- Written by Tom Brewer
There is something within most of us that yearns for the supernatural. It is this desire that explains the popularity of movies such as The Sixth Sense and Signs, TV shows about aliens, and books like the J.R.R.Tolkien series. It explains why we can be drawn to New Age practices such as Tarot cards, ouija boards and spiritualists. Yet, if we are looking to quench our thirst for the magical, mystical or mysterious, we need look no further than the Jewish Bible, for it contains some of the most intriguing stories and characters ever recorded.
One such character is a mysterious figure who appears suddenly, dramatically, and frequently in the Hebrew Scriptures. His messages and actions arrest the full attention of all he engages. He makes promises, delivers commands, reveals the future, accepts worship and safeguards the people of God in a variety of situations. The more one looks at the person and work of this individual, the more mysterious he becomes.
This unique character is identified as the angel of the Lord." The Hebrew word for "angel" is mal'akh, which is derived from a verb root meaning "to send." As a noun, mal'akh means "one who is sent" or "a messenger." In the Hebrew Scriptures, these "messengers" can be human figures (prophets or priests) or non-human, finite, created beings (angels) who bear messages for God. The meaning is usually determined by the context in which the word mal'akh is used.
Of the 214 references to mal'akh in the Hebrew Scriptures, 33% are best translated as "the angel of the Lord," rather than "an angel." The Scriptures distinguish this particular angel from all other angels. In the Talmud he is given the name Metatron, which indicates a special relationship with God. One meaning of meta and thronos, two Greek words, gives the sense of "one who serves behind the throne" of God. So the angel of the Lord is the primary messenger of God, the one sent by God, the one who represents God.
Yet the Scriptures seem to present this angel as even more than God's representative. In fact, this messenger seems to have powers and abilities reserved only for God himself.
He Speaks As God
The first time this mysterious messenger of God appears in the Bible, he speaks to Hagar, Sarai's maidservant who was carrying Abraham's child:
"I will so increase your descendants that they will be too numerous to count. You are now with child and you will have a son. You shall name him Ishmael, for the LORD has heard of your misery." (Genesis 16:10)
Right away, the angel of the Lord does something unusual, even impossible for any created being to do—he makes both a promise and a prophecy in the first person. Even the prophets of God always prefaced or ended their prophecies with phrases like, "Thus saith the Lord." Yet here the angel of the Lord says "I will so increase your descendants…"
Seventeen years later, while Hagar and Ishmael were in the desert on the brink of death, the angel of the Lord called to Hagar from heaven and said,
"…Do not be afraid; God has heard the boy crying as he lies there. Lift the boy up and take him by the hand, for I will make him into a great nation." (Genesis 21:17-18)
If the responsibility of an angel is simply to act as God's messenger, then what is this angel doing making such bold statements?
Adding to the mystery is the fact that the angel does not speak in the first person for the entirety of the second passage. He switches from the third person, "God has heard the boy crying…" to the first person, "I will…". This is not the only place where this occurs, and it is a way of speaking that sets this angel apart from any other messenger of God that we find in the Scriptures.
For instance, we see it in the dramatic Akedah account, the binding of Isaac, when the angel of the Lord cries out:
"Abraham! Abraham!…Do not lay a hand on the boy…Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son." (Genesis 22:11,12)
Here again the angel of the Lord speaks with both third person and first person references to God: "…you fear God,…you have not withheld from me…". The angel speaks with the authority of God, yet he distinguishes himself from God.1 A mysterious being indeed!
The Presence of God Is in Him
This is illustrated further in the book of Exodus. Moses was in the desert, tending his father-in-law's flock, when a curious phenomenon captured his attention—a bush that was burning but not being consumed. The text says, "There the angel of the LORD appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush." When Moses approached the bush to investigate he heard the voice of God: "Moses! Moses!…Do not come any closer…. Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground…. I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob" (Exodus 3:2,4-6).
In this narrative Moses encounters the angel of the Lord and simultaneously hears the voice of God, who repeatedly affirms his identity for Moses and finally declares his name: "I Am Who I Am. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: 'I AM has sent me to you'" (Exodus 3:14). The angel of the Lord does more than speak with the authority of God—here he identifies himself as God.
The Bible indicates that the presence of God himself resides in this angel. This is seen when God speaks with Moses on Mt. Sinai; he refers to the angel of the Lord as his angel, and promises to send him to accompany Israel into the Promised Land.
"See, I am sending my angel ahead of you to guard you along the way and to bring you into the place I have prepared.…Do not rebel against him; he will not forgive your rebellion, since my Name is in him. If you listen carefully to what he says and do all that I say, I will be an enemy to your enemies and will oppose those who oppose you."
God seems to view the angel of the Lord (his angel) as separate from himself, and yet his Name dwells in him. Later in the chapter, the Lord tells Moses that his (God's) Presence will go with the Israelites. The terms "my angel" and "my presence" are used interchangeably. Centuries later, the prophet Isaiah, remembering God's faithfulness to Israel, said, "In all their distress he too was distressed, and the angel of his presence saved them. In his love and mercy he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old" (Isaiah 63:9). So it was understood that the very presence of God is somehow in this special angel that he calls his own.
He Appears As a Man, Yet Accepts Worship and Sacrifice
Israel has crossed the Jordan and is camped at Gilgal anticipating the assault on Jericho, when the angel of the Lord appears to Joshua:
…he looked up and saw a man standing in front of him with a drawn sword in his hand. Joshua went up to him and asked, "Are you for us or for our enemies?" "Neither," he replied, "but as commander of the army of the LORD I have now come." Then Joshua fell facedown to the ground in reverence, and asked him, "What message does my LORD have for his servant?" The commander of the LORD's army replied, "Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy." And Joshua did so. (Joshua 5:13-15)
Though described as a man in this account, the swordsman is plainly extraordinary. Joshua falls face down before him in reverence.2 Then, in an action reminiscent of Moses' encounter with the angel of the Lord at the burning bush, Joshua removes his sandals at the messenger's command. Joshua would worship no ordinary angel or human messenger—this swordsman must be God in person.
A similar instance occurs in the book of Judges when the angel of the Lord appears to Gideon at the oak in Ophrah and commands him to save Israel from the oppressing Midianites. He assures Gideon in words similar to those he had spoken to Moses from the burning bush, "I will be with you, and you will strike down the Midianites as if they were but one man" (Judges 6:16).
Gradually, Gideon recognizes that he is in the company of an extraordinary being. In a gesture of hospitality, he brings out meat, bread and broth, proposing to feed his visitor, but:
The angel of God said to him, "Take the meat and the unleavened bread, place them on this rock, and pour out the broth." And Gideon did so. With the tip of the staff that was in his hand, the angel of the LORD touched the meat and the unleavened bread. Fire flared from the rock, consuming the meat and the bread. And the angel of the LORD disappeared. (Judges 6:20-21)
What Gideon offered as a meal for a man became a burnt offering to the Lord. Gideon's reaction leaves no doubt about his understanding of what had occurred. The text says:
When Gideon realized that it was the angel of the LORD, he exclaimed, "Ah, Sovereign LORd! I have seen the angel of the LORD face to face!" But the LORD said to him, "Peace! Do not be afraid. You are not going to die." (Judges 6:22-23)
Notice that the text indicates that this angel of the Lord is God. Gideon was afraid because this was a face to face encounter—after all, it was believed that no man could see God and live. This episode is reminiscent of another appearance of the angel of the Lord. When Jacob had his all-night struggle with a "man" in Genesis 32:24-30 and broke off the contest at dawn's first light, Jacob exclaimed, "It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared" (Genesis 32:30).
It seems reasonable to conclude, for the following reasons, that the angel of the Lord is himself deity:
- He speaks both promises and prophecy and brings them to pass.
- He is spoken of as being the Lord and speaks in the first person as God.
- He is offered and accepts both worship and sacrifice.
- Those to whom he appears recognize him as divine and call him God.
If the angel of the Lord is actually God, this says something remarkable about God's nature. Jewish tradition balks at the idea that we can perceive the Creator God in a physical form. This is why we are warned not to make any images of God, lest we commit idolatry. The concept of a God we can see is alien to our understanding. And yet, we know that even though God told Moses, "No man can see me and live," people (including Moses) have seen God (Exodus 24:9-11). We remember that our eternal God chose to dwell with our people in the desert and in the Temple.
How can the truly infinite be made visible? How can one see God and live? The answer must be that God has to provide a way for this to happen.
The existence of the angel of the Lord shows us that God's nature is beyond simple categorization. Throughout the Scriptures, the angel of the Lord appears as God, yet he distinguishes himself from the Almighty. So we see that God can somehow be eternal and invisible, yet manifest himself temporarily.
So we can now ask a very important question. If God can make himself visible in various forms, including that of a man, then why exclude the possibility that two thousand years ago, he could have done the same thing, and come to earth as the promised Messiah who lived and died in human-yet-God form, and rose again?
Like the angel of the Lord, Y'shua (Jesus) claimed the authority of God on many occasions. He was a man, yet clearly more than a man. Consider some of his words. o He spoke as God, yet about God: "I and the Father are one."
- He spoke with the authority of God: "Take courage, son; your sins are forgiven."
- He said he could usher us into the presence of God: "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me."
- He made promises and prophesied: "In the future you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven."
Yet Y'shua did more than just speak in mysterious terms. It was with this unique authority that he performed miracles, healed the sick and raised the dead. He spoke of God as his "father," yet also claimed to be divinely eternal himself. He also accepted worship from his followers, one of whom was John, an early Jewish believer in Jesus, who wrote about Jesus:
He was in the beginning with God.…And…[he] became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten [Son] from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:2,14)
Just as their ancestors encountered God in the person of the angel of the Lord, clearly John and the many other Jewish followers of Jesus believed they had encountered the Almighty God face to face in the person of Y'shua. Paul, a first-century rabbi, recognized that God had made a way for us to see him, when he wrote that Jesus is "the image of the invisible God."
Why not examine the Hebrew Scriptures for yourself, and compare this extraordinary messenger of God to Jesus? Who knows what other mysteries you may encounter?
- After all, God has previously appeared to Abraham several times in person and in a vision (Gen.12:1; 15:1; 17:1; 18:1).
- It should be remembered that Joshua is experienced in postures of worship, having often accompanied Moses to the Tent of Meeting.