Genesis describes very vivid conversations with God, experienced by His earliest followers. The encounters are portrayed as close and tangible at this stage of humanity’s growing relationship with Him.
Some Christians turn to these ‘appearances’ of God as evidence that their belief in an incarnation of God is not foreign to Torah. They try to prove that it is normal to see a human as uncreated, as personally deserving the worship of God, by saying the patriarchs did the same.
There are two different opinions about what we are supposed to learn from this.
One possibility is that Torah occasionally reminds us that when people are described as speaking with God, we should keep in mind that they are speaking with His angel. After all, some of these stories sound similar to the neighbouring pagan myths where gods come in human form and speak with people. Torah carefully contrasts Israel’s worship from that of its neighbours, so perhaps the phrase “the angel of the LORD” is inserted at times throughout the narrative to remind its readers that they were dealing with a created manifestation of God. The appearance really was God speaking with them, but it was through a ‘messenger’ (which is the literal meaning of ‘angel’) rather than with a pagan-like ‘incarnation’.
Most missionaries prefer the second possible reading, which is basically opposite. They suggest that this interchange of phrases is telling us something not about God’s appearances, but about His angel: that the angel is inseparable from God and is, though appearing in human form, personally treated as God. They liken this to their worship of Jesus.
For a number of reasons, we need to accept the first option and reject the second one.
To begin with, the word ‘angel’ or ‘messenger’ is a very significant descriptive choice. Common sense understands that a messenger is one who is sent on behalf of someone else, and the simplest reading of scripture is that this is happening. So often the scriptures describe all things in the world as being made by God, so it does make sense that the concept of ‘messengers’ shows Creation’s sustainer appearing to people without actually being one of the created things around us.
This is the clearest and simplest reading of “the angel of the LORD”. Further than that, the fact that the proof-texts could be read in this way at all shows that nothing has been clearly proven in the other direction. The burden of proof is still on incarnation believers to show that a finite form can itself ‘be’ (rather than merely reflecting or representing) the infinite God.
The children of Israel received a practical commandment that relates to this very topic. In Deuteronomy 4, they were reminded of their foundational covenant encounter with God, and the fact that they saw no form is considered a significant, definitional element of the way they should worship. Although this lesson relates to the prohibition of creating an idol, it also taught them how to respond to the experience described in Exodus 23 when God promised to send His angel ahead of them. Although He said of the angel “my name is in him,” and His presence was described as personally going with them, they couldn’t have worshipped the manifestation itself without forgetting the lesson of Sinai.
Moses learnt the same lesson again when God spoke to him intimately, as if “face to face”, but also said that really he could only see “His back” (Exodus 33).
In any case, if Israel did choose to worship the angel as an incarnation, what would they be doing? They couldn’t pray to its body, light, sound, or qualities, because all these visible, physical things are finite and created. And if they were to pray to the person represented by the angel, then this should be no different from ordinary prayer. If it is different, or if the person is in some way distinct, then what does that say?
If we come across an angel or manifestation of God, then it is good to honour and perhaps even bow to it as His messenger. It is good to speak with it, listen to it, and be thankful for the expression of God’s presence with us. We can marvel at the gift He has given humans of meeting with Him, talking with Him so closely, finding Him present in small and immediate places. But when we pray to the sustainer of all things, no messenger of His deserves our hearts’ whole surrendered devotion.
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Yisroel C. Blumenthal
Excellent post, thanks, Annelise! How are you doing, by the way? Long time no speak :).
Thanks, Dina. I’m doing well! Lots of big things happening in our lives at the moment, especially as we’re now into the second trimester with the baby and also planning to move to the country in a month or so because Jason has been accepted into a uni course there. It’s been a very special first few months of marriage and we’re valuing the chance to share all the parts of life more. Jason is really supporting, encouraging, and inspiring me in a lot of ways. So while things can be uncertain and stressful, it’s the loveliest time and also a time for good learning. How about you and your family?
That sounds great. We’re doing well! Thanks for asking. Good luck on your move and specially good luck with the baby!
Thank you for another thoughtful post.
A simple question, why don’t we see anything like this level of identification between Speaker and Commissioner with the prophets?
Before answering your question – please ask yourself honestly if it makes a difference to you. Are you willing to change your dearly held beliefs on the basis of Scripture?
I challenge you to show me once in all of Scripture where an angel or another intermediary is promised that prayer will be directed to it. I will show you that this promise is given to someone who both you and I acknowledge is not deity.
Prophets and angels are different, but that fact doesn’t prove Christianity to be correct.
The “Thus says the LORD” of the prophets isn’t far off, though.
Isaiah 7.10: “Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, ‘Ask the Lord your God for a sign, whether in the deepest depths or the highest heights.”
In this passage, it is Isaiah speaking to Ahaz; yet the passage says that the Lord spoke to Ahaz. The passage is not indicating that Isaiah is God, however. The same is true when angels speak in God’s name, but it says that God said something. Whether speaking through a prophet or another messenger, the message is God’s, but the one who speaks it is not God. He is acting on behalf of God.