Pre-Incarnate Appearances Of The Son Of God In The OT – Truth Or Myth? – The Word Of Yahweh

The Word Of Yahweh

In this part of our study I want to examine the claim that the word ‘word’ in the phrase ‘the word of the LORD (Yahweh)’ is an actual entity rather than merely that which Yahweh has spoken. The proponents of this idea hypostatize ‘the word of Yahweh‘ making it into a personal being. Hence, in the common OT phrase “the word of Yahweh came to” so and so, it is asserted that an actual entity, a personal being, has come to the person. Trinitarians have latched on to this idea in recent years, seeing it as another prop for the Trinity and the Deity of Christ. But how does this idea support those doctrines? Simply by asserting that this entity who was known as ‘the word of Yahweh’ is none other than the pre-incarnate son of God. So when it says in Gen 15:1,

“After this, the word of Yahweh came to Abraham in a vision saying …,”

we are supposed to understand that the Son of God himself came to Abraham. And because this entity, the pre-incarnate Jesus, says to Abraham in v.7,

“I am Yahweh, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land …,”

we are supposed to understand that the Son of God is Yahweh, or a part of Yahweh, or part of Yahweh’s identity, or something like that.

When I first heard this idea I thought it was laughable, and now after spending some time examining this claim, I still find it laughable, regardless of the fact that some heavy scholars have thrown their weight behind it.

The Source – The Memra

Where did this idea come from? I believe that among orthodox Christians, it derives from the more recent attempt to ground the orthodox doctrines of the Trinity and the Deity of Christ in a Jewish context rather than, as has been widely thought, in a Greek philosophical context. It is an attempt to show that these doctrines were not developments within a gentile Christianity, but the natural outflow of Jewish ways of thinking about God. Some orthodox scholars believe they have found support for this proposal in the Targums (Aramaic paraphrases and expansions of the Hebrew scriptures) with the use of the word memra. It is claimed, that in the Targums, memra is used by the translators to denote the hypostatization of God’s word, i.e. God’s word is an actual entity distinct from God. One can often find today Christian apologists and Bible expositors claiming that ancient Jews believed in more than one hypostasis in God, and one of the evidences pointed to is the use of memra in the Targums. This is supposed to show that the idea of God as Trinity would not have been foreign to the Hebraic mind and was not an invention of Greek influence on gentile church fathers. The Memra is then interpreted by Christians to be a second hypostasis in God, and this second hypostasis, none other than the Son of God himself, a.k.a. God the Son, second person of the Trinity.

As I have looked into this assertion about the memra more closely than I had in the past, I have come to the conclusion that there is much misinformation being promulgated on the internet and through other means regarding the memra. I am not saying that it is being done on purpose, but people are too quick to jump on the bandwagon without sufficient investigation. There is an eagerness in many to find grounding for the Trinity in ancient Hebrew sources that causes them to too easily accept misinformation as truth.

So let’s look at some facts regarding the use of the word memra in the Targums. Memra is the Aramaic equivalent of the Hebrew ma’amar, from the verb amar, which means ‘to say’. Both nouns refer to that which is spoken and can denote ‘a word’ ‘a command’ or ‘a decree’. As I have read some scholarly papers on the subject of memra  in the Targums, it has become quite obvious that much of what is being put out in popular internet apologetics websites and blogs is way overblown and simply does not match the actual data found in the Targums. To prove this I will be quoting extensively from one main source, an article published by Cambridge University Press in the Harvard Theological Review, Vol. 15, No. 1 (Jan. 1922) pp.41-85. The article is titled Intermediaries in Jewish Theology: Memra, Shekinah, Metatron, by George Foot Moore. Dr Moore was an eminent scholar in his day who wrote numerous books on the Old Testament and the history of religion, as well as a Presbyterian minister.

To substantiate the credentials of Prof. Moore I quote from the Encyclopedia Britannica website regarding him:

“American Old Testament scholar, theologian and Orientalist, whose knowledge and understanding of the rabbinic source literature was extraordinary among Christians.

Graduated from Yale College in 1872 and from Union Theological seminary in 1877…He was Hitchcock professor of the Hebrew language and literature at Andover Theological Seminary, 1883-1902. In 1902 he became professor of theology and in 1904 professor of the history of religion at Harvard University.

Prof. Moore, in his day, put his finger on the underlying rationale for the investigation of Christians into ancient Jewish literature:

“As was pointed out in a former article in this Review, the material that was diligently collected to prove that Jewish theology made a place for a being (or beings) of divine nature through whose mediation the ends of the Supreme God were effectuated in the world of nature and of men as they were in Christian theology by the Son and Spirit, has more recently been appropriated to prove that Jewish theology, unlike Christian, interposed intermediaries between God and the world, rendered necessary by it’s ‘transcendent’ idea of God, of which error, conversely, the invention of such intermediaries is the proof. Christian investigation and discussion of the terms Memra and Shekinah have thus in all stages been inspired and directed by a theological motive, and the results come around in a circle to the theological prepossessions from which they set out.”      p. 42

One of the chief misconceptions regarding the use of memra in the Targums is that the phrases ‘the memra of Yahweh’ and ‘the memra of God’ are translations of the OT phrases ‘the word (Heb. dabar) of Yahweh’ and ‘ the word of God’. An example is on the website jaymack.net, in an article titled The Memra of God the author says:

“Whenever the Tanakh used the word Davar, the Aramaic used the word Memra.”

But this turns out to be exactly wrong, as Prof. Moore, who knew the literature firsthand, explains:

“To dispel misunderstandings at the outset, we may begin by showing when and how memra is not used. First, then, ‘the memra of the Lord’ in the Targums is not employed as the Aramaic equivalent of the ‘word of the Lord’ (dabar YHWH) in the Hebrew Scriptures. The Hebrew dabar, in all senses and uses, is customarily rendered in the Targums by pitgama. The ‘word of the Lord’ or ‘of God’ is pitgama de YHWH (e.g. Gen. 15:1), not memra de YHWH; and similarly in ‘my word,’ ‘thy word,’ ‘his word,’ when the pronouns refer to God. The word of the Lord to a prophet is pitgama nebu’a, a word of prophecy, e.g. Hosea 1:1, ‘the word of prophecy from before YHWH which was with Hosea’ … Therefore, wherever the ‘word of the Lord’ is the medium or instrumentality of revelation, or of communication to men, in Greek logos or rhema, the term employed for this medium in the Targums is not memra , but pitgama…” pp.45-46 (emphasis in the original)

It is important that you catch what Dr. Moore is saying here. Whenever the Targums translate the Hebrew phrase “the word (dabar) of Yahweh” as in the phrase “the word of Yahweh came to . . .,”  it is not the Aramaic word memra that is used but the word pitgama (and less seldom the word milla). But it is in these very passages that apologists claim that we see the Memra appearing in the Hebrew scriptures. The fact is that the word memra is not used in the Targums to translate anything in the Hebrew text in those passages which apologists often employ to substantiate the ‘word’ as a personal entity. Rather, it is simply added by the targumists where the Hebrew text might simply have Yahweh or God saying or doing something, so that it reads “the memra of Yahweh” or “the memra of God” did such and such. This fact alone is sufficient to refute the claims of the apologists.

Another misconception is that the Targums actually present the memra as a personal being. Again, I will quote from the article on jaymack.net :

“First, the rabbis taught that the Memra was a person.”

Now if he means to say that the Targums taught this, and that must be what he means because the Jewish Encyclopedia states that “rabbinic theology, outside of the Targum literature, made little use of the term ‘Memra,'” then once again, he has got it wrong. In the Targums the phrases ‘the memra of the Lord,’ ‘the memra of God,’ ‘my memra,’ ‘his memra,’ etc. are used as metonyms for ‘the Lord’ or ‘God’ . The authors of the Targums substituted these memra phrases for God himself. Nowhere do the Targums teach that ‘the Memra’ is a hypostasis or person, in the sense of a second hypostasis within the Godhead. Prof. Moore enlightens us here:

“The sum of the whole matter is that nowhere in these Targums is memra a ‘being’ of any kind or in any sense, whether conceived personally as an angel employed in communication with men, or as a philosophically impersonal created potency … or God himself in certain modes of self-manifestation … The appearance of personality which in many places attaches to the memra is due solely to the fact that the phrase ‘the memra of Y.,’ or, with pronouns referring to God, My, Thy, His, memra is a circumlocution for ‘God,’ ‘the Lord,’ or the like, introduced out of motives of reverence precisely where God is personally active in the affairs of men; and the personal character of this activity necessarily adheres to the periphrasis. The very question whether the memra is personal or impersonal implies, from the philological point of view, a misunderstanding of the whole phenomenon; and every answer to a false question is by that very fact false.”       pp.53-54

“It is an error of equal dimensions, when, in association with the Christian doctrine of the Logos and by abuse of a technical term of Christian theology, the Memra is described as a ‘hypostasis.’ … and to employ this term, with it’s denotation and all of it’s trinitarian connotations, of the supposed personal, or quasi-personal, ‘Memra’ of the Targums, is by implication to attribute to the rabbis corresponding metaphysical speculations on the nature of the Godhead. But of speculation on that subject there is no trace either in the exoteric teaching of Judaism or in anything we know of it’s esoteric, theosophic, adventures into the divine mysteries.”   p.55

Once again we see how popular misconceptions are being put forth as fact, and are then used to support the doctrines of the Trinity and the Deity of Christ. Christian apologists are reading what they want to see into the use of memra in the Targums. You can often find in Christain literature on this subject statements like the following: “The Targums use the word Memra to describe a person whom they say is the creator of the world.” They will then go on to lead the reader to the false conclusion that this person is the pre-incarnate Messiah. Yes, personal actions are attributed to ‘the memra of the Lord’, but that is because the phrase is used as a substitute for ‘the Lord.’ To understand ‘the memra‘ as a hypostasis distinct from God is to misunderstand it’s usage in the Targums. Regarding it’s usage in the Targums let’s hear what Prof. Moore has to say:

“We have now surveyed the various uses of memra in the Targums of the Pentateuch and the Prophets… Most of the uses of the word are easily explicable in their contexts in the light of the ends and methods of the synagogue interpretation. If analogy, or some subtlety of interpretation that escapes us, has sometimes introduced it on less obvious occasions, these are exceptions which need cause us neither surprise nor perplexity. The inquiry must set out from the common and plain uses; and our conclusions must be drawn from them, not from the residuum, if there be such, of unexplained occurrences. Proceeding in this way we find that God’s memra has sometimes the connotation of command — we might in imitation of the etymology say ‘edict’ — the expression of his will which is an effective force in nature and providence; sometimes it might be best translated ‘oracle,’ the revelation of his will or purpose (not, however, a specific word of prophecy); sometimes it is the resolution of a metaphor for God’s power, his protection, and the like. In many instances it is clearly introduced as a verbal buffer — one of many such in the Targums — to keep God from seeming to come to too close quarters with men and things; but it is always a buffer-word, not a buffer-idea; still less a buffer-person.                                                                                                                                            pp.52-53

Also instructive is his footnote #24:

“It is to be observed that memra does not occur without a genitive — ‘the word of the Lord,’ ‘my word,’ etc., or a circumlocution for the genitive, ‘a memra from before the Lord.’The Memra,’ ‘the word,’ is not found in the Targums, notwithstanding all that is written about it by authors who have not read them.”

This statement refutes yet another misconception that I have seen among those who promote this idea. The fact that the phrase ‘the Memra‘, as a stand alone, never occurs in the Targums is certainly damaging to the proposal that memra is being used to denote a hypostasis who is at once Yahweh and distinct from Yahweh.

From what Prof. Moore relates in this article it appears that in the majority of passages in the Targums where memra is used it is an addition to the Hebrew text by the Targum author. In other words, in the majority of instances memra is not translating some word in the Hebrew text but is simply added in, with nothing corresponding to it in the Hebrew. Dr. Moore gives numerous examples but here are just a few. In Numbers 21:5 the Hebrew reads: “The people spoke against God and against Moses.” In the Targum it reads: “The people murmured against the word (memra) of Yahweh and contended against Moses.” The Hebrew of Deut. 32:51 reads: “Because you proved false to me in the midst of the Israelites,” whereas in the Targum, “because you proved false to my word (memra).” One last example, in Gen. 20:3, where the Hebrew has: “God came to Abimelech in a dream in the night and said to him.” The Targum reads: “A word (memra) from before Yahweh came to Abimelech …”

One final point on the Targums and other Jewish sources such as the Talmud. It seems that some Christian scholars and apologists who are eager to find support for the orthodox doctrines of the Trinity and deity of Messiah in these Jewish sources are also all too eager to attribute some level of authority to them that is unwarranted. But should we really be putting all of that stock in these sources for a grounding for our doctrine? My first objection is this — who gave these rabbis the authority to add words to the Scriptures or to change the words of Scripture? For example Ex. 16:3 says,”The Israelites said to them, ‘If only we had died by Yahweh’s hand in Egypt.'” Yet the Targum reads, “If only we had died by the word (memra) of Yahweh in the land of Mizraim.” I ask every Christian, especially those of the Protestant tradition, is this ok with you? And why should we think that these Jewish authors should be taken as authoritative? Even if they did teach that ‘the memra‘ was a distinct hypostasis ( the nearly unanimous conclusion of scholars in this field is that the memra is not regarded as a hypostasis in the Targums) why should we believe that? Jews are not automatically immune from misunderstanding their own Scriptures, are they? I think that the NT clearly demonstrates that to not be the case.

The Communication Of God

Before we take a closer look at the phrase ‘the word of Yahweh‘ in the OT, I want to lay some ground work concerning how Scripture tells us that God has communicated with his people throughout history. I have discerned, in Scripture, four different means by which God has communicated his message to the prophets and the patriarchs.

  1. Visions – Often God’s message would come by means of a vision. A vision occurs when the mind of the visionary is thrown out of it’s normal state and mental images are impressed upon it. A vision is not an actual real time event; what is being seen in a vision is not actually happening in the real world. We know this from certain instances in Scripture where people have had visions. For example, in Acts 10:9-16 Peter is up on a roof praying when suddenly he finds himself in a trance and has a vision of a sheet being let down from the sky by it’s four corners. The sheet is filled with all kinds of unclean animals. Is this actually occurring in the real world? Can others who are nearby see this huge sheet coming out of the sky to earth? Or is Peter alone privy to this revelation? The images that Peter sees are only mental, cast upon the screen of his mind like a movie upon a theater screen. In Acts 12: 1-11 we find the story of when Peter was arrested by Herod and put in the prison. That night an angel comes and frees him from his prison cell. Now this was not a vision but a real time event, but Luke tells us something interesting in verse 9, “Peter followed him (the angel) out of the prison,but he had no idea that what the angel was doing was really happening; he thought he was seeing a vision.”   The person seeing the vision is also often part of the vision. In Daniel 8:2 Daniel has a vision and describes it like this: “And I saw  in a vision, and it happened that I saw that I was in the citadel of Susa, in the province of Elam; and I saw in the vision that I was by the river Ulai.” Some suggest that Daniel was transported from where he was to this location, but this is unwarranted. That he was seeing images in his mind and not actual real world events is confirmed by the remainder of the chapter where he describes what he saw. Clearly these things were not actually taking place. The Lord would often use visions to communicate his word, his message, to the prophets.
  2. Dreams – Dreams are simply visions that one has while asleep. We easily recognize that dreams are not actual reality but just images being played out in the mind.
  3. Heavenly messengers – Sometimes God would send angelic messengers to convey his word to the prophet.  See Dan. 8:15-19; Joshua 5:13-15; Gen. 16:7-12
  4. Audible voice – See Num. 7:89; 1 Sam. 3:2-11; 1 Kings 19:13; Lk. 9:34-36

These are the ways in which God has conveyed his messages to his prophets. Based on Numbers 12:6 we should probably regard visions and dreams as God’s primary method of communicating his word to his prophets. Sometimes the text will specify by which of these ways a specific message came to a specific prophet, but many times the means of communication is not disclosed to us in Scripture. In some of those instances we can discern from the context what means was used; in other instances we cannot. It is probably safe to assume in most, if not in all instances where the means of communication is not explicit, that it was by either a vision or a dream.

Dismantling The Myth

In a recent podcast interview dealing with the roots of the Trinity and Christology in the religions of ancient Canaan and Israel, Dr. Micheal Heiser was queried by the host concerning ‘the word of Yahweh‘ in the OT being a visual experience rather than a mere verbal or spoken phenomenon.  His answer was as follows:

“I would never say that every time you run into the phrase ‘the word of the Lord’ in the OT that we’re dealing with a visual event. But there are certainly a number of instances where you are dealing with a visual event because the text pretty much says that point blank… In Gen. 15 you get, ‘After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision.’ The profound moment there is realizing that, hey visions, those are things you see. Visions aren’t invisible, they’re visions. OK, you see things in visions. Here we have the word of the Lord coming visually. You get it in 1 Sam. 3… if you look at what the passage actually says … ‘the word of the Lord was rare in those days, there was no frequent vision.’ And visions are things that you see. Verse 7, ‘the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to Samuel,’ again you get vision language. Verse 10, Yahweh comes and he stands, the Lord came and stood… so you wouldn’t describe an invisible thing or a sound in your head as standing. This is the language of a visual experience. The chapter ends… the Lord appeared again at Shiloh, the Lord revealed himself to Samuel as the Word of the Lord. Then in Jeremiah you have the same kind of language…”

This is typical of what one will hear from the proponents of the thesis that ‘the word of Yahweh‘ is an actual being and not simply the conveyance of a message from Yahweh to a person. Because something visual is happening in the context of Gen. 15 this is supposed to be evidence that we should regard ‘the word of Yahweh‘ as an actual entity who appeared to Abram. Personally, I find this kind of exegesis to be inane and not worthy of the kind of attention it seems to be getting in some circles.

The first point I want to make in dismantling this myth is the same point I made in Part 1 of this series regarding the phrase ‘the angel of Yahweh.’ The phrase with which we are now dealing is the same construction as that phrase, i.e. a construct state. Because ‘Yahweh‘ is a personal noun and is therefore definite, the first noun in the phrase must be translated as definite (if you have not read Part 1 please do so to fully understand this point). But just because the word ‘word‘ in the phrase ‘the word of Yahweh‘ is grammatically or technically definite, it does not have to be so on a practical level. In other words, it does not mean that every time we see the phrase ‘the word of Yahweh‘ that it is referring to the same ‘word.’ In fact, every first mention of the ‘word of Yahweh‘ in any given passage can be translated as ‘a word from Yahweh.’ This by itself, knocks the legs out from under the proposition that ‘the word of Yahweh’ is a personal entity who appeared to the prophets, and the same personal entity every time, i.e. the pre-incarnate son of God.

In the quote above, Dr. Heiser mentions the three main passages which are put forward as proof texts by the proponents of this thesis — Genesis 15, 1 Samuel 3 and Jeremiah 1. Let’s take a look at 1 Samuel 3 first. Dr. Heiser, in the above quote, makes much of the supposed visual aspect of Samuel’s first encounter with Yahweh. This is supposedly confirmed by the use of the word ‘visions’ in v. 1, ‘revealed’ in v. 7, the phrase ‘the Lord came and stood’ in v. 10, the word ‘vision’ in v. 15, and the phrase ‘the Lord continued to appear’ in v. 21. The phrase ‘the word of Yahweh‘ appears three times in the chapter. Dr. Heiser wants us to believe that ‘the Word of Yahweh‘ is an actual entity that was seen by Samuel. Can this be substantiated simply by the use of the words and phrases just noted? If you read the passage carefully you will see that, besides the words and phrases noted, there is nothing in the narrative to suggest that Samuel actually saw anything. Samuel hears Yahweh calling to him in vv. 4-10. When Samuel responds with “speak, for your servant is listening,” v. 11 begins “And Yahweh said to him.” We are never told that Samuel saw Yahweh or some other entity. Dr. Heiser and others, have fixated on the visual language in vv. 1,7,10,15, and 21, and are assuming based on this that Samuel’s experience was a visual one.

Let’s take v. 10 first. That “the Lord came and stood” does not have to mean that he was visible, only that he was present in some sense, i.e. Yahweh was in the room. This is similar to Ex. 17:6, where Yahweh instructed Moses to strike the rock at Horeb and promised him “I will stand there before you by the rock.” Nothing in the context indicates that Yahweh was seen. This was probably just a reassurance for Moses that God would be there with him. So also here, the text never says that Samuel saw Yahweh or ‘the word of Yahweh,’ neither does it say that ‘the word of Yahweh’ appeared to Samuel. What the text does say is that Samuel simply heard the word that Yahweh was speaking to him.

In verse 1 the phrase “there was no widespread vision” is synonymous with the preceding phrase “the word of the Lord was rare.” The word ‘vision’ there in the Hebrew text is chazon, which, although it can mean something that is seen, can mean simply a revelatory communication, without a visual connotation. For example take Psalm 89:19-20:

Once you spoke in a vision, to your faithful people you said: “I have bestowed strength on a warrior; I have exalted a young man from among the people. I have found David my servant; with my sacred oil I have anointed him.”

When did God say this? There is nothing in Scripture prior to this Psalm that coincides with this statement. What we have here is an inspired, poetic extrapolation of either 1 Sam. 16:1-13, where Samuel is instructed by God to anoint David, the son of Jesse as king; or of 2 Sam. 7:4-17 where God sends Nathan to David with a message of promise to him and his descendants forever. In neither of these incidents do the contexts reveal anything that was visual, we are simply told that words were communicated to the prophets. In the 2 Sam. passage, v. 4 can be translated, ‘a message from Yahweh came to Nathan’ and then we are given that messageIn verse 17 we read that “Nathan reported to David all the words of this vision.” The word ‘vision’ here  (Heb. chizzayon) is a synonym of chazon, which is used in the paralell passage in 1 Chron. 17:15 in place of chizzayon. The point is, there is no hint of anything visual taking place in these passages. Words which denote visual activity can be used metaphorically to simply denote verbal revelation. 2 Sam.7:17 can be understood as “Nathan reported to David  all the words of this revelation.” All languages use words of ‘seeing’ in this way. In English we might say “I don’t see what you are saying,” or “I have come to see ” and everyone understands we are not being literal in the use of the word ‘see.’ So the use of these ‘vision’ words is not at all conclusive that the young Samuel had a visual encounter rather than a merely verbal one. The same thing can be said of the ‘vision’ word in verse 15, which is a different word in Hebrew (mar’ah).

Now in v. 7 the word ‘revealed’  (Heb. galah) means to uncover and is used of the  uncovering of hidden information by means of verbal communication in numerous passages. The verse means that Samuel, prior to this event, had never received communication from Yahweh as a prophet. And finally in verse 21, that Yahweh continued to ‘appear’ in Shiloh does not necessarily mean that Samuel’s initial encounter was visual. The word is raah and often denotes the idea of ‘presenting oneself’ to another. That Yahweh can present himself to someone as being present with them, without actually appearing visibly, but simply by verbal communication, should be obvious.

Let’s look now at the Genesis 15 passage. In verse 1 we read:

“After this, the word of Yahweh came to Abram in a vision …”

Here we are explicitly told the means by which God communicated his message to Abram, i.e. in a vision. I understand the initial vision to be in v. 1 -9. Then in vv. 10-11 Abram obeys the instruction he was given. In v. 12 Abram  falls into a deep sleep and the remainder of the chapter is a second vision, or rather a dream. Going back to the earlier discussion about visions being mental rather than actual, physical, real world events, we can better understand what is happening in this story. All that Abram is experiencing in this vision is purely mental — the being taken outside by Yahweh in v. 5, the smoking firepot and torch in v. 17.  In this vision it is probable that Abram is seeing Yahweh in some representative form, likely the form of a man. Yahweh used this means to communicate to Abram his covenant promise to him and his descendants. Nothing in the context requires us to understand ‘the word of Yahweh‘ in v. 1 as an entity, a personal being. This is confirmed by v. 4, which repeats the phrase again. But if this entity came to Abram in v. 1 then he was already there; why does the narrative have him coming again in v. 4. But if we understand it as Yahweh’s message coming to Abram then it makes sense. In v. 1 he receives a message and then in v. 4 he receives a different message. To see this as an entity distinct from Yahweh is pure fiction.

The next passage I want to examine is Jeremiah chapter 1. The thought goes like this: In v. 4 ‘the word of Yahweh‘ comes to Jeremiah and then in v. 9 Yahweh reaches out his hand to touch his mouth. So the ‘word’ can’t be a mere verbal phenomenon, because a message can’t be said to ‘reach out his hand.’ I’m sorry, I don’t want to be unkind, but this way of reading the text borders on infantile. Verse 1 should be understood as ‘a message from Yahweh came to me saying.” Remember back under the section The Communication Of God I noted the four means that God used to communicate his word to the prophets. I also noted that sometimes the text is ambivalent as to which means is being used, whereas sometimes it is explicitly stated. In this case we are not told explicitly how ‘the message of Yahweh’ came to Jeremiah, but the context aids us in discerning how. As we read through the rest of the chapter it becomes clear that Jeremiah is experiencing a vision. He is asked in vv. 11 and 13, “What do you see?” In the first instance he sees a branch from an almond tree and in the second a boiling pot tilting away from the north. These are clearly mental images he is seeing and not actual physical objects. Likewise v. 9 should be understood not as a physical phenomenon but as mental. In this vision he sees a representation of Yahweh, probably as a man, who reaches out his hand and touches  him. I will note that the text does not say  “then the word of Yahweh reached out his hand,” but simply “Yahweh reached out his hand.” But this does not stop the proponents of this myth from saying exactly that.

Also we encounter the same thing in this text that we saw in Gen. 15, that the phrase ‘the word of Yahweh came‘ is repeated in v. 11 and again in v. 13. Once again, if this is an entity who arrived on the scene in v. 4 why is he arriving again in v. 11 and again in v. 13? It makes no sense unless we understand it of different messages being communicated to Jeremiah at different stages of the vision.

The next point is that the phrase ‘the word of Yahweh came to __________’ seems to simply be an idiomatic expression meaning something like ‘a message from Yahweh was given to so and so.’ Again, this should be obvious but apparently not. This can be proved easily by it’s usage. I would note first, in 1 Sam. 4:1, immediately following the 1 Sam. 3 passage we examined above, we find the same expression used of Samuel himself:

“And the word of Samuel came to all Israel.”

Are we to conclude that ‘the word of Samuel‘ is a entity distinct from Samuel but somehow still Samuel? Of course, no one would think something so ridiculous as that, but that is exactly what they are doing who claim the same thing about ‘the word of Yahweh.’ 

Now let’s go back to Jeremiah and see if we can follow the usage of this phrase throughout the book. Because the phrase appears so often in Jeremiah, we should be able to glean some helpful data from it. In Chapter one I want you to take note of how ‘the word of Yahweh came to me’ is substituted by other phrases, so that there is this back and forth between phrases. V. 4 contains our phrase, but v. 7 says simply ‘Yahweh said to me.” Our phrase occurs again at v. 11 but then in v. 12 simply ‘Yahweh said to me.’ This pattern is repeated in vv. 13-14. This is strong evidence that the two phrases are synonymous and if so then the phrase ‘the word of Yahweh came to me‘ is to be regarded as verbal communication and not a physical, visual phenomenon.

In chapters 7:1 and 11:1 we find another phrase which is also synonymous with our study phrase, ‘The word that came to Jeremiah from Yahweh‘. Note the similarities and the differences between this phrase and our study phrase. It is only rational to see the two phrases as meaning the same thing. 14:1 makes it even more clear:

“The word of Yahweh to Jeremiah concerning the drought.”

Clearly ‘the word of Yahweh‘ here is nothing but the message of Yahweh, specifically about the drought that was then occurring.

Chapter 13 is also illustrative of how our study phrase is simply one of various ways the authors of Scripture used to express the same thought, i.e. that Yahweh communicated a message to one of his prophets. In v. 1 we have “This is what Yahweh said to me,” followed by the message in v. 2. Then in v. 3 our study phrase shows up, but with a surprise: “The word of Yahweh came to me a second time saying.” The meaning of “a second time” can only be referring back to v. 1 saying, “This is what Yahweh said to me.” Thus once again, we see that our study phrase is used interchangeably with a phrase which is clearly verbal in nature and not visual. In all of these contexts it is messages that are being communicated to the prophet.

Throughout the rest of the book the different phrases are used interchangeably. In 16:1 it is “the word of Yahweh came to me,” but in 17:19 “this is what Yahweh said to me.” In 18:1 we see “The word that came to Jeremiah from Yahweh,” but in 19:1, “This is what Yahweh says.”  Verse 21:1 has “the word that came to Jeremiah from Yahweh,” and then 22:1 has “This is what Yahweh says.”  Verse 25:1 has “The word that came to Jeremiah concerning,” while in v. 15 “This is what Yahweh, the God of Israel said to me.” Verse 26:1 says, “this word came from Yahweh” and in 27:1 “This word came to Jeremiah from Yahweh.”  In chapter 44:1 we have again “The word that came to Jeremiah concerning.” In 46:1 and 47:1 we read, “The word of Yahweh that came to Jeremiah the prophet concerning.” The phrases which include the word ‘concerning’ surely prove that we are dealing with a message that is being communicated and not a divine entity showing up.

My next point is that if you were to substitute the phrase ‘the pre-incarnate son of God‘ for ‘the word of Yahweh,’ for this is the claim being made, you will, in many cases, see the ridiculousness of this assertion. Take 1 Sam. 3:1:

“… In those days the word of Yahweh was rare.”

Could we read this as, “In those days the pre-incarnate son of God was rare.” Or how about  v. 7:

“Now Samuel did not yet know Yahweh. The word of Yahweh had not been revealed to him.”

Could we read this as, “The pre-incarnate son of God had not been revealed to him.” I am sure you can see the absurdity of this way of thinking.

Let’s Recap

Here are the main points I have argued in this article:

  1. It cannot be substantiated that the word memra in the Targums is regarded by the authors as a hypostasis. This seems to be simply the wishful thinking of those who are intent on finding support for the Trinity and Deity of Messiah in ancient Jewish sources. Since the memra seems to be the source of the proposal that the OT phrase ‘the word of Yahweh‘ should be understood as a divine hypostasis, this point greatly weakens that hypothesis.
  2. God communicated his word to the prophets through four means: visions, dreams, angelic messengers and audible voice. Whenever the means is not explicitly stated in the context of any given passage, it could be by any one of these four ways. Visions (as well as dreams) are merely images being played out in the mind of the visionary and are not real, actual, physical events.
  3. The OT phrase ‘the word of Yahweh‘ is a construct state, and while it is technically definite (i.e. the word) it can and should be understood practically as indefinite (i.e. a word) according to context.
  4. In the three main passages, which are used as proof texts by the proponents of the idea that ‘the word of Yahweh‘ is a divine hypostasis, nothing in the context of these passages actually confirms that idea. Everything is easily explained according to God’s normal means of communication.
  5. The OT phrase ‘the word of Yahweh came to _____’ is an idiomatic expression meaning something like ‘a message from Yahweh was given to _____’ This was proved by it’s usage in 1 Sam. 4:1 and throughout the book of Jeremiah.
  6. One cannot substitute the phrase ‘the pre-incarnate son of God’ for the phrase ‘the word of Yahweh‘ without it resulting in absurdity in most cases.

In part three we will look at Melchizedek and other supposed OT appearances of the son of God.

 

Pre-incarnate Appearances Of The Son Of God In The OT – Truth Or Myth? – The Angel of the Lord

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. Miscellaneous (Melchizedek, Captain of the Armies of Yahweh, etc.)

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 the same  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 be 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 phenomenon a sufficient reason to conclude either of these views. Let me point out, first of all, that this phenomenon 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 phenomenon 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 angel 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 his words and actions are attibuted to 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.”

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 Agency 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 may have uttered things which evidence their confusion and ignorance.

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 in Genesis 32, 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 taken to be a “face to face” encounter with God, by the one to whom he appeared, and that Jacob’s seeing God was 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’. That Jacob’s expression that he saw God “face to face” does not have to be understood literally can be seen from other incidents where this expression is used. In Deut. 5:4 Moses tells the whole Israelite community, “Yahweh spoke to you face to face out of the fire on the mountain.” He was, of course, referring to the incident recorded in Ex. 20. But the Israelites never literally saw God , they saw only fire and smoke on the mountain and heard an audible voice speak the 10 commandments. The fire was a representative form by which God appeared to them. In  Ex. 33:7-11 we are told of how Moses would meet with God at the tent of meeting and receive instructions from him. Again, Moses did not see God literally, but saw only a representative form in which God appeared i.e. the cloud. This was characterized as a “face to face” encounter with God, yet what was seen was only something that represented God. In the same way, the man (or angel) who wrestled with Jacob was simply a representation of God, so that when Jacob contended with the angel, he was, in effect, struggling with God; when he prevailed over the angel he thus prevailed with God {Hosea 12:3-4}.

In Gen. 16:7-14 we read of Hagar’s encounter with the angel of Yahweh (LXX – an angel). It is often claimed by defenders of the theophany/christophany view, based on v. 13, that Hagar believed that she had seen God, and that this is supposed to confirm that view. Now it could be that Hagar, out of ignorance, really did believe that the angel was God himself, after all what would this Egyptian maidservant know about the workings of Yahweh and his agents. But I think a more reasonable approach is to assume that she perceived this personage to be a messenger of the God of Abraham, whether she thought him to be a divine messenger or just a man, and to understand her statement, “I have seen the one who sees me,” in a figurative rather than a literal sense. The emphasis of the whole pericope is that God saw Hagar in her mistreatment and distress and gave her comfort and a promise. That God saw Hagar is stated three times in vv. 13-14 and is the main point of the story. The word ‘see’ (Heb. raah) has a figurative connotation of coming to know by experience, as in the sentence, “He has seen much grief in his life.” It can also denote to learn or find out about something, as in the sentence, “Will she ever see the error of her ways.” It is therefore plausible to take Hagar’s statement as a play on words and to understand it in this sense: “I have come to know Him who sees me.” Also, we can understand the statement in v. 13 that “Yahweh spoke to her” as a concomitant of agency i.e. what the angel said to her was what Yahweh was saying to her.

Another incident in which it is claimed that one who encountered the angel of Yahweh actually encountered Yahweh himself (or the second Yahweh) is found in Judges 13. Manoah and his wife encounter someone who they believe is a man of God but whom the text calls the (LXX -an) angel of Yahweh. Throughout the whole encounter they perceive this personage as simply a man. Not until the angel ascends in the flames of Manoah’s sacrifice in v. 20, does he realize they are dealing with a divine messenger of God, and in v. 22 he exclaims, “We are doomed to die, for we have seen God!” Does this demand that we understand the angel to be Yahweh himself? I don’t think we need to jump to that conclusion. This incident took place at a period in Israel’s history when “they forsook Yahweh, the God of their fathers . . . they followed and worshipped the various gods of the people around them.” It is conceivable that Manoah’s understanding of this encounter was influenced by the current beliefs of the peoples around them. In that culture, at that time, according to Ugaritic literature, all heavenly messengers sent by the gods, such as Baal, were themselves gods, albeit lesser gods, and Manoah’s statement may simply reflect that belief. With this in mind, and the fact that the word ‘God’ in the Hebrew is anarthrous, the statement could be read as “We have seen a god,” thus betraying Manoah’s belief that Yahweh’s messengers were also gods, just as Baal’s were. The fact that Manoah thought that he and his wife would die upon realizing that this personage was a messenger-god rather than a human prophet, may also reflect what we find in the literature of the surrounding peoples of that time. It was primarily to other gods that these messenger-gods were sent, not to humans, and if a god did send a messenger-god to a human this would typically be understood to be for a destructive purpose. This passage, understood in this way, fits perfectly with the agency view.

Another objection to the view that ‘the angel of Yahweh’ is simply an agent of Yahweh, is the assertion that he receives worship from those who encounter him. Exodus 3:5, Joshua 5:15 and Judges 6:17-22 are offered as proof of this, but when each passage is examined carefully it does not appear that the angel is being worshipped i.e., as God, at all. 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. The same thing occurs with Joshua when he encounters the captain of Yahweh’s host. 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 are these the only two times someone is told to do this when ‘the angel of Yahweh’ is encountered? Perhaps there is something unique about these encounters that we do not fully understand. Beside that, in neither case does the person receiving the encounter spontaneously remove his sandals, as one might expect of an act of worship, but has to be told to do so, which to my mind weakens the case for this being an act of worship. Therefore, I think it is going too 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 is extremely  unlikely since 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, and hence this was not an act of worship done to the ‘angel of 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.”

One more point about Gideon’s encounter. In vv. 22-23 Gideon fears death upon the realization that this messenger was divine rather than human. This can be explained in the same way as we saw with Manoah, based on the understanding at that time, that the purpose of a visitation by a divine messenger was not  beneficial but deleterious.

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 to worship him but Yahweh.

After examining the relevant passages I can confidently affirm that there is no passage where an act of worship is given to the ‘angel of Yahweh’ as if he just was God.

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 the pre-incarnate 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.