Exodus 23:20-23 : Who Is The Angel?

In popular Christian commentary and apologetics, it has been fashionable, for quite a number of decades, to teach that God had sent an angel i.e. a heavenly messenger, to deliver the people of Israel out of their Egyptian bondage and to lead them to the promised land. So pervasive is this idea that it can be found to have been propounded by scholars, pastors, Sunday school teachers, apologists and laymen alike. It seems to be an undisputed and unquestioned assumption, and this assumption is based on a face value reading of Exodus 23:20-23, along with Num. 20:16 and perhaps Is. 63:9. It is also in vogue to assert quite confidently that this angel is none other than the Son of God himself in his pre-incarnate state.

I propose that a careful reading of the scriptures does not substantiate this assumption and that the asumption is therefore false. I assert that Moses alone was commissioned to deliver the people of Israel from Egypt and to conduct them to the promised land. I further submit that the three passages cited above are, in fact, speaking about Moses.

Now I know that this is a bold proposal and that it would seem that I am kicking against the pricks, being at odds with so many scholars and expositors, both Christian and Jewish. I ask only that you give me a fair hearing and look carefully at the evidence I present in this article.

Preliminary Considerations

The first objection that one might raise to my proposal is that the verse states that God said he was sending an angel to lead the people. Well, yes, that is what most English versions say, but it is not necessarily what is meant by the Hebrew word used in this text. The Hebrew word translated as ‘angel’ in this passage, and indeed in every passage where our English versions read ‘angel’, is malak. The most basic meaning of this word is messenger, and there is nothing in the etymology of the word that denotes a heavenly being of any sort. The word malak does not refer to the ontology of the one so designated but rather to his job description. The word, in and of itself, simply denotes one who is sent by a superior to accomplish some specified task, and in this regard the malak acts as the agent of the one who sent him, whether the malak is a celestial or a human being. That the term malak is applied to human persons in the scriptures, in various categories, can be easily established from the following passages:
1. low-level messengers – Gen. 32:3, 6; Num. 20:14; 21:21; 22:5; 24:12; Joshua 7:22; Judg. 6:35; 7:24; 9:31; 11:12-19; and many dozens more throughout the OT
2. the two men sent to spy out Jericho – Joshua 6:17, 25
3. prophets – 2 Chron. 36:15-16; Is. 44:26; Haggai 1:13; Mal. 3:1
4. priests – Malachi 2:7; Ecc. 5:6
5. God’s servants – Is. 42:19; Job 4:18

When translators come across the word malak in the Hebrew text, if the passage is clearly referring to human messengers of some kind, they will typically translate it as ‘messenger’ or ‘ambassador’ or ‘envoy’. When the context clearly is referring to a heavenly being they will translate it as ‘angel’. The problem is that there are texts in which the term malak is ambiguous and it could be referring to either a human or a heavenly being. In almost all such passages translators typically opt for ‘angel’ instead of ‘messenger’, assuming a non-human or divine agent. But this could be misleading; what if they are wrong in this assumption? In fact, I believe that to be the case in the following passages: Judg. 2:1; 5:23; Ex. 23:20; Num. 20:16; Is 63:9; Hosea 12:4: Mal. 3:1 (both times). There may be other passages besides these in which the ambiguous use of malak may refer to a human agent rather than a heavenly being.

It is typically when a malak or malakim are sent by men, that it is clear that the text is speaking of human agents, and so it is translated as messenger or something similar. The problem of ambiguity arises though, when Yahweh is the sender, for Yahweh uses both human and non-human agents to accomplish his purposes. So the phrase “the malak Yahweh” is typically translated as “the angel of Yahweh”, except in two passages where it is clear that human agents are in view – Haggai 1:13 and Mal. 2:7. Most versions translate these passages as the messenger of Yahweh. But this shows that there may be other uses of the phrase “malak Yahweh” that refer to men, though the text is not clear. We cannot just assume the phrase refers to heavenly beings in every case but must be open to the possibility that it might refer to a human agent, unless something in the immediate context precludes that possibility. If you can read a passage where the phrase occurs and replace ‘the angel of Yahweh’ with ‘the prophet of Yahweh’ and the passage can still make sense, then you should be open to that possibility.

Likewise, when we encounter in Yahweh’s speech “my angel” (Heb. malaki), we should not simply assume it’s a reference to a heavenly being. In fact, in a very well known verse where malaki occurs, everyone agrees that it refers to a human agent – Mal. 3:1. In the NT this passage is applied to John the baptizer in Matt. 11:10; Mk. 1:2; Lk. 7:27, showing that, from the perspective of 1st century Jews, the term malaki can apply to human agents. In the remainder of this article I will refer to what we call ‘angels’ as divine agents.

History Of Interpretation

One of the surprising discoveries that I made in my research is that, though the most prevalent modern Christian understanding of Ex. 23:20-23 sees the malak sent by God as a celestial being, even as the pre-incarnate Christ, this was not the case in the early interpretation of this text. The predominate view, at least from the mid second century until the time of Augustine in the early fifth century, was that the malak of Ex. 23:20 was a reference to Joshua, the successor of Moses1.

Now someone may ask, “Well how does that help your case that it refers to Moses?” Good question! What it shows, first off, is that there were commentators who didn’t just assume the malak in Ex. 23:20 to be a divine being; they were able to see the malak as a human agent. Of course, I think they were wrong to identify the malak as Joshua instead of the more obvious choice of Moses. Their identification of the malak as Joshua was due to an underlying presupposition and a misguided interpretation of the phrase “my name is in him.” These early church fathers (ECF) held that the man Jesus pre-existed his birth from Mary as the Logos/Son, a second god who was emanated out from and numerically distinct from the Father, the only unbegotten God, the Maker of all things. They also held that it was not possible for the Supreme God, the Father, to make himself seen upon the earth. Therefore, whenever scripture spoke of God appearing and speaking to men they held that this was actually Jesus in a pre-incarnate visible manifestation. So the reason they did not think the malak in Ex.23:20 referred to the Son is because they thought the one speaking to Moses was the Son. Then based on the phrase “my name is in him” they assumed that the malak had the same name as the Son who was speaking to Moses, i.e. Joshua, which is equivalent to the Greek name Jesus. I will show later the better way to interpret this phrase, but for now, let it suffice to say that they were wrong in both their underlying presupposition and their understanding of this phrase. There are no further extant comments in Christian literature on this passage until modern times.

Medieval rabbinic interpretation of the passage is varied, with no one proposal becoming predominate. Ibn Ezra and R. Chananel said the malak was the angel Michael; Rashi said it was the angel Metatron. Ramban refers it to the angel Gabriel. Other rabbis taught that the malak refers to a prophet. Among these are Rambam, Ralbag, the Rosh, R. Asher and the even the earlier 2nd century tannaitic rabbi Shimon Yohai. Though they did not explicitly state it referred to Moses, it is believed that this is what they meant, since the continuing narrative knows of no other prophet but Moses leading and addressing the Israelite community with commands from God.

Modern Christian exegesis is nearly unanimous in seeing the malak as the pre-incarnate Son of God, but this is obviously for reasons theological rather than exegetical. Yet there are some modern exegetes who see the malak as Moses, e.g. Stefan Kurle in his 2013 work The Appeal of Exodus noted:

But several observations suggest that Moses, and not some supernatural being or manifestation, is meant here. Firstly, communicating the divine word, as described in Exod. 23:22, is something only Moses does in the account of Exodus.

R. Alan Cole in his Exodus commentary admits that “it could be argued that Moses or Joshua was originally intended here” but then opts for a supernatural messenger based on the verses that follow (we’ll address this later). William Propp in his Exodus commentary notes that some take the malak as a prophet, and if so then Moses would be the obvious candidate. J. G. Janzen also sees the malak as Moses.

Among modern Jewish exegetes who see Moses as the malak of Ex. 23:20 we have Hertz, Brichto and Kalisch. Of course, there may be more that I am unaware of.

Moses As Malak

The question now before us is this: Do the scriptures designate Moses as a malak? To this I answer yes. But even if Moses was never explicitly given this designation in scripture this would not preclude his being such. The better question would be: Can Moses legitimately be called a malak of God? This can be answered in the affirmative and shown to be true by two simple syllogisms:

1. Prophets are malakim of God – 2 Chron. 36:15-16; Is. 44:26; Hag. 1:13; Mal. 3:1
2. Moses is a prophet – Num. 12:6-7; Deut. 34:10-12; Hosea 12:13
3. Moses is a malak of God

Similarly, we could reason:
1. God’s servants are malakim of God- Is. 42:19; 44:26; Job 4:18
2.Moses is a servant of God – Num. 12:7-8; Deut. 34:5
3.Moses is a malak of God

Besides this simple logic, I believe there are passages in which Moses is designated as a malak, though they are somewhat ambiguous. These are the three verses noted above in the first paragraph of this article – our study passage Ex. 23:20-23, Num. 20:16 and Is 63:9. One of the objections I have seen to Moses being the malak in either Ex. 23:20 or Num. 20:16 is that Moses is nowhere called a malak. But this is simply begging the question, for it merely assumes out of hand that neither passage is referring to Moses. I will now attempt to show that this assumption is invalid.

Let’s look first at Num. 20:14-16:

Moses sent messengers from Kadesh to the king of Edom, saying: This is what your brother Israel says: You know all about the hardships that have come upon us. Our forefathers went down to Egypt, and we lived there many years. The Egyptians mistreated us and our fathers, but when we cried out to Yahweh, he heard our cry and sent an agent (malak) and brought us out of Egypt.

Incredibly, every commentator who mentions that Moses could not be the malak in this verse, does so because, they say, Moses is the one speaking these words, and so cannot be referring to himself in the third person. But this is a rather vacuous objection. Yes, Moses sends the messengers with the specific message but the message is from the perspective of the Israelite people as a whole, not from Moses, as the above underlined portion shows. Therefore, it is Israel who says, “we cried out to Yahweh, he heard our cry and sent an agent and brought us out of Egypt.” Nothing in this statement, on it’s face, would rule out Moses as the agent. In fact, we have every reason to conclude it does refer to Moses, regardless of the fact that all English versions, with the exception of the NET and YLT, translate malak here as angel, implying a divine agent. Exodus 3:7-12 describes Moses’ commission:

The Lord said, “I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt. I have heard their cry because of their taskmasters, for I know their sorrows. I have come down to deliver them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up from that land to a land that is both good and spacious, to a land flowing with milk and honey, to the region of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites. And now indeed the cry of the Israelites has come to me, and I have also seen how severely the Egyptians oppress them. So now go, and I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.” Moses said to God, “Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh, or that I should bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” He replied, “Surely I will be with you, and this will be the sign to you that I have sent you: When you bring the people out of Egypt, you and they will serve God on this mountain.”

When we compare this passage with Num. 20:16 we can see a clear correlation between them. In both passages God hears the cry of the Israelites and responds by sending an agent to bring them out of Egypt {see also 1 Sam. 12:8}. If we know that the agent is Moses in Ex. 3 why should we assume a different agent in Num. 20. There is no good reason not to take the agent in Num. 20:16 to be Moses. Moses (with the help of Aaron) alone was sent to bring the Israelites out of Egypt, as many verses attest – Ex. 3:10, 12; 14:11; 17:3; 32:1, 7, 23; 33:1; Deut. 9:12; 1 Sam. 12:6-8; Acts 7:34-36.

Let’s look next at Ex. 23:20-23. In this passage, we, once again, see a correlation of the language with other passages that we know are speaking of Moses. First, we have established that Moses can legitimately be designated a malak. Next, Ex. 23:20 states that God is “sending a malak before you,” i.e before the people of Israel. The phrase send before you in Hebrew is shalach lapaneka. Sometimes this phrase can denote someone going ahead of someone else, to arrive somewhere before them. But the phrase can also denote to be before someone as their leader, and this is what it means here. Did God appoint a divine agent to be the leader of the Israelites or did he appoint Moses? The best way to answer that question is with scripture itself:

“Indeed, I brought you up from the land of Egypt and ransomed you from the house of slavery, and I sent before you Moses . . .”

Micah 6:4

Note that the phrase “sent before you” (shalach lapaneka) is the exact phrase found in Ex. 23:20 and it is explicitly in reference to Moses2. While most versions simply translate this phrase literally, some versions do translate the idiom:

Complete Jewish Bible – ” I sent Moshe, Aharon and Miryam to lead you.”
CEV – “I sent Moses, Aaron, and Miriam to be your leaders.”
GW, GNT, NET – ” I sent Moses, Aaron, and Miriam to lead you.”
The Message – “I sent Moses to lead you— and Aaron and Miriam to boot!”
NCB – ” I sent as your leaders Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.”
NIV – “I sent Moses to lead you, also Aaron and Miriam.”

So here we have an explicit statement that Moses was sent before the Israelites i.e to lead them {see also Ex. 32:3 and 33:12}, the exact statement made about the malak in Ex. 23:20.

Next, we note that the assigned task of this malak was to shamar the people. The word has a wide range of meaning which includes to keep, to guard, to have charge of, to watch over.  The word is used to express the activity of a shepherd, i.e. to keep the sheep. This coincides with Moses being designated as “the shepherd of [Yahweh’s] flock” {Is. 63:11; Ps. 77:20}. Now is there any passage of Scripture that applies this word to Moses in his commissioned task of leading Israel? Yes, Hosea 12:13:

And by a prophet Yahweh brought Israel out of Egypt and by a prophet he (Israel) was kept (Heb. shamar).

This verse is clearly speaking of Moses and describes his commission with the same term as that in our text. In fact, Hosea 12:13 may be directly referencing Ex. 23:20. Here Moses is also called a prophet and we have already established that a prophet is a malak of God. If this text, which we know is referring to Moses, would have instead said, “And by a malak Yahweh brought Israel out of Egypt and by a malak he was kept,” then every commentator and expositor would claim that God did these things by a supernatural being i.e. an angel, but it would still be referring to Moses.

The next thing said about this malak is that he would bring the people to the place God prepared for them, i.e. the promised land. One objection to Moses being the malak is that he did not bring the people into the land. But once again, this is a vacuous argument. Five unambiguous passages establish that this was initially part of Moses’ assigned task – Ex. 33:1, 12; Num. 11:12; 27:12-17; Deut. 10:11. It certainly was God’s original intention for Moses to bring the people into the land but he was later denied entrance into the land due to dishonoring the Lord at the waters of Meribah {Num. 20:12}. The task of bringing them into the land was then given to Joshua instead. At the point in the narrative when Ex. 23:20 occurs Moses was still the one appointed to bring them into the land, so the fact that he did not bring them in cannot be used to conclude that Moses is not the malak. Moses did, in fact, bring them to the border of the promised land but then died before the people entered the land.

The next thing said about the malak is that the people must “take heed before him and listen to his voice. That this is what the people were required to do in regard to prophets or leaders whom God appointed over them is rather self-evident. When anyone was appointed by God to speak for him, the people were required to listen to his words and obey them {Num. 27:18-20; Deut. 11:13; 12:28; 18:15-19; Joshua 1:16-18; Jer. 26:4-6}. The people were required to listen to the voice of this malak, but we never see anywhere in the remaining narrative where the people are given verbal commands by a divine agent; but we do see, repeatedly, Moses giving the people commands and instructions. Now would it not be odd if in the whole narrative of the exodus we never see that the people are instructed by God to obey the words of Moses? Indeed, Ex. 23:20-23 may be the one place where the people are enjoined to do so.

If we look at the narrative leading up to Ex. 23:20-23, we see in Ex. 20 that God spoke to the people directly by audible voice, but the people were afraid and said to Moses, “Speak to us yourself and we will obey. But do not have God speak to us or we will die” {Ex. 20:19}. In Deut. 5:23-28 we find out that God said that what the people proposed was good. Then God gives a lengthy amount of commands and instructions to Moses, from Ex. 21 -23, which he is to tell the people for God, and 23:20-23 falls within these instructions. Therefore, we should understand Ex. 23:20-23 as God instructing the people that he is sending Moses to lead them to the promised land and that they should obey everything he says since he will be speaking on God’s behalf.

Next, we read, . . . do not rebel against him, for he will not pardon your transgressions, for my name is in him.” Here we have two statements that give assurance to those who see the malak as either a pre-incarnate manifestation of Christ or simply as a visible manifestation of God. First, they suppose, based on the statement “he will not pardon your transgressions,” that this malak has the authority to forgive the people’s sins, and hence must be a divine person. Second, they think the statement, “my name is in him,” implies the malak is divine in nature. Neither of these assumptions is actually derived from the text itself, but are based on presuppositions held by the commentators and read onto the text. The first is easily dismissed, for the text actually says “he will not forgive your transgressions.” It is assumed that this means he has the prerogative to forgive but will choose not to forgive. But this is merely an assumption on their part. The grammar can just as readily mean that the malak will not forgive because he is not authorized to, it is not part of his job description or he is not able to do so. The phrase consists of the negative particle lo (not) followed by the Qal imperfect form of nasa (will forgive). That this construction need not imply the ability to perform the stated action can be seen by the use of the same or similar construction in other passages, such as Num. 14:30; 20:24; Is. 46:7; Jer. 34:3. In each of these passages the imperfect verb implies an inability to perform the stated action instead of a volitional act to not do so. Therefore, it is not necessary to take this statement as an assertion of an ontological ability which this malak possesses, but as a statement of what the malak is not authorized or able to do.

The second statement, “my name is in him,” is a bit more involved. Of course, it could imply what the majority of commentators think it implies, i.e. that this malak has a divine nature, but nothing in the text itself demands this. This understanding seems to derive simply from the presupposition that the malak is a manifestion of the pre-incarnate Word. Some, like Dr. Michael Heiser, appeal to what is termed “the Name theology” to show that the verse means that the angel just is Yahweh himself, yet not the invisible Yahweh but the visible one i.e. the Son of God. But this is reading way to much into this phrase. A simpler way to understand the phrase is that this malak speaks and acts as God’s representative, by authority from him, and therefore, the people must obey what he instructs them to do. In effect, what this malak says is just what God is saying, and if the people disobey what the malak says then they are actually disobeying God himself. This is why the malak cannot just forgive the people if they rebel against him, because to rebel against the malak is to sin against God, not the malak. Now, this understanding of the phrase does not require that the malak be divine in nature or even a non-human agent. These things could be said about any and all human representatives of God.

We can actually see this play out in the narrative of the desert wandering, where at various times people grumble against Moses and God takes it as sin against himself and brings some sort of punitive judgment in response {Ex. 16:1-11; Num. 12:1-15; 14:1-38; 16:1-50}. Exodus 16 illustrates this well. In v.2 it says, “The entire Israelite community grumbled against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness.” Then in v. 7 Moses tells them, “in the morning you will see the glory of the LORD, because he has heard your grumbling against him. Who are we, that you should grumble against us?” In all of these cases Moses is not able to just forgive the people for grumbling against him, because in reality they had rebelled against God, who appointed Moses as his representative before the people. In some cases, when God’s judgment had come upon the people, Moses would plead with God to forgive them or had Aaron make atonement for the people, but only God could forgive their rebellion.

That the malak speaks for God is further confirmed by the next statement in the passage, “Indeed, if you carefully obey him and do everything that I say, then I’ll be an enemy to your enemies and an adversary to your adversaries.” Note that to obey the malak is to obey what God says. Incredibly, some actually take this statement as further proof that the malak is God. But this conclusion is completely unnecessary. The statement need mean nothing more than what we see throughout Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers – God speaks to Moses his instructions for the people and Moses tells them what God said.

Next, we will look at Is. 63:9, which reads:

“In all their affliction he was afflicted, and the angel of his presence saved them; in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.”

Here is the third passage which supposedly tells us that a divine agent delivered Israel from Egyptian bondage. The Hebrew reads malak panaw, which literally means a messenger of his face. Because this personage was sent to deliver the people of Israel and not simply bring a message, and because ‘face’ typically denotes ‘presence’, and because there is no definite article in the Hebrew text, we can translate it as an agent of his presence. Once again, there are no textual reasons to assume this malak is a divine agent, despite the vast amount of speculation by both Jewish and Christian exegetes identifying this malak as a divine agent; it is only theological predilections that lead one to that conclusion. We have already seen that human agents such as prophets and priests are designated as malak, and that Moses was a prophet and, therefore, can rightly be termed a malak. We have also seen that God commissioned Moses to “bring my people out of Egypt” {see Ex. 3:10}. Now if someone wants to make the point that there is a difference between ‘bringing’ the people out of Egypt and ‘delivering’ them, and that Moses did the former but not the later, then I would turn their attention to Acts 7:35-36:

“This same Moses—whom they rejected by saying, ‘Who made you ruler and judge?’ —was the man whom God sent to be both their leader and deliverer with the help of the angel who had appeared to him in the bush.”

Here we have a first century commentary on Exodus 3 which unamiguously understands Moses’ commissioned role to be that of Israel’s deliverer.

Is. 63:9 is the only occurrence of the phrase malak panaw in the Hebrew scriptures so we do not have anything to help us discern it’s meaning. But based on what we do know, i.e. that Moses can rightly be termed a malak and that he was commissioned to deliver Israel, there seems to be no good reason for assuming it cannot refer to Moses. Since scripture gives us no further illumination on the phrase, all speculation regarding this malak being Michael or Gabriel or Metatron or the Holy Spirit or the pre-incarnate Son of God, can only be driven by presuppositions, and are therefore suspect.

But in what sense is Moses the malak of Yahweh’s presence? First of all we should understand it as “an agent of his presence.”  Secondly, we should not just assume that this designation implies that this personage has a heavenly origin. The phrase may imply nothing more than that this agent has a special association with Yahweh’s presence, not necessarily his presence in heaven, but his presence in connection with his earthly people. And this is exactly the case with Moses. The phrase in question is literally “an agent of his face.”  This designation, in all probability, refers to the fact that Moses alone enjoyed a “face to face” rapport with Yahweh. This is brought out in Ex. 33:7-11, Numbers 7:89, 12:5-8 and Deut. 34:10. Yahweh’s presence was associated with the cloud that would appear at the tent of meeting. Moses would go there to speak ‘face to face’ as it were, with Yahweh. ‘Face to face’ should not be understood literally but should be taken in the sense of directly, without a dream or vision. Yahweh dispensed with these mediating forms when communicating with Moses and spoke to him directly, with audible voice, from the cloud, which was regarded as his presence. Moses continually stood before the face of Yahweh, i.e. in his presence. This is how Moses can rightly be designated “a malak of his presence.”

It is clear that Isaiah 63:9 is referencing the deliverance of Israel from Egypt and God’s care for them during the desert wandering. Verse 10 speaks of their long history of rebellion once they entered the land and of God’s judgment upon them. Verses 11-14 are given from Israel’s perspective after having undergone God’s abandonment. Israel recalls the days of old when God performed great deeds in delivering them and leading them to the land. We note that in vv. 11-14 Moses is the only agent mentioned through whom God worked to accomplish Israel’s deliverance. Therefore, it is reasonable to identify Moses with the malak mentioned in v. 9.

So I have shown how the three main passages typically understood to say that God sent a divine agent to deliver the Israelites, Ex. 23:20-23; Num. 20:16 and Is. 63:9, can reasonably be understood as referring to Moses, and that based purely on textual grounds.

Objections Answered

The first and most obvious objection that might be raised to the proposal that Ex. 23:20-23 is referring to Moses is the fact that Yahweh is speaking to Moses when he says these words. At first glance this seems like a formidable objection but not upon closer scrutiny. While it is true that Yahweh is speaking to Moses, what he is saying is not directed toward Moses but toward the Israelite community. The context of the passage goes back to chapter 20 where God appears on the mountain in fire and audibly speaks the ten commandments to the Israelites. In vv. 18-21 the people are afraid and beseech Moses to speak to them on God’s behalf and to not have God himself speak to them. It seems that God was happy with this arrangement and no longer spoke audibly and directly to the people { see Deut. 5:23-31}. In 21:1 we read:

These are the ordinances you are to set before them.

Everything written from 21:2 – 23:33 are God’s words which Moses is to relay to the Israelites; God is speaking to the Israelites in the first person. 23: 20-23 falls within this framework and should be understood as Yahweh’s words to the Israelites not to Moses. Moses is the one who is to relate Yahweh’s words to the people. We could read the passage like this to see how it makes sense:

Look, I am sending Moses before you to have charge of you on the journey … Take heed to yourselves before him and listen to his voice … Do not embitter him for he will not forgive your rebellion because my name is in him (i.e. I have commissioned and sent him).

Another objection, that supposedly confirms the first objection, is the use of the second person singular pronouns (you and your) from vv.20 -33. Surely this means that Yahweh is speaking to a single person, Moses, and so Moses can’t be the agent that Yahweh is promising to send with Moses. But this argument will not hold up. First off, all the things Yahweh says he will do in these passages cannot be said only of Moses but must be applied to all of Israel. Also, in the midst of all these singular pronouns we see a shift to plural in v.25 with the words “So you (pl.) shall serve Yahweh your (pl.) God.” It immediately shifts back to singular in the same verse with “and he will bless your (sing.) bread and water and will take away sickness from among you (sing.).” Surely this is referring not to Moses but to the whole Israelite community, which is being viewed as a single entity throughout. In fact, all of the 2nd person pronouns from vv. 26-33 are singular and all clearly refer to Israel as a people and not to Moses. This same use of singular pronouns for the Israelite community can be seen throughout the whole passage starting from Ex. 21:2 right up to 23:20. Once again, in 22:21-22, we see an abrupt change from singular to plural and then back to singular in v. 23., then back to plural in v. 24, and plural again in v. 25. I am not going to go through the whole passage; I think the point has been made sufficiently. So the use of singular pronouns in 23:20-23 cannot be made to mean that Moses, and not the Israelites, is the intended recipient of these words. This use of singular pronouns in relation to the nation of Israel is also common in the writings of the prophets.

Another objection is that there are three other passages in Exodus in which a malak is spoken of and Moses is clearly not the referent, Ex. 14:19, 32:34 and 33:2. Let’s look at each of these verses, starting with Ex. 32:34, which reads:

“But now go, lead the people to the place about which I have spoken to you; behold, my angel shall go before you.

Here God is speaking to Moses, and not to the people, and he seems to be saying that a divine agent will go with him. But is this really what the text says? I want to offer an alternative translation of this verse that supports the proposal that Moses is the malak of Ex. 23:20. In the Hebrew text the word for “to” in the phrase “to the place” is el. This preposition denotes motion to or direction towards, and so the primary meaning of the word is to, unto, towards or into. But there are times when this preposition, as with all prepositions, has a meaning that goes beyond the primary meaning. Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew Lexicon (BDB) includes within the semantic range of el such meanings as in regard to, concerning, on account of and according to. BDB also says this:

There is a tendency in Hebrew . . . to use אֶל (el) in the sense of עַל (al); sometimes אֶל being used exceptionally in a phrase or construction which regularly, and in accordance with analogy, has עַל; sometimes, the two prepositions interchanging, apparently without discrimination, in the same or parallel sentences.

Now the word עַל (al) has as one of it’s primary meanings according to. Since el and al are sometimes interchangable and el is sometimes used in the sense of al, then I would propose reading our text as if it read al instead of el in the phrase “to the place.” On top of this, there is no word in the Hebrew text which corresponds to the word “place“. The next word in the Hebrew text after el is asher, a relative pronoun meaning which, that which, what or who. So we can translate the first part of the verse as, “But now go, lead the people according to what (or that which) . . .” The next part of the verse can then be read “I have spoken concerning you (rather than to you).” The Hebrew for “to you” is lak, which is a lamed with a second person singular suffix. BDB says that “with verbs of speaking, commanding, hearing, etc.” lak can mean concerning, about3. Rashi, in his commentary on Gen. 28:15 says regarding lak, “[when] used after the verbal form of דבר [it is] used in the sense of ‘concerning’. This verse proves that this is so, since it cannot mean ‘I have spoken to thee’ as He had never spoken to Jacob before this occasion.” It is certainly the case in our text that lak follows after the common verb for speaking, dabar. So, when we put the two parts of the verse together we get:

“But now go, lead the people according to that which I have spoken concerning you, ‘Behold, my angel shall go before you.’ “

When read like this, God is quoting himself (from Ex. 23:23) to Moses telling him to lead the people to the land, for He had told the Israelites that he would send an agent, i.e. Moses, to lead them and keep them on the journey. This would be an explicit confirmation within the same book that the malak of Ex. 23:20 is indeed Moses. Now, someone may object that no English version translates Ex. 32:34 in this way. That is true. But I would answer that this is likely due to the almost universal acceptance of the misconception that God sent a divine agent to deliver the people from Egypt and to lead them to the land. As for those commentators who think Moses is the malak of Ex. 23:20, when they comment on Ex. 32:34, they simply direct the reader back to their comment on Ex. 23:20, which certainly implies that they think Ex. 32:34 is also about Moses, though they do not say anything about the possible translation I have offered. I would also note that in the text itself God is telling Moses to lead the people, so that task is clearly given to Moses, not to a divine agent.

Now let’s look at Ex. 33:2“I will send an angel before you, and I will drive out the Canaanite, the Amorite, the Hittite, the Perizzite, the Hivite, and the Jebusite.”

Once again, God promises to send a malak before them; but is this the same malak promised in 23:20? In my opinion, it is possible to see this malak also as Moses, i.e. God is once again reiterating his promise to the people to appoint Moses as their leader. We know, even though it is not stated explicitly, that these words are being communicated to the Israelite community through Moses, based on v. 3 where God says, “because you are a stiff-necked people,” and v. 4 which says, “When the people heard these distressing words.” So yes, we can take this malak as equivalent to that of Ex. 23:20 and so equivalent to Moses. But there is another way to understand this malak, that is, as distinct from the malak of Ex. 23:20, yet not as a celestial being. Because it is through this agent that God says he will drive out the inhabitants of the land before they get there, it seems reasonable to equate this malak with what God had told the people earlier in Ex. 23:28 – “I will send the hornet ahead of you to drive the Hivites, Canaanites and Hittites out of your way.” This could also to be taken as synonymous with v. 27 – “I will send my terror ahead of you . . .” – but it is not necessary to my point. We also see this same idea reiterated later in Joshua 24:12 – “I sent the hornet ahead of you, which drove them out before you . . .” Although there is debate among scholars as to what is meant by “the hornet”, some seeing it as metaphorical, some as literal, could this be the malak God promised to send in Ex. 33:2? I don’t see why not. Someone might object that we never see in the Hebrew scriptures the word malak applied to non-personal beings such as animals, or in this case, hornets. But this is simply begging the question, for this may be the one example of such a use. While it is preferable, it is not necessary to have more than one example of an unusual use of a word to establish it’s use once. For example, we have only one instance in which the word mashiach (messiah) is applied to a pagan king, Is. 45:1, yet no one argues that this passage is not applying the word mashiach to a pagan king, based on that fact. Anything that God uses to accomplish his purpose can be said to be his malak i.e. his agent, even swarms of hornets.

The final passage is Ex. 14:19“Then the angel of God, who had been going before the camp of Israel, moved and went behind them; and the pillar of cloud moved from before them and stood behind them.”

It appears that what we have here is a divine agent of God, what we typically call an angel, although it may be possible to also see this malak as Moses. This is the first mention of a malak in connection with the exodus from Egypt. This malak is described as “going before the camp of Israel” i.e. in front of the camp. Now we might be able to reasonably assume that Moses was out in front of the people as they left Egypt, but we don’t have any explicit statement to that fact. It could be saying that Moses, who was in front of the camp, upon being informed that the Egyptians had pursued them {vv. 8-12}, went to the back of the camp, perhaps to assess the situation. While that cannot be ruled out, we do have this explicit statement though:

“After leaving Sukkoth they camped at Etham on the edge of the desert. By day the Yahweh went ahead of them in a pillar of cloud to guide them on their way and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, so that they could travel by day or night. Neither the pillar of cloud by day nor the pillar of fire by night left its place in front of the people.”

Ex. 13:20-22

So it may be better to take this malak as a divine agent who is connected in some way with the pillar of cloud and of fire. It may be that the angel is producing the physical phenomena of the cloud and fire {see Ps. 104:4 LXX}, which then serves as a visible representation to the people of Yahweh’s providential care. Every other time the pillar of cloud and the pillar of fire are referred to in scripture no mention is made of a malak, but the phenomena is always viewed as Yahweh’s provision of guidance and a source of light at night4. We can conclude from this that, if there was an angel involved with the pillars of cloud and fire, his presence was unknown to the Israelites and he was not the central focus of the peoples attention, but his role was merely ancillary, probably to produce the physical phenomena of the cloud and fire.

When we look closely at this account in Ex.14 we see that Moses’ role is much more pronounced. He directs the people according to God’s instructions {vv. 1-4}; he encourages the people to not be afraid but to trust in Yahweh {vv.13-14}; he stretches out his hand over the sea to divide the waters [vv. 15-16, 21-22}; and he stretches out his hand over the sea again to make the waters return, thus destroying Pharaoh’s army {vv. 26-28}. The result of Moses working as Yahweh’s agent in this way is that “the people feared Yahweh and put their trust in Yahweh and in Moses his servant.” We note that no mention is made of the people putting their trust in the angel. But why not, if indeed this angel was carrying out the role that most commentators claim for him? In fact, there is no emphasis placed upon the angel in Ex. 14:19 and his identity is subsumed in Yahweh, his actions being attributable to Yahweh himself.

So we see then, that these three passages, Ex. 14:19, 32:34 and 33:2, when read in the way I have proposed, throw serious doubt onto the commonly accepted notion that God appointed a divine agent to deliver the Isarelites from Egypt and to lead them to the promised land. On top of this, Ex. 33:12 also calls into question this widely accepted view. It reads:

“Moses said to the LORD, ‘Look, You have told me, “Lead this people up,” but You have not let me know whom You will send with me.'”

First, we note that Moses understood it to be his assigned task to lead or bring the people up to the land. Second, are we to believe that God told Moses at least three times that he was appointing a divine agent to bring the people to the land and yet Moses can say “You have not let me know whom You will send with me.” Such a scenario makes the author of Exodus contradict himself, and that within a very short space. But, if we take those three passages {Ex. 23:20-23; 32:34; 33:2} in the way I propose then it makes sense. If Moses understood himself to be the malak that God appointed to lead the Israelites to the land, and then God informs him that He will not go with Moses and the people {33:3}, then we can understand Moses’ statement in 33:12 as him appealing to Yahweh to send someone, perhaps even a divine agent, to assist him on the journey, in view of God’s absence.

One final objection must be dealt with. Some may think my proposal is weakened by Acts 7:38 – “He was in the assembly in the wilderness, with the angel who spoke to him on Mount Sinai, and with our ancestors; and he received living words to pass on to us.” It is assumed that the angel spoken of here is the supposed divine agent who was appointed to deliver the people from Egypt and bring them to the promised land. But even a cursory reading of the context should show the invalidity of this assumption. First, we note that the whole passage from v. 30 – v. 40 is about Moses’ commission and his carrying out of that commission. The highlight of the passage is vv. 35-36:

This same Moses they had rejected, saying, ‘Who made you a ruler and judge?’ God sent as both ruler and deliverer through the hand of the angel who appeared to him in the bush. This man led them out, performing wonders and miraculous signs in the land of Egypt, at the Red Sea, and in the wilderness for forty years.

This passage clearly establishes Moses as the one who God sent to deliver the people from Egypt and to lead them. How can 7:38 support the idea that God sent a divine agent to do what v. 35 explicitly states was the sole assignment of Moses. Notice that v. 35 mentions an angel, the one who appeared to Moses in the burning bush {see v.30}. This angel was sent to represent Yahweh in His commissioning of Moses. Through the hand of is an idiom meaning by the agency of. It was by the agency of this angel that God gave Moses his commission. But this is not necessarily the same angel mentioned in v. 38. In fact, the way the passage presents the two angels is as if they are distinct5. The angel of v. 38 appears to be alluding to the belief of 1st century Jews that angels were involved in the giving of the law to Moses6. The verse says that this is the angel who spoke to Moses on Mt. Sinai and from whom Moses received living words to pass on to us, i.e. the law. In Acts 7:53, later in Stephen’s speech, he says that the Jewish fathers “received the law under the direction of angels” (HCSB). This could be referring to the whole period from the call and commission of Moses in Ex. 3 to the receiving of the law by Moses on Mt Sinai in Ex. 20-31, angels being involved in both instances. In saying this Stephen is referring back to what he said in vv. 30-38. The ‘angels’ mentioned by Stephen in his speech are not said of him to have been sent to deliver the people from Egypt or to lead them to the promised land – this he attributes only to Moses {vv. 35-36}.


Let’s review what we have discovered. We have in both the Hebrew scriptures and the NT explicit statements that Moses was the one appointed by God to deliver the people from Egypt and lead them to the promised land. The passages which mention a malak being sent are ambiguous because the word can refer to both divine and human agents of God. Since we have explicit statements that Moses was sent for the same purposes that the malakim are said to be sent, it is more reasonable to assume Moses is the malak and not some divine agent sent in addition to Moses.

We have seen that in history various interpretations of the malak of Ex. 23:20 have been offered, some seeing him as a human agent and some specifically as Moses, though most have seen him (mistakenly, in my opinion) as a divine agent.

We have seen that all of the descriptions of the malak in the relevent passages could easily apply to Moses and that nothing in the language requires a divine agent.

We have seen that all possible objections to Moses being the malak can be reasonably answered.

Therefore, I submit that Moses is the malak sent by God to deliver Israel from Egyptian bondage and lead them to the promised land.

So what relevance does this have for believers in Yahweh and his Anointed One? I admit this is largely an academic interest, but I think it has some practical value also. First, it gets at the truth of the matter regarding how God accomplished an important element within redemptive history – the deliverance of Israel from Egyptian bondage and their entrance into the promised land. For those who care about truth and are not content to simply let popular traditions dictate their beliefs, this proposal shows how such traditions are not always as strong in biblical support as we might think. Second, if my proposal is valid it shows how God speaks of and uses his human agents. Also my proposal takes some of the mystery out of some of the relevant passages, making them more understandable. Finally, my proposal gives unitarian Christians a reasoned, scriptural response in debates with Trinitarians who use Ex. 23:20 as a way to show that Christ pre-existed and was active in Israel’s history prior to his birth, though my proposal is not anti-trinitarian. A trinitarian can accept my proposal without denying the trinity or deity of Christ, he would merely be denying that Ex. 23:20 and other such passages are supports for those doctrines.


  1. See Justin Martyr’s Dialogue With Trypho ch. 75; Tertullian’s An Answer To The Jews ch. 9 and book 3 of Against Marcion ch. 16; Augustine’s Reply To Faustus
  2. That Micah 6:4 mentions also Aaron and Miriam as leaders of Isreal does not in any way lessen the force of my argument, for Moses clearly was the chief leader while Aaron and Miriam played an ancillary role as leaders under Moses.
  3. Examples where el has the sense of according to rather than it’s primary meaning of to, towards– Josh. 15:13; 17:4; 21:3; Ps. 2:7; 5:1; 80:1
    Examples where the lamed prefix has the sense of concerning rather than to – Deut. 33:7,8,12,13,18, 20,22, 24; Judg. 9:54; 1 Sam. 10:2; Job 42:7; Ps. 3;2; 41:5; Ezek. 44:5
  4. Ex. 13:20-22; 40:34-38; Num. 9:15-23; 14:14; Deut. 1:32-33; Neh. 9;12, 19; Ps. 78:14; 105:39
  5. V. 35 reads in Greek “. . . the angel, the one who appeared to him in the bush.” And v. 38 reads “. . . the angel, the one who spoke to him on Mount Sinai.” This seems to me that author is distinguishing between the two angels, not equating them.
  6. See. Acts 7:53; Gal. 3:19; Heb. 2:2

Author: Troy Salinger

I am 60 yrs. old. I live with my wife of 37 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 41 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.

9 thoughts on “Exodus 23:20-23 : Who Is The Angel?”

  1. Funny, I was just thinking about this passage today, and when I stopped by your blog I saw this new post. Great job as always!


  2. very good article! I certainly agree “angel” is a foggy word that can easily be misunderstood. Here is a question for you. As you know the Sadducees did not believe in “angels” as heavenly residents. Are you aware of ANY verses in the five books of Moses that require a direct divine connection with an angel/messenger?
    As an aside I remember years ago being shocked that this same group did not believe in an afterlife or resurrection. They were not silly or incompetent scholars. So, I went to study where in the five books of Moses there IS a requirement for resurrection. It all came down to ONE verse. The Sadducees argued that Exodus 6:3-4 applied to the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (like the other similar promises did). However, the Pharisees argued that ONLY Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were involved in Exodus 6:3-4… and that these folks never did actually receive their inheritance…SO they must be coming back here some time to claim it. Wow… pretty subtle! Yet that is exactly what Hebrews 11 outlines…these patriarchs never received that which was promised to them. I don’t believe either group signed on to “going to heaven” when we die… the debate was over a physical resurrection. Warm regards and best wishes for the new year!


    1. Hi Hal,
      Thanks for reading the article. While many appearances of a malak in the Pentateuch could be considered as a human agent, there are some which seem to rule this out. For ex. Gen 22:15 – “The malak Yahweh called to Abraham from heaven . . .” Gen. 48:16 – “. . . the malak who delivered me from all harm.” Gen. 21:17 – “the malak of God called to Hagar from heaven . . .” Gen. 24:7; Ex. 3:2; 14:19; Num. 22:22-35. To my mind it would be hard to see these as human agents. I hope I understood your question correctly.


      1. Dear Troy: thanks for the quick response. My comment deals with what characteristics a malak/angel needs to possess. We have been informed that the Pharisees “believed” in angels but the Sadducees did not. I am sure that the Sadducees were well aware of the interactions with Hagar, Abraham with Isaac, Eleazar looking for help finding a bride etc. I recently made a list of every occurrence with an “angel/messenger”. I suppose that a burning bush can in fact be a messenger/malak. Same goes for the cloud. You have mentioned (and rebutted) the standard Christian response that many/most of these “angel appearances” were visitations by Jesus. Frequently the “appearances” look like men (apart from bush and cloud) but I think the debate about angels is similar to the debate about an afterlife. I mentioned Exodus 6:3-4 as the ONLY reference in Moses’ writings that indicates an afterlife. I suspect Hagar heard a voice (or perhaps had a vision). The one verse that does not make sense is Numbers 22:31. The LORD opens Balaam’s eyes to see the angel “standing in the way with his drawn sword in his hand”. Moments before Balaam did not see the angel with the sword. Is this a vision or a literal agent with a sword? (I’m not sure why angels need to carry swords…surely they don’t rely on these weapons) That appearance strikes me as a vision. I wonder what the Sadducees would say about this. Keep up the great work. You wrote a convincing article showing that Moses served as malak of YHWH.


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