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This term has been used to refer to appearances of the gods in the ancient Greek and Near Eastern religions. While the Iliad is the earliest source for descriptions of theophanies in the Classical tradition (and they occur throughout Greek mythology), probably the earliest description of a theophany is in the Epic of Gilgamesh.
The term theophany has acquired a specific usage for Christians and Jews with respect to the Bible: It refers to the manifestation of God to man; the sensible sign by which the presence of God is revealed. Only a small number of theophanies are found in the Hebrew Bible, also known as the Old Testament.
At Delphi the Theophania (Θεοφάνια) or Theophanies was an annual festival in spring celebrating the return of Apollo from his winter quarters in Hyperborea. The culmination of the festival was a display of an image of the gods, usually hidden in the sanctuary, to worshippers. Later Roman mystery religions often included similar brief displays of images to excited worshippers.
The appearance of Zeus to Semele is more than a mortal can stand and she is burned to death by the flames of his power. However, most Greek theophanies were less deadly. Unusual for Greek mythology is the story of Prometheus, not an Olympian but a Titan, who brought knowledge of fire to humanity. There are no descriptions of the humans involved in this theophany, but Prometheus was severely punished by Zeus. Divine or heroic epiphanies were sometimes experienced in historical times, either in dreams or as a waking vision, and frequently led to the foundation of a cult, or at least an act of worship and the dedication of a commemorative offering.
The Bible states that God revealed himself to man. God speaks with Adam and Eve in Eden (Gen 3:9–19); with Cain (Gen 4:9–15); with Noah (Gen 6:13, Gen 7:1, Gen 8:15) and his sons (Gen 9:1-8); and with Abraham and his wife Sarah (Gen 18).
The first revelation that Moses had of God at the burning bush was "a great sight"; "he was afraid to look" at Him (Ex. iii. 3, 6); so the first revelation Samuel had in a dream is called "the vision"; afterward God was frequently "seen" at Shiloh (I Sam. iii. 15, 21, Hebr.). Isaiah's first revelation was also a sight of God (Isa. vi. 1–5); Amos had his visions (Amos vii. 1, 4; viii. 1; ix. 1); and so with Jeremiah (Jer. i. 11, 13), Ezekiel (Ezek. i. 1 et seq., viii. 1–3), and Zechariah (Zech. i., vi.), and, in fact, with all "seers," as they called themselves.
Balaam also boasted of being one who saw "the vision of the Almighty" (Num. xxiv. 4). Most vividly does Eliphaz describe such a revelation: "In thoughts from the vision of the night, when deep sleep falleth on men, fear came upon me, and trembling . . . a spirit passed before my face; the hair of my flesh stood up. He stood still, but I could not discern his appearance; a figure was before mine eyes, a whispering voice I heard" (Job iv. 13–16, Hebr.). The Torah lays stress on the fact that, while to other prophets God made Himself known in a vision, speaking to them in a dream, He spoke with Moses "mouth to mouth," "as a man would speak with his neighbor," in clear sight and not in riddles (Num. xii. 6–8; comp. Ex. xxxiii. 11; Deut. xxxiv. 10).
In Midian, while Moses was keeping the flock of his father in law Jethro, the angel of the Lord appeared to Moses in a bush that burned that was not consumed (Exod 3:1–2). Yahweh called to Moses out of the midst of the bush, and told him that he had heard the affliction of his people in Egypt, and gave Moses orders to speak to Pharaoh and to lead the Israelites out of Egypt (Exod 3:3–12).
God reveals his divine presence and protection to the Israelites by leading them out of Egypt and through the Sinai desert by appearing as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night; By day the LORD went ahead of them in a pillar of cloud to guide them on their way. (Exod 13:21–22).
The theophany at Biblical Mount Sinai is related in Exodus 19:16–25. Yahweh's manifestation is accompanied by thunder and lightning; there is a fiery flame, reaching to the sky; the loud notes of a trumpet are heard; and the whole mountain smokes and quakes. Out of the midst of the flame and the cloud a voice reveals the Ten Commandments. The account in Deut. 4:11-12, Deut. 4:33-36 and Deut. 5:4-19 is practically the same; and in its guarded language it strongly emphasizes the incorporeal nature of God. Moses in his blessing (Deut. 33:2) points to this revelation as to the source of the election of Israel, but with this difference: with him the point of departure for the theophany is Mount Sinai and not heaven. God appears on Sinai like a shining sun and comes "accompanied by holy myriads" (comp. Sifre, Deut. 243).
Likewise, in the Song of Deborah (Judges 5:2-31) the manifestation is described as a storm: the earth quakes; Sinai trembles; and the clouds drop water. It is poetically elaborated in the prayer of Habakkuk (Hab. iii.); here past and future are confused. As in Deut. xxxiii. 2 and Judges v. 4, God appears from Teman and Paran. His majesty is described as a glory of light and brightness; pestilence precedes Him. The mountains tremble violently; the earth quakes; the people are sore afraid. God rides in a chariot of war, with horses—a conception found also in Isa. xix. 1, where God appears on a cloud, and in Ps. xviii. 10, where He appears on a cherub.
The biblical prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel receive their commissions as prophets amid glorious manifestations of God. Isaiah sees God on a high and lofty throne. More precisely, however, he sees not Him but only His glorious robe, the hem and train of which fill the whole temple of heaven. Before the throne stand the seraphim, the six-winged angels. With two wings they cover their faces so as not to gaze on God; with two they cover their feet, through modesty; and with the remaining two they fly. Their occupation is the everlasting praise of God, which at the time of the revelation took the form of the thrice-repeated cry "Holy!" (Isa. vi.).
Ezekiel in his description is not so reserved as Isaiah. The divine throne appears to him as a wonderful chariot. Storm, a great cloud, ceaseless fire, and on all sides a wonderful brightness accompany the manifestation. Out of the fire four creatures become visible. They have the faces of men; each one has four wings; and the shape of their feet enables them to go to all four quarters of the earth with equal rapidity and without having to turn. These living creatures are recognized by the prophet as cherubim (Ezek. x 20 ). The heavenly fire, the coals of which burn like torches, moves between them. The movement of the creatures is harmonious: wherever the spirit of God leads them they go.
Beneath the living creatures are wheels (ofannim) full of eyes. On their heads rests a firmament upon which is the throne of God. When the divine chariot moves, their wings rustle with a noise like thunder. On the throne the prophet sees the Divine Being, having the likeness of a man. His body from the loins upward is shining (ḥashmal); downward it is fire (in Ezek. viii. 2 the reverse is stated). In the Sinaitic revelation God descends and appears upon earth. In the prophetic vision, on the other hand, He appears in heaven, which is in keeping with the nature of the case, because the Sinaitic revelation was meant for a whole people, on the part of which an ecstatic condition can not be thought of.
The theophany described in Psalm 18:8–16 is very different. The singer is in great need and at his earnest solicitation God appears to save him. Before God the earth trembles and fire glows. God rides on a cherub on the wind. God is surrounded by clouds which are outshone by God's brightness. With thunder and lightning God destroys the enemies of the singer and rescues him.
Hashem's purpose in creating the world was so that He could reside amongst His creations. And, before Adam's sin, Hashem did just that. However, when Adam sinned, he drove Hashem to ascend to the lowest of the seven heavens. When Kayin sinned, Hashem ascended higher still, and so on due to the sins of the generation of Enosh, the generation of the flood, the generation of the Tower of Bavel, the S'domites, and the Egyptians. In all, Hashem ascended to the seventh heaven.
Then there came seven generations that managed to bring the Shechina down gradually to this world again. These generations were: Avraham, Yitzchak, Yaakov, Levi, Kahat, Amram and Moshe.
And Hashem descended onto Mount Sinai, means that the Shechina finally returned to this lowest of worlds.
The Mishkan was built so that Hashem could again reside amongst men, as the Torah states (Shoot 25:8): "They will build Me a Mishkan so that I may reside amongst them." Thus, the day on which the Mishkan (Tabernacle) was dedicated was as joyous for Hashem as the day on which Hashem created the world.
The Rabbis say that until the erection of the Mishkan / Tabernacle in the wilderness, all nations had prophetic revelations from God. However, from that time forward, Israel was usually the only recipient of the divine truth. Only exceptionally did non-Jewish people prophets like Balaam attain prophetic powers, and at best they had only prophetic dreams (Midrash Leviticus Rabbah i. 12–13). According to R. Eliezer, each person among the Israelites, including even the least intelligent bond-woman, saw God's glory at the Red Sea in clearer form than did, afterward, prophets of the stamp of Ezekiel; wherefore they burst forth into the song, "This is my God" (Mek., l.c., with reference to Ex. xv. 2).
When asked by a Samaritan to explain how the words of God "Do not I fill heaven and earth?" (Jer. xxiii. 24) could be reconciled with the words spoken to Moses, "I will meet with thee, and . . . commune with thee . . . from between the two cherubims" (Ex. xxv. 22), R. Meïr made his interlocutor look into two mirrors of different shapes and sizes, saying, "Behold, your own figure appears differently because the mirrors reflect it differently; how much more must the glory of God be mirrored differently by different human minds?" (Midrash Genesis Rabbah iv. 3).
Traditional analysis of the Biblical passages led Christian scholars to understand theophany as an unambiguous manifestation of God to man, where "unambiguous" indicates that the seers or seer are of no doubt that it is God revealing himself to them. Otherwise, the more general term hierophany is used.
The New Catholic Encyclopedia cites examples such as Gen 3:8a. The same source then quotes Gen 16:7–14. In this case, initially it is an angel which appears to Hagar, however it then says that God spoke directly to her, and that she saw God and lived (Gen 16:13). The next example the New Catholic Encyclopedia cites is Gen 22:11–15, which states explicitly that it was the angel of the Lord speaking to Abraham (Gen 22:11a). However, the angel addressing Abraham speaks the words of God in the first person (Gen 22:12b). In both of the last two examples, although it is an angel present, the voice is of God spoken through the angel, and so this is a manifestation of God Himself. A similar case would be Moses and the burning bush. Initially Moses saw an angel in the bush, but then goes on to have a direct conversation with God himself (Ex 3).
In the case of Jesus Christ according to the gospels and tradition, the majority of Christians understand him to be God the Son, become man (John 1:14). The New Catholic Encyclopedia, however, makes few references to a theophany from the gospels. Mk 1:9-11, and Lk 9:28–36 are cited which recount the Baptism, and the Transfiguration of Jesus Christ respectively. Although Jesus Christ is believed by Christians to be truly God, it is only when his divine glory is not veiled by his humanity, that it could be termed theophany.
Orthodox Christian Churches celebrate the theophany of Jesus Christ as the holy day Epiphany according to a liturgical calendar as one of the "Great Feasts". In Orthodox Christian tradition, the feast commemorates the baptism of Christ by John the Baptist, which is considered a theophany. In some Orthodox liturgical texts (service books) for the feast, Theophany is also called Epiphany and the "feast of lights."
Some modern Evangelical Christian Bible commentators, such as Ron Rhodes, interpret “the angel of the Lord,” who appears in several places throughout the Old Testament, to be the pre-incarnate Christ, which is Jesus before his manifestation into human form, as described in the New Testament. The term Christophany has also been coined to identify preincarnate appearances of Christ in the Old Testament.
Joseph Smith, Jr., the prophet and founder of the Latter Day Saint movement, said that when he was 14 years old, he was visited by God the Father and Jesus Christ in a grove of trees near his house, a theophany in answer to his spoken prayer. This "First Vision" is considered to be the founding event of the Latter Day Saint movement. The Book of Mormon describes other hierophanies and theophanies that occurred in the New World.
In Hinduism, the manifestations of Vishnu as a human being are referred to as Vishnu's avatars. As such, they are similar to Jesus, whose manifestation on Earth is referred to in Christianity as Christ's incarnation. The most popular avatar of Vishnu in Hinduism is Krishna. The most well-known theophany is contained within the Bhagavad-Gita, itself representing one chapter of the larger epic, the Mahabharata. On the battlefield of Kurukshetra, Krishna gives the famed warrior Arjuna a series of teachings, and it is obvious that Krishna is no mere mortal. Arjuna begs for Krishna to reveal His true form. Krishna complies and gives Arjuna the spiritual vision which enables him to see Krishna in His true form, a magnificent and awe-inspiring manifestation, containing everything in the universe; a description of this theophany forms the main part of Chapter XI.
Hinduism is based on the concept of one all-embracing supreme spirit known as Nirguna Brahman, that is, Brahman without form. This contrasts with the appearance of God in various physical forms, or avatars, which are then known as Saguna Brahman, i.e., God with form. Nirguna Brahman is the first spirit, with slight similarities to the Judaic/Christian God before the creation of the universe, although Brahman is taught to be both the essence of being in the world as well as its material body. Nirguna Brahman thereafter is referred to as three different supreme manifestations according to their current activity. In the creation of all that exists, it is known as Brahma, the Creator. In the maintenance and development of existence, it is known as Vishnu, the Maintainer. And in the end, when the Great Spirit gathers everything back into itself, it is known as Shiva, the Destroyer.
Only the Maintainer Vishnu aspect of the Great Spirit is considered to be currently active. Vishnu sometimes manifests Himself as a human for purposes of setting mankind back on the path toward spiritual perfection that will allow mankind and all of existence to reunite eventually with the Great Spirit Nirguna Brahman.
Other Hindu theophanies include Swami Vivekananda's experience of cosmic consciousness and a merging with the Nirguna Brahman when touched by the Hindu master Ramakrishna Paramahansa.
More recently, science fiction author Philip K. Dick reportedly had a theophany on 3 February 1974, which was to become the later basis for his semi-biographic works Valis (1981) and the posthumous Radio Free Albemuth (1985).
There are a large number of modern cases which have been rendered into print, film, and otherwise conveyed to broad publics. Some cases have become popular books and media, including:
These instances are distinguished from cases in which divine encounters are explicitly considered fictional by the author, a frequent motif in speculative fiction such as in Julian May's Galactic Milieu Series.
Human religious lore includes ancient literary recordings of deities appearing to animals, usually with the animals able to relate the experience to humans using human speech:
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