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Theophany

Theophany

Manifestation of God that is tangible to the human senses. In its most restrictive sense, it is a visible appearance of God in the Old Testament period often, but not always, in human form. Some would also include in this term Christophanies (preincarnate appearances of Christ) and angelophanies (appearances of angels). In the latter category are found the appearances of the angel of the Lord, which some have taken to be Christophanies, reasoning that since the angel of the Lord speaks for God in the first person ( Gen 16:10 ) and the human addressed often attributes the experience to God directly ( Gen 16:13 ), the angel must therefore be the Lord or the preincarnate Christ. Yet, though the angel is clearly identified with the Lord, he is distinguished from him (he is called "angel, " meaning "messenger" similar patterns of identification and distinction can be seen in Genesis Genesis 19:1 Genesis 19:21 ; Genesis 31:11 Genesis 31:13 ; Exodus 3:2 Exodus 3:4 ; Judges 2:1-5 ; Judges 6:11-12 Judges 6:14 ; Judges 13:3 Judges 13:6 Judges 13:8-11 Judges 13:13 Judges 13:15-17 Judges 13:20-23 ; Zech 3:1-6 ; 12:8 ). In the ancient oriental world, a king's messenger spoke in the name of the king. Any insult rendered him was interpreted as an insult to the king himself (cf. Hanun's treatment of David's embassy, 2 Sam 10:1-4 ; 1 Chron 19:2-6 ). There seems, therefore, no necessity to posit a theophany for the angel of the Lord. In Joshua 5:13-6:5, the conquest narrative is interrupted by the abrupt appearance of a being who calls himself the "commander of the army of the Lord" (5:14). To interpret this event as an encounter with God or with the preincarnate Christ forces the text. Angels were sent on missions of this kind ( Judges 6:11 ; 13:3 ), and some were identified as captains over heavenly armies ( Daniel 10:5 Daniel 10:20 ; 12:1 ). While there are no indisputable Christophanies in the Old Testament, every theophany wherein God takes on human form foreshadows the incarnation, both in matters of grace and judgment.

Following are a number of what may be considered classic theophanies. The Lord appears to Abraham on his arrival in the land, wherein God promised the land to Abraham and his descendants ( Gen 12:7-9 ); God reaffirmed his promises of land and progeny when Abraham was ninety-nine years old ( Gen 17:1 ), and on the Plains of Mamre on his way to destroy Sodom ( Gen 18:1 ).

God appeared to Jacob in his dream at Bethel ( Gen 28:11-19 ). It is also clear that in the events at the Jabbok ford, Jacob somehow received a revelation through an encounter with God, although neither a strict reading of the text ( Gen 32:22-32 ) nor its later interpretation by Hosea ( 12:3-4 ) demand a theophany.

God appeared to Moses alone on the mountain ( Exod 19:20 ; 33:18-34:8 ). God also appeared to Moses, with Aaron and his sons and the seventy elders ( Exod 24:9-11 ) and in the transfer of leadership to Joshua ( Deut 31:15 ).

While he suffered, Job had complained that he sought an audience with God ( 31:35 ). At the conclusion of the book the Lord appears in a thunderstorm to deliver two discourses, designed to grant Job's request for a hearing and arguably to supply at least one of the meanings for Job's affliction: God is sovereign.

In a looser sense, God's promise of the land to Abraham ( Gen 15 ), as well as his commission that Abraham sacrifice Isaac ( Gen 22 ), could be considered theophanies. Frequently the term, "glory of the Lord, " reflects a theophany, as in Exodus 24:16-18; the "pillar of cloud" has a similar function in Exodus 33:9. The Spirit of God or the Spirit of the Lord must be considered theophanous, particularly when it comes upon men, transforming them ( 1 Sam 10:6 ) and equipping them for divine service ( 1 Sam 16:13 ). The Lord appears to people in visions ( Gen 15:1 ; 46:2 ; Job 33:15 ; Psalm 89:19 ; Dan 2:19 ; Acts 9:10 ; 18:9 ) and in dreams ( Gen 20:3 ; 31:24 ; 1 Kings 3:5 ; Matt 2:13 ) to reveal his plans for them or to unveil mysteries for the future.

The Lord appears in theophanies both to bless and to judge. A frequent introduction for theophanies may be seen in the words, "The Lord came down." Examples may be found in Genesis 11:5, Exodus 34:5, Number 11:25, and Numbers 12:5. Although the most common verb for the manifestation of the glory of the Lord is "appeared" ( Lev 9:23 ; Num 14:10 ; Numbers 16:19 Numbers 16:42 ; 20:6 ), God's glory also "settled" on Mount Sinai ( Exod 24:16 ).

William C. Williams

See also Angel of the Lord

Bibliography. Th. Booij, Biblia65 (1984):1-26; J. Vander Kam, VT23 (1973):129-50; M. G. Kline, WTJ40 (1977):245-80; J. Lust, VT25 (1975):110-15; E. W. Nicholson, VT24 (1974):77-97; idem, VT25 (1975):69-79; K. L. Schmitz, Faith and Philosophy1 (1984):50-70.

Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology. Edited by Walter A. Elwell
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
Baker Book House Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan USA.
All rights reserved. Used by permission.

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[J] indicates this entry was also found in Jack Van Impe's Prophecy Dictionary

Bibliography Information

Elwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Theophany'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology". . 1997.