Derived from the Greek (θεός, god; φαίνειν, to show forth, to be revealed), theophany means an appearance of God to man. Of similar meaning are hierophany and epiphany. Theophanies will be discussed here as they are found in the Old Testament and the New Testament.
In the Old Testament. The books of the Old Testament repeatedly assert that no man can see God (or see His angel, or speak with Him) and live (Ex 3.6b; 19.21;33.20; Jgs 13.22). On the other hand, the Old Testament mentions various people who have, in fact, come into contact with God and survived the experience (Gn 32.30; Nm 12.5–8; Dt 4.33; 5.24; Jgs 6.22–23). Actually the very fabric of the Old Testament is woven of repeated self-revelations of God to Israel, often through theophanies.
The Pentateuch itself contains two basic types of theophany. One is primarily cultic and almost always involves an appearance of the glory of god. Another is noncultic. The earliest tradition in the pentateuch, the yahwist, recounts numerous outright encounters of Adam, Abraham, Hagar, Moses, etc., with the Lord in human form (Gn 3.8; 16.7–14; 18–19; 22.11–15; Dt 34.10). The theophanies are somewhat less direct in the elohist tradition, which prefers to represent God as speaking from heaven (Gn 21.17) or appearing in dreams (Gn 20.3; 28.12). The deuteronomist tradition, which conceives of God as manifested primarily through His Law, omits almost all mention of theophanies except to remind that the Lord displayed no form at all when His voice was heard from the fire (Dt 4.15). The tradition of the priestly writers is willing to admit that the Lord showed Himself to Abram (Gn 17.1) and Moses in ages past, but limits contemporary theophanies to dreams and visions and the sight of the glory.
One observes an increasing reluctance to portray God in direct converse with mankind. In later years editors tended to replace direct mention of Yahweh in such scenes with one of the various surrogates meant to take His role: His face (Dt 31.11), His angel (Ex 14.19), His spirit (Is 63.14), His word [Ps 32 (33).6], etc.
Another type of theophany, harking back to the most primitive theological thought, considered natural phenomena such as lightning storms to be divine epiphanies [Hb 3.8–15; Jgs 5.4–5; Ps 28 (29)].
In the prophetic literature, theophanies tend to take the form of inaugural visions, in which the Lord appears directly, usually surrounded by the mythological panoply of an Oriental monarch, and commissions the prophet to bear His message to the people (Is 6; Jer 1; Ez 1).
In its darker days Israel looked forward to a day of deliverance, the day of the lord. Often this was anticipated as a worldwide theophany wherein the Lord would appear—again in Oriental majesty—to judge and destroy the nations that oppress His people, and to establish Jerusalem in prosperity and peace (Is 2.6–22; 10–11; 63.1–6).
In the New Testament. Theophanies are not frequent in the New Testament, for the very reason that Jesus Himself is the revelation of the Father par excellence (Jn 1.18; Heb 1.1–3). Few manifestations of His Divinity mark the Gospel accounts, and those for special reasons: at His conception and nativity, to indicate His true origins (Lk 2); at His baptism, the inaugural vision of His divine mission (Mk 1.9–11); at His transfiguration, to prepare His disciples for the climax of His mission (Lk9.28–36); and as He commissioned the Apostles to preach the Gospel (Lk 24.36–49; Acts 9.1–9).
A second sort of theophany continues the eschatological tradition of the Old Testament, and looks to the future—not to any immediate salvation, but to the ultimate resolution of all creation in the parousia (Mt 24.29–31; 25.31–46; Rv 1.12–20; 21).
See Also: glory (in the bible).
Bibliography: g. h. davies, g. a. buttrick, ed., The Interpreters' Dictionary of the Bible, 4 v. (Nashville 1962) 4:619–620. w. eichrodt, Theology of the Old Testament, tr. j. a. baker (London 1961) v. 1. e. pax, Epiphaneia (Munich 1955).
[j. t. burtchaell]