One of the most fascinating subjects in the entire Bible is the person called the Angel of the LORD, also referred to as Angel of Yahweh or the Angel of Jehovah. He appears in every major period of Old Testament history, often at critical moments in the history of the nation. In addition to His appearances to the patriarchs, He appears to initiate the Exodus, to lead the Israelites into their first battle in the Promised Land, to establish the location of the temple in the time of David and to defend Israel against the powerful Sennacherib in the days of Hezekiah. Perhaps the most common question about the Angel of the LORD has to do with His identity. Who exactly is the Angel of the LORD? That question has intrigued many students of the Bible, and it is an important question for at least two reasons. First, it is important to understand who He is because the Biblical authors portray the Angel of the LORD as a person who is God and bears God’s name. This fact is apparent even from Genesis 16:7-14, particularly verse 13, where Moses as narrator refers to the Angel of the LORD as “the LORD” and then quotes Hagar, who calls Him El Roi, “the God who sees.” Another important reason for understanding the identity of the Angel of the LORD is that He sometimes speaks for God, or in God’s behalf. In Genesis 22:16, for example, the Angel of the LORD uses the prophetic formula “saith the LORD.” These two facts seem to militate against each other: the Angel of the LORD is indeed God, yet He speaks for God. These facts, however, do not at all contradict each other. Rather, they demonstrate that even in the pages of Genesis, the Holy Spirit is revealing that there is a Mediator between God and Man. But what about the word “Angel?” If the Angel of the LORD is God, why do biblical authors describe Him with the term “angel”? This is also an important question, and it is critical to understand the nature of the Hebrew word that is most commonly translated “angel” in our English Bible. The English word angel is the translation of the Hebrew word malak, and it may also be translated “messenger.” Depending on the context, the word malak may refer to a human being, a finite spiritual being (angel), or, in the case of the Angel of the LORD, a divine messenger. A good example of a passage in which the word refers to both human beings and angelic beings (finite spirits) is Genesis 32, where the “angels of God” met Jacob (v.1) and then Jacob sends his own messengers (same root word malak) to Esau (v.3, 7). The fact that the word may refer to a person who is human, angelic, or divine demonstrates that the word does not denote nature but function. That is, the word angel as it is used in the Old Testament describes what the person does, not what he is. This point is critical, particularly in the study of the Angel of the LORD. The Angel of the LORD is not by nature a finite, created being. Rather, He functions as the Messenger of God, the person of the Trinity whose function it is to communicate God’s will and word to man. The following outline and commentary focuses on the passages in which the Angel of the LORD appears or is men-tioned in the time of the Patriarchs and the Exodus and Wilderness Wanderings. Certain passages in the outline do not contain the phrase “Angel of the LORD,” but the absence of the phrase does not mean that the Angel of the LORD is not present. A study of the Bethel theophany in particular (Genesis 28), as well as other references to that theophany, demonstrates that the Angel of God (Genesis 31:11-13) is indeed the God of Bethel (Genesis 28; Hosea 12:2-6). As one studies the Angel of the LORD and the appearances of God (theophanies) in the Old Testament, he will see the wisdom of E.W. Hengstenberg’s assertion: “Wherever appearances of Jehovah are mentioned, we must conceive of them as effected by the mediation of His Angel.”
A. The Angel of the LORD in the time of the Patriarchs
- The Angel of the LORD appears to Hagar (Genesis 16:7-14)
- The LORD appears to Abraham and Sarah (Genesis 18-19)
- The Angel of God appears to Hagar and Ishmael (Genesis 21:14-21)
- The Angel of the LORD appears to Abraham and Isaac (Genesis 22:1-18)
- The Angel who went before Abraham’s servant (Genesis 24:7, 40)
- The God of Bethel and the Angel of God (Genesis 28; Genesis 31:1-13)
- The Divine Wrestler at Jabbok (Genesis 32:24-32; compare Hosea 12:2-6)
- God Almighty appears to Jacob at Bethel (Genesis 35:1-13)
- Jacob prays to the Redeeming Angel (Genesis 48:15-16)
The first period in which the phrase “Angel of the LORD” appears in the pages of Scripture is the patriarchal period, the time of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. In this period Moses consistently portrays the Angel of the LORD as Jehovah and God (Gen 16:13; 48:15-16). As He appears to different individuals in Genesis, the Angel of the LORD personally claims and exhibits divine power and prerogatives such as giving life and building nations (Gen 16:10; 21:18). He also claims to be the object of Abraham’s worship and the God of the patriarchs (Gen 22:10; 31:11-13). A careful reading of the dream theophany to Jacob at Bethel and the passages that refer to it demonstrates that the Angel is indeed God Almighty (Genesis 28:13; 31:11-13; 35:1-13; 48:3). Those who see the Angel memorialize the place where He appears by either naming the location, building an altar, or both. The Angel of the LORD thus receives the same honors as God Himself (Gen 12:7). In addition to the clear indications of the Angel’s deity, it is also possible to see in certain texts in Genesis the Angel of the LORD speaking as a prophet. In Genesis 22:16, for instance, the Angel of the LORD uses the phrase “saith the LORD,” a common phrase in the writings of Jeremiah and Ezekiel. Thus, although the Angel of the LORD is God and Jehovah, He also speaks for another person named Jehovah. One author aptly described the Angel of the LORD as the “paradigmatic Prophet” or the “Original of all the other prophet-messengers.” In other words, He was the original of which all of the other prophets were copies. In addition, this function of the Angel of the LORD as prophet is a foreshadowing of His ministry in the New Testament as the Word of God, the One who would bring God’s words to man. His function of speaking for God also clearly implies a plurality of persons named Jehovah, which is foundational to the Biblical doctrine of the Trinity.
B. The Angel of the LORD during the Exodus and the Wilderness Wanderings
- The Angel of the LORD appears to Moses in the burning bush (Ex 3:1-4:17)
- The Angel of God in the Shekinah cloud at the Red Sea (Ex 14:19-31)
- The Aid of the Covenant Angel promised to Israel (Ex 23:20-23)
- Reaffirmation of the aid of the Covenant Angel (Ex 32-33)
- The Angel who brought Israel out of Egypt (Num 20:16)
- The Angel of the LORD opposes Balak and Balaam (Num 22-24)
- Moses prays to “him who dwelt in the bush” (Deut 33:16)
- The Captain of the LORD’s Host appears to Joshua (Joshua 5:13-6:5)
In Exodus 3-4 the Angel of the LORD appears in the burning bush to Moses, identifying Himself as the God of the patriarchs and showing His divine authority by calling Moses to lead Israel out of Egypt. He also reveals his name “I AM” to Moses, and invests Moses with miraculous power. By sending Moses directly to Pharaoh with a message to let His people go, the Angel of the LORD acts with sovereign authority over Pharaoh. Pharaoh’s hard-hearted resistance is met by punishment in the form of plagues or miracles which the Angel of the LORD told Moses that He would perform (Ex 3:20). As the children of Israel depart from Egypt, the Angel of God leads them triumphantly in the Shekinah cloud (Ex 13:21-22; Ex 14:19ff.). When the Egyptians approach Israel from behind, the Angel Himself protects and delivers them at the Red Sea (Ex 14:19ff.). After the Angel leads Israel to Sinai, the LORD enters into a covenant with His people, reaffirming His promise to the patriarchs to give them the land. He also promises to lead them by the agency of an Angel who bears His Name (Ex 23:20-23). As the covenant is ratified and the LORD gives instructions for His tabernacle so that He may dwell among them, Israel breaks the covenant by its idolatry (Ex 32). The LORD responds to this sin by telling Moses that He will send His Angel ahead of Israel instead of with them, but Moses intercedes for the people, and the LORD relents from His threat. He promises Moses that His presence (i.e., His Angel) will go with them (Ex 33:14). The fulfillment of the promise of the continuous presence of the Angel of the LORD with Israel is evident through the presence of the Shekinah cloud with them (Ex 40:36-38). The fulfillment of the promise of protection from Israel’s enemies in Exodus 23:20-23 is found in His opposition to Balaam and Balak in Numbers 22-24. The Angel of the LORD not only thwarts the plot of Balak, but He turns the curse of Balaam upon the Moabites and puts only blessings in Balaam’s mouth for Israel (Num 22-24). A final indication of the continuous presence of the Angel of the LORD with Israel is His appearance to Joshua on the eve of the battle of Jericho (Joshua 5-6). As the Angel appears to Joshua, He identifies himself as the Captain of the LORD’s host (army) and instructs Joshua concerning the strategy of the battle of Jericho (Josh 5:13-6).
For a fuller exposition of each of these passages, please see my dissertation, available here.