The Angel of Yahweh in Early Hebrew Bible Narrative

There are two general approaches to explaining the angel of Yahweh in the early biblical narratives where his identity seems to be conflated or confused with the identity of God himself. The most prevalent view is that the angel, as a divine messenger, represents his patron so completely that he may be referred to and even described as the patron. The other view is that the word “angel” is simply an interpolation where it was originally Yahweh himself interacting with humanity. As I have been compiling research I have come across the former position more and more in recent research (two examples are Erik Eynikel, “The Angel in Samson’s Birth Narrative: Judg 13,” in Angels: The Concept of Celestial Beings—Origins, Development and Reception [Friedrich V. Reiterer, et al., eds.; Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2007], 109–23; Benjamin D. Sommer, The Bodies of God and the World of Ancient Israel [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009]). In this post I’d like to explain why I find the latter view to be far more convincing.

I count 36 occurrences of מלאך יהוה in Gen-Judg, with an additional six occurrences of מלאך אלהים. The first of all occurrences (canonically) is in the story of Hagar’s fleeing from Sarah. The confusion of identity here occurs in v. 13, where the narrative explains that Hagar “called upon the name of Yahweh who spoke to her.” Hagar’s next comment in the Hebrew is unclear, but we should probably read after the NRSV (based on the name given to the well), “Have I really seen God and remained alive after seeing him?” This would echo sentiments found in our other angel of Yahweh pericopes (Gen 32:30; Exod 3:6; Jdg 6:2223; 13:22). Exod 33:20, which states that no human will see God and live, is alluded to in each example. This particular story makes more sense with the word “angel” removed from vv. 7, 9, 10, and 11, and with Hagar speaking directly with Yahweh.

The next occurrence of the angel of Yahweh is in the Akedah from Genesis 22. The angel of Yahweh is said to stop Abraham immediately before he sacrifices Isaac. The narrative again makes perfect sense with the word “angel” removed from vv. 11 and 15. In v. 16 we have Yahweh speaking, but the phrase “says Yahweh” appears. This does not necessarily indicate reported speech, though, and is unlikely to be original. It appears nowhere else in Genesis and it never appears anywhere else associated with any angel of Yahweh. In v. 14, the explanation of the name of the mountain could be “On the mountain of Yahweh it shall be provided,” or “On the mountain of Yahweh he will be seen.” In both these stories the notion of seeing God appears to have been obscured to hide God’s own presence.

Exodus 3 is our next pericope. In that story, Moses speaks with the angel of Yahweh. The angel is only mentioned in v. 2, and afterward God himself is the interlocutor. In v. 6 God even states, “I am the God of your father . . .” Moses even lowers his gaze because he is afraid to look upon God. Of considerable importance here is that v. 2′s statement “and the angel of Yahweh appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush” does not fit the narrative. It preempts Moses’ noticing the bush (which follows “and he looked, and behold!”) and his moving close enough to it for the entity to speak out of it. The most likely reason is that that statement is a late interpolation meant to contextualize the comments that followed. Without the statement, it is God himself speaking to Moses.

Next we move to two narratives from Judges, namely Gideon’s call and Samson’s birth narrative. In the first (Judg 6:11–24), the angel comes to Gideon, who appears not to recognize him, and states that Yahweh is with him. He then announces Gideon’s call to lead the Israelites. In vv. 11, 12, 21, and 22 the text has “angel of Yahweh,” but in vv. 14 and 16 Gideon is represented as speaking directly to Yahweh. In v.  17, Gideon actually asks for proof that he is speaking specifically to Yahweh. In v. 20 it is “angel of God.” This is peculiar, and the only other uses of “angel of God” in Gen-Judg also appear in places where the identity of God is mixed up with that of an angel (Gen 21:17; 31:11; Exod 14:19; Judg 13:6, 9). As with other stories, Gideon’s angel speaks as God in the first person with no messenger formula to indicate it is a mediated message. Again we have the allusion to Exod 33:20, but here Gideon laments, “Help me, O Yahweh God, for I have seen the angel of Yahweh face to face!” Exod 33:20 does not place a restriction on seeing the angel of Yahweh, however, it explicitly states that no human can see God himself (and specifically his face, given the context). Gideon’s lament is completely unique, and the story fits perfectly with the other reconstructed narratives if we simply remove each instance of “angel.”

In Samson’s birth narrative (Judg 13:3–23) the interlocutor is described as an angel of Yahweh throughout, but when Manoah realizes to whom he has been speaking he laments, like the others, “we shall surely die, for we have seen God.” Now, the comment could be translated “for we have seen a deity,” in reference to an angel, but, again, this is not what Exod 33:20 says, and the allusion is clearly to that text. V. 19 also provides an interesting problem. It states that, on the angel’s orders, Manoah offered a meat offering on a rock “to Yahweh. And [?] did wonders/wondrously.” There is no subject attached to the participle מפלא, “to be wonderful.” Many translations assume the angel is understood, since he is overseeing the sacrifice (thus, “the angel did wondrously”), while others believe the statement refers to Yahweh, and want it to act as a relative clause (thus, “to Yahweh, to him who works wonders”). The most straightforward reading would probably be, “to Yahweh, and he did wondrously.” This would identify the one who commanded the sacrifice as Yahweh.

This is further supported by the actual command in v. 16, where the text states, “The angel of Yahweh said to Manoah, ‘If you detain me I will not eat your food, but if you want to prepare a burnt offering, offer it to Yahweh.’ (For Manoah did not know that he was the angel of Yahweh).” There is only one scenario in which I can see the narrator providing the explanation if the angel is not actually Yahweh himself, and that’s if the angel is promoting sacrifices to a specific deity to which Manoah otherwise wouldn’t have offered his sacrifice (“‘Oh, and make sure you offer it to Yahweh specifically’ [and Manoah didn't know that the guy actually worked for Yahweh]“). To me it makes much more sense that the narrator is explaining that Manoah didn’t know he was speaking to Yahweh himself, since it would sound weird for Yahweh to say “offer a sacrifice to Yahweh” if he knew he was speaking to Yahweh.

Three more considerations support the interpolation theory. First, as Samuel Meier has pointed out, there is textual instability among the versions in these narratives. For instance, in Gideon’s narrative, the Septuagint has “angel of Yahweh” throughout. The Septuagint also has additional occurrences of “messenger” all by itself in Samson’s birth narrative and in Hagar’s story, and an additional “messenger of the Lord” at Gen 16:8. Josephus only presents God interacting with Abraham in Genesis 22. The Vulgate makes no mention of an angel in Exod 3:2, mentioning only God appearing. Second, in none of these instances is any self-identification or messenger formula present. Some have claimed that the messenger was so fully identified with his patron that it was not necessary, but there is simply no evidence for this notion. The closest we get is the anomalous “says Yahweh” in Gen 22:16. Third, later versions frequently interpolate the word “angel” where they want to avoid God’s presence, visibility, or participation in something of questionable morality. For instance, in Exod 4:24 both the Septuagint and the targums interpolate the angel to avoid the notion that Yahweh would have come down to kill Moses. In Num 22:20 and 23:4 the Samaritan Pentateuch changes “and God met Balaam” to “and the angel of God met Balaam.” He does not change Num 22:9 or another phrase in Num 23:4, however. In the Palestinian Targum God tells Moses that his angels will pass by him, not that he himself will pass by, as in Exodus 33. Numerous other examples could be brought up, but this should do.

In conclusion, the notion that  the angel is a hypostasis of God or so closely represents him that their identities merge without comment or explanation is simply a rationalization that is subordinate to the necessity of a synchronic or univocal reading of the text. Without such a demand the only logical conclusion is that the angel of Yahweh in these early biblical narratives is a late interpolation, probably from some late- or post-Deuteronomistic writer.

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12 responses to “The Angel of Yahweh in Early Hebrew Bible Narrative

  • Alan Hooker

    Hey Daniel,

    Do you think a case could be made for the appositional nature of מלאך יהוה? This would therefore not be an angel apart from Yahweh who represents him fully, but “the angel Yahweh”?

  • Daniel O. McClellan

    An interesting idea, but in places where the angel of Yahweh is the direct object, the definite direct object marker never appears before both words (Num 22:23, 25, 27, 31; Zech 1:11; 1 Chr 21:16). It’s also clearly not how things are working in the later literature. In Zech1:12, for instance, the מלאך יהוה speaks to יהוה צבאות. In 1 Chr 21:15 God sends an angel to destroy Jerusalem, and that angel is called the מלאך יהוה later in the verse. I don’t see anything that would compel

  • David J. Larsen

    Great analysis, Daniel. I agree with your conclusion. Have you seen the work of Jarl Fossum (and some of his students) on this topic? He’s written a couple of excellent monographs that are relevant.

    • Daniel O. McClellan

      I’ve read his “Son of God” stuff, but I haven’t seen his work on the angel of Yahweh. Do you have a reference?

  • Alan Hooker

    Thanks, Dan. The only reason I ask is that a few days ago I remember reading a commentary on Exodus in which the author suggested that מלאך and יהוה were in apposition. I suspect he was trying to articulate the first point of view you presented, but maybe didn’t do it in the best possible manner!

    • Daniel O. McClellan

      Interesting. I’ve also recently come across the notion that Gen 4:1b is using Yahweh in apposition in the phrase properly translated “I have begotten a man with Yahweh.” They suggested “I have acquired a man, Yahweh.”

      • Alan Hooker

        I don’t think that idea holds water, personally. It would be strange if יהוה had the direct object marker but the direct object itself didn’t.

  • Elsewhere (06.17.2011) « Near Emmaus

    [...] – Daniel O. McClellan discusses the angel of YHWH. [...]

  • Mike Wilson

    I like your idea for interpolation, Daniel. I still wonder if the “Angel of YHWH” is to be taken as a image of YHWH Himself projected into a way that the non-divine can perceive, as opposed to his true self which is outside sensory perception, an advanced idea, but I’m thinking the Hebrews were more philosophical earlier than they are given credit for. As you say though, I wondered if it was as early as JE+D history. I don’t see other signs of the Judaism of that day of being so sophisticated as to be speculating about avatars and such.

    • Daniel O. McClellan

      That is the position James Kugel takes, but he places the development of the idea at the Exile. I haven’t seen it convincingly argued in print yet, though.

  • diglot

    Not too long ago I read my review copy of Camilla Helena Von Heijne’s book, The Messenger of the Lord in Early Jewish Interpretations of Genesis (Walter de Gruyter, 2010). It was definitely the most interesting study I have read concerning the angel of the Lord.

    If I recall correctly, she essentially concluded by saying that there is no homogeneous interpretation of “the angel of the Lord” in Genesis. At times, the angel is seen as a messenger of Yahweh (but not Yahweh himself), and at other times the angel is depicted as a real manifestation or hypostasis of Yahweh. I think an example of the latter view that the author gave was Hagar’s encounter with the angel of the Lord.

  • anomynous609

    The goddess Tanit was the “face of Baal,” that seems to be a partial parallel to the ‘angel of the LORD.’

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