A theophany is a manifestation of God in the Bible 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 of the theophanies are found in these passages:
1. Genesis 12:7-9 – The Lord appeared to Abraham on his arrival in the land God had promised to him and his descendants.
2. Genesis 18:1-33 – One day, Abraham had some visitors: two angels and God Himself. He invited them to come to his home, and he and Sarah entertained them. Many commentators believe this could also be a Christophany, a pre-incarnate appearance of Christ.
3. Genesis 32:22-30 – Jacob wrestled with what appeared to be a man but was actually God (vv. 28-30). This may also have been a Christophany.
4. Exodus 3:2 – 4:17 – God appeared to Moses in the form of a burning bush, telling him exactly what He wanted him to do.
5. Exodus 24:9-11 – God appeared to Moses with Aaron and his sons and the seventy elders.
6. Deuteronomy 31:14-15 – God appeared to Moses and Joshua in the transfer of leadership to Joshua.
7. Job 38–42 – God answered Job out of the tempest and spoke at great length in answer to Job’s questions.
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. A frequent introduction for theophanies may be seen in the words “the Lord came down,” as in Genesis 11:5; Exodus 34:5; Numbers 11:25; and 12:5.
Some Bible commentators believe that whenever someone received a visit from “the angel of the Lord,” this was in fact the pre-incarnate Christ. These appearances can be seen in Genesis 16:7-14; Genesis 22:11-18; Judges 5:23; 2 Kings 19:35; and other passages. Other commentators believe these were in fact angelophanies or appearances of angels. While there are no indisputable Christophanies in the Old Testament, every theophany wherein God takes on human form foreshadows the incarnation, where God took the form of a man to live among us as Emmanuel, “God with us” (Matthew 1:23).
In the Old Testament, God is depicted as appearing in human form, in natural cataclysms, in a burning bush, a cloud, or a gentle breeze—forms often associated with the divine “name” or “glory” (originally a visible halo accompanying the divine appearance). Old Testament theophanies are presented as actual historical events or as prophetic visions with symbolic overtones. The mark of biblical theophanies is the temporariness and suddenness of the appearance of God, which is here not an enduring presence in a certain place or object. The extension of the term theophany to such New Testament events as the Baptism and transfiguration of Jesus (also called epiphanies) has been questioned as inappropriate because in Orthodox Christian doctrine Christ himself in his whole life and work and death is the manifestation of God. The incarnation of Christ, however, may be seen as the ultimate and fullest form of divine manifestation in a whole spectrum of theophanies.
The pillar of cloud and pillar of fire
The Children of Israel Crossing the Jordan, Exodus 13:21-22: By day the Lord went ahead of them in a pillar of cloud to guide them on their way and by night in a pillar of fire.
God reveals his divine presence and protection to the Israelites by leading them out of Egypt and through the Sinai desert by appearing as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night.
According to Rabbi Eliezer, each person among the Israelites, including even the least intelligent bond-woman, saw God’s glory at the Red Sea in clearer form than did, afterwards, prophets of the stamp of Ezekiel; wherefore they burst forth into the song, “This is my God” (Mek. (Mekiita), l.c., with reference to Exodus xv. 2).
The theophany at biblical Mount Sinai is related in Exodus 19:16–25. YHWH’s manifestation is accompanied by thunder and lightning; there is a fiery flame, reaching to the sky; the loud notes of a trumpet are heard; and the whole mountain smokes and quakes. Out of the midst of the flame and the cloud, a voice reveals the Ten Commandments. The account in Deut. 4:11-12, Deut. 4:33-36 and Deut. 5:4-19 is practically the same, and in its guarded language, it strongly emphasizes the incorporeal nature of God. Moses in his blessing (Deut. 33:2) points to this revelation as the source of the election of Israel, but with this difference: with him, the point of departure for the theophany is Mount Sinai and not heaven. God appears on Sinai like a shining sun and comes “accompanied by holy myriads” (Deut. 243).
Likewise, in the Song of Deborah (Judges 5:2-31) the manifestation is described as a storm: the earthquakes, Sinai trembles, and the clouds drop water. It is poetically elaborated in the prayer of Habakkuk (Hab. iii.); here past and future are confused. As in Deut. xxxiii. 2 and Judges v. 4, God appears from Teman and Paran. His majesty is described as glory of light and brightness; pestilence precedes Him. The mountains tremble violently; the earthquakes; the people are sore afraid. God rides in a chariot of war, with horses – a conception found also in Isa. xix. 1 where God appears on a cloud, and in Ps. xviii. 10 where He appears on a cherub.
In Isaiah and Ezekiel
The biblical prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel receive their commissions as prophets amid glorious manifestations of God. Isaiah sees God on a high and lofty throne. More precisely, however, he sees not him but only his glorious robe, the hem and train of which fill the whole temple of heaven. Before the throne stand the seraphim, the six-winged angels. With two wings they cover their faces so as not to gaze on God; with two they cover their feet, through modesty; and with the remaining two they fly. Their occupation is the everlasting praise of God, which at the time of the revelation took the form of the thrice-repeated cry “Holy!” (Isa. vi.).
Ezekiel in his description is not so reserved as Isaiah. The divine throne appears to him as a wonderful chariot. Storm, a great cloud, ceaseless fire, and on all sides a wonderful brightness accompanies the manifestation. Out of the fire four creatures become visible. They have the faces of men; each one has four wings, and the shape of their feet enables them to go to all four quarters of the earth with equal rapidity and without having to turn. These living creatures are recognized by the prophet as cherubim (Ezek. x 20 ). The heavenly fire, the coals of which burn like torches, moves between them. The movement of the creatures is harmonious: wherever the spirit of God leads them they go.
Beneath the living creatures are wheels (ofannim) full of eyes. On their heads rests a firmament upon which is the throne of God. When the divine chariot moves, its wings rustle with a noise like thunder. On the throne the prophet sees the divine being, having the likeness of a man. His body from the loins upward is shining (ḥashmal); downward it is fire (in Ezek. viii. 2 the reverse is stated). In the Sinaitic revelation, God descends and appears upon the earth. In the prophetic vision, on the other hand, he appears in heaven, which is in keeping with the nature of the case, because the Sinaitic revelation was meant for a whole people, on the part of which an ecstatic condition cannot be thought of.
The theophany described in Psalm 18:8–16 is very different. David is in great need and at his earnest solicitation, God appears to save him. Before God, the earth trembles and fire glows. God rides on a cherub in the wind. God is surrounded by clouds that are outshone by God’s brightness. With thunder and lightning, God destroys the enemies of the singer and rescues him.
Christians generally recognize the same Old Testament theophanies as the Jews. In addition, there are at least two theophanies mentioned in the New Testament. While some usages refer to the baptisms of Jesus and John the Baptist as “theophanies, scholars eschew such usage.
The 4th-century bishop Eusebius of Caesarea, b. 263 AD, wrote a treatise “On Divine Manifestation” (Peri theophanies), referring to the incarnation of Jesus, but generally, the divine incarnation is not regarded as theophanic, as it lacks the “temporariness and suddenness of the appearance of God”.
Traditional analysis of the Biblical passages led Christian scholars to understand theophany as an unambiguous manifestation of God to man. Otherwise, the more general term hierophany is used
What Are ‘Theophanies’ in the Bible and What Can Christians Learn from Them?
Before Jesus steps onto the scene in the New Testament, God reveals himself in physical form in a number of ways in the Old Testament. These appearances, known as theophanies, are visible appearances or manifestations of God that are tangible to the human senses.
This article will endeavour to show a handful of the times God manifested himself in a physical, tangible sense (or at least, tangible in human terms) and then will discuss what Christians can learn from these appearances.
What is a theophany?
It basically means an appearance of God. Some will use the term Christophany to refer to an appearance of Christ prior to his arrival in the Gospels. Theophanies don’t always mean God appears in the form of a man. As you will see later in the article, He can sometimes manifest Himself in fire or a tempest.
A theophany also tends to serve a purpose. For instance, when God appears to Abraham, it’s to prophesy about a coming child in their family and to warn him about Sodom and Gomorrah. Theophanies can often have elements of prophecy or revelation, serve as a guide (the pillar of cloud and fire), or a turning point (Jacob’s wrestling), or some combination thereof.
Appearing to Abraham (Genesis 18)
Abraham, the patriarch of the Jewish nation, saw God in the form of three men. Some theologians have surmised this is God accompanied by two angels.
One of the three men visits Abraham and tells him that his wife Sarah will have a child within a year’s time, a proclamation that makes Sarah laugh.
Through a series of back and forth, Abraham tries to whittle the number of righteous men required to be within the walls of the evil city for the Lord to let them live.
Wrestling Jacob (Genesis 32)
Jacob, the grandson of Abraham, had been running his whole life. He fled from his brother Esau when he had stolen his birthright and blessing. He ran from Laban. Now faced with the prospect of meeting his brother again, Jacob was once again a flight risk.
God (in the form of a man) wrestles with Jacob, literally, the night before Jacob goes to see Esau. God puts his hip out of the socket. Now with a limp, he goes to meet his brother.
The Burning Bush (Exodus 3)
Moses was an Israelite, raised in Egypt during a time of great oppression, who turned shepherd in the wilderness. He didn’t expect to go back to Egypt, but then he caught sight of a bush burning. The fire was not consuming the branches, and Moses heard God’s voice through it. In this theophany, God told Moses that he would return to Egypt to ask Pharaoh to let the Israelites go.
Pillar of Cloud and Fire (Exodus 13:20-22)
When Moses and the Israelites leave Egypt, God leads them in the right direction in the form of a pillar of cloud in the day and a pillar of fire in the night. The fire helped during the dark hours of the evening, and both manifestations always went before the Israelites.
Tempest or Tornado (Job 38:1)
After Job had debated with his friends about the relationship between righteousness, punishment, sin, and God, he challenges what God had done to him. He had lost his family, home, health, and just about everything.
God appears in a whirlwind (possibly a tornado) and bombards Job with questions, essentially making clear the point that man cannot comprehend the ways of God.
Job acknowledges his lack of knowledge in such matters and humbly listens to what God has to say. God blesses Job with twice as much as he had lost before (Job 42:10).
What do theophanies teach Christians?
As Christians, we can sometimes tend to skip over the Old Testament, thinking some of the passages are irrelevant or meant for a different audience, considering we have the ultimate theophany of Jesus appearing in the Gospels.
But we can still learn a number of things from reading about these appearances of God in the Old Testament.
First, we learn God shows up in more than one way.
We can often place God in a box, thinking He’ll act one way or another, but as Job learned through seeing God appear in a whirlwind, we can never quite figure out the mind of God.
He may appear one way to one believer and in another way to another. We’ve heard about those in the Middle East seeing Jesus in dreams, and others encounter Jesus through a powerful sermon or through the words of Scripture.
We can even expect God to choose to appear as a still, small whisper.
Second, we learn God made appearances long before Jesus came onto the scene.
This may seem like a given, but we have to keep in mind certain worldviews like deism has made God out to be distant and uncaring about the world.
Theophanies in the Old Testament disprove this. God literally steps onto the scene. He’s with Job during his most dire moments, helping lead the Israelites out of Egypt, and encourages Abraham and his wife when they think their childbearing years are over.
Third, theophanies reveal aspects of God to us.
We can see elements of God through these appearances. In the fiery pillar and tempest, we see God’s power. When He appears as a man to Abraham, He reveals He has elements of His character that are similar to mankind, meaning He made us in His image. When He wrestles with Jacob, He shows His willingness to wrestle with us, especially in the moments we feel most like running away.
Theophanies give u an enduring glimpse of the truth that God is always with you, wherever you are.
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4 thoughts on “What Is Theophany?”
Theophany is not something that had heard before. I well versed in the scriptures and all of the biblical stories and teachings. Now I have a word for all of the different manifestations of God. Honestly when I think about it, all nature, everything that we see, and especially the goodness that we see in children, and our fellow man is a manifestation of theophany as well.
Thanks, AL. A. For that wonderful take. In my little, say 4-5 years working as an Anglican priest here in Nigeria, I have been blessed with many ministerial and missionary experiences. On one of the occasions, I have heard from a poor pastor about how an unknown old woman had worshiped in his poor but faithful church, and on her departure, she left her big bag in the church and the pastor later found out it was God appearing in the form of a man to drop the money that lifted the then poor church to one of the mega-churches presently in Nigeria.
Many times in the Bible, God appeared as an angel of the lord and Angels can transform themselves into men.
We can only see where God has passed just like Moses. Thanks for being there sir.
What a great explanation for what Theophany means and put more into depth on what it really means. I never heard of a word before but it makes more sense as an appearance of God. This article taught me more about the usage of the word and also the word of god.
Thanks so much, Caleb, I am so happy this article is helpful to many. Our God is a spirit and spirits are not visible to man except they transform themselves into an angel of light or even into men. Our God made Moses see His back because we can only see where God has passed for no man living can see God and still live. Thanks so much for your thoughts bro.