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God Visible and Invisible

At the close of last week I noted that the “Word of YHWH” as a visible appearance of God as a man. This could lead to several questions. One of those was how a first-century Jew would have parsed the idea of Jesus being the “Word made flesh.” True, there was Old Testament precedent for God being visible and embodied. That phenomenon would have helped a first-century Jew accept at least the idea that God could show up in human form.
But it was more complicated than that. When Jesus referred to God in third person, or prayed to God, what then? Would a Jew have been able to wrap her mind around that one? How could God be here (visibly and physically) and still be in heaven? Today, this apparent conundrum is what keeps many Jews from embracing Christianity — it feels like polytheism to them. Given this context, it’s amazing how first-century Jews could embrace Jesus as YHWH and not feel as if they were betraying the God of Isreal. In fact, these same Jews were willing to die instead of worshipping the gods of the Greeks and Romans.
We could also ask certain questions about readers of the Old Testament prior to the time of Jesus. When ancient Israelites read the passages we looked at last week, did they imagine God was localized in only one place? Had he left heaven? Was he no longer omnipresent?

A Startling Reality

the startling reality is that long before Jesus and the New Testament, careful readers of the Old Testament would not have been troubled by the notion of, essentially, two YHWHs- one invisible and in heaven, the other manifest on earth in a variety of visible forms, including that of a man. In some instances the two YHWH figures are found TOGETHER IN THE SAME SCENE. This week and next week, we will see that the “Word” was just one expression of a visible YHWH in human form.
The concept of a Godhead in the Old Testament has many facets and layers. After the birth of his promised son, Isaac, Abraham’s spiritual journey includes a divine figure that is integral to Israelite Godhead thinking: The Angel of YHWH (the Lord). Although the most telling passages that show this angel as a visible embodiment of the very presence of God occur later in the time of Abraham, there are early hints of his nature during the lifetimes of Abraham and his sons.

The Angel of YHWH

The heart-wrenching story of Genesis 22, where Abraham was prepared to sacrifice his covenant son Isaac, is our next stop. It’s something of a transitional passage. We’ve seen that Abraham has had several encounters with God. The expression used to convey the visible, physical nature of those encounters has, to this point, been “the word of YHWH.” Genesis 22 marks a shift in the language for a visible figure to the “Angel of the Lord (YHWH)”.
Although the Angel of the Lord appears earlier than Genesis 22 (Gen 16: 7-11; and 21: 17), this particular appearance begins to blur the identities of YHWH and his angel. Genesis 22: 1-9 relates how Abraham had taken Isaac, at the bizarre command of God, to Mount Moriah to offer his son as a burnt offering. We pick up the story in verse 10
Genesis 22:10–18 ESV
Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to slaughter his son. But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” And Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him was a ram, caught in a thicket by his horns. And Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called the name of that place, “The Lord will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.” And the angel of the Lord called to Abraham a second time from heaven and said, “By myself I have sworn, declares the Lord, because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies, and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice.”
The first thing to notice is that when the angel of the Lord speaks to Abraham, Abraham recognizes the voice. He does not ask the identity of the speaker, as thought the voice is unfamiliar. He does not fear that he is listening to the voice of another god. The reader, however, knows that the source is not YHWH per se, but the angel of the Lord (YHWH). The word translated “angel” here is the Hebrew mal’ak, which simply means “messenger.”
The next observation is VERY important. The Angel speaks to Abraham in verse 11 and so is distinguished from God. Gen 22:11-12 But immediately after doing so, he commends Abraham for not withholding Isaac “from me.”
Genesis 22:11–12 ESV
But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.”
There is a switch to the first person which given that God himself had told Abraham to sacrifice Isaac seems to require seeing YHWH (Lord) as the speaker.
Many would say that this is due to the Angel being God’s mouthpiece, standing in the Lord’s place as it were. Be that idea is conveyed only later in the passage when the angel prefaces his words with “declares the Lord” In verse 11 there is no such clarification. The wording of the text blurs the distinction between the Lord and the Angel by swapping the angel into the role of the person who initially demanded the sacrifice as a test — God himself. Consequently the biblical writer had the opportunity to make sure the Lord and the angel were distinguished, but did not do so. This “failure” occurs in several other places in the Old Testament even more overtly. It is not really a failure. It is not a careless oversight. The wording is initially designed to blur the two. Moving on to Isaac and Jacob.
Genesis 26:1–5 ESV
Now there was a famine in the land, besides the former famine that was in the days of Abraham. And Isaac went to Gerar to Abimelech king of the Philistines. And the Lord appeared to him and said, “Do not go down to Egypt; dwell in the land of which I shall tell you. Sojourn in this land, and I will be with you and will bless you, for to you and to your offspring I will give all these lands, and I will establish the oath that I swore to Abraham your father. I will multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and will give to your offspring all these lands. And in your offspring all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because Abraham obeyed my voice and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws.”
This marks the first visible appearance to Isaac. It is a sign to Isaac that the covenant made with his father will be carried on through him. The Lord repeats the words of the covenant to Isaac. Later in Genesis 26: 23-25
Genesis 26:23–25 ESV
From there he went up to Beersheba. And the Lord appeared to him the same night and said, “I am the God of Abraham your father. Fear not, for I am with you and will bless you and multiply your offspring for my servant Abraham’s sake.” So he built an altar there and called upon the name of the Lord and pitched his tent there. And there Isaac’s servants dug a well.
God appears to Isaac again, the baton is passed. Isaac’s son Jacob receives the same divine approval in a series of visual encounters with the Lord (YHWH). The first is well-known.
Genesis 28:10–22 ESV
Jacob left Beersheba and went toward Haran. And he came to a certain place and stayed there that night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place to sleep. And he dreamed, and behold, there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven. And behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it! And behold, the Lord stood above it and said, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac. The land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring. Your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south, and in you and your offspring shall all the families of the earth be blessed. Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land. For I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.” And he was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” So early in the morning Jacob took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. He called the name of that place Bethel, but the name of the city was Luz at the first. Then Jacob made a vow, saying, “If God will be with me and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God, and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house. And of all that you give me I will give a full tenth to you.”
So Jacob is on his way to Haran, the place from which his ancestor Abraham had departed years earlier at the Lord’s command. Jacob is fleeing Esau after stealing the birthright through deception. Generally the ladder is seen as, not a extension ladder, but some sort of structure… most likely a stair-step that connected heaven and earth … a ziggurat? Jacob sees “angels of God” going up and down the structure, an indication of the presence of the divine council. Jacob also see the visible YHWH standing beside him — the familiar language for God in human form we noted with Abraham. In verse 15 the Lord promises protection for Jacob and pledges to bring the man back to his location, the land promised to Abraham, and names the place Bethel, the house of God, and erects a pillar to commemorate his conversation with the Lord.
Jacob saw the visible God at Bethel. Given what we have already seen in Genesis, this isn’t unusual. Things get more interesting in Genesis 31, the story of how Jacob became wealthy at the expense of his uncle, Laban, Jacobs flocks had multiplied supernaturally despite Laban’s attempt to cheat him. As their relationship soured, Jacob had a dream ...
Genesis 31:11–13 ESV
Then the angel of God said to me in the dream, ‘Jacob,’ and I said, ‘Here I am!’ And he said, ‘Lift up your eyes and see, all the goats that mate with the flock are striped, spotted, and mottled, for I have seen all that Laban is doing to you. I am the God of Bethel, where you anointed a pillar and made a vow to me. Now arise, go out from this land and return to the land of your kindred.’ ”
The Angel of the Lord explicitly tells Jacob that he was the God of Bethel. Jacob had seen angels at Bethel and one lone deity — YHWH. the God of Abraham. It was the Lord who had promised protection, and to whom Jacob had erected the stone pillar. This passage fuses the two figures. This fusion is helpful for parsing Jacobs later divine encounters.
As Jacobs life proceeds, he is in and out of trouble. Yet the Lord is with him. After he succeeds in fleeing his uncle Laban, he learns in the course of his travels that he will soon be coming face to face with Esau. At the time of Jacobs trickery Esau had sought to kill him, and as you expect Jacob is wondering if there is still a grudge. This meeting occurs on Chapter 33. But it is what happens in 32 that draws our attention.
In Gen 32:1
Genesis 32:1 ESV
Jacob went on his way, and the angels of God met him.
God sends angels to meet him. This time it is no dream. Nevertheless, Jacob is still anxious. He takes steps to bribe Esau, sending extravagant gifts ahead of the caravan. He removes his children and their mothers (4) to the other side of the Jabbok, a small stream. Alone that night he has his most famous encounter with God — or maybe someone else who was also God. The story reads:
Genesis 32:24–30 ESV
And Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched his hip socket, and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day has broken.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” And he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then he said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the name of the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered.”
It is clear that the “man” with whom Jacob wrestled was a divine being. The mysterious combatant himself says “you have wrestled with elohim” a term we know can be translated either God or god. The narrative nowhere says Jacobs encounter was only a vision. This elohim is tangible and corporeal. Hosea 12: 3-4
Hosea 12:3–4 ESV
In the womb he took his brother by the heel, and in his manhood he strove with God. He strove with the angel and prevailed; he wept and sought his favor. He met God at Bethel, and there God spoke with us—
So what do we have here? this elohim is tangible and corporeal. note the parallism.... not only is this opponent seen as God and angel… he is identified with Bethel. Hosea is telling us that Jacob wrestled with God himself, physically embodied — and identifies God with the angel who said he was the God of Bethel.
This “confusion” is deliberate. The point is that the Angel of the Lord is the Lord.
One more
Genesis 48:1–4 ESV
After this, Joseph was told, “Behold, your father is ill.” So he took with him his two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim. And it was told to Jacob, “Your son Joseph has come to you.” Then Israel summoned his strength and sat up in bed. And Jacob said to Joseph, “God Almighty appeared to me at Luz in the land of Canaan and blessed me, and said to me, ‘Behold, I will make you fruitful and multiply you, and I will make of you a company of peoples and will give this land to your offspring after you for an everlasting possession.’
Genesis 48:14–16 ESV
And Israel stretched out his right hand and laid it on the head of Ephraim, who was the younger, and his left hand on the head of Manasseh, crossing his hands (for Manasseh was the firstborn). And he blessed Joseph and said, “The God before whom my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked, the God who has been my shepherd all my life long to this day, the angel who has redeemed me from all evil, bless the boys; and in them let my name be carried on, and the name of my fathers Abraham and Isaac; and let them grow into a multitude in the midst of the earth.”
God and angel are clearly parallel here - only God can redeem from evil....The bless is singular … the identification is clear… this is a fusion… the identities of God and the Angel of the Lord are fused..
There is one YHWH that is invisible in heaven and one visible on the earth, but they are one. This is important .. the God of Isreal is God, but in more than one person.
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