The Influence of Theophany in the Old Testament
Throughout the books we have read in the Old Testament there have been many instances of angels appearing to ordinary people in many different ways. They have profound influence on the lives of the people they visit, and the ways by which they appear seem significant impact on the people they are visiting. There are many ways to interpret these stories, and there has been much debate on them. Some have gone so far as to say these visitations are not spiritual but in fact extra terrestrial in their nature. There are a few in the bible that stand out over all the rest, whether it is the reason God visited someone or how they react. The authorship of these stories is not important for the questions we are trying to answer here, but the many interpretations of the images, conversations, and influences that are seen in theophanies throughout the Old Testament.
A theophany is any instance where god appears to someone on earth. There are many questions that need to be answered about these experiences, and there will likely always be debate over them. One question in particular that needs to be addressed is what is behind the physical appearance itself? Also, what can we learn about the nature of God through the methods by which he chooses to appear to people. The first instance in the Old Testament of a theophany in Genesis 2:16, “And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, “Of every tree of the garden you are free to eat , but as for the tree of knowledge of good and bad, you must not eat of it, for as soon as you eat of it, you shall die”. Aristotle said in the beginning of his “Metaphysics” that “All men by nature desire to know”. This is an important concept when understanding an experience like the one in the Garden of Eden because it is necessarily the reason for the fall of man in Genesis. It is in our nature to be curious about the world around us, and this story from Genesis is good example to show how we can let it get the best of our judgment.
Appearances of God and his angels are very prevalent throughout Genesis and all of the Old Testament books. We are all familiar with the traditional images of angels with wings, halos, white robes, etc. that all seem to accent a glowing figure descending from the sky. These shape most childhood visions of angels, and God seems to take on the figure of an old man in many cases. These images reflect many descriptions throughout the Bible and also many interpretations of the stories in it. God shows his power again in Genesis nineteen with the story of Lot and his family. The story takes place as God decides to destroy Sodom but allows Lot and his family to live. They are rushed out of the city by the angels who visited Lot, and his wife is turned to a pillar of salt for looking back after the angels told them not to. The first thing to take note of when analyzing this story is the sheer amazement that everyone shared when these angels showed up. Lot actually offered his daughters to the mob in order to keep the angels safe. My concern with this is what convinced Lot to make a decision like this so quickly. If they were angels, what made them appear as such, and how did their presence cause so much uproar? There must have been some visible characteristics about these men that separated them from everyone else. The next portion of this story that produces more questions than answers is the moment Lot’s wife turned back to see the destruction and was turned to a pillar of salt. The first thing that we can ask about this is why a pillar of salt? This, and the other obvious questions posed by this odd experience reflect the concerns posed about the fall from the Garden of Eden. In both cases, it seems that man’s curiosity got the best of him and he was unable to avoid doing what God told him not to.
Physical appearances are not the only way that God has directly communicated with people in Genesis. “And he said, ‘Take your son, your favored one Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the heights that I will point out to you’”. (Genesis 22:2) While this story has no visible appearance of God or an angel, God is still closely monitoring the decisions that Abraham makes. The problem of curiosity and obedience are present in this story, but have different roles than in the previous two examples. God told Abraham to sacrifice his own son, and he showed no opposition or argument against the demand. On the other hand, did Isaac know of his father’s plans and just let it happen? There is a bit of irony in the connection this has with the two previous examples of theophany. Eve’s curiosity about the tree of knowledge got humankind kicked out of the Garden of Eden. Lot’s wife died because of her curiosity about the destruction of Sodom. But Isaac’s lack of curiosity as to what his father was taking him to the land of Moriah for seems to have contributed to his near death.
God’s relationship with Abraham is complex, and as Marc Brettler said, “Even after the most difficult experiences, such as the binding of Isaac, the covenantal promise is renewed”. (Brettler, 58) Brettler seems to indicate in his analysis of Abraham that stories like this one were written not to give a historical account of an event, but to spark curiosity and pose questions that are relevant to our society today. Although he did not actually go through with killing Isaac, Abraham’s devotion to the task given to him by God seems to overcome any love he has for his son. One question remains about this incident that we must consider carefully before coming to any conclusion about why the events unfolded as they did, what was it about the delivery of God’s message that actually convinced Abraham? God “called out” to Abraham when he told him to offer Isaac, and the angels “called out” to him as well when they told him to refrain from killing Isaac. As Brettler suggested, this may amount to nothing more than a story with the intent of sparking debate, but some still retain a fundamentalist view of the Old Testament that needs to be addressed. There may seem to be no physical evidence of God’s communication with Abraham, but Abraham’s perception of God’s message must have been very intense. To be confronted by someone who you immediately know is responsible for all of creation in any way would be a life changing event, and this can be seen through Abraham’s compliance with God.
Many characters throughout the Old Testament show a great deal of devotion and importance to God, but perhaps the most popular one of them all is Moses, who rose up to lead his people out of Egypt only to be struck down at the gate of his ultimate achievement by the one who sent him on his journey, God. His first encounter with God seems to be one of the most direct and detailed account that we are given in Exodus, and maybe even the entire Old Testament. “An angel of the lord appeared to him in a blazing fire out of a bush”. (Exodus 3:2). As we saw in past examples, an angel is who first confronts Moses, and he is overcome with surprise. After Moses shows his retreat from the sight of the burning bush God appears to him saying, “Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you stand is holy ground”. (Exodus 3:5). From here an even more complex relationship begins between God and one of his people, and this will serve as the base for what could be the most important uprising in the entire Old Testament.
Moses is the central character of Exodus, and he plays an important role in the development of the exodus out of Egypt. His experience at Horeb is nothing short of life changing, and it has been open to criticism and different interpretations by anyone and everyone who reads it. One commonly overlooked portion of this visitation is the name that God tells Moses to refer to him by when convincing the Isrealites. “Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh” is the name he gives to Moses, but we must ask, what is the significance of this name?
Michael Fishbane, “The Jewish Study Bible”. Oxford University press, 1999.
Aristotle, “The Basic Works of Aristotle”. New York, Random House. 1941
Marc Brettler, “How to read the Jewish Bible”. New York. Oxford Press, 2007
Sigmund Freud, “Moses and Monotheism”. New York. Vintage Books, 1939