Pre-incarnate Appearances Of The Son Of God In The OT – Truth Or Myth (Part 1)

Ever since the time of the early Christian apologist Justin (middle of the second century), it has been a popular trend among apologists, Bible commentators, pastors and teachers, to claim that Jesus, the son of God, can be seen to be actively at work in the pages of the Old Testament. This, of course, would be prior to his becoming a man in his birth from the virgin Mary, hence these instances are usually referred to as ‘pre-incarnate appearances of Christ’. This idea obviously grows out of the belief that Jesus existed prior to his birth in Bethlehem, either as God himself or as some kind of divine being. If one denies that Jesus the Messiah pre-existed his birth then he has no motivation to find in the OT, instances of  his ‘pre-incarnate appearances’. Trinitarians are more inclined than others to see these ‘pre-incarnate appearances’, and by pointing them out, hope to bolster the doctrines of the Trinity and Deity of Christ. But it must be pointed out that even if one could prove that Jesus did exist and appeared to men, prior to his proper incarnation, this would not ipso facto be proof of the Trinity or of the proper deity of Jesus. At best it would only prove that he existed in some form prior to his birth as man. The early Logos theorists, such as the Justin mentioned above, Arians, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, and others throughout Christian history, have believed that the son of God existed and made appearances to men prior to his becoming a man, but would not classify him as the true God himself, the Creator of the heavens and the earth.

There are a number of mysterious figures that appear in the OT which are claimed to be ‘pre-incarnate appearances of Christ’ (i.e. Christophanies). We will, in this study, examine the ones most commonly used by the promoters of this idea:

  1. The Angel of Yahweh
  2. The Word of Yahweh
  3. Melchizedek

The Angel Of The Lord

Much discussion has been had over this mysterious figure in the OT throughout the centuries, with most of the ‘orthodox’ considering his appearance a Christophany. Yet it must be stated categorically that there is no explicit or unambiguous statement in either the OT or the NT that equates the ‘Angel of the Lord’ with Jesus, the son of God. This indeed is astounding when one considers the nearly universal acceptance of this figure as Jesus himself. So how is this to be accounted for. One reason is that the identification of this angel with Jesus is very ancient, going back to the aforementioned Justin, in the middle of the second century (he was the first to assert this idea). Subsequent church fathers followed his lead in this and for many within orthodoxy today these early church fathers are sacrosanct, and their writings are, at least on a subconscious level, considered nearly inspired. For many in the orthodox camp the more ancient a belief the more reliable it is and so it should be unquestionably accepted as truth. This is what is known as tradition. But the fact that the NT is absolutely silent regarding this ‘angel of the Lord’ (well not completely, as we will see) and no where unequivocally teaches that Jesus was actively appearing to people in the OT (notwithstanding 1 Cor. 10:4 & 9 and Jude 5, which have textual problems and are ambiguous), should provide a caution, as we proceed, against the unquestioning acceptance of this tradition.

Because of the lack of explicit biblical statements on this topic one must find scriptural support by inference. This is usually done as follows:

  1. The angel of the Lord often appears as Yahweh himself, speaking in the first person. E.g. Genesis 16:10; Ex. 3:1-15; Judges 2:1-5.
  2. Yet the NT says that no one has ever seen God, which is assumed to mean the Father – 1 Tim. 6:16; 1 John 4:12
  3. So then the angel of the Lord must be appearances of God the Son.

Now there are some serious flaws in this line of reasoning, which we will examine shortly. But before we do I want to first look at the issue of whether or not each time the ‘angel of the Lord’ is mentioned it is actually referring to one and the same specific individual being. If it can be shown that this is not the case, then the proposition that ‘the angel of Yahweh’ is the pre-incarnate son of God is seriously weakened.

Arthrous or Anarthrous

The whole argument for the ‘angel of the Lord’ being a Christophany depends on the presupposition that this phrase is a designation belonging to one specific individual entity every time it appears. This presupposition depends largely on the inclusion of the definite article (i.e. the word ‘the‘) before the word angel. The inclusion of the definite article before a noun makes that noun arthrous, i.e. with the article. The absence of the definite article before a noun makes that noun anarthrous, i.e. without the article. An arthrous noun would be more specific – the angel, whereas an anarthrous noun would be more general – an angel. The problem is, that with some languages, such as ancient Hebrew, the definite article does not necessarily have to be explicit in the text, but is sometimes implied by the grammatical relationship of the words in a sentence. There was no indefinite article in either Hebrew or Greek, so a noun that is anarthrous in the text could be translated as either indefinite (a or an) or definite (the), by implication. Of course when the article is explicit in the text it must be translated as so. So, in the OT, in the Hebrew underlying the English phrase ‘the angel of Yahweh’, is the noun angel arthrous or anarthrous?

There is in Hebrew what is known as the construct state. This is when two nouns are joined together in a construct relationship. The first noun is the construct noun and the second is the absolute noun. This forms a genitive construction and so the word ‘of‘ is placed between the nouns. This is the precise construction we have in the phrase ‘the angel of Yahweh.’ In Hebrew we have malak YHWH which literally translated is angel YHWH. Because this is a genitive construction denoting possession we get angel of Yahweh. The rule is that the definiteness or indefiniteness of the construct noun, here angel, is determined by the definiteness or indefiniteness of the absolute noun, here Yahweh. Now because all proper nouns are definite, and Yahweh being a proper noun,  the correct grammatical translation would be ‘the angel of Yahweh.’ But this in no way means that a Hebrew reader would have understood every instance of the phrase to be referring to the same specific being, as if ‘the angel of Yahweh’ was a title designating one specific individual. That the definiteness of the word angel just does not have to mean this is easily proved. First of all, it is noted by Hebrew scholars that when the construct state includes a proper name (Yahweh) as the absolute, though technically the construct noun would be definite, in actual understanding it can be considered indefinite, depending on the context. This is because there is no way to write in Hebrew ‘an angel of Yahweh‘ since Yahweh is always definite and therefore the construct noun preceding it is always technically definite. But if the context requires it, then the grammatically correct definite noun should be understood as indefinite. In Exodus 10:9 we find the Hebrew phrase hag YHWH = feast YHWH = the feast of Yahweh. It is grammatically correct to translate feast as definite for the construction requires it, but it is not necessary to understand it as definite. In fact every English translation I checked renders this phrase as ‘a feast of the Lord.’ This is because the context clearly requires it be indefinite. Up to this point in the story in Exodus there has been no mention of any feast of Yahweh. If ‘the feast of Yahweh’ was referring to a specific feast, which one? Later in Exodus, Yahweh establishes seven feasts for Israel to keep, but up to this point no such feast has been mentioned; this is obviously a general feast, unconnected to the seven feasts established later. This is why English  translators are nearly unanimous in translating it as “a feast of the Lord.” Also the Jewish translators of the LXX (the Greek version of the OT) rendered feast as indefinite in this passage.

Now let’s look at another example. In Deut. 22:19 we have in Hebrew bethulah Yisrael = virgin Israel = the virgin of Israel. Are we to assume from this that there is one specific virgin in Israel who is designated as ‘the virgin of Israel.’ No, of course not. Once again, although virgin is technically definite because of the grammatical construction, it clearly should be understood as indefinite. In the context of the passage it refers to any virgin in Israel to whom the aforementioned circumstances apply. All English versions and the LXX render virgin as indefinite.

Now let’s look at examples where even though the English versions translate a construct noun as definite in a phrase, it cannot possibly be understood to be referring to one and the same individual person in every instance that phrase occurs. Take the Hebrew phrase ebed YHWH = servant YHWH = the servant of Yahweh. If what the proponents of ‘the angel of Yahweh’ being one specific individual person say is true, because of the definiteness of the word angel, then the same must apply here, for it is the exact same construction. But is this the case? Obviously not, for the OT tells us of various people who were so designated:

  • mosheh ebed YHWH = Moses the servant of Yahweh – Deut. 34:5
  • yehoshua ebed YHWH = Joshua the servant of Yahweh – Joshua 24:29
  • lebed Yahweh ledawid = of David the servant of Yahweh – Ps. 18:1

No one would conclude that Moses, Joshua and David were all the same individual person because they were each designated ‘the servant of Yahweh.’  We also see the paralell phrase used by Yahweh himself, “my servant.” Surely whoever Yahweh calls ‘my servant‘ must be ‘the servant of Yahweh.’ Yet the phrase ‘my servant’ is applied to:

  • Abraham – Gen 26:24
  • All Israelites – Lev. 25:42
  • Caleb – Numbers 14:24
  • The future Messiah – Is. 42:1
  • Zerubbabel – Haggai 2:23
  • all prophets – Ez. 38:17

It seems to me that one of the reasons that ‘the angel of Yahweh’ is taken as a single individual is because whenever there is an appearance of the angel of the Yahweh there is no proper name given to him, as in the case with ‘the servant of Yahweh.’ But it must be remembered that in all of Scripture only two names of angels are ever given, Michael and Gabriel, yet there is said to be myriads of angels. It just doesn’t seem to be the norm to give the names of God’s celestial messengers when they appear, probably because they are not coming in their own name but in the name of Yahweh. If it had been common practice for these divine messengers to give their names when appearing then we might not be having this discussion because we would have seen that more than one specific messenger was being designated by the phrase ‘the angel of Yahweh. But the lack of proper names for each messenger of Yahweh has aided in the misconception that ‘the angel of Yahweh’ is referring to a single individual messenger.

One last example is found in Judges 13:6 and 2 Chron. 25:7 where we find the phrase ish haelohim = man the god = the man of God. Because the word elohim  has the definite article prefixed, the construct noun should technically be rendered ‘the man’ i.e. it is grammatically correct to translate it so. Yet, once again all English versions and the LXX render the word man, in these passages, as indefinite. Why? Because the context demands it. In the context of Judges 13, Manoah’s wife tells him for the first time about a man of God that came to her. In most languages this would be expressed by an indefinite noun. If I approach someone to tell them about a speeding ticket I got last week I wouldn’t begin by saying, “I was stopped by the police officer last week for speeding,” but rather, “I was stopped by a police officer.” (By the way, I did not really get a ticket last week). In the context of the 2 Chron. passage, the man of God is being introduced into the story for the first time in verse 7, and so it is proper to understand the noun man as indefinite. Also, as with the phrase ‘the servant of Yahweh’, the definite phrase ‘the man of God’ is applied to multiple persons:

  • Moses – Deut. 33:1
  • Elisha – 2 Kings 4:7
  • Shemaiah – 1 Kings 12:22
  • David – 2 Chron. 8:14
  • Igdaliah – Jer. 35:4

So if the definite phrases ‘the servant of Yahweh‘ and ‘the man of God‘ need not be referring to one single individual then neither must the phrase ‘the angel of Yahweh‘, at least not based on the grammatical construction. If the definiteness of the ‘angel of Yahweh’ is to be maintained it must be solely on exegetical grounds.

Further evidence that the definite phrase, ‘the angel of Yahweh’ may be understood practically as indefinite is found in the LXX. As noted with the other definite phrases mentioned above, we find the same thing regarding this definite phrase – the Jewish translators of the LXX consistently render the phrase as indefinite (an angel of the Lord) at the first mention of ‘the angel of Yahweh’ in any given passage. Subsequent mentions are then rendered as definite (the angel of the Lord), referring back to the initial indefinite first mention. Here is an example from Judges 13. In the Hebrew text all occurrences of the phrase are grammatically definite based on the construction. But in the Greek version we find something different. Verse 3, and the 2nd mention in vv. 16 and 21, are rendered as indefinite by the translators, while the remaining occurrences  are clearly given the definite article. How does one who insists that the phrase be taken strictly as definite account for this? Did these Jewish scholars not know how to read their own scripture and translate it into another language? The fact that there is no way to write in Hebrew ‘an angel of Yahweh‘ does not mean that Hebrews reading the scriptures were not able to parse in their minds when a definite construction should be read as indefinite, and then translate that understanding into another language.

What I have just said about the LXX is also true of the 1985 translation of the Tanakh by The Jewish Publication Society. In almost every passage where ‘the angel of Yahweh’ appears, the first mention of the angel is indefinite, while any subsequent mentions within the same narrative are then definite, referring back to the angel first mentioned. This includes Gen. 16:7-12; 22:11-15; Ex. 3:2; Num. 22:22-35; Judges 2:1-4; 6:11-22; 13:3-21; Is. 37:36; Zech. 12:8. So we see that modern Jews, as well as ancient ones, understand the grammatically definite phrase ‘the angel of Yahweh’ as practically indefinite when the context demands it.

One last point on why the definite phrase ‘the angel of Yahweh’ cannot be a designation for one single individual. There are actually two occurrences of this phrase where we are told exactly who is being referred to:

Haggai, the angel of Yahweh, spoke the message of Yahweh to the people …”
 Haggai 1:13

“The lips of a priest ought to preserve knowledge, and from his mouth men should seek instruction, because he is the angel of Yahweh of hosts.”
Malachi 2:7

In light of these two passages, it cannot be maintained that one single individual being is denoted by the definite phrase ‘the angel of Yahweh.’ The phrase is, in fact, a generic designation which applies to any and all of Yahweh’s agents, whether human or non-human.

 Faulty Reasoning

Having ruled out the necessity of seeing ‘the angel of Yahweh’ as a single individual being, this does not mean that at least some of the time, appearances of the angel of Yahweh could be pre-incarnate appearances of Christ. Let’s go back to the syllogism I noted earlier. First we will look at the second premise and how it relates to the conclusion. The premise is that the NT {1 Tim. 6:16; 1 Jn. 4:12} states that no one has ever seen God, meaning the Father, and so the conclusion is that if it can be shown that God did appear and was seen in the OT it must be someone other than the Father, but who is also God. My first objection to this is that it seems rather arbitrary on the part of Trinitarians to make ‘God’ in these passages to mean ‘the Father’ in the trinitarian sense i.e. one of the three persons of the Godhead. Why couldn’t it be referring to the Trinity? How do they come to the conclusion that it refers to the Father?  Simply by reading their presupposition into the text. It is true that the word God in these verses is referring to the Father, but in the biblical sense i.e. God and the Father are numerically identical, they are the same being. In fact the NT tells us explicitly that the Father alone is the God, i.e. the God of the OT whose name is Yahweh:

“Father … you, the only (one, single, alone, sole) true God.”     John 17:3

“Yet for us (i.e. Christians) there is one God, the Father …”      1 Cor. 8:6

“… one God and Father of all, the one over all …”                        Eph. 4:6

Not only this, but in all of Paul’s letters he often speaks of  “God the Father.” This is read by trinitarians as if Paul is making a metaphysical distinction between ‘God the Father,’ ‘God the Son’ and ‘God the Holy Spirit.’ But please note that Paul never once speaks of ‘God the Son’, since such a concept was still a couple of hundred years in the future from when Paul wrote his letters. What should be plain to any unbiased reader is that what Paul means by “God the Father” is “God, who is the Father.”

To read the word God in 1 Tim.6:16 and 1 Jn.4:12 as meaning ‘the first person in the Trinity’ is anachronistic, for the word God would not take on that meaning until the 4th century.

But let’s assume that the Trinity doctrine is true. Does it not teach that the Son is of equal substance and glory, co-eternal with the Father? Does it not say that the Son existed in the form of God prior to his incarnation, which presumably is the same form in which the Father exists? So by what kind of logic can it be said that the Father cannot be seen but the pre-incarnate Son can? What is it about the pre-incarnate Son, that differs from the Father, that enables him to be seen while the Father is unable to be seen? This distinction is never made, at least not that I have seen. This exposes the completely arbitrary nature of this premise — they are just making it up as they go.

Now let’s examine the first premise in the syllogism. It states that ‘the angel of Yahweh’ speaks in the first person and is spoken of as if he was Yahweh himself, and therefore it must be Yahweh himself (yet not Yahweh the Father, but Yahweh the Son). Now there are some scholars who see ‘the angel of Yahweh’ as a theophany rather than a christophany, i.e. that it is an appearance of Yahweh the Father himself. The explanation that I am about to present refutes the theophany concept as well as the christophany concept.

An Ambiguous Figure

Is there any other way to explain the fact that when the angel of Yahweh appears, he speaks in the first person, as if he was Yahweh himself, other than just concluding that he must be Yahweh in some sense? I think there is, but before I get to that let’s look at a few passages where the angel of Yahweh appears. There are things said in some passages which should caution us against being to quick to see a numerical identity of the angel with Yahweh.

It is true that ‘the angel of Yahweh’ speaks as if he is Yahweh. Here are some examples:

  • In Gen 16:6 Abram’s wife Sarai causes her maidservant Hagar, who is pregnant with Abram’s child, to flee into the desert. There  ‘the (LXX- an) angel of Yahweh’ appears to her, and in v.10 says, “I will so increase your descendants that they will become too numerous to count.” Surely it is not an angel who is making this promise but Yahweh himself. The angel seems to be Yahweh himself.
  • In Gen 22:11, as Abraham is about to slay Isaac and offer him as a burnt offering to Yahweh, ‘the (LXX –an) angel of Yahweh’ calls out to him and says, “Do not lay a hand on the boy, … now I know that you fear God because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.” Was Abraham going to offer Isaac to the angel or to Yahweh. The angel seems to Yahweh himself.
  • In Exodus 3:2 “the (LXX- an) angel of Yahweh appeared to him (Moses) in flames of fire from within a bush.”  Verse 4 then says, “When Yahweh saw that he had gone over to look, God called to him from within the bush …” In v. 6 God says, “I am the God of your father Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.” The rest of ch. 3 through ch. 4:17 is a conversation between Yahweh and Moses. So the one first identified as ‘the angel of Yahweh seems to be Yahweh himself.
  • Judges 2:1 says: “The (LXX-an) angel of Yahweh 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…'” Here the angel of Yahweh speaks as if he were Yahweh himself.
  • In Judges 6 ‘the (LXX-an) angel of Yahweh’ appears, as a man, to Gideon. After a brief conversation between the two we read at v.14, Yahweh turned to him and said, ‘Go in the strength you have and save Israel out of Midians hand. Am I not sending you.'” Once again, it seems as if the angel is Yahweh himself.

Now I could give more examples but this will suffice. So as you can see, the proponents of both the theophany and the christophany views do have a point. But is this phenomena a sufficient reason to conclude either of these views. Let me point out, first of all, that this phenomena concerning ‘the angel of Yahweh’ is not consistently seen in all occurrences of his appearance, and not even in the immediate context of the passages where this phenomena is seen, as in some of the passages above. For example:

  • In the Gen. 16 passage the angel switches from speaking in the first person, as Yahweh, in v. 10, to speaking of Yahweh in the third person at v. 11.
  • In the Gen. 22 passage the angel goes from speaking as if he were Yahweh himself, in v. 12, to speaking on behalf of Yahweh at vv. 15-18.
  • In the Judges 6 passage there is a switching back and forth between the angel and Yahweh. In vv. 11-13 it’s ‘the angel of Yahweh’; then in vv.14-18 it’s simply Yahweh; then in vv. 20-22 it’s back to ‘the angel of Yahweh.’ If we were meant to understand the angel to be Yahweh himself by vv. 14-18, then why revert back to calling him ‘the angel of Yahweh’ in vv. 20-22?
  • In Judges 13 ‘the (LXX-an) angel of Yahweh’ appears as a man to Manoah’s wife. The angels never speaks in the first person as Yahweh, he only gives the woman a promise and instructions. Later he shows up again to Manoah and his wife, but they only think he is ‘a man of God.’ The angel speaks of Yahweh in the third person in v. 16. Throughout the whole account he is consistently called ‘the angel of Yahweh’ and never simply ‘Yahweh.’
  •  In 1 Chron. 21:11-27 ‘the (LXX-an) angel of  Yahweh’ is clearly, throughout the passage, distinct from Yahweh himself, as seen in vv. 14-15, 27.
  • In Numbers 22:21-35 ‘the angel of Yahweh’ seems to be distinct from Yahweh from vv. 22 and 31. Nothing in the passage would suggest the angel just is Yahweh.
  • In Zech. 1:11-13 ‘the angel of Yahweh’ is explicitly distinct from Yahweh for he addresses Yahweh at v.12 and is spoken to by Yahweh at v. 13.
  • In Zech. 3 ‘the (LXX-an) angel of Yahweh’ seems to be called Yahweh at v. 2, but immediately speaks of Yahweh in the third person. In vv. 6-10 the angel speaks on Yahweh’s behalf with the common prophetic announcement, “This is what Yahweh Almighty says.”

So what we see from this is that while sometimes ‘the angel of Yahweh’ speaks as Yahweh, in the first person, at other times, even within the same context, he speaks of Yahweh in the third person. Sometimes the angel is called Yahweh but is mostly called ‘the angel of Yahweh’ , and the text can switch between the two within a single pericope. As I noted earlier, these facts should caution us about being to quick to simply identify the ‘angel’ as numerically identical to Yahweh.

So, is there a way of understanding ‘the angel of Yahweh’ that would explain all of the data we find regarding this figure, and not just part of the data. Proponents of the  theophany view focus on the aspects of ‘the angel of Yahweh’ that seem to identify him as Yahweh, while ignoring the data that seems to make him distinct from Yahweh. The proponents of the christophany view acknowledge both aspects of this person, and think that this supports their trinitarian belief. They see the angel as Yahweh himself but somehow also distinct from Yahweh, hence two distinct persons who are both Yahweh.

The Missing Piece Of The Puzzle

One mistake that many people make when trying to interpret scripture is to not consider the cultural milieu in which the scriptures were written. In the culture of the Ancient Near East (ANE) the concept of agency would have been a common idea, but the concept has escaped most within Christendom for the past two thousand years. Scholarship in the area of ANE studies, in the 20th century, has helped to throw much needed light on this subject. Once this concept is understood and applied to the biblical text, much of what seemed confusing or contradictory in scripture suddenly becomes lucid. The ancient Hebrew people certainly understood this concept and it should not surprise us to find the language of agency permeating the pages of Scripture.

OT scholar, John Walton, in his commentary on Genesis in the Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary said this regarding this ancient concept and it’s relationship to the angel of Yahweh:

“In the ancient world direct communication between important parties was a rarity. Diplomatic and political exchange usually required the use of an intermediary, a function that our ambassadors exercise today. The messenger who served as the intermediary was a fully vested representative of the party he represented. He spoke for that party and with the authority of that party. He was accorded the same treatment as that party would enjoy were he there in person. While this was standard protocol, there was no confusion about the person’s identity.

This explains how the angel in this chapter [Gen. 16] can comfortably use the first person to convey what God will do (16:10). When official words are spoken by the representative, everyone understands that he is not speaking for himself, but is merely conveying the words, opinions, policies, and decisions of his liege. So in Ugaritic literature, when Baal sends messengers to Mot, the messengers use first person forms of speech. E.T. Mullen concludes that such usage ‘signify that the messengers not only are envoys of the god, but actually embody the power of their sender.'”

Aubrey R. Johnson, in The One and the Many In the Israelite Conception of God, expressed the concept of agency as follows:

“In Hebrew thought a patriarch’s personality extended through his entire household … in a specialized sense, when the patriarch, as lord of his household, deputized his trusted servant as his malak (his messenger or angel), the man was endowed with the authority and resources of his lord, to represent him fully and transact business in his name. In Semitic thought this messenger-representative was conceived of as being personally — and in his very words — the presence of the sender.”

Did you catch that? The duly appointed agent becomes, as it were, the person who sent him, the one whom he represents. However the agent is received and treated is in reality how the one who sent him is received and treated. This understanding is reflected even in the NT:

“When a man believes in me, he does not believe in me , but in the one who sent me. When he looks at me he sees the one who sent me.”                   John 12:44-45

“I tell you the truth, whoever hears my words and believes him who sent me…”                                                                                                                           John 5:24 

“He who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives the one who sent me.”                                                                                                Matt. 10:40

“He who listens to you listens to me; he who rejects you rejects me; but he who rejects me rejects him who sent me.”                                               Luke 10:16

This is the language of agency, which every Jew hearing Jesus’ words would have understood. The above statements of Jesus were indeed axiomatic within the culture of ancient Israel and her surrounding neighbors. There are two incidents in the gospels which really drive home this point that the agent is regarded as the one who sends him — the story of the centurion seeking healing for his servant and the story of two disciples who wanted places of honor above the others in Jesus’ kingdom. The first incident is recorded in two Gospels, Matthew 8 and Luke 7. In Luke’s account, at verse 3, we are told that the centurion sends a delegation of Jewish elders to Jesus to ask him to come and heal his servant. But in Matthew’s account, at verses 5 & 6, we are told:

“When Jesus had entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, asking for help. ‘Lord,’ he said, ‘my servant lies at home paralyzed and in much suffering.'”

Matthew says nothing about the delegation of Jewish elders whom the centurion sent to Jesus, but rather portrays the account as if the centurion himself had come to Jesus. Is this a contradiction? Whose version of this event is correct? Actually they both are. Because the Jewish elders had not gone to Jesus of their own initiative, but were enlisted by the centurion to ask the Lord on his behalf, they were acting as his agents, bringing the request to Jesus in the centurion’s stead. Therefore it is perfectly acceptable for Matthew, in his retelling of the story, to bypass the messengers and portray the centurion as personally asking Jesus for his help.

The second incident is recorded in Matt.20:20-21 and Mark 10:35-37. In Matthew’s account the mother of James and John, the son’s of Zebedee, came to Jesus to request of him that her two sons might be given the special places of honor at Jesus’ right and left hand in his kingdom. Yet in Mark’s account the mother is not mentioned, but only that “James and John, the son’s of Zebedee, came to him.” We see again that the request can be portrayed as being made personally by the two brothers because they, no doubt, enlisted the aid of their mother to speak to Jesus on their behalf, i.e. the request was really coming from them, not from their mother.

So how does the concept of agency enable us to make sense  of the information we have in Scripture concerning ‘the angel of Yahweh’ ? I believe it has explanatory value for the passages where ‘the angel of Yahweh’ speaks as Yahweh in the first person and where the text seems to call him Yahweh. We can understand the angel as being an extension of Yahweh’s person and as such is rightfully regarded as Yahweh, the one who sent him and on whose behalf he speaks and acts. To receive the angel favorably is to receive Yahweh favorably; to receive the angel’s message is to receive Yahweh’s word. Of course, it also explains why on some occasions ‘the angel of Yahweh’ is clearly distinct from Yahweh and may speak of Yahweh in the third person and may even use the prophetic formula “thus says Yahweh.”  We may never know the reason behind this diversity of speech in God’s agents but we can certainly understand that as Yahweh’s representatives it is acceptable for them to speak in either manner.

I will not go through each passage where ‘the angel of Yahweh’ appears, but I encourage each reader to apply this concept of agency to each of the passages where the phrase occurs and see if it does not help to clarify what is going on in the text.

Objections To The Representative View

But what about the fact that some who saw ‘the angel of Yahweh’ believed they had seen Yahweh and were fearful for their lives. This is not really as weighty as it may seem at first. First, we should not assume that the patriarchs and the early Israelites, during the time of the judges, would have had a comprehensive understanding of what was going on in these appearances. They surely would have understood the concept of agency which was part of their culture, and that an agent was in a sense the personal presence of the one who sent him. They seem to have had the notion that if one were to see God they would die, but where they attained that idea from is unknown. It is not hard to imagine that such experiences would have been very traumatic for them and a cause of confusion. It’s not as though they had some definitive revelation from God to tell them how to decipher these experiences. Caught up in the ecstasy of the moment they uttered things which betrayed their confusion.

But what did they actually see? It seems that in most cases ‘the angel of Yahweh’ (or angels in general) appeared to them as a man; this is either explicitly stated in the text or is a reasonable inference {see Gen. 16:7-14; 18:2; 32:24-30; Joshua 5:13-14; Judges 6:11-22; 13:2-23}. We know that in the case of Jacob wrestling with the man, that although at the end of the encounter he declared, “It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared,” in actuality he only saw an angel, according to the inspired interpretation of the prophet Hosea, in 12:3-4. Now, if in this case, we know that the appearance of an angel was either misunderstood to be God, by the one to whom he appeared, or he was called God in some other sense than literally, then can we not conjecture the same in the other instances where men declared to have seen God after seeing ‘the angel of Yahweh’.

Another objection to the view that ‘the angel of Yahweh’ is simply an agent of Yahweh, is the assertion that he receives worship. Exodus 3:5 (along with Joshua 5:15) and Judges 6:17-22 are offered as proof of this. In the Exodus passage (as well as in the Joshua passage) the angel of Yahweh, speaking as Yahweh, tells Moses to remove his sandals because the place where he was standing was holy ground. Why is Moses told to do this if ‘the angel of Yahweh’ is simply an agent of God and not God himself? First, it is not clear that the removing of his sandals amounts to an act of worship. Perhaps we can understand it to be an act of recognition that God’s presence being there makes the place holy. We can understand that Yahweh’s agent here carries with him the personal presence of Yahweh i.e. the agent in some way embodies the presence of the one who sent him. My question is this: If this is the proper response to a theophany or christophany, why is this the only time someone is told to do this when ‘the angel of Yahweh’ is encountered? Perhaps there is something unique about this encounter that we do not understand as yet. Anyway, I think it is going to far to call this an act of worship.

In the Judges passage, the first issue we must deal with is this: Who did Gideon think he was interacting with? The proponents of the theophany and christophany views  must believe that the ancients would have known that ‘the angel of Yahweh’ was actually Yahweh himself i.e. that it was common knowledge that if one saw the angel of Yahweh he was literally seeing Yahweh himself. Now in vv.18-19 Gideon prepares an offering and presents it to the angel. Was he offering this to one who he believed was God? This seems unlikely because he doesn’t even come to realize it is ‘the angel of Yahweh’ until after the offering is consumed by the fire that came out of the rock and the angel disappeared suddenly (vv. 20-22). When the angel first comes on the scene he sits under an oak tree and starts a conversation with Gideon (vv.11-12). Who does Gideon think this is? We can assume the angel looked like an ordinary man, for Gideon doesn’t seem startled or afraid. When this man starts speaking in the first person for Yahweh (vv.14 &16), who does Gideon think this man is then? Most likely he thinks the man is a prophet of Yahweh who has come to him with a message from Yahweh. Following the accepted norms of that culture he receives Yahweh’s messenger as Yahweh himself, yet not thinking he is literally Yahweh. But according to v.17, he’s not completely sure this is a prophet sent by Yahweh, and he wants a sign that Yahweh is indeed speaking to him, through this messenger. Gideon then expresses his intention to prepare and present an offering, which he does (vv.18-19). The point is, that if he believed this was a prophet of Yahweh then he was not making the offering to him but to Yahweh. It is most likely that he was presenting the offering to the prophet so that the prophet could offer it to Yahweh on his behalf, like the priests. In Lev. 2:8 we read:

Bring the grain offering made of these things to Yahweh and present it to the priest, who shall take it to the altar.”

It should also be noted that in Judges 13:16 ‘the angel of Yahweh’ tells Manoah, “If you prepare a burnt offering you must offer it to Yahweh.” It certainly appears that the angel is careful to make sure that Manoah understands that he is not Yahweh himself.

Further Considerations

As I noted earlier, the NT is completely silent regarding any connection of Jesus with ‘the angel of Yahweh’ in the OT. This is hard to conceive if the authors of the NT really understood ‘the angel of Yahweh’ to be the son of God, especially since this has been a constant assertion by Christian apologists, pastors, expositors, etc. from the middle of the second century down to our very day. Not only that, but in the one and only place in the NT where an OT appearance of ‘the angel of Yahweh’ is recounted, no connection is made to Jesus. In fact, in this passage, some light is thrown on this subject, as to how Christians in the first century perceived this OT figure. In Acts 7 we have Stephen’s speech before the Sanhedrin, where he recounts the history of Israel from Abraham’s day to their own day. In vv. 30-38 he relates the story of Moses and the burning bush. How many times in the past 1900 yrs. has the opportunity not been missed by Christian teachers, to identify ‘the angel of Yahweh’ in Exodus 3 with the pre-incarnate Son of God. Yet Stephen is completely silent in this regard. In fact, Stephen does not even refer to the figure who appeared in the flames as ‘the angel of the Lord’ but only as ‘an angel’. This coincides with what we saw above, where in almost every case of the first mention of ‘the angel of Yahweh’ in an OT passage, in the Hebrew text the phrase is technically, grammatically definite, but in the LXX is translated as indefinite. But if it was just common knowledge among the first Christians in Judea that Jesus had appeared on earth many times in past generations, as ‘the angel of Yahweh’, and that it was in fact the son of God who appeared to Moses in the flames within the bush, then why does Stephen, in recounting that event, simply refer to this figure as “an angel“? Why does he fail to tell his hearers this all important revelation? This is similar to the prophet Hosea’s brief account of Jacob wrestling with God. The story in Gen. 32:22-32 tells of Jacob’s encounter with a man with whom he wrestles all night. Now the text does not refer to this man as ‘the angel of Yahweh’ but this does not stop zealous trinitarians from asserting that he was Jesus. Others see the man as a theophany. But in Hosea 12:3-4 the prophet simply calls the man “an angel” (neither the Hebrew or Greek texts have the definite article). For those who believe the Scriptures to be God-breathed, we have two inspired commentaries, one by Stephen and one by Hosea, which refer to a supposed christophany or theophany as simply one of Yahweh’s malakim.

One argument put forward by proponents of the christophany view as further proof of that position, is that once the Son of God is incarnated as Jesus of Nazareth, ‘the angel of Yahweh’ disappears from history, never to be seen again. This is supposed to be positive evidence that this figure was indeed pre-incarnate appearances of the Son of God. But do they not see that this is begging the question? First of all, if the assertion were true that ‘the angel of Yahweh’ disappears in the NT, this is only proof that he was the Son of God if you already presuppose he was. That is not a positive proof, but only a circular argument. But the fact is, that the assertion that ‘the angel of Yahweh’ disappears when the NT begins, is easily proven to be invalid. As noted in the examples given earlier, the Hebrew phrase malak YHWH = messenger (angel) Yahweh must be grammatically and technically translated as definite, hence the angel of Yahweh. But as I stated earlier, this definite construction can be, on a practical level, understood as indefinite. This is because there is no way to write in Hebrew ‘an angel of Yahweh’. Since Yahweh (the absolute noun in the construct state) is definite, by virtue of being a proper noun, so malak (the construct noun) must of necessity also be definite. We saw however, that when the Jewish translators of the LXX translated this phrase, when it occurs as a first mention of this figure in any given context, they always render it with an anarthrous noun i.e. as indefinite. This means that these Jewish scribes understood, that this definite phrase should be rendered practically as indefinite when the context demands it.

Now let’s carry this knowledge over into the NT. The only reason you do not see the phrase ‘the angel of the Lord’ in the NT is because it is written in Greek, instead of Hebrew. The definite phrase only occurs once, in Matt. 1:24, and this is definite because it refers back to the angel mentioned in v.20. The indefinite phrase ‘an angel of the Lord’ occurs 10 times, in the following passages: Matt. 1:20; 2:13, 19; 28:2; Luke 1:11; 2:9; Acts 5:19; 8:26; 12:7, 23. My contention is that, if the NT would have been written in Hebrew, each of these occurrences would have been in the construct state and would therefore have been grammatically definite. Hence ‘the angel of Yahweh’ would be seen to still be making an appearance in the NT, even after the supposed incarnation. The absence of ‘the angel of the Lord’ in the NT is not proof that when he appeared in the OT he must have been the pre-incarnate Son of God, but rather that the OT phrase was understood by Jews to be practically indefinite.

Conclusion

So let’s recap what we have learned regarding the proposition that ‘the angel of Yahweh’ in the OT is a christophany.

  1. We learned that the belief that ‘the angel of Yahweh’ is a designation for one specific individual cannot be maintained on grammatical grounds. Although the phrase is technically definite it can be understood on a practical level as indefinite. This is confirmed by other Hebrew phrases of the same construction and by the LXX. This greatly weakens the case for the christophany view.
  2. The biblical data concerning the angel of Yahweh shows an inconsistency in his speech and identification i.e. sometimes he is identified and speaks as Yahweh and other times he is clearly distinct from Yahweh.
  3. The concept of agency is adequate to explain the different ways that the angel of Yahweh presents himself and speaks.
  4. The lack of mention of OT christophanies by the NT authors is not what would be expected if this assertion were true.
  5. Various peripheral points made by proponents of the christophany view, in order to support the view, do not hold up under scrutiny.

In part 2 we will examine the claim that ‘the word of Yahweh’ in the OT is a pre-incarnate appearance of the son of God.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Author: Troy Salinger

I am 55 yrs. old. I live with my wife of 32 yrs. in Picayune MS. I have been a believer in the Lord Jesus since August of 1981. I have no formal theological education, but have been an ardent student of Scripture for 36 yrs. I am a biblical Unitarian i.e. I believe the Father is the only true God (John 17:3) and Jesus is His human Son, the Messiah.

4 thoughts on “Pre-incarnate Appearances Of The Son Of God In The OT – Truth Or Myth (Part 1)”

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