Theophany (Christophany)

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 19:1, 21; 31:11, 13; Exod. 3:2, 4; Judg. 2:1–5; 6:11–12, 14; 13:3, 6, 8–11, 13, 15–17, 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 (Judg. 6:11; 13:3), and some were identified as captains over heavenly armies (Dan. 10:5, 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; Ps. 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; 16:19, 42; 20:6), God's glory also "settled" on Mount Sinai (Exod. 24:16). William C. Williams

William C. Williams Williams, William C Ph.D., New York University. Professor of Old Testament, Southern California College, Costa Mesa, California.

Elwell, W. A., & Elwell, W. A. (1996). In Evangelical dictionary of biblical theology (electronic ed.). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.

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