When we read in the Old Testament that certain people “saw” God, are we to apply a literal meaning? (Gen 18:1-33, 32:28-30, Ex 13:21-22, 24:9-11, Judg 13:21-22, Isa 6:1, etc.)
Were these cases of mistaken identity? Were these true Theophanies (God manifesting himself in a physical form) or Christophanies (pre-incarnate appearances of Christ)? Were the writers merely using figurative language?
Let’s take a look at the verses referenced above:
In Genesis 18:1-33 we are told that Yahweh appeared to Abraham but the account tells us it was 3 men who approached him. Some believe that these were mortal men sent by God, and Abraham talked to them but he also had a conversation with God whose voice he heard from heaven. Others say that although the text says “three men,” it was actually a visitation from three angels (and a separate conversation with God). Another popular view is that it was two angels and God, or the son of God. This view finds support in v22 which says the men left and went toward Sodom but Abraham remained standing before Yahweh and twelve verses later we are told that two angels enter Sodom.
In Genesis 32 we are told that Jacob wrestled with a man. But in v28 the man tells him he has struggled with God (Elohim) and with men. And in v30 Jacob said, “I have seen God (Elohim) face to face.”
In Exodus 13 we are told that Yahweh went ahead of the Israelites–a pillar of cloud during the day and a pillar of fire at night.
Later, in Exodus 24, we are told that Moses and 73 others were invited by God to come up to him and in v9 we are told they went up and saw God (Elohim) and under his feet they saw a pavement of sapphire.
In Judges 13 we are told that a man with the appearance of an angel (identified as the Angel of the Yahweh) appeared to Manoah’s wife (Sampson’s mother). Since Manoah did not see him the first time he visited, Manoah asked Yahweh to send him again. God (Elohim) listened to Manoah and sent him again. After talking to Manoah, the Angel of Yahweh departed in the flames of the fire that Manoah had built which caused husband and wife to fall on their faces and say, “We’re going to die because we have seen God (Elohim)!”
In Isaiah 6:1 Isaiah wrote that he saw God (Adonai) sitting on a throne with a robe that filled the temple. He also saw Seraphim standing above.
So what do we do with these passages since the Bible tells us that God is spirit and cannot be seen? (John 4:24, John 1:18, John 6:46, 1 Tim 1:17) And in Exodus, God told Moses that no one could see him and live? (Ex 33:20)
Well, we can say that these were Theophanies or Christophanies. These seem like easy explanations, but they also seem to have little biblical support.
Another option is to say that Jacob and Sampson’s parents were either mistaken when they said they saw God or that they were not referring to Yahweh since the title “Elohim” is also used to refer to angels and even men. And we can say that the Israelites only saw a manifestation of God in the pillars of cloud and fire, not God himself. We can also say that Abraham’s visitors were men or angels. But although we are told Moses and the group of 73 saw Elohim, the context seems to clearly identify this title with Yahweh. And although the passage from Isaiah reads like a vision expressed in poetry, he seems to be clearly referring to Yahweh as well. So what do we do with these passages?
I don’t know