The angel of the LORD

Hagar, Sarah’s Egyptian servant, who bore Abraham a son named Ishmael, was the first person in the Bible to have an encounter with the angel of the LORD. Genesis 16:7-14 tells us:

The angel of the Lord found her by a spring of water in the wilderness, the spring on the way to Shur. And he said, “Hagar, servant of Sarai, where have you come from and where are you going?” She said, “I am fleeing from my mistress Sarai.” The angel of the Lord said to her, “Return to your mistress and submit to her.” The angel of the Lord also said to her, “I will surely multiply your offspring so that they cannot be numbered for multitude.” And the angel of the Lord said to her,

“Behold, you are pregnant
    and shall bear a son.
You shall call his name Ishmael,
    because the Lord has listened to your affliction.
He shall be a wild donkey of a man,
    his hand against everyone
    and everyone’s hand against him,
and he shall dwell over against all his kinsmen.”

So she called the name of the Lord who spoke to her, “You are a God of seeing,” for she said, “Truly here I have seen him who looks after me.” Therefore the well was called Beer-lahai-roi;it lies between Kadesh and Bered.

Hagar referred to the person who was speaking to her as the LORD and said of him, “You are a God of seeing” (Genesis 16:13). The name of the well, which is translated Beer-lahai-roi, Bᵉʾer la-Chay Roiy (be-ayrˊ lakh-ahˊee ro-eeˊ) means “well of a living (One) my seer.” The term seer was originally used in the Old Testament to refer to a prophet (1 Samuel 9:9), “True prophets were mouthpieces of the true God” (H5030). The Hebrew name Roiy is derived from the word roeh (ro-ehˊ) which is used abstractly to refer to “a vision” (H7203). Hagar’s statement, “You are a God of seeing” (Genesis 16:13) was most likely a response to her being told details about her unborn child’s life before he was born.

The angel of the LORD, whom Hagar identified as the LORD himself, the God who knew the intimate details of her and her son’s life, called out to Abraham as he was about to sacrifice his son Isaac (Genesis 22:11), spoke to Jacob in a dream (Genesis 31:11), and appeared to Moses “in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush” (Exodus 3:2). When the Israelites were traveling from Egypt to the Promised Land, Moses was told, “Behold, I send an angel before you to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place that I have prepared. Pay careful attention to him and obey his voice; do not rebel against him, for he will not pardon your transgression, for my name is in him” (Exodus 23:20-21). “There is the distinct possibility that various Old Testament references to the ‘angel of the LORD’ involved preincarnate appearances of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Things are said of the angel of the LORD that seem to go beyond the category of angels and are applicable to Christ…The designation ‘angel of the LORD’ is used interchangeably with ‘the LORD’ and ‘God’ in the account of Moses and the burning bush (Exodus 3:2-6). Exodus 23:21 states that the angel of the LORD has the power to forgive sins, a characteristic belonging to God alone (cf. Mark 2:7; Luke 7:49) and that he has the name of God in him” (note on Exodus 23:20-23). The Hebrew word mal˒ak (mal-awkˊ) means “’messenger; angel’…The word mal˒ak denotes someone sent over a great distance by an individual (Genesis 32:3) or by a community (Numbers 21:21), in order to communicate a message…Most significant are the phrases mal˒ak Yahweh, ‘the angel of the LORD,’ and mal˒ak ʿelohim ‘the angel of God.’ The phrase is always used in the singular. It denotes an angel who had mainly a saving and protective function…He might also bring about destruction…The relation between the Lord and the ‘angel of the LORD’ is often so close that it is difficult to separate the two” (H4397).

Numbers 20:16 indicates that God sent an angel to bring the people of Israel out of Egypt. This statement is in reference to the angel of the LORD appearing to Moses in the burning bush (Exodus 3:2). The angel told Moses that he had come down to deliver the Israelites out of the hand of the Egyptians (Exodus 3:8) and promised that he would bring them “up out of the affliction of Egypt to the land of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, a land flowing with milk and honey” (Exodus 3:17). As the Israelites prepared to cross the Red Sea, it says in Exodus 14:19-20, “Then the angel of God who was going before the host of Israel moved and went behind them, and the pillar of cloud moved from before them and stood behind them, coming between the host of Egypt and the host of Israel.” Later God told Moses, “Behold, I send an angel before you to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place that I have prepared” (Exodus 23:20) and when the people were commanded to leave Sinai, “The LORD said to Moses, ‘Depart; go up from here, you and the people whom you have brought up out of the land of Egypt, to the land of which I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, saying, “To your offspring I will give it.” I will send an angel before you, and I will drive out the Canaanites, the Amorites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites’” (Exodus 33:1-2). In each of these instances a specific, individual angel was sent to deliver the people of Israel.

The book of Hebrews tells us that angels are “ministering spirits sent out to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation” (Hebrews 1:14). Hebrews 2:1-3 goes on to say:

Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it. For since the message declared by angels proved to be reliable, and every transgression or disobedience received a just retribution, how shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation?

The central point of this passage of scripture is that angels minister to those who will or have been saved by declaring the word of God to them. The Greek word that is translated message, logos (logˊ-os) “denotes ‘the expression of thought.’” Logos was used in John 1:1-18 as a title of the Son of God, “the personal manifestation, not of a part of the divine nature, but of the whole deity” (G3056).

The angel of the LORD’s role in ministering to the people of Israel was connected to both the delivering of messages as well as protecting them from harm. On one occasion, the angel of the LORD intervened in order to stop Balaam, a false prophet, from cursing the Israelites. Numbers 22:20-35 states:

And God came to Balaam at night and said to him, “If the men have come to call you, rise, go with them; but only do what I tell you.” So Balaam rose in the morning and saddled his donkey and went with the princes of Moab.

But God’s anger was kindled because he went, and the angel of the Lord took his stand in the way as his adversary. Now he was riding on the donkey, and his two servants were with him. And the donkey saw the angel of the Lord standing in the road, with a drawn sword in his hand. And the donkey turned aside out of the road and went into the field. And Balaam struck the donkey, to turn her into the road. Then the angel of the LORD stood in a narrow path between the vineyards, with a wall on either side. And when the donkey saw the angel of the Lord, she pushed against the wall and pressed Balaam’s foot against the wall. So he struck her again. Then the angel of the Lord went ahead and stood in a narrow place, where there was no way to turn either to the right or to the left. When the donkey saw the angel of the Lord, she lay down under Balaam. And Balaam’s anger was kindled, and he struck the donkey with his staff. Then the LORD opened the mouth of the donkey, and she said to Balaam, “What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?” And Balaam said to the donkey, “Because you have made a fool of me. I wish I had a sword in my hand, for then I would kill you.” And the donkey said to Balaam, “Am I not your donkey, on which you have ridden all your life long to this day? Is it my habit to treat you this way?” And he said, “No.”

Then the Lord opened the eyes of Balaam, and he saw the angel of the Lord standing in the way, with his drawn sword in his hand. And he bowed down and fell on his face. And the angel of the Lord said to him, “Why have you struck your donkey these three times? Behold, I have come out to oppose you because your way is perverse before me. The donkey saw me and turned aside before me these three times. If she had not turned aside from me, surely just now I would have killed you and let her live.” Then Balaam said to the angel of the Lord, “I have sinned, for I did not know that you stood in the road against me. Now therefore, if it is evil in your sight, I will turn back.” And the angel of the Lord said to Balaam, “Go with the men, but speak only the word that I tell you.” So Balaam went on with the princes of Balak.

The angel of the LORD’s presence was at first concealed from Balaam. It wasn’t until the LORD opened his eyes that Balaam was able to see the angel of the LORD standing in the way. The phrase opened the eyes has to do with spiritual rather than physical eyesight. The Hebrew word that is translated opened, galah (gaw-lawˊ) means “to denude (especially in a disgraceful sense); by implication to exile (captives being usually stripped).” When galah is used figuratively, it means “to reveal” (H1540). Balaam’s reaction to his eyes being opened was “he bowed down and fell on his face” (Numbers 22:31), an act of worship. Balaam showed reverence to the angel of the LORD because he recognized him as God.

The angel of the LORD said that he had come out to oppose Balaam because his way was perverse before him (Numbers 22:32). The Hebrew word that is translated oppose is satan (saw-tawnˊ). “Satan is an adversary or plotter, one who devises means for opposition” (H7854). The name Satan appears 14 times in the book of Job in reference to an angel that sought God’s permission and then, instigated Jobs trials. The adversarial relationship between Satan and the people of Israel and the angel of the LORD’s role as an intermediary on their behalf is revealed in the book of Zechariah through a vision of Joshua the high priest. Zechariah 3:1-10 states:

Then he showed me Joshua the high priest standing before the angel of the Lord, and Satan standing at his right hand to accuse him. And the Lord said to Satan, “The Lord rebuke you, O Satan! The Lord who has chosen Jerusalem rebuke you! Is not this a brand plucked from the fire?” Now Joshua was standing before the angel, clothed with filthy garments. And the angel said to those who were standing before him, “Remove the filthy garments from him.” And to him he said, “Behold, I have taken your iniquity away from you, and I will clothe you with pure vestments.” And I said, “Let them put a clean turban on his head.” So they put a clean turban on his head and clothed him with garments. And the angel of the Lord was standing by.

And the angel of the Lord solemnly assured Joshua, “Thus says the Lord of hosts: If you will walk in my ways and keep my charge, then you shall rule my house and have charge of my courts, and I will give you the right of access among those who are standing here. Hear now, O Joshua the high priest, you and your friends who sit before you, for they are men who are a sign: behold, I will bring my servant the Branch. For behold, on the stone that I have set before Joshua, on a single stone with seven eyes, I will engrave its inscription, declares the Lord of hosts, and I will remove the iniquity of this land in a single day. In that day, declares the Lord of hosts, every one of you will invite his neighbor to come under his vine and under his fig tree.”

The angel of the LORD had the ability to take away Joshua’s iniquity, which is depicted by him removing Joshua’s filthy garments and giving him a clean set of clothes. It says that the angel of the LORD was standing by, suggesting that he was waiting or perhaps preparing for a predesignated task to take place. The angel of the LORD bore witness to the fact that the LORD of hosts was bringing his servant the Branch whom he said would remove sin in a single day (Zechariah 3:9). “This is one of several references to the Messiah using the imagery of a ‘branch’ (Zechariah 6:12; Isaiah 4:2)” (note on Jeremiah 23:5). Jesus told his disciples that he was “the true vine” and said that his Father was “the vinedresser” (John 15:1). Jesus then stated, “Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit” (John 15:2). The Greek word that is translated branch, klema (klayˊ-mah) “denotes a tender, flexible branch, especially the shoot of a vine, a vine sprout” (G2814). This imagery is similar to what is used in Isaiah 53:2-3 to depict the Messiah. Isaiah stated, “For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.”

The angel of the LORD’s visit to a man named Gideon shows us that God’s chosen messengers are not typically the kind of people that others respect or admire. Judges 6:11 tells us that Gideon was beating out wheat in the winepress to hide it from the Midianites when the angel of the LORD appeared to him and said, “The LORD is with you, O mighty man of valor” (Judges 6:12). Gideon’s response indicated that he was skeptical about his visitor’s declaration. Gideon asked the angel of the LORD, “If the LORD is with us, why then has all this happened to us? And where are all his wonderful deeds that our fathers recounted to us, saying, ‘Did not the LORD bring us up from Egypt?’ But now the LORD has forsaken us and given us into the hand of Midian” (Judges 6:13). Gideon seemed to be unaware of who he was talking to and appeared to disregard the message that he had received from the angel of the LORD. Gideon’s irreverent behavior may have been due to his family’s compromised lifestyle. Judges 6:25 indicates that there was an altar of Baal on his father’s property and an image of Asherah next to it. In spite of this, it says in Judges 6:14, “the LORD turned to him and said, ‘Go in this might of yours and save Israel from the hand of Midian; do not I send you?’” The Hebrew word that is translated send, shalach (shaw-lakhˊ) means “’to send,’ in the sense of to initiate and to see that such movement occurs” and “the most frequent use of shalach suggests the sending of someone or something as a messenger to a particular place” (H7971). The LORD’s choice of Gideon as a messenger was puzzling even to him. Gideon asked, “Please, Lord, how can I save Israel? Behold, my clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my father’s house” (Judges 6:15).

Gideon’s response to being sent to save Israel from the hand of Midian was similar to Moses’ response when he was told to bring the children of Israel out of Egypt (Exodus 3:10-11). Both times, the angel of the LORD reminded these men, “But I will be with you” (Exodus 3:12; Judges 6:16). The angel of the LORD’s promise to be with Gideon didn’t mean that he would be visibly present at all times. It says in Judges 6:21, “the angel of the LORD vanished from his sight.” The Hebrew word that is translated vanished, halak (haw-lakˊ) means “to walk” (H1980) suggesting physical separation. The only way that the angel of the LORD could be with Gideon without being physically present was for them to have a spiritual connection. After the angel of the LORD vanished from his sight, it says in Judges 6:22-27:

Then Gideon perceived that he was the angel of the Lord. And Gideon said, “Alas, O Lord God! For now I have seen the angel of the Lord face to face.” But the Lord said to him, “Peace be to you. Do not fear; you shall not die.”…That night the Lord said to him, “Take your father’s bull, and the second bull seven years old, and pull down the altar of Baal that your father has, and cut down the Asherah that is beside it and build an altar to the Lord your God on the top of the stronghold here, with stones laid in due order. Then take the second bull and offer it as a burnt offering with the wood of the Asherah that you shall cut down.” So Gideon took ten men of his servants and did as the Lord had told him. But because he was too afraid of his family and the men of the town to do it by day, he did it by night.

Gideon’s conversation with the LORD continued after the angel of the LORD vanished from his sight. Although it’s not specifically stated, it can be assumed that Gideon and the LORD spoke to each other audibly and that the transmission of their voices was possible because the angel of the LORD continued to be with Gideon in a spiritual sense. Hebrews 4:2 indicates that the messages Gideon received from the LORD were heard and acted on by him because he believed in Jesus Christ. Therefore, it seems likely that Gideon understood that the angel of the LORD was the preincarnate Jesus Christ and that all the fullness of deity was being manifested to him in bodily form in the same way that it was after Jesus was born (note on Exodus 23:20-23).