Theophany, from the Ancient Greek (ἡ) Θεοφάνεια – Τheophaneia (meaning “appearance of God”), refers to the appearance of a deity to a human, or to a divine disclosure.
This term has been used to refer to appearances of the gods in the ancient Greek and Near Eastern religions. While the Iliad is our 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 the immortal 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 original Biblical terms used for the former were “mar’eh” (= “sight”) and “maḥazeh”,”ḥazon,” or “ḥizzayon” (= “vision”). The Bible states that god revealed himself to man. Only occasionally is the state of mind of the persons seeing God described. God speaks with Adam and Eve in Eden (Gen. iii. 9-19); with Cain (iv. 9-15); with Noah (vi. 13, vii. 1, viii. 15) and his sons (ix. 1, 8); with Abraham.
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.
The polytheist 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).
On Mount Sinai
The theophany at Mount Sinai is related in calm, simple language in Exodus xix. 16-25. God’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. iv. 11, 12, 33, 36 and v. 4, 19 is practically the same; and in its guarded language it strongly emphasizes the incorporeal nature of God. Moses in his blessing (Deut. xxxiii. 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 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. 11, where He appears on a cherub.
In Isaiah and Ezekiel
The Biblical prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel receive their commissions as prophets amid glorious manifestations of God. Isaiah supposedly sees God on a high and lofty throne. In reality, 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.
In the Psalms
Very different is the theophany of the Psalmist (Ps. xviii. 8-16). He 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 wings of the wind. God is surrounded with clouds which are outshone by His brightness. With thunder and lightning God destroys the enemies of the singer and rescues him.
As may be seen from the descriptions of the various theophanies, the deep monotheistic spirit of the Israelites hesitates to describe the Divine Being, and confines itself generally to describing the influence of the revelation upon the minds and characters of those beholding it.
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, Christians understand him to be God the Son, become man (Jn 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.
Traditional analysis of these 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.
The 4th century bishop Eusebius of Caesarea wrote a treatise “On Divine Manifestation” (Peri theophaneias), referring to the Incarnation of Jesus.
The Eastern Orthodox Church celebrates the Feast of Epiphany or Theophany on 6 January; in churches using the Julian Calendar, this corresponds to 19 January.
The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church celebrates Timkat on the 10th day of Terr (which usually corresponds to 19 January in the Gregorian Calendar).
In Hinduism, the most well-known theophany is contained within the Bhagavad-Gita, itself representing one chapter of the epic, Mahabharata. In the Gita, the famed warrior Arjuna begs for Krishna to reveal his true form after a series of teachings given by Krishna to Arjuna on the battlefield of Kurukshetra indicates Krishna to be far more than mortal. 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; this 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 is to be contrasted with the appearance of God in various physical forms, or avatars, which is then known as Saguna Brahman, i.e., God with form.) Nirguna Brahman is the first spirit, similar to the Judaic/Christian God before the creation of the universe. 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.
The Shiva aspect of the Great Spirit was paraphrased by Robert Oppenheimer upon witnessing the first atomic bomb test, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”
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.
The manifestations of Vishnu as a human being are referred to as Vishnu’s avatars. As such, they are similar to Jesus, who as a human manifestation of God is sometimes considered an avatar. The most popular avatar of Vishnu in Hinduism is Krishna, who showed himself as described above in his spectacular spiritual form in a theophany.
Glimpses of the Hindu Supreme Reality Nirguna Brahman continue to occur. Swami Vivekananda experienced cosmic consciousness and a merging with the Nirguna Brahman when touched by the Hindu master Ramakrishna Paramahansa.