A deity's physical manifestation that is seen by human beings. The appearance of gods and their involvement with humans are common motifs in ancient Near Eastern and classical mythology. That similar phenomena are found in the Bible seems problematic at first, for a persistent tradition in the Hebrew Bible affirmed that death comes to any human who sees God (Gen. 16.13; 32.30; 24.10–11; 33.20; Deut. 5.24–26; 18.16; Judg. 6.22–23; 13.22; cf. Exod. 20.19; Isa. 6.5). In most of these contexts, however, the narration undermines this sentiment by depicting the pleasant surprise of those who survive. The text presents this perspective as a misperception to which human beings subscribe, for no humans in the Bible ever die simply because they have seen God. On the contrary, throughout the Bible God wants to communicate intimately with humans. The problem of how God can adequately show himself to humankind without harm is a conundrum that is never really resolved in the Bible.
The ease and frequency with which God visits and talks with humans in the early biblical narratives underscore how comfortable ancient Israelites were in depicting God's confrontation with humanity. Such theophanies are unspectacular, for God appears in form as an undistinguished human being (Gen. 18.1–2) who walks (Gen. 3.8) and stands (1 Sam. 3.10). Humans speak freely of seeing God's face (Gen. 33.10; Pss. 11.7; 17.15), and it is possible that the phrase used to describe a pilgrimage to the Temple (“to appear in the presence of Yahweh”) has been modified by later tradition from an original vocalization that should be translated as “to see the face of Yahweh” (e.g., Exod. 23.15; 34.23; Deut. 16.16; 31.11; 1 Sam. 1.22; Ps. 42.2). In the scores of cases where the text simply reads, “God said,” it is not clear if a theophany is to be presumed. Only when the narrative clarifies that “God appeared” is a theophany explicit (Gen. 12.7; 17.1; 26.24; 35.9; 48.3). Occasionally, God is described as descending when the theophany begins (Exod. 19.11, 18–20; 34.5) and/or ascending when it ends (Gen. 17.22; 35.13).
Although God may reveal himself whenever and to whomever he wishes, it is only to select individuals and in isolated places that God repeatedly appears. Moses, for example, is depicted as having a unique relationship with God, who knew and spoke with Moses face to face (Num. 12.6–8; Deut. 34.10). The most common types of places where theophanies occur are near trees (Gen. 12.6–7; 13.18; 18.1) and mountains (Gen. 12.8; 22.2, 14; Ex. 19.2–3; Num. 23.3; Deut. 33.2; Ps. 3.4; Joel 3.16; Hab. 3.3; Mic. 1.3).
Because God characteristically reveals himself at such places, they become places of pilgrimage for humans seeking divine guidance or assistance. Shrines and temples, along with their sacred objects (such as the ark), are built to formalize, protect, and regulate the approach to the divine presence. Those who enter such sacred precincts may experience a dramatic revelation of God's presence (Isa. 6.1), particularly those who spend the night (1 Sam. 3.1–15; 1 Kings 3.4–5). God's presence in this institutionalized framework can be confirmed by the theophanic cloud inside the shrine (Exod. 33.9; 40.34; 1 Kings 8.10–11). Here it is common to find people dying not because they have seen God but because they have not followed the rules in approaching him (1 Sam. 6.19; Lev. 10.2; 16.2; 2 Sam. 6.7).
As in other ancient Near Eastern traditions, one of the common forms in which God is depicted as appearing is as a warrior (Exod. 15.1–3; Judg. 5.4–5), garbed with battle armor and weapons (Isa. 34.5–6; 59.17; Zeph. 2.12; Hab. 3.9–15; Zech. 9.13–14), smiting his foes and saving his people (Isa. 42.13; Zeph. 3.17; Zech. 14.3). He may go into battle alone (Isa. 59.16; 63.3, 5) or he may be accompanied by an army or entourage (Isa. 5.26–30; 13.3–5; Joel 2.1–11; Hab. 3.5) as he rides upon horses and chariot (Hab. 3.8, 15; Zech. 10.3). He returns from battle drenched in the enemy's blood (Isa. 63.1–6). When God makes such a dramatic appearance, characteristic visible phenomena that accompany his presence include clouds, lightning, earthquakes, and fire (Gen. 15.17; Exod. 13.21; 19.9, 16; Nah. 1.3; Zech. 9.14; Job 38.1). Particularly when God marches into battle, he rocks creation with convulsions that shatter rocks and mountains (Isa. 13.3; Joel 2.10; 3.16; Mic. 1.4; Nah. 1.5–6; Hab. 3.6, 10; Zech. 14.4–5), creating an upheaval and diminution of sun, moon, stars, and heavens (Isa. 13.10; 37.4; Joel 2.10; 3.15; Hab. 3.11; Zech. 14.6); see War.
The book of Kings explains why earlier manifestations of God were dramatic in contrast to the more subdued revelation of the later writing prophets. In 1 Kings 19.8–13, the ninth‐century BCE prophet Elijah returns to Mount Horeb and witnesses the typical convulsions of nature that accompany a theophany (storm, earthquake, fire), but this time God is in none of them. Instead, it is only a subdued, calm voice that testifies to God's presence. This narrative accounts for the gradual cessation of the classical theophanies and a rise in importance of the prophetic word as the medium of God's self‐revelation. It is in the following century that the first of the known so‐called writing prophets, Amos, appears in Israel.
The New Testament affirms that Jesus is the only adequate manifestation of God (John 1.1, 14–18; Col. 1.15; 2.9). Jesus' transfiguration (Mark 9.2–8 par.) and ascension (Acts 1.9–12) correspond to theophanies of the Hebrew Bible (on a mountain, voice from a cloud, radiance) in order to stress the continuity of God's self‐revelation (Matt. 17.1–8).
Samuel A. Meier