Tag Archives: Angel of Yahweh

Markan Christology and the Messenger of YHWH

There have been several discussions floating around about Mark’s christology and the following putative summary of the same from Michael Bird:

The Marcan Jesus participates in the kyricentricity of Israel’s God. He is identified as a pre-existent heavenly figure who has come to earth, who carries divine authority, who embodies royal and priestly roles; and in his person, words, and deeds he manifests the holy presence, the redemptive purposes, and the cosmic power of the Lord of Israel.

A roundup of some posts is here. It’s been noted already that Bird’s blithe assertion of a Markan identification of Jesus as pre-existent seems to draw from the problematic conceptual trigonometry that Gathercole uses to try to suggest that pre-existence is implicit in the synoptic gospels, but I’d like to address a related claim that Bird published in How God Became Jesus (his response volume to Ehrman’s How Jesus Became God).

Bird says above about Jesus that, “in his person, words, and deeds he manifests the holy presence,” which I suggest is not incorrect, but is misconstrued by Bird and others to mean that Jesus is God. An agent can manifest the presence of their patron without actually participating in that patron’s being or ousia. We see it, in fact, in the Hebrew Bible’s messenger of YHWH. In How God Became Jesus, Bird rejects the notion that the messenger of YHWH provides a conceptual template for Jesus’ relationship with God. He first points out that,

the angel not only represents God but even embodies God’s presence, which explains why the angel of the Lord who appeared to Moses in the burning bush said, ‘I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob,’ and was the one who revealed the divine name to Moses (Exod 3:2, 6, 14). Paradoxically the angel of the Lord both is YHWH and is not YHWH.

Despite acknowledging that just like Christ, the messenger of YHWH is paradoxically identified with and distinguished from YHWH, Bird insists this has no connection to how Christ was conceptualized, since,

Christ’s person was understood as being distinct form God the Father, and his mode of divine presence was couched in far more concrete language, like ‘form’ of God, ‘glory’ of God, ‘image’ of God, and even ‘God enfleshed.’

In addition to the facts that the “person/being” distinction is utterly irrelevant to these texts and that the second concern is a difference of degrees, not kind, the passages Bird cites in the earlier quote are cases of interpolation (see here). They didn’t originally refer to the messenger as God. While it’s true the interpolated texts were later incorporated into a broader theology of presencing, this fact rather undermines Bird’s attempt to distance the conceptualization of the messenger of YHWH from the conceptualization of Jesus. The messenger became identified with God and God’s presence and authority in virtue of possessing God’s name, as we see in Exod 23:20–21:

Look, I’m sending a messenger before you to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place that I prepared. Pay attention to him and listen to his voice. Do not rebel against him, because he will not pardon your transgressions, for my name is in him.

Christ’s possession of God’s name, in his own theophoric name as well as his repeated associated with “I am,” is conceptually identical. He has God’s name, therefore he presences God (reifies his presence) and exercises his authority. This notion of the “indwelling” of the name is found also in the Apocalypse of Abraham, where Yahoel is a name given to God, but also to an angel who meets with Abraham. The angel insists he exercises God’s power “in virtue of the ineffable name that is dwelling in me” (think also of the “place where my name will dwell”).

Interestingly enough, the Exodus 23 passage undermines one of the most common assertions that is made about Christ’s unique relationship with God in Mark. When Jesus forgives the man in Mark 2, the rhetorical bad guys wonder, “who can forgive sins but God only?” This is taken by some to be an accurate assertion of theological fact that means Jesus’ forgiveness of the man’s sins proves he is God, but a far more parsimonious reading has Jesus correct their misunderstanding by showing that he exercises that very power despite not being God. The objection that is usually lodged here is that there are no other examples anywhere of someone other than God having the prerogative to forgive sins. While this objection is an argument from silence, it’s also wrong. The messenger in Exodus 23, whose presencing of God is likely a reflection of those earlier interpolated texts, exercises precisely that prerogative in virtue of having God’s name in him.

The conceptualization of the messenger of YHWH in those Hebrew Bible passages where its identity is confused with that of God provide an exactly parallel conceptualization of the messenger as a figure that, in virtue of being endowed with God’s very name, presences God and exercises God’s authority. This is not to say that Jesus was originally an angel (which is what critics—including Bird—always seem to think angelomorphic christology means), but just that the messenger’s literary form and function as a representative of the deity offered a conceptual template for those nurturing and developing the Christ tradition. The cognitive architecture that predisposes us to conceptualize of agency and even identity as rather fluid and even communicable, as we see with the messenger and with Christ, is the subject of the doctoral dissertation I’m writing right now. Stay tuned!

SBL Proposal #1

I’m preparing the following proposal to submit to the SBL annual meeting’s Israelite Religion in Its West Asian Environment program unit:

“My Name is In Him”: The Messenger of YHWH and Distributed Agency in the Hebrew Bible and the Ancient Near East

This paper examines the nature and function of the Hebrew Bible’s “messenger of YHWH,” focusing particularly on the blending of the messenger’s identity with that of YHWH. It will argue that the earliest appearances of the messenger in the biblical narratives arise from the textual interpolation of the word malak in the interest of obscuring YHWH’s physical presence and activity among the Israelites. These interpolations will be shown to have predated other narrative traditions within the Hebrew Bible, but as a result of cognitive mechanisms related to the conceptualization of divine agency and its communicability that had long been in place within Israelite and Assyro-Babylonian cult practices, later authors were equipped to seamlessly adopt the notion of the mediation of a semi-autonomous divine agent who could speak and act in the very name of the God of Israel. This distributable divine agency would become conceptualized in one influential iteration as YHWH’s “name,” which could indwell architecture as well as anthropomorphic agents,  extending the deity’s presence well beyond the conceptual confines of earlier tradition and cult. The implications of this understanding of the Israelite conceptualization of divine agency are far reaching.

SBL Paper Proposals

I just submitted two proposals for the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature. Here they are:

מלאך יהוה: The Textual Origins of God’s Divine Agent

Two theories are current regarding the earliest appearances of the mâlaḵ YHWH, in which his identity is not clearly distinguished from that of God. The more prominent theory is that the messenger is an aspect of God, a hypostasis, or some other extension of his identity. Alternatively, some scholars view the word mâlaḵ as a textual interpolation meant to obscure theologically problematic passages. There are later appearances of the mâlaḵ YHWH that are demonstrably original to their literary context, however, and even if the interpolation theory is correct, these appearances reflect the theological accommodation of the messenger as in some way identifiable with the God of Israel.

The present study will examine text-critical considerations that demonstrate the priority of the interpolation theory. It will then go on to examine the later biblical conceptualization of the relationship of the messenger to YHWH, emphasizing the concept of divine agency over and against that of divine identity. Textual, linguistic, and literary evidence will contribute to the conclusion that the messenger of YHWH was a secondary divine agent authorized to represent God and speak on his behalf in virtue of the indwelling of his name. The implications of this notion of communicable divine agency extend into Greco-Roman period Judaism and early Christianity.


YHWH and El: The Conceptual Blending of Their Divine Profiles

The point of departure for this paper is the theory that the patriarchal and exodus traditions represent originally independent traditions of Israel’s ethnogenesis. The most explicit—and perhaps original—attempt to link the two traditions and their concepts of God (Exod 6:3) acknowledges distinct divine names associated with the two traditions, namely YHWH and El Shaddai. Quite different theological profiles emerge from the disentangling of the traditions most closely connected with those names, but by the time of the composition of Exod 6:3, those profiles were fusing. Within the resulting composite view of Israel’s God, certain concepts associated with the earlier profiles were emphasized while others were marginalized. New concepts also developed out of the process and the socio-religious exigencies of the authors and editors. The complex and tensile conceptualization of YHWH found in the Hebrew Bible’s final form represents several centuries of conceptual blending and innovation against the backdrop of Israel’s scriptural heritage.

Scholars of early Israelite religion have dedicated a great deal of attention to the socio-religious impetuses for and results of the conflation of YHWH and El, but there is little that examines the cognitive processes that may have attended and influenced that conflation. This study seeks to fill that need. It will first isolate and schematize each tradition’s conceptualizations of its central deity, paying close attention to the centrality of the imagery to that deity’s representation. It will then evaluate the conceptual blending of the two schemas, highlighting the analogous and complementary concepts that facilitated that blending, as well as the conditions that contributed to the development of new divine conceptualizations. The fundamental goal is insight into why God was represented in the texts the way he was.

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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