Yahweh and “The Destroying Angel”

In Numbers 16 we read about participants in Korah’s rebellion who were consumed by fire that came “out from the Lord” (vs. 35). The narrative clearly depicts Yahweh as a ferocious flame-throwing deity. How can such a portrait be reconciled with the non-violent picture of God we’re given in Jesus?

A hint in a possible direction is found in the fact that Paul taught that these and other rebels were “killed by the destroying angel” (1 Cor. 10:10, emphasis added). This suggests that the fire that the author of Numbers believed came from God actually came from the malevolent spirit agent who would later be identified as Satan (Rev. 9:11). [One can find a similar phenomenon by comparing Ex. 12:12 &23 with Heb 11:28].

This shift from attributing violent actions to God to attributing them to Satan or other evil spirit agents can be historically explained as a by-product of the evolving theology of ancient Jews around the time of Christ. For a variety of reasons, in Jewish writings of this period we find an increased emphasis on the absolute transcendence and perfection of God. As a corollary to this, we find scribes and scholars increasingly exploring ways of distancing God from activities that were now deemed “beneath” God, including violence. Many activities that were once ascribed directly to God were now ascribed to good and evil intermediary angels.

Toward the same end, we find scribes of this period sometimes amending Scripture in ways that distance God from dubious activity, with the author of Jubilees going so far as to transform several scriptural references to God into references to a Satan-like figure named Mastema. It seems evident that Paul is reflecting this theological shift when he ascribes the consuming fire to “the destroying angel” rather than to Yahweh. Indeed, the same shift is reflected in the fact Paul mentions several episodes of divine judgment in I Corinthians 10 (vss. 5,8,9) without ever mentioning God as the agent who carried out these judgments.

In any event, while the author of Numbers clearly had no problem viewing Yahweh as a fire-hurling deity, Paul, like many of his contemporary Jews, apparently did. And so, following the pattern of the author of Jubilees, Paul depicts “the destroying angel” as the fire-hurling deity at Korah’s rebellion rather than Yahweh. This doesn’t necessarily mean that Paul thought the earlier depiction in Numbers was mistaken. (This is unlikely given Paul’s high view of Scripture.) It’s just that the earlier depiction was incomplete. While God was in some sense ultimately behind the consuming fire (for he permitted it), he did not himself incinerate the rebels. This violent work was carried out by “the destroying angel.”


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