The story of the Exodus the Hebrew people took through the wilderness toward the land God had promised to give them is a famous one, described in both the Torah and the Bible. One of the key figures in the story is the mysterious angel whom God sends to guide and guard his people as the prophet Moses leads them forward.
The angel travels along with the Hebrew people through the wilderness after they escape slavery in Egypt for freedom, acting as a personal guide both by day (in the form a cloud) and by night (in the form of a pillar of fire): "By day the Lord went ahead of them in a pillar of cloud to guide them on their way and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, so that they could travel by day or night. Neither the pillar of cloud by day nor the pillar of fire by night left its place in front of the people." (Exodus 13:21-22).
The Torah and the Bible later record God saying: "See, I am sending an angel ahead of you to guard you along the way and to bring you to the place I have prepared. Pay attention to him and listen to what he says. Do not rebel against him; he will not forgive your rebellion, since my Name is in him. If you listen carefully to what he says and do all that I say, I will be an enemy to your enemies and will oppose those who oppose you. My angel will go ahead of you and bring you into the land of the Amorites, Hittites, Perizzites, Canaanites, Hivites and Jebusites, and I will wipe them out. Do not bow down before their gods or worship them or follow their practices. You must demolish them and break their sacred stones to pieces. Worship the LORD your God, and his blessing will be on your food and water. I will take away sickness from among you, and none will miscarry or be barren in your land. I will give you a full life span." (Exodus 23:20-26).
In his book Exodus: Question by Question, author William T. Miller writes that the key to figuring out the angel's identity is his name: "The angel is not identified. ... The one thing we are sure of is that in 23:21, God says 'my name is in him.' ... He is represented by his proper name, Yahweh."
God Appearing in Angelic Form
Some people believe that the angel from this passage represents God himself, appearing in angelic form.
Edward P. Myers writes in his book A Study of Angels that "it was the Lord himself who appeared to him [Moses]." Myers notes that the angel speaks as God, such as when the angel declares in Exodus 33:19 that "I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the Lord, in your presence." He writes: "The identity of the presence that went with the children of Israel" is "both the Lord and the Angel of God."
In his book What the Bible Says About Angels, Dr. David Jeremiah notes: "This angel was definitely a cut above ordinary angels, for God's very 'Name' was in him. Also, he could forgive sins -- and 'who can forgive sins but God alone?' (Mark 2:7). The angel of the Lord was personally guiding the Israelites from Egypt to the Promised Land."
The fact that the angel appeared in a glorious cloud is also a clue that he is the Angel of the Lord, who many Christians believe is Jesus Christ appearing prior to his incarnation later in history (after which the appearances of the Angel of the Lord stop), write John S. Barnett and John Samuel in their book Living Hope for the End of Days: "In the Old Testament, God manifested his presence by a visible glowing cloud signifying his glory. Israel was led by a pillar of fire and a cloud." Barnett writes that, in the New Testament, Jesus Christ was often accompanied by the same type of cloud: "Revelation 1:7 says, 'Behold, he is coming with clouds, and every eye will see him, even they who pierced him.' Jesus was clothed in a cloud like this the last time the apostle John saw Him ascend into heaven in Acts 1:9. And John heard the angels who spoke with the apostles say that Jesus would return 'in like manner' (Acts 1:11).
Jeremiah writes in What the Bible Says About Angels: "It seems highly possible that in the Old Testament, Christ came to Earth in the form of an angel -- the greatest Angel."
Two Jewish sacred texts, the Zohar and the Talmud, identify the mysterious angel as archangel Metatron in their commentaries, because of Metatron's association with God's name. The Zohar says: "Who is Metatron? He is the highest archangel, esteemed more than any other of God's hosts. The letters [of his name] are the great mystery. You may translate the letters vav, hay which is [part of] the name of God."
In his book Guardians at the Gate: Angelic Vice Regency in Late Antiquity, author Nathaniel Deutsch calls Metatron "an angelic being who embodies the name of God" and adds that the apocryphal text the Book of Enoch corroborates that: "The explicit identification of Metatron with the Angel of the Lord in Exodus 23 appears in 3 Enoch 12, where Metatron declares the God 'called me the lesser YHWH in the presence of his heavenly household; as it is written (Exodus 23:21): 'For My name is in him.'"
An Angelic Reminder of God's Faithfulness
No matter who the angel is, he serves as a powerful reminder of God's faithfulness to believers, writes Peter E. Enns in his book The NIV Application Commentary: Exodus: "The angel here continues his redemptive role from the beginning of God's redemptive work in Israel. Regardless of the mystery surrounding his precise identity and despite the fact that he is not frequently mentioned in Exodus, he is no doubt a central figure in Israel's redemption. And when we keep in mind the virtual equation of the angel and Yahweh, it follows that the angel’s presence is an indication of God's presence with his people from beginning to end. His appearance here reminds Israel of God’s faithfulness."