Thursday, July 29

Augustinian Speculations: Who is the "Angel of the Lord?"

Who is this enigmatic figure seen throughout the Hebrew Bible? While there are references in both the Hebrew Bible and New Testament to "angels of the Lord," or "an angel of the Lord," and "THE Angel of the Lord," it appears that when "the" is used, it specifies a certain being, who is separate from all other Angels. Bear in mind, the word "angel" also means "messenger," so some could take it as "The Messenger of the Lord." The identity of this "angel [or messenger] of the Lord" has actually been of major interest to theologians for centuries. St. Augustine of Hippo and others have speculated on this figure's identity. St. Augustine, and many others, identified this figure as a pre-incarnate appearances from Jesus or of God as a whole - referred to as Christophany or Theophany. But does this Augustinian interpretation hold up? Is this a case of exegesis, or eisegesis? (Picture credit to Visual Bible International, Inc. - The Gospel of John, starring Henry Ian Cusick)

Keeping in line with this Augustinian thought, then, we may infer from the relevant texts that this figure speaks as God, identifies himself as God (Exodus 3:2-6), and shows that he has divine abilities, exercising the responsibility and power of God. In his first chronological appearance in Genesis 16:7-12, the Angel of the Lord visits Hagar, mother of Ishmael to tell her that she would give birth to a son and that her descendants would be great in number. In Genesis 21:17-18, he speaks again with Hagar. He appears again not long after in Genesis 22:11-18, where Abraham is tested - and proves faithful. There are also several other appearances made by the Angel of the Lord, found in Exodus 3:2, appearing as a burning bush but identifying himself first as the Angel of the Lord then as God, and in Numbers 22:21-41, in which he appears to Balaam and his donkey. He also appears in Judges 2:1-4;5:23;6:11-24;13:3-22, in which he appears to Gideon, Manoah - to speak of his son, Samson, both Judges of Israel, in 2nd Samuel 24:16, where the Angel of the Lord appears and speaks with King David, and in Zechariah 1:12;3:1;12:8. Those are only 13 distinct accounts of the Angel of the Lord. In most of these appearances, those who had seen the Angel of the Lord were said to fear for their lives, for they had "seen the Lord."

Appearances from this Angel of the Lord end after the birth of Jesus. Angels are still mentioned in the New Testament, however, there are no references to the "Angel of the Lord" after the incarnation of Christ. It is highly plausible and accepted by many Bible Scholars that "The Angel of the Lord" can be read as Jesus physical manifestations of God, and Christian interpreters hold that these appearances were manifestations of Jesus before his incarnation on the Earth. This interpretation may be rooted in the New Testament itself. For example, in John 8:58 says, "'Very truly I tell you,' Jesus answered, 'before Abraham was born, I am!'" This greatly angered the Jews, but on several occasions Jesus mentioned that he existed even before creation - John the Baptist also alluded to this fact. There are several other instances in the Hebrew Bible that many point to as appearances of Jesus, such as in Daniel 3:24-25, when Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were thrown into the Fiery Furnace. Nebuchadnezzar notices a fourth man, whom he describes as a "son of gods." Most assume the fourth man to be Jesus (from an eisegetical point of view).

For St. Augustine, however, the difficulty in determining the identity of this figure lies in the act of seeing. Augustine was trying to keep in line with the Nicene Council - he was appealing to its authority. The Nicene trajectory would say that the divine image itself is also invisible. By his nature, the Word is invisible, only seen through his incarnation. Theophanies were a frequent debate among the pro-Nicene, the Arians and the Novatians. In the economy of grace, God deigns to reveal himself but his true nature would remain invisible. For the Anti-Monarchians, they say that the appearances anticipate the Incarnation of Jesus. The subtext would ask - how does one understand the human image of God in relation to the divine image of God?

Thus, for St. Augustine, when the “messenger of the Lord” appears to Moses, consider that a “messenger” or “angel” carries a message. A word. From a Christian (Johannine) and Neo-Platonic perspective Jesus is the Logos, the Word. As such, it makes sense for him to be called the Messenger (or Message) of the Lord. On the other hand, the burning bush recalls the burning tongues at Pentecost, so that it could also be God the Spirit. But again, this goes back to the Augustinian speculations on seeing. Today, we have a very analogous sense of vision - i.e., “I see what you are saying.” We see things, we have images of things, but we do not truly see God. This is why Milton's later Paradise Lost says, "Shine inward, and the mind through all her powers irradiate; there plant eyes; all mist from thence purge and disperse, that I may see and tell of things invisible to mortal sight" (3.52-55).

In other words, when the prophets "see" God, are they truly seeing God in all of his fullness? When Isaiah is taken into the heavenly realms, he is purified first. When St. John, in his Apocalypse, is taken into heaven, he notes that he does not know if he was in the body or out of the body. Therein lies the difference. Do we see God with physical eyes? Spiritual eyes? What is the very nature of seeing? Now, these seemingly tangential comments on the act of seeing are important, because it ties in directly with appearances of God in the Hebrew Bible; the theophanies. If God appeared as this Angel of the Lord, we may look at the reaction of Manoah in the book of Judges - "we have seen God! We will surely die!", he effectively says. Yet this does not come to pass. In these theophanies, then, the witnesses were not necessarily perceiving God as he is, but God as he made himself manifest to us. When God speaks to Moses through the burning bush or on Mt. Sinai, he manifests his being in a sacramental and tangible way. When God spoke to St. Francis of Assisi through the cross at San Damiano, he expressed his being in a sacramental and tangible way. Thus, the form which these theopanies take in the Hebrew Bible leaves a great deal of potentiality for further discussions and exploration. It seems, however, that the authors of these writings intended for the "Angel of the Lord" to be appearances of God to his chosen people, in whatever form he manifested himself to them.

Troy Hillman


  1. Mr. Hilman,thanks for openning our minds on such a topic as this.Mr. Hilman,thanks for openning our minds on such a topic as this. The search for the truth has brought me here,and i believe this truth will stay with me and any others who will search for the truth.

  2. Ghansah,
    You are quite welcome. To God be the glory and honor, not I. Thank you for taking the time to read this article. When it came to our attention, it was much like a treasure that had been right under our noses - a gem, if you will, a wealth of curiosities placed throughout Scripture which point to our Lord. May God bless you.
    -Troy Hillman-

  3. great education piece. deeper revelation of who God is.

  4. Thank you very much for this helpful post. I appreciate it.