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Daniel O. McClellan





The Angel of YHWH





APA e-journal

Daniel O. McClellan





The Angel of YHWH








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The Angel of YHWH

Abraham, Hagar, Moses, and Gideon all encounter the angel of YHWH. What is this divine being and how are we to understand its relationship to YHWH?


The Angel of YHWH

Hagar and the Angel in the Desert (detail), James Tissot c. 1896-1902. The Jewish Museum

Several biblical narratives conflate מַלְאַךְ יְ־הוָה—usually translated as “the angel of YHWH,” but more accurately rendered as “the messenger of YHWH”—with God or YHWH.

1. The Akedah

After Abraham binds Isaac on the altar, the messenger of YHWH calls out to Abraham from heaven to stop him from sacrificing his son:

בראשׁית כב:יא וַיִּקְרָא אֵלָיו מַלְאַךְ יְ־הוָה מִן הַשָּׁמַיִם וַיֹּאמֶר אַבְרָהָם אַבְרָהָם וַיֹּאמֶר הִנֵּנִי.
Gen 22:11 Then the messenger of YHWH called to him from heaven: “Abraham! Abraham!” And he answered, “Here I am.”[1]

When Abraham answers, however, the speaker replies in the first person as the deity:

בראשׁית כב:יב וַיֹּאמֶר אַל תִּשְׁלַח יָדְךָ אֶל הַנַּעַר וְאַל תַּעַשׂ לוֹ מְאוּמָּה כִּי עַתָּה יָדַעְתִּי כִּי יְרֵא אֱלֹהִים אַתָּה וְלֹא חָשַׂכְתָּ אֶת בִּנְךָ אֶת יְחִידְךָ מִמֶּנִּי.
Gen 22:12 And he said, “Do not raise your hand against the boy, or do anything to him. For now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your favored one, from Me.”

Indeed, Abraham’s name for the site indicates that he believes he has been speaking with YHWH:

בראשׁית כב:יד וַיִּקְרָא אַבְרָהָם שֵׁם הַמָּקוֹם הַהוּא יְ־הוָה יִרְאֶה אֲשֶׁר יֵאָמֵר הַיּוֹם בְּהַר יְ־הוָה יֵרָאֶה.
Gen 22:14 And Abraham named that site YHWH-yireh, whence the present saying, “On the mount of YHWH there is vision.”

2. Hagar’s Divine Encounter

Similarly, when Hagar runs away from Sarai, the messenger of YHWH finds her in the wilderness (v. 7) and tells her to return to her mistress:

בראשׁית טז:ט וַיֹּאמֶר לָהּ מַלְאַךְ יְ־הוָה שׁוּבִי אֶל גְּבִרְתֵּךְ וְהִתְעַנִּי תַּחַת יָדֶיהָ.
Gen 16:9 And the messenger of YHWH said to her, “Go back to your mistress, and submit to her harsh treatment.”

Here again the messenger speaks for YHWH in the first person:

בראשׁית טז:י וַיֹּאמֶר לָהּ מַלְאַךְ יְ־הוָה הַרְבָּה אַרְבֶּה אֶת זַרְעֵךְ וְלֹא יִסָּפֵר מֵרֹב.
Gen 16:10 And the messenger of YHWH said to her, “I will greatly increase your offspring, and they shall be too many to count.”

Hagar’s response to the incident also indicates that she believes she has been speaking with YHWH:

בראשׁית טז:יג וַתִּקְרָא שֵׁם יְ־הוָה הַדֹּבֵר אֵלֶיהָ אַתָּה אֵל רֳאִי כִּי אָמְרָה הֲגַם הֲלֹם רָאִיתִי אַחֲרֵי רֹאִי.
Gen 16:13 And she called YHWH who spoke to her, “You Are El-roi,” by which she meant, “Have I not gone on seeing after my being seen!”

3. Moses and the Burning Bush

Moses’s encounter at the burning bush begins when the messenger of YHWH appears to him מִתּוֹךְ הַסְּנֶה, “from the midst of the bush”:

שׁמות ג:ב וַיֵּרָא מַלְאַךְ יְ־הוָֹה אֵלָיו בְּלַבַּת אֵשׁ מִתּוֹךְ הַסְּנֶה וַיַּרְא וְהִנֵּה הַסְּנֶה בֹּעֵר בָּאֵשׁ וְהַסְּנֶה אֵינֶנּוּ אֻכָּל.
Exod 3:2 And the messenger of YHWH appeared to him in a flame of fire from the midst of the bush. And he saw—and look!—the bush burned with fire, but the bush was not consumed.

Yet when Moses stops to investigate, the narrator precisely places God in the same location as the messenger:[2]

שׁמות ג:ד ...וַיִּקְרָא אֵלָיו אֱלֹהִים מִתּוֹךְ הַסְּנֶה וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה מֹשֶׁה וַיֹּאמֶר הִנֵּנִי.
Exod 3:4 …And God called to him from the midst of the bush, and said, “Moses! Moses!” And he said, “I’m here.”

Moses also averts his eyes to avoid looking upon God:

שׁמות ג:ו וַיֹּאמֶר אָנֹכִי אֱלֹהֵי אָבִיךָ אֱלֹהֵי אַבְרָהָם אֱלֹהֵי יִצְחָק וֵאלֹהֵי יַעֲקֹב וַיַּסְתֵּר מֹשֶׁה פָּנָיו כִּי יָרֵא מֵהַבִּיט אֶל הָאֱלֹהִים.
Exod 3:6 And he said, “I am the God of your father—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” Then Moses turned his face away, because he was afraid to look upon God.

4. Gideon Becomes Israel’s Savior

Gideon’s appointment as Israel’s savior begins with the messenger of YHWH speaking to him:

שׁפטים ו:יב וַיֵּרָא אֵלָיו מַלְאַךְ יְ־הוָה וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו יְ־הוָה עִמְּךָ גִּבּוֹר הֶחָיִל.
Judg 6:12 The messenger of YHWH appeared to him and said to him, “YHWH is with you, valiant warrior!”

Two verses later, however, after Gideon has asked why YHWH has abandoned Israel (v. 13), it is YHWH who turns to him and replies:

שׁפטים ו:יד וַיִּפֶן אֵלָיו יְ־הוָה וַיֹּאמֶר לֵךְ בְּכֹחֲךָ זֶה וְהוֹשַׁעְתָּ אֶת יִשְׂרָאֵל מִכַּף מִדְיָן הֲלֹא שְׁלַחְתִּיךָ.
Judg 6:14 YHWH turned to him and said, “Go in this strength of yours and deliver Israel from the Midianites. I hereby commission you.”

Gideon accepts his commission and prepares a sacrifice. After the messenger of YHWH sets fire to the offering and then disappears (vv. 19–21), Gideon acknowledges that he has been speaking with the messenger:

שׁפטים ו:כב וַיַּרְא גִּדְעוֹן כִּי מַלְאַךְ יְ־הוָה הוּא וַיֹּאמֶר גִּדְעוֹן אֲהָהּ אֲדֹנָי יְ־הוִה כִּי עַל כֵּן רָאִיתִי מַלְאַךְ יְ־הוָה פָּנִים אֶל פָּנִים.
Judg 6:22 Then Gideon realized that it was the messenger of YHWH; and Gideon said, “Help, Lord YHWH! For I have seen the messenger of YHWH face to face.”

Yet in response to Gideon’s fear of having seen the messenger, it is YHWH who reassures Gideon:

שׁפטים ו:כג וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ יְ־הוָה שָׁלוֹם לְךָ אַל תִּירָא לֹא תָּמוּת.
Judg 6:23 But YHWH said to him, “All is well; have no fear, you shall not die.”

In Sum

The narrators in these accounts (and others, such as Jacob’s dream about his flock in Genesis 31[3] and Samson’s parents in Judges 13)[4] alternate between describing an encounter with the messenger and an encounter with God/YHWH. Within the story, however, when the entity self-identifies, it is always as God/YHWH. Moreover, the protagonists either think they’re communicating directly with God/YHWH, or they realize that they have done so afterwards.[5] How are we to explain the shifting identity of the divine speaker?

The Messenger is a Later Addition

The conflated identities of the messenger and God/YHWH within these narratives are likely the product of ancient scribes in the exilic or post-exilic period, who wrote the Hebrew word מַלְאַךְ (malʾak) in front of the name YHWH or the word ʾelohim wherever the physical presence of the deity had become theologically undesirable, thus creating the construct “the messenger of YHWH/God.”

Without the word malʾak, these stories simply and clearly narrate YHWH interacting directly with humanity. Indeed, the messengers in these narratives are not doing what messengers do elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible or within broader ancient Southwest Asian literature. For instance, these stories do not refer to YHWH sending any messenger, and the messenger does not introduce themselves as a messenger.[6] The tasks being performed by the messenger of YHWH are also tasks not normally performed by messengers. In Akkadian, Hittite, Ugaritic, and Egyptian literature, it is the deities themselves who predict births, who rescue the wronged and the helpless, who test faithfulness, and who punish.[7]

The Addition of Messengers in Other Texts

Looking beyond the Masoretic Text (MT), we find more evidence of ancient editors and translators adding a word for “messenger,” “angel” (or another proxy for divine presence) to texts where YHWH’s presence or behavior was considered theologically problematic.[8]

Who Visits Balaam?

For example, in the MT and the Septuagint, God visits Balaam in the night to give him instructions regarding Balak of Moab’s plan to curse the Israelites:

במדבר כב:כ וַיָּבֹא אֱלֹהִים אֶל בִּלְעָם לַיְלָה וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ אִם לִקְרֹא לְךָ בָּאוּ הָאֲנָשִׁים קוּם לֵךְ אִתָּם וְאַךְ אֶת הַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר אֲדַבֵּר אֵלֶיךָ אֹתוֹ תַעֲשֶׂה.
Num 22:20 That night God came to Balaam and said to him, “If these men have come to invite you, you may go with them. But whatever I command you, that you shall do.”

In this verse and in some others (e.g., Num 23:4–5)—but not in all the verses that refer to God visiting Balaam—the Samaritan Pentateuch (and, based on spacing, likely the Dead Sea Scroll 4QNumb) adds the word malʾak, so that it is not God, but God’s messenger, who visits Balaam:

במדבר כב:כ ויבא מלאך אלהים אל בלעם לילה ויאמר לו אם לקרא לך באו האנשים קום לך אתם ואך את הדבר אשר אדבר אליך אתו תעשה.
SP Num 22:20 And the messenger of God came to Balaam at night, and said to him, “If the men come to call you, rise up and go with them; but whatever I command you, that you shall do.”

Who Attacks Moses?

Similarly, in the story of Moses’s divine encounter on the way back to Egypt, the Septuagint adds ἄγγελος κυρίου, “angel of the Lord,” so that it is not YHWH, but an angel, who confronts and seeks to kill Moses:

LXX Exod 4:24 Now it happened on the way at the lodging, an angel of the Lord met him and was seeking to kill him.[9]

Targum Onqelos, an Aramaic translation of the Torah,[10] does likewise:

וַהְוָה בְאוֹרחָא בְבֵית מְבָתָא וְעָרַע בֵיה מַלאְכָא דַיוי וּבעָא לְמִקטְלֵיה׃
Targ Onq Exod 4:24 And it happened on the way, in an inn, the messenger of the Lord met him and sought to kill him.

Who Helps Eve Conceive?

When Eve becomes pregnant with Cain, she declares that she has “gained a child from YHWH”:

בראשׁית ד:א וְהָאָדָם יָדַע אֶת חַוָּה אִשְׁתּוֹ וַתַּהַר וַתֵּלֶד אֶת קַיִן וַתֹּאמֶר קָנִיתִי אִישׁ אֶת יְ־הוָה.
Gen 4:1 Now the man knew his wife Eve, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, “I have gained a male child of YHWH.”

A manuscript of Targum Pseudo-Jonathan,[11] however, adds malʾak to indicate that Eve was impregnated by the messenger:

ואדם ידע ית חוה איתתיה דהיא חמידת למלאכ׳ ואעדיאת וילידת ית קין ואמרת קניתי לגבר׳ ית מלאכא דייי .
Targ Ps-J Gen 4:1 And Adam knew Eve his wife, that she had desired the messenger, and she conceived and bore Cain and said, “I have gained a male child from the messenger of the Lord.

Who Speaks to Gideon?

In the MT, YHWH speaks directly to Gideon:

שׁפטים ו:טז וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו יְ־הוָה כִּי אֶהְיֶה עִמָּךְ וְהִכִּיתָ אֶת מִדְיָן כְּאִישׁ אֶחָד.
Judg 6:16 YHWH replied, “I will be with you, and you shall defeat Midian to a man.”

In the Septuagint, however, it is the angel (ἄγγελος) speaking of YHWH in the third person:

LXX Judg 6:16 And the angel of the Lord said to him, “The Lord will be with you, and you shall strike down Madiam as you would one man.”[12]

Who Speaks to Moses?

The Vulgate, however, in contrast to the MT’s וַיֵּרָא מַלְאַךְ יְ־הוָֹה אֵלָיו, “the messenger of YHWH appeared to him,” does not mention the messenger in the burning bush account:

Vulg Exod 3:2 And the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush: and he saw that the bush was on fire, and was not burnt.[13]

How the Torah Itself Explains the Messenger of YHWH

If the messenger is a later addition to these biblical narratives, how did subsequent generations among whom the edited texts circulated make sense of the conflated identities of the messenger and YHWH?[14] The most influential explanation seems to be one offered by the Torah itself. At Sinai, God grants divine authority to a messenger who will travel with the Israelites:

שׁמות כג:כ הִנֵּה אָנֹכִי שֹׁלֵחַ מַלְאָךְ לְפָנֶיךָ לִשְׁמָרְךָ בַּדָּרֶךְ וְלַהֲבִיאֲךָ אֶל הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר הֲכִנֹתִי. כג:כא הִשָּׁמֶר מִפָּנָיו וּשְׁמַע בְּקֹלוֹ אַל תַּמֵּ֣ר בּוֹ כִּי לֹ֤א יִשָּׂא לְפִשְׁעֲכֶם כִּי שְׁמִי בְּקִרְבּוֹ.
Exod 23:20 Look, I am sending a messenger before you, to guard you along the way and to bring you to the place I have prepared. 23:21 Pay attention to him and obey his voice. Do not rebel against him, because he will not forgive your transgressions, because my name is in him.

The messenger’s prerogative to “not forgive your transgressions” is identical to the statement in Joshua that YHWH is אֵל קַנּוֹא הוּא לֹא יִשָּׂא לְפִשְׁעֲכֶם, “a jealous God—he will not forgive your transgressions” (24:19).[15] The passage warns Israel that the messenger will exercise divine prerogatives normally held only by God and therefore is not to be treated lightly. The explanation that שְׁמִי בְּקִרְבּוֹ, “my name is in him,” likely reflects the idea that the divine name functions as a type of transferable vehicle for divine presence and authority.[16]

This interpretation is consistent with the use of the divine name elsewhere in the biblical texts. In some places, the divine name is treated as a type of proxy for the deity, standing in for God themselves. Isaiah, for example, describes YHWH’s name coming to the defense of Israel:

ישׁעיה ל:כז הִנֵּה שֵׁם יְ־הוָה בָּא מִמֶּרְחָק בֹּעֵר אַפּוֹ וְכֹבֶד מַשָּׂאָה שְׂפָתָיו מָלְאוּ זַעַם וּלְשׁוֹנוֹ כְּאֵשׁ אֹכָלֶת.
Isa 30:27 Behold the name of YHWH comes from afar, in blazing wrath, with a heavy burden—his lips full of fury, his tongue like devouring fire.

The Deuteronomistic notion of the temple at Jerusalem as the place where YHWH’s name will be placed or will dwell—thereby manifesting God’s presence and making worship possible—reflects the notion that the name is an extension of YHWH, representing the deity’s presence and power.[17]

Between Divine Images and the Divine Name

A closely related logic applies to divine images in broader ancient Southwest Asia. They were considered manifestations of the presence and agency of the deities they represented, and so could be simultaneously identified as, and also distinguished from, those deities.[18]

Biblical authors, however, rejected the use of physical representations of YHWH. Thus, the name itself is an abstraction, not represented by a physical object, though they allow the possibility of creating and transporting items in which YHWH could appear, such as the Ark and the Tabernacle.[19]

The image of YHWH’s messenger guiding and guarding the Israelites (Exod 23:20–21) is likely renegotiating the understanding of these altered texts to bring them into alignment with the theological sensitivities and presuppositions of this text’s author. It overlays the logic of divine images upon the figure of the messenger, resulting in the concept of “the messenger of YHWH,” an individualized messenger who, having possession of the divine name, could exercise divine prerogatives and even identify as YHWH.

The Divine Name in Post-Biblical Literature

Ancient Jewish interpreters also pick up on the function of the divine name as a transferable vehicle of divine agency and presence. In Apocalypse of Abraham,[20] for instance, God refers to the angel Yahoel as “the namesake of the mediation of my ineffable name” (10:3) and Yahoel explains that God “put together his names in me” (v. 8).[21]

Not YHWH, but Metatron

The Talmud even describes Metatron, an angel that bears YHWH’s name, as the “YHWH” to whom Moses was instructed to ascend:

בבלי סנהדרין לח: מינא לרב אידית כתיב (שמות כד, א) ואל משה אמר עלה אל ה' עלה אלי מיבעי ליה א"ל זהו מטטרון ששמו כשם רבו דכתיב (שמות כג, כא) כי שמי בקרבו
b. Sanh. 38b A certain heretic said to Ravi Idit: “It is written (Exod 24:1): ‘And to Moses he said, Come up to YHWH.’ ‘Come up to me,’ it should have said.” He said to him, “This is Metatron, whose name is as the name of his Master, as it is written (Exod 23:21): ‘because my name is in him.’”

By means of such tactics, ancient readers seem to have adopted and adapted the logic of divine images in a way that preserved and protected the deity’s transcendence while also making space for the immanence that was so critical to worship. An angel is the deity insofar as it manifests and provides direct access to the deity’s presence and power on earth, but the angel is not the deity insofar as it is a separate and distinct entity who safeguards YHWH’s primary locus of self far off in the heavens.


The Haggadah: God, Not an Angel, Took Israel out of Egypt

The Passover Haggadah, when it tells the story of the exodus from Egypt, emphasizes that God guided Israel out of Egypt rather than delegating it to an angel:

וַיּוֹצִאֵנוּ ה' מִמִּצְרַיִם. לֹא עַל יְדֵי מַלְאָךְ, וְלֹא עַל יְדֵי שָׂרָף, וְלֹא עַל יְדֵי שָׁלִיחַ
God brought us out of Egypt (Deut 26:8), not by the hands of an angel, and not by the hands of a seraph, and not by the hands of a messenger.
וְעָבַרְתִּי בְאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם בַּלַּיְלָה הַזֶּה – אֲנִי וְלֹא מַלְאָךְ
And I will pass through the land of Egypt—I myself, and not an angel.

This text distinguishes the deity’s own presence and activity from the mediation of that by an angel. It thus does the opposite of what the biblical editors have done in introducing the messenger of God into the narrative. That God would guide Israel out of Egypt rather than delegate it to an angel signals God’s direct care and intimacy during that pivotal event in the history of the people of Israel.


March 29, 2023


Last Updated

July 14, 2024


View Footnotes

Dr. Daniel O. McClellan is an independent scholar of the Bible. He received his Ph.D. in theology and religion from the University of Exeter and has published articles in journals such as Biblical Interpretation and the Journal of Biblical Literature. His book, YHWH's Divine Images: A Cognitive Approach (2022), was published in SBL Press’s open-access Ancient Near East Monograph Series.