“angel of Yahweh.” The phrase “angel of Yahweh” is translated as “the angel of the Lord” in most English versions. It appears more than 60 times in the Bible and appears to be an angel who is high ranking in God’s hierarchy of angels, however, that is never clearly stated and so it could be that “angel of Yahweh” refers to an angel that was on special assignment from God at that time. It is believed by some Trinitarians that in the Old Testament “the angel of the Lord” is Jesus Christ before he supposedly “incarnated” as a human. That point is disputed, and with good reason. There is not a single verse that actually says that Jesus Christ is the angel of the Lord. The entire doctrine is built from assumptions. Why then, if the doctrine is not stated, do so many people believe it? The reason is that it is very awkward for Trinitarians to believe that Jesus is co-equal and co-eternal with God from the beginning of time, and yet he never appears in the Old Testament. Since Jesus Christ plays a very active role today as Head of the Church, it does not seem likely that he could have been around throughout the entire Old Testament and yet he never got involved with people. Therefore, many Trinitarians assume that “the angel of the Lord” is Jesus Christ.
However, Biblical Unitarians assert that the very fact that the text uses the phrase “angel of Yahweh” is very strong evidence that it is actually an angel that is being talked about, and that Jesus Christ did not yet exist during the Old Testament. The biblical evidence is that Jesus began his life when God impregnated Mary (Matt. 1:18). Furthermore, very strong evidence that the angel of Yahweh is not Jesus comes from Hebrews 1:1-2, which says that in old times God spoke through prophets, but in these end days God spoke through His Son. But if Jesus was the angel of Yahweh in the Old Testament, then Hebrews 1:2 is misleading at best and is actually wrong. If Jesus was the angel of Yahweh, then God had spoken through His Son in both the olden times and in these last days.
Exactly what are the reasons Trinitarians say that the angel of the Lord is Jesus? Trinitarians differ on the points of evidence (which is to be expected when working from assumptions), but the standard reasons are: he seems superior to other angels; he is separate from Yahweh; he is able to forgive sins (Exod. 23:21); he speaks with authority as though he were God; his countenance struck awe in people; he was never seen after Jesus’ birth, and, most importantly, he is addressed as God himself. All these points will be considered, but the fact that this angel is addressed as God will be considered first.
A study of the appearances of the angel of the Lord reveals that sometimes he is addressed as the angel and sometimes he is addressed as “the Lord” or “God” (see Gen. 16:13 and Judges 6:16). The Jewish law of agency explains why this is so. According to the Jewish understanding of agency, the agent was regarded as the person himself. This is well expressed in The Encyclopedia of the Jewish Religion:
Agent (Heb. Shaliah): The main point of the Jewish law of agency is expressed in the dictum, “a person’s agent is regarded as the person himself” (Ned. 72b; Kidd. 41b). Therefore any act committed by a duly appointed agent is regarded as having been committed by the principal, who therefore bears full responsibility for it with consequent complete absence of liability on the part of the agent.a
In the texts in which the angel is called “God” or “the Lord,” it is imperative to notice that he is always identified as an angel. This point is important because God is never called an angel. God is God. So if a being is called “God,” but is clearly identified as an angel, there must be a reason. In the record in Genesis quoted above, the angel is clearly identified as an angel four separate times. Why then would the text say that “the Lord” spoke to her? It does so because as God’s agent or messenger, the angel was speaking for God and the message he brought was God’s message. The same basic idea is expressed when “God” is said to “visit” His people, when actually He sends some form of blessing (see commentary on Luke 7:16). God Himself does not show up, but someone unfamiliar with the culture might conclude from the wording that He did. Also, some of the people to whom the angel appeared, clearly expressed their belief he was an angel of God. Gideon exclaimed, “I have seen the angel of the Lord face to face!” (Judg. 6:22).
There is conclusive biblical evidence that God’s messengers and representatives are called “God” (see commentary on Hebrews 1:8). This is important because, if representatives of God are called “God,” then the way to distinguish God from His representative is by the context. We have already seen that when the angel of the Lord is called “God,” the context is careful to let the reader know that the agent is, in fact, an angel.
Another piece of evidence that reveals that the angel of the Lord is an angel and not a “co-equal” member of the Trinity is that he is under the command of the Lord. In one record, David disobeyed God and a plague came on the land. “God sent an angel to destroy Jerusalem” (1 Chron. 21:15). We learn from the record that it was the angel of the Lord afflicting the people, and eventually “the lord was grieved because of the calamity and said to the angel who was afflicting the people, ‘Enough! Withdraw your hand.’ The angel of the Lord was then at the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite” (2 Sam. 24:16). These verses are not written as if this angel was somehow God himself. There is no “co-equality” here. This is simply the Lord giving commands to one of His angels.
Another clear example showing that the angel of the Lord cannot be God in any way is in Zechariah. Zechariah was speaking with an angel about a vision he had. The Bible records, “Then the angel of Yahweh replied, ‘O Yahweh of Armies, how long will you not have mercy on Jerusalem and on the cities of Judah, against which you have had indignation these 70 years?’ Yahweh answered the angel who talked with me with good words, comforting words.” (Zech. 1:12-13). The fact that the angel of Yahweh asked Yahweh for information and then received comforting words indicates that this “angel of Yahweh” is not a co-equal member of the Trinity with the same power and knowledge as Yahweh God. It is unthinkable that God would need information or need comforting words. Thus, any claim that the angel of Yahweh (“the angel of the lord”) is the preincarnate Christ who is in every way God just cannot be made to fit what the Bible actually says.
It is interesting that two pieces of evidence that Trinitarians use to prove that the angel of the Lord must be the preincarnate Jesus are that the Bible clearly states that he is separate from God and that he speaks with God’s authority. Biblical Unitarians assert that the reason the Bible shows that he is separate from God is because he is separate from God and he is exactly what the text calls him, an angel. Furthermore, he speaks with authority because he is bringing a message from God. The prophets and others who spoke for God spoke with authority, as many verses affirm. Also, the angel of the Lord speaks about God in the third person. For example, in Genesis 16:11 the angel says, “Yahweh has heard and paid attention to your affliction.” The angel does not say, “I have heard of your misery,” as if he were God. In Genesis 22:12, the angel said, “Now I know that you fear God,” and not “Now I know you fear me.” In Judges 13:5, the angel says Samson will be “a Nazirite to God,” not “a Nazirite to me.” So although the text can call the angel God, which is proper for a representative of God, the angel never said he was God and even referred to God in the third person.
Also, if Jesus were the angel of the Lord who spoke to Moses at the burning bush, then he did not say so in his teaching. Mark 12:26 records Jesus speaking with the Sadducees and saying, “Have you not read in the book of Moses, in the account of the bush, how God said to him, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’” If Jesus had been the angel in the bush, and was openly proclaiming himself to be “the preexistent God,” he would have used this opportunity to say, “I said to Moses.” The fact that Jesus said it was God who spoke to Moses shows that he was differentiating himself from God. In accordance with the Jewish custom of Author-Agent, we can see that it was an angel speaking for God and representing Him who is called “God” in Exodus 3:4. Importantly, Stephen clearly identified the one who spoke to Moses as an angel (Acts 7:30), and if Stephen knew that the “angel” was Jesus, and he was trying to convince the unbelieving Jews in his audience that Jesus was the Christ, it seems that his speech to them would have been a good time to say it. The simple reason that Stephen said it was an angel who appeared to Moses is that it was an angel.
That the angel of the Lord seems superior to other angels is no reason to assume he is somehow part of the Trinity. Many scholars agree that angels differ in power and authority. The Bible mentions archangels in 1 Thessalonians 4:16 and Jude 9, and an “archangel” is a ruling angel (see commentary on Jude 1:9). It would not be unusual that this angel would be one with greater authority. Neither is the fact that the angel of the Lord can forgive sins any reason to believe that he is God. God’s agents can forgive sins. God gave Jesus the authority to forgive sins, and then Jesus gave the apostles the authority to forgive sins (See commentary on Mark 2:7).
Although it is true that the countenance of the angel of the Lord occasionally struck awe in people, that is no reason to assume he is God. A careful reading of the passages where he appears shows that sometimes the people did not even realize that they were talking to an angel. For example, when the angel of the Lord appeared to Samson’s mother, she returned to her husband Manoah with this report: “A man of God came to me. He looked like an angel of God, very awesome. I didn’t ask him where he came from, and he didn’t tell me his name” (Judges 13:6). Note that angels had a reputation for having an awe-inspiring countenance, and the woman thought this “man of God” did too, but she still did not believe he was an angel. When Manoah met the angel of the Lord and the two of them talked about how to raise Samson, Manoah did not discover he was an angel until he ascended to heaven in the smoke of Manoah’s sacrifice. Therefore, just because someone’s countenance may be awesome, he is not necessarily God.
It is also argued that Jesus is probably “the angel of the Lord” because those words never appear after his birth, and it seems reasonable that this angel would appear right on through the Bible. The fact is, however, that the angel of the Lord does appear after Jesus’ conception, which seems inconsistent with the premise that the angel of the Lord is the “preincarnate Christ.” The record of Jesus’ birth is well known. Mary was discovered to be pregnant with Jesus before she and Joseph were married, and Joseph, who could have had her stoned to death, decided to divorce her. However, “an angel of the Lord” appeared to him in a dream and told him the child was God’s. Matthew 1:24 states, “When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife.” Two conclusions can be drawn from this record. First, Jesus was already in Mary’s womb when the angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph. From this we conclude that “the angel of the Lord” cannot be Jesus because Jesus was at that time “in the flesh” inside Mary. Second, it should be noted that in the same record this angel is known both as “an” angel of the Lord and as “the” angel of the Lord. This same fact can be seen in the Old Testament records (Cp. 1 Kings 19:5, 7).
There are many appearances of “an” angel of the Lord in the New Testament (Cp. Acts 5:19; 8:26; 12:7, 23). From this, we conclude that it is likely that the same angel who is called both “the” angel of the Lord and “an angel” in the Old Testament still appears as “an angel of the Lord” after Christ’s birth. When all the evidence is carefully weighed, there is good reason to believe that the words describing the “angel” of the Lord are literal, and that the one being referred to is an angel, just as the text says.
[For more on the custom of the Author-Agent, see commentary on Matthew 8:5. For more information on God coming into concretion, see commentary on Acts 7:55. For more information on Jesus being the fully human Son of God and not being “God the Son,” see Appendix 10, “Jesus is the Son of God, Not God the Son.” For more information on “the Holy Spirit” not being a third Person in the Trinity, see Appendix 11, “What is the Holy Spirit?”]
“spring on the road to Shur.” Water was a vital part of life in the Middle East, and the need for water for humans and animals dictated that roads and caravan routes went where there was water. Thus it seems sure that the spring of fresh water dictated where the road went, and not that there was a road and someone dug a spring next to it.