Saturday, 1 June 2013

The Angel of the LORD

     There are numerous references in the Bible to “the angel of the LORD,” and over the years much discussion and speculation have arisen concerning his identity. At times in scripture the angel of the LORD is referred to as “the LORD1 or “God” (cf. Gen. 22:9-18; 31:11-13). When the angel of the LORD spoke, sometimes it is stated that “the LORD” was speaking (cf. Gen. 16:10-13; Ex. 3:2-18). When individuals saw the angel of the LORD, they claimed to have seen “God” (cf. Gen. 32:30; Judg. 13:21-22). Who was this extraordinary personality? 
     These remarkable accounts have led some to conclude that the angel of the LORD was actually the pre-incarnate Christ, manifesting himself long before his virgin-birth. Because of this, some Bible translators (e.g. NKJV) have taken it upon themselves to make a distinction between ordinary angels of God and “the Angel [capital A] of the LORD.” One popular argument is that the angel of the LORD said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM . . . I AM has sent you” (Ex. 3:2, 14), and later Jesus said, “before Abraham was, I AM” (John 8:58), therefore Jesus must have been the angel of the LORD. Another argument is that Jesus is identified as “that spiritual Rock that followed [Israel]” (1 Cor. 10:4), and the angel of the LORD accompanied and provided for Israel (Ex. 14:19-20), therefore Jesus must have been the angel of the LORD. 
     However, these arguments are less than conclusive. If the angel of the LORD was simply speaking God’s message in Exodus 3:14, then he himself is not identified as “I AM” but only God is. The statement in John 8:58 shows Jesus’ timeless existence (an attribute of God), but it does not automatically equate him with the angel of the LORD any more than the same words spoken in John 9:9 equate the former blind man with the angel of the LORD. It is true that the angel of the LORD accompanied Israel from Egypt (Ex. 14:19), but so did Moses (Ex. 12:31), and no one thinks that Moses was the pre-incarnate Christ! The LORD God led the Israelites from Egypt (Ex. 12:51; 13:18, 21), the angel of God led the Israelites from Egypt (Ex. 14:19; cf. Num. 20:16; Judg. 2:1), and Moses led the Israelites from Egypt (Ex. 3:10). This does not mean that the angel of God was actually the LORD himself any more than Moses was the LORD himself. There appears to have been a chain of authority in accomplishing this mission. Moreover, in Deut. 32:3-4 ff. the designation “the Rock” is attributed to the LORD God who provided for the Israelites, so it seems more reasonable to identify Jesus (1 Cor. 10:4) as the LORD God rather than the LORD’s angel. 
     There is a much more plausible explanation of these unusual accounts. Without getting into the complicated and sometimes subjective debate over so-called “theophanies” (i.e. visible appearances of God to man), consider the fact that God regularly spoke through various mediums or representatives. This does not mean that God himself was actually taking on human form, but he was simply being represented by his special delegates who acted and spoke on his behalf. No one could have truly seen the LORD God himself and survived (Ex. 33:20; 1 Tim. 6:16; cf. Judg. 6:22-23; 13:21-23). But when the fullness of the time had come (Gal. 4:4), the eternal Logos emptied himself of the privileges and glory of deity in becoming a man (John 1:1-14; 17:5; Phil. 2:5-9; Heb. 2:10-18) and was manifested as God in the flesh (Matt. 1:23; 1 Tim. 3:16). But the Bible does not suggest an actual incarnation of the Lord prior to this.
     When all of the biblical information is taken into account, it seems evident that the many references to “the angel of the LORD” are not necessarily referring to an individual by that name. Whenever God sent an angel to accomplish a specific mission, he was the angel of the LORD on that particular occasion. To illustrate, consider the fact that there were many “prophets of God” (Ezra 5:2), and each was “a prophet of the LORD” (2 Chron. 18:6; 28:9). But when a single prophet was accomplishing a designated task, he could legitimately be referred to as “the prophet” on that particular occasion (cf. 1 Kgs. 20:22, 28). There is a plurality of “the angels of God” (Gen. 28:12; 32:1; Matt. 22:30; Luke 12:8-9; John 1:51), and when only one is operating in a given context, he is, on that occasion, the angel of God.
     “The angel of the LORD” who appeared to Moses in a burning bush (Ex. 3:2) was later identified by an inspired spokesman as “an angel” (Acts 7:30). God promised to send “an angel” to lead and protect the Israelites, whom he described as “My angel” [i.e. the angel of the LORD] (Ex. 23:20, 23; 32:34; 33:2; cf. Dan. 6:22; Acts 12:7, 11). Elijah was comforted by “the angel of the LORD,” but this was simply “an angel” (1 Kings 19:5-7). “The angel of the LORD” whom God sent to punish Israel (1 Chron. 21:9-30) was nothing more than “an angel” (v. 15). “The angel of the LORD” who destroyed the Assyrian army (2 Kings 19:35; Isa. 37:36) was merely “an angel” (2 Chron. 32:21). Joseph hearkened unto “the angel of the Lord” (Matt. 1:24) who was simply “an angel of the Lord” (v. 20) and obviously not the same person who was in Mary’s womb (v. 18).  
     In short, the angel of the LORD was a special messenger or representative sent by the LORD on any given occasion to speak and act on the LORD’s behalf. Often a distinction is made between the angel of the LORD and the LORD God himself, showing they are not one and the same (cf. Gen. 16:11; 18:14, 19; Judg. 13:5-9; 2 Sam. 24:16-17; Zech. 1:12-13). The LORD said of his angel: “for My name is in him. But if you indeed obey his voice and do all that I speak . . .” (Ex. 23:21-22); i.e. the angel of the LORD, as God’s delegate, spoke with the authority of God. The Israelites were protected by “the angel of God’s presence” (Isa. 63:9), i.e. he represented the presence of God among God’s people, therefore to see “the angel of the LORD face to face” (Judg. 6:22) was to see “God face to face” (Gen. 32:30) in proxy.
     This may be further illustrated by the fact that the LORD said he had come down to deliver his people from Egypt to the land of promise (Ex. 3:8, 17), but it was actually by the hands of his servant Moses that God was to deliver his people (Ex. 3:10). Furthermore, the LORD God said, “I will stretch out My hand and strike Egypt . . .” (Ex. 3:20), but it was through his representative Moses that the signs were to be performed (Ex. 4:17; 14:13-16). God said to Moses, “So [Aaron] shall be your spokesman to the people. And he himself shall be as a mouth for you, and you shall be to him as God” (Ex. 4:16). Again the LORD said to Moses, “See, I have made you [as] God to Pharaoh, and Aaron your brother shall be your prophet. You shall speak all that I command you. And Aaron your brother shall tell Pharaoh to send the children of Israel out of his land” (Ex. 7:1-2). When Aaron functioned as Moses’ spokesman, it was as if Moses himself were speaking. When Moses acted as God’s representative, it was as if God himself were acting. Later when individuals stood before God’s priests and judges, they were ultimately standing before “the LORD” (Deut. 19:17).
     Jesus was not the angel of the LORD. He is far superior to any angel and is clearly distinguished from the angels of God (Hebrews 1:4-14; 2:1-16). Angels cannot be acceptably worshipped (Col. 2:18; Rev. 19:10; 22:8-9), thus the angel of the LORD directed worship away from himself (Judg. 13:15-16).2 But Jesus regularly received worship (Matthew 8:2; 9:18; 14:33; 15:25; 28:17).
     Let us learn from these extraordinary accounts of the angel of the LORD that God cares for his people and through the centuries has always provided for their needs in many different ways, even when they did not fully understand how God was accomplishing it. “I sought the LORD, and He heard me, and delivered me from all my fears . . . . The angel of the LORD encamps around those who fear Him, and delivers them” (Psalm 34:4-7).
--Kevin L. Moore

  Throughout this article, "the LORD" = Hebrew Yahweh or Jehovah; "Lord" = Hebrew adonai or Greek kurios.     
   2 Contrary to what some have alleged, no angel of the LORD was ever acceptably worshipped (cf. Col. 2:18-19). Abraham “bowed himself to the ground” before the three heavenly messengers (Gen. 18:2), but this was a customary sign of respect rather than an act of worship (cf. 19:1; 33:3; 42:6; 43:26, 28; 44:14). Balaam “bowed his head and fell flat on his face” evidently out of fear (Num. 22:31; cf. Dan. 8:17), and Samson’s parents “fell on their faces to the ground” apparently in awe (Judg. 13:20; cf. Lev. 9:24). Manoah, not knowing who his visitor really was, wanted to prepare a young goat for the angel of the LORD as a meal, and the LORD’s angel told him that he wouldn’t eat Manoah’s food but to offer a burnt offering to the LORD, which Manoah did (Judg. 13:15-21). Gideon brought the angel of the LORD an “offering” [minchah] of meat, broth and bread (Judg. 6:18-21), but this was intended as a meal or a customary gift (cf. 3:15-18; Gen. 32:13-21; 33:10; 43:11-26) rather than an offering of worship. When Joshua “fell on his face to the earth and worshipped” (Josh. 5:14), the text does not specify whom he worshipped, and to suggest that he worshipped the commander of the LORD’s army is an unnecessary assumption. Only God is to be worshipped (Matt. 4:10), and God’s angels are our fellow servants who are not worthy of worship (Rev. 19:10; 22:8-9).

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Originally appearing in The Exhorter 4:3 (July-Sept. 2001).

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