Pre-Incarnate Appearances Of The Son Of God In The OT – Truth Or Myth? – Miscellaneous Manifestations


Melchizedek is an OT figure who typically gets nominated for being a pre-incarnate appearance of Christ by Trinitarian apologists and expositors. This conclusion is usually drawn not so much from what the OT says about Melchizedek, but from what the NT book of Hebrews says regarding him. If all we had was the OT record I do not think people would be making this claim; there is nothing in the OT record to lead one to the conclusion that Melchizedek was the eternally begotten son of God. It is based largely, or even solely, on what the author of Hebrews says concerning him that has led many to this false conclusion. It is my assertion that these folk are misunderstanding the author of Hebrews. I must say though, that this belief is not universal among Trinitarians, for one can find plenty in that camp who do not see Melchizedek as a pre-incarnate appearance of Christ. In fact, when I was a Trinitarian, I myself did not hold that Melchizedek was Christ, so that my belief on this point has not changed since becoming a Unitarian.

OT Record Concerning Mechizedek

In Genesis 14, as Abram was returning from defeating the kings who had taken captive Lot and his family and other citizens of Sodom, Melchizedek is abruptly introduced into the story line as follows:

“And Melchizedek, king of Salem, brought out bread and wine. And he was priest of God Most High, and he blessed him and said: ‘Blessed be Abram of God Most High, Possessor of the heavens and earth. And blessed be God Most High, who delivered your enemies into your hand.’ Then Abram gave him a tenth of everything.  vv. 18-20

This is all we know from the OT record about Melchizedek, which is very little. We know he was the king of the city state of Salem, which would later be known as Jerusalem (see Ps. 76:2). He was a priest of the Most High God, who is identified by Abram in v. 22 as Yahweh. He met Abram, and those with him returning from the battle, with bread and wine, presumably as refreshments. He pronounced a blessing upon Abram, who then gave him a tenth of all the recovered goods. That’s it, we are given no other information concerning this man. The only other mention of Melchizedek in the OT is in Psalm 110:4, where God swears an oath to the Davidic King:

Yahweh has sworn and will not change his mind: “You are a priest forever, after the manner of Melchizedek.”

Here we are given one final bit of information concerning this Melchizedek, that he is a priest forever, i.e. his priesthood had no end, no one succeeded him. This passage becomes the ground upon which the author of the book of Hebrews makes a case for Messiah’s everlasting priesthood. So let’s turn our attention to Hebrews 7, for there the author draws some interesting conclusions based on this passage.

Hebrews 7

1.This Melchizedek was king of Salem and priest of God Most High. He met Abraham returning from the defeat of the kings and blessed him, 2. and Abraham gave him a tenth of everything. First, his name means ‘king of righteousness’; then also ‘king of Salem’ means ‘king of peace.’ 3. Without father or mother, without genealogy, without beginning of days or end of life, having been made like the son of God he remains a priest forever.

In verses 1-2 the author gives us the exact information about Melchizedek that we saw in Gen. 14. It is in verse three that he tells us things about him which we would never have ascertained from the OT record. Can these things really be true? Melchizedek did not have a father or mother; he had no beginning of days or no end of life? And if none of this is recorded about him in the OT record, then from where did the author of Hebrews get this information? It is this verse alone which leads many to regard Melchizedek as a pre-incarnate appearance of Christ. But this conclusion is based on a misunderstanding of what the author of Hebrews is really saying. It is supposed that the things said about Melchizedek, i.e. “without father or mother, without genealogy, without beginning of days or end of life,” are to be understood literally and that these coincide with facts about the son of God. But to read the passage this way is to misread it. So then what exactly is the author trying to convey to his readers?

If we back up a little in the letter we see that the author has already quoted or referred to the Psalm 110:4 passage three times, in 5:6, 5:10 and 6:20. In each case he is applying it to Messiah Jesus. Let’s look first at what is meant by “the order of Melchizedek.” This is  really not a good translation, because it actually works against the author’s main point. The word ‘order‘ implies a group of people united in some way; in this case a priestly order would denote a group of people functioning in the same priestly duties. It also implies succession within the order, i.e as members die others take their place. This idea is exactly opposite of what the author of Hebrews sees in Psalm 110:4, where Melchizedek is said to be a priest forever, i.e. no one succeeded him. The Hebrew for the phrase “according to the order of” is best translated “after the manner of” (see Keil and Delitzsch OT Commentary). The point is not that there is a priestly order called ‘the order of Melchizedek‘ but that whoever is being addressed in Ps. 110:4 is being appointed as a priest in similitude to Melchizedek, the sole point of comparison being that their priesthood is everlasting. This understanding of “in the order of ” is confirmed by Hebrews 7:15-16:

“And what we have said is even more clear if another priest like (Gr. homoiotes) Melchizedek appears, one who has become a priest not on the basis of a regulation as to his ancestry but on the basis of the power of an indestructible life.”

So the point of the author in 7:3 is not to say Melchizedek is without father or mother, the son of God is without father or mother; Melchizedek is without genealogy, the son of God is without genealogy; etc. The only point of comparison between the two is the continuing nature of their priesthood. No one succeeded Melchizedek (based on the silence of Scripture) and no one shall succeed Jesus in his priesthood. Once again, this is substantiated by the context:

“And indeed, many are those who became priest (under the Mosaic law) because they were prevented from continuing by death. But because Jesus lives forever, he has a permanent priesthood,”   vv.23-24

So what does the author mean by saying that Melchizedek was “without father or mother, without genealogy, without beginning of days or end of life?” Simply put, he sees in the statement of Ps. 110:4 that Melchizedek is a priest forever, as playing off the fact that the Scripture record regarding this man is silent as to his parents, his descent, his birth or death. He does not mean for us to take these statements about Melchizedek literally, but only that the complete silence of Scripture pertaining to these facts of his life was a deliberate device, by the Spirit of God, in order to make the point later in Ps. 110:4 that the Messianic King would have an enduring priesthood. In verse 3, after delineating these aspects of Melchizedek’s life which were not written in the historical record, the text literally says of him, “having been made like the son of God.” Note that it does not say that the son of God is made like Melchizedek but that Melchizedek was made like the son of God. How was he made like the son of God in respect to his continuing priesthood? By the fact that Scripture did not record his lineage, his birth or his death. Of course, Melchizedek was born, like all other men; he had a father and mother; he had a genealogy; he died like all other men do. But the silence of Scripture regarding these facts presents his priesthood as a seeming continuous or perpetual priesthood, and in this way he was made like the son of God, who’s priesthood shall never end.

The Fourth Man In The Fire

Daniel 3:24-25 – Then Nebuchadnezzar the king was astonished, and rose up in haste, and spake, and said unto his counsellers, Did not we cast three men bound into the midst of the fire? They answered and said unto the king, True, O king. He answered and said, Lo I see four men loose and walking in the midst of the fire and they have no hurt; and the form of the fourth is like the Son of God.   (KJV) 

It is easy to see how people, eager to see the son of God active in the pages of the OT, would latch on to this verse as a proof text. But this underscores the problem with simply reading one’s favorite English version and just accepting it at face value, without ever studying beyond that. If you were to check all available English versions you would find that the vast majority render this phrase as ‘like a son of the gods.’ This is true even of staunchly Trinitarian versions, like the NIV, ESV and the NASB. Have all of these versions tampered with the text to take away a clear reference to a pre-incarnate appearance of the son of God in the OT? The answer is NO! There is a simple reason why these versions read differently than the KJV – the original language demands it.

This passage in Daniel falls in the section of the book that is written in Aramaic rather than Hebrew. The phrase in question reads in the Aramaic dameh lebar elahin. Dameh means to be like; lebar means unto a son  – there is no definite article, so it should not be translated the son. Elahin is plural and means gods (the singular form is used in the next verse with the definite article in referring to the true God). The KJV is deceptive here, whether intentional or not, to capitalize the words son and god. What the pagan king of Babylon actually said was “and the form of the fourth is like unto a son of the gods.” Think about this, how would a pagan king 600 yrs. before Jesus was born know of the 2nd person of the Trinity, if such a thing even existed. But ‘a son of the gods’ to a pagan king would just be referring to a divine-like being. What he saw in the fire with the three Hebrews was simply one of God’s angels sent to protect them from the flames. This is even explicitly stated in v. 28:

Then Nebuchadnezzar said. “Praise be to the God… who has sent his angel and delivered his servants.”

Sorry, but no pre-incarnate appearance of the son of God here.

The Captain Of Yahweh’s Army

Joshua 5:13-15 – Now when Joshua was near Jericho he looked up and saw a man standing in front of him with a drawn sword in his hand. Joshua went up to him and asked, “Are you for us or for our enemies?” “Neither,” he replied, ” but as captain of Yahweh’s army I have now come.” Then Joshua fell facedown to the ground in reverence, and asked him, “What message does my lord have for his servant?” The captain of Yahweh’s army replied, “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy.” And Joshua did so. 

This is another mysterious figure who is usually put forward as a pre-incarnate appearance of Jesus, the son of God. This passage contains some of the typical elements which are supposed to establish this personage as either a theophany or a christophany. Just as a side note, from a Trinitarian perspective I fail to see the difference between a theophany and a christophany. The term theophany is usually reserved for what is considered a manifestation of the Father and christophany for a manifestation of the son. But if the son is fully God, as Trinitarians confess, then wouldn’t a pre-incarnate  appearance of the son be a theophany? Perhaps if they wish to distinguish between appearances of the Father and the son, they should use a different term for the Father, such as paterophany. Anyway, the typical elements which suggest a theophany or christophany in this passage are:

  1. Joshua fell to the ground and worshiped and the personage did not stop him from doing so.
  2. Joshua addressed the personage as ‘lord’.
  3. Joshua was told to remove his sandals because the place was holy.
  4. When the personage instructs Joshua (6:2-5) the text refers to him as Yahweh (v.2).

Let me say first that the passage nowhere explicitly states that this figure is Yahweh himself, whether the Father or the son. If one draws that conclusion it is based solely on the four implications above and the presupposition of Trinitarianism, or at least binitarianism. If one does not approach the text with this presupposition then the four implications can be interpreted just as easily within a Hebraic, unitarian monotheistic framework.

Now before I interpret these four implications from a biblically Hebraic framework, I want to suggest another candidate for who this personage might be. This suggestion cannot be proven absolutely, but I don’t see any obvious disqualifiers. I would like to propose that the captain of Yahweh’s army is Micheal. My reasons are these:

  1. The word translated as ‘captain’ is the Hebrew word sar (chieftain, ruler, official, captain, prince). In Daniel 10:13 & 21 Micheal is referred to by this same term. Dan. 10:13 specifically calls him “one of the chief princes” (sar).
  2. As a chief sar he would have other sarim under his authority. This is probably the same thing that is meant by archangel, in the NT.   See Jude 1:9  & Rev. 12:7
  3. Dan. 10:21 and 12:1 state that Micheal is the chief sar specifically in relation to the people of Israel.
  4. In the Joshua passage this personage is the sar of Yahweh’s army, presumably fighting for the benefit of the Israelites. The passage in Rev. 12:7 presents Micheal as commanding an army of angels.

Thus the Scriptural data concerning Micheal presents him as a chief prince (archangel) who commands an army of angels under him on behalf of Israel. This fits well the description of this figure in Joshua 5:14 as the ‘commander of Yahweh’s army.’ So assuming that this is Micheal, how would the four implications listed above be explained?

  1. Joshua did not worship this personage as God, but in keeping with the time and culture he was showing homage to a superior. This would not at all be out of place in that culture for it was quite common to demonstrate one’s honor for another of superior rank by bowing down before them. The Hebrew word translated ‘worship’ in some English versions is shachah. This word is used many times in the OT to denote proper honor or homage being given to fathers, brothers, husbands, masters of servants, officials, prophets, kings and angels. The problem is in our English versions, when translators chose to render this verb differently according to theological presuppositions. When the word is used of homage being given to men it is usually rendered simply as ‘bowed down‘, when used of God it is usually rendered ‘worship.’ Now here’s the rub. When the translators believe that a personage is a christophany they will translate the verb as ‘worship,’ thus giving the impression to the reader that the one giving the shachah believes the personage to whom he gives it to be God. This is exactly the case in this passage. Because the translators believe this figure to be a pre-incarnate appearance of Christ, many versions render the verb shachah as worship rather than as bow down. The reason why Micheal (assuming this is him) does not stop Joshua from paying him homage is because he knows the proper customs of the culture and knows that Joshua is not worshiping him as if he were God. But someone will point out that in Rev. 19:10 and 22:8-9 the Apostle John offered homage (Gr. proskuneo, the Greek equivalent of shachah) to angels and the angels refused it. First, it is ludicrous to think that John was attempting to worship this angel as if he were God. Again, he was simply paying homage to one whom he considered a superior being. Perhaps the reason these angel deflected such homage was because they viewed believers in Messiah at the least as equals, rather than inferiors, and possibly even as their superiors, knowing that we shall one day rule over them {1 Cor. 6:3}. In fact they both say to John, “Do not do it, I am a fellow servant with you and with your brothers…”
  2. That Joshua addressed this personage as ‘lord‘ does not imply that he considered him to be God. The Hebrew word is adon, and once again, the custom of that time and culture was to address a superior by this designation. All of the types of people I mentioned above, who properly receive shachah in the OT are also addressed by this title. In fact, they often go hand in hand, someone will bow before a superior and call them ‘adoni’ i.e. my lord, just as Joshua does here.
  3. There is one other occasion in the OT where someone is told to remove his sandals because the ground where he was standing was holy. When Moses encountered an angel of Yahweh in the burning bush in Exodus 3 he was told to remove his sandals. Of course, most Trinitarians regard that event as a theophany, some as a christophany. The fact that Moses has to remove his sandals is supposed to confirm that perspective, as does Joshua removing his sandals. But here is a question for all Trinitarians who regard these two incidents as pre-incarnate appearances of the son of God. Why would the necessity of removing one’s sandals (in these two instances only) be a proof that a personage who appears must be God, when there are many more incidents in the OT, which are regarded as christophanies, that lack this requirement? Why only on two such occasions is this required? If one wants to assert that the removal of the sandals marks these incidents as theophanies or christophanies, then he should only claim these two incidents as such and not any of the others that are usually claimed to also be so. What about Gen. 18, Judges 6 and 13, which are all asserted by Trinitarians to be pre-incarnate appearances of Christ; no one is asked to remove their sandals in these passages? What about Ex.34:4-9 where the manifestation of God’s presence came down in a cloud before Moses, yet he is not told to remove his sandals? The fact of the matter is no one is certain as to why Moses and Joshua were asked to remove their sandals on those specific occasions. Yes it was because the ground was holy. But why was the ground holy on those two occasions and not at any of the other times when angels or even God’s presence appeared?
  4. This implication may appear to be the strongest, since the text actually attributes the speech of the personage to Yahweh. But in fact this is the easiest of the four to explain. In the ancient Semitic culture when one was sent by another to convey a message on that other’s behalf, his words were regarded as the words of the one who sent him. So in this case, Micheal is sent to give instructions from Yahweh, to Joshua, on how to defeat Jericho. Therefore the author of the book attributes the speech of the messenger to Yahweh, for it is Yahweh’s word that the messenger speaks. This reminds me of the occasion in Jesus’ ministry when a centurion came to Jesus to request his help on behalf of his dying servant. This incident is recorded in two of the gospels, in Matt. 8:5-13 and Luke 7:1-10. Matthew presents the story as if the centurion had come to Jesus personally and made the request, but Luke tells us the fact of the matter. The centurion actually enlisted the help of some Jewish elders, whom he sent to Jesus to make the request on his behalf, because he felt himself unworthy to approach Jesus himself. Matthew was free to report the request made of Jesus as being directly from the centurion simply because the request was indeed his, although it was presented through the Jewish elders. In the same way, the authors of the OT Scriptures will often present the messages given by agents of Yahweh as being spoken directly by Yahweh. For another example of this phenomenon see Isaiah 7:3-10.

Abraham’s Three Visitors

We will now look at the incident recorded in Genesis 18, where Abraham is visited by three men. Verses 1-2 read:

And Yahweh appeared to him (Abraham) by the great trees of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day. And he looked up and behold three men were standing by him …

Here we have an explicit statement that Yahweh appeared to Abraham. Trinitarians see this as a pre-incarnate appearance of the Son because they believe that the Father cannot be seen, and so this must be God the Son, who is also Yahweh. This is the reasoning that leads them to the conclusion. But is this sound reasoning? Yes, but only if the presuppositions which lie behind it are true. They start out with the belief in a second hypostasis in Yahweh as their presupposition and based on that they interpret the fact that God has not and cannot be seen (1 Tim. 6:16) as referring to the Father only. So then any appearance of God must be God the Son. Of course it is never explained how the Son, who is equal in deity and glory to the Father, can be seen while the Father cannot. Their presupposition is not grounded upon the Hebrew Scriptures but upon Greek metaphysical concepts.

Now someone is sure to point out the Jewish belief in ‘two powers in heaven’ during the second temple period. But the Jews that postulated a second power in heaven typically identified this power as a created being, either an angelic being such as Metatron, or an exalted human such as Moses or Messiah, to whom God gives authority to rule on his behalf. But this is quite different from the idea that God generated out of his own substance another hypostasis which is equal to him. The first idea is consistent with Jewish concepts of agency, while the second idea would not have been consistent at all with the Jewish understanding of God. I doubt that any Jew, uninfluenced by Greek philosophy regarding God, would ever have agreed with such a thought. The concept of God generating out of himself a second hypostasis is consistent with Platonic thought. Philo and early church fathers like Justin were highly influenced by Platonic thought and interpreted Scripture through that grid.

Back to the passage before us. When the text says that Yahweh appeared to Abraham can this be understood in a non-literal way? I think it can and here’s why. The Hebrew word for appear is raah, which has as it’s basic meaning to see. In the Niphal stem 3rd person imperfect it means to appear. While this word does usually denote literal seeing, it does not always have that precise a meaning. For example, it is used in the command for all Israelite males “to appear before the face of the Lord Yahweh” three times a year {Ex. 23:17}. This refers to the fact that all the men were required to go to the specified place where the tabernacle (and later the temple) was set up, to keep three of the seven yearly feasts – the feast of unleavened bread, the feast of weeks, and the feast of tabernacles. This was spoken of as appearing before Yahweh (some translations say present yourselves before Yahweh). Surely this denotes more than simply being seen by Yahweh. Did these men have to go to a specific place in order for God to see them? The sense is more that they were required to be present before the Lord at these specific times, at this specific place. We could understand Yahweh’s appearing to Abraham in the sense that he was present in the three visitors. This is in keeping with ancient Semitic thought. Let me repeat a quote that I gave in part one of this series, from the eminent Professor and Hebrew scholar Aubrey R. Johnson, in speaking of personal agents sent to transact business in the name of their lord in the ancient near east:

“In Semitic thought this messenger-representative was conceived as being personally — and in his very words — the presence of the sender.”

In other words, it is not necessary to assume a literal personal appearance of Yahweh from the word raah, but only that in some way Yahweh was representatively present; in this case in the three visitors.

We may also understand raah in a non literal sense based on God’s appearing to various people in visions and dreams. As I noted in part two of this series, visions and dreams are not actual real world events, i.e. the things being seen are not literally happening, but are images being cast upon the screen of one’s mind. We could say that visions are holy hallucinations. Therefore, when God ‘appears’ to someone in a dream or vision he is not literally being seen by that person. What they are seeing is some representative image of God being played out in their mind. Take Jacob’s dream in Gen. 28:11-16, where Jacob is literally, in the real world, sleeping, with his head on a stone. Yet he is experiencing this dream/vision in which he sees Yahweh, presumably in the form of a man, who speaks to him. Later, in 35:1, he is told to go back to that place, Bethel, where “God appeared (raah) to you.” In v. 7 the original experience of the dream is described as when “God revealed himself to him.” Once again, in 48:3, Jacob relates this incident to Joseph saying, “God Almighty appeared (raah) to me at Luz in the land of Cannan …” Twice we are told that God appeared (raah) to Jacob but Jacob never literally saw God, he saw only a representative image of God in a dream.

Another example is in 1 Kings 3:5, “At Gibeon Yahweh appeared (raah) to Solomon  during the night in a dream.” There is no description of what form God appeared in in the dream, but probably in the form of a man. In v. 15 we read, “Then Solomon awoke and behold, it was a dream.”  In 1 Kings 9:2 we are told, “Yahweh appeared to him a second time, as he had appeared to him at Gibeon,” i.e. in a dream. In 11:9 we are told concerning Solomon, that he “turned away from Yahweh, the God of Israel, who had appeared to him twice.” Again, in both of these passages the word is raah. So again we see that raah can describe God appearing in a non-literal way. This is how Paul can say of God in 1 Tim. 6:16, “whom no one has seen or can see.” Paul must mean that no one has or can see God literally, but to see him in a vision or dream is not to see him literally.

One final example is in Deut. 31:15, where we read: “Then Yahweh appeared at the tent in a pillar of cloud, and the pillar of cloud stood above the entrance to the tent.” Again we see the word raah referring to a non- literal appearance of Yahweh. By non-literal I do not mean that something was not seen, but that what was seen was not literally Yahweh but only a representational form, in this case the pillar of cloud. When the text says he appeared “in a pillar of cloud” this should be understood as he appeared by means of a pillar of cloud.

So just as God may appear, in a non-literal way, by means of a dream or vision, or a pillar of cloud, he may also appear by means of  his personal agents a.k.a. angels. Just like Matthew could record that the centurion personally appeared before Jesus, when in fact it was others acting on the centurion’s behalf, so the author of Genesis could record that Yahweh appeared personally to Abraham, when in fact it was his authorized agents acting on his behalf. Now most who believe that a christophany is happening in Gen. 18 will at least admit that two of the three visitors are indeed angels. These two angels then leave and go to Sodom (v. 22 and 19:1) and the remaining personage, presumed to be the pre-incarnate Son, then carries on a conversation with Abraham. But I hope you can see that to read the passage that way is to read a whole lot of much later theological development back into this text. And I hope you can see that to do so is completely unnecessary in order to explain the text. The explanation I give here is much more coherent and satisfying when viewed within the cultural milieu of the ancient near east. Abraham’s three visitors were simply personal agents of Yahweh. One of them especially was given the task of personally representing Yahweh and communicating to Abraham and I believe Abraham understood this. It should be noted that no where in this entire passage is Abraham portrayed as calling this personage Yahweh; he simply refers to him as ‘my lord.’ It is the author of Genesis who attributes the speech of the messenger/agent to Yahweh. So when you read in vv. 13, 17, 20, 26 “Yahweh said” and the personage being referred to as Yahweh in vv. 22 and 33, this does not necessitate that this personage is literally Yahweh, but this is simply the narrator attributing the words and actions of the agent of Yahweh to Yahweh himself. Again, this is just like what we saw with Matt. 8:5-13, where the words and actions of others, according to Luke 7:1-9, are attributed to the centurion himself, although the centurion was not personally there. Matthew even has Jesus addressing the centurion in vv. 7 and 13, yet we know that the centurion never personally came before Jesus. I will say it one more time: Whatever someone’s duly appointed agent says or does on behalf of the one who commissioned him can be directly attributed to that one. The author of Genesis could just as easily have written “the messenger of Yahweh” in each of the places where he  simply wrote “Yahweh” and the meaning would be the same.

What I have said here regarding Abraham’s three visitors applies to any and all OT occurrences of an ‘appearance’ of Yahweh. This would include such passages as Ex. 24:10-11; 33:18-34:7; Ezek. 1:25-28; 3:22-23; 8:1-4; and Dan. 10. All of these were either appearances of God in a vision or dream, or in some representational form.

To attempt to reconcile these OT appearances of Yahweh with the NT declarations that no  one has or can see God, by postulating multiple hypostases in Yahweh, one (or two if you include the Holy Spirit) which cannot be seen and one which can be seen, is both illogical and without scriptural warrant, as well as completely unnecessary.

This concludes this series. If you wish to express disagreement on any points made in this series please feel free to comment on the blog or through email.