Old Testament Theophanies

This entry is part 8 of 207 in the series Inquiring Minds

Was Moses talking to Jesus on Mount Sinai? Who was at the burning bush?

The most obvious answer to these questions is that Moses was talking to God. But I want to be more specific and say he was talking to the Trinity. All three members of the Trinity would have been part of the conversation with Moses.

I think this leads to an even bigger question. When we ask if Moses was talking to Jesus, we want a better answer than, “He was talking to God.” Theologians speak of theophanies in the Old Testament. Theophany is a big word that means that Jesus showed up in physical form to human beings in the Old Testament.

Let me give you some examples. God told Abraham that he would have a son by Sarah. Abraham and Sarah were very old. He appeared to Abraham in Genesis 18:1-2. They talk together about the promise God had already made a couple of times.

What’s so strange about this? Genesis 18:1 tells us the Lord appeared to Abraham. But then Genesis 18:2 tells us that Abraham looked up to see three men headed his way. He knew immediately that it was the Lord. But if you ask a Jewish person why three people showed up and it was “the Lord,” I don’t know what they would say.

Ask a Christian why three men appeared walking toward Abraham and they will tell you, “Because there are three people in the Trinity.” Exactly. God meets Abraham as three people. This is a theophany.

In the well-known passage of Isaiah 6, Isaiah is commissioned by the Lord in the Temple. In a time of political turmoil, Isaiah goes to pray in the Temple about the future of Israel. And he says that he sees the Lord seated on the throne and his train fills the Temple (Isaiah 6:1).

If you only read Isaiah’s account, you would believe “the Lord” to be God, the God of Israel, God the Father. But listen to what John says about what Isaiah saw. In John 12, John is quoting from parts of Isaiah’s prophecy about the unbelief of the people.

Right after quotations from Isaiah, John makes the claim that Isaiah saw Jesus in Isaiah 6:1 (John 12:41). Let’s break this apart so we don’t miss this incredible statement. After quoting from Isaiah, John is narrating from the third person.

“Isaiah said these things because he (Isaiah) saw his (Jesus’) glory and spoke of him.” (John 12:41, ESV). Boom! Mind blown! Isaiah saw Jesus seated on his throne and his glory filling the Temple. Another theophany.

One more example, because things tend to come in threes. Throughout the Old Testament, there is a figure simply called in Scripture, “The Angel of the Lord.” Now most of the time, this is an angelic or celestial being that is a messenger from God to a human being.

But every once in a while, if you read closely enough, you may have a few questions. Hagar runs away into the wilderness and meets the angel of the Lord (Genesis 16:6-13). He tells her, “I will surely multiply your offspring so that they cannot be numbered for multitude” (Genesis 16:10). Strangely, the “angel” uses the first person, “I will multiply.” That sounds like God promising her this.

And then Hagar reacts by giving God one of his names, saying, “You are a God of seeing” and follows it up with, “Truly have I seen him who looks after me” (Genesis 16:13). She just saw the angel of the Lord and made the connection that the angel she saw looks after her and is the God of seeing. This might all add up to another theophany.

In the question, you asked Moses spoke to at the burning bush. Exodus 3:2 says it is the angel of the Lord. Exodus 3:4 says God called to him, “out of the burning bush.” Another possible example of the angel of the Lord being God.

I conclude this third example by saying that sometimes the angel of the Lord is just an angelic being. At other times, a strong case can be made that it is the preexistent Jesus making a physical appearance in the Old Testament. The rule of thumb I use to discern which one: If the angel accepts worship or speaks as God in the first person, it’s Jesus. If not, it’s just an angelic being. All of this to say that the careful reader may discern Jesus showing up in the Old Testament.

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