Acts 7:36-39 – The Angel Present With Israel in the Wilderness



“This man led them out, performing wonders and signs in the land of Egypt and in the Red Sea and in the wilderness for forty years. This is the Moses who said to the sons of Israel, ‘GOD WILL RAISE UP FOR YOU A PROPHET LIKE ME FROM YOUR BRETHREN’ [Deuteronomy 18:15]. This is the one who was in the congregation in the wilderness together with the angel who was speaking to him on Mount Sinai, and who was with our fathers; and he received living oracles to pass on to you. Our fathers were unwilling to be obedient to him, but repudiated him and in their hearts turned back to Egypt.”

reproduced from Salvation on the Line, Volume I

It can be very easy to overlook, but there are some statements appearing in the apology or defense of Stephen, before the Sanhedrin in Acts 7, most probably speaking of the figure of the malakh YHWH, the “messenger/angel of the LORD.” In providing an overview and abbreviated history of Ancient Israel and the Jewish people up until the First Century C.E., Stephen makes light of the experience of Moses at the burning bush, directing,

“After forty years had passed, AN ANGEL APPEARED TO HIM IT THE WILDERNESS OF MOUNT Sinai, IN THE FLAME OF A BURNING THORN BUSH [Exodus 3:2-3]. When Moses saw it, he marveled at the sight; and as he approached to look more closely, there came the voice of the Lord: ‘I AM THE GOD OF YOUR FATHERS, THE GOD OF ABRAHAM AND ISAAC AND JACOB’ [Exodus 3:6]. Moses shook with fear and would not venture to look. BUT THE LORD SAID TO HIM, ‘TAKE OFF THE SANDALS FROM YOUR FEET, FOR THE PLACE ON WHICH YOU ARE STANDING IS HOLY GROUND. I HAVE CERTAINLY SEEN THE OPPRESSION OF MY PEOPLE IN EGYPT AND HAVE HEARD THEIR GROANS, AND I HAVE COME DOWN TO RESCUE THEM; COME NOW, AND I WILL SEND YOU TO EGYPT’ [Exodus 3:4-10]. This Moses whom they disowned, saying, ‘WHO MADE YOU A RULER AND A JUDGE [Exodus 2:14]?’ is the one whom God sent to be both a ruler and a deliverer with the help of the angel who appeared to him in the thorn bush. This man led them out, performing wonders and signs in the land of Egypt and in the Red Sea and in the wilderness for forty years” (Acts 7:30-36).

Here, concurrent with how we previously examined Exodus 3:1-16, Stephen—who as a Hellenistic Jew could very well have been addressing the Sanhedrin in Greek—is recorded from the source text as saying, ōphthē autō en tē erēmō tou orous Sina angelos en phlogi puros batou, “there appeared to him {Moses} in the wilderness of mount Sinai a messenger of the Lord, in a flame of fire of a bush” (Acts 7:30, YLT). With the angel or messenger appearing to Moses in the burning bush, Stephen further says, egeneto phōnē Kuriou, “there came the voice of the Lord” (Acts 7:31), with the first person “I” present in the dialogue of Exodus 3:4-10 referenced in Acts 7:32-34. Stephen then indicates that while commissioned by God to lead and deliver the Israelites from Egyptian bondage, that he was provided cheiri angelou tou ophthentos autō en tē batō, “the hand of a messenger who appeared to him in the bush” (Acts 7:35, YLT).

The figure of Moses, and his role in seeing the Israelites delivered from Egypt, is lauded by Stephen: “This man led them out, performing miracles and signs in Egypt, at the Red Sea and in the wilderness for forty years” (Acts 7:36, CJB). Moses is notably appealed to as being an authority so significant for the descendants of the Exodus generation, that he is invoked to the Sanhedrin for them to realize that he spoke of the arrival of Yeshua of Nazareth on the scene of history. Deuteronomy 18:15 is quoted in Acts 7:37: “This is the Moses who said to Bnei-Yisrael, ‘God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your brothers’” (TLV). The obvious implication is that rejection of Yeshua as a prophet, will bring with it severe consequences, as the Israelites in the wilderness had disobeyed Moses (Acts 7:39).

Some questions as to why Stephen would even mention the presence of an angel or messenger, are raised from Acts 7:38: “He is the one who was in the congregation in the wilderness with the angel who spoke to him at Mount Sinai, and with our ancestors; and he received living oracles to give to us” (NRSV). The source text makes note of meta tou angelou tou lalountos autō en tō orei Sina, “with the messenger who is speaking to him in the mount Sinai” (Acts 7:38, YLT). That there were some members of the Heavenly host present with God proper, at Mount Sinai when God gave the commandments to Moses, is seen in the Septuagint version of Deuteronomy 33:2:

“And he said: The Lord has come from Sina and appeared to us from Seir and hasted from Mount Pharan with myriads of Kades; at his right, angels with him [ek dexiōn autou angeloi met’ autou]” (NETS).

Of course, that angels would be present with the Lord at the giving of the Torah to Moses, as Divine functionaries, is hardly surprising. The presence of a singular angel or messenger, as is seen in Acts 7, should indicate to readers how further investigation into the identity of this figure in the Torah and Tanach, is warranted. While there are commentators of the Book of Acts who have indicated doubts about the malakh YHWH or the “messenger/angel of the LORD” being a pre-Incarnate manifestation of Yeshua the Messiah,[1] there are surely others who would take Stephen’s defense as a prompt that further review of the Tanach record is needed.


[1] Eckhard J. Schnabel, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament: Acts (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012), 376.