Angels were created to serve God and His people. But can we identify a specific spirit being called “the Angel of the LORD”? Was this a created angel, or Jesus?
Throughout the Bible, there are numerous accounts of angels briefly manifesting themselves in the physical realm, appearing face-to-face with individuals God was specifically working with at that moment.
In examining the Old Testament scriptures that describe human encounters with angels, one spirit being stands out above all others in several ways. In the New King James Version of the Bible, this being is identified as “the Angel of the LORD [malak Yahweh]” (Genesis 16:7). He is also called “the Angel of His [God’s] Presence [malak panayu]” (Isaiah 63:9), “the Messenger of the covenant [malak beriyth]” (Malachi 3:1) and “the Angel of God [malak elohiym]” (Genesis 31:11). (Brown, Driver, Briggs, Gesenius Hebrew Lexicon is the source of Hebrew definitions throughout, unless otherwise noted.)
In many of the passages where this being appears, it is as if God Himself was speaking. He makes judgments as if He was God, and He is identified as God. These passages demonstrate that this being is certainly a “messenger” [malak] from God, but not an angel in the usual sense.
Because this Messenger from heaven demonstrated unique qualifications and authority attributed to God, scholars call this kind of account a theophany, defined by Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary as “a visible manifestation of a deity.” This being that appeared to individuals in the Old Testament was the same divine being that would later be manifested on earth as Jesus Christ. Let’s consider some of the biblical references to the Angel of the LORD.
Abraham hears the Angel of the LORD
In the account of Abraham preparing to offer his son Isaac as a sacrifice, the patriarch did not see the Angel of the LORD with his eyes. But this being spoke to him from heaven (Genesis 22:11), swearing an oath in His personal name (verse 16)—something only God can do.
The Angel of the LORD told Abraham, “By Myself I have sworn, says the LORD, because you have done this thing, and have not withheld your son, your only son—blessing I will bless you, and multiplying I will multiply your descendants” (Genesis 22:16-17). Here we see that this being could establish covenants.
Earlier, Sarah’s handmaiden Hagar ran away from Abraham’s household, and the Angel of the LORD appeared to Hagar to give her guidance. He promised, “I will multiply your descendants exceedingly” (Genesis 16:10). Hagar identified this being as God: “Then she called the name of the LORD who spoke to her, You-Are-the-God-Who-Sees; for she said, ‘Have I also here seen Him who sees me?’” (verse 13).
Jacob wrestles with God
This same being, imbued with divine power, bestowed a blessing on Jacob after Jacob wrestled with Him. In Genesis 32:24 we’re told, “Then Jacob was left alone; and a Man wrestled with him until the breaking of day.” Hosea the prophet explains that Jacob “struggled with God. Yes, he struggled with the Angel” (Hosea 12:3-4).
When this being saw that Jacob would not give up until he received a blessing, He responded, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel; for you have struggled with God and with men, and have prevailed” (Genesis 32:28).
When Jacob asked this spirit being what His name was, He replied, “Why is it that you ask about My name?” (verse 29). He did not reveal His name, but Jacob received the blessing he desired, and there he called the place Peniel (literally, “Face of God,” according to the marginal note): “For I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved” (verses 29-30).
Moses learns God’s name
Exodus 3:2 tells us that “the Angel of the LORD appeared to him [Moses] in a flame of fire from the midst of a bush” on Mount Horeb. “So when the LORD saw that he turned aside to look, God called to him from the midst of the bush and said, ‘Moses, Moses!’” (verse 4).
Moreover He said, “I am the God of your father—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” (verse 6). This same God being then identified Himself as, “I AM WHO I AM. … Thus you shall say to the children of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you’” (verse 14).
The being that spoke from within the flaming bush identified Himself as God.
God’s Angel would lead Israel
The same Angel of the LORD who spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai (Acts 7:30, 38) also shared that His identity was “My Angel” and that God’s name was in Him (Exodus 23:20-23). He said, “For I will not go up in your midst” (Exodus 33:3), but He also said “My Presence will go with you” (verse 14). How can we reconcile both of these statements at once? It appears that this “Angel of God’s presence” (literally, the “Messenger [panayu] of His [God’s] face,” Isaiah 63:9) spoke on behalf of the Most High God and on His own behalf at the same time.
Jesus gave a strong indication that the Most High God (the Father) did not speak directly to Moses or to anyone. Jesus told a group in His day, “You have neither heard His voice at any time, nor seen His form” (John 5:37). Jesus very likely meant “you” to be a much broader audience that spanned many generations (see Matthew 23:35). The broadest application of “at any time” would be “all time.” The apostle John also testified, saying, “No one has seen God [the Father] at any time” (John 1:18).
Jesus also explained, “I speak to the world those things which I heard from Him [the Father]” and “for I have not spoken on My own authority; but the Father who sent Me gave Me a command, what I should say and what I should speak” (John 8:26; 12:49). Jesus is called the “Word,” or Spokesman for the Father (John 1:1). When Jesus was with His disciples, they heard “a voice” that came from heaven (Matthew 17:5-6; 2 Peter 1:17-18). Even though the message was from the Father, the Bible does not say that they actually heard the Father’s voice. The logical explanation is that an angel conveyed the Father’s message.
The Angel of the LORD had the authority to pardon or refuse to pardon sins. He told Moses, “Beware of Him and obey His voice; do not provoke Him, for He will not pardon your transgressions; for My name is in Him. But if you indeed obey His voice and do all that I speak, then I will be an enemy to your enemies and an adversary to your adversaries. For My Angel will go before you” (Exodus 23:21-23).
The Israelites are warned at Bochim
The Angel of the LORD had faithfully established a covenant with Israel at Gilgal. But He corrected Israel for not keeping their covenant promise with Him. Gilgal was the place where the Israelites made a solemn dedication to God before entering into the Promised Land. This Angel of the LORD said, “I led you up from Egypt and brought you to the land of which I swore to your fathers; and I said, ‘I will never break My covenant with you. And you shall make no covenant with the inhabitants of this land; you shall tear down their altars.’ But you have not obeyed My voice” (Judges 2:1-2).
Because the Israelites did not faithfully keep their promise, the Angel of the LORD declared His decision that He would not drive out the enemies of the Israelites, but instead the Canaanites would continue to be their adversaries (verse 3). Upon hearing this announcement, the Israelites wept bitterly (verse 4).
The Messiah is called “the Messenger of the covenant” (Malachi 3:1), and Jesus is called “the Mediator of the new covenant” (Hebrews 12:24).
The Commander of God’s army
When Joshua was near Jericho, he saw what appeared to be a man facing him with a drawn sword. Joshua went to Him and said to Him, “‘Are You for us or for our adversaries?’ So He said, ‘No, but as Commander of the army of the LORD I have now come’” (Joshua 5:13-14).
The Angel of the LORD in the Old Testament was not an angelic being created by God. Rather, He was clearly the Word who later became Jesus Christ, the Messiah, the Son of God.The Commander then told Joshua that he was standing on holy ground and should remove his sandals (verse 15). There is no doubt that this Commander was the Angel of the LORD, for He permitted Joshua to worship at His feet, which no angelic being would allow (compare Revelation 19:10; 22:8-9). On only one other occasion in Scripture was a man required to remove his sandals because he was standing on holy ground, and that was when Moses spoke to God on Mount Horeb, which is also called Mount Sinai (Exodus 3:1, 5). There, this divine being identified Himself as “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” (verse 6).
Balaam’s encounter with God
When God was displeased with a false prophet named Balaam, the Angel of the LORD appeared to Balaam (Numbers 22:22). The Angel of the LORD first appeared to Balaam’s donkey, causing the animal to move out of the way, perhaps out of fear (verses 23-24). “Then the LORD opened Balaam’s eyes, and he saw the Angel of the LORD standing in the way with His drawn sword in His hand; and he bowed his head and fell flat on his face” (verse 31). This spirit being got the attention of Balaam and put prophetic words of God in the man’s mouth that he could not refuse to speak (verses 35, 38).
It is interesting to note that this divine being confronted not only Balaam but also Joshua with a drawn sword (verse 31; Joshua 5:13).
Gideon is encouraged in Ophrah
While Gideon was threshing wheat, “the Angel of the LORD appeared to him, and said to him, ‘The LORD is with you, you mighty man of valor!’” (Judges 6:12). Verse 14 states that the LORD said, “Go in this might of yours, and you shall save Israel from the hand of the Midianites. Have I not sent you?” (verse 14).
“Now Gideon perceived that He was the Angel of the LORD. So Gideon said, ‘Alas, O Lord GOD! For I have seen the Angel of the LORD face to face’” (verse 22). Again, we see that the Angel of the LORD spoke on His personal authority and not just on behalf of God as an angelic being would do.
Manoah’s wife receives a promise
This same being promised Manoah’s wife that she would bear a son, who would begin to deliver Israel out of the oppression of the Philistines. The account says, “The Angel of the LORD appeared to the woman and said to her, ‘Indeed now, you are barren and have borne no children, but you shall conceive and bear a son’” (Judges 13:3).
Manoah asked this heavenly being to tell him His name, and He replied “Why do you ask My name, seeing it is wonderful [‘secret,’ King James Version]?” (verses 17-18). Although Manoah and his wife at first called this Angel of the LORD a man, they later recognized that He was God (verses 22-23).
The Hebrew for “wonderful” or “secret” in verse 18 is an adjective, pli'āyh or pil'iyyāh, meaning, “wonderful, incomprehensible” (Spiros Zodhiates, ed., Complete Word Study Bible, 2003). That is in harmony with Isaiah 9:6, where we find the English word “Wonderful” given as one of the names of the Messiah. The Hebrew word is pele’, a noun in this case. It is closely related to the word used in Judges 13:18, and it means “a wonder, a miracle, a marvel” (ibid.).
That Rock was Christ
Paul wrote that before Christ was made manifest in the flesh, the Israelites in the wilderness “drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them, and that Rock was Christ” (1 Corinthians 10:4). In those days He was the Word of God until, as the apostle John states, “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).
The Angel of the LORD in the Old Testament was not an angelic being created by God. Rather, He was clearly the Word who later became Jesus Christ, the Messiah, the Son of God.
Read more about Jesus Christ in the articles in the section “Who Is Jesus?”