Traditional Christian theology classifies OT apparitions of the Angel of the Lord as Christophanies. A Christophany would be an appearance of God’s preincarnate Son in OT times. If the traditional identification is right, that creates a bridge between OT monotheism and NT Trinitarianism. But is that correct?
This really bundles two questions into one: (a) the general question of whether the Angel of the Lord is an angelic creature or else a theophany; (b) the specific question of whether it’s a Christophany in particular.
Let’s approach the issue by quoting some objections to the traditional identification:
Nevertheless, it is best not to think of the two figures as simply equated. We should see this in the context of the ancient Near East, where messengers normally spoke for the sender. We see this phenomenon throughout the prophetic writings of the OT. When the prophets brought God’s message to Israel, they typically spoke for God in the first person; e.g. “The Lord said, ‘I am bringing a nation against you,’” rather than, “The Lord said that he is bringing a nation against you.” P. Enns, Exodus (Zondervan 2000), 96.Some have equated the angel of I AM with Jesus Christ. This argument is plausible in that both are distinct from God and yet equated with God. But this argument must be rejected for several reasons. First, more than one being, such as a priest or judge, can have the status of being distinct from God yet equated with God. Second, there is a crucial difference between the angel of I AM and Jesus Christ. Since in Christ’s incarnation the fullness of the godhead dwells in him bodily, there is no reason to think a preincarnate revelation of him would be anything less. Third, the NT never lowers the identity of the Son of God to an angel of any sort. B. Waltke, An Old Testament Theology (Zondervan 2007), 363.
What are we to make of these objections?
i) What Enns says is careless. Indeed, the example he gives undermines his claim. The typical prophetic formula is a quotation formula. There’s a third-person introduction, followed by the first-person statement. A shift from indirect to direct discourse. The prophet doesn’t simply speak in God’s name, as if the prophet were God speaking. Rather, he attributes the statement to God: “Thus says the Lord…”
But in Angel of the Lord passages, we don’t have that distinction. There the speaker isn’t speaking for God, but as God.
Now, it’s possible that this is a form of shorthand. But if so, it stands in striking contrast to the prophetic practice.
ii) Apropos (i), notice how God speaking from heaven is interchangeable with the Angel of the Lord speaking from heaven (Gen 22:1-2,11,15-16). There’s a seamless transition.
iii) The ANE was rife with idolatry and polytheism. Indeed, the two went together. If the Angel of the Lord is simply an angelic creature, you’d expect special precautions to be taken to distinguish him from Yahweh. For, by ANE standards, the Angel of the Lord is a very godlike being. He’s depicted in terms indistinguishable from God himself. That would be terribly confusing to listeners accustomed to polytheism, unless a special effort was made to distinguish him from Yahweh.
iv) It’s true that Jesus is above the angels, just as the Creator is above the creature. But that misses the point. If the Angel of the Lord is a Christophany, that doesn’t mean the Son of God is literally an angelic being. It’s just a title, and the Hebrew word isn’t that specialized to begin with.
v) Of course there’s a crucial difference between a Christophany and the Incarnate Son. The traditional identification takes that difference for granted. So it’s hard to see the point of Waltke’s objection.
vi) Pace his claim, I don’t see where the status of a priest or prophet is equated with God. I don’t see anything equivalent to Exod 3, Exod 23:20-23, or Exod 33-34 in the way Scripture depicts prophets and priests.
vii) Exod 33-34 is a classic theophany. Yet that also seems to be an angelophany. The anthropomorphic or angelomorphic depiction dovetails with the Angel of the Lord.
viii) Gen 18 is a threefold angelophany. The three visitors have a human appearance. Two are angels, while the other is Yahweh. That also dovetails with the Angel of the Lord.
ix) Stuart renders the title “Yahweh Angel”. Cf. D. Stuart, Exodus (Broadman 2006). 111.
x) Jude 5 is potentially relevant. According to the best textual tradition, it reads: Now I want to remind you, although you once fully knew it, that Jesus, who saved a people out of the land of Egypt, afterward destroyed those who did not believe.
On the textual issues, cf. G. Green, Jude & Peter (Baker 2008), 65.
This doesn’t refer to a specific incident. But it would certainly be consistent with the Yahweh Angel as a Christophany.
xi) Assuming that the Yahweh Angel is theophanic, is it specifically Christophanic? That identification involves an argument from analogy, between the sender and the sent. If God sends the “angel,” and the Father sends the Son, then the Father sends the Yahweh Angel (i.e. the preincarnate Son).
xii) If the Yahweh Angel is a Christophany, then that would make the Son a literal warrior God, viz. Josh 5:13-15. The Book of Revelation uses martial imagery, but that’s symbolic. By contrast, Josh 5:13-15 refers to real combat.