Are there any reasons to believe Christ appeared to Old Testament characters?
Some suggest that at least one of Abraham’s three guests in Genesis 18:1-15 was Christ. But is this the case? As for my research and reading from John Walton’s excellent commentary on Genesis, there’s sufficient reason to believe Abraham did not speak with Jesus. Read on.
Some historical background: As early as Justin Martyr (100-165 A.D.) interpreters equated the Angel of the Lord with some notion of the pre-incarnate Christ (notwithstanding Augustine and Athanasius who were reluctant to impose meaning on Scripture that was not explicit). Since much of early church controversies had to do with Christology, there were strong tendencies to defend a pre-incarnate Christ.
Soapbox Sidebar: For passages that are potentially packed with particular theological or apologetic “nuggets”, I suggest we give first priority to authorial intent and be conservative when gleaning significance or practicum from Scripture. So much tradition has missed the mark in this way and gained significant momentum such that many today cannot see a text outside tradition. Sadly, whenever this occurs the author’s intent is entirely missed (consider popular usages of Matt. 18:20; Philip. 4:13, for instance). Similarly, what is often discovered from a text is merely a support for one’s theology/tradition (consider the debate over male/female roles; see the excellent blog Men and Women: Leaders Together on offering many correctives), rather than the straight forward meaning of the author. As important as apologetics and theology are, they must always be subordinated to careful and responsible exegesis (grammatical, cultural, historical, et al.). Unless and until sound exegesis has been accomplished, we should proceed with caution toward any supposed meaning or significance. God does not need any help with inspiration!
The text: Gen. 18:1-2 says the “LORD appeared to Abraham…Abraham looked up and saw three men standing nearby” (NIV). A first reading suggests that the LORD’s appearance was in addition to the three men, thus the three men likely did not include a pre-incarnate Christ. If one of the three is deity, then what happens to the LORD’s appearance? Throughout Genesis 18, the text indicates who is speaking (e.g., “then the LORD said”), but never explicitly states that one of the three speak. Moreover, the LORD leaves at the end of Gen. 18 and 19:1 begins not with “three men” but with “two angels.” Hum… While this could be some kind of theophany (= appearance of God), I’m reluctant to see that the pre-incarnate Christ was present. Simply because Genesis 19:1 indicates “two angels” are now on stage while “three men” were in Abraham’s story at Genesis 18 is hardly convincing evidence for Christ being present to Abraham.
Additional biblical data: Whenever an “angel of the LORD” speaks/appears in the Old Testament (Gen. 16:7-14; 21:17-18; 22:11-18; Ex. 3:2-6; Num. 22:35; 23:5; Judg. 2:1-4; 13; Zech. 3) it could be said that the angel spoke on behalf of the LORD. While the genitive “of the LORD” could be translated as an appositive “which is the LORD” (as when we say “the state of Colorado” while we really mean “the state which is Colorado”), there is sufficient reason to understand it as a representative speaking on God’s behalf, as in the precedent of prophets who speak on God’s behalf but are not God. And, although worship might occur during these appearances, in no instance does the text intimate the angel is receiving the worship. In some cases “angel of the LORD” is translated “the LORD’s messenger” (Hag. 1:13). But, given the first of the ten commandments, Israel would not confuse Haggai the prophet with God (Hag. 1:13).
Some more historical background: Understanding the role of an official messenger in the ancient world clears up much of this confusion. The closet parallel in today’s society is a head of state who speaks as an ambassador on behalf of the president and is accorded the same treatment of the president. Yet, there is no confusion about the ambassador’s identity; clearly he is not the president. In ancient Ugaritic literature (circa Abraham’s time), messengers often spoke in the first-person as if they were the one whom they represented. Thus, they were not only envoys of a god, but exercised the same powers of their god. A good example of this is when Moses speaks in the first-person as if God were speaking (Deut. 29:2-6). (Incidentally, this gives us considerable insight into the importance of Joseph’s role in Pharaoh’s house and Daniel’s in Nebuchadnezzar’s house.)
Walton’s conclusion on Genesis 18:1-15? “Given a contextual explanation for the ‘irregularities’ of the text on the role of the messenger in the ancient world, claims that those textual irregularities can only be explained by an angel being the pre-incarnate Christ can no longer be justified.”
One more note (not from any commentary): 1 Corinthians 10:1-4 clearly states that Christ was present in the Old Testament (a “Christophany” of sorts). Therefore, it is reasonable to believe that the pre-incarnate Christ did appear to some in the Old Testament. Athough Christ was/is the pre-existing Logos of God, he is not literally a “rock,” so there is room for metaphor in Scripture. That Christ was present in Old Testament days is not a matter of debate; how Christ is present, unless explicit, remains an interpretive question.
Incidentally, for good information on angels in general see the online, multi-volume International Standard Bible Encyclopedia.