“Angels” of the LORD


The Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) has many stories in which beings typically identified as “an angel of the LORD[i]”, or just “angel”, are depicted interacting with people as, apparently, another person.  What can we learn about these persons from the texts?  More than you might think.


What are angels?  In the cases we’re interested in the word “angel” is the translation of the Hebrew מַלְאָךְ mal’āḵ, meaning messenger.  Often we find that these messengers are simply persons sent from one king or priest to another person or group of people to deliver the sender’s message (e.g. 1 Sa 11:3).

More often, however, we read that the sender is the LORD Himself.  In many cases, the one sent is human, whether a prophet (Isa 44:26;Hag 1:13;Mal 3:1[ii]), priests (Ec 5:6 [5]; Mal 2:7), or even the whole nation of Israel (Isa 42:19).  These typically use the phrase “mal’ak of the LORD”, but English translators, recognizing the humanity of the messenger, most often render the phrase “messenger of the LORD”.

The occurrences of the phrase, and the phenomenon it represents that we’re interested in, are those where the angel/messenger is not claimed to be human.  We examine a few of those in the following.

Angel of the LORD – מַלְאָךְ mal’āḵ יְהוָׄה yehōwāh

There are several features of the stories of the interaction of these beings with the humans to whom they are presenting their messages, to notice.

First is the issue of what they look like – their appearance.  Is their appearance said to be unusual?  Or is it unremarkable and so unremarked upon?  Next is their behavior.  Do they do things that humans do?  Do they do supernatural things, like abruptly appearing and disappearing; appearing above the ground?

Perhaps most intriguing is how they say what they say.  In whose voice do they speak – first person, third?  How do they identify who sent them, if at all?

Let’s take a look at a few examples and see how strange they are.

The first occurrence in the Bible of the phrase “angel of the LORD” is the angel’s appearance to Hagar after she has run away from Sarai and Abram. Genesis 16:7-11

[7] The angel of the LORD found her by a spring of water in the wilderness, the spring on the way to Shur. [8] And he said, “Hagar, slave-girl of Sarai, where have you come from and where are you going?” She said, “I am running away from my mistress Sarai.” [9] The angel of the LORD said to her, “Return to your mistress, and submit to her.” [10] The angel of the LORD also said to her, “I will so greatly multiply your offspring that they cannot be counted for multitude.” [11] And the angel of the LORD said to her,

“Now you have conceived and shall bear a son;

you shall call him Ishmael, (meaning ‘God hears’)

for the LORD has given heed to your affliction.

The angel’s message is that Hagar should return to Sarai, that she is pregnant, and that her offspring will one day be a multitude.  Here we’re not told that the angel does anything out of the ordinary, other than tell her something he could not have naturally known – that she’s pregnant.  And the angel’s appearance isn’t described.

But apparently, hearing about her pregnancy from a total stranger caused Hagar to conclude that she had heard from “the LORD” — YHWH (Gen 16:13) – ‘So she called the name of the LORD who spoke to her, “You are a God of seeing,”’.

“God” in 16:13 is: אֵ֣ל ’êl, the singular title of God.  So she is saying YHWH is a God of seeing.  Is this just her way of assigning the attribute of ‘divine seeing’ to YHWH?  Or, is the sense of it that: “of the many gods out there, you, YHWH, have divine sight”?  To me, it sounds like the former.  Notice also that she calls Him by his name, YHWH, but then assigns Him a different name: “You are a ‘el of seeing”.

This presents us with our first challenge in understanding the world of “angels of the LORD”.  Is the angel the LORD, or is he of the LORD, or both?  This seems to be an occurrence of a theophany – a visible manifestation of God to humans – in which the manifestation appears human.  He’s not a pillar of cloud or flame (Ex 13:21-22), or a flaming bush (Ex 3:2).  He looks like a person.

But in these pillar of cloud or flame references it is equally interesting that it says that by day “the LORD went ahead of them in a pillar of cloud”.  So the cloud (and the fire at night), though not itself YHWH, is nevertheless His manifestation; a theophany.

Moses had a lot of experience with this pillar of cloud theophany.  Exodus records he had regular meetings with this theophany in the Tent of Meeting outside the camp: Exodus 33:8-11

[8] Whenever Moses went out to the tent, all the people would rise up, and each would stand at his tent door, and watch Moses until he had gone into the tent. [9] When Moses entered the tent, the pillar of cloud would descend and stand at the entrance of the tent, and the LORD would speak with Moses. [10] And when all the people saw the pillar of cloud standing at the entrance of the tent, all the people would rise up and worship, each at his tent door. [11] Thus the LORD used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend. When Moses turned again into the camp, his assistant Joshua the son of Nun, a young man, would not depart from the tent.

Whether in his “face to face[iii]” meetings Moses was speaking to the cloud at the door, or to some other manifestation inside the tent is not clear.  It is clear he was speaking to and hearing from the presence, just as he had heard from the presence in the burning bush[iv].  It’s a bit curious that in saying “when Moses turned again into the camp…”, the implication is that to get back to the camp he would have to exit by the tent’s entrance, in front of which was the pillar of cloud.  Perhaps the cloud dissipated when the meeting ended?

Judges 6 contains an interesting theophanic encounter between Gideon and the LORD. Starting in Judges 6:11 we read:

[11] Now the angel of the LORD came and sat under the terebinth at Ophrah, which belonged to Joash the Abiezrite, while his son Gideon was beating out wheat in the winepress to hide it from the Midianites.

This is very anthropomorphic.  The mal’ak sits under a tree.  Then he “appears” to Gideon and the mal’ak of YHWH says to him “The LORD” (YHWH) “is with you O mighty man of valour”.  So here the angel is referring to YHWH in the third person.  Gideon incredulously asks the angel: if the LORD is with him, then why is he beset by his enemies, the Midianites.  Then (v14) we read:

[14] And the LORD turned to him and said, “Go in this might of yours and save Israel from the hand of Midian; do not I send you?”

“The LORD turned to him…”  Not the angel of the LORD.  YHWH Himself turned to him, according to the writer of Judges.

Gideon has doubt about taking on the Midianites (v15,16), so he asks the angel (v17) to “show me a sign that it is You who speak with me.”  You who?  Who’s Gideon thinking this visitor is?  Well, earlier (v15) Gideon had addressed him as “my Lord” – אֲדֹנָי ‘aḏōnāy, a term reserved for God.

Gideon asks the visitor to wait for a meal gift from him; he prepares it; brings it out to the visitor, the angel touches the food with his staff and it incinerates, so Gideon gets his sign.  Then the visitor vanishes.

So this story has it all.  The angel appears as a human.  He and Gideon converse.  Gideon suspects he’s God by what he has told him, asks for a sign, gets a sign and the visitor disappears.  Among other things it surely highlights the ambiguity we saw earlier as to whether this presence is God Himself or simply His representative.

Just seven chapters later in Judges 13 we get an even more intriguing mal’ak encounter.

Here we have an unnamed, childless woman who is married to a guy named Manoah visited by an angel who tells her she’s barren but will conceive and bear a son. He tells her she can’t consume wine because the child is to become a Nazarite; “No razor shall come upon his head.”  She’s told the child is going to begin to save Israel from the Philistines (this is Samson).

[6] Then the woman came and told her husband, “A man of God came to me, and his appearance was like the appearance of the angel of God, very awesome. I did not ask him where he was from, and he did not tell me his name,

Here the word rendered “awesome” is יָרֵא yārē’, means, well, awesome: to respect, to reverence, to be afraid.  So this woman’s visitor did not appear like just another man.

Manoah prays to God to have the visitor return and tell them what they are to do with the boy to be born.  The visitor comes back, but to the wife while she is alone in the field.  She runs and gets her husband who hurries and asks the visitor how they should raise the boy, to which the visitor simply responds, paraphrasing, “the way I told your wife”.

Manoah then begs him to stay with them for a meal.  The angel responds that he’ll stay while the meal is prepared but won’t eat it; but if they prepare a burnt offering, to offer it to YHWH, thus separating himself somewhat from YHWH by the third person reference.  Manoah then asks the visitor his name (so that they can memorialize him). (v18):

[18] And the angel of the LORD said to him, “Why do you ask my name, seeing it is wonderful?”

The word rendered “wonderful” is a unique word pair (פִּלְאִי pil’iy, פֶּלִיא peliy’) that is used only one other place in the Bible in Psalm 139:6, describing the knowledge of the LORD.  Its meaning is wonderful, incomprehensible.  So perhaps the angel is saying something like “I could tell you but you wouldn’t be able to understand.”

So Manoah goes off, prepares a goat and some grain, places them on a rock in the midst of a fire as a burnt offering, and then the cool part happens (v20):

[20] And when the flame went up toward heaven from the altar, the angel of the LORD went up in the flame of the altar. Now Manoah and his wife were watching, and they fell on their faces to the ground.

Whoa.  No subtlety there.  Now this angel didn’t explicitly claim to be YHWH.  But we’re left with that tantalizing response concerning his name: “incomprehensible”.

There is one other visitation instance that we need to look at and that is of the “three men” who visit Abraham at Mamre (Genesis 18:1-15).  Abraham is sitting outside his tent, looks up, and there are three “men”.  He implores them to stay and eat with him and be refreshed before continuing on their journey.  They accept.

One of the three, after asking the whereabouts of Sarah, says to Abraham (v10):

[10] The LORD said, “I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife shall have a son.” And Sarah was listening at the tent door behind him.

Notice, here again, the writer of Genesis says “the LORD” (YHWH) said”.  So one of the three visitors is a theophany of God Himself according to the author.  And, he’s of human form because he’s been conversing and he just got done eating Abraham’s feast for the three (which was enormous, by the way.  Sarah made them “cakes” from 3 seahs of flour [about 27 quarts – or enough for about 25 loaves of bread!], they ate a calf, and they had curds and milk.  Those gentlemen could pack it away.)  However, we’re given no hint in this story that either Abraham or Sarah sensed divinity in them.  And surely there were no supernatural appearances or disappearances.  Just “men” walking over the land, eating and resting, conversing.  Routine stuff.  Except for the prophecy of Isaac’s birth from a 90-year-old.

Before leaving, the spokesman of the visitors announces that he’ll be back about the same time the next year when Sarah will give birth to her son.  (There’s a definite pattern in these theophanies of the announcement of a son who will be favored by God.)

As the visitors are leaving, Abraham accompanies them for a distance and we encounter a truly strange passage in Genesis 18:17-19:

[17] The LORD said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, [18] seeing that Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? [19] For I have chosen him, that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice, so that the LORD may bring to Abraham what he has promised him.”

YHWH asks the question, apparently rhetorically, whether he should keep His impending destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah a secret from Abraham.  One wonders what, exactly, the fact that Abraham will become “a great and mighty nation” has to do with his knowing about this coming destruction?  The destruction is going to be long-over by the time Abraham is a nation.  Perhaps it is so as to make it clear to Abraham that the LORD will judge unrighteousness, potentially in Abraham’s own family, severely?  Possibly.

Apparently, the LORD does tell Abraham what’s going to happen as this is the lead-in to the subsequent negotiation between Abraham and the LORD over the destruction of any righteous people still left in those towns, Lot’s escape, etc.

Later, in Genesis 21, we learn that the LORD’s two other companions were also angels of the LORD – the emissaries to Lot and his family – as the Bible identifies them as such.

Implications of the Presence of “Angels of the LORD”

The first implication surely is that in Israel’s early history, God was actively immanent in guiding their leaders in the direction He willed them to go.  But, we should not get the impression these were everyday occurrences: the time span of the stories we’ve looked at here is about six or seven hundred years.  But, they seemed to occur when someone who would be a key figure in God’s plan had to either be announced and ushered in, or simply informed (as in the case of Moses).

The other key implication, however, really hit home with me as a Christian, and that is that the God of the Universe can manifest Himself as a guy sitting under your tree, eating your food, having a conversation with you “face to face”, and you can be unable to distinguish His presence from any other man’s.

I know of another man that interacted with people like that about 2000 years after Abraham’s visitation.

Now, of course, we have no idea of the physiology (or physics) of these earlier theophanic presences.  We’re certainly not told they were human, and in most cases, they gave evidence of being at least superhuman.  We’re not told they were born or died.  We are told they “appeared” and either explicitly “disappeared” or simply dropped out of the text.

But if we are to take these Biblical texts at face value, many of these angels of the LORD were identified as the LORD, speaking His words.  They’re not a human sent by the LORD; they’re not Michael or Gabriel.  They are visible, human-appearing, eating, and drinking manifestations of the One True God.

It should not be a theological hurdle then, I would argue, to believe that the man Jesus of Nazareth embodied within his form and nature a similar manifestation of that One True God.  He told us as much: “I and the father are one.

Perhaps for those of us who follow Christ, as members of Him, there is something much more profound going on as we grow more and more into His likeness than we could ever imagine.  Christ Himself, in fact, gave us a hint of this reality in John 14:12:

“Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father.”

Implications for the Doctrine of the Trinity

The Church’s doctrine of the divine Trinity was formalized at the First Council of Nycea in 325 AD.  It is an abstraction based on various texts of the Bible: Jesus praying to the “Father”; Jesus claiming He and the Father “are One”; Jesus announcing the “Helper” He will send after His death and resurrection; John’s insights into the Christ as the “Word” that was God.  The council concluded that there were three co-equal “persons” of the “Godhead”: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  They overlaid this conclusion with various characterizations of the three forms of God that, if anything, make the concept more difficult to understand, not more clear (e.g. homoousios, etc).

The more I study the Bible, the more I see these distinctions between the “persons” of the Trinity fading away.  In the texts we’ve looked at here we’ve seen Jehovah (YHWH) manifesting Himself and interacting with people as a person (as well as, of course, in other forms).  This same YHWH is the One who identifies Himself to the prophets in giving them His words to convey to Israel (as a purely spiritual entity).  As well, we see instances in the OT of “the spirit of the LORD” falling on individual people (e.g. Jdg 3:10, Jdg 14:6, 1 Sam 10:6, 2 Sam 23:2, Isaiah 61:1, Eze 11:5, Mi 3:8).  So He was active in God’s people long before Pentecost.

And then, of course, we have Jesus with the Spirit falling on Him at His baptism (Mt 3:16); His proclamation that “I and the Father are One” (John 10:30), and the Pentecost event (Acts 2) in which the Spirit of God is poured out on all of Jesus’ followers.

Meanwhile, we’re told (John 4:24) that “God is Spirit”.  So this Spirit, the One God can manifest Himself in the form of a person, or of a burning bush, or of a pillar of cloud or flame; He can indwell in His Son Jesus in human form, as well as all those who believe Him and the Son as what we call “the Holy Spirit”.  Why do we insist He has three “persons”[v]?  Don’t make it complicated.

[i] LORD (all caps) is a placeholder in the Hebrew Bible for God’s name, the “tetragrammaton” YHWH which is transliterated with vowels into yehōwāh.

[ii] The name Malachi is eponymous, meaning “my messenger”.

[iii] The term here translated “face” is paneh, which is elsewhere (e.g. Ex 33:14-15) translated “presence”.  As for the pillar “stand”ing at the door, pillars can stand without being humanlike.  So there is no reason to anthropomorphize this theophany as being of human form.

[iv] Another interesting puzzle is presented by the burning bush scene (Ex 3:4) that reads: ‘When the LORD saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.”’  The LORD (YHWH) sees and in reaction “God” (elohiym – אֱלׂהִים ‘elōhiym) calls…out of the bush!  The presence in the bush is YHWH-elohiym – “Jehovah God”.

[v] For some additional thoughts on this question, you might have a look at “Thinking About the Trinity”.

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