Theophanies in the Old Testament

by Dr. Tim Chaffey
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Did God appear in human form before His incarnation? Why then would He have to be born? Is the Angel of the Lord actually Jesus? Tim Chaffey, AiG–U.S., explains.

Hi there.

I was recently both shocked and confused when reading Genesis 18. This chapter seems to strongly suggest that God appeared in human form to Abraham (and I know it later occurs when God wrestles with Jacob). It's confusing to me because it seems to undermine the uniqueness and importance of Jesus being God incarnate. If God could just spontaneously appear in human form, why did Jesus go through the whole process of virgin birth and childhood etc? And how would Abraham have known that the man he was speaking to was God? Why would God appear in human form anyway? And if angels could appear in human form, does that not blur the line between angels and humans? What is the significance of being a human, a descendant of Adam, when angels seem to be able to take on our form spontaneously?

What I'm really asking is for somebody to put the incarnation of God and angels in human form into a better perspective for me.

Thank you and God bless!

Hello W.P.,

Thank you for contacting Answers in Genesis and for your excellent questions. Let’s go through them point by point.

I was recently both shocked and confused when reading Genesis 18. This chapter seems to strongly suggest that God appeared in human form to Abraham (and I know it later occurs when God wrestles with Jacob).

You aren’t alone in thinking it strange that the Lord appeared in human form to Abraham and Jacob as well as many other people in the Old Testament. Let’s look at the two passages you mentioned.


Then the Lord appeared to him by the terebinth trees of Mamre, as he was sitting in the tent door in the heat of the day. So he lifted his eyes and looked, and behold, three men were standing by him; and when he saw them, he ran from the tent door to meet them, and bowed himself to the ground, and said, “My Lord, if I have now found favor in Your sight, do not pass on by Your servant.” (Genesis 18:1–3)


Then Jacob was left alone; and a Man wrestled with him until the breaking of day. Now when He saw that He did not prevail against him, He touched the socket of his hip; and the socket of Jacob’s hip was out of joint as He wrestled with him. . . . And He said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel; for you have struggled with God and with men, and have prevailed.”

Then Jacob asked, saying, “Tell me Your name, I pray.”

And He said, “Why is it that you ask about My name?” And He blessed him there. So Jacob called the name of the place Peniel: “For I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved.” (Genesis 32:24–25, 28–30)

Many theologians refer to the appearances of God in these passages, and others like them, as “theophanies” (Greek: theos = “God” + phaino = “appear”) or “Christophanies.” So these words mean “appearances of God” and “appearances of Christ,” respectively.

The Old Testament also mentions “the Angel of the Lord1 on several occasions. For example, this “Angel” appeared to Manoah’s wife to tell her that she would give birth to Samson.

And 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. Now therefore, please be careful not to drink wine or similar drink, and not to eat anything unclean. For behold, you shall conceive and bear a son. And no razor shall come upon his head, for the child shall be a Nazirite to God from the womb; and he shall begin to deliver Israel out of the hand of the Philistines.”

So the woman came and told her husband, saying, “A Man of God came to me, and His countenance was like the countenance of the Angel of God, very awesome; but I did not ask Him where He was from, and He did not tell me His name. (Judges 13:3–6)

It's confusing to me because it seems to undermine the uniqueness and importance of Jesus being God incarnate.

Christians generally agree that the above passages and many others that mention “the Angel of the Lord” are appearances of the pre-incarnate Christ (Christ before He came in the flesh).2 Let’s take a look at some of the characteristics of this “Angel” as given in the various passages.

  • The “Angel” is referred to with masculine pronouns (Genesis 16:13; Judges 6:21).
  • He is identified as God (Judges 6:11, 14; Zechariah 12:8).3
  • He performed miracles (Judges 6:21; 13:20).
  • Gideon and Manoah thought they would die because they saw the “Angel” face to face (Judges 6:22; 13:22).
  • The “Angel” accurately foretold future events (Judges 13:3).
  • His name is “wonderful” (Judges 13:18; cf., Isaiah 9:6).
  • He destroyed 185,000 soldiers of the Assyrian army in one night (2 Kings 19:35).4

While angels have occasionally performed some of these actions, such as miracles and prophecy, there are clear examples when “the Angel of the Lord” cannot be viewed as a normal angel. He is occasionally identified as God, accepted worship, and at least two people who saw Him thought they would die for seeing Him face to face. These same attributes and activities are clearly attributed to God elsewhere in Scripture.

There are a few other statements to consider. In Zechariah 3:1–2, “the Angel of the Lord” is distinguished from Yahweh because He talks to Yahweh. John 1:18 states, “No one has seen God at any time. The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him.” So man has only seen the Son of God, not the Father or the Holy Spirit. Also, the “Commander of the army of the Lord” (Joshua 5:14) is likely the same individual as “the Angel of the Lord.” Joshua saw this “Commander” holding a sword, and He accepted Joshua’s worship, something the holy angels refuse to do (Revelation 19:10, 22:8–9). Finally, “the Angel of the Lord” does not make any appearances after the birth of Christ in the New Testament, although the risen Jesus did appear to Saul on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:1–6; 22:6–10; 26:14–19; 1 Corinthians 9:1; 15:8).

These truths have led many students of Scripture to conclude that “the Angel of the Lord” in the Old Testament is none other than Christ Himself. He is called God, given attributes of God, seen by people, worshiped, and distinguished from the Father and Spirit. So rather than undermining the uniqueness and importance of Christ, theophanies affirm the uniqueness of Jesus. They also show the intimacy of God with His creation, unlike the distant god of deism that some people incorrectly associate with the God of the Bible.

Besides making for an interesting Bible study, the appearances of Christ in the Old Testament confirm the fact that He existed prior to the Incarnation, just as He plainly stated: “Most assuredly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I AM” (John 8:58). The fact that Jesus is the Creator also demonstrates His existence prior to His first advent (John 1:1–3; Colossians 1:16).

Some people have claimed that Jesus is Michael the archangel. For example, the founder of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Charles Taze Russell, used the notion that Jesus and Michael are the same individual to claim that Jesus is a created being, rather than the Creator of all beings.

Some Christians have also linked Jesus and Michael. John Calvin and Matthew Henry made similar connections in their respective commentaries on Daniel 12:1–4. However, unlike the Jehovah’s Witnesses, neither believed Jesus to be a created being. Rather, they believed that Michael was another name for the Angel of the Lord. This position is not without its problems. For example, in Daniel 10:13, Michael is called “one of the chief princes.”5 Jesus is not just one of a group; He is the only begotten Son of God.

If God could just spontaneously appear in human form, why did Jesus go through the whole process of virgin birth and childhood etc?

There are several reasons why Jesus went through this process. He did it to fulfill prophecy. In Genesis 3:15, God prophesied that the Seed of the woman would crush the head of the serpent, and Isaiah 7:14 also contains a prophecy of the virginal conception of Immanuel (literally “God with us”). He also came in the flesh so that He could sympathize with humanity. Hebrews 4:15 states, “For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin.

Of course, one of the major reasons Jesus became a man was to save us from our sins. Hebrews 10:4 states, “For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and goats could take away sins.” This chapter goes on to reveal that the Levitical priests repeatedly offered the same sacrifices that could never take away our sins. Instead, these sacrifices served to cover the sins of the people. In order for our sins to be removed (i.e., forgiven), we needed the blood of a perfect man.

By that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. . . . But this Man, after He had offered one sacrifice for sins forever, sat down at the right hand of God, from that time waiting till His enemies are made His footstool. For by one offering He has perfected forever those who are being sanctified. (Hebrews 10:10, 12–14)

By being conceived in Mary, Jesus took on human flesh so that He could be our “kinsman-redeemer” (see Ruth 3:12, NIV for an illustration of the kinsman-redeemer concept).6 As a literal descendant of Adam, Jesus could be the perfect sacrifice for the sons of Adam. He died, was buried, and bodily rose from the dead in fulfillment of Old Testament Scripture (1 Corinthians 15:3–5). He died and rose again to give life to those who are descendants of Adam (the one who brought sin and death into the world) and who repent of their sins and trust in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord (1 Corinthians 15:21–22).

Not only was He one of us, but also Jesus perfectly fulfilled the Law and offered Himself as a lamb without blemish (Hebrews 9:14; 1 Peter 1:19). By living a sinless life, He also provided the perfect example of obedience for us to follow. And by His perfect life and death in the flesh, He broke the power of Satan (Hebrews 2:14).

And how would Abraham have known that the man he was speaking to was God? Why would God appear in human form anyway?

By the time of Genesis 18, God had already appeared to Abraham on at least two occasions (Genesis 12:7, 17:1) and spoken to him in some way several other times (Genesis 12:1; 13:14; 15:1). It is reasonable to conclude that in Genesis 18 God appeared in the same form as before so that Abraham would recognize Him. Indeed, when he saw the Lord and the other two “men” (angels), Abraham ran out to Him and bowed down.

Of course, this pushes the question back to an earlier time. How did Abram (Abraham) recognize God the first time He appeared to him? The Bible does not tell us this, but based on the many other theophanies discussed earlier, we know that the person usually recognized “the Angel of the Lord” soon after seeing Him. The very first theophany may have occurred when God pronounced the Curse. Remember, after Adam and Eve sinned and sewed fig leaves together, they “heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day” (Genesis 3:8, emphasis added).7 The implication is that God appeared in physical form since they heard Him walking in the garden prior to confronting Adam and Eve.

Throughout Scripture, God conveyed His message to man through various means. He gave Joseph, Pharaoh, and Nebuchadnezzar dreams that foretold future events. He also used visions to communicate with Daniel, Ezekiel, John, and others. In many places, we are simply told that “God said” or “the word of the Lord came to” a certain individual. In these instances, it is possible that a theophany took place and God spoke face to face with the individual. It is also possible that God audibly communicated with people without physically appearing to them, as was apparently the case with Elijah when God used “a still small voice” to speak to His prophet (1 Kings 19:12–13).

Of course, without the Bible specifically telling us if God took on the appearance of a man to speak with people, we can only speculate. Regardless of why God chose this method at times, we know that He effectively communicated His message to the recipient when He appeared.

And if angels could appear in human form, does that not blur the line between angels and humans? What is the significance of being a human, a descendant of Adam, when angels seem to be able to take on our form spontaneously?

Hebrews 13:2 states, “Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some have unwittingly entertained angels.” Some commentators link this passage to Abraham in Genesis 18; however, Abraham did not “unwittingly” entertain angels. He was fully aware that at least one of his guests was supernatural. There were others in the Bible who seemed to have been unaware that they were entertaining angels or “the Angel of the Lord” (e.g., Lot in Genesis 19:1–2; Gideon in Judges 6:11–24).

You may view these incidents as blurring the line between humans and angels, but there are clear distinctions. Angels are spiritual beings (Hebrews 1:13–14), while humans have flesh and bones along with a spiritual component (Luke 24:39; Acts 17:16). Angels, at least some of them, can take on human form, but humans are incapable of taking on an angelic form. Hebrews quotes Psalm 8:4–6, which reveals that man has been made “lower than the angels.” Angels are certainly more powerful than humans and are aware of many things that we don’t know.

However, there are some ways in which man has the advantage over angels. 1 Peter 1:12 tells us that there are things “angels desire to look into”—namely, things pertaining to the message of salvation. In fact, only humans can receive salvation because Jesus became a descendant of Adam and only descendants of Adam can be saved. Jesus didn’t take on the nature of angels to die for them (Hebrews 2:16).

So even though an angel may be able to take on the form of a man through some supernatural ability or power, an angel cannot actually become a descendant of Adam. Rebellious angels cannot be saved, but rebellious humans can be saved if they repent of their sins and place their faith in Christ alone to save them.

The Bible also tells us that Satan and many of these rebellious angels are engaged in efforts to deceive humanity (Ephesians 6:10–13; 2 Corinthians 11:14–15), so we must exercise discernment and “test the spirits” (1 John 4:1–3; Galatians 1:6–9) to determine whether or not the messages we hear are in line with Scripture—especially the gospel.8 Remembering that we are actually in a spiritual battle with masters of deception should cause us to be even more diligent in studying the Scriptures to make sure we are following the one true Christ instead of “false christs” (Matthew 24:24).

I hope this brief study has been helpful for you. May God bless you as you study His Word and strive to follow Him.

In Christ,
Tim Chaffey, AiG–U.S.


  1. It should be noted that the phrases “the Angel of the Lord” and “an angel of the Lord” appear in the Old Testament and New Testament respectively. One should not automatically assume that these necessarily refer to the same individual. Notice the use of the definite article and that Lord is in “small caps” in the first phrase, indicating that this is “the Angel of YHWH” (as the Hebrew reveals). The former usually refers to a theophany, while the latter often simply refers to one of the angels (Acts 7:30, which references the Old Testament, is a clear exception). Some Bible translations attempt to assist the reader in distinguishing between the two terms by capitalizing “Angel” when referring to “the Angel of the Lord”; however, they are often inconsistent in their capitalizations because it is often difficult to know if the term is being used generally or specifically. For example, the New King James Version often capitalizes “Angel of the Lord” (מַלְאַךְ־יהוה / mal’ak YHWH), such as in Genesis 16:7 and 22:11. But in some cases the translators chose not to capitalize “angel” (e.g., 2 Samuel 24:16; 2 Kings 19:35).
  2. Since the term “angel” often refers to a messenger, it is possible that some uses of “the Angel of the Lord” refer to normal angels rather than one specific “Angel”—the pre-incarnate Christ. A text note in the NET Bible explains why some people do not view these appearances as theophanies. After explaining that the term simply means “messenger of the Lord,” the editors of the NET Bible wrote, “Some identify the angel of the Lord as the preincarnate Christ because in some texts the angel is identified with the Lord himself. However, it is more likely that the angel merely represents the Lord; he can speak for the Lord because he is sent with the Lord’s full authority. In some cases the angel is clearly distinct from the Lord (see Judg 6:11–23). It is not certain if the same angel is always in view. Though the proper name following the noun ‘angel’ makes the construction definite, this may simply indicate that a definite angel sent from the Lord is referred to in any given context. It need not be the same angel on every occasion.” Biblical Studies Press, The NET Bible First Edition, (Biblical Studies Press, 2006), Genesis 16:7.
  3. Some Christians believe another theophany occurred in the fiery furnace when Nebuchadnezzar claimed to see four men walking in the midst of the fire. According to the NKJV, Nebuchadnezzar said that “the form of the fourth is like the Son of God” (Daniel 3:25). This may seem like an obvious reference to Jesus, and it may have been Him, or it may have been an angel. Nebuchadnezzar definitely saw a fourth being in the furnace, but we need to remember that at this point he was a pagan king trying to explain things from his polytheistic perspective. His words are recorded in Aramaic, and he called the fourth person in the furnace a בַר־אֱלָהִין (bar ’elahin), which is literally translated as “a son of the gods.” This literal translation is included in a the textual note in the NKJV. As such, we cannot be dogmatic that this was a theophany.
  4. For more information on these and other theophanies, please see Is Jesus God?
  5. The phrase “one of the chief princes” can be translated from the Hebrew in a few different ways, although the majority of popular translations (KJV, NKJV, NASB, ESV, NET, NIV) agree on using “one of the chief princes.” The YLT calls Michael the “first of the chief heads.” If the latter is a better rendering then it may lend stronger support to Calvin’s and Henry’s positions.
  6. For a good discussion on the kinsman-redeemer concept, please see
  7. Many people have claimed that, prior to sinning, Adam and Eve used to walk with God in the garden. While this may have happened, the Bible never makes this claim. Instead, it tells us that they heard God walking in the garden after they had sinned. Others may have literally “walked with” the Lord such as Enoch (Genesis 5:24), Noah (Genesis 6:9), or even these cases with Abraham, who dined with Him (Genesis 18). However, the phrase “walked with” is likely an idiom referring to the close relationship Enoch and Noah had with the Lord.
  8. The phrase “test the spirits” may not necessarily mean that we are literally dealing with “spirits” (i.e., angels), but that the messages we are to test ultimately have a spiritual origin and need to be compared to God’s Word.


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