The Angel of the Lord

Throughout the Tanakh, this figure appears now and then. In context, when he appears, strange and mysterious statements are made. For example, he is called the angel of the LORD in one spot and then in another spot in the context, he is called God himself. In addition, this angel speaks as if he was God himself and, finally, it is stated that God’s presence is in him. Consistently, the context makes it apparent that this is no ordinary angel. Instead, he is a unique being who is a visible manifestation of God Himself. These phenomena are consistent with the Biblical data describing God’s nature. They are understandable wonders when we realize that God is a complex, indivisible unity. Examples of this phenomenon are contained in Genesis 16:7-13, 21:17-18, 22:11-12, and 31:11-13. Let us begin the discussion with Genesis 16:7-9.

At the beginning of the encounter, verse 7 clearly states it is the angel of the LORD speaking to Hagar:

An angel of the LORD found her by a spring of water in the wilderness, the spring on the road to Shur, and said, ‘Hagar, slave of Sarai, where have you come from, and where are you going?’ And she said, ‘I am running away from my mistress Sarai.’ And the angel of the LORD said to her, ‘Go back to your mistress, and submit to her harsh treatment.’[1]

All that the angel has spoken up to this point is quite proper for a messenger of God to state. However, in the next sentence the angel says something that goes beyond what is proper for a created being. Verse 10 says:

And the angel of the LORD said to her, ‘I will greatly increase your offspring, And they shall be too many to count.’[2]

Giving children is God’s work. Yet the angel of the LORD did not say “The LORD will greatly increase your offspring.” Instead, the angel of the LORD said, “I will greatly increase your offspring.” Why does he feel he can speak in the first person regarding an activity that is God’s business?

The conversation ends with verses 10-12 giving a prediction regarding the characteristics of Hagar’s firstborn son:

The angel of the LORD said to her further, ‘Behold, you are with child and shall bear a son; You shall call him Ishmael, for the LORD has paid heed to your suffering. He shall be a wild ass of a man; His hand against everyone, and everyone’s hand against him; He shall dwell alongside of all his kinsmen.’[3]

The record of the account ends with an astounding statement by Hagar. The angel of the LORD had spoken to her, yet she identifies the speaker using different terms:

And she called the LORD who spoke to her, ‘You Are El-roi,’ by which she meant, ‘Have I not gone on seeing after He saw me!’[4]

Hagar does not indicate that the being who spoke to her was simply a messenger from God, simply a run-of-the-mill-angel. She clearly identifies the one who spoke to her as God himself.

She is also amazed that she is still alive. Apparently, she understood the principle that no man can look upon God and live (Ex. 33:20). Had this visitor been simply an angel, Hagar would not have feared death. This angel is clearly identified with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in 16:13. The angel of the LORD is God Himself appearing in visible, angelic form.

The same phenomenon occurs in Genesis 22:11-12 when Abraham is about to sacrifice his son Isaac. Please remember, in the context of Genesis 22, God is commanding Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. Abraham is not offering the sacrifice of his son to an angel. This is crystal clear from Genesis 22:1-2:

Some time afterward, God put Abraham to the test. He said to him, ‘Abraham,’ and he answered, ‘Here I am.’ And He said, ‘Take your son, your favored one, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the heights that I will point out to you.’[5]

In obedience to God, not an angel, Abraham goes out to the land of Moriah. Then we come to verses 11 and 12:

Then an angel of the LORD called to him from heaven: ‘Abraham! Abraham!’ And he answered, ‘Here I am.’ And he said, ‘Don’t raise your hand against the boy, or do anything to him. For now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your favored one, from Me.’[6]

Please note that the angel of the LORD did not say, in verse 12, “you have not withheld your son from God.” Instead, the angel of the LORD said, “you have not withheld your son, your favored one, from Me.” Once again, the angel of the LORD is identified as God himself. Then the strange marvel occurs again in verses 15-18:

The angel of the LORD called to Abraham a second time from heaven, and said, ‘By Myself I swear,’ the LORD declares: ‘Because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your favored one, I will bestow My blessing upon you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven and the sands on the seashore; and your descendants shall seize the gates of their foes. All the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by your descendants, because you have obeyed My command.’[7]

The angel of the LORD who was previously identified as God Himself is now seen to be distinct from God. He speaks on behalf of God stating, “the LORD declares.” Who is this? Is this God or is this an angel? The interplay back and forth leaves us astounded and at a loss to explain. The answer to the mystery becomes clear when it is understood that the Bible describes God as a complex, indivisible unity.

The same marvel occurs in Genesis 31:11-13, 48:15-16, and Judges 13:22-23. The Angel of the LORD is the same as God and yet the angel is distinct from God. Again, this is all quite consistent if the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is a complex, indivisible unity. The angel of the LORD speaks as God, but the Holy Scriptures also teaches that God’s presence is in him.

Exodus 23:20-22 states:

I am sending an angel before you to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place that I have made ready. Pay heed to him and obey him. Don’t defy him, for he will not pardon your offenses, since My Name is in him; but if you obey him and do all that I say, I will be an enemy to your enemies and a foe to your foes.[8]

Before going any further, an explanation of the biblical and Jewish concept of a name needs to be stated. In the Bible, names can simply be identifiers (as they tend to be in our culture). However, in the Bible a name usually has much more significance. The Jewish people understand there is to be an essential connection between the name and the person it identified. A name of a person represented the nature of that person.

With that thought in mind, God says, “My Name is in him.” In other words, this angel represents God’s very nature. The angel of the LORD is seen here as separate from God and yet God’s name is associated with him. Later in Exodus 33:14, God says that his presence will go with Israel. Centuries after this time, Isaiah looks back on God’s faithfulness and states in Isaiah 63:9:

In all their troubles He was troubled, And the angel of His Presence delivered them. In His love and pity, He Himself redeemed them, raised them, and exalted them all the days of old.[9]

Somehow, the very presence of God is associated with this angel. Before summarizing this section, our attention needs to be drawn to one final passage, Genesis 32:30. In context, our patriarch, Jacob, has spent all night wrestling with a “man” (vs. 25). Then, in verse 31, Jacob states:

So Jacob named the place Peniel, meaning, ‘I have seen a divine being face to face, yet my life has been preserved.’[10]

Unfortunately, the Tanakh translation, above, has obscured the point of this verse. The weak parts of the translation are the words “divine being.” The translation implies that Jacob’s opponent was a run-of-the-mill-angel, someone less than God. The Hebrew word underlying the translation is the word Elohim – God. A better translation would be “I have seen God face to face.” This rendering is supported by the context. In the next phrase, Jacob states that in spite of seeing this being face to face, his life has been spared. Jacob, like Hagar, knew that no man can see God and live. If he had been wrestling with a created being such as an angel or a man-someone less than God, he would not have feared for his life. Jacob had seen angels and men before without expressing this concern. He realized that he had been struggling with someone grander than that. He realized that he had been struggling with God Himself. That is why he marvels at the fact that he is still alive.

The translation, “I have seen God face to face,” is also the rendering used by the classic Jewish commentary, The Soncino Books of the Bible. The Artscroll Tenach commentary renders the phrase, “For I have seen the Divine face to face.” Finally, the name Jacob chooses is Peniel which literally means “Face of God” or “Facing God” or “My Face Toward God” or even “Turn to God.” No one argues that the name refers to God and not to a man or an angel. Jacob wrestled with God Himself, and the name Jacob chose for the place clearly reflects his conviction. At this point we need to ask some questions. Can man wrestle with God? Can man see God face to face? Yes, if God’s nature is that of a complex, indivisible unity.

Let me bring to mind a quote I referred to earlier. Back in the section dealing with the Shekinah, I quoted Rabbi Albo. Let me quote him again. This time please note what Rabbi Albo says about the Angel of the LORD:

The revelation of God’s glory takes place by means of a body that is visible to the senses, like a fire or a pillar of cloud…devouring fire…cloud…the angel of the LORD…flame of fire…the glory of the LORD which appeared to the prophets emanated from God’s own essence…[11]

In other words, Rabbi Albo also understands the Angel of the Lord to be the visible manifestation of God’s presence.

After reviewing the evidence, we see that the Tanakh progressively reveals that our God is a complex, indivisible unity of three persons. There is only one God. He is a magnificent, righteous, loving person who is far above us in splendor and glory. That revelation, begun and developed step-by-step in the Tanakh, reaches its climax in the Brit Chadashah with the Good News about Yeshua our Messiah. The concept of the Trinity is not a pagan concept as claimed by the anti-missionary. It is a Jewish concept solidly rooted in the text of sacred Scripture, Jewish culture, and the writings of the rabbis.

  1. ^ Tanakh, Genesis 16:7

  2. ^ Ibid, Genesis 16:10

  3. ^ Ibid, Genesis 16:10-12

  4. ^ Ibid, Genesis 16:13

  5. ^ Ibid, Genesis 22:1-2

  6. ^ Ibid, Genesis 22:11-12

  7. ^ Ibid, Genesis 22:15-18

  8. ^ Ibid, Exodus 23:20-22

  9. ^ Ibid, Isaiah 63:9

  10. ^ Ibid, Genesis 32:31

  11. ^ Bleich, p. 198