Angel of the Lord

The Angel of the Lord appearing to Hagar in the wilderness, as depicted by Nicolas Colombel (1644-1717)

The Angel of the LORD (מַלְאַךְ יְהוָה Malakh YHWH "Messenger of Yahweh",[1] LXX ἄγγελος Κυρίου) is an entity appearing repeatedly in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) on behalf of God (Yahweh). The term malakh YHWH, in English translation usually accompanied with the definite article, King James Version "the angel of the LORD", occurs 65 times in the text of the Hebrew Bible. In some instances it is made clear that the reference is to a theophany, i.e. an appearance of YHWH himself rather than a separate entity acting on his behalf. The related expression of Angel of the Presence occurs only once (Isaiah 63:9). The New Testament uses the term "angel of the Lord" (ἄγγελος Κυρίου) several times, once (Luke 1:1119) identified with Gabriel.

A closely related term is "Angel of God" (mal'akh 'Elohim), mentioned 12 times (2 of which are plural). Similarly, the Angel of Death refers to the appearance of such a "messenger" in instances where it kills the enemies of the Israelites.

Hebrew Bible

Angel of Yahweh

Appearances of the "angel of the Lord" are often presented as theophanies:[2] in Genesis 31:11–13 the angel of God says, "I am the God of Beth-el"; in Exodus 3:2–6 the angel of the Lord appeared to Moses in the flame of fire, and then the Lord says to him: "I am the God of thy father"; compare Genesis 22:11; Judges 6:11–22. At times the angel of the Lord speaks in such a way as to assume authority over previous promises (see Gen. 16:11 and 21:17).

The following are examples of use of the term "angel of the Lord":

The ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament known as the Septuagint translates the phrase as ἄγγελος Κυρίου, angelos Kyriou, "angel of the Lord", a phrase used also in the New Testament.[3] The Hellenistic Jewish philosopher Philo identified the angel of the Lord (in the singular) with the Logos.[4][5]

Most of the above listed incidents leave the reader with the question whether it was an angel or a deity who had just appeared and there is a wide array of explanations striving to elucidate this confusion. The most widespread theological ones try to deal with the problem by introducing additional concepts: the angel might be an earthly manifestation of God, some kind of God’s avatar or pre-incarnated Christ. The different answer comes from the cultural studies which argue that the ancient commissioners during their proclamations used the first person point of view and spoke as if they had been the consigner himself. Both approaches however resort to additional theoretical concepts retroactively introduced to the source text itself.[6] Meanwhile, the problem can be addressed by means of S.A. Meier's interpolation theory[7] - a linguistic resolution of a seemingly complex theological and cultural dilemma. Accordingly, the word mal’akh would be a mere addendum preceding the divine name and simultaneously modifying the narrations in order to meet the standards of the “new” Israelite theology of single and transcendent God. The “default” form would be that of the ancient Near Eastern literary standards presenting a deity as manifesting to humans directly without any intermediary. On the grammatical level aforesaid augmentation resulted in forming the genitive construction and as such it was characterized by an exceptional ease of use deriving from two factors:

  1. Both mal’akh and a deity, be it Yahveh or Elohim, are of masculine grammatical gender.
  2. The introduction of the modifier noun neither affects the modified noun on the consonantal level nor does need any change in the form of the verbs connected to it.

In other words, mal’akh becomes “automatically” incorporated into the genitive construction and all the related verbs change their subject or object accordingly. On the other hand, the removal of the word mal’akh from the narration usually makes it far more coherent, meaningful and in line with its ancient Near Eastern literary context. In a nutshell, the interpolation theory, while basically explaining the function of mal’akh Yahveh, can be very well expanded so as to elucidate the nature of the rest of biblical “angels”. From this perspective then, the “angels” understood as metaphors would be the “semantic offspring” of mal’akh Yahveh who at certain moment in history started their literary existence.[8]

Angel of Elohim

The term "angel of God" (Heb. mal'akh 'Elohim) occurs 12 times (2 of which are plural). The following are examples:

The following are examples of God "sending an angel":

Somewhat similar expressions are "the redeeming angel", המלאך הגאל, hamalak haggoel (Gen 48:16); "the angel of his (the Lord's) presence", מלאך פניו, malak panaiv (Isaiah 63:9); "the angel of the covenant", מלאך הברית, malakh habrit (Malachi 3:1); and in the Septuagint "Angel (or Messenger) of Great Counsel", μεγάλης βουλῆς ἄγγελος, megalēs boulēs aggelos (Isaiah 9:6).[9]

On the expression "the angel of his presence", see Angel of the Presence.

Christian reception

Old Testament

The KJV and NKJV capitalize "Angel" in the Old Testament references to "the" Angel of the Lord, possibly to indicate that it is a specific angel, while using lower-case "angel" in the New Testament references to "an" angel of the Lord. Most versions, including NASB, RSV, ESV, etc., do not capitalise "angel" in the Old Testament mentions of "the angel of the Lord".

New Testament

In the New Testament the Greek phrase ἄγγελος Κυρίου (aggelos kuriou – "angel of the Lord") is found in Matthew 1:20, 1:24, 2:13, 2:19, 28:2; Luke 1:11, 2:9; John 5:4; Acts 5:19, 8:26, 12:7, and 12:23. None of these are citations from the Old Testament and English translations render the phrase either as "an angel of the Lord" or as "the angel of the Lord".[10] The mentions in Acts 12:11 and Revelation 22:6 of "his angel" (the Lord's angel) can also be understood as referring either to the angel of the Lord or an angel of the Lord.

In Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology, Louis Goldberg writes: "In the New Testament, there is no mention of the angel of the Lord; the Messiah himself is this person."[11] Knofel Staton, however, writes that "the idea that this angel was Christ is unlikely for many reasons, which include the following: 1) God never said to any angel (including the 'angel of the Lord') 'you are my son' (Heb 1:5) ...";[12] and Ben Witherington says: "The angel of the Lord is just that - an angel. ... the divine son of God ... was no mere angel of the Lord, nor did he manifest himself in some observable form prior to the Incarnation."[13]

An angel of the Lord who is mentioned in Luke 1:11 identifies himself as Gabriel in Luke 1:19.[14]

Roman Catholic

In the Catholic Encyclopedia (1907) Hugh Pope discusses some of the confusion that arose regarding the term. He writes "The earlier Fathers, going by the letter of the text in the Septuagint, maintained that it was God Himself who appeared as the Giver of the Law to Moses. It was not unnatural then for Tertullian, ... to regard such manifestations in the light of preludes to the Incarnation, and most of the Eastern Fathers followed the same line of thought." He quotes the view of Theodoret that this angel was probably Christ, "the Only-begotten Son, the Angel of great Counsel", and contrasts Theodoret's view with the opposite view of the Latin Fathers St. Jerome, St. Augustine, and St. Gregory the Great, which, he says, "was destined to live in the Church, and the Scholastics reduced it to a system". As an exponent of this view he quotes Augustine of Hippo, who declared that "the angel is correctly termed an angel if we consider him himself, but equally correctly is he termed 'the Lord' because God dwells in him."[15] The visual form under which God appeared and spoke to men is referred to indifferently in some Old Testament texts either as God's angel or as God himself.[16]

Protestant and Evangelical Christianity

During the Reformation the Angel of the Lord was usually considered a general representative of God the Father, due to several verses stating that no one can look upon the face of YHWH and live.[17]

In Evangelical Christianity, some commentators interpret the phrase "Angel of the Lord" in the Hebrew Scriptures to refer to a pre-human appearance of Jesus Christ or Christophany. Others comment the functions of the Angel of the Lord prefigure Christ, and there is no clear mention of the Angel of the Lord in the New Testament because the Messiah himself is this person.[18]

Jehovah's Witnesses

The official position of Jehovah's witnesses is that the "Angel of the Lord" who led the Israelites in the wilderness, who had "God's Name within him", and who would pardon transgressions, was the pre-existent Christ, who is also Archangel Michael, the Prince of Israel, who is mentioned in the Book of Daniel. They teach that this was God's "first-begotten Son".[19]


  1. In the Hebrew Bible the noun malakh "messenger" is used 214 times, of which approximately (according to translations in the King James Version) 103 times concern human messengers and 111 times concern heavenly messengers. malak – frequency
  2. Douglas K. Stuart Exodus 2006 p109 "Now, however, God, in the form of the "Angel of the LORD" (see excursus below, "The Angel of the Lord") appeared in a fire theophany (see excursus below, "Fire Theophany") to Moses"
  3. Hugh Pope, Catholic Encyclopedia 1907 "Angels"
  4. Frederick Copleston, A History of Philosophy, Volume 1, Continuum, 2003, p. 460.
  5. J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, 5th ed., HarperOne, 1978, p. 11.
  6. Kosior, Wojciech. "The Angel in the Hebrew Bible from the Statistic and Hermeneutic Perspectives. Some Remarks on the Interpolation Theory". “The Polish Journal of Biblical Research”, Vol. 12, No. 1 (23), pp. 59-60. Retrieved 22 November 2013.
  7. K. van der Toorn, B. Becking, P. W. van der Horst (1999). The Dictionary of Deities and Demons. Leiden–Boston–Köln. pp. 50–53.
  8. Kosior, Wojciech. "The Angel in the Hebrew Bible from the Statistic and Hermeneutic Perspectives. Some Remarks on the Interpolation Theory". “The Polish Journal of Biblical Research”, Vol. 12, No. 1 (23), pp. 60-61. Retrieved 22 November 2013.
  9. Russell, Ryan. "God, Hagar and Authority". Christian Knowledge. Retrieved 2 December 2010.
  10. For instance, Matthew 1:20
  11. Angel of the Lord - Elwell, Walter A. - Evangelical Dictionary of Theology. Retrieved 9 April 2012.
  12. Knofel Staton, Angels (College Press 2005 ISBN 978-0-89900-939-1), p. 211
  13. Ben Witherington, The Living Word of God (Baylor University Press 2007 ISBN 978-1-60258-017-6), p. 224
  14. Gill's Exposition of the Entire Bible – << Luke 1:11 >> – – Retrieved 21 August 2011.
  15. Pope, Hugh. "Angels." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 1. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907. accessed 20 Oct. 2010
  16. NAB Exodus 3:2,n.2, Libreria Editrice Vaticana Archived 8 May 2015 at the Wayback Machine.
  17. Exodus 33:20–23
  18. Louis Goldberg Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology: Angel of the Lord "The functions of the angel of the Lord in the Old Testament prefigure the reconciling ministry of Jesus. In the New Testament, there is no mention of the angel of the Lord; the Messiah himself is this person."
  19. "Your Leader Is One, the Christ"The Watchtower – Announcing Jehovah's Kingdom – 15 September 2010, pg 21.

Further reading

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