The God Who Reveals Himself

Claude Mariottini
Emeritus Professor
of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

One of the greatest biblical teachings about God is that the God of the Bible is a God who reveals himself to humans and who wants to have a personal relationship with human beings. In his desire to relate to his creation, God does not always wait for us to come to Him. God takes the initiative and manifests himself to individuals. This personal revelation of God is called “a theophany.”

In his article on theophany, M. F. Rooker writes, “A theophany may be defined simply as a visible manifestation of God, a self-disclosure of the deity.” Theophanies are primarily manifestations of God in the Old Testament, since the incarnation of God in Christ “removes any further visible manifestation of God.” [1]

The Old Testament mentions several manifestations of God to individuals: “Yahweh appeared to Abraham at the Oak of Mamre while he was sitting by the entrance of the tent during the hottest part of the day” (Gen. 18:1 NJB). When Moses asked Yahweh to manifest his glory, Yahweh said to Moses, “I shall make all my goodness pass before you, and before you I shall pronounce the name Yahweh” (Exod. 33:19 NJB). When God appeared to Hagar, Hagar said, “Truly here I have seen him who looks after me.” (Gen .16:13).

The Old Testament is filled with stories that show the immense depth of God’s love for the people whom he created and how extraordinarily far he is willing to go to bring people into fellowship with him. The God of the Bible is not simply a God who lives far away in the heavenly places. God did not create the world and then went away and from a distance sees what would happen to his creation. God has a plan and a purpose for his creation and he has been consistently working out his will throughout time.

The fact that God reveals himself and acts within human history and in the human world is a central teaching of the biblical narratives. God is in control of his created world and has the ability to affect what happens within that creation. Central to the Christian faith is the belief that God acts in our lives. This belief awakens in the believer the desire to see where God is at work.

The physical manifestation of God in any form creates a sense of awe in the life of the person experiencing the theophany. When Isaiah experienced the presence of God, he said, “Woe is me! I am lost, for my eyes have seen the King, Yahweh Sabaoth” (Isa. 6:5 NJB). The theophany creates a reaction and requires a response from the one experiencing the presence of God. In the Old Testament, the appearance of Yahweh most often occurs not in dreams nor through visions, but in the midst of the daily activities of individuals. When Amos received his call to be a prophet, he was at work as a shepherd, “Yahweh took me as I followed the flock, and Yahweh said to me, “Go and prophesy to my people Israel” (Amos 7:15 NJB).

The most obvious and prolonged theophanic event in history is the embodiment of God in the person of Jesus Christ. Through this manifestation, God revealed himself as a human being with the purpose of bringing people into fellowship with him. Because this event was so pivotal to God’s plan for his creation, it is easy to allow it to be the benchmark against which all other actions of God are measured.

In the Old Testament, the Pentateuch is also filled with marvelous theophanic events of great importance. God walks among, and talks with, his people. He is a God of action and revelation, and he works out his will in history. John Sailhamer writes, “It is true that when God works in history he inevitably makes himself known, and thus revelation in history is a natural consequence of God’s working in history.”[2] Any appearance of God through a theophany reveals truths about God and his intentions for mankind. Yahweh is a God who acts in our world.

The study of theophanies in the Old Testament provides a better understanding of the cultic background of Israel’s faith. The people of Israel believed that Yahweh was a unique and special God: “I am Yahweh, and there is no other, there is no other God except me” (Isa. 45:5 NJB).

Yahweh was not just another god like the ones worshiped by the people who lived in Canaan and in other nations of the ancient Near East. The God of Israel was not confined to one particular place nor was God the manifestation of natural powers. The people of Israel understood that their God was both transcendent and personal. Yahweh was above them but chose to come to them. God manifested himself to his people in various ways to demonstrate his power. He spoke to them to teach them how to live.

Old Testament theophanies were crucial to the proper understanding of the ways the people of Israel related to God. The God who manifests himself is a God who acts and a God who speaks. Fretheim has emphasized the God who acts. He writes, “The Old Testament itself indisputably witnesses to a God who acts in the world.”[3] According to Fretheim, “God’s acts always serve God’s purposes in the world.” He writes, “Every divine action is informed by God’s ultimate salvific will for the world, by God’s faithfulness to promises, and by God’s steadfast love for all.”[4]

Richard A. Lammert, in his article “The Word of YHWH as Theophany,” emphasizes that the word of Yahweh should be understood as a theophany of Yahweh in human form. Lammert writes that in John 1:1 the “Word” is a personal being, “the Word was God. (John 1:1). Lammert cites several texts in which the reference to “the word of Yahweh” should be understood as a theophany.[5] One text he cites is Genesis 15:1, 4–7, 18:

“Some time later, the word of Yahweh came to Abram in a vision . . . Then Yahweh’s word came to him in reply, ‘Such a one will not be your heir; no, your heir will be the issue of your own body.’ Then taking him outside, he said, ‘Look up at the sky and count the stars if you can. Just so will your descendants be’ he told him. Abram put his faith in Yahweh and this was reckoned to him as uprightness. He then said to him, ‘I am Yahweh who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldaeans to give you this country as your possession.’ That day Yahweh made a covenant with Abram.”

In this text, the word of Yahweh not only speaks to Abram but also takes him outside. In his description of the word of YHWH as theophany, Lammert writes, “The word of YHWH here is obviously more than a title for a verbal event; it is a title for a personal appearance of YHWH. Abram accepts the statement made by the word of YHWH as if it were YHWH’s own word: Abram believed YHWH. Then the word of YHWH identifies himself as YHWH. At the conclusion of the pericope, YHWH makes a covenant with Abram that same day. Since the only figure—other than Abram—who has been introduced in the text so far is the word of YHWH, it is reasonable to conclude that the word of YHWH is the same YHWH who made a covenant with Abram.” [6]

The fact that God desires to be in fellowship with human beings was important to Israel’s relationship to their God. “What the theophany narratives illustrate clearly… is the sense that YHWH both desires and actively seeks out such communication. For the most part it is not human initiative which dominates here, but rather the impetus of the Deity to communicate directly with chosen individuals.”[7]

Theophany demonstrates an intimacy of relationship with the divine that was unique to the Jewish faith. God appeared to them and spoke to them. Their belief was not just in a God of a particular place or even of a people but also in a God who knew their names: “God called to him from the middle of the bush. ‘Moses, Moses!’ he said” (Exod. 3:4 NJB). “Where is your wife Sarah?” (Gen. 18:9 NJB). “The word of Yahweh came to me, asking, ‘Jeremiah, what do you see?’” (Jer. 1:11 NJB).

People who struggle with the reality of biblical revelation consider it difficult to believe that God would choose to take human form and reveal himself to human beings. Some people believe that God is too transcendent and too distant to bridge the gap that separates a holy God from sinful human beings. But, as Sailhamer writes, “God and human beings share a likeness that other creatures do not share. Thus a relationship of close fellowship can exist between God and human beings that is unlike the relationship of God with the rest of his creation.”[8] God created humanity in his own image and in his likeness (Gen. 1:26) for the very purpose that human beings be in relationship with him. Therefore, God chooses to relate to humans, within the creation he has made, in concrete ways that they will understand.

God wants to make himself known intimately and concretely to people. God reveals himself to people through his word, “the word of Yahweh came to Abram” (Gen. 15:1 NJB). God reveals himself through visions, “Yahweh gave me a vision” (Jer. 24:1 NJB). God reveals himself through his angel: “The angel of Yahweh found Hagar by a spring in the desert” (Gen. 16:7 NJB). God can even take human form as he reveals himself to his people, “Yahweh appeared to Abraham at the Oak of Mamre . . . He looked up, and there he saw three men standing near him” (Gen. 18:1, 2 NJB).

The theophanic acts of God are creatively varied and unique. God does not limit the ways and the manner by which he chooses to reveal himself to individuals. God chooses when and how he will reveal himself to people. God comes to different people in different ways to bring about different outcomes.

God’s revelation of himself reflects God’s desire to have a relationship with his people. In the Old Testament, the people of Israel give witness to a God who entered into a personal relationship with them through a covenant, of a God who chooses to enter their history in order to accomplish his purpose for the world.

God wanted the people of Israel to know and understand him. He spoke to them in ways they could comprehend. While God is in all ways above transcendent, by revealing himself to his people, God was not trying to keep himself distant from them. He wanted his people to know him, to be in fellowship with him, and to follow his ways.

Claude Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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[1] M. F. Rooker, “Theophany,” in Dictionary of the Old Testament Pentateuch, ed. T. Desmond Alexander and David W. Baker (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 859.

[2] John, H. Sailhamer, The Pentateuch as Narrative (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1992.) 19.

[3] Terence E. Fretheim, “The God Who Acts: An Old Testament Perspective,” Theology Today 54 (1997): 7.

[4] Fretheim, 10.

[5] Richard A. Lammert, “The Word of YHWH as Theophany,” Concordia Theological Quarterly 73 (2009): 200.

[6] Lambert, 200.

[7] George W. Savran, Encountering the Divine: Theophany in Biblical Narrative (New York: T & T Clark International, 2005), 244.

[8] Sailhamer, 31.

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