A figure identified as the angel of the LORD appears to four different individuals in the Book of Genesis. He first comes to Hagar, Sarai’s Egyptian handmaiden; then to Abram; then to Abram and Sarai, whom he renames Abraham and Sarah; then again to Abraham; and finally on two occasions to Jacob.
In these personal encounters with human beings, the angel appears in human form yet is recognized as God. He comforts, prophesies, commands, delivers, prevents a human sacrifice, and even disables an opponent in a wrestling match. In these visits, we capture our first glimpses of a second Yahweh figure – one who bears the name, presence, and power of God, yet is a distinct person from the unseen Creator.
Genesis 16 records the first undisputed appearance of the angel of the LORD in Scripture, and he comes to a fleeing Egyptian handmaiden. A little background may help set the stage. God has promised Abram a child through whom many descendants are to come, and a land they are to possess (Gen. 15). The LORD even appears as a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch in a theophany to seal his covenant promises (Gen. 15:17-21). But after a decade, the LORD has yet to deliver on his promise. So, Sarai takes matters into her own hands, offering her handmaiden Hagar to Abram, who agrees with his wife’s plan. But when Hagar becomes pregnant, Sarai burns with jealousy, mistreats her servant, and banishes the Egyptian from her tent.
Now, Hagar is sad, homeless, and alone in the wilderness. The angel of the LORD finds her by the spring on the way to Shur. He speaks to Hagar four times. First, he asks her where she has come from and where she is going. She replies, “I’m running away from my mistress Sarai” (16:8). The angel speaks a second time, telling Hagar to return to Sarai and submit to her authority (16:9). Then, he tells Hagar, “I will greatly multiply your offspring, and they will be too many to count” (16:10). Finally, the angel tells Hagar:
You have conceived and will have a son. You will name him Ishmael, for the LORD has heard your cry of affliction. This man will be like a wild donkey. His hand will be against everyone, and everyone’s hand will be against him; he will settle near all his relatives (16:11-12).
After this encounter, Hagar names the LORD who spoke to her, “You are El-roi,” or “God sees me,” for, she says, “In this place, have I actually seen the one who sees me?” (16:13).
Note several details in this passage:
First, this is our initial encounter with a being identified as the angel of the LORD in Scripture.
Second, the angel likely appears in human form to Hagar, for the handmaiden claims to have seen him. The text records four statements from the angel of the LORD but does not explicitly say he materializes.
Third, the angel chooses to make his first appearance to a Gentile woman of lowly estate. This foreshadows the angel’s future appearances to people of humble origins: Gideon (Judg. 6:11-24), and Manoah and his wife (Judg. 13), for example. It also prefigures Christ coming humbly in the Incarnation – God taking on human flesh. Born in a small village to a teenage mother, raised as a carpenter, walking the dusty roads of an ancient land, he seeks out the lowly and despised to be his apostles: fishermen, a tax collector, a thief, and even a mercenary. He doesn’t shy away from Samaritans or Gentiles, either.
Scripture writers attest to God’s attitude toward the meek:
Though the LORD is exalted, he takes note of the humble; but he knows the haughty from a distance (Ps. 138:6).
God has chosen what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen what is weak in the world to shame the strong (1 Cor. 1:27).
But he gives greater grace. Therefore he says: God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble (Jas. 4:6; cf. Prov. 3:34).
The ultimate example of meekness, of course, comes in the humility of Christ:
Adopt the same attitude as that of Christ Jesus, who, existing in the form of God, did not consider equality with God as something to be exploited. Instead he emptied himself by assuming the form of a servant, taking on the likeness of humanity. And when he had come as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death – even to death on a cross (Phil. 2:5-8).
Fourth, the angel finds Hagar. This is a significant work of Christ, who comes to seek and to save the lost (Luke 19:10). Those outside of God’s kingdom are not seeking Christ, but he is always seeking them.
Fifth, the angel exhibits omniscience. He not only knows Hagar is pregnant, he knows she is pregnant with a son, who is to father many offspring, and whose offspring are to be at odds with many others. Ishmael, the son of Hagar, becomes father of the Arab race, a people group at odds with the offspring of Isaac, even to this day.
Sixth, the angel says, “I will greatly multiply your offspring.” No mere angel possesses this creative power, but Yahweh does. In fact, God essentially tells Abraham the same thing in Genesis 17:20: “As for Ishmael, I have heard you. I will certainly bless him; I will make him fruitful and will multiply him greatly. He will father twelve tribal leaders, and I will make him into a great nation.”
Seventh, Hagar acknowledges her encounter with Yahweh, calling him El-roi, or “God sees me.”
To Hagar a Second Time
The angel of the LORD comes again to Hagar after the birth of Isaac. In Genesis 21, we see that Abraham (no longer Abram) holds a feast for Isaac on the day the child is weaned. Sarah (no longer Sarai) sees Ishmael mocking Isaac, however. In anger, she tells Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael away, which he does reluctantly, and only after God assures Abraham that his own offspring are to be traced through Isaac.
Abraham gathers bread and a waterskin, puts them on Hagar’s shoulders, and sends her and the boy away. They wander in the Wilderness of Beersheba until the water runs out. Hagar leaves Ishmael in the shade of a bush and sits some distance away, not able to bear the sight of her son dying of thirst. She weeps loudly, but it is the boy’s cry that God hears and to which he responds.
The “angel of God” calls to Hagar from heaven. He tells her not to be afraid, for God has heard the boy crying. Next, the angel says, “Get up, help the boy up, and grasp his hand, for I will make him a great nation” (v. 18). Then God opens her eyes. She sees a well from which she fills the waterskin and rushes to bring cool water to her son. God is with the boy. He grows, settles in the wilderness, and becomes an archer. Hagar gets a wife for Ishmael from the land of Egypt.
Note several significant features of this encounter. The angel is called “the angel of God” (v. 17) yet speaks on behalf of God. In other words, we see once again two distinguishable persons: God and the angel of God, just as in Genesis 16 we saw the LORD and the angel of the LORD.
Next, the angel says, “I will make him [Ishmael] a great nation” (v. 18). Just like the angel of the LORD in Genesis 16, the angel of God acts in the sovereign power of God. No mere angel makes a person or nation great. God does.
So, in this brief second encounter recorded in Genesis 21, the angel of God speaks and acts in the same way the angel of the LORD speaks and acts in Genesis 16. He knows the future and acts in sovereignty to make it certain.
Next: Abram’s encounters with the angel of the LORD