“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.” (Genesis 1:1-2)
Two verses into the Bible and the Hebrew authors are already asking us to give tribute to the Holy Spirit. He was there in the beginning, working with God to subdue the primeval chaos of Earth and bring creation into order and being. He is not hidden from us as though we must intentionally search the Scriptures to attest to His existence, rather the Bible opens with His presence.
In fact the Bible in its entirety attests to the Holy Trinity right here in this passage. In verse one God is mentioned, in verse two the Holy Spirit is mentioned, and in John’s retelling of the creation story, so it is mentioned that Jesus was there too; for Jesus is the Word who became flesh (Jn 1:14) and the Word “was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made” (Jn 1:2-3). The Three-In-One are present in the creation story and if we recognize this we will be more apt to see the interplay between the Holy Spirit with the Father and Son.
They are different, but the same—three, but one—and therefore each of the three relate to us in a different way. We cannot relate to the Father face-to-face because, to quote God himself, “you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live” (Ex 33:20).
We can, however, interact with God when he takes on physical form in what theologians call a “theophany.” We see these strange stories all throughout the Old Testament. Remember when Abraham just happened to run into God Himself outside of the Oaks of Mamre (Gen 18:1-5)? Abraham recognizes Yahweh in physical form as though he just ran into his neighbor at the grocery store. “Oh hey God! Good to see you—it’s been awhile! You know what, we should get together for dinner real quick. Are you busy?”
But if we can’t see God face to face, then how exactly is Abraham seeing God face to face in this passage? And how exactly did God “speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend” (Ex 33:11)? Furthermore, how is it that in the same chapter of Exodus 33, Moses is recorded as meeting with God face to face, and at the same time, being told that if he sees God’s face he’ll die?
Are these theophanies of God really glimpses of the Angel of Yahweh? After all, that angel seems very different from the other angels in the Bible, seeing as how God said, “my name is in him” (Ex 23:21). Every time this angel shows up he seems to talk as though he is Yahweh—something that an angel (whose job is essentially to deliver a message) isn’t supposed to do.
And remember what happens when John bows to worship an angel in Revelation? The angel told him, “You must not do that! I am a fellow servant with you and your brothers who hold to the testimony of Jesus. Worship God” (Rev 19:10). Therefore, it’s all the more curious that the Angel of Yahweh accepts this worship. After all, when Joshua met him he “fell on his face to the earth and worshiped” (Josh 5:14) and we have no note of the angel correcting him like the angel in Revelation did.
As we continue to see the Angel of Yahweh appear throughout the Bible we are perplexed as to what to make of him. He and God seem so interchangeable in the passages where he shows up that it can be a bit confusing. He is an important figure—so important that he’s even there when God meets Moses for the first time in the story of the burning bush. We often miss it, but we are actually informed that “the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush” (Ex 3:2).
Because of what the Bible seems to be communicating, scholars have reached four different conclusions about the Angel of Yahweh. He could be:
- An appearance of the preincarnate Christ.
- A hypostasis of Yahweh or a manifestation of a divine attribute.
- A human or angelic messenger representing Yahweh.
- A theophany of Yahweh Himself. (1)
Each of these positions seems theologically valid, though I have to admit that the first option, that, “He may be the Logos, a kind of temporary preincarnation of the second person of the Trinity…. is certainly the most tempting to the mind.” (2) Adding to the intrigue of this idea is the fact that, as theology professor Louis Goldberg points out, “In the New Testament, there is no mention of the angel of the Lord; the Messiah himself is this person.” (3)
Over the past few years I have actually become convinced of this idea. I’d highly suggest checking out Bible scholar Michael Heiser’s books, The Unseen Realm, and, Angels, to explore the concept more fully.
But regardless of how we process the theophanies of the Old Testament, we Christians know that God comes in more than one form because we know the Trinity. There is one God who can be found in the spiritual realm as the Holy Spirit and found in the physical realm as Jesus Christ.
(1) Speliopoulos, Elke B., and Douglas Mangum. “Angel of Yahweh.” The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Editor John D. Barry et al. Bellingham, Lexham Press, 2016.
(2) Wilson, John Macartney. “Angel.” The International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia. Chicago, The Howard-Severance Company, 1915, p. 134.
(3) Goldberg, Louis. “Angel of the Lord.” Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology. Grand Rapids, Baker Book House Company, 1996, p. 23.