Aramaic paraphrase or interpretive translation of a portion of the OT. Targums were of inestimable importance in the development of ancient Judaism. Jewish tradition holds that oral targums were extant in the time of Ezra; Nehemiah 8:8 is cited as supportive evidence.”2
Thus, the Targummim were the Aramaic equivalent to the Living Bible or an annotated paraphrase that gives us insights into how texts were interpreted and understood, and were often part of the liturgy in synagogues.
The Angel of the Lord.
In the series so far, we have examined how God chose to introduce himself to Moses using three elements of personal identification which included referential, existential and nominal elements; it was how Jehovah chose to describe and introduce himself to Moses. We considered the history of relationship inferred from the referential element – ‘I am the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac …’ and with the final ‘God of Jacob,’ we considered the role of theophany and how this played out in Jacob’s life.
In this article I want to look more carefully at the concept of ‘The Angel of the Lord.’ We will later pick up the strand of who this mysterious figure is that keeps appearing through the Hebrew Scriptures, by considering the development of Jewish Theology on this subject. The reason for this will become clearer when we consider who the ‘Word of God’ is in the Targummim (Jewish commentary) and how this is related to the ‘Word’ of God in John’s gospel.
At this stage, we are still effectively working through the ‘referential element’ (how God identifies himself) and theophany, here considering the Angel of the Lord and other associated themes in the Hebrew Scriptures.
The Angel of the LORD
Mesopotamia & Egypt have reminiscent parallels to the ‘Angel of the Lord’ in that they too have celestial messengers who convene with humanity. However, they differ to the Hebrew concept in that the Mesopotamian and Egyptian concepts are of separate messenger God’s in their own right and not their equivalents of envoys of Almighty God nor Almighty God himself per se.
The Way the Hebrews Said It
The phrases “the Angel of the Lord” and “the Angel of God” are translations of מַלְאַךְ יְהוָה (mal’ak Yahweh) and מַלְאַ֧ךְ הָאֱלֹהִ֛ים (mal’ak ha Elohim). Astute readers will have noticed that Elohim is preceded by the definite article ha but Yahweh isn’t. This is because definiteness in Hebrew may be either rendered with a definite article and/or by agreement with other terms in the phrase that are specific or definite. Thus, as Yahweh is a proper noun, (and there is only ONE of these!!) then “the Angel of the Lord” is inferred by agreement and does not require the presence of the definite article to make it definite.
In contrast, however, as Elohim can act as a title, and can be used of other “gods” then ha Elohim ensures that it is understood as [THE] Angel of THE God by agreement. Some witnesses will try and argue that this can’t be God or a specific angel as it has no definite article, but the above is standard Hebrew grammar. See “Waltke & Palmers Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax = Section 13.6 Intrinsically Definite Nouns with the Article.” Page 249/PDF page 304) For this specific argument on The Angel of the Lord, see also “’Question…did Christians just make up the ‘THE’ in ‘The Angel of YHWH’?”
Examples of Angel of the Lord Theophany:
Below, I tabulate some of the verses where the Angel of the Lord appears and I include some notes and questions to ask when in dialogue. But, remember that Angels refuse to accept worship at several points in scriptures, so rest assured they are not going to allow anyone to labour under the delusion that they are called YHWH or leave them thinking that they ARE YHWH rather than merely acting for him and speaking for him. Rather, the scriptures are clear – it is YHWH appearing in these scenes and is referred to as the “Angel of the Lord”, almost as a pet-name for the character in the narrative (i.e. as a literary tool.)
|Genesis 16:7-13||V10 – Which Angel is able to make this promise? A: none – only God can make this promise!V13 Who did Hagar know had spoken to her? Who had she seen? [GOD!]||This is the first appearance in the Bible of the Angel of the Lord.|
|Genesis 21:17-20||V17 – Who heard the voice of the boy? [God]V18 When were Angels given this power to make him a great nation? Chp. v12 & 13 God promised to Abraham that HE would make him a great nation.V19 how is the angel otherwise described…” v19 says who opened her eyes – “Then,” ??? who??? “who opened her eyes” [Then God opened her eyes!] ie it is God who is in the drama with her not some angelic being!||This is the first time Angel of God appears|
|Genesis 22:15-18||V15 – Who is calling from heaven? [Angel of YHWH]V16 who does this Angel declare himself to be? [YHWH!]V17 – which Angel has the power to grant this? [no angel at all!]V18 cp v2-3 whose voice did Abraham hear and obey? [YHWH]|
|Genesis 31:11-13||V11 Who is speaking in the dream? [Angel of God]V13 Who does this angel say he is? [God of Bethel]|
|Exodus 3:2-7||V2 Who appeared to Moses in the fire of the bush? [Angel of YHWH]V4 what does this one do and how does he call & introduce himself to Moses [He calls to Moses and it is God who is calling – he identifies himself as the God of Moses’ forefathers, the self-existing being, and YHWH]V6-7 Who is this one speaking to Moses? YHWH!!||Cp Acts 7:30-32How do the Gospel writers understand these verses?Who do they say appeared to Moses v30 – an angel in a flame of fire in a bushV33 how was this angel named? LORD!!|
|Exodus 14:19-21||V19 Who was going ahead of Israel? Angel of God and Pillar of CloudV21 Angel = YHWHV24 YHWH in the pillar of Fire||Some scholars here see the mighty wind as the Holy Spirit (cp 15:10 “you blew with your wind” rather than directing meteorological events) ie this could be a Trinitarian allusion with Father [Pillar], Son [Angel] and Spirit [“your wind”] being elements present.|
|Exodus 23:20-23||V21 Angel has YHWH name in him ie nature and character; must obey his voiceV21 able to pardon transgressions (an act of God)|
|Judges 2:1-3||Angel of Lord claims to be one who brought them out of Egypt ie is their saviourV1 he swore to give this land to their fathers…ie YHWHHe will never break his covenant. Ie YHWH||Not things that Angels would claim but would indicate that they were acts of Yahweh!|
|Judges 6:11-24||V12 Angel of YHWH speakingV14 YHWH is speakingV16 YHWH is speakingV20 Angel of GodV21 Angel of YHWH speakingV22 Gideon recognises him as “Angel of the Lord”V22 seeing Angel of the LORD face to faceV23 YHWH speaks||Follow who is speaking to Gideon|
|Judges 13:3-23||Note v17-18 – His name is WonderfulV22 Manoah knows it is Angel of YHWH and is fearful because he has seen who? [GOD!]||Cp Isa.9:6|
The Angel of the Lord (YHWH) and the Angel of God are clearly Jehovah manifesting an imminent presence (theologians see this as part of his ‘journeying with his people’ and clearly they frequently represent Christophanies in the OT.) So, if these ARE Christophanies – pre-incarnate manifestations of Jesus prior to his earthly birth, then, oh dear, he is clearly called YHWH.
Witnesses will claim that this is the Archangel Michael. In the next article I want to have a closer look at who Michael is and his contrast to the ‘Lord of Spirits’ and the ‘Word of God’ in scripture and other ancient Jewish texts in particularly the Book of Enoch. This is a book from the set of texts known as the Pseudoepigrapha which is a Jewish work of some theological significance which helps us understand the development of Jewish thought just prior to the New Testament. Its significance is that it is quoted by Jude and crucially involves the identification of Michael amongst other Archangels in stark contrast to the ‘Elect One’ otherwise called ‘the Son of Man.’ Wonder who that might be?!
1 Seal, D., 2012, 2013, 2014. Theophany, Critical Issues J. D. Barry et al., eds. The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Lexham Press (2012-2014) Bellingham WA, USA.
2 Elwell, W.A. & Comfort, P.W., 2001. Tyndale Bible dictionary, p.1239.