This semester we’ve got a course called “History of Revelation in the Old Testament.” The course is described in the syllabus: this course investigates the history of God’s revelation in the Old Testament from creation to the end of prophecy. Included in this course is an orientation in and critical discussion of past and current Old Testament theologies.
That second sentence may strike you as overly academic, but I think the first is relatively homespun. We study how God reveals himself throughout the Old Testament, as well as the content and development of that revelation. So, for example, how did God reveal himself to the patriarchs? And how much more did God’s people learn both about God and his salvation between the time of the patriarchs and the time of King David? The course takes its shape along those lines.
When you study revelation in the Old Testament, there is one figure whose mysterious presence has long been the source of intrigue and debate: the angel of the LORD. So, since no history of Old Testament revelation course would be complete without looking in fine detail at this figure, we indeed looked in fine detail at him. That is, Dr. Smith pointed out every mention (I think) of the angel of the LORD in the Old Testament.
At the heart of the debate is this question: is the angel of the LORD the Second Person of the Trinity? Was this Christ before he took on human flesh? I heard a sermon recently in which the minister preached from Judges 13, where the angel of the LORD appears to Samson’s mother and father. An entire point of the sermon was built around the angel of the LORD here being a manifestation of Christ.
A few years ago I attended a conference in Abbotsford that featured David Murray as the main speaker. If you haven’t heard of him, he blogs at Head, Heart, Hand, and he’s more famous now than he was then. Anyways, he pointed to the same passage, Judges 13, as an example of Christ appearing before his incarnation. For Murray it was especially the fact that, in v.20, “the angel of the LORD went up in the flame of the altar.” He explained it quite beautifully, that Christ with his deep desire to sacrifice himself on behalf of his people took the opportunity to depict that to Manoah and his wife.
Like I said, David Murray’s pretty famous, so this is certainly a relevant and contemporary topic. And it’s this particular topic Dr. Smith set out to address in our class. Now Dr. Smith is a methodical man, and often there is nothing more revealing than simply laying the evidence out on the table. So that’s just what he did, and in the process examined the evidence to see what it all said about this figure.
One of the first things to note is the Hebrew grammar. In English we have what’s called definite and indefinite articles. The definite article is the word “the,” and the indefinite article is either “a” or “an.” This makes for clear communication. For example, if I were to say to a Canadian Reformed person, “Oh, I read about the doctrine of infralapsarianism in a catechism,” he would not know which catechism I meant. I could be referring to any number of the catechisms written during the Reformation. But if I said I read about it in the catechism, then clearly I’d be referring to the Heidelberg Catechism (and if he knew what infralapsarianism was, he’d probably ask, “Um… where exactly in the catechism was that?”). The point being, adding the word “the” means I’m referring to something specific, definite.
Hebrew has a definite article, too. That means if you see a word with the article in front, like “king,” for example, then it’s definite. We’re not just talking about any king, but the king. The problem is that Hebrew does not have an indefinite article. So if I see the word “king” without an article, it could be either definite or indefinite. It could be either the king or a king. The reason this is relevant is that the Hebrew phrase translated as “the angel of the LORD” has no article. It could be an angel, or the angel. It could be any one of the countless angels, or it could be one specific angel. So when that Hebrew phrase (malach-YHWH, if you’re interested) shows up, is it always referring to the same angel?
So there’s that. There’s also the fact that when you lay these texts alongside each other, the conclusions to be drawn are certainly not clear. Here are a few of the texts:
“And he said, ‘My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest'” (Exodus 33:14). This is the LORD speaking to Moses, and the presence refers to his angel. This suggests that the angel leading them out of Egypt is the LORD himself. But then there is this in Numbers 20:16: “And when we cried to the LORD, he heard our voice and sent an angel and brought us out of Egypt.” So the angel that led them out of Egypt is not the same being as the LORD himself.
Or this: “The angel who has redeemed me from all evil, bless the boys.” That’s Jacob blessing Joseph’s sons in Genesis 48:16. There he’s referring to the LORD as an angel. This also lines up with a dream that Jacob has in Genesis 31. In v.13 the angel who appears in the dream says “I am the God of Bethel.”
Then there’s that passage from Judges 13. Manoah’s wife tells her husband, “A man of God came to me, and his appearance was like the appearance of the angel of God, very awesome.” The text tells us that this was the angel of the LORD. When the angel appears again and Manoah offers him hospitality, the angel says, “If you prepare a burnt offering, then offer it to the LORD.” Except when Manoah does, then the angel himself steps onto the altar and is carried to heaven in the flames. When Manoah and his wife realize whom they’ve seen, Manoah says, “We shall surely die, for we have seen God.” Here, too, the angel appears to be the equivalent of God himself.
There are many more passages, but these cover the bases. Dr. Smith drew three conclusions. First, sometimes the angel of the LORD is indistinguishable from the LORD himself, such as in the Judges passage. Second, sometimes the angel is distinguishable from the LORD, such as in passages where the LORD speaks of sending his angel. And third, sometimes the angel is only one angel among many and not the angel at all.
The verdict: we can say, based on the scriptural data, that the LORD used an angel to be his personal messenger, to speak on his behalf. We can also say that the LORD himself appeared to the Old Testament saints in angelic form. This is mysterious, and indeed even “wonderful” as the angel says to Manoah (13:18). But we cannot say with any degree of certainty that this angel is specifically the Second Person of the Trinity. A further strike against this is that the New Testament never speaks of the angel being Christ, even when someone like Stephen mentions the angel directly (Acts 7:38).
Thus, although there are deep mysteries here, we should be careful not to make assumptions beyond what Scripture reveals.