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The Angel of God's Presence in Abraham 1:15-16

by Barry R. Bickmore

1997 Barry Bickmore. All rights reserved.


Introduction

One of the most striking extra-biblical accounts in the Book of Abraham is the story of Abraham's harrowing escape from the idolotrous priests who were about to sacrifice him.

"And as they lifted up their hands upon me, that they might offer me up and take away my life, behold, I lifted up my voice unto the Lord my God and the Lord hearkened and heard, and he filled me with the vision of the Almighty, and the angel of his presence stood by me, and immediately unloosed my bands; And his voice was unto me: Abraham, Abraham, behold, my name is Jehovah, and I have heard thee, and have come down to deliver thee, and to take thee away from thy father's house, and from all thy kinsfolk, into a strange land which thou knowest not of...." (Abraham 1:15-16)

Certainly the passage seems innocuous enough at first glance, but upon reflection certain phrases in this passage become troubling. The angel figure who came to save Abraham is identified as the "angel of [God's] presence", a rather unusual phrase, but on the other hand the angel identifies himself as Jehovah! Was the "angel of the presence" merely a messenger, speaking as if he were Jehovah, or was this actually the manifestation of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? The answer is given away when Jehovah says, "I have heard thee, and have come down to deliver thee...." And so we can be certain that Jehovah himself was the "angel of God's presence".

Now, within LDS theology, this designation is certainly not a commonplace, but on the other hand it would be an acceptable one for Jehovah (or Yahweh), who was the preincarnate Jesus Christ. Thus, Jehovah is the Word, the messenger (or "angel") of salvation, the Son of God who is one in Godhead with His Father (Elohim or El Elyon = "God Most High"), but in another sense a "second God", the greatest of the sons of God. In other words, for Latter-day Saints it would not be a contradiction to designate Jehovah as both an "angel" and "God".

No doubt this is blatant heresy for both modern Judaism and mainstream Christianity, which make no distinction between Elohim and Yahweh, but recently many (non-Mormon) scholars have begun to recognize that not only were the Most High God and Yahweh conceived of as distinct beings in the oldest stratum of Israelite and early Christian thought, but Yahweh (and later Jesus) were given the designation "Angel of the Presence". In this essay we will examine some of the evidence for this interpretation.


Yahweh and the Angel of Yahweh

Was Yahweh God, or an angel, or both? Margaret Barker has recently given a great deal of evidence that He was originally considered both God and the chief angel in her book, The Great Angel: A Study of Israel's Second God. According to Barker, Yahweh was originally believed to be the greatest of the sons of God Most High. However, after the Exile a faction arose who, in reaction to the pagan pantheons, began to equate Elohim and Yahweh - and hence some of the later passages in the Bible make no distinction between the two. (It is perfectly acceptable for Latter-day Saints to believe that the Bible text has been thus corrupted, but for us there are other possibilities, as well. God may well have directed his prophets to emphasize the oneness of the Godhead in order to discourage belief in a pantheon of gods at odds with each other. See Alma 29:8; D&C 19:4-12; 3 Ne. 26:8-11; 2 Ne. 31:21.) This faction eventually became the majority in Israel, but the minority who still believed the older doctrine was never completely stamped out, and eventually this movement provided the basis for the Christian revelation. In order to show that Yahweh was originally thought of as both God and an angel, Barker demonstrates that an ancient Old Testament figure known as "the Angel of Yahweh" was actually equated with Yahweh himself.

"Was this angel an agent of Yahweh, or was the angel the manifestation of Yahweh? The text is usually read as though the former were the case, but there is considerable evidence to suggest that the angel was Yahweh. It is this angel which is the key to recovering beliefs about Elyon [the Most High] and Yahweh and to the ultimate origin of Christian belief about Jesus." (1)

Barker goes on to present quite a bit of evidence for this thesis, among which is the following:

"Gideon saw the Angel of Yahweh, and this storyteller too identified Yahweh and the Angel of Yahweh. The Angel of Yahweh appeared to Gideon (Judg. 6:11-12), and introduced himself as Yahweh (Judg. 6.12). It is then as Yahweh that he speaks to Gideon (Judg. 6.14,16). The Angel of Yahweh disappears, and Gideon realizes whom he has seen. He fears because he has seen the Angel of Yahweh face to face (Judg. 6.22) but Yahweh reassures him that he will not die (cf. Exod. 33.20, where Yahweh said 'You cannot see my face; for man shall not see me and live')." (2)

In later texts the "Angel of Yahweh" disappeared from view as Yahweh and Elohim were fused, and many of Yahweh's functions were taken over by the archangels in popular thought.

"The Angel of Yahweh has no obvious heir in later texts. Although the so-called inter-testamental writings are full of angels, they are new angels with names.... After the reforms of the exilic period when Yahweh was fused with El-Elyon ["God Most High"], he certainly did become a more distant God, but angels were not 'invented' to fill the gap. The angels were those heavenly beings who had formerly been the sons of Elyon, the kin of Yahweh the Holy One. When Yahweh became Elyon, his roles were filled by other angels. Ideas about the angels were refined and elaborated over the centuries but in their essentials they remained the same." (3)


The "Angel(s) of the Presence"

Therefore, Yahweh was originally seen as both God and angel, but what of this strange title, "Angel of the Presence"? Barker intimates that this was once one of Yahweh's titles as well, which was later given to the archangels.(4) Segal explains that whoever was designated as the chief angel in the Isrealite literature was also given the title "Angel of the Presence":

"Of course, Gabriel and Michael are often seen as but two of the several archangels. Yet, whenever a configuration of archangels appears, one or another (often Michael or Gabriel, sometimes Uriel) is designated as the principal angel (often called "Angel of the Presence") or regarded as superior to the others." (5)

Barker explains further:

"In the Qumran Hymns there are the Angels of the Face (1QHVI) among whom the men of the covenant hope to stand, with no need of a mediator or a messenger to make reply; an interesting comment on the role of these angels. One version of the Testament of Levi says that Levi, when he was travelling through the heavens, saw the Angels of the Presence 'who minister and make propitiation to t he Lord for all the sins of ignorance of the righteous' (Test. Levi 3.5)." (6)

Accordingly, Luke and the apocryphal book of Tobit refer to angels who stand in the presence of God. "And the angel answering said unto him, I am Gabriel, that stand in the presence of God...." (Luke 1:19, KJV) "I am Raphael, one of the seven angels who stand in attendance on the Lord and enter his glorious presence." (Tobit 12:15, NEB) However, Isaiah is the only Biblical writer to use the phrase "angel of his presence". Speaking of the goodness of Yahweh toward the house of Israel, the Hebrew text of Isaiah 63:8-9 (followed by the KJV) reads: "For he [Yahweh] said, Surely they are my people, children that will not lie: so he was their Saviour. In all their affliction he was afflicted, and the angel of his presence saved them...." It is clear from the text that Yahweh saved his people by the "angel of his presence", but it is not at all evident that Yahweh was equated with this angel, although this is most certainly the case. The ancient translators of the Greek Old Testament (Septuagint or LXX, translated in the second and third centuries B.C.) knew of this tradition, and therefore made no reference to the "angel of his presence", but translated the verse in question as, "It was no envoy, no angel, but he himself that delivered them." (Isaiah 63:9, NEB) Clearly, Yahweh was the "angel of his presence".


Jesus as Yahweh and the "Angel of the Presence"

As Barker indicated, the belief in Yahweh as Israel's second God, the chief angel, was the basis of early Christian Christology. Many verses could be cited to show that Jesus Christ was equated with Yahweh, but for our purposes we need only reference Jesus' statement, "Before Abraham was, I am." (John 8:58, KJV) The Greek for "I am" is here identical to the Septuagint translation of Exodus 3:14 where Yahweh says "I AM THAT I AM." Clearly Jesus is identifying himself with Yahweh.

And yet, in keeping with the most ancient Israelite tradition, Jesus was also believed to have been the chief of the angels. For example, Paul called Jesus "the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature...." (Colossians 1:15, KJV) In the second century Justin Martyr called Jesus both angel and God:

"And that this power which the prophetic word calls God, as has been also amply demonstrated, and Angel, is not numbered [as different] in name only like the light of the sun but is indeed something numerically distinct, I have discussed briefly in what has gone before; when I asserted that this power was begotten from the Father...." (7)

In the third century Novatian also felt it necessary to explain how Jesus could be both angel and God:

"... because He is of God, is rightly called God, because He is the Son of God. But, because He is subjected to the Father, and the Announcer of the Father's will, He is declared to be the Angel of Great Counsel. Therefore, although this passage neither is suited to the person of the Father, lest He should be called an angel, nor to the person of an angel, lest he should be called God; yet it is suited to the person of Christ that He should be both God because He is the Son of God, and should be an angel because He is the Announcer of the Father's mind." (8)

Even as late as the early fourth century both Methodius and Eusebius could make the same claim:

"And this was Christ, a man filled with the pure and perfect Godhead, and God received into man. For it was most suitable that the oldest of the AEons and the first of the Archangels, when about to hold communion with men, should dwell in the oldest and the first of men, even Adam. And thus, when renovating those things which were from the beginning, and forming them again of the Virgin by the Spirit, He frames the same just as at the beginning." (9)

"Remember how Moses calls the Being, Who appeared to the patriarchs and often delivered to them the oracles written down in Scripture, sometimes God and Lord and sometimes the Angel of the Lord. He clearly implies that this was not the Omnipotent God but a secondary Being, rightly called the God and Lord of holy men, but the Angel of the Most High his Father." (10)

And even more interesting is Jean Danielou's claim that in certain early Jewish Christian traditions both Jesus and the Holy Spirit were believed to be the two "Angels of the Presence":

"But there was also another scheme, according to which the Son and Spirit were considered as the two Angels of the Presence transcending all others - as, for example, in the Ascenscion of Isaiah. In this text and II Enoch they appear as an adaptation of the figures of Michael and Gabriel, and it frequently happens that these two archangels are separated from the rest and treated on a common higher level." (11)


Conclusion

We have established that Abraham's identification of Yahweh with "the angel of his presence" was consistent with the earliest Israelite traditions, and also with the earliest Christian traditions. But if we assume, as the critics of the Book of Abraham do, that Joseph Smith created this remarkable document by applying his fertile imagination to the sources he had at hand, how did he come up with this strange designation for Yahweh? The only Biblical source for the phrase would have been Isaiah 63:9, but we have seen that this verse gives no hint that Yahweh was equated with "the angel of his presence". This conclusion can only be drawn when the Greek text is compared with the Hebrew. However, the Septuagint was not translated into English until 1851, so again we are at a loss to find a source for the Prophet. Consider also that we have not been able to find even a single case where Joseph Smith used this title to refer to Yahweh, aside from this solitary passage in the Book of Abraham. Therefore, we are forced to conclude that Joseph Smith was inconceivably lucky in his choice of words, or in fact the Patriarch Abraham chose these words to describe his God.


References

1 Barker, M., The Great Angel: A Study of Israel's Second God, (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1992), p. 31.

2 Barker, The Great Angel, p. 34.

3 Barker, The Great Angel, p. 70.

4 Barker, The Great Angel, pp. 85-86.

5 Segal, A.F., Two Powers in Heaven: Early Rabbinic Reports About Christianity and Gnosticism, (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1977).

6 Barker, The Great Angel, p. 86.

7 Justin Martyr, Dialogue With Trypho 127, in ANF 1:263.

8 Novatian, On the Trinity 18, in ANF 5:628.

9 Methodius, The Banquet of the Ten Virgins 3:4, in ANF 6:318.

10 Eusebius, Proof of the Gospel 1:5, in Barker, The Great Angel, p. 198.

11 Danielou, J., The Theology of Jewish Christianity, (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1977), p. 134.