Perhaps someone knows of another way of God appearing to Abraham and that's fine. Whatever answer you give please back it up by Scripture. I will do the same by answering my own question.
My answer. The word "appeared" at Genesis 17:1 according to Strong's Lexicon (#7200) has various meanings.
I.to see, look at, inspect, perceive, consider
ii.to see, perceive
iii.to see, have vision
iv.to look at, see, regard, look after, see after, learn about, observe, watch, look upon, look out, find out
v.to see, observe, consider, look at, give attention to, discern, distinguish
vi.to look at, gaze at
i.to appear, present oneself
ii.to be seen
iii.to be visible
C.(Pual) to be seen
i.to cause to see, show
ii.to cause to look intently at, behold, cause to gaze at
i.to be caused to see, be shown
ii.to be exhibited to
F.(Hithpael) to look at each other, face
I choose B: Niphal, to be visible. I base this on Genesis 17:22, "And when He/God talking with him, God went up from Abraham." Here is another account at Genesis 35 starting at vs9, "Then God appeared to Jacob again when he came from Paddanaram, and He blessed him. Vs10, And God said to him, Your name is Jacob; You shall no longer be called Jacob, But Israel shall be your name." Thus He called him Israel."
Verse 13, "Then God went up from him in the place where He had spoken with him." Now here's the part that I find real interesting and it's from Genesis 18. At verse 1, "Now the Lord appeared to him/Abram by the oaks of Mamre, while he was sitting at the tent door in the heat of the day."
The last verse, Genesis 18:33, "And as soon as He/the Lord had finished speaking to Abraham the Lord departed, and Abraham returned to his place." In reading the whole chapter of Genesis 18 verse 2 says, "And when he lifted up his eyes and looked, behold, three men were standing opposite him; and when he saw them he ran from the tent door to meet them, and bowed himself to the earth."
There is a long exchange between the Lord, Abraham and even Sarah participated. The Lord told Sarah that she was going to have a child. After that the Lord has a discussion with Abraham about Sodom and Gomorrah at vs20. Vs21, "I will go down now, and see if they have done entirely according to its outcry, which has come to Me; and if not, I will know."
Vs22, "Then the men turned (two men) turned away from there and went toward Sodom, while Abraham was still standing BEFORE THE LORD." The Lord and Abraham have an exchange about sparing Sodom if fifty men were found to be righteous. Abraham then gets down to ten men being found that are righteous, (vs32) and the Lord says He will not destroy the city. At this point we get to the last verse, 33 and the Lord departs from Abraham.
At Genesis 19:1, "NOW THE TWO ANGELS came to Sodom in the evening as Lot was sitting in the gate of Sodom. When Lot saw them, he rose to meet them and bowed down with his face to the ground."
If I understand the Question correctly, it is on how God Almighty appeared to Abraham (in a dream, vision, physically or otherwise).
The Hebrew verbal form translated "appeared" is וַיֵּרָ֨א (way·yê·rā), which is the Nifal third masculine singular form of the Verb רָאָה (raah - Strong's 7200, "to see") which, preceded by Conjuntive waw, is a Consecutive Imperfect: so the translation "appeared" is correct.
We can make a reasonable inference that, at Gen 18:1, God "appeared" to Abraham with a physical, or phyisical-like appearence, because at Gen 18:2 we read, "He [Abraham] looked up and saw three men standing across from him."
On the other hand, when Abraham experienced a vision of God, like in Gen 15:1, the expression is, "the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision [בַּֽמַּחֲזֶ֖ה - bam·ma·ḥă·zeh]"
I believe that this is all we can say, with an objective analysis.
How did God appear [to Abraham]: in a dream, a vision or physically?
Answer: God appeared to many people, including Abraham in all three forms.
Scripture is very clear about God literally "appearing" to people visibly and often throughout the Old Testament. That is what I will concentrate on here, hopefully not to my dismay.
So, how did He do this? As I wrote elsewhere, He did this as "The Lord," "The LORD God," "The Angel of the Lord," and so forth. Suppose we focus on "The Angel of the Lord." None of what I am about to write is restricted to His appearance before Abraham. Rather, this discussion is a more general approach to the question.
Allow me clarify something from the outset. I think there is a huge disparity between the terms “an angel of the LORD" and "the Angel of the Lord," although I'm uncertain how we can easily differentiate between them. It seems to me that nothing other than context and evidence will suffice.
There are ample instances where angels have played significant roles in the affairs of people’s lives. Angels are God’s messengers. Indeed, the Greek word ἄγγελος, "angelos," is a translation of the Hebrew: mal'akh, denoting simply “messenger,” without specifying its meaning outside the immediate context. (I am not a Hebrew or Greek scholar. However, I am unconvinced that either language is crucial to this response.)
[Note: Some have suggested that the appellation “Malachi” from the Book of Malachi may simply infer “God’s messenger” (or “His messenger” in the Septuagint) and may not represent the author’s name at all. Such an interpretation, originating from a secular source may or may not be true. Wikipedia ]
However, there are manifold encounters with “the Angel of the Lord” in the Old Record. Often, this Being demonstrated, and even embodied, several divine characteristics. I have listed a few of these peculiarities below:
Unique Characteristics of the “Angel of the Lord”
- He is referred to with masculine pronouns (Genesis 16:13; Judges 6:21);
- He is identified as God (Judges 6:11, 14; Zechariah 12:8);
- He is our Intercessor with The Father and The Holy Spirit;
- He has the attributes of God;
- He performed miracles attributed to God alone (Judges 6:21; 13:20);
- Gideon, Moses, Jacob, and others thought they would die having seen God (Jg. 6:22; 13:22);
- He accurately foretold future events (Judges 13:3);
- He has been seen, recognized, and recorded for precisely Who He is by many people (God);
- His name is “Wonderful” (Judges 13:18; cf. Isaiah 9:6);
- He is worshiped;
- He is distinguished from the Father and the Spirit;
- He destroyed 185,000 Assyrians in one night (2 Kings 19:35);
- He no longer appears in the New Testament.
While angels serve God and discharge many of the duties rehearsed above — and that includes performing miracles as well as heralding prophecy (Heb. 1:13-14), there are nonetheless instances where “the Angel of the LORD” simply cannot be "just another angel." He is identified as God (LORD, YHWH) and accepted worship, something that holy angels would immediately refuse (cf. Rev. 19:10; 22:8-9).
The fact that Christ is the Creator of the universe demonstrates His existence before His physical incarnation (John 1:1-3; Colossians 1:16). He even states the fact of His preexistence several times (Jn. 8:58, 17:5, etc.) Someone may ask: “Do you mean to say that Christ, Jesus of Nazareth, created the entire universe?” Indeed.
And, His immortal constitution as God allows Him to appear frequently in the past, as already emphasized. It’s believed to be a mistake to ignore the mountain of evidence regarding Christ’s ubiquity, or omnipresence, throughout the ancient text. He was the Rock that protected, and spiritually fed ancient Israel in the wilderness (1 Cor. 10:1-4).
Several people were awe-struck and terrified that they had seen God face-to-face, only to live to tell about it (e.g. Hagar, Jacob, Gideon, Samson’s parents, etc. (below)). Elsewhere in Scripture, such divine prerogatives are attributed only to God. Then, there is this question: Would God permit someone to proclaim false knowledge of a direct, face-to-face encounter with Him, and then allow such to become part of the Holy Record as irrefutable fact?
There are further points to consider. In the Book of Joshua, the great patriarch fell on his face before “the Captain of the LORD’S host.” (The “Captain” here must surely have been Christ, Preincarnate):
Joshua 5:13-15: “[Joshua] … went to him and said to him, ‘Are you for us or for our adversaries?’ He said, ‘No; rather I indeed come now as captain of the host of the LORD.’ And Joshua fell on his face to the earth, and bowed down, and said to him, ‘What has my lord to say to his servant?’ The captain of the LORD’S host said to Joshua, ‘Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy.’ And Joshua did so.”
How would Joshua ever be permitted to “bow down with his face to the Earth” before any mere angel, captain, or otherwise? And, the language spoken by this “captain of the LORD’S host” is nearly identical to that which Moses received at the burning bush in the Book of Exodus. There, it is written that Moses explicitly encountered “the angel of the LORD”:
Exodus 3:2-6: “The angel of the LORD appeared to [Moses] in a blazing fire from the midst of a bush; … When the LORD saw that he turned aside to look, God called to him from the midst of the bush and said, ‘Moses, Moses!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ Then He said, ‘Do not come near here; remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.’ He said also, ‘I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ Then Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.”
Surely, no one would deny that “the angel of the LORD” in these passages is “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” precisely as recorded? It should be plain enough this “angel of the LORD” is indeed God Himself: Christ. And, other than “the angel of the LORD,” there is absolutely no indication that an ordinary angel was present during this intriguing exchange. In fact, the last verse (Ex. 3:6) informs us of Moses’ primary concern: he “hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.” Obviously, Moses was keenly aware of his own mortality should he inadvertently glimpse directly into the face of Almighty God.
Some may insist that God was simply speaking through an angel, but that is inconsistent with verse 16, a bit later in the text. There, we read,
Exodus 3:16: “Go and gather the elders of Israel together and say to them, ‘The LORD, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, has appeared to me,…’”
God says the LORD appeared to Moses, but in verse 2 it’s clearly stated that “The Angel of the LORD appeared to Moses.” It seems to me a bit spiritually blind to deny this reference to “the angel of the LORD” as a direct reference to God Himself. (I'll examine the letters YHWH shortly, those which represent the unpronounceable name of God from the Hebrew Bible.) I believe it’s implausible, given the context, to connect this Being with anyone other than God. The interesting thing about the passage in verse 14, is the following,
Exodus 3:14: “God said to Moses, ‘I AM WHO I AM’; and He said, ‘Thus you shall say to the sons of Israel, “I AM has sent me to you”’” (Gen. 16:14).
Here, God is proclaiming that He is the Existing One, the timeless Being Who has existed eternally. Therefore, in this narrative, “the angel of the LORD” says He is not a created being. Of course, as previously observed, these are precisely the words Jesus used to describe Himself to His Jewish audience in the Gospel of John:
John 8:58: “Before Abraham was born, I am” (emphasis added).
(I'm convinced that the word "am" should be "AM" in the previous verse.) Jesus of Nazareth identified Himself as the “Existing One,” both in Exodus 3:14 and John 8:58. Often, those who disbelieve this will turn things around and suggest that there’s no distinction indicated between the Angel of YHWH and YHWH. They may insist that these verses merely signify YHWH appearing in the form of an angel. But this makes absolutely no sense. A simple reading of the verses eliminates any such textual gymnastics.
Curiously, there are no longer any recorded references to “the angel of the LORD” in the Bible following the birth of Christ. Further, since His ascension into heaven (Acts 1:9), we’re not told of anyone who has seen Christ except 1) the apostle John who was “in the Spirit on the Lord’s day” (Revelation 1:10), and 2) Saul as he traveled on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:3-6). Of note, in both instances, these men fell to the ground in the Lord’s Presence — a common phenomenon.
This effect, that of falling to the ground in the Presence of God, appears throughout Scripture. In John 18, the Roman cohort and officers from the chief priests and the Pharisees came to arrest Jesus. There, we read the following:
John 18:6: “So when He said to them, ‘I am He,’ they drew back and fell to the ground.”
[Note: While many English bibles have rendered the statement by Christ “I am He,” many believe the actual declaration by the Lord may simply have been: “I Am,” a statement that appears throughout the Gospel of John. As previously observed, “I Am” is the identity of the eternal God or YHWH, where the four consonants are known as the tetragrammaton. (Refer to Tetragrammaton.]
Based on the preponderance of the evidence these truths have led many to conclude that often, occurrences of “the angel of the Lord” in the Old Testament might correctly be rendered: “the Angel of the Lord” (i.e. uppercase “angel”) signifying none other than Christ Himself. Such frequent encounters with God reveal His deep relationship to His Creation and His intimacy with humanity. They further corroborate the uniqueness of Christ as our sole Advocate with the Father. This is in stark contrast to the deistic, indifferent (nonexistent) “gods” of paganism that are so often irresponsibly juxtaposed with the God of the Bible.
Naturally, the first theophanies to occur in history are recorded in the presence of Adam and Eve. Their encounters with “the LORD God” are chronicled often, not least in the third chapter of the Book of Genesis. There, we are told that after Adam and Eve sinned:
Genesis 3:8: They heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden."
The obvious implication is that God appeared to them in a fully recognizable human form during their regrettable confrontation. But, surely, this rendezvous with God after they had sinned, would have been with none other than our Great Intercessor (1 Tim. 2:5) with the Father (and Holy Spirit), Christ?
I've provided a list of fifteen sets of passages (it is not difficult to find others) below to help illustrate some of the theophanies recorded for us in the Old Testament.
Some Appearances of the Angel of the Lord
|Genesis 3:8||After Adam and Eve sinned, “They heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden.”|
|Genesis 12:7||“The LORD appeared to Abram and said, ‘To your descendants I will give this land.’”|
|Genesis 16:11,13||“[T]he angel of the LORD said to [Hagar], ‘I will greatly multiply your descendants so that they will be too many to count.’ … Then she called the name of the LORD who spoke to her, ‘You are a God who sees’; for she said, ‘Have I even remained alive here after seeing Him?’”|
|Genesis 17:1||“Now when Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to Abram and said to him, ‘I am God Almighty; Walk before Me, and be blameless.’”|
|Genesis 18:1-3||One day, Abram had three visitors: two angels and God Himself. Abraham invited them to come visit his home, “My Lord, if now I have found favor in Your sight, please do not pass Your servant by.”|
|Genesis 22:15-17||“Then the angel of the LORD called to Abraham a second time from heaven, and said, ‘By Myself I have sworn, declares the LORD, because you have done this thing and have not withheld your son, your only son, indeed I will greatly bless you, and I will greatly multiply your seed as the stars of the heavens and as the sand which is on the seashore;…’”|
|Genesis 32:24-30||“Then Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. … He said, ‘Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel; for you have striven with God and with men and have prevailed.’ … ‘I [Jacob] have seen God face to face, yet my life has been preserved.’”|
|Exodus 3:2-6||As previously discussed, God appeared to Moses in the form of a burning bush, telling him exactly what He wanted him to do. “[Moses] hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God” (Ex. 3:2-6).|
|Exodus 24:9-10||God appeared to Moses, Aaron and the elders: “Then Moses went up with Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel, and they saw the God of Israel; and under His feet there appeared to be a pavement of sapphire, as clear as the sky itself.”|
|Deuteronomy 31:14-16||God appeared to Moses and Joshua to institute the transfer of leadership to Joshua: “Then the LORD said to Moses, ‘Behold, the time for you to die is near; call Joshua, and present yourselves at the tent of meeting, that I may commission him.’ … The LORD said to Moses, ‘Behold, you are about to lie down with your fathers; and this people will arise and play the harlot with the strange gods of the land, into the midst of which they are going, and will forsake Me and break My covenant which I have made with them.’”|
|Joshua 5:15||“The captain of the LORD’S host said to Joshua, ‘Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy.’ And Joshua did so” (Josh. 5:15).” This “captain” was surely Christ Preincarnate (as discussed at length earlier).|
|Judges 6:20, 22-23||“The angel of God said to [Gideon], ‘Take the meat and the unleavened bread and lay them on this rock, and pour out the broth.’ … Then the angel of the LORD vanished from his sight. When Gideon saw that he was the angel of the LORD, he said, ‘Alas, O LORD God! For now I have seen the angel of the LORD face to face.’”|
|Judges 13:21-22||Samson’s parents, Manoah and his wife spoke about their encounter, “Then Manoah knew that he was the angel of the LORD. So Manoah said to his wife, ‘We will surely die, for we have seen God.’” Question: Would the H/S allow this to be recorded if it were not true?|
|Job 38-42||God answered Job out of the tempest and spoke at great length in answer to Job’s many questions regarding his severe afflictions and suffering.|
|2 Kings 19:35||“Then it happened that night that the angel of the LORD went out and struck 185,000 in the camp of the Assyrians; and when men rose early in the morning, behold, all of them were dead.”|
It’s very likely that when one encounters the Son of the living God (The Word (Jn. 1:1, Rev. 19:13), and He desires to be known, His witnesses are fully able to appreciate the true circumstances to which they might otherwise have been blinded. These and other inferences should help illustrate that appearances of God as “the Angel of the Lord” were, in reality, that of Christ, most likely in His glorified state. Indeed, as mentioned, Paul saw the radiance of Christ in such a state, as did John (Acts 9, Rev. 1:10-16 respectively). Both fell to the ground.
I'm personally unable to ignore both the evidence and the context of all the passages under consideration. I suggest that Abraham came face-to-face with God, just as "[Moses] spoke to God as a man speaks to his friend" (Ex. 33:11). It seems curious that some will deny the Angel of the Lord and Christ as one and the same Person.