Tag Archives: Univocality

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.

Religious Statements: Against Their Environment or In Them?

Rainer Albertz gives several reasons in his introduction to the first volume of A History of Israelite Religion in the Old Testament Period for why he prefers a history of religion approach over a theological approach to writing a history of Israelite religion. In this post I’d like to highlight one of the reasons he gives and discuss its relevance to biblical interpretation. He states,

[The history of religion approach] takes seriously the insight that religious statements cannot be separated from the historical background from which they derive or against which they are reinterpreted.

In other words, religious statements are products of their historical background, as is their reinterpretation in separate historical backgrounds. Practically speaking, then, religious statements from different historical backgrounds are not going to be exactly identical. This flatly undermines a univocal reading of the Bible, which was written and edited over the course of around a thousand years by numerous writers from numerous different historical backgrounds. Some attempts to harmonize portions of the Bible to differing degrees were executed at different times in the course of the Bible’s literary and textual development, but this only partially mitigated the text’s overall pluriformity. But is this axiom accurate, or is it an assumption that evinces “anti-supernaturalism” or some other crippling bias that truly objective interpreters will avoid? Does the evidence support the ideological unity of the scriptures from beginning to end, and thus the notion that the Bible is inerrant and/or univocal?

The most obvious place to start is the comparison of Hebrew Bible material to its quotation in the New Testament. I will start with Messianic readings of select Hebrew Bible texts. One of two conclusions will be reached: either the religious statements will be shown to be identically understood in both, or they will be shown to be differently understood, according to their individual historical backgrounds. What about the notion that multiple readings are possible and even intended in Hebrew Bible texts? While polysemy was certainly a possibility back then, I would suggest that the notion that a Hebrew Bible text was written with a secondary interpretation in mind that didn’t manifest itself for centuries must be evidenced rather than assumed.

Let us start with Acts 15:15–17, which quotes a version of Amos 9:11–12. The aim of the text is to find scriptural support for the opening up of the gospel to the Gentiles. I quote the RSV version of Acts (simply because I have it open in a tab):

And to this agree the words of the prophets; as it is written, After this I will return, and will build again the tabernacle of David, which is fallen down; and I will build again the ruins thereof, and I will set it up: That the residue of men might seek after the Lord, and all the Gentiles, upon whom my name is called, saith the Lord, who doeth all these things.

The Hebrew does not mention the “residue of men,” though, it mentions the “remnant of Edom.” At the time, hegemony over Edom was a significant issue for Davidic idealists. “Edom” looks a lot like “men” in Hebrew, though, especially if you don’t have the internal mater lectionis like you do in MT (אדום = Edom; אדם = human/humanity). Acts is quoting from a Greek translation of Amos that has misread the Hebrew word Edom. The scripture James quoted in Acts 15 actually does not bear on humanity in general (nor does the Septuagint version mention seeking after the Lord). The New Testament interpretation of Amos 9:11–12, then, is far removed from the original sense of the verse and is based on a mistranslation, intentional or otherwise (See Glenny on this, but also Decker).

Let us move on to Heb 1:6, which quotes a Greek version of Deut 32:43 (or Ps 97:7). It states,

And again, when he brought the Firstborn in to the world he said, “Let all the angels of God worship him.”

The first indicator that this is an interpretation of the original text of Deut 32:43 (or Ps 97:7) that was never intended is that it does not exist in any Hebrew version of Deut 32:43 or Ps 97:7. It only exists in the Greek translations of those two texts, which date somewhere between the third and first century BCE. In the Hebrew both texts read, “Let all the gods worship him.” In both the Hebrew and the Greek, the object was not the messiah, though, it was Yhwh himself. The author of Hebrews appropriated it as a reference to the messiah and used it for a rhetorical purpose it simply cannot fulfill in its original form. In the early Hellenistic period the gods began to be identified with angels. The reading in Hebrews is entirely dependent upon that contemporary reinterpretation. The situation is similar for Heb 1:8, which takes a psalm directed explicitly at the king (v. 1: “I address my verses to the king”) and reinterprets it as directed at the messiah: “But to the Son he says, ‘Your throne, O God, is forever and ever . . .” At the time of the composition of Hebrews, Christians could not have read “O God” as a vocative aimed at a human king. When the text was first written, however, that would not have been objectionable.

We could count numerous other places where New Testament authors quote Hebrew Bible texts but either quote a secondary version or themselves alter them to make them fit their contemporary needs. For instance, in John 19:37 the author quotes Zech 12:10, but changes “they shall look upon me whom they pierced” to “they shall look upon him whom they pierced.” Matt 1:23 quotes Isa 7:14, but instead of “she shall call his name . . .” it reads “they shall call his name . . .” (Isa 7:14 was also originally a reference to the king Hezekiah, not to a messiah). Heb 2:6–8 quotes Ps 8:4–6, but reinterprets what was originally a reference exclusively to humanity as a reference exclusively to Jesus. In order to do this, of course, the author had to remove a portion of the quote which got in the way. “You have given him dominion over the works of your hands” is removed because the author believed that the universe was the work of Jesus’ own hands. Notice also that the Hebrew “you have made him a little lower than the gods” is changed to “you have made him a little lower than the angels.” The list goes on and on, but the two examples shared above make the case clearly enough.

For the most part, the New Testament’s usage of the Hebrew Bible is mediated by the Septuagint, which not only translated its text according to contemporary theological and linguistic norms, but also used Vorlagen that were transmitted under the influence of contemporary theological and linguistic concerns. Throw into the mix the coming of the messiah and the Christian interpretations are going to differ vastly from the original contexts. I would conclude then that Rainer’s axiom is supported by the evidence, whereas the notion of the univocality of the Bible is not supported. With each generation, the scriptures evolved to mean whatever that generation needed them to mean, given some continuity with the readings of the previous generation. Over several generations quite a disparity can develop. The benefit of being aware of this disparity is that we can better understand what the authors were trying to say. I propose this is a better exegetical guide than the notion that “you have to look at the picture on the box to see how the individual puzzle piece fits.”

Alpha & Omega Ministries and Thinking Critically

I’m composing a post in response to a video that James White has posted on his Alpha and Omega Ministries blog and noticed another post on the A&O blog today that I thought I would quickly respond to. The post is entitled “Thinking Critically about Biblical Criticism,” and in it TurretinFan basically provides what he believes to be a handy critique of the critical methodologies employed by those whom he believes uncritically promulgate the notion of contradictions in the Bible. Here’s the meat of his post:

In the following series of posts I’ve identified four issues that, if presented in separate gospels, would likely lead to the charge of contradictions amongst the gospels. However, in each case, the text in question comes from the same book: 1 Samuel. In various ways, the seeming contradictions are resolved, either by showing that the different accounts simply bring out different aspects, or showing that the different accounts are actually of different events.

1. A King for Israel: Blessing or Judgment?

2. The Crowning of King Saul – Private or Public – Initiated by Samuel or the People?

3. How did “Is Saul Also Among the Prophets?” Become a Parable?

4. When and At Whom did Saul Hurl His Javelin?

The point of those posts is, I hope, to provide some examples that my fellow apologists can bring up to help to show people how easy it can be to allege contradiction simply based on differences in accounts.

The main issue I have, without going into the arguments he produces for each case, is that one must presuppose a single author for 1 Samuel in order for his premise to hold. As with the different gospels and numerous other books of the Bible, this is evidence not of acute variability within a univocal text, but of literary layers and multiple authorship. A couple quick examples within 1 Samuel support this. First, as Thom Stark points out in chapter 7 of The Human Faces of God, Saul is introduced to David in 1 Sam 16:21–22 (and loves him greatly, sending a letter to his father asking him by name to allow him to stay in his service), and then must be reintroduced to David in 1 Sam 17:55–58. He has to ask David to his face what his name is and who his father is (and this after Saul talked with David and even put his own armor upon him). In fact, even the reader has to be introduced all over again to David’s father. Another interesting problem is that of the word נחם, “to repent” in 1 Sam 15. In v. 29 the text says Yhwh “will not repent (לא ינחם), for he is not a man that needs to repent,” but then in v. 35 the text says “And Yhwh repented (ויהוה נחם).” Same verb, same niphal stem. Is the author just not paying attention and wrote down two contradictory statements, or do we have here two originally independent sections of text brought together in a single textual tradition? Either way, univocality is absolutely precluded. The notion that 1 Samuel is unified enough to assume single authorship in the four pericopes listed above is unfounded. It makes much more sense that we simply have separate literary layers.

When the New Testament Misreads the Hebrew Bible

In my previous discussion of James White’s reading of Psalm 82 I pointed out that James appeals fallaciously to the notion that Jesus’ reading of the psalm (John 10:34-35) must govern a believer’s interpretation. This is the principle of univocality, or the notion that the Bible represents a single, unified worldview, from beginning to end. This post will draw upon two places where the New Testament demonstrably misreads the Hebrew Bible, whether on its own or through the mediation of a mistranslated Septuagint, in order to show that assumptions like univocality are precluded by an informed reading of the biblical texts.

Heb 2:7–10 quotes LXX Ps 8:5–7, but the reading provided in the former is vastly different from the meaning of the latter. Here’s a brief look at Ps 8:5–7 as found in the Hebrew:

מָֽה־אֱנֹ֥ושׁ כִּֽי־תִזְכְּרֶ֑נּוּ וּבֶן־אָ֝דָ֗ם כִּ֣י תִפְקְדֶֽנּוּ׃
וַתְּחַסְּרֵ֣הוּ מְּ֭עַט מֵאֱלֹהִ֑ים וְכָבֹ֖וד וְהָדָ֣ר תְּעַטְּרֵֽהוּ׃
תַּ֭מְשִׁילֵהוּ בְּמַעֲשֵׂ֣י יָדֶ֑יךָ כֹּ֝ל שַׁ֣תָּה תַֽחַת־רַגְלָֽיו

The first line is clearly referring to humanity collectively. Both singular references to humans are indefinite and generic. The second line is grammatically contrastive (lowered // crowned), but semantically synonymous. The human is given a place of honor within the hierarchy of being, namely just under the gods (or “God,” although less likely). The dominion mentioned in the last line should not be understood as dominion over all God’s creation, terrestrial and celestial. Humanity obviously has no dominion over astral bodies. The following two lines provide proper contextualization: “sheep and oxen, and also cattle of the field; birds of the sky and fish of the sea, that which passes along the courses of the waters.” The author likely has Gen 1:28 in view: “. . . have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”

The Septuagint translation is little different, although “gods” is rendered “angels.” The spatial “a little less than” of the Hebrew is also translated with βραχυς, which can be read spatially or temporally. This is the text quoted by the author in Hebrews 2, although the meaning there is altered. To begin, the author applies Psalm 8 exclusively to Jesus. The seemingly generic singular is used throughout, as with the Hebrew, but the referent is identified as Jesus when the author finishes the quotation thus (NSV):

Now in putting everything in subjection to him, he left nothing outside his control. As it is, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him. But we see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for every one.

“All things” is understood by the author of Hebrews to signify all created things, not just those put under humanity’s dominion. Heb 2:7 also omits the first half of Ps 8:6 (according to the best manuscripts), which states (in the Greek), “And you placed him over the works of your hands.” Other witnesses have this section, but the critical editions omit it. In the original composition this could not remain, since it was Jesus who was thought to be creator of “all things.”

The RSV translates βραχυς temporally here. Other translations offer a spatial rendering, but the author seems to be contrasting Jesus’ temporary subordination to the angels with his crowning with glory and honor. In other words, his death elevated him above that subordination. The author is likely reading βραχυς temporally. (The NRSV, by the way, changes the generic singular to plural and attempts to salvage the quotation as an accurate reading of the text as referring to humanity in general.)

What we see here is an example of a text being read according to contemporary ideologies and expediencies which differed greatly from those of its original author and community. Psalm 8 does not refer to Jesus, to the incarnation, or to his glorification. It refers to God’s grace in giving humanity a place of honor, which it does not merit, within God’s glorious created order. The author of the psalm and the author of Hebrews thus present two conflicting readings, undermining the notion that any principle of univocality governs the literature of the Bible. This does not mean the reading in Hebrews is useless, though. It renegotiated Christianity’s relationship with its sacral past, injecting new relevance into the text for Christians and strengthening their connection to Judaism’s sacred literature.

My next case study involves the application of a mistaken translation to a question of doctrine. In Acts 15:13–17, James appeals to Amos 9:11–12 in an effort to support through scripture the taking of the gospel directly to the Gentiles. It even seems James’ quotation settles the debate. The critical portion of Amos 9 reads,

I will rebuild the tent of David, which has fallen, and from its ruins I will rebuild it and set it up, so that the remnant of the people might seek the Lord, and all the nations which call upon my name.

This reading comes from LXX Amos, although there is a bit of movement. For instance, “the Lord” is an addition. The LXX actually omits the object, reading, “so that the remnant of the people might seek, and all the nations . . .” There is also a clause missing from Acts’ quotation (“as the days of old”). The important observation, however, is the Greek translation’s relationship to the Hebrew. The crucial section reads in the Hebrew, “that they may possess the remnant of Edom,” but is translated, “so that the remnant of the people might seek,” in the Greek. The confusion arises likely because of the lack of the mater lectionis which we find in MT in the word אדום. Without it, the word looks an awful lot like אדם, “man,” or “humanity.” The verb “to possess” (יירשׁו), was also misunderstood as “to seek” (ידרשׁו).

It is unlikely that MT is secondary. First, there’s no object for the transitive verb εκζητησωσιν, “that they might seek.” Second, the reading in MT makes more sense within the context. David’s fallen house would be restored so that it might reassert its authority, specifically in overtaking the remnant of Edom (see Amos 1:11–12) and “all the nations,” for which Edom functions as a synecdoche (Edom commonly acts as a symbol for all of Israel’s enemies [Ps 137:7; Isa 34:5–15; 63:1–6; Lam 4:21]). The notion that the restoration of the Davidic kingdom would cause the remnant of the people (why are they only a remnant?) and all the nations to seek the Lord is also a bit of a disconnect within Amos.

This quotation shows not only that the early church relied on the Septuagint, but that it rested significant doctrinal decisions on the Greek translation, even when it represented a misreading of the underlying Hebrew.

The notion of univocality within the Bible as a whole is irreconcilable with these data. The axiom that scripture should interpret scripture is wholly undermined by these two examples (and many others could be pointed out). There is not only one voice in the Bible, and I do not think it prudent to approach any single chapter or verse within the Bible assuming that it contains only one voice. There are numerous voices throughout the biblical texts saying numerous different things for numerous different reasons. New Testament exegesis of an Old Testament text is no more authoritative a reading than that of any other exegete.


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