And I will fetch a morsel bread, and comfort ye your hearts … (Gen. 18:5, KJV)

Throughout the patriarchal narratives we find mysterious encounters with the mal’ak YHWH (“Messenger of YHWH”). Judging from the reaction of those who meet Him, and the person in which the Being speaks (sometimes in the first person speaking as God), there is no doubt that the assumption of the text is that this Being is a theophany. Notice that the mal’ak YHWH speaks as God in the first person to Hagar (16:10), and that she is surprised that she has actually seen a manifestation of God and survived (v. 13). Chapters 18 and 19 are tantalizingly ambiguous as to the nature of the three “men” that visit Abraham. We know that YHWH Himself appeared to him (vv. 1, 3), and that there were three men, and that they speak together in the third person plural (v. 9), but singularly in the first person singular (vv. 10, 14). “He” accuses Sarah of laughing (v. 15). Things get even more oblique as the narrative progresses. In verse 16 Abraham is sending the “men” on their way when YHWH converses in the first person with him (vv.17 21). The “men” go in verse 22 toward Sodom, but YHWH stayed back to speak with Abraham, and afterwards “went away” (v. 33). Some light is given in 19:1, where we have the two “mal’ākîm” visiting Lot. Evidently, one of the two supernatural beings was YHWH Himself, who actually lodged and ate with Abraham in human form. In 21:17 19 God hears the cry of Ishmael and the mal’ak YHWH calls down from heaven in human speech to Hagar, and speaks as God in the first person. The same is true of 22:11 18, where the mal’ak YHWH swears in the first person as YHWH “by Myself I have sworn…” (v. 15, cf. 31:11 13). Even more remarkable is the fact that Jacob fought with a “man” all night, only to be shocked when he realized that it was God Himself (32:30). The most revealing passage is the ancient hymn (so von Rad) in 48:15 16:

The God before whom my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked,
The God who has led me all my life long to this day,
The Messenger (hammal’āk) who has redeemed me from all evil …

There is no doubt that Jacob equated the God of his fathers with the mal’ak YHWH. More than this, mal’ak is emphatic by virtue of its final position in the parallelism and the highly personal role as “redeemer” (as opposed to “walk” and “led”).

Pagan myths are saturated with stories of theophanies, but they are gods of the heavenly pantheon who encounter humans only incidentally, and when they do, it is for their own pleasure (or anger), and the incidents are not framed in historical time. Here we have the Transcendent God encountering actual historical persons in space and time as they lived it out, becoming immanent with creation. He is called a “messenger” because He is sent by YHWH. In this way He is differentiated from YHWH as His “messenger.” Yet, at the same time, it is clear in the texts that this Messenger is YHWH as discussed above. We can only conclude that the ambiguity is intentional, for it is by this ambiguity that YHWH’s utter transcendence is preserved in the face of His immanence in creation and relationships with mortal man. The incarnation of Christ with its complex theological issues has its roots deep within the patriarchal narratives.

When we consider that the Promised Land was understood theologically as a return to Eden, we see that these Theophany encounters are crucial, for the garden was the Holy of Holies where transcendence touched the temporal. Abraham rushing to greet his Creator at his tent door, offering Him a “morsel of bread” to “comfort His heart,” is more than just a quaint unguarded moment; it is paradise on earth.

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