Argument for the Trinity #11: How the Old Testament Prepared God’s People for the Trinity – Section 4: The Angel of Yahweh

If you are like me, then the information presented so far about the plurality in God found in the Hebrew Scriptures was probably new. I’ve done a lot of reading on the Trinity, but had not come across the preceding information, even after years of study. That was not the case with the Angel of Yahweh, however. This is one of the more popular topics discussed by Trinitarians regarding hints of the Trinity in the Old Testament. I first came across it before I was a Trinitarian, and immediately dismissed any connection between the Angel of Yahweh and Jesus as wishful thinking on the part of Trinitarians.

Even after I was a Trinitarian, I only saw the passages about the Angel of Yahweh as somewhat interesting and possible hints at the Trinity, but put little weight into them. But I didn’t know about the other titles we’ve discussed, or the ones we haven’t. As we’ve seen, these titles often refer directly to Yahweh as another way of referring to Yahweh Himself. Also, we haven’t discussed this, but these titles all have the same basic structure in Hebrew. They are two words, the first is the title, followed by the divine name, “YHWH”. So, if we just translated the words straight to English, it would look like”

Name Yahweh

Spirit Yahweh

Word Yahweh

Face Yahweh

Glory Yahweh

Messenger Yahweh

From the facts we’ve examined, we can say that “The Angel of Yahweh” or “Messenger Yahweh”, falls into the same pattern as the other titles in terms of its linguistic structure. Also, as we will see, there are times when the Angel of Yahweh is referred to as God and acts and speaks as God, just like we’ve seen the Word and the Name do. The parallels are undeniable, and in the case of the Angel, we have the strongest examples, I believe, that demonstrate what we’ve already discussed in terms of the Angel being identified as Yahweh, but also being identified as someone distinct from Yahweh, just as we would expect if the Trinity is true. Now, we already saw the first example in Scripture, in the Abraham narrative, when the Angel visits Hagar, and she calls Him “The God who sees”. Let’s look at some other passages that reveal more of who this Angel is.

In Genesis 22, we have the story of Abraham and God’s command to sacrifice Isaac. Abraham receives two visitations in the passage: the first to command the sacrifice, and then to stop Abraham’s hand and speak to him some more.

Genesis 22:1-2

1 And it happened that after these things, God tested Abraham. And he said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” 2 And he said, “Take your son, your only child, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains where I will tell you.”

Genesis 22:11-12

11 And the angel of Yahweh called to him from heaven and said, “Abraham! Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” 12 And he said, “Do not stretch out your hand against the boy; do not do anything to him. For now I know that you are one who fears God, since you have not withheld your son, your only child, from me.”

I stop here to point out that we have two passages with many parallels. Abraham is called to. Abraham responds “Here I am”. In the first passage, it clearly says that God is the one speaking. In the second, the Angel speaks, and says that Abraham did not withhold his son “from me”, identifying Himself as the one to whom Abraham was offering Isaac and the one who spoke in verses 1-2. But, unlike some of the “Word of Yahweh” passages, this passage has the Angel also identifying God as someone else in the same sentence that He claims to be the one to whom the sacrifice was being offered.

Now, at this point, many non-Trinitarians have said that the Angel is a representative. They go to modern, non-biblical sources like the Jewish encyclopedia to say that the “law of agency” (a law not found in Scripture) says that a man’s representative is like himself. This is not unusual in the legal world and is pretty much what attorneys do today. There is no indication, from Scripture or otherwise, that there is a “law of agency” that allows for lesser beings claiming to be God, accepting sacrifices offered to God, or speaking as though they are God. Prophets relay the words of God, but never speak of themselves as though they are God. Read verse 12 closely. The Angel says that the reason He knows that Abraham “fears God”, distinguishing Himself from God, is because he did not “withhold your son…from me”, identifying Himself as the God who spoke to Abraham at the beginning of the chapter. This is not “agency” language, but it is Trinitarian language.

The passage goes on in a similar fashion:

Genesis 22:15-17

15 And the angel of Yahweh called to Abraham a second time from heaven. 16 And he said, “I swear by myself, declares Yahweh, that because you have done this thing and have not withheld your son, your only child, 17 that I will certainly bless you and greatly multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven…

Is the Angel just quoting Yahweh as a completely separate being, or is He speaking as Yahweh? He doesn’t say “Thus says Yahweh,”, but rather, “I swear by myself”. The ambiguity of the preceding passage leaves the question open. Let’s move ahead.

Exodus 3:2-6

2 And the angel of Yahweh appeared to him in a flame of fire from the midst of a bush, and he looked, and there was the bush burning with fire, but the bush was not being consumed. 3 And Moses said, “Let me turn aside and see this great sight. Why does the bush not burn up?” 4 And Yahweh saw that he turned aside to see, and God called to him from the midst of the bush, and he said, “Moses, Moses.” And he said, “Here I am.” 5 And he said, “You must not come near to here. Take off your sandals from on your feet, because the place on which you are standing, it is holy ground.” 6 And he said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face because he was afraid of looking at God.

This passage raises several questions. What was visible to Moses? Notice it does not say the Angel or God appeared “as” a flame of fire, but “in” the flame. Like with the “Word” passages, it says the Angel “appeared”, showing that this was a visible occurrence, not a voice from heaven. After introducing the scene as an appearance of the Angel, we see that “Yahweh saw”, and “God called”, so three different designations are in the passage, followed by just “he” when talking about the actions and speech of God here. The Speaker identifies Himself as “the God of your father…”, so is definitely not some lower being. Then it finishes by bookending the visibility of God here by saying Moses was “afraid of looking at God”.

Much like the “Word of Yahweh” passages, we have, at the beginning and end, similar language, this time with reference to what Moses is seeing. In the middle, it is obviously Yahweh, and only Yahweh, speaking to Moses. But then what is the Angel doing? Is the Angel just standing there, silent? Is it just the Angel speaking, where the Angel just is Yahweh and there are not two in the bush, but one? I don’t have answers to these questions, and I think the text is presented that way on purpose. As we will see, each text has its own unique ambiguities.

Next, let’s look at the story of Gideon, or rather the story of His encounter with God. The text is from Judges 6 and extends through a long section, so I won’t quote the whole thing here, just the parts that are relevant to this study. What I’m leaving out is just some of the dialog about Gideon’s situation.

Judges 6:11-23

11 The angel of Yahweh came and sat under the oak that was at Ophrah that belonged to Jehoash the Abiezrite; and Gideon his son was threshing wheat in the winepress to hide it from the Midianites. 12 The angel of Yahweh appeared to him and said to him, “Yahweh is with you, you mighty warrior.” 13 Gideon said to him, “Excuse me, my lord. If Yahweh is with us, why then has all this happened to us? Where are all his wonderful deeds that our ancestors recounted to us, saying, ‘Did not Yahweh bring us up from Egypt?’ But now Yahweh has forsaken us; he has given us into the palm of Midian.” 14 And Yahweh turned to him and said, “Go in this your strength, and you will deliver Israel from the palm of Midian. Did I not send you?” 15 He said to him, “Excuse me, my lord. How will I deliver Israel? … 16 And Yahweh said to him, “But I will be with you, and you will defeat Midian as if they are one man.” 17 And he said to him, “Please, if I have found favor in your eyes, show me a sign that you are speaking with me. 18 Please, do not depart from here until I come back to you and bring out my gift and set it out before you.” And he said, “I will stay until you return.”

19 And Gideon went and prepared a young goat … and he brought them to him under the oak and presented them. 20 The angel of God said to him, “Take the meat and the unleavened cakes and put them on this rock; pour the broth over it.” And he did so. 21 Then the angel of Yahweh reached out the tip of the staff that was in his hand, and he touched the meat and the unleavened cakes; and fire went up from the rock and consumed the meat and the unleavened cakes. And the angel of Yahweh went from his sight. 22 And Gideon realized that he was the angel of Yahweh; and Gideon said, “Oh, my lord Yahweh! For now I have seen the angel of Yahweh face to face.” 23 And Yahweh said to him, “Peace be with you. Do not fear; you will not die.”

This may be the single most complex passage of the Hebrew Scriptures when it comes to expressing two-powers theology. There are a lot of logical threads in this passage that make it difficult to see who is doing or saying what. We cannot say for sure everything that Gideon saw, but there are clues. Let’s look at things first from Gideon’s perspective.

A man appears to Gideon under the oak and says “Yahweh is with you!” At first, Gideon does not appear to know who this is or the import of this meeting. He speaks to the man somewhat irreverently, basically asking for any proof that what the man says is true, finishing by saying that Yahweh has forsaken the people. Next, Yahweh speaks, saying “Yahweh is with you”, but Gideon continues to dispute this, and his tone seems not to change even when the text tells us that Yahweh is speaking to him. In verse 17, Gideon seems to know that this meeting is important and seeks to offer a gift, which could be an act of worship, if he really knows this is Yahweh, or just hospitality if he does not. When he offers it he puts it before the one sitting under the oak, which is the Angel. At this point, the Angel touches it with His staff, fire consumes it out of nowhere, and the Angel disappears. Only now does it say Gideon “realized” something. The narrator says what he realized he had seen “the Angel of Yahweh”. He calls out to Yahweh and is afraid he will die because, as he says, “I have seen the Angel of Yahweh face to face”. Yahweh then speaks again to comfort Gideon.

As I read the passage, I do not assume Gideon is aware of everything I am by means of the narrator. Gideon’s experience of speaking with the Angel, then with Yahweh, but not changing tone, seems to indicate He wasn’t aware the speaker had changed. We really don’t know His motivation for the gift, but it seems He was starting to think this was some kind of encounter with Yahweh from the language of what Yahweh said. It is after he sees the miracle of the burnt offering and disappearing Angel that he finally gets it, and fears for His life, but not because he saw Yahweh, but rather because he saw the Angel. There is no text that says seeing an angel will make you die, but there are texts in the Torah that we’ve already seen that seem to equate the Angel with Yahweh, so it would make perfect sense for Gideon to be afraid if he had read or heard those texts and also equated the Angel with Yahweh.

From top-down perspective we get from the narrator, we see that the Angel is the only one who explicitly appears visibly, but it does say “Yahweh turned”, which is curious. When the Angel speaks, He speaks separately of Yahweh, but when Yahweh speaks, He speaks of Himself. It is the Angel who accepts the offering, which is something God does, not angels, if it is indeed a religious offering. And we see that Gideon believed the Angel is God since He is afraid for his life because he saw Him. Yahweh then still speaks, showing again that He is distinct from the Angel, but doesn’t correct Gideon’s apprehension, but just assures him he won’t die.

The ambiguities are not something that can be explained away by saying that this is just a regular, created angel with a special job. Interestingly, there is more, from Genesis and Exodus, that explains why people saw the Angel the way Gideon did. We will finish up our study of the Angel of Yahweh with these passages.

Exodus 23:20-22

20 “‘Look, I am about to send an angel before you to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place that I have prepared. 21 Be attentive to him and listen to his voice; do not rebel against him, because he will not forgive your transgression, for my name is in him. 22 But if you listen attentively to his voice and do all that I say, I will be an enemy to your enemies and a foe to your foes.

We have already examined the “name” theology of the Old Testament that showed that the Name of Yahweh, like these other titles, was just a way of referring to Yahweh Himself. Here, God says His Name is in this Angel. Where God’s name is is where God is. This is why He says these things about the Angel. He says that the people must not rebel against the Angel, for the Angel will not forgive transgression. And the people are called to listen to the Angel’s voice to do all that Yahweh says. As before, we have an ambiguous passage that is not clearly saying that the Angel is God. Nor is it clearly saying that the Angel isn’t God. This is not a normal function for created angels. This is unique, and did not go unnoticed by the readers of this passage, like Gideon, and like the Jews of Jesus’ day.

The last passage we will look at on the Angel of Yahweh, though certainly not the last we could look at, comes from Genesis, when Jacob is blessing the sons of Joseph. He says this:

Genesis 48:15-16

And he blessed Joseph and said,

The God before whom my fathers, Abraham and Isaac, walked,

The God who shepherded me all my life unto this day,

16 The angel who redeemed me from all evil,

may he bless the boys.

And through them let my name be perpetuated…

Here, at the end of Jacob’s life, he blesses the sons of Joseph in a curious way. He calls upon God by saying twice, “The God…”, then says “the Angel who redeemed me from all evil”. Then says “May he bless the boys”. In the Hebrew, the verb for “bless” is a singular verb. Jacob, though, prefaces it with three calls, twice to “God” and once to “the angel”. Again, we have an ambiguity. Is Jacob referring to one, two, or three in this passage? The verb is singular, suggesting only one, but there are at least two titles for the one(s?) he is praying to. This passage presents a huge problem for those who attempt to say that the Angel of Yahweh is just an ordinary angel. Here, Jacob prays to an angel. No Scripture permits or commands prayer to anyone but God. Jacob uses a singular verb, but why? If it’s just a created angel, there’s no way to make sense of the singular verb. Now, a non-Trinitarian could try to say that “angel” here does just refer back to God, and there are not distinct persons in the verse. The problem with that, though, is it means they give up on any insistence that the “Angel of Yahweh” must just be a created angel. If they admit an angel can be God in this verse, then it is possible an angel could be God elsewhere.

Trinitarian theology sees nothing in this passage but confirmation. Not proof, of course, but a complex passage that fits perfectly into Trinitarian theology. In talking about all of these passages from the Hebrew Scriptures, we can see why the ancient Jews came up with two-powers theology. And we can see why they rejected it around the second century of the Christian era. It was too consistent with the claims of Christ and the Christians, and since they rejected Jesus, it was just easier to reject two-powers as well, so the door wasn’t left wide open to lose people to the growing church.

Conclusions

Are these passages difficult? Yes, of course they are. As we have seen, each passage has its own quirks. Some clearly differentiate between Yahweh and the Angel (Name, Word, Spirit, etc.). Some do not. Some, which haven’t been discussed for sake of space, differentiate the Angel of Yahweh from Yahweh without creating any ambiguity about the Angel, and He just looks like an ordinary angel. The fact is that the Hebrew Scriptures just don’t present these encounters with God in the same way every time. I do think it is very important that some of the first time we see these titles are the ones that create ambiguity, so that there was really no point in the history of the text that these questions wouldn’t be asked.

Ultimately, lack of clarity in the Old Testament is not a bad thing, but rather indicates something that will need further revelation to illuminate. Even many non-Trinitarians have no problem with the lack of clarity in the Messianic prophecies, such that no one could really say for sure everything that would happen with the Messiah from the Old Testament alone. There were many indicators, but those only really came to light when Jesus came. The same is true regarding the Trinitarian truths. It is non-Trinitarians who have to find ways to explain away any plurality in the Hebrew Scriptures, if they are Unitarians, or the Uniqueness of Yahweh, if they are polytheistic. It is non-Trinitarians who have to try to explain away the clear distinct persons as expressed in the New Testament, if they are modalists of various sorts. Trinitarian theology is the only one that actually can accept all of these truths as expressed about God, and about Jesus. The ambiguity doesn’t bother us, it confirms exactly what we would expect a progressively revealed Scripture to do.

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