The Angel of the Lord

There is within the Christian world, even among Orthodox Christian writers and scholars, a certain presupposed narrative regarding the ‘development’ of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity within Christianity.  It is presupposed that the people of the Old Testament were Unitarian monotheists, that they believed that only one God existed, and that that God was a single person.  It is then presupposed that through his teaching and deeds, culminating in his resurrection and ascension into heaven, early Christians came to believe that Jesus is also divine in some sense.  The development of Christian belief over the next several centuries is then seen in evolutionary terms, in which early ‘low’ Christology in which Christ is seen to be divine, but not God in the same sense as his Father is gradually supplanted by the belief that he is God in the same sense, and then in a later, similar development the Holy Spirit came to be seen the same way, finally becoming the Trinitarian doctrine of the fourth century councils.  While this narrative is often taken for granted, it is completely false.

Rather, the believers of the Old Testament believed that the God of Israel existed in multiple hypostases, the term translated as ‘persons’ in later doctrinal statements.  There was for them only one Yahweh, but he existed as multiple persons.  There is a certain lack of clarity surrounding this in the Old Testament, but it was believed, discussed, and debated throughout the history of early Judaism.  There were a variety of teachings regarding the relationships between these hypostases, how they may have come to be, and their nature.  It was only in the second century AD, in reaction to Christianity, that Judaism declared this previously common view a heresy.  The New Testament, then, is a clarification, and a direct teaching regarding this very issue.  The texts of the New Testament clarify that the God of Israel has eternally existed in three hypostases, as three persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Further, the Son has become incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ.  The heretical Trinitarian views which arose before the Council of Nicea, such as Arianism and adoptionism, are all views found within the pre-Christian Jewish community which were rejected as being incompatible with the teaching of the apostles, as represented in the New Testament, and in the lived worship and experience of the Church.  This, and the next several postings will discuss the places where the three Persons of the Trinity are seen in the Old Testament, and the ways in which the New Testament documents identify these Persons as the Father, the Son, and the Spirit.  The work of the early fathers writings against heresies, and the dogmas codified by the early councils, came into being to codify and defend the particular apostolic understanding of the Holy Trinity found within the New Testament, over against other positions, not the creation of new theological concepts or ideas.

One example of the God of Israel’s existence as multiple persons which is relatively well known is the figure of ‘the Angel of the Lord’, found in the Old Testament already in the Pentateuch.  In the text of the Old Testament, this figure is both identified as Yahweh, the God of Israel, and yet distinguished as a second subject from the God of Israel.  This begins in the first meeting between Moses and the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, in which God tells him his name.  We read in Exodus 3:2 that the Angel of the Lord appears to Moses in a flame of fire burning in the midst of a bush.  Moses sees this strange site as he is shepherding his father-in-law’s flocks, and turns aside to see it.  We are then told in v. 4 that God himself sees Moses approaching and calls to him from the midst of the bush.  When God identifies himself, Moses covers his face because he is afraid of seeing God (v. 6).  The title, ‘the Angel of the Lord’ distinguishes this person from the person of the Lord himself at a grammatical level, but in the subsequent interaction, the Angel identifies himself as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

A more complex interaction takes place when God appears to Gideon in Judges 6.  In v. 11, the Angel of the Lord comes to sit under a particular oak, and calls to Gideon who is working on the threshing floor to tell him that the God of Israel is with him.  Gideon questions this, given the current dire situation of the people of Israel in Canaan, under oppression from the Midianites.  In response, in v. 14, we are told that ‘Yahweh turned to him and said…’  It is then the God of Israel himself identified as the speaker in conversation with Gideon.  This would seem to clearly identify the Angel of the Lord as the Lord himself.  However, Gideon then requests to provide hospitality to his guest, whom he apparently considers to be a human prophet or messenger.  Once the food has been brought back, the Angel of the Lord tells him to place it upon a rock, at which point he touches it with his staff and it is consumed by fire as a sacrifice (v. 20-21).  After receiving this sacrifice, the Angel of the Lord disappears.  Gideon realizes who it was to whom he was speaking, and fears for having seen the Angel of the Lord face to face.  In v. 23, Yahweh responds to this concern, meaning that though the Angel has disappeared, Yahweh is still there.

Possibly the most important appearance of the Angel of the Lord, however, takes place in regard to the Exodus, Israel’s sojourn in the wilderness, and the conquest of Canaan to enable the settlement of Israel in the land.  In Exodus 23:20, God tells Moses that he is sending an angel before Israel to guard them and lead them into the land of promise.  Moses is then warned that Israel must listen to him and not rebel against him, because God is placing his name in him.  As will be further discussed in a future post, ‘the Name’ is itself treated in the Old Testament as the person of the God of Israel, for example, the temple in Jerusalem is described as the place in which God will place his name.  What is being said here is that this Angel must be obeyed because the presence of God himself is within him.  If they are obedient to him, then their enemies will be God’s enemies (v. 23).  This language forms the basis for much of St. John’s understanding of who Christ is in his gospel.  The language of the Father being ‘in’ Christ is used repeatedly (cf. Jn 14:11,20; 17:23).  The result, as with the figure of the Lord in Exodus, is that to hear Christ’s voice and obey it is to know the Father, to rebel against it is to be at enmity with the Father (cf. Jn 8:19; 10:22-39; 14:7).

This mention of the Angel of the Lord in Exodus is not an isolated oddity.  Throughout God’s covenant with Israel, he identifies himself as the one who brought them out of the land of Egypt (Ex 20:2, Lev 11:45, Deut 5:6).  After Israel’s sojourn has ended and the conquest of Canaan is complete, however, in Judges 2:1, the Angel of the Lord says, “I brought you up from Egypt and brought you to the land that I had promised to your fathers…”  The Angel then proceeds to make it clear that because Israel has disobeyed him, he is now departing, and will no longer be fighting against their enemies on their behalf as he had been.  When the Angel spoke all of these words to all of the Israelites, the people weep bitterly in response (v. 4).  Both this reaction, and the description of the Angel of the Lord travelling from Gilgal to Bokim, reveal that the Angel was a person who had actually physically accompanied and been present with Israel throughout the previous 40+ years.

Already, in this instance of the Angel of the Lord, we can see that there is resident in the earliest traditions of the Old Testament the revelation of a second hypostasis of the God of Israel, who both is Israel’s God, and is himself a second person.  When this is understood, much of what is considered allegory in the New Testament, or a re-reading of previous revelation, can be seen to actually be a reading which is quite literal.  The New Testament authors identify this person as the person who became incarnate as Jesus Christ.  St. Paul knows of the Angel of the Lord with Israel in the wilderness, and that Israel’s God stood upon the rock before Moses struck it to produce water (Ex 17:6) and so he can say that the rock that followed Israel in the wilderness “was Christ” (1 Cor 10:3-4).  Likewise Jude, in the earliest and best manuscripts, can simply say that Jesus “saved a people out of Egypt” and afterward “destroyed those who did not believe” (v. 5).

6 comments:

  1. Fr Stephen, Christ is Risen!

    Wonderful post … I must admit I was surprised to read of early Jews’ believing in multiple hypostases. Was this as far back as King David? Or, primarily in Second Temple times? Could you recommend any books on this topic?

    Thank you in advance.

    1. How far back it goes would depend on what you think was written when, so it becomes something of a difficult question. Second Temple sources from centuries before the New Testament are debating the relationships between and the origins of these hypostases, meaning that the texts which occasioned these discussions must significantly predate the discussions themselves. Minimally, I would say it would need to go back to the 8th century B.C., and if you believe that significant portions of the Torah predate that, then it can be pushed back accordingly. This is the beginning of a series, so I’ll be delving into this more in coming weeks, but the magisterial book on the topic is Alan Segal’s Two Powers in Heaven. Segal is a Jewish scholar focusing particularly on the nature of this thinking in Second Temple Judaism, and then its repudiation in the 2nd century AD.

      1. Ah, yes – just found Segal’s book. I’ll look forward to the rest of the series; I wonder if you are familiar with Michael Heiser’s Divine Council, or if that would interplay here. In any case, thanks again.

        1. I am really excited to find this series. I’ve been reading a number of Archbishop Alexander’s essays along these same lines.

          Google “maqom” to find a webpage from Marquette University with a good number available.

  2. I’ve been listening to a lecture series by an Orthodox priest that gives a kind of meta-historical framework for Christianity. One of the things he said was, “The religion of the Old Testament was not Judaism. The religion of the Old Testament was the Old Testament version of Orthodox Christianity.” Mind blown. As one rooted in Western theology, I’d never made that connection. Now I understand why Orthodox Judaism and Orthodox Christianity have a similar “feel” even if Judaism as we know it was radically reformed after the Temple was destroyed. I’ve never had a problem seeing the three persons of the Trinity in the Old Testament, but I’d always assumed that was because I’d already read the New. I didn’t realize Jews prior to Christ recognized it, too. When you think about it, the Pharisees didn’t object to Jesus saying that He was God on the grounds that God was a spirit and could never appear in flesh. They just didn’t believe this carpenter’s son from Nazareth was God. He didn’t meet their expectations.

  3. Also the Kabbala has the interesting notion of the Great Face and the Small Face (I forget the details, have not read this in a long time). And I think 10 Sephiroth (emanations).

    AndI just learned recently that the Jews in Jesus’ time had room for at least two possible Messiahs – one who would suffer and one who would reign. They were called Messiah ben Joseph and Messiah ben David.

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