The contents of this post are nothing new; I am presenting some material that may be unfamiliar to some readers of the blog. All credit goes to Michael Heiser (PhD) and other scholars whose work in this field has contributed to a more nuanced understanding of Scripture. Links to articles and books by these scholars will be provided at an appropriate juncture.
In parts of Scripture we find references to “the Angel of Yahweh”. This particular “angel” should be distinguished from other angels where the construction “angel of Yahweh” or “angel of God” or “angel of the Lord”, simply means an angelic being who serves Yahweh, as opposed to angelic beings in the service of the Devil and his associates. The Book of Exodus is particularly illuminating, as is Genesis 22, for helping us to understand the identity of this angel.
In Genesis 22, we find the familiar story of God asking Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac, only to supply a ram at the last minute. The Angel of Yahweh speaks to Abraham, saying, “Do not lay a hand upon the boy, nor do anything to him: for now I know that you fear God, since you have not witheld your son, your only son from me.” Notice the use of the personal pronoun “me” here. Abraham was not offering his son to an angel, but to Yahweh, and yet the angel speaks as if he were Yahweh. The implication is that Yahweh has visited Abraham in the form of an angel, just as He did in chapter 18, when He came to Abraham accompanied by two angels. But more than this, Yahweh the Angel also refers to “God” in His words to Abraham as if God were in some sense separate from Him: two yet one.
It is worth commenting at this stage about the words used for angel in Hebrew and Greek: mal’ach and anggelos respectively. Both words originally meant “messenger”, “one to whom a task has been entrusted” (in that sense anggelos is analogous to words like apostolos and presbys). Through their application mainly to spirits of the supernatural realm, they came to mean exclusively “angel”, but both terms in their original languages were used earlier to refer to human messengers dispatched on errands. The “Angel of Yahweh”, taking into account the wider semantic range of the word mal‘ach, means the “Messenger of Yahweh”, the One whom Yahweh has sent to impart a particular message or perform a particular task.
In Exodus the Angel of Yahweh is sent to lead the Israelites from Egypt through the Wilderness as they journey to the Promised Land. Moses encounters Him first in the Burning Bush in Exodus 3. The Angel within the bush is identified as God (v. 4). Just to make it clear that elohim here does not mean some other spirit from the supernatural realm, the Angel identifies Himself to Moses as “the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.”
There is also some ambiguity in this passage regarding the number of voices speaking to Moses. The Angel of Yahweh in the bush is obviously speaking to Moses, but v. 4 has a curious construction: “When Yahweh saw that he [Moses] turned aside to see, God called to him out of the midst of the bush”. Usually this sentence is understood as “God” being in apposition to “Yahweh”: i.e. the One in the bush sees Moses turning aside and then speaks to him. However, the construction can be understood in another way: when God in heaven saw Moses turn aside, God in the bush spoke to him.
The sentence is capable of bearing both readings, and while the second meaning may seem a strain, it shouldn’t in light of Christian Trinitarian theology. As for the context in which it was written, it actually supports the second meaning. The One in the bush is identified as the “Messenger of Yahweh”, which implies that He is sent by Yahweh. The tension between the concept of God as localized so that His “presence” is with His people and the concept of God as transcendent is already within the passage.
Further on, in Exodus 13 Yahweh Himself is said to lead the Israelites out of Egypt: “Yahweh went before them by day in a pillar of cloud, to lead the way; and by night in a pillar of fire, to give them light; so that they could go during the day and the night” (v. 21). In chapter 14, the One who went before them in the pillar is identified as the “Angel of God” (v. 19): “The Angel of God, who went before the camp of Israel, removed and went behind them; and the pillar of cloud moved from in front of them, and stood behind them.”
In chapter 23, God says of this Angel to Moses: “Behold, I send an Angel before you, to keep you on the way, and to bring you to the place that I have prepared. Pay careful attention to him, and obey his voice. Do not provoke him, for he will not pardon your transgressions: for My Name is in him. But if you obey his voice and do all that I speak, then I will be an enemy to your enemies, and an adversary to your adversaries. For my Angel will go before you…” (vv. 20-23). The broader context strongly implies that this Angel is the same as the One who moves in the pillar of cloud and fire, who is identified as Yahweh in chapter 13. This is confirmed by the clause, “for My Name is in him”, the “name” referring to Yahweh, as established in chapters 3 and 4. Furthermore, in the Hebrew idiom, a name stands for a person: the effect of this explanation is to say “I, Yahweh, am in him, the Angel.”
What is particularly important in this passage is the phrase “I send an Angel” (or “Messenger”). The sending aspect of the sentence makes explicit the tension discussed above, namely that Yahweh can be both transcendent or in heaven on the one hand (“I send”), and yet localized on earth (“an Angel”) on the other. Nevertheless, this is the consitent testimony of the Old Testament, and as Michael Heiser and other scholars explain, it reveals an Israelite polemic against the broader ANE culture. There are, in effect, two Yahwehs in the Old Testament: God enthroned in heaven, and God who leads the Israelites in salvation history.
This picture is meant to form a challenge to the common trope of two rulers in the pantheons of the ANE. In their system there was usually a “father of the gods” who was the supreme deity, and he had a “regent” who spoke on his behalf in the council of divine beings. An example of this double rulership would be El and Baal in the Canaanite pantheon (e.g. at Ugarit, modern-day Ras Shamra). El was the father of the gods, and Baal was his vice-regent, who chaired the divine council. The Hebrews challenged this idea by stating that Yahweh occupied both places: He was the Father of the divine beings, and He ruled in the council.
While Hebrew lacked the kind of philosophical vocabulary that Greek would later employ to develop Trinitarian theology, it was certainly able to make clear that there is only one Yahweh (“Hear O Israel, Yahweh your God, Yahweh is one!”), and yet there is Yahweh in heaven, and the Angel of Yahweh.