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Holman Bible Dictionary
Need for a theophany. The basic postulate here is that to see God could be fatal. “He said, “You cannot see My face, for no man can see Me and live!'“ (Exodus 33:20 NAS; compare Genesis 16:13; Exodus 3:2-6; Exodus 19:20-21; Judges 6:22-23; Judges 13:20-22 . Yet the record is unmistakable that people did see God, such as Moses and others at Sinai (Exodus 24:9-10 ); the Lord's rebuke of Aaron and Miriam (Numbers 12:4-8 ); and the majestic vision to Isaiah (Isaiah 6:1 ,Isaiah 6:1,6:5 ). Customarily, God is not revealed to ordinary sight, God at times chooses to reveal Himself in theophanies. Kinds of theophanies.
There are some five forms of theophanies.
1. In human form Without question the theophany in Exodus 24:10 involved the appearance of a human being, for the text clearly states that a pavement of sapphire appeared “under His feet.” At Peniel, Jacob testified that he had seen God face-to-face ( Genesis 32:30 ). On Mount Horeb it was the experience of Moses to speak to God “face to face, just as a man speaks to his friend” (Exodus 33:11 NAS). In the same passage when Moses begged God to show him His glory ( Exodus 33:18 ), the Lord graciously granted Moses a vision of Himself, saying, “I will take My hand away and you shall see My back, but My face shall not be seen” (Exodus 33:23 NAS). If it is protested that the subject is enveloped in mystery, it needs to be remembered that theology without mystery is sheer nonsense. God in His wisdom does not restrict Himself to one method of self-revelation. Notice God's pronouncement in Numbers 12:6-8 , which was quite unlike that of Deuteronomy 4:12-15 where only a voice was granted.
2. In vision Even self-seeking Balaam was allowed of God to see the Lord in vision (Numbers 24:3-4 ). Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel, giants among the prophets, saw God in visions (Isaiah 6:1; Ezekiel 1:1; Daniel 7:9 ). Jacob, sent off by Isaac to Paddan-aram, was granted a dream in which he saw the Lord (Genesis 28:12-13 ).
3. By the “Angel of the Lord” This is the most usual form of theophany, called the “Angel of the Lord” or “Angel of God.” Observe it is not an “Angel of God,” which could include any of the angelic hosts created by God. The “Angel of the Lord” is identified in the accounts with Yahweh Himself. He appears only occasionally in human form. The encounter of the Angel of the Lord with Hagar is of significance in this connection (Genesis 16:7-13 ). See Angels.
4. Not in human form In some instances the theophany came as at the burning bush (Exodus 3:2-4:17 ) and in the guidance through the wilderness (Exodus 13:21; compare Acts 7:30 ). The glory of the Lord appears to people in numerous passages. See Exodus 16:10; Exodus 33:9-10; Ezekiel 10:4 ). God was also manifest in nature and history (Isaiah 6:3; Ezekiel 1:28; Ezekiel 43:2 ).
5. As the name of the Lord God's sacred name represented His presence (Deuteronomy 12:5; Deuteronomy 102:15; Isaiah 30:27; Isaiah 59:19 ).
Contrast with the incarnation The incarnate Christ was not, and indeed is not, a theophany. The phenomena of theophanies were temporary, for the occasion that required them and then disappeared. On the other hand, in the incarnate Christ His deity and humanity were joined, not for time alone, but for eternity. See Incarnation; Jesus Christ .
The time factor Only in the Old Testament economy did God's people need a theophany; since the incarnation, there is no such necessity. The New Testament doctrine of God is final and complete. God is always present in the risen Christ and the Holy Spirit. Still, at times, God's people are more aware of that Presence than at others.
Charles Lee Feinberg
These dictionary topics are from the Holman Bible Dictionary, published by Broadman & Holman, 1991. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Broadman & Holman.
Butler, Trent C. Editor. Entry for 'Theophany'. Holman Bible Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/hbd/t/theophany.html. 1991.