Abraham and Sarah’s encounters with the angel of the LORD

Previously, we examined Hagar’s visits with the angel of the LORD. Now, we turn to the angel’s encounters with Abraham and Sarah.

To Abram

Genesis 17:1-22 

After the angel of the LORD’s visit to Hagar in Genesis 16, Yahweh appears to Abram saying, “I am God Almighty [el Shaddai]. Live in my presence and be blameless. I will set up my covenant between me and you, and I will multiply you greatly” (Gen. 17:1-2). We are not told how Yahweh appears, yet this seems to be a visible manifestation, for Abram twice falls facedown as God speaks with him. So, it’s possible Yahweh appears as the angel of the LORD, but we are not explicitly told so. 

In any case, the LORD lays out his covenant promises to Abram: (1) Abram is to become the father of many nations; (2) his name is no longer Abram, but Abraham, with a portion of God’s name – YHWH – given to him; (3) God is to make Abraham extremely fruitful so that nations and kings come to him; (4) God makes a permanent covenant promise to be Abraham’s God and the God of his offspring; and (5) God promises to give all the land of Canaan as a permanent possession to Abraham and his descendants (Gen. 17:3-8).

Then, God orders Abraham and his male descendants to be circumcised as a permanent sign of the covenant (Gen. 17:9-14). He also announces that Sarai’s name is now Sarah, which means “Princess.” Again, note the portion of YHWH given to her. God is to bless her with a son in her old age, and “she will produce nations; kings of peoples will come from her” (Gen. 17:16).

When Abraham wonders how a hundred-year-old man and a ninety-year-old woman can possibly bear children, the LORD assures Abraham that his covenant is not through Ishmael but through a child yet to come, a child they are to name Isaac. God promises to confirm the covenant with Isaac, who is to be born the next year (Gen. 17:19-21). 

Verse 22 reports: “When he finished talking with him, God withdrew from Abraham.” The word withdrewliterally means “went up” or “ascended,” a further indication that Yahweh appears visibly to Abraham.

After the LORD’s departure, Abraham circumcises Ishmael and the other males in his household (Gen. 17:23-27). 

To Abraham and Sarah

Genesis 18:1-33

Now we come to Genesis 18, where Yahweh appears in human form. While he is not explicitly called “the angel of the LORD,” he bears all the characteristics of this divine messenger. 

Verse 1 reads: “The LORD [Yahweh] appeared to Abraham at the oaks of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance of his tent during the heat of the day.” Abraham looks up and sees “three men standing near him” (v. 2). He runs to meet them, bows in reverence, and extends traditional hospitality, inviting the men to rest and be refreshed while he and Sarah prepare a meal for them. The men agree.

At this point, there seems to be no difference between the appearance of Yahweh and the other “men.” Yet as we see, one of the men is the LORD, while the other two are angels – spirit beings who temporarily take on human form in service to God. We know they are distinct from the third visitor (the LORD), for they are called “angels” in the next chapter as they travel to Sodom to meet Lot (Gen. 19:1). 

When the meal, consisting of a choice calf, bread, butter, and milk, is served to the three visitors, they ask, “Where is your wife Sarah?” Abraham replies, “There, in the tent” (18:9). 

Then, the LORD speaks: “I will certainly come back to you in about a year’s time, and your wife Sarah will have a son!” (v. 10). 

Sarah is listening at the entrance of the tent and laughs to herself, “After I am worn out and my lord is old, will I have delight?” (v. 12). 

The LORD overhears and asks Abraham, “Is anything impossible for the LORD? At the appointed time I will come back to you, and in about a year she will have a son” (v. 14). 

Abraham accompanies his three guests as they leave. Together, they look out over Sodom, and the LORDreveals to Abraham what is about to happen to the city where his nephew Lot lives. Abraham appeals to the LORD’s justice, asking him not to kill the righteous with the wicked. The LORD assures Abraham that he will not destroy the city if even ten righteous people are found there. 

But just before this lengthy negotiation begins, the LORD and the other two heavenly messengers part company. Verse 22 notes, “The men turned from there and went toward Sodom while Abraham remained standing before the LORD.” And then, we see the two angels enter Sodom. 

After the LORD finishes speaking with Abraham, he departs, one final indication of his visible presence (v. 33).

So, while the three visitors come to Abraham and Sarah in human form, two of the visitors are angels, or heavenly messengers, while the third is Yahweh. Again, the LORD is not specifically identified as the angel of the LORD, yet he fits the pattern we see throughout the Old Testament when the invisible Yahweh manifests himself temporarily in human form.

To Abraham on Mount Moriah

Genesis 22:1-19

The angel of the LORD appears one more time to Abraham. This is a dramatic intervention on Mount Moriah, where the angel spares the life of Abraham’s son Isaac. Genesis 22 begins with God testing Abraham. The LORDcalls to Abraham, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about” (v. 2).

There is a pregnant pause between verses 2 and 3. Surely, Abraham agonizes over the bizarre command. After all, God’s covenant promises of a nation, land, and a blessing for all people hinge on Isaac growing to maturity and having children. Further, human sacrifice is a pagan practice; surely the creator of life would not stoop to the level of demon-infused idols and command the slaughter of an innocent young man. Besides all this, God already has prescribed the death penalty for murderers (Gen. 9:5-6). 

Yet, we are told nothing about Abraham’s inner angst, and there’s no evidence of a verbal exchange like the one we see in Genesis 18, where Abraham seeks to negotiate with God on behalf of the righteous in Sodom. Verse 3 simply states, “So Abraham got up early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took with him two of his young men and his son Isaac.” 

Warren Wiersbe comments:

Abraham heard God’s word and immediately obeyed it by faith. He knew that God’s will never contradicts God’s promise, so he held on to the promise ‘in Isaac shall thy seed be called’ (Gen. 21:12)…. Faith does not demand explanations; faith rests on promises.

We don’t know how old Isaac is at this point, but based on other scriptural clues, he likely is a teenager or a young man. On the third day of their travels, Abraham sees the place of sacrifice in the distance. He tells the two young men traveling with them to stay behind with the donkey. Interestingly, he assures them, “The boy and I will go over there to worship; then we’ll come back to you” (v. 5, emphasis added). Then, Abraham lays the wood for the sacrifice on Isaac, takes up the fire and the knife, and father and son complete the trek up Mount Moriah on their own. 

It’s hard to imagine the thoughts racing through Abraham’s mind at this point, for it is apparent he hasn’t yet told Isaac what’s about to transpire. Perhaps there is a lengthy silence as the two walk toward the summit. At last, Isaac speaks: “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” he asks (v. 7). 

Abraham replies, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son” (v. 8). 

The two walk on together until they arrive at the place God has prescribed. Abraham builds an altar and arranges the wood. The sparse narrative of Scripture tells what happens next, without offering more details: “He [Abraham] bound his son Isaac and placed him on the altar on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out and took the knife to slaughter his son” (vv. 9-10).

Abraham is a moment away from killing the child of promise. How could any father willingly take his beloved son’s life? We might wonder, if we didn’t know the rest of the story, how anyone could worship a God who hinges his covenant promises on a child and then commands the child’s death. What kind of covenant-keeping God is this? Yet there is not a hint of hesitation or doubt in Abraham. Centuries later, the writer of Hebrews offers insight into Abraham’s resolve: 

By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac. He received the promises and yet he was offering his one and only son, the one to whom it had been said, Your offspring will be traced through Isaac. He considered God to be able even to raise someone from the dead; therefore, he received him back, figuratively speaking (Heb. 11:17-19).

In other words, Abraham is so certain of God’s faithfulness, he is willing to slay his own son and trust God to work out the details. Then, just as Abraham is about to slit his son’s throat, the angel of the LORD calls to him from heaven: “Do not lay a hand on the boy or do anything to him. For now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your only son from me” (v. 12, emphasis added). 

This is probably the most significant link between God and the angel of the LORD in this chapter. Yahweh and the angel of the LORD, though distinct persons, are one in essence, omniscience, and omnipotence, not just one in purpose.

Abraham looks up and sees a ram caught by its horns in the thicket. So, he takes the ram and offers it as a burnt offering instead of his son. He then names the place Yahweh-yireh, or “The LORD Will Provide.” 

Before Abraham and Isaac walk together down the mountain to the waiting young men, the angel of the LORD calls a second time from heaven and says:

“By myself I have sworn,” this is the LORD’s declaration: “Because you have done this thing and have not withheld your only son, I will indeed bless you and make your offspring as numerous as the stars of the sky and the sand on the seashore. Your offspring will possess the city gates of their enemies. And all the nations of the earth will be blessed by your offspring because you have obeyed my command” (vv. 16-18).

Once again, the angel of the LORD speaks as God himself. He repeats the covenant promises and makes it clear that Yahweh’s commands are his as well. 

The LORD later repeats his covenant promises to Isaac:

The LORD appeared to him [Isaac] and said, “Do not go down to Egypt. Live in the land that I tell you about; stay in this land as an alien, and I will be with you and bless you. For I will give all these lands to you and your offspring, and I will confirm the oath that I swore to your father Abraham. I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of the sky, I will give your offspring all these lands, and all the nations of the earth will be blessed by your offspring,  because Abraham listened to me and kept my mandate, my commands, my statutes, and my instructions” (Gen. 26:2-5).

Some commentators, like Herbert Lockyer, understand “the LORD” in this passage to be the angel of the LORD because he appears to Isaac, and because the angel of the LORD earlier delivers the same promises to Abraham.

A portrait of Jesus

Before moving on, we should note how this story paints a beautiful portrait of Jesus. 

Isaac is a type of Christ, an Old Testament shadow that prefigures the earthly ministry of Jesus. For example, Isaac faces a sacrificial death at the hands of his father, as does Jesus. Unlike Isaac, for whom God provides a substitute, Jesus is the substitute for all the redeemed. Isaac carries on his back the wood upon which he is to be offered on Mount Moriah, near Jerusalem; Jesus carries his cross up that same hill upon which he is sacrificed for our sins. Isaac has questions about his father’s plans, as does Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, yet both willingly submit to their fathers’ wills. 

But we must not carry the analogy too far. As Kurt Strassner points out:

For Jesus, there was no ram in the thicket…. Jesus’ Father actually went through with what Abraham only contemplated: sacrificing his Son, his only Son, whom he loves – for the sake of sinners. Isaac was spared, but God “did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him over for us all!” (Rom. 8:32). Therein lies the reason why there was no substitute for Jesus. Jesus was acting as the substitute for “us all.” There was no ram in the thicket because he himself was our ram in the thicket.

Next: Jacob’s encounters with the angel of the LORD.

This post is excerpted from Jesus Before Bethlehem: What Every Christian Should Know About the Angel of the Lord, available from Amazon and other retailers.