One of the greatest teachings of the Old Testament is that the God of Israel desires to have a personal relationship with his people. In his desire to establish a relationship with humanity, God does not always wait for people to come to him.
Rather, God takes the initiative and reveals himself to humanity. This manifestation of God is commonly known as a theophany. The Old Testament contains many stories demonstrating God’s immense love for his creation and the extent to which he is willing to go in order to bring human beings into fellowship with himself.
Many people today believe that God is an absent God, that he created the world and then left it to see what would happen to his creation. But the Bible contradicts this deistic view of God. The Bible teaches that God has a plan and a purpose for his creation and that he is at work to bring his creation back to himself: “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope” (Jeremiah 29:11).
The belief that God acts in the world and that he manifested himself in the history of Israel is the central focus of biblical history. The Bible affirms that God is in control of his created world and that he has the ability to affect what happens within creation. The faith of the people of Israel was centered on the fact that God revealed himself to Moses on Mount Sinai and that he redeemed Israel “out of the iron furnace, out of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 4:20) to be his people and his special inheritance.
The physical manifestation of God to the patriarchs and to the people of Israel were designed to create a reaction and promote human response. The five books of Moses describe several manifestations of God to different people. God made himself known to the people of Israel in order to reveal his intentions for humanity. As God made himself known in the history of Israel, the people saw their God as a unique and special God, different from the gods of the other nations. He was not like Baal, he did not have a consort, and he was not related to the cycles of nature.
In his revelation at Sinai, God taught Israel that he could not be worshiped through images, that he did not reside in one particular place. At Sinai the people understood that their God was. He was transcendent and yet, he was a personal God. He was the Almighty God, the creator of the world. God is beyond human knowledge and yet he chose to reveal his personal name to Israel and make himself known to them.
The revelation of God to his people was designed to help them enter into a relationship with him. God manifested himself in different ways to demonstrate his glory and his desire to be their God. God revealed himself to Israel in order to teach them how to live as the people of God in the world.
God made himself known in many ways. He revealed himself as the creator by speaking creation into existence (Genesis 1:3). He appeared to Abraham in a vision (Genesis 15:1). He revealed himself through his angel (Genesis 16:7) who spoke on his behalf. God also appeared physically to Abraham (Genesis 18:1).
But God is not limited in the ways he reveals himself to his creation. God takes the initiative of when, where, and to whom he will reveal himself. God’s revelation of himself is designed to help people become part of his redemptive purpose for the world.
In the Bible, a common way by which God made himself known was through natural events such as a storm or an earthquake. Psalm 18 describes Yahweh’s theophany by emphasizing natural phenomena associated with a thunderstorm:
In my distress I called upon the LORD; to my God I cried for help. From his temple he heard my voice, and my cry to him reached his ears. Then the earth reeled and rocked; the foundations also of the mountains trembled and quaked, because he was angry. Smoke went up from his nostrils, and devouring fire from his mouth; glowing coals flamed forth from him. He bowed the heavens, and came down; thick darkness was under his feet. He rode on a cherub, and flew; he came swiftly upon the wings of the wind. He made darkness his covering around him, his canopy thick clouds dark with water. Out of the brightness before him there broke through his clouds hailstones and coals of fire. The LORD also thundered in the heavens, and the Most High uttered his voice, hailstones and coals of fire. And he sent out his arrows, and scattered them; he flashed forth lightnings, and routed them. (Psalm 18:6-14).
Many of the manifestations of God in the Old Testament, such as the pillar of fire and cloud, the revelation on Mount Sinai, and the many references to the wind of God, can be traced to the thunderstorm. As Psalm 18 reveals, darkness was “his covering.” His canopy was “thick clouds dark with water.” The voice of the Almighty was thunder and lightning was the arrow God used to defeat his enemies.
Another manifestation of God was when he appeared in human form to Abraham (Genesis 18). When God appeared to Abraham, he appeared with two other men to announce the birth of Isaac, and that he had come down to visit the iniquity of Sodom.
In this story God appeared as a man who spoke face to face with Abraham and then ate the meal Abraham had prepared for him. The narrative of God’s appearance to Abraham is shrouded in mystery. Although it is difficult to grasp the full significance of this event, the text is clear in affirming that God appeared to Abraham and that his appearance was in the form of a man.
The Bible affirms that God is still revealing himself to his creation. People of faith know that God has manifested himself to them: “In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son” (Hebrews 1:1-2).
Jesus Christ was the greatest manifestation of God to humanity. Jesus said: “He who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). Through Jesus, God is still calling people to live in fellowship with him. People who believe in Jesus recognize that they can come into the presence of God. Through Christ, we experience the true manifestation of God in the world, if we are willing to accept God’s invitation to come to him. Jesus said: “No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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