The Angel of the Lord has fascinated and confused many readers of Scripture. At times, he seems like nothing else than an angelic being sent by the LORD. At other times, his identity becomes mixed with the LORD and speaks with the voice of God.
While some confusion of the details is inevitable, Scripture is much clearer on this matter than we sometimes think. I want to argue that the Angel of the Lord is unambiguously Jesus.
The Name of YHWH Is in the Angel
Perhaps the most important passage in Scripture to understand the angel’s identity is Exodus 23. Here, the LORD (YHWH) himself reveals the nature and activity of his angel:
Behold, I send an angel before you to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place that I have prepared. Pay careful attention to him and obey his voice; do not rebel against him, for he will not pardon your transgression, for my name is in him. (Exod 23:20–21)
In this passage, YHWH affirms that he will send “an angel” before Israel to guard them on the way to Canaan. In particular, Israel should “pay attention” and “obey” the angel. They should not “rebel” against the angel because the angel “will not pardon” their transgression. The implication being that the angel can forgive their transgression.
Lastly, and I think most importantly, God has given the angel particular authority because “my name is in him” (Exod 23:21). The phrase “in him” translates the Hebrew word bikirbo, which often refers to entrails or inward parts (HALOT, s.v. קֶרֶב). It can also refer to the dwelling of God among the people of Israel (other senses are also possible). In this case, the sense of the phrase likely overlaps somewhat with both possibilities.
The name of YHWH dwells in the inner parts of the angel. What could that mean? Jude reminds us, “although you once fully knew it, that Jesus, who saved a people out of the land of Egypt, afterward destroyed those who did not believe” (Jude 5). Christian readers of Scripture did “once fully” know this, but we have let our guard down by adopting a hermeneutic of suspicion towards the Christ-centered nature of Scripture due to divine inspiration.
YHWH Speaks in the Angel
Not only does the name of YHWH lie in the angel, but the angel also speaks as the voice of YHWH. Judges 2:1–2 reads:
“Now the angel of the Lord went up from Gilgal to Bochim. And he said, “I brought you up from Egypt and brought you into the land that I swore to give to your fathers. I said, ‘I will never break my covenant with you. and you shall make no covenant with the inhabitants of this land; you shall break down their altars.’ But you have not obeyed my voice. What is this you have done?”
This passage should leave our jaws ajar. First, the angel “brought” Israel up from Egypt. Second, God (the speaker here) relays a past event in which the angel uses “I” as in “I brought you up” and “I swore” and “I will never break my covenant with you.” This “I” in the events that YHWH here cites are examples of YHWH himself speaking! And here they are said to be the angel speaking.
In particular, God Almighty says to Abraham in Genesis 17: “I will establish my covenant…for an everlasting covenant” (v.7; cf. Exod 6:4). YHWH says in Deuteronomy 7:2, “You shall make no covenant.” In Deuteronomy 12:3, YHWH says, “You shall tear down their altars.”
More could be said here, and other articles have provided fuller evidence to illustrate the overlap in identity between the angel and YHWH. Yet it should be clear not only from Jude’s citation but from the dyadic revelation of YHWH and angel that Jesus is the angel of YHWH.
As Christians, we must confess that God has always been triune. The Son did not come into being at Matthew 1. He always existed in the form of God (Phil 2:6). And this ontological reality means that we must read Scripture (the Old Testament) as Christians to see the one God act according to his triune nature.
The nature of God and the revelation of Jesus Christ requires us to read the Old Testament differently than we would before Christ came. The angel is Jesus.