Who exactly was that in the burning bush? Was it God or an angel?

Questions about God, the Bible and the Christian culture 

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Question: In Acts 7:30 we read that Moses was visited by "an angel" of the Lord. What kind of angel? Does he have a name? When talking about the burning bush, Exodus 3 says, “ Suddenly, he heard the voice of the Lord who said, ‘I have come down to deliver them’" So, did God or God's Spirit came down to help like that verse says, or was it an angel? What does it mean for God to "come down” anyway?

Answer: Angels visiting the earth is certainly one of the more interesting topics in the Bible. But before we discuss whether God or an angel was responsible for the burning bush, let’s make sure we understand the differences between them.

There are three types of beings. First, there are human beings. We are created beings who are primarily living souls… but who also have bodies. Second, there are the angels. Angels are also created beings, but they are spirit-beings, so they have no bodies. They do have individual identities and personalities, however, so they are like us in that. But since they see God directly, faith is not a part of their lives. They either obey God or they rebel against him.

Only three angels are mentioned by name in the Bible. — Gabriel, Michael and Lucifer (Satan) — and none of those are mentioned as the angel mentioned at the burning bush. Instead, we see read, “There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush.” (Exodus 3:2). Now, there is a lot of in-house discussion about who “the angel of the Lord” might be in the burning bush, but this is beyond the scope of this question — and it’s no slam dunk… so I will not be offering any angel’s names.

The third type of being is God. God is also a spirit-being (John 4:24) — so he has no body — but he is not an angel. What distinguishes him from all other beings is that he created all the other beings! — and he did this while being the only uncreated being. This property of God’s not being created is called his aseity. God stands alone as the Self-Existent-One.

Now that we have our beings sorted out, let’s look more carefully at your question. The Bible has both God and angels (who are spirit-beings and who have no bodies) interfacing with us as if they were physical beings. As you mentioned in your question, how could God — a spirit-being — ever “come down” to do things like rescue Israel? (Exodus 3:8). The answer is, he doesn’t… not physically, anyway.

He does come down in power, though… and the burning bush demonstrates this... but being omnipotent, God can certainly affect things on earth without ever changing into a physical being. Furthermore, since he is also omnipresent, he is already everywhere. This means that God doesn’t have to select a place to be… but what he does have to do is communicate the purpose for creation to us earth-bound humans. To do this, he uses figures of speech.

For example, the Bible describes God as having a mouth (Psalm 68:33), hands (1 Peter 5:6), arms (Deuteronomy 33:27), eyes (Job 34:21) .… in spite of the fact he does not have even one of these! But he has to tell us that he is speaking to us, upholding us and watching us… and there’s no way for a spirit-being to do this except in our native language and except through the world we know. The burning bush was unique in that it was not consumed, but Moses already knew about fire, bushes and voices.

This figure of speech — the one where we give human characteristics to a non-human entity — is called anthropomorphism, and this is how God “comes down.” He doesn’t come down physically. He comes down effectively… and this wouldn’t be a problem if he didn’t have to tell us about it. So God used normal language to describe how he — a non-physical entity — has affected our physical world… but he speaks to us physical people as if he too were a physical person. This is one reason the Bible is so engaging.

Now, angels sometimes appear in physical form — but this is rare… and this is not their native form. The word “angel” comes from the Greek word meaning messenger… and that’s their job as far as we humans are concerned. The most well-known example of this is the angels appearing to the shepherds to announce Christ’s birth (Luke 2:8-15).

Now, angels don’t have to appear in human form to communicate with us. Sometimes they show up in dreams (Matthew 1:18-24) and sometimes in visions (Daniel 10:1). But when they do, it’s with the same job — to communicate something life-changing (or world-changing) from God to humans.

I’m not sure what is driving your question, but some people accuse the Bible of being contradictory in this story because the burning bush phenomenon is attributed to both an angel (Exodus 3:2; Acts 7:35) and to God (Exodus 3:4; Mark 12:26) … so which is it?

It’s both… and here’s how.

The word “angel” merely means messenger in both the Hebrew and the Greek. The problem is, when we read the word “angel,” we automatically think in terms of category-of-being. But the word merely means messenger — and a messenger can be any category of being! At the burning bush, God himself was acting as the messenger, so he was within his rights to call himself one — and the word for that is angel!

Do you see what was happening here? … because God wasn’t demoted and the Bible is not confused. When God called himself an angel, he was referring to the job he was doing at that moment… not to himself… and this is why we see the burning bush ascribed to both God and an angel. The phenomenon was itself a message from God, and this means that God was acting as a messenger — an “angel” at that moment.

This is true of Jesus Christ also. When he was acting as God’s messenger, he was called the angel of Jehovah. But Jesus was not an angel categorically. He alone was two categories of being: he was human when he was with us — but at the same time, he was the second person of the Trinity — God himself! The thing he was not was an angel… except when he was a messenger. Then — like God at the burning bush — that was describing his job, not his category of being.

The burning bush was what we call a theophany. This is a manifestation of God in physical form. Some argue that the burning bush was a Christophany — a manifestation of Christ in the Old Testament. I won’t weigh in on that here, but Got Questions Ministries has a few articles on this if you’d like to explore further. Here are the links:

https://www.gotquestions.org/burning-bush.html

https://www.gotquestions.org/theophany-Christophany.html

I pray that this discussion has added some clarity to this issue.

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