The Messiah, the Malakh, and the Image of the Incorporeal God
Christians today appeal to a plethora of verses, chapters, or stories in the Old Testament (Septuagint and Tanakh) that Jesus Christ is believed to have to fulfil. The gospels and the Pauline epistles had already laid the foundation for various hermeneutical techniques that the early church adopted to reveal these Messianic prophecies about Jesus. Typological exegesis is one of the major methods the New Testament writers inherited from the Jewish tradition and is predominantly echoed all over Paul’s epistle to the Hebrews (“order of Melchizedek”), to the Romans (“second Adam”) and to the Corinthians (“the rock was Christ”). This typological exegesis was especially adopted by the School of Antioch during the Patristic era and mastered by many church fathers in the East such as Ephrem the Syrian. In the recent centuries, with the rise of textual criticism, other hermeneutical methods have been given more importance like the historical-grammatical method which analyzes the grammatical style of a passage in its cultural and historical context — this is the method which will (for the most part) be applied here. Apologies for taking the boring route but it will be a worthwhile read.
Chapter 9 in the Book of Isaiah is probably the most cited chapter by Christian apologists making a case for the authenticity of Jesus’ Messianic claim and also for His divinity. It is also crucial to note that Rabbinic Jews themselves consider this chapter a Messianic prophecy, as recorded in Targum Jonathan, the Babylonian Talmud, the Midrash Rabbah (Debarim 1), Iggereth Teman, Aben Ezra and Targum Isaiah. Although the chapter is involved in this dissection, it doesn’t simply end there. Pay special attention to the Hebrew in verse 6:
“For unto us a Child is born,
Unto us a Son is given;
And the government will be upon His shoulder.
And His name will be called
Wonderful (p̄e’li) פֶ֛לִאי Counselor Mighty God (’êl) אֵ֣ל
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”
The adjective, wonderful (p̄e’li), is only used to describe the works of ’ĕlōhîm (God) in the Old Testament. One of these places is chapter 13 in the Book of Judges, which is also part of the “Prophets” (Neviʾim) corpus of the Old Testament, where Manoah and his wife encounter the Angel (malakh מַלְאַ֧ךְ) of the LORD and asks for His name, the Angel responds in verse 18:
“Why do you ask My name, seeing it is wonderful (p̄e’li) פֶ֛לִאי?”
Some English translations will also use the words “beyond understanding” highlighting the significance of the meaning in its context. In other words, the Angel of the LORD transcends the limits of the rational mind. “Malakh” מַלְאַ֧ךְ indicates a “messenger” rather than exclusively a celestial being with wings. When Manoah and his wife prepare a sacrifice, this suddenly occurs in verse 20:
“a flame went up toward heaven from the altar — the Angel of the Lord ascended in the flame of the altar.”
To this, they both prostrated (root: naphal נָפַל) towards the Angel of the LORD. Recognizing who it was, Manoah exclaimed to his wife that they would die (verse 22):
“because we have seen God! (’ĕ-lō-hîm) אֱלֹהִ֖ים”
Why did they think they would die? This is because they understood that nobody could see the God of Israel and live as recorded by the Prophet Moses in Exodus 33:20:
“But He said, ‘You cannot see My face; for no man shall see Me, and live.’”
Now is the time to unpack everything. In Isaiah’s prophesy the Messiah is identified as God (‘êl) and with the adjective “Wonderful”, a description only used for the works of God. In Manoah’s encounter, the Angel of the Lord explains how His name is “wonderful” (beyond understanding) and Manoah identifies Him as the God of Israel. The following question may arise at this point: if the Angel of the LORD is identified as the God of Israel, then why did not Manoah and his wife die at that encounter? Hopefully, this will be adequately understood after these propositions are established based on what has been analyzed so far:
1. The Messiah is numerically identical to the Angel of the LORD.
2. The Messiah has a pre-existence.
3. The Messiah is the image of the unseen and incorporeal God of Israel.
The third point is the clue here. The reason why Manoah and his wife did not die at that encounter, is precisely because the Angel of the LORD is the image of the unseen and incorporeal God of Israel. “But are we not all made in the image of God?” While this is certainly true, the crucial difference is humans being made, unlike someone who is identified as the God of Israel, who is a maker. The sense in which He is the “image” must therefore be different. If the Angel of the LORD and the LORD are both identified as the God of Israel, are there two gods? Certainly not because it would contradict the tenet of monotheism central to the “Shema Yisrael”:
“Hear O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is one.” (Deuteronomy 6:4)
Then what is meant by “one”? Without delving into the debated semantics of the word “echad” אֶחָד, the context of Isaiah 9:6 and Judges 13 reveals “one” to be in operation and, in turn, essence. The former refers to an activity or action and the latter means an intrinsic being shared by particulars, e.g. “Paul” is the particular human and his essence is that which is expressed by his very definition regardless of the particular human in question. Remember verse 18, the name of the Angel of the LORD is p̄e’li פֶ֛לִאי, an adjective only used for the works of ’ĕlōhîm (God). Accordingly, the Angel the LORD identifies Himself with the operations, activities and actions of God. This is why the Angel of the LORD is also the same God of Israel, not a separate god. Another question might also be proposed at this point: what is the basis for assuming that the Angel of the LORD has the same essence as the God of Israel? This is ought to be addressed because, after all, God’s essence is unknown (Exodus 33:18-23). To approach this, it must be understood that kinds of things (a general) can only be distinguished by their causal properties. Try to imagine a geochemist finding an unknown piece of metal that looks like copper. How would this scientist go about figuring out what it is? By conducting tests at what temperature it would melt or what resistance it would conduct electricity. If similar causal properties of this unknown metal are identical to that of copper, every chemist with an ounce of common sense would identify this metal as being copper. If it acts exactly like copper, that’s what it is. Likewise, if the Angel of the LORD identifies Himself with the actions only predicated of God, both must share the same essence (the same is). Although this is stepping out the boundaries of the “historical context” for textual critics, to further understand this concept from the Christian paradigm, the Cappadocian Fathers emphasize this very point:
“He [God] is named, by those who call upon Him, not what He is essentially (for the nature of Him Who alone is unspeakable), but He receives His appellations from what are believed to be His operations in regard to our life.” (Gregory of Nyssa, Book 2 of Against Eunomius).
This is exactly how the Angel of the LORD is named in the Book of Judges 13:18, by His very operation. Furthermore, this notion does not stem from thin air but from the words of the Messiah Himself:
“Do you not believe that I am in the Father, and the Father in Me? The words that I speak to you I do not speak on My own authority; but the Father who dwells in Me does the works. Believe Me that I am in the Father and the Father in Me, or else believe Me for the sake of the works themselves.” (John 14:10–11)
Jesus Christ explained how God “the Father”, is in Him in the previous verse:
“He who has seen Me has seen the Father; so how can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?” (John 14:9)
The Image explains everything. Manoah saw the God of Israel when actually seeing the Angel of the LORD identified as the Messiah. Paul the Apostle fully encapsulates this in his First Epistle to Timothy:
“For there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus…” (2:5)
To conclude, quoting the Messiah Himself, “so how can you say show us [God] the Father?”