God at Sinai: Covenant and Theophany in the Bible and Ancient Near East

By Jeffrey J. Niehaus
Grand Rapids : Zondervan (1995). 426 Pages.

Reviewed by
7.1 (Spring 1996) : 132-133

Jeffrey J. Niehaus, Professor of Old Testament at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, writes to explain biblical glory theophany. His method explores the OT data "against the background of similar ancient Near Eastern thought" (16).

A theophany is an appearance of God. God has appeared on many occasions and in various forms or manifestations. "What Israel knew of God, it knew through his own self-disclosure" (17) "As God of all creation, the God of the Old Testament could appear whenever and wherever he chose" (18). Unlike the alleged gods of the nations, Yahweh only appeared when and where he chose (20). God appears for a purpose, accomplishes that purpose, then disappears (21).

The two primary reasons for God's visitation are to save and to judge. Later biblical writers call these "the mighty acts of God" (cf. Job 40:6-14). Niehaus concludes by implication that "the mere revelation of God both saves and judges" (24). God's appearance or theophany in the OT is not merely an apparition. It is not neutral; it is defining. So it was when God revealed himself to Moses: "Do not come any closer . . . take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground" (Exod 3:5). This self-revelation of a holy God, in essence, "defines Moses immediately" (24). God subsequently reveals His name to Moses: "I will be what I will be" points to the fact that "only God is essentially self-determining" (24, emphasis added). The Exodus 3 theophany "envisioned Yahweh's deliverance out of Egypt and his judgment of Pharaoh" (24). The author concludes, "In Yahweh's first appearance to Moses a collocation was made between Yahweh's self revelation and his role as Savior and Judge" (25).

The primacy of Mt. Sinai as the "proto-theophanic" appearance of God is without question:

The Sinai theophany is taken as a touchstone for prior and subsequent glory theophanies in the Bible because the Sinai event was constitutive in Israel's history and crucial in salvation history. As God came to Sinai in the clouds to impart his law, so he will come again on the clouds of heaven to judge those who have broken that law (16).

Later biblical writers would look back upon, allude to, and quote the Sinai passages, oftentimes elaborating known points of theology or introducing new ones.

In the remainder of the book, the author compares biblical theophany with ancient Near Eastern parallels, then examines the Pre- Sinai, Sinai, and Post-Sinai theophanies. Within the last category he subgroups the discussions into Historical and Prophetical, Psalms and Prophets, and NT and beyond.

The book examines an issue that spills over into other areas of theological study. Its implications for the incarnation and the Spirit's presence and role deserve individual treatments that reach the pew, for the basic issue of what it means for God to "visit" or be present is crucial to the life of faith.

This reviewer appreciates Professor Niehaus' careful research and recommends the book highly.