The Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament, contains some figures and features difficult for our modern minds to understand. Flip through the pages of the Hebrew Scriptures and you’ll come across a figure who seems to carry a contradiction: the Angel of the Lord. So who is this character, and why is understanding him so important?
The Messenger of Yahweh
Let’s start by looking at the phrase “angel of the Lord” in Hebrew. The Hebrew word translated as “angel” is malak, which means “messenger.” This particular messenger is not just an angel, but the “angel of the Lord.” The messenger of Yahweh—or in Hebrew, malak Yahweh—is the only messenger who bears the name of Yahweh. In Exodus 23:20-21, Yahweh tells Moses that this angel will lead them, saying, “my name is in him.”
Yahweh, or like Yahweh?
As you explore this character further, you’ll encounter a big problem: Sometimes the angel of the Lord speaks as if he is a messenger from Yahweh, and other times he speaks as if he is Yahweh.
How is this possible? When you encounter problems like this in the Bible, you may think the Bible is contradictory or convoluted—especially in the Hebrew Scriptures.
But you have another option. You can ask the question: Is there something more the author wants to communicate by presenting this figure or feature in this strange way? In other words, is the “contradiction” intentional? Taking this approach will open your eyes to the literary art of Scripture and may even help you see some of Jesus’ central claims in a new light.
The Story of Hagar
The story of Hagar illustrates the complex way that the angel of the Lord is portrayed in Scripture. In Genesis 16, we encounter a slave woman who has become pregnant by her master, abused by her master’s wife, and now fled to the desert to meet her likely death. The narrative tells us, “the angel of the Lord found her by a spring of water in the wilderness” (Genesis 16:7). This figure speaks to Hagar.
But then something strange happens. “And the angel of the Lord said to her, ‘I will increase your descendants so much that they will be too many to count’” (Genesis 16:10).
Yahweh is the one who typically issues this kind of blessing (e.g., Genesis 22, 26, 28). Who does this angel think he is? Keep going, and the angel of the Lord speaks about Yahweh as a separate person, saying, “Yahweh has heard your affliction” (Genesis 16:11).
At best, we think this angel is speaking on behalf of Yahweh—that is, until the narrator tells us it was Yahweh who spoke to her! And Hagar calls this angel “God.” “Then she gave the name of Yahweh who spoke to her, ‘You are God of seeing’; for she said, ‘Truly, how have I seen the one who sees me?’” (Genesis 6:13)
This story illustrates the complex way the authors portray this figure as both Yahweh and distinct from Yahweh. But how do we know whether this is just a lack of precision or a discrepancy in the text? In order to answer this, we need to ask: Do the authors of Scripture consistently refer to the angel of the Lord as both Yahweh and distinct from Yahweh?
Is There a Pattern?
Continue reading the narrative of the Hebrew Scriptures, and you’ll notice several places where the authors portray this angel in the same complex way as in the story of Hagar. For example, in the story of Moses and the burning bush, the angel of the Lord appears to Moses from the midst of a bush, but then God calls to him from the bush (Exodus 3:1-6). The same pattern emerges in the stories of Abraham and Isaac (Genesis 22), Balaam (Numbers 22), Gideon (Judges 6), Elijah (1 Kings 19), and David (1 Chronicles 21), to name a few.
Because this pattern occurs throughout Scripture, we can conclude that the authors are carefully and intentionally depicting this figure as a complex being. Part of the way these authors want to engage the reader is by creating gaps that require participation and investigation. This is the way all good stories work! The authors of Scripture are skilled literary artists, and this complex portrait of the angel of the Lord is just one example of their artistry.
What Does All This Mean?
The consistent way that the authors refer to the angel of the Lord as both Yahweh and distinct from Yahweh not only helps us understand this mysterious figure, but it also makes a profound claim about the identity of Yahweh, namely, that Yahweh himself is a complex being.
Understanding the complex portrayal of the angel of the Lord prepares us to grasp the overarching story of Scripture in some significant ways:
1. This figure helps us make sense of Jesus’ claims.
It seems strange that Jesus would claim he was “one with the Father” and yet distinct as “the Son” (e.g., John 10:30). Yet these claims that sound confusing to modern readers fit in the same category as the portrait of the angel of the Lord.
2. This figure creates shelf space for understanding the Trinity.
This ancient and creative way of portraying Yahweh as a complex unity helps readers understand that Yahweh is a diverse yet unified community of love. This is foundational for understanding that perfect community of love—Father, Son, and Spirit—that we have come to call the Trinity.
3. This figure helps us know God’s character more.
Yahweh interacts on a personal level with humans while also maintaining his identity as God above all and entirely other. This God takes on an embodied form to relate with humanity, ultimately taking on human flesh to restore humanity to right relationship as partners with him.
This complex portrait of the angel of the Lord uniquely communicates truths about the character and identity of Yahweh—that he is a complex unity, one who is both unified and diverse, near and above all. What we see in the angel of the Lord is brought to a culmination in the person of Jesus, who draws near to humanity in order to draw us near to God.