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Theology and Theophany
Fanatics have their dreams, wherewith they weave
A paradise for a sect; the savage, too,
From forth the loftiest fashion of his sleep
Guesses at heaven.
John Keats, 'Hyperion: A Vision,' 1.1-4
The God of the Old Testament is a God who reveals himself. He is also a God who conceals himself. He reveals himself to those who are being saved. He conceals himself from those who are perishing.1 In any case, he was not a God about whom Israel needed to guess. What Israel knew of God, it knew through his own self-disclosure.
A word commonly used for that self-disclosure is theophany, from the Greek compound qeofaåneia, consisting of the noun qeoåß ('god') and the verb faiånein('to appear'). The Greek original was used to describe a festival at Delphi at which the images of the gods were shown to the people.2 The Hebrew lacks a precise translational equivalent, the closest being the verb har ('to see'), in the Niphal, harn ('to appear').3
As God of all creation, the God of the Old Testament could appear whenever and wherever he chose. According to the book of Exodus, he appeared on Mount Sinai to Moses in order to charge him as prophet and leader of the people. He also appeared to his people on that same mountain after he had brought them out of Egypt. In all of Israel's history, God's self-disclosure on Sinai was unique. Even if Yahweh also revealed himself on Zion (that other Old Testament mountain of which a singular theology may be predicated), it was at Sinai that he called Israel into covenant and founded this people as a theocratic state. So it is appropriate to speak of a 'Sinai theology.'
Yet again, just because God did reveal himself when and where he would, the theophany on Sinai does not stand exactly alone. God uniquely gave the law to Moses on Mount Sinai. But God did not uniquely appear there. He appeared in similar ways both before the events of Sinai and after. A small sample of passages makes this clear.
God appeared to Adam and Eve in the garden after they had sinned: 'Then the man and his wife heard the thunder of Yahweh God going back and forth in the garden in the wind of the storm, and they hid from Yahweh God among the trees of the garden' (Ge 3:8, author's trans.). Such was the first Sinai-like theophany-the first storm theophany when God appeared as Judge of his guilty people.4
God also appeared at the dedication of Solomon's temple in a way that inevitably would remind people of his appearance on Sinai: 'When the priests withdrew from the Holy Place, the cloud filled the temple of Yahweh. And the priests could not perform their service because of the cloud, for the glory of Yahweh filled his temple. Then Solomon said, 'Yahweh has said that he would dwell in a dark cloud'' (1Ki 8:10-12).5
God appeared also to Ezekiel by the Kebar River-no less awesome (and perhaps more) than at Sinai: 'I looked, and I saw a windstorm coming out of the north-an immense cloud with flashing lightning and surrounded by brilliant light. This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of Yahweh. When I saw it, I fell facedown, and I heard a voice like thunder' (Eze 1:4-28, author's trans.).6
Old Testament writers separate in time and space portrayed the appearance of Yahweh in remarkably similar ways. As God, he could appear as he wanted and when he wanted. Sometimes he appeared as a man.7 Sometimes he appeared as or in the person of 'the angel of Yahweh'8 or 'the angel of God.'9 But more than once he chose to appear in glory-as in the above passages.
Because God appeared in glory on several occasions and at more places than Sinai, it is appropriate to see the Sinai theophany (or, more properly, Sinai theophanies) in the broader context of those other appearances of God.10 As we do so, a number of characteristics appear. Some of these characteristics are unique to Sinai-like theophanies. Some of them overlap with other theophanies.
Characteristics of Old Testament Theophanies
One characteristic common to all Yahweh theophanies is that they are divinely initiated. As J. Kenneth Kuntz remarks, 'The theophany in the Old Testament is initiated by, and only by, the deity himself.'11 This point is made in contradistinction to other religious practices in the ancient Near East that often involved strenuous efforts to evoke the desired deity. The futile efforts of 450 prophets to force a manifestation of Baal on Mount Carmel (1Ki 18:16-29) is a good example.12 Yahweh often 'appeared' (har, Niph.) in the Old Testament, but never once did human effort 'cause [him] to appear' (har, Hiph.)13
A Yahweh theophany is a temporary event. Yahweh may appear when and where he will, but he is not always apparent at one sole place. H. Wheeler Robinson has noted, 'The theophany is a transient manifestation of deity, and, as such, to be distinguished from the continuous revelation of Him in all Nature.'14 This fact does not contradict God's omnipresence, which is clearly asserted elsewhere: 'Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?' (Ps 139:7; cf. vv. 8-10). Nor does it absolutely differentiate between Yahweh and false gods, for pagan gods were also portrayed theophanically. They also were held to be revealed in natural phenomena-Baal in the storm, Yam in the sea, and Shamash in the sun, for example. Yahweh theophanies, then, like pagan theophanies, are temporary. God appears for a purpose, accomplishes that purpose, then disappears.
The Old Testament does image forth a time beyond time when Yahweh's theophany will be continuous:
The sun will no more be your light by day,
nor will the brightness of the moon shine on you,
for Yahweh will be your everlasting light,and your God will be your glory.
Such a presence of God is visionary and eschatological. Nowhere in the Old Testament does God actually appear in such a way. Indeed (for reasons to be discussed below) he cannot.