Angel of the Lord

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A theophanic messenger of God, mentioned mainly in ancient texts of the Pentateuch and the Historical Books of the OT, distinct from, and posing a different problem than, the angels in general.

Summary of Usage. The Hebrew word malāk (messenger) may be used of human messengers (Gn 32.4), prophets as spokesmen for God (2 Chr 36.1516), or God's superhuman envoys (Gn 19.1, 15), but its use in the phrase malak yahweh or 'elohim (the messenger of Yahweh or God) has a more specific meaning that has not yet been satisfactorily explained.

In a series of passages taken from the Yahwistic and Elohistic traditions that formed the nucleus of the Pentateuch and in other early texts, the messenger of the Lord is presented not as a created heavenly envoy, distinct from God, but as Yahweh or God appearing to humans in sensible form (Gn 16.713; 21.1720; 22.1118; 31.1113; Ex 3.26; 14.19, 2425; Nm 22.2235; Jgs 2.15; See also Jos 5.1315; Jgs 6.1124; 13.323). In a few other passages (Ex 23.2023; Gn 24.7; 48.16; Nm 20.16) a messenger sent by God and apparently distinct from Him performs salvation acts that are attributed directly to God in other places. Other passages ascribe vengeance to messengers from God, who are distinct from Him, e.g., the Exterminator of Ex 12.23 (See also 1 Cor 10.10 Heb 11.28; Gn 19.1; 2 Sm 24.16; 2 Kgs 19.35). Finally, David is compared to an angel of the Lord because of his goodness and wisdom (1 Sm 29.9; 2 Sm 14.1720; 19.27). The burden of the rest of this article is to determine what the angel of the Lord in the first series of texts means.

Original Meaning of Yahweh's Messenger. There are three theories that attempt to explain the origin and meaning of these texts: (1) the messenger is one who represents the Lord, transmits His will and promises, and therefore speaks God's message in the first person singular as the Prophets also did (Jerome and Augustine); (2) the messenger is the ubiquitous God Himself who directly but in human form manifests His message to His chosen leaders (see the Greek and early Latin Fathers of the Church who affirmed that the angel was a manifestation of the Logos); and (3) the messenger is the result of later theological speculation and was interpolated into ancient, naïve traditions relating direct, nonmediated appearances of God to humans that clashed with the evolved concept of God's transcendence and the angels' mediation.

Each theory has valid elements that aid in the understanding of the individual passages, but none of them solves all the problems concerned with the messenger of the Lord wherever it appears. The third theory mentioned above (interpolation) cannot by itself explain why vestiges of the direct intervention of God were left uninterpolated. But it does explain how postexilic Jews must have understood the passages into which they did not interpolate the angel of the Lord. The first theory mentioned above (representation) is certainly Biblical and is to be applied to the second and third series of texts cited above, and perhaps even to the fourth where David is praised as God's representative; but in the first series the messenger is certainly not distinct from God Himself.

The second theory mentioned above (identity) appears to offer more solutions than the other two, especially when one considers that the original meaning of malāk may not have been messenger but a sending or a message. Certainly in other ancient passages no mediation whatsoever is found when God communicates with His elect (Gn 12.13, passim ). "The angel of the Lord is therefore a form in which Yahweh appears He is God himself in human form" [G. Von Rad, Genesis, tr. J. H. Marks (Philadelphia 1961) 188]. God appearing in human form then is a type of the Logos, Christ, who fulfills the directness and mediation of this mysterious "message" of Yahweh. In Mal 3.1 the messenger of the Lord and messenger of the covenant appear to be both Yahweh Himself and the messenger sent before Him.

In the NT (Lk 1.11; 2.9; Jn 5.4; Acts 5.19; etc.) the angel of the Lord is distinct from God, "sent from God" (Lk 1.26).

Bibliography: w. g. heidt, Angelology of the Old Testament (Washington 1949). w. g. macdonald, "Christology and 'the Angel of the Lord'," in Current Issues in Biblical and Patristic Interpretation: Studies in Honor of Merrill C. Tenney Presented by His Former Students, ed. g. f. hawthorne (Grand Rapids 1975) 324335. d. slager, "Who Is the 'Angel of the Lord'?" Bible Translator 39 (1988) 436438.

[t. l. fallon/eds.]