Angel of the LORD: Part Three

Who is the“Angel of the LORD”?

Everett Fox gives a somewhat vague answer. He suggests it is an “unspecified manifestation of God, and open to wide interpretation.”(8) In the Oxford Companion to The Bible we read a rather critical suggestion, “The Angel of the Lord” is a problematic figure. The ambiguous Hebrew phrase is best translated without the definite article, that is “an angel of Yahweh”. Later Christian theology tended to see the pre-incarnate Christ in this figure (hence the definite article), but the phrase probably referred vaguely to any mediator sent by God...(Gen. 16.7-13; 22.11-12; 31:11-13; Exod. 3.2-4; Judg. 6.11-23), it is probably that some of these stories originally described God at work but were modified through time to accommodate God’s increasing transcendence as one who no longer casually confronted mankind.” (9)

The question of identity concerning this Biblical character is debated from the start. (10) There are even mixed views amongst Trinitarians on this subject. Some have gone so far as to compare this Biblical character to the Incarnation itself. The Nelson’s Illustrated Bible Dictionary needlessly appeals to mystery, “This special relationship is a mystery similar to that between Jesus and God in the New Testament.”(11) In a newer edition they remove the term "mystery": "This special relationship has led many to conclude that the Angel of the Lord was Jesus in a pre-incarnate form." (12) There is no need to further obfuscate Trinitarian theology by appealing to mystery. Some will also suggest that it is only an angel or Michael, the archangel. Justin Martyr speaks of this character often. In his Dialogue with Trypho he frequently calls Jesus “the Angel.”  The Hellenized Jewish philosopher Philo identified the Angel of the Lord with the logos.

D.M. Howard suggests that there are about three options. He notes, (1) It is simply an angel with a special commission. (2) It may be a momentary descent of God himself into visibility. (3) It may be the Logos himself (i.e., Christ) “a kind of temporary preincarnation of the second person of the trinity.” Because of the close relationship—even alternation—of the angel of the Lord and the Lord himself, it would seem that the first option is not adequate. The angel represents God himself in very real ways.”(13) We would agree with Howard on the fact that the first one is not adequate and would also suggest that the latter is stating too much. Advanced angelology is probably not very developed at this point in Jewish history either. The second option is most coherent and is compatible with the Oneness view: God Himself became visible if only momentarily.

The term “angel” can also be thought of as simply “messenger” and should be defined more closely by its usage in context. The Hebrew writers are simply relating to us the divine presence that they saw and felt through these experiences with God Himself. D.R. Wood offers this view, “In the NT there is no possibility of the “Angel of Jehovah” being confused with God. He appears as *GABRIEL in Lk. 1:19,”(14) Although Wood is referencing the New Testament it seems quite logical that some of the appearances of the “angel of the Lord” in the Old Testament are indeed Gabriel (one of two named angels), or another angel. The angel Gabriel or another angel simply cannot account for all of the Biblical records of this character.

This character can also be thought of as referring to someone other than God. When this is so the angel is often doing the work of God and speaking for God. In the fourth vision of Zechariah 1 the angel of the Lord asks the Lord for information and then receives comforting words indicating that he is perhaps not co-equal with God in power or knowledge. D.J. Clark and H.A. Hatton  recommend that "(a) that the angel among the myrtles and the angel who talked with the prophet are regarded as separate figures; and (b) that “the angel of the Lord” in verse 12 is identified with the angel among the myrtles."(15)

An early Reformation scholar Michael Servetus suggested that Christ is compared to the angels in the book of Hebrews so that we “could understand that Christ himself...was above the angels as the true God.” He goes on to say, “The Jews saw the angel in God and God in the angel; we see Christ in God and God in Christ. God was once worshipped via an angel, but now He is truly worshipped in Christ alone...for us Christ’s voice is God’s voice (Acts 12). Christ speaks the words of the Father (John 3).”(16) 

The New Testament is not reluctant to identify Jesus Christ with Old Testament figures, i.e. King, Messiah, Priest, or Word. Nevertheless, the Old Testament never identifies Christ with the “angel of the Lord”. Nothing in the Scriptures requires our understanding God’s self-expressions or manifestations prior to Jesus’ birth to have been a second or even third person of the Trinity. This type of information is nowhere suggested as being assumed or even seeded in a Bible writer’s thought.

In his book God is Spirit Geoffrey W. Lampe noted, “The concept of the angel of the Lord also refers in the first instance to human experience. In this case, too, it is an experience of a communication from God, of a message received from beyond the human personality itself...The angel of the Lord signified the manifestation of the divine presence itself in action at certain specific times and places; but the idea of a messenger from God came to replace that of God himself reaching out to communicate his message.”(17) T. E. McComiskey’s conclusion seems to be a sensible one, “It is best to see the angel as a self-manifestation of Yahweh in a form that would communicate his immanence and direct concern to those to whom he ministered.”(18)

Both Lampe and McComiskey note that the angel of the LORD is a manifestation of Yahweh. Both scholars would have little agreement other than that but they at least recognize the activity is Yahweh acting in the world. If what was communicated to Hagar (Gen. 16), Abraham (Gen. 18), or Moses (Ex. 3) was any suggestion of God existing as multiple persons then they never got the communique. Instead, the Hebrew writers speak of God as absolutely one in the strictest sense. James D.G. Dunn in his book Christology in the Making seems to confirm the fact that they surely did not understand the angel of the LORD as being separate or independent of Yahweh. It was a way of speaking about Yahweh Himself. He notes:

“to understand the angel of Yahweh as a being somehow independent of Yahweh is basically to misunderstand what the ancient writers intended...it is clear enough even from a cursory study of the passages...‘the angel of Yahweh’ is simply a way of speaking about Yahweh himself...it is impossible to distinguish between the angel of Yahweh and Yahweh himself; they are obviously one and the same person.”(19) 

In Judges 19:9-24 Yahweh speaks and changes from speaking as an “I” to speaking of Himself as “He” or from first person to third person often. This does not require the speaker be more than one person which is necessary for Trinitarian theology. We cannot be thinking of the One True God if we must begin to count beyond one. Yahweh was experienced by Abraham, Isaac and Jacob each in his own way, each according to his own destiny. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob all experienced God in different yet personal ways. The God of the Old Testament is not impersonal but is active as a partner with creation, nations and even individuals. These experiences and partnerships did not suggest to Abraham or Jacob that God consisted of more than one person. All three Hebrews experienced God in unique ways without thinking of God as nothing but the one "Living God" (See Deut. 5:26).

In addition, if Moses is understood to be the speaker in Deuteronomy 11:14-15 he shifts from referring to God in the third person to speaking directly on God’s behalf, in the first person . Jewish scholars such as Robert Friedman suggest, "The subject of "I'll give" must be God, and so Moses has apparent shifted in the middle of his discussion and is now quoting God when until now he has been speaking as his own name and referring to God in the third person." (20) (See also TANAKH (JPS), Jewish Study Bible, Alter, Friedman, Fox translations). All the while Moses is the only person speaking. In Jewish thinking this literary device can be employed without suggesting more than one person is speaking. 

References to the “angel of the LORD” usually occur when something dramatic and meaningful is about to happen, generally with serious consequences. Either for good or ill concerning God’s people. This character both commissions and commends God’s servants. The angel of the Lord can be a reverential way of speaking about God revealing His divine presence or simply a manifestation of God Himself. It can also be a created angel/messenger in applicable passages. 

In future posts we will examine some of the passages that reference the Angel of the LORD


8) Fox, E. (1995). Vol. 1: The five books of Moses : Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy ; a new translation with introductions, commentary, and notes. The Schocken Bible (Ex 3:2). New York: Schocken Books.

9) Metzger, Bruce M. & Coogan, Michael. (1993) Oxford Companion To The Bible. (28) New York, NY: Oxford University Press

10) Whitlock, L. G., Sproul, R. C., Waltke, B. K., & Silva, M. (1995). Reformation study Bible, the : Bringing the light of the Reformation to Scripture : New King James Version (Ge 18:2). Nashville: T. Nelson.

11) Lockyer, Herbert, Bruce, F.F., Harrison, R.K., et al. "Angel of The Lord" Nelson's Illustrated Bible Dictionary, Copyright © 1986, Thomas Nelson Publishers

12) Youngblood, R. F., Bruce, F. F., Harrison, R. K., & Thomas Nelson Publishers. (1995). "Angel of The Lord" Nelson's new illustrated Bible dictionary. Nashville: T. Nelson.

13) Howard, D. M., Jr. (2001, c1998). Vol. 5: Joshua (electronic ed.). Logos Library System; The New American Commentary. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.

14) Wood, D. R. W. (1996, c1982, c1962). New Bible Dictionary (37). InterVarsity Press.

15) Clark, D. J., & Hatton, H. (2002). A handbook on Zechariah. UBS handbook series (81). New York: United Bible Societies.

16) Servetus, Michael. The Restoration of Christianity (An English Translation of Chistianismi Restitutio, 1553) by Michael Servetus. Translated by Hoffman and Hillar. The Edwin Mellen Press

17) Lampe, Geoffrey W. God As Spirit. Oxford University Press 1977

18) McComiskey, T.E. Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, “Angel,” See also M. Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1986) who has a similar conclusion.

19) Dunn, James D. G. (1996) Christology In The Making. (150) Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company

20) Friedman, Richard E. (2001) Commentary on Torah. (63) New York, NY: Harper Collins Publishers.

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