Transfigured Hermeneutics 3: Transfiguration as Theophany

This is the third part of a multipart series of posts on the subject of the Transfiguration and its significance for Christian theology and biblical reflection. Within the first couple of posts I explored the literary presentation of the event of the Transfiguration, chiefly as it appears in Luke's gospel. I argued that the Transfiguration is paralleled to the Baptism of Christ and is also framed by an Exodus pattern. Within this Exodus pattern, the analogies between the Transfiguration and Sinai are cast in bolder relief, enabling us to see the mutually illuminating character of the events that occur on the two mountains. It is to this that we will now turn.

In Exodus 33:17-18, Moses asked the LORD to show him his glory. The LORD descended in the cloud, stood with Moses, and then passed before him in 34:5-9, declaring his covenant name. As Meredith Kline has observed, there is both a close interrelationship and a distinction in the Old Testament between the Angel of the LORD and the Spirit-Presence.[1]  The Angel (or Messenger) of the LORD is identified with God and is spoken of as a divine figure, but can also be distinguished from God 'as one who is sent by God on a mission or who himself refers to the Lord in the third person.'[2] The Angel is the divine archetypal prophetic figure--a form of God's self-manifestation--declaring the LORD's will and representing his authority to his people. The Spirit-Presence (or Glory) is the LORD's own majesty and splendour.

There are many accounts of theophanies in the Old Testament. It is important, however, to observe their differing characters. In some theophanies, as in the LORD's appearance to Abraham at Mamre (Genesis 18) or the Man who wrestles with Jacob at Peniel (Genesis 32:22-32), the appearance is of the Angel of the LORD, with apparently no accompanying Glory phenomena. In other cases, such as the pillar of cloud and fire that led the children of Israel out of Egypt and the theophany witnessed by the nation at Mount Sinai in Exodus 19 and 20, it is the phenomena of dreadful and awe-inspiring Glory-Presence that is most prominent, a burning radiance shrouded in thick cloud and darkness. Kline writes:
During the earlier period when the kingdom offered in the Abrahamic promises was still abeyant, God appeared as the Angel, apart from the Glory phenomena. But the advent of the age that was prototypal of final judgment and kingdom consummation witnessed a form of theophany appropriate to an age of eschatological fulfillment. God's self-revelation to Israel in this age of exodus triumph and kingdom founding was still a revelation through the Angel, but now the Angel appeared in union with the Spirit-Presence, in the more public and continuous and awesome epiphany of the Glory-cloud.[3]
When the Angel is accompanied by the Glory, it is the Glory-Face of the LORD that is seen. Moses' theophany upon Mount Sinai is of a distinct character from previous theophanies. While the Angel of the LORD laid aside his Glory in previous theophanies, Moses witnessed the Angel in his Glory-form. As Moses saw the Glory-Face of the LORD he was transformed by the sight, his own face bearing a reflected glory so dazzling that the Israelites could not bear to look upon it. To spare the Israelites from the sight, Moses covered his face with a veil, only removing it when he went into the Glory-Presence of the LORD to speak with the LORD again (Exodus 34:29-35).

As I have observed, Luke narrates the Transfiguration of Christ in a manner that accents Exodus themes. The relationship between the Transfiguration and Sinai is found primarily in the theophany, although the contrasts here are as important as the similarities. The most significant of these contrasts is that, while Moses' face is changed as he reflects the LORD's Glory-Face, Jesus' Transfiguration isn't a reflection, but is an unveiling of God's own Glory-Face. This is a point of no small significance: in his Transfiguration, Jesus is implicitly disclosed as the Messenger of the LORD, the archetypal divine prophet, the radiant Image or Face of God, the one witnessed by the people of God in the Old Testament.

Within the next post, I will continue to explore the theme of Christ as divine theophany, focusing upon the treatment of the subject in the gospel of John.


[1] Meredith G. Kline, Images of the Spirit (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 1999), pp. 70-75

[2] Ibid. p. 71

[3] Ibid. pp. 72-73