Wednesday, October 09, 2019

From Gilgal to Bochim

“Now the angel of the Lord went up from Gilgal to Bochim.”

The angel of the Lord went up. Have you ever wondered exactly what that means?

In Hebrew, the phrase is mal'ak Yĕhovah (literally, “the representative of YHWH”). The word mal'ak (often translated “angel”) may also refer to perfectly ordinary human messengers, so context very much determines how we interpret any given instance of its use. When Jacob sent mal'ak to Esau in advance of his return home, we can be quite confident he did not have Michael or Gabriel at his disposal. Thus, the use of mal'ak on its own in scripture may not necessarily be intended to convey anything supernatural or otherworldly.

Add Yĕhovah to it, however, and you’ve got a phrase with a rather more specific spiritual significance.

A More Specific Spiritual Significance

Consider the following seven Old Testament occurrences of the term:
  1. Hagar. In Genesis 16, a pregnant Hagar, servant to Abraham’s wife Sarah, flees into the wilderness and is met by the angel of the Lord. Hagar never doubted she had been introduced to God himself. She named the angel “a God of seeing”, and said, “Truly here I have seen him who looks after me.”
  2. Moses. In Exodus 3, once again in the wilderness, Moses comes across a burning bush in which the angel of the Lord appears to him. In case we are in any doubt whether Hagar was right in her identification of the angel of the Lord, our narrator helpfully clarifies: “God called to him out of the bush.”
  3. Balaam. In Numbers 22, the Gentile prophet Balaam encounters the angel of the Lord standing in the road barring his way with a drawn sword. Initially, only Balaam’s donkey is able to see the angel. The angel tells Balaam, “Your way is reckless” ... not “before God,” but “before me.” Clearly it is the angel of the Lord who is calling the shots. He is not a mere emissary.
  4. The angel of the Lord went up from Gilgal to Bochim.
  5. Gideon. In Judges 6, the angel of the Lord comes and sits under a terebinth tree at Ophrah in order to make himself known to a fearful Gideon. Once again, our helpful narrator uses the phrase “angel of the Lord” interchangeably with “the Lord”.
  6. Manoah and his Wife. Samson’s parents meet the angel of the Lord only a few chapters later. He appears as a “very awesome” man, with whom the two converse. When Manoah respectfully offers him a meal, the angel of the Lord replies, “If you detain me, I will not eat of your food. But if you prepare a burnt offering, then offer it to the Lord.” When Manoah follows his instructions, the angel of the Lord ascends to heaven in the flame. Manoah’s terrified and absolutely correct conclusion: “We have seen God.”
  7. Elijah. After the slaughter of the priests of Baal, the prophet Elijah runs. Where? Into the wilderness. Again. Hmm. In his need and distress, the angel of the Lord appears and first feeds, then strengthens the prophet with his touch. This “angel”, as we have seen, takes the form of a man. He is not a mere vision; he can touch and be touched.
I’m not sure how much it matters, but when the angel of the Lord went up from Gilgal to Bochim, it is the centerpiece of the seven documented OT occasions on which he set foot on our planet, as well as his only documented public appearance — at least among those incidents in connection with which the name “angel of the Lord” is specifically mentioned.

Some Qualifications

Now, I’m not saying these seven are the only occurrences of the term “angel of the Lord” in the Old Testament. They are not.

Abraham (and, on a second occasion, Elijah) heard from the angel of the Lord too, but he spoke from out of heaven rather than appearing in human form on earth. The prophet Zechariah saw the angel of the Lord appearing as a man riding a red horse and standing among myrtle trees, as well as in human appearance in a second scenario. (Zechariah also freely uses the expression “the Lord” to describe his angel.) However, these were “night visions”, not true appearances.

The angel of the Lord also struck down 185,000 Assyrians in 2 Kings 19, but there is no indication anyone saw him doing it.

Yet again, he appears in 1 Chronicles 21 at the threshing floor of Ornan the Jebusite with a drawn sword, engaged in judgment. In this instance, he is standing “between earth and heaven.” Nobody is considering inviting him to dinner. King David saw the sword and feared for his own life.

God in Human Form

There are also other OT appearances of God on earth in the form of a man. In these instances, the words “angel of the Lord” are not used, but the experience of those who met him is virtually identical to the cases described above. For example, in Genesis 18, Abraham saw “three men”, but our narrator tells us “the Lord appeared to him.” Then there was Jacob, who wrestled with “a man”, but said, “I have seen God face to face.” We have no compelling reason to doubt his conclusion.

In summary then, the angel of the Lord is God in human form. He has touched down on our planet disguised as one of us to such an extent that not everyone who has met him immediately recognized him as God. He appears to men at pivotal points in history, usually (but not always) in private, and frequently in the wilderness. He is a physical, tangible reality, sometimes touching and allowing himself to be touched. In one instance, with Abraham, God even eats. In another he does not.

No One Has Ever Seen God

And yet John the apostle sums up the experience of all the Old Testament saints this way: “No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.” How exactly do we reconcile that statement with what we have just considered?

Well, it is highly unlikely that John, after three years as Christ’s disciple and at least forty more reflecting on the meaning of it all, blatantly contradicted a spate of Old Testament passages with which he was more than passingly familiar. There is no reason to think he did. If it is always God the Son who has made God the Father known to man, as John says, and if he did so in human form as these OT passages describe, then indeed we can affirm that no one has ever truly seen God in his essence. The Son, then, is the true “representative of YHWH”, the representative of representatives. As the hymnwriter put it, the Godhead appears “veiled in flesh”. That is currently the only way we can safely interact with him and he with us.

Thus it is difficult to argue with those who believe all appearances of the angel of the Lord are pre-incarnate theophanies, or what we might call manifestations of the Christ before he was born into the world. I certainly won’t dispute it.

The Angel of the Lord Went Up

So then, if we read the first verse of Judges 2 as if an ordinary angel or even an archangel went up to Bochim on God’s behalf, we lose something of the author’s intent. Even if we bring God into it, imagining an ethereal presence peering down from the sky toward Bochim, we are not really getting the intended sense. It is the “angel of the Lord” who went up, the representative of YHWH, the Son of God in human form.

It’s not impossible that the angel of the Lord made the journey from Gilgal to Bochim on foot, though he could as easily have simply appeared at his destination if he wished to do so. But God has a history of wanting to see the people on whom he is passing judgment close up, and I suspect he did in this case too. Of course God is entirely able to view everything he wishes to view from heaven. In the case of the judgment of Sodom, there was no real doubt what would be found. However, in sending his angel to render judgment, God was allowing the evil city due process. He was formally demonstrating his justice and fairness. Thus, when the three “men” left Abraham and Sarah, God said, “I will go down [to Sodom] to see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me.” In traveling from Gilgal to Bochim, the angel of the Lord may have been engaged in something similar.

Arriving in Bochim, the angel of the Lord addresses the people of Israel to tell them of his judgment against them for making covenants with the Canaanites and failing to tear down their altars as he had commanded through Moses and Joshua. As in his other appearances, the divinity of the angel of the Lord is confirmed. The first thing he says to his people is, “I brought you up from Egypt,” and he goes on to speak of “my covenant with you.” Needless to say, men and ordinary angels do not make covenants.

Standards and Judges

A public appearance by the angel of the Lord in front of large numbers of people is actually quite exceptional, if that is what happened here. Indeed, for God to mete out justice personally to sinners during their lifetimes is also an exceptional event (though reaping the consequences of our own actions in this life is not). A formal, exhaustive accounting for all the evil men have done awaits them at the end of their lives, as the book of Hebrews tells us. Under normal circumstances, that is where sin would be judged. Throughout human history, much evil has necessarily been overlooked by God, or else all our lives would be very short ones. The divine standard is not to be applied to men until after death.

When we see the angel of the Lord acting in judgment in the Old Testament, it seems to me it is because things have gotten so bad that something needs to be done in the here-and-now. It is not a matter of God applying his divine standard, which no human being in history apart from Jesus Christ has ever met. In these cases, God is judging men by a standard even sinful men recognize as reasonable, usually because earthly authorities have shown themselves incapable of enforcing it. (See for example the “outcry” against Sodom and Gomorrah that God could not ignore. Had the elders of Sodom dealt with the exceptional evil in their midst, fire and brimstone would never have been necessary.)

At Bochim, the weeping of the people and the sacrifices they offered after the judgment rendered by the angel of the Lord reflected the recognition that it was richly deserved. They had failed, not just by the exacting and comprehensive eternal standards of a holy God, but even by the more limited standard they had so recently and enthusiastically sworn to uphold.

The Son of Man

Centuries later, Jesus told the Jewish religious authorities seeking to kill him that the Father judges no one, but has given all judgment to the Son. The reason for this is plainly stated: because he is the Son of Man. Who better than a man to judge men? What could possibly be more reasonable?

If this turns out to be the case in the Old Testament as well as the New, who can really be surprised?

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