Divinities appearing like men and men appearing like gods

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by Neil Godfrey

This post begins a collection of quotations from ancient Jewish literature illustrating the a form of Jewish thought not so familiar with those of us whose knowledge has rarely extended beyond the canonical literature. Divine figures bearing the name of God appeared in human form on chariot thrones, and holy men of old like Adam, Abel, Abraham and Jacob were said to be divine and even archangels themselves. The notes are taken from Alan F. Segal’s Paul the Convert, but many of the quotations themselves are copied from online or other sources.

The human form of God was an important idea in Jewish merkabah mysticism. An “angel of the Lord” in the form of a man yet who represented or bore the “name of God” was said to have led Israel through the wilderness (Exodus 23:21); and a human figure appeared seated on the divine throne in Ezekiel 1, Daniel 7 and Exodus 24. All of these figures appear to be mediator figures who embody the sacred name of God (YHWH) himself.

This figure, elaborated on by Jewish tradition, would become a central metaphor for Christ in Christianity. (p. 41)


Adam was thought among several Jewish traditions to have been created with a glorious appearance — that is, the image of God (Gen. 1:26) — that was lost with the Fall. This lost “image and form of God” was then associated with God’s human appearance itself that appeared on the throne in Ezekiel etc, or with the appearance of God’s chief angel who carried God’s name.

Thus God’s Glory or Kavod can be a technical term for God’s human appearance. (p. 41)

Son of Man

This human appearance of God is probably related to the son of man figure in Daniel 7. Here the ancient of days appoints a human-like figure (like a son of man) to execute judgment on the wicked.

This human figure is best understood as an angel. (p. 41)

In the final chapter of Daniel there is a resurrection predicted for all, both righteous and wicked. The righteous (or “wise”) will be transformed into angels. (They are said to become like stars, and stars are identified with angels in Jewish tradition — Job 38:7.)

The mystery of Yahweh, his angel and his Glory

The preeminence of the enigmatic human figure is due primarily to the description of the angel of the Lord in Exodus.

Exod. 23:20-21 states: “Behold, I send an angel before you, to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place which I have prepared. Give heed to him and hearken to his voice, do not rebel against him, for he will not pardon your transgression; for my name is in him.” The Bible expresses the unique status of this angel by means of its participation in the divine name.

In Exod. 33:18-23, Moses asks to see the Glory of God. In answer, God makes “his goodness” pass in front of him but he cautions, “You cannot see my face; for man shall not see me and live. . . . Behold, there is a place by me where you shall stand upon the rock, and while my Glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.

Yahweh himself, the angel of God, and his Glory are peculiarly melded together, suggesting a deep secret about the ways God manifested himself to humanity. (pp. 41-2, my emphasis and formatting)

The Eidos/form of a man

Above the expanse that was over their heads was the likeness of a throne, as the appearance of a sapphire stone; and on the likeness of the throne was a likeness as the appearance of a man on it above.

ὡς ὅρασις λίθου σαπφείρου ὁμοίωμα θρόνου ἐπ’ αὐτοῦ καὶ ἐπὶ τοῦ ὁμοιώματος τοῦ θρόνου ὁμοίωμα ὡς εἶδος ἀνθρώπου ἄνωθεν (Ezekiel 1:26, Septuagint/Greek translation of second century b.c.e.)

The word for “appearance” or “form” (Greek eidos) takes a special philosophical meaning from Plato who used it to express the “idea” of a man:

“And is there an abstract idea of man (ἀνθρώπου εἶδος), apart from us and all others such as we are, or of fire or water?” (Parmenides, 130c)

Thus traditions concerning the son of man were much older than Christianity:

For Platonists, eidos meant the unchanging immortal idea of man that survives death. Because of Plato’s unfortunate use of language, Hellenistic Jews could interpret the phrase “form of man” to mean eidos. So for Hellenistic Jewish mystics like Philo, the figure of man on the divine throne described in Genesis, Exodus, Ezekiel, Daniel, and the Psalms (forming the basis of the son of man speculation) was also understood as the ideal and immortal man. His immortality and glorious appearance were things Adam possessed in the Garden of Eden and lost when he sinned (p. 42, my emphasis)

Names and titles

This figure on the chariot-thone in Ezekiel 1:26 is assigned various names and titles by Jewish sectarians:

Yahoel (Jaoel) — Apocalypse of Abraham (Yahoel is the one in whom the name of God dwells)

Melchizedek — Qumran’s 11QMelch (identified with Elohim of Psalm 82:1)

Metatron — 3 Enoch 10:1 (Metatron is called YHWH hakaton or YHWH Junior, and sits on a throne equal to God’s)

Other names — Adoil, Eremiel and predominantly the son of man.

Michael is God’s mediator and chief general (archistrategos) — 2 Enoch 33:10; T. Dan. 6:1-5; T. Abr. 1:4; cf. Life of Adam and Eve 14:1-2.

Eremiel — Apocalypse of Zephaniah 6:1-15 (where he is mistaken for God)

An angel whose name cannot be given — Ascension of Isaiah 7:2-4

Transformation into angels

As covered in earlier posts, one of the significant features of the heavenly ascent visions was that the one experiencing the vision was believed to become an angel or divine person like the divinity before whom he appeared. This is significant given Paul’s language of transformation.

Compare the Testament of Abraham where we read of some patriarchs being exalted as angels where Adam is depicted on a golden throne in terrifying splendour and glory:

And outside the two gates there he saw a man sitting upon a gilded throne, and the appearance of that man was terrible, as of the Lord. . . . . And when the wonderful one who sat upon the golden throne saw few entering through the narrow gate, and many entering through the broad one, straightway that wonderful one tore the hairs of his head and the sides of his beard, and threw himself on the ground from his throne, weeping and lamenting. But when he saw many souls entering through the narrow gate, then he arose from the ground and sat upon his throne in great joy, rejoicing and exulting. And Abraham asked the chief-captain, My Lord chief-captain, who is this most marvelous man, adorned with such glory, and sometimes he weeps and laments, and sometimes he rejoices and exults? The incorporeal one said: This is the first-created Adam who is in such glory, and he looks upon the world because all are born from him

Abel is also glorified and sits on a throne as judge until the final judgment:

And Abraham said, My Lord chief-captain, who is this most wondrous judge? And who are the angels that write down? And who is the angel like the sun, holding the balance? And who is the fiery angel holding the fire? The chief-captain said, “Do you see, most holy Abraham, the terrible man sitting upon the throne? This is the son of the first created Adam, who is called Abel, whom the wicked Cain killed, and he sits thus to judge all creation, and examines righteous men and sinners.”

2 Enoch says that Adam was a second angel:

I placed him on earth, a second angel, honourable, great and glorious, and I appointed him as ruler to rule on earth and to have my wisdom, and there was none like him of earth of all my existing creatures.

The Prayer of Joseph, quoted by Origen in his commentary on John 2, has Jacob declare that he is an angel of God, the first-born of all creation, an archangel . . . :

Should the piece; entitled “The prayer of Joseph,” one of the apocryphal works current among the Hebrews, be thought worthy of credence, this dogma will be found in it clearly expressed. Those at the beginning, it is represented, having some marked distinction beyond men, and being much greater than other souls, because they were angels, they have come down to human nature. Thus Jacob says: “I, Jacob, who speak to you, arid Israel, I am an angel of God, a ruling spirit, and Abraham and Isaac were created before every work of God; and I am Jacob, called Jacob by men, but my name is Israel, called Israel by God, a man seeing God, because I am the first-born of every creature which God caused to live.” . . . . And I told him his name and how great he was among the sons of God; Art not thou Uriel my eighth, and I am Israel and archangel of the power of the Lord and a chief captain among the sons of God? Am not I Israel, the first minister in the sight of God, and I invoked my God by the inextinguishable name? 

Will continue this post another day with detailed references for the divine transformations of Moses and Enoch.

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Neil Godfrey

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3 thoughts on “Divinities appearing like men and men appearing like gods”

    1. Interesting suggestion. This whole field of study is one I’m in large part only stratching the surface of and doing reading-dumps on this blog as I go. Whether there is evidence that anyone ever interpreted the rock in Exod. 33 as being the same rock in Exod 32 I have no idea yet. I suppose both had a “cleft” in them, but what do we know of what was thought back then (in Paul’s time) by anyone? YHWH is also quite likely seen as the one who became known as the heavenly Jesus Christ (Margaret Barker), subordinate to Elohim (El) among Enochian type sects. (But I still need to get my head fully around the “glory” being a separate entity of some sort from the speaker.)

  1. The Genesis story of Adam implies that when they were created, humans resembled the gods in form, but lacked two key elements that kept them from attaining god-like status: knowledge (self-awareness) and eternal life. Eating from Tree of Knowledge took care of the first shortcoming.

    God worried that the human couple, now self-aware might next partake of the Tree of Life and become immortal, so he banish Adam and Eve from the garden. “…Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever.”

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