Tagged: Jesus before Bethlehem

The Error of Balaam

In Numbers 22, the angel of the Lord appears in a most curious scene involving a cursing king, a prophet for hire, a sword-wielding angel, and – strangest of all – a talking donkey. As Old Testament theologian Gordon Wenham notes, “The narrative is at once both very funny and deadly serious.”

The story begins with the Moabite king, Balak, who wishes to curse the Israelites. He approaches Balaam, a smarmy, pagan prophet who, curiously, doesn’t seem so bad at first. Insights from other passages of Scripture clue us in to the prophet’s blackened soul. 

In this scene, the angel of the Lord holds a drawn sword in his hand. This is telling, for there are only two other times in which the phrase “drawn sword in his hand” appears in relation to divine messengers. One is Joshua 5:13-15, where the “commander of the LORD’s army” confronts Joshua. The other is 1 Chronicles 21:16, where King David sees the angel of the LORD standing between heaven and earth, and in his hand is a drawn sword stretched out over Jerusalem. In all three episodes, we see evidence that this “man,” “angel,” and “commander” are the same figure. As we learn in the next chapter, the writer of Joshua 5:13 points us back to the burning bush in Exodus 3, tying the commander of Yahweh’s army to the angel of the Lord.

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A Promised Deliverer

Perhaps more than any other Old Testament passage, Exodus 23:20-23 serves as a backdrop against which we may view the record of the angel of the Lord’s visits to human beings. As Moses meets Yahweh at Mount Sinai, receives the law, and prepares for the journey to the Promised Land, there’s a brief message from God about what lies ahead: 

I am going to send an angel before you to protect you on the way and bring you to the place I have prepared. Be attentive to him and listen to him. Do not defy him, because he will not forgive your acts of rebellion, for my name is in him. But if you will carefully obey him and do everything I say, then I will be an enemy to your enemies and a foe to your foes. For my angel will go before you and bring you to the land of the Amorites, Hethites, Perizzites, Canaanites, Hivites, and Jebusites, and I will wipe them out.

Exod. 23:20-23

Something extraordinary happens here. The description God gives Moses is of no ordinary angel. This angel has the authority to forgive sins, an authority that belongs exclusively to God. Even more curious is God’s statement that “my name is in him.” God’s name oftentimes is used in Scripture to depict God’s presence. In this case, the very essence of Yahweh is in the messenger being sent.

Michael Heiser writes:

When God told Moses that his name was in this angel, he was saying that he was in this angel – his very presence or essence. The I AM of the burning bush would accompany Moses and the Israelites to the promised land and fight for them. Only he could defeat the gods of the nations and the descendants of the Nephilim whom Moses and Joshua would find there.

The Unseen Realm, 143

Other Scriptures confirm this angel is Yahweh.

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The Destroyer

When the angel of the Lord appears to Moses in the burning bush, he presents himself as a deliverer. He has seen the suffering of his people, and he has come down to snatch them from Pharaoh’s grasp and lead them to the Promised Land. Now, in Exodus 12, the angel perhaps appears again when the last of ten plagues descends on the Egyptians. 

Hardened in heart, despite judgments involving such unsavory elements as blood, frogs, lice, hail, and darkness, Pharaoh stands defiantly as Moses announces the final feat that proves the power of the one true God over the magic arts of Pharaoh’s priests. But by morning, the death of every unprotected firstborn male breaks the tyrant’s will and forces him to let the Israelites go.

Passover is the oldest continuous feast in recorded history. Even today, the observance is celebrated in Jewish homes around the world. But in a sense, there is only one Passover. It took place in Egypt 3,500 years ago, when the Lord passed over the homes of believing Hebrews who sacrificed a spotless lamb and sprinkled its blood on their doorposts, sparing the loss of their firstborn males. 

In the same way, there is only one occasion when the Messiah’s body is pierced and his blood poured out for our sins. To memorialize his coming death, Jesus institutes the Lord’s Supper during the feast of Passover. Just as faithful Jews have observed the Passover for thirty-five centuries, Christians have observed the memorial meal of the Lord’s Supper for two thousand years. That’s why the apostle Paul reminds the Corinthians, “For Christ our Passover lamb has been sacrificed” (1 Cor. 5:7).

But is Jesus actually in Egypt on the night of the first Passover?

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Is Melchizedek the Preincarnate Christ?

Before the angel of the Lord appears to Hagar in Genesis 16, Abram encounters a curious king and priest named Melchizedek. He appears suddenly in the wake of Abram’s victory over King Chedorlaomer and his allies. We read about his brief visit to Abram in Genesis 14:17-24. 

Melchizedek, king of Salem (Jerusalem) and a priest of God Most High, presents bread and wine to Abram and his battle-weary men. He further bestows a blessing on Abram in the name of El Elyon, God Most High, and praises God for granting Abram victory. In response, Abram offers Melchizedek a tithe of all the items he has won in battle, an act that acknowledges the priest as one who ranks higher spiritually than Abram.

All of which begs the question: Is the story of Melchizedek the first recorded appearance of the angel of the Lord? Put another way, is Melchizedek the preincarnate Christ? 

While he could be, it seems more biblically faithful to see Melchizedek as a type, or prophetic preview, of Christ rather than as Jesus himself prior to the Incarnation. While we take the position that Jesus comes to Abram as the angel of the Lord in Genesis 17, 18, and 22, the preincarnate Christ does not materialize as an earthly priest or king in Genesis, or anywhere else in the Old Testament.

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The Angel of the LORD

Following is an excerpt from Jesus Before Bethlehem: What Every Christian Should Know About the Angel of the LORD, released by High Street Press.

The female donkey sees him first: an ominous, sword-wielding figure appearing right in front of her. Startled, she veers off the path and into a field, prompting her rider to strike her in anger. Next, the mysterious swordsman cuts off the donkey’s escape route. Panicked, she presses against a stone wall, jamming her rider’s foot. A second beating ensues. After a third confrontation with the swordsman, the donkey crouches in surrender.

That does it. The rider, a mercenary prophet named Balaam, beats the donkey mercilessly – until the donkey speaks: “What have I done to you that you have beaten me these three times?”

The prophet replies, “You have made me look like a fool. If I had a sword in my hand, I’d kill you now!” 

At last, Balaam’s eyes are opened and he sees what his donkey has seen all along: a divine person, called the angel of the LORD, standing in the path with a drawn sword in his hand. The prophet prostrates himself in worship before the angel, confesses his sin, and receives further instructions.

Numbers 22 records this strange scene involving a prophet for hire, a sword-brandishing angel, and yes, a talking donkey. In fact, we may be so charmed by the loquacious beast of burden that we overlook the angelic intruder. Who is the angel of the LORD?

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