Theophanies In the Book of Genesis

Theophanies In the Book of Genesis

Term Paper For Genesis HCMI Course

Summer, 2012 Instructor: Tim Pitchford

by Scott deBeaubien 2012-08-23

In our endeavor to understand the Bible, God’s Word, the Christian is obliged to study the book with an eye towards Jesus. It might be said that the entire Bible is about Jesus Christ, his relationship with mankind on behalf of the Father and His sending of the Holy Spirit to guide us in our quest for meaning. “To live is Christ” the Apostle Paul said in the book of Philippians, thus, our course is clear: We go about the study of the book of Genesis seeking where Christ has revealed Himself to us. If we wish to know all about God, we need look no further than Christ, and we find Christ in nearly every chapter of our Bible, even from the very beginning of the first book of the Pentateuch that Moses wrote down for us more than three millennia ago. So, in the appearances of God in the book of Genesis we wish to discover several things: First, when and where were those occurrences; secondly, why did God choose to reveal himself at that time, and lastly, what significance does any particular appearance hold for us today?

II. Survey

We can start with a definition of the word “Theophany.” One can go to the dictionary to find a basic working definition: “A visible manifestation of a deity.”1 It derives from a Greek word “theophania” which comes from “the” + “-phaneia” (appearance of God or deity). Or, we might take a note from a well-known Bible commentary: “The ancient Greeks were accustomed … to display at Delphos before the public gaze the images of all their gods. The term thus understood was applied by ancient Christian writers to the manifestation of God under the Old Covenant and to the incarnation of Christ.”2 It follows then that a “Theophany” in the Old Testament is an appearance of God in recognizable form, i.e., that His “Godly” characteristics can be easily distinguished from humans.

It can be shown there are several such “Appearances” (to man) in the book of Genesis, starting with God walking and talking with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden (Gen. 2-3). God worked with Adam, and his wife Eve and even established the first covenant with them: The “Adamic Covenant.” Already, we see the answer to one of our questions, God reveals Himself in order to give us covenants (laws), or, as we have learned in our course, a covenant is a “Legal and binding agreement with duties to perform and often with remedies (consequences) for non-performance.”

Let us take a step back though – in order to conduct a proper survey we shall take a whirlwind tour through the rest of the book of Genesis and categorize each “Appearance” of God, where that occurred, and to whom God chose to reveal Himself (see Table 1, below). Additionally, we note that most Evangelicals will identify the Theophanies of the Old Testament as Christ, thus the term “Christophany.”3 However, it is clear that many, including the majority of Jewish scholars will see these manifestations as merely God (the Lord) Himself speaking to the Patriarchs in order to bring about the “Chosen people.” There are other views as well, and since Theophanies occur in the writings of other
religions besides Christianity (and Judaism) we will concede the point that we cannot know with certainty that the appearances of either “God”, or what is called “The Angel of the Lord” in the Old Testament are in fact Jesus.

Table 1. Survey of Theophanies in the Book of Genesis

Genesis 2-3;
God walks and talks with Adam and Eve, gives them the “Adamic Covenant” (Genesis 2:16-17).
Genesis 16: 7-12;
The “Angel of the Lord” finds Hagar near a spring in the desert and “Sees” her misery, and tells her about the son she will bear.
Genesis 17:1-21;
God appears (for the first time in bodily form) to Abram (the Lord had previously spoken to Abram in Genesis 12:2-3, and again in Genesis 13:14-17, and appeared to Abram in a vision and as the “word of the LORD” in Genesis 15:1, 4-5, 7, 9, 13-16, 18-20) and gives him the Covenant of Circumcision.
Genesis 18:1, 13-17, 20-21, 26-32;
God appears to Abraham near the trees of Mamre; promises he will have children with Sarah, then Abraham intercedes for Sodom & Gomorrah.
Genesis 26:2, 24;
The Lord appears to Isaac to tell him not to go down to Egypt, but to live in the land where He tells him to live; again in v.24 the Lord appeared to Isaac (probably in a dream this time) and tells him that He will bless Isaac and increase his descendants for Abraham’s sake.
Genesis 32:24-30;
God appears and wrestles with Jacob all night; previously, Jacob had seen the Lord in a dream (Genesis 28: 13-15) at Bethel (Hebrew: Bet-El or “House of the Lord”) and affirmed the Abrahamic Covenant to bless him and his descendants; the Lord had also spoken to Jacob and told him to flee Laban’s house and head back to the land of his fathers and relatives (Genesis 31:3).
Genesis 46:2-4
The Lord only speaks with Israel (Jacob) once more to assure him that going down to Egypt is God’s plan and that the Lord would be with him.

As we can see, there are a number of “Appearances” of both the Lord, and the “Angel of the Lord” in the book of Genesis. Many commentators feel that because of the definite article “the” used in the title “The Angel of the Lord,” (emphasis mine) and because the people who saw the Angel of the Lord were often fearful because they had seen “the Lord” that some of these appearances may be Theophanies (or Christophanies) as well. That leaves us with the other definite appearances of a person identified as “The Lord God” (Adonai Elohim, in Genesis 2-3); “God Almighty” (El Shaddai, in Genesis 17:1); “The Lord” (simply Adonai in Genesis 18, 26); and finally the last appearance where Jacob wrestled with God (Elohim)4. Thus, there are 5 definite appearances and several other places in the Book of Genesis in which various people were visited by “the Angel of the Lord.”

III. Commentary

Several commentators and many early church fathers believe that the Angel of the Lord may also be a Theophany.5 Even more interesting are the commentaries on the other, more direct appearances of God in the text. The most straightforward argument we have is the following: “God reveals himself
only in Christ (Matt, xi, 27) The theophany is therefore more accurately defined as a Christophany, or an epiphany of God in Christ; and all nature is a storehouse of divine presence, which uniformly point to Christ (Rom. I, 20; Col. I, 16)”6 As well, we read in the Genesis text itself that these appearances are often associated with Covenants, blessings and the promises of God. These covenants are reiterated later in the Bible, in the Pentateuch (e.g., Dt. 29:13) and in the Psalms (e.g., 25:2-10) and Prophets7 (e.g., Eze. 16:8). We should also take note that these Theophanies in the book of Genesis are not the only Old Testament appearances of God. There are many others (Ex. 6:2-3; 24:9-11; 33:20; Num. 12:6-8, etc…).

God chose Abraham, found him to be faithful and established a covenantal relationship with him whereby all nations would be blessed (Genesis 22:18). Abraham, therefore, became the unique forbear of many nations, and produced offspring through whom that blessing would be passed. Ultimately the blessing itself comes through Jesus Christ who came, as God in the form of a man, to give us the forgiveness of sins and to pay the price for those sins. Jesus became the “Sacrificial lamb” that Abraham prophesied in Genesis 22:8 when he said “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering.”

To Abraham’s son Isaac, the one through whom the blessing was passed (Gen. 26:1-5), the Lord appeared to affirm His Covenant with Abraham and to give Isaac instructions, and perhaps reassurance. Later still, when Jacob wrestled with God, we were left pondering what this could possibly mean. How could anybody wrestle with God and – God could not just throw him down (or tear him to pieces)? We can only speculate. But I do like a commentary from Ravi Zacharias on this whole episode relating to the end of the wrestling match where Jacob demands a blessing. What does God do? Ravi explains that to us:

“Think of all that God could have said by way of reprimand. Instead He merely asks for Jacob’s name. God’s purpose in raising this question contains a lesson for all of us, too profound to ignore. In fact, it dramatically altered Old Testament history. In asking for the blessing from God, Jacob was compelled by God’s question to relive the last time he had asked for a blessing, the one he had stolen from his brother.

“The last time Jacob was asked for his name, the question had come from his earthly father. Jacob had lied on that occasion and said, “I am Esau,” and stole the blessing. Now he found himself, after many wasted years of running through life looking over his shoulder, before an all-knowing, all-seeing heavenly Father, once more seeking a blessing, Jacob fully understood the reason and the indictment behind God’s question and he answered, “My name is Jacob.” “You have spoken the truth,” God said, “and you know very well what your name signifies. You have been a duplicitous man, deceiving everyone everywhere you went. But now that you acknowledge the real you, I can change you, and I will make a great nation out of you.

“Greatness in the eyes of God is always preceded by humility before Him. There is no way for you or me or anyone else to attain greatness until we have come to Him.”8

The Prophet Hosea seems to have understood this when he wrote: “.. he will punish Jacob according to his ways and repay him according to his deeds. In the womb he grasped his brother’s heel; as a man he struggled with God. He struggled with the angel and overcame him; he wept and begged for his favor.” (Hosea 12:2-4). The Hebrew for Jacob means “He grasps the heel,” an idiom for “he takes advantage of” or “he deceives.” Being renamed from a name that means “deceiver” to one who
“struggles with God” is symbolic of the change that therefore comes to define this changed man.

Ultimately we are left wondering why God chose Abraham and his family to bring about the blessing. We only know that through His sovereign authority He chose Abraham, and that we are indeed blessed, being able to call ourselves “Sons and daughters of Abraham through the ingrafting of our line into the line of Abraham” (Romans 11:17-18). But this still doesn’t give us the clue we are seeking as to why God, likely in the form of Jesus, appeared to Abraham, to Isaac (probably in a dream) and to Jacob. Similarly, we are left with mere speculation that Jesus is the only form God can take in our universe (in our perception, according to our senses, to our eyes).

This nature of the Theophany has not been completely explained by any commentator either, so let us go out on the proverbial limb to say that God the Father, having created our universe through Jesus Christ, appears in our universe as Jesus Christ since that is His form in our universe. A mathematical analogy is useful here: Picture, if you will, a two-dimensional world where all creatures have their entire existence in a plane. Those creatures have no knowledge of a “third-dimension” but can be made acutely aware of it when a three-dimensional being “passes through” their two-dimensional world. Even then, the two-dimensional beings can only glimpse a portion of the three-dimensional being, that portion being the part that is intersecting their “plane of existence” at that time.9

This explanation correlates closely with another author’s view, that in order to be part of our universe, God must become like us, writing Himself into our story in the likeness of Jesus Christ.10 What is interesting about that notion is that Christ can have a form in our universe, and also undergo birth and “Natural” death. His appearances at earlier times in our history seem to have no bearing on his advent during Roman times when He was born and lived His “Natural” life on earth. Yet, we are mindful of his earlier appearances since they seem to “set the stage” for His later appearing as the once for all sacrifice who would set us free from the bondage of sin and death (Rom. 6:18, 23). Those earlier appearances also point to the fact that God is not subject to the constraints of time as we humans are.

IV. Conclusion

It is clear that the author of Genesis (Moses) was well aware that an appearance of God in the flesh was a rare and “Special” occurrence and that He came to us for a reason. Moses certainly did his best to tie those appearances together in order to show us why God set the chosen people apart. This ultimate reason only comes to light (of course) in the full revelation of the entire Bible and with Jesus Himself. With the rest of Scripture from which to draw our references, we can see that God, knew all along what He was doing and had a plan for our salvation even following the heartbreaking developments of the Fall in the Garden of Eden: “…for salvation is from the Jews.” (John 4:22).

Man, for all his shortcomings, and with the help of the Holy Spirit, has still managed to get the story right and has preserved it so that the totality of scripture is adequate for understanding the message of Christ. Through the scriptures and God’s revealed knowledge we have what we need to see that Jesus is indeed the Christ, and that He came and has been involved with humans from our very beginning. He brought us both covenants, blessings and promises, and finally salvation. He appeared to the Patriarchs and the events of the Book of Genesis were written down so we would know that He is “Part of our story” and to show us that His role in our universe is active and participatory, not capricious and uncaring. Jesus is still with us today affirming for us these marvelous events.

V. Bibliography

  • 1 Merriam-Webster ( 2012
  • 2 Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature, Vol. 10; John McCliintock – James Strong, Harper1894, p. 332
  • 3 Angels Among Us: Separating Fact from Fiction, Ron Rhodes, 2008, p 117
  • 4 Genesis 32 Hebrew English Translation Masoretic Text Interlinear Holy Name KJV; testament/genesis/32.html
  • 5 Augustine of Hippo and the Theophanies of the Logos, article at “The Taboric Light”,
  • 6 Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature, Vol. 10; John McCliintock – James Strong, Harper 1894, p. 332
  • 7 Old Testament Covenants;
  • 8 Can Man Live Without God, Ravi Zacharias, Thomas Nelson 2004, pp. 144-45
  • 9 Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions , Edwin A. Abbott; originally published 1884 under the pseudonym “A. Square”
  • 10 Mind of the Maker, Dorothy L. Sayers, first published 1941 by Methuen, p. 71



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