Was there more than one incarnation?

Question
God walked in the Garden (Gen 3:8). Did Jesus, the eternal Son of God, become incarnate in the Garden prior to being born in Bethlehem? God seems to appear in human form many times in the Old Testament. Was there more than one incarnation?
Answer

One Incarnation:

There is only one incarnation. The Bible teaches us that the eternal Son of God took on flesh in his incarnation (John 1:14; cf. Phil 2:5-7; 1 Tim 3:16; 1 John 4:2-3). As the Apostle Paul wrote, "But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law" (Gal 4:4). Paul asserts that the incarnation took place at a specific point in time - not in the Garden, but centuries later (Matt 1:18; 2:1, etc.).

Genesis 3:8 And 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 3:8 and the Third Person?

First, according to some theologians the phrase, "LORD God" here likely refers to God the Father since he makes a specific reference to the Son in the third person ("it," some translations use "he") in Genesis 3:15. So, if we take the reference to "walking" in a literal sense, it may be better applied to God the Father, not to God the Son (however, see points 2 and 3 below).

An Antropomophism?

Second, some theologians state that Genesis 3:8 is an anthropomorphism (Greek: anthropos meaning "human" + morphe meaning "form"). God is a Spirit (John 4:24) - he has no form or substance ascribed to him like a human does (Num 23:19; 1 Sam 15:29).

However, at various times in Scripture, God is said to have fingers (Psa 8:3), hands (Heb 1:10), an arm (Job 40:9), a back (Exod 33:21-23), breath (Job 33:4), ears (2 Sam 22:7), eyes (Psa 34:15), a face (Exod 33:11), feet (Nah 1:3), hair (Dan 7:9), a head (Dan 7:9), a heart (2 Chron 7:16), lips (Psa 89:34), a mouth (Deut 8:3), nostrils (2 Sam 22:9, 16), shoulders (Deut 33:12), and a tongue (Isa 30:27), etc. This is anthropomorphic language; the use of human terminology to speak about God, because in our finiteness, which has limitations, this is the only way to express and understand certain truths about God, who by his very infinite nature cannot be fully described.

So, the meaning of the Genesis 3:8 could simply mean that Adam and Eve heard God's presence "as" one who was walking, but not literally walking. Moses merely ascribes to God the human characteristic of walking so we can better understand what is transpiring.

However, the term "as" may bring up the question: "Was God literally present in the Garden?" Of course he was (the phrase "LORD God" is used 8 times in Gen 3:9-22). IMO, the entire Trinity was present (the use of "us" in Gen 3:22; cf. Gen 1:26; 11:7). Only the Father speaks in Genesis 3, therefore explaining the use of the third person in Genesis 3:15 (see point 1 above).

A Theophany?

Third, another group of theologians refer to Genesis 3:8 as a "theophany" (Greek: theos meaning "God" + phaino meaning "appear"). An Old Testament theophany is a manifestation of God that is tangible to the human senses.

While the incarnation is referred to as the 'ultimate theophany' by some, it still differs from an Old Testament theophany. In the incarnation, Jesus was literally born in Bethlehem (Matt 1:18; 2:1). He literally became flesh (John 1:14). The Son of God, the second and last man Adam (1 Cor 15:45, 47), literally took to himself permanently (Acts 1:9-11; Phil 3:20-21), a genuine human nature, wholly apart from sin (Heb 4:15).

In the Old Testament theophanies (or, Christophanies), the "pre-incarnate" Christ appeared as man at specific times and places without ever being identified as becoming a member of the human race. He "appeared" as a man (Gen. 18, etc.), but there is no genealogical record prior to these appearances, as there is for his literal incarnation in the New Testament (cf. Matt 1:1-17; Luke 3:23-38).

Moreover, unlike the incarnation of God in Christ in the New Testament, where God literally dwelt upon his world (app 33 years) and continues as the God-man even in Heaven today (Heb 7:25), an Old Testament theophany is where God suddenly and temporarily appears. We observe this numerous times in Scripture (Gen 12:7-9; 18:1-33; 32:22-30; Exod 3:1-4:17; 24:9-11, 16-18; Deut 31:14-15; Job 38:1-42:17, etc.). Often Old Testament theophanies are introduced by such phases as "the Lord came down" (Gen 11:5; Exod 34:5; Num 11:25; 12:5). The "angel of the Lord" (Gen 16:7-12; 21:17-18; 22:11-18; Exod 3:2; Judges 2:1-4; 5:23; 6:11-24; 13:3-22; 2 Sam 24:16; Zech 1:12; 3:1; 12:8) is often thought to be a theophany as well.

Conclusion:

In closing, it is important to note that all three of the explanations above attempt to relate the same truth - Jesus was not incarnate in the Garden. This is very important.

If Jesus was incarnate in Genesis 3:8 (and the other theophany texts mentioned above), what happened to his first body after he became incarnate in Bethlehem? Did Jesus have multiple bodies? Or, did he merely reuse the same body? If so, how; did he shed his skin and then re-enter it on occasion? Or is the truth - Old Testament theophanies differ from the incarnation?

Jesus is the "second" and "last" man Adam (1 Cor 15:45, 47, which implies that he only had one body, and couldn't have had another. There is only one Lord (1 Cor 8:6; Eph 4:5). There is only one Christ (Mark 8:29). There is only one Holy One of God (John 6:69). " ... there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus (1 Tim 2:5). Jesus was not incarnate in the Garden, as he had not yet descended from David, who hadn't even been born yet (Rom 1:3). The Old Testament is full of prophecies concerning the Christ who was yet to come (Gen 3:15; 12:2-3; Deut 18:15-18; 1 Sam 2:1-10, 35-36; 2 Sam. 7; Job 33:23-28; Psa 2:1-12; 16:1-11; 22:1-31; 40:1-17; 45:1-17; 68:1-35; 69:1-35; 72:1-20; 109:1-31; 110:1-7; 118:1-29; Isa 7:14; 53:1-12; Mic 5:2; Zech 9:9-10; 12:10, et. al.). See "Christ in the Old Testament" below.

The same one who created the world (John 1:3), in the fullness of time (Gal 4:4) became incarnate centuries later (John 1:10) in Bethlehem (Luke 2:4-7). So, there was never two incarnations and Christ has only had one body ("a body," Heb 10:5).

There is one and only one incarnation.

Related Topics:

Christ in the Old Testament

Answer by Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr.

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (IIIM).