What is a Theophany?

In Exodus 33:19, God promises Moses that He will reveal His glory to Moses.

And He said, “I Myself will make all My goodness pass before you, and will proclaim the Name of the LORD before you; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show compassion on whom I will show compassion.”

In theological terms, this is known as a “theophany.” It is a visible appearance of God made known to man during the Old Testament period. Other examples include Abraham in Gen 18, Jacob in Gen 32, and Job in Job 38-42. Some would add Christophanies (appearances of the pre-incarnate Christ) and angelophanies (angels) under this heading, as well.

new-american-commentary-series-37-volumesTo explore this subject further, I turned to the NAC’s work on Exodus. I first discovered The New American Commentary series in seminary during a class on the Pastoral Epistles (1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus). Volume 34 was a required read, and I have been slowly trying to build up this set ever since—having added 2, 14, and 27.

Douglas Stuart’s work on the book of Exodus is exceptional. He begins with the theology of Exodus, then moves to a verse-by-verse breakdown of the book, and frequently will use footnotes for the technical matters (I crave intimate detail).

Writing on 33:19, Stuart explains this enigmatic phenomenon of God appearing to Moses:1

Far more important than what Moses would see was what he would hear: Yahweh invoking His own Name. Through the idiom qârâh + bē + šêm (usually translated “call on the name of”), which can mean “to speak out loud the name of” (and therefore “invoke”) or “call out to” in the sense of pray to/ask for help from/worship, God promised Moses that He would speak His own Name so Moses would know for certain with whom he was dealing and would not be subject to doubt that his eyes had played tricks on him, or any such thing. This is an instance of God’s giving to a person the special reassurance he needed in a special situation, providing powerfully convincing evidence of His presence to that person in an aural way, parallel to the visual way His splendor could do the same thing.

401024.jpgSuch divine evidences are exceptions, not the rule. A few biblical characters get to hear God’s voice; the vast majority do not. A few are allowed to see some sort of visible manifestation of His presence; most never do. Jesus, who ultimately represented God among humans in this world, was seen and heard by thousands of people, but their number is relatively small compared to the number of all those who have neither seen nor heard Him personally. Theophanies are exceptions, not the rule. They strengthen the confidence of those to whom they are given, in highly exceptional circumstances where such strength is needed and where less sensory encouragement would not suffice. Most people rely on reports of theophanies rather than participation in one, and to seek a theophany as Moses did here would not warrant one unless one were on par with Moses in job assignment and closeness to Yahweh and in an Old Covenant setting, neither of which is possible now. Fortunately, having the Holy Spirit dwelling in us is far better and far more permanent an asset.

Stuart’s right, and concludes that “Moses had nothing on us.” This was of great encouragement to me as I was reading and studying this passage today—to know that the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in New Covenant believers far exceeds that of any Old Covenant experience.


 Stuart, Douglas K. The New American Commentary: Vol. 2, Exodus (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group,2006). 707-708.