Knowing Christ Through Old Testament Theophanies (Essay)

The manifest, yet mystical, presence of God is one of the primary ways God has expressed Himself throughout the Old Testament. Moses in response to God’s promise of His conspicuous presence said, “If Your presence does not go don’t make us go up from here. How will it be known that I and Your people have found favor in Your sight unless You go with us? I and Your people will be distinguished [by this] from all the other people on the face of the earth.” (Ex 33:15-16) . The difference, therefore, between the God of the Israelites and the “nature” gods or the man-made idols of their pagan neighbors, was that the Israelite’s invisible God exhibited Himself in startling, physically evident ways (theophanies).

Nevertheless, we are immediately confronted with a quandary because the God of the Israelites is clearly portrayed elsewhere in Scripture as a spirit God who has no form that could be seen. God, Himself, while speaking personally to Moses says, “You cannot see My face, for no one can see Me and live” (Ex 33:20). Jesus reiterates the basic premise of this invisible God when He said, “The Father who sent Me has Himself testified about Me. You have not heard His voice at any time, and you haven’t seen His form” (Jn 5:37). So, not even the epiphanic verbal (non-visible) communications of God in the Old Testament are that of the Father, but of, by inference, Jesus. Later Jesus again reiterates His unique relationship with God when He says no one “has seen the Father except the One who is from God. He has seen the Father” (Jn 6:46). Additionally, St. Paul, possibly not simply speaking of the incarnate Christ, says that Jesus is “is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation” (Col 1:15).

So, how do we reconcile the many “appearances” of God in the Old Testament? From a Christian perspective the answer can be clearly seen. The God who remained elusive appeared in and through His Son, the pre-Incarnate Jesus. Looking at the theophanies of the Old Testament as appearances of Christ can assist us in developing a more holistic Christology.

Christologies that simply emphasize a re-reading of Old Testament prophetic Messianic texts, or which emphasize the titles of Jesus are clearly deficient in supporting the pervasive New Testament doctrine of the eternality of Jesus (Jn 1:1; Gal 4:4,5; Col 1:16). That is, that the Old Testament Scriptures proclaim that a messiah was to come to ultimately liberate the Israelites, establish a new world order, or even begin a new spiritual exodus of all humanity, does not necessitate a messiah who is an eternally pre-existent Divine being who is One with God, which orthodox Christianity professes.

Furthermore, an emphasis on messianic prophecies does not become prevalent in Judaism until the Second Temple era. It is not surprising then that first century Christianity, being simply a sect of Judaism, understood that Jesus was not only the prophesied Messiah, but also the physical embodiment of YHWH, and not only through the Incarnation, but throughout the history of creation beginning from Genesis 1:1. The metaphorical glasses that the first Christians wore when they looked at the Old Testament (which was the only Bible they had), were Jesus colored lenses. They saw Jesus everywhere in the theophanies of the Old Testament. Indeed it was Jesus who said, “These are My words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about Me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms must be fulfilled” (Lk 24:44).

Below we will look briefly at some of the major theophanic encounters in the Old Testament, and how approaching these Christologically can create an entrance into understanding the Old Testament as the unfolding redemptive action of God through Christ.

The Garden of Eden
That there was a Trinitarian participation in the Creation story has long been taught in the Church, but what of the person who the writer of Genesis says is the “LORD God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze” (Gen 3:8). For St. Irenaeus this LORD is Christ the “Word of God [who] was always walking in it” (p. 47) . This interpretation was not unique to Irenaeus; Theophilus of Antioch held this view as well (To Autolycus 2:22).

Furthermore, Irenaeus translates Genesis 1:1, “A Son [in] the beginning God established the heavens and the earth.” (p. 68). Thus, the “Alpha and Omega, the Beginning and the End” title which is ascribed to Jesus (Rev. 22:13) is a title drawn from and transferred to the first words of Scripture. John’s prologue takes on new meaning with this re-reading of Genesis 1:1. Reflecting deeply on John’s prologue and Genesis 1 together both clarifies, yet mystifies the idea of a Trinitarian God, creating the world through Jesus.

Goethe’s character Faust agonizes over understanding this great mystery:

‘Tis writ, ‘In the beginning was the Word.’
I pause, to wonder what is here inferred.
The Word I cannot set supremely high:
A new translation I will try.

I read, if by the spirit I am taught,
This sense: ‘In the beginning was the Thought.’

This opening I need to weigh again,
Or sense may suffer from a hasty pen.
Does Thought create, and work, and rule the hour?
‘Twere best: ‘In the beginning was the Power.’

Yet, while the pen is urged with willing fingers,
A sense of doubt and hesitancy lingers.
The spirit comes to guide me in my need,
I write, ‘In the beginning was the Deed.’

Cain and Abel
In Genesis 4, Cain in killing his brother Abel is cast east of Eden outside of God’s presence. Here it seems that God is still very manifest to His creation, speaking and meeting with Cain in a very familiar way. Dale Allison in his Studies in Matthew: Interpretation Past and Present makes a connection with the implied altar of Eden and Christ’s teaching about murder (p. 74), “So if you are offering your gift on the altar, and there you remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift” (Mt 5:23-24). Orthodox iconography often depicts Jesus as being present at the altar in Eden; indeed Jesus is the ultimate altar of sacrifice (Hebrews 13:10).

In the story of the strangers by the oaks of Mamre (Gn 18), Samuel Terrien says that these strangers (v. 2) “soon become identified directly with the Deity” (p.79) . Irenaeus clearly sees this Deity as Jesus. “Now two of the three were angels, but one was the Son of God, with whom Abraham spoke…” (p. 69). Irenaeus also says, is it not “this One who, standing in a very small space, talked with Abraham, but the Word of God, who was always with mankind…?” (p. 70). Additionally, it has long been assumed by Christian commentators that The Angel of the LORD in Genesis 22 is a Christophany, but Abraham’s repetitive phrase “here I am” should give a clue as to who Abraham thought he was talking with—none other than YHWH Himself.

The story of Jacob has two major theophanic occurrences. The first, the story of Jacob’s ladder to heaven, might better be understood as, what Terrien calls, epiphanic speech, because there was no “physical” appearance of God, rather God appears in a dream (Gen. 28:12). Here again as with Abraham, the covenant of God is reaffirmed. Appropriating this theophany as a Christophany means that the name of Jesus must also be YHWH, since when God speaks He says to Jacob, “I am Yahweh, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac” (Gen 28:13). St. John records Jesus appropriating this event with Jesus saying, “I assure you: You will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the son of man” (Jn 1:51). Thus, Irenaeus sees the ladder as the “tree which was set up from earth to heaven, for by it the believers in Him ascend to heaven, since His Passion is our ascension on high” (p. 70).

In chapter 32 of Genesis, Jacob wrestles with God who is expressed as “a man” (v. 24). Jacob after the intense struggle with God says, “I have seen God face to face and I have been delivered” (Gen. 32:30). Terrien discounts this idea of panim el-panim, saying that the idiom “should not be construed as referring literally to visual perception” (p. 90). Perhaps Terrien is attempting to reconcile Jesus’ saying that no one has seen God. Nevertheless, unlike his previous vision of YHWH, Jacob here refers to the man he wrestled with as Adonai, the name normally translated as LORD, especially when combined with YHWH. This LORD should be understood as Christ, for St. Paul says, “for us there is one God, the Father. All things are from Him, and we exist for Him. And there is one Lord, Jesus Christ. All things are through Him, and we exist through Him” (1 Cor. 8:6).

The theophanies with Moses are some of the most dramatic in Scripture. The burning bush, the encounters on Mt. Sinai, and the presence of God in the Ark and the Tent of the Meeting were times where the elusive presence of God may been the most physically manifest in the Old Testament. Nevertheless, Terrien notes that “Presence is real but unseen. The invisibility of a God who yet speaks remains the cardinal tenet of Hebraic theology of presence” (p. 112).

As God discloses Himself as YHWH, we should understand this phrase not only as the great “I Am” but also as “He causes to be” (Terrien, 116). The creative aspect of YHWH can then be connected to the creator Christ who is with God in the beginning creating all that exists (Col 1:16-17).

So then it is Christ in the burning bush and who gives the Word of the Law to Moses on Mt. Sinai, as well as the instructions for the construction of the Ark of the Covenant and the Tent of the Meeting, which are patterned after the heavenly throne room where the Godhead lives.

The Tent of the Meeting (and the temple) are patterned after the heavenly throne room, but so is the Garden of Eden and Mt. Sinai itself (Ex. 19). On Mt. Sinai, the people are allowed only to come close to foot of the mountain (the outer court), the elders go only so far up the mountain (the Holy Place), and Moses, acting as a high priest can ascend to the highest point and meet with God directly (Holy of Holies). In Eden, East of Eden represents the outer court, the Garden is the Holy Place, and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (forbidden place) is the Holy of Holies. Thus the temple is representative of the glory of God’s presence, and the Holy of Holies is Christ.

The manifestation of God in the Tent of the Meeting (in the Ark and as a Pillar of Fire and a Pillar of smoke) and then in Solomon’s Temple is yet another picture of Christ. In the New Testament Jesus is the new temple. He is the container of the glory of God, the manifest presence of the Almighty. The Christ child’s presentation for dedication is the return of the glory that left the temple in Ezekiel (11:22-23): “For my eyes have seen Your salvation. You have prepared it in the presence of all peoples—a light for revelation to the Gentiles and glory to Your people Israel” (Luke 2:30-32).

For Elijah the prophet, the mountain of the Lord, like Moses, comes into view where his theophany will take place (1 Ki 19:11). As the Lord passes by, the Scriptures note that the Lord is not in the mighty wind, or the powerful earthquake, or in an awesome fire. Instead the theophanic presence of God is the still small voice, a whisper of the Word (logos).

Though Elijah and Moses don’t see the face of God on their mountains, they do meet with Jesus panim el-panim on another mountain, the Mount of Transfiguration (Mk 9:2-9).

In the call of Isaiah, the prophet is transported to the throne room of God in heaven through a theophanic vision. Seraphim are ministering to the LORD, singing “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of Hosts” (6:3) in a place that is said to be a temple. The temple is filled with smoke and the glory of God is manifest. When God speaks, He speaks in the plural, “Who shall go for Us?” (6:8). Terrien says there is a link to Isaiah’s vision with the “epiphanic visitation to the patriarchs (especially the Abrahamic dialogue) [and] the Mosaic theophany (especially the burning bush)….” (p. 248). If such a link exists, again all of these theophanies are in actuality Christophanies.

The theophanic call of Jeremiah is not as spectacular as Isaiah’s, yet, nevertheless it is quite remarkable. Here it is the “word of the LORD” which comes to Jeremiah (1:4). Much like Abraham and Moses, Jeremiah argues with God about his inability to carry out the call. So God “touches” Jeremiah’s mouth, and says He will give him the words to speak. With the prophets after Elijah, though there are some pictures of God’s throne room, it is the Word (the Logos or Christ) that dominates the theophanic expression.

For Jeremiah, he will be the prophet that most clearly speaks of a Messianic covenant, where a Righteous Branch (33:15), will establish the new covenant where God will manifest His presence among and within all of His people (31:31-34).

Like John in Revelation and Daniel’s apocalyptic visions, Ezekiel sees a picture of the throne room in heaven in vivid detail. This picture of heaven gives further details to Moses’ description on Mt. Sinai (Ex 19). In Ezekiel there “was a form with the appearance of a human on the throne high above” (1:26). Later, God speaks to Ezekiel as “son of man” and gives him His Word to eat, digest, and to prophetically call God’s people back to Himself.

In Chapter 34 we hear that Israel has no “shepherd,” and that God Himself will come to shepherd His people (1-16). This, of course, is Christ speaking about his future role as the Good Shepherd who lays down His life for His sheep (John 10).

Irenaeus connects John the Baptist’s comment about the stones of Abraham that God can animate (Matt 3:9) to Ezekiel’s prophecy, “And I will take the stony heart of their flesh, and give them another heart, of flesh…” (p. 96).  Only Jesus can animate or reanimate the heart.

Daniel has a dramatic vision of heaven, seeing the blazing light of the glory of God (10:1-19). Much like St. Paul’s vision of Christ, others who were there cannot see the vision, but are aware of something dramatic occurring. Daniel describes God as “the one with human likeness [who] touched me again and strengthened me” (10:18). Once again, in all of these vivid encounters with YHWH, the unseen God has substance or shape, and in this occurrence a distinct human form.

That Christ is Daniel’s Son of Man (7:13-14), gives further credence to the reality of the eternality of Jesus, and Daniel’s theophanic encounters with Him.

There are several reasons why it is important to see the Old Testament theophanies as Christophanies.

First, Jesus is not a new God, who some Gentile Christians invent alongside of God the Father because they have no monotheistic sensibilities. No, for the first Jewish believers of Jesus, He is indeed YHWH, a member of the Trinitarian Godhead. St. John helps us understand this when he described a unique encounter with St. Philip: “‘Lord,’ said Philip, ‘show us the Father, and that’s enough for us.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have I been among you all this time without your knowing Me, Philip? The one who has seen Me has seen the Father. How can you say, “Show us the Father”? Don’t you believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in Me?’” (Jn 4:8-10a).

Secondly, Jesus as YHWH removes any sense of a dualism which creates two different Gods. The heresy of Marcion tried to reconcile the erroneous sense that the Father (wrathful) and the Son (merciful) were too different in their character to be the same God. Jesus is not the God of the New Testament; He is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Thirdly, a Christocentric understanding of Old Testament theophanies helps us reject a modalistic tendency. God the Father is the unseen God who “is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth” (Jn 4:24). A truly trinitarian (well, at least binitarian) understanding of God almost necessitates a Jesus who is YHWH’s manifestation throughout history.

Finally, if this is not convincing enough, then consider Jesus’ many uses of the phrase “I am” (ego eimi) throughout the New Testament as a self identification as YHWH. Hurtado says Jesus is described in the Gospel of Mark as a “figure of power and transcendant significance” (p. 285). He says that Jesus seems “epiphanic … in actions deliberately likened to God’s” (p. 285). These actions include Jesus whose “numinous self-identification, ‘I am he’ (ego eimi), echo biblical references to God’s own use of the same formula …” (p. 286).

A Jesus who is manifest as YHWH in the Old Testament makes the Bible not two separate, disparate books of God, but one grand story of the Triune God lovingly redeeming their majestic creation.

(c) Paul Dordal, 2012


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