The word is derived from the Greek theos (“god”) and phainein (“to appear”). It appropriately denotes those passages in scripture that describe some visible evidence of God’s presence on earth, although it is often used more freely, with reference to divine speech, without anything being said of sight. In spite of such explicit statements as “no one shall see me and live” (Exod 33:20B) and “No one has ever seen God” (John 1:18), scripture records various visible manifestations that are identified with the real presence of God. The authors ordinarily do so very carefully, lest they write anything that might support idolatry. Yahweh could not be represented by anything in creation (Deut 4:15–19), but they seem to have found it necessary to record accounts of the personal appearance of God within the created world. No author reveals a sense of uneasiness about reporting divine speech. At Sinai, all the people heard God speak (Deut 4:12; 5:24). God spoke when there were as yet no ears to hear (Gen 1:3–19), and he is fully known through his Word (John 1:1, 14, 18). Auditions are often reported in a remarkably matter-of-fact way, but when something is visible, that is another matter. They were events that evidently had to be reported, sometimes with remarkable boldness but usually very cautiously, for they ran the risk of making Yahweh seem to be like the gods of the nations who took on human or even animal forms.

“Theophany” is not a form-critical term, for it is applied to a variety of literary types that speak of God’s appearance on earth. This article will use the question of visibility as a way to organize various forms of divine self-manifestation, following the literal meaning of “theophany”—appearance of God—and of the introductions to several Old Testament texts: “and Yahweh/God appeared” (rāʾâ, nipʿal; lit. “was seen”). This will emphasize the issue for the writers, whether there is anything about God himself that can be seen.

Sound without Sight.

There are narratives set in daily life, called “theophanies” by some scholars, in which God is said to have appeared to an individual; but nothing is said about what that person may have seen (Gen 12:7; 17:1; 26:2, 24; 35:9; 48:3). Other texts do not even introduce the divine message with “appear.” For example, God was present with Adam and Eve in the garden, so some identify this as a theophany; but we are told that they heard God, not that they saw anything (Gen 3:8, 10). The Lord came and stood by Samuel’s bed in the night (1 Sam 3:10), suggesting that God may have assumed a human form; but the author of the passage will say only that the Lord revealed himself to Samuel by “the word” (1 Sam 3:21). In spite of the verb “appear” that is sometimes used, these texts speak only of a God who is known by his word.

The Divine Messenger.

A similar genre, also set in daily life, involves the appearance of an angel (malʾāk, lit. “messenger”), who speaks the word of God. As human messengers spoke the words of the ones who sent them, so angels spoke God’s own word, in the first person; but they were intermediaries, not to be identified with God (note the words of the angel in Judg 6:11–23). Hagar described her experience in the wilderness as a theophany: “Have I really seen God and remained alive after seeing him?” But the author wrote that she saw an angel (Gen 16:7–13). Manoah said, “We shall surely die, for we have seen God,” even though the author of the story says repeatedly that he and his wife saw an angel, who is also simply called a man (Judg 13:3–22). The angel who confronted Balaam is said to have carried a sword, so presumably this was a human-like figure (Num 22:22, 31–35). Joshua also encountered a man carrying a sword who identified himself as “commander of the army of the LORD” (Josh 5:13–15), and whenever anything is said in the Old Testament about what an angel looks like, he is called a man (Dan 8:15; 9:21; 10:16, 18; Zech 1:8; cf. Mark 16:5; Luke 24:4).

We do not know what the angel who appeared to Abraham from heaven (Gen 22:11–12) or the one who spoke to Joseph in a dream (Gen 31:11–13) looked like. In Exodus 3:2–4, an angel of the Lord appeared to Moses “in a flame of fire out of a bush,” so Moses saw a figure of some sort; then God called to him out of the bush. The passage thus begins with a suggestion that God addressed Moses via an angel, but what follows is all introduced as the direct speech of the Lord. The use of “angel” in verse 2 thus seems to be an example of biblical authors’ tendencies to avoid suggesting that God is visible in any way.

Two possible exceptions to the above statement appear in Genesis. When “the LORD appeared to Abraham” in Genesis 18:1–2, he saw three men, to whom he offered the appropriate hospitality. In a tantalizing way, the author seems to identify one of the three men as Yahweh himself (vv. 13, 17, 20, 22–33). If the two angels of Genesis 19:1 are supposed to be identified with the other two men of chapter 18, then the author has quite boldly claimed that Yahweh might appear on earth in the form of a man who would even eat and drink as Abraham’s guest (18:8). This is so unusual that many interpreters prefer to speak of all three of the men as angels.

Even less clear is the narrative in Genesis 32:24–30 since it all took place in the dark. Without any reason provided, an unidentified man wrestled with Jacob until daybreak. He refused to give Jacob his name but did bless him, leading Jacob to believe he had been in the presence of God: “I have seen the God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” Jacob’s affirmation includes three important issues in the study of theophany. (1) To see God is potentially life-threatening, as Hagar and Manoah had said (but no one is ever said to die that way). (2) “Seeing” need not mean actual physical sight since Jacob’s experience happened in the dark. Other texts will provide abundant support for the use of “see” to mean experience or understand. (3) “Face to face” also need not involve sight but is an idiom for close personal communication (see Exod 33:11). Note that Hosea either knew a variant form of the story or refused to take Jacob’s statement literally, for his recounting of the patriarch’s career states, “He strove with the angel and prevailed” (Hos 12:4). The stories about angels are thus not full theophanies, but they need to be included in the study since they are one way that the writers of scripture could insist that God does draw close to people, sometimes using a human form to do so, while mostly succeeding quite well in protecting his otherness.

The Disruption of Nature.

A very different genre depicts the coming of the Lord, to save or to judge, in powerful poetry that describes the uproar in nature—storm and earthquake—caused by his coming. God is given a personality that is not emphasized (or usually even mentioned) in the other texts that concern us. He is angry (Ps 18:7; Isa 13:9, 13; 30:27; 59:17; Jer 10:10; 23:19–20//30:23–24; Ezek 38:19; Nah 1:2, 6; Hab 3:8, 12) and has come, is coming, or will come to annihilate his enemies (Isa 13:11; Jer 51:29; Ezek 38:22; Nah 1:2–3, 8) and/or to save those who call upon him (Ps 18:16–19; Nah 1:7; Hab 3:13). A few passages explicitly describe God as a warrior with some visible human qualities (Ps 18:14; Isa 59:15B–20; 63:1–6; Hab 3:8–15).

In one sense, these texts fit the definition of theophany. They are descriptions of the appearance of God on earth. They do not contribute much, however, to the question this article is tracing: does scripture ever really claim that God has been visible to anyone and, if so, in what form was he seen? The authors need not have witnessed in full the scenes described in these poems. They use in creative ways the terrifying natural phenomena that everyone in the Middle East had experienced, combining them occasionally with the divine warrior theme that was a well-known part of the cultural environment, in order to glorify the God whom psalmists and prophets believed was truly the master of the entire cosmos and the upholder of justice.

A few of the poets claim to have experienced the theophany. The longest and most impressive passages, Psalm 18:7–16 and Habakkuk 3:3–15, do make that claim; but the psalmist’s description of his distress and his salvation (18:4–5, 16) strongly suggests that although he had intense feelings of God’s presence, all the language in verses 4–16 is purely figurative. Habakkuk seems to be describing a vision of the coming of the mighty divine warrior, and its effects on him are remarkable (3:16–19); but he introduces his reaction to it all with “I hear” (3:16). He does not say what he has heard.

With one exception these poems do not introduce a message from God, as the types discussed earlier have done. The exception is Psalm 50:1–3, which although just a fragment, does introduce a divine word by speaking of God coming (from Zion) and shining forth with a devouring fire and a mighty tempest.

Texts such as Psalms 18, 29, 50, and 77; Habakkuk 3; and the fragmentary theophanies elsewhere in the Psalter (Pss 68:7–8; 97:2–5; 114:3–8; 144:5–7; cf. Deut 33:2; Judg 5:4–5) strongly suggest that they are poems produced by visionaries for use in worship. They described the overwhelming power of God so effectively that prophets also used elements of the same language when they announced the imminent coming of Yahweh to judge his people (Amos 1:2; Mic 1:2–4) or the nations (Isa 13:9–13; 30:27–33; 50:2–3; 59:15B–20; 63:1–6; Jer 23:19–20//30:23–24; Ezek 38:19–23; Joel 3:16; Nah 1:3–8; Zech 9:14).

At Mt. Sinai.

Most of the natural phenomena that are described in the poems also were present when God appeared at Mt. Sinai. Yahweh manifested himself by coming down (yārad) to the top of the mountain “in the sight of all” (Exod 19:11, 20), and his presence was made known by a trumpet blast (yōbēl in 19:13B; šōpār in 19:16, 19; 20:18), probably a warning signal here, blown on a ram’s horn by someone, not some natural phenomenon. “In the sight of all” were thunder, lightning, cloud (19:16; 20:18; 24:15, 18), smoke, fire (19:18; 20:18; 24:17), and earthquake (19:18), daunting indications that Yahweh was present; but he was hidden in thick darkness (20:21). When God spoke with Moses on the mountain it was in the midst of a cloud (19:9; 24:15–18) or thick darkness, so at this point in Exodus there is no suggestion that Moses saw God. That will come in Exodus 33.

This is a major, audible self-revelation of God, for all the people are said to have heard his voice, speaking the Ten Commandments (Exod 20:1). Deuteronomy emphasizes that it was a personal experience of God but only through a voice, with nothing of God himself visible. “You heard the sound of words but saw no form; there was only a voice” (Deut 4:12; cf. 4:15–19, 33, 36; 5:22). The natural phenomena of the poetic theophanies and the Sinai event reveal the matchless power of Yahweh, but they also hide him. The Sinai event becomes revelation (unlike the poems, except for Ps 50) because God speaks.

Exodus 24:9–11.

The structure of Exodus 19–34 has frustrated every scholar who has tried to explain it. It appears that here and there the final author has included fragments of very old traditions, thinking it was necessary to preserve them even though they did not fit very well. Once such text is Exodus 24:9–11. It does not fit the context at all. Seventy-four men go up the mountain and apparently have a vision of heaven there, for nothing is said of cloud or fire or deep darkness. The author dares to write that they saw God and even that God had feet, but beyond that he will describe only “something like a pavement of sapphire stone.” This put the men in great danger, but “God did not lay his hands” on them; and they participated in some sort of meal in God’s very presence: “also they beheld God, and they ate and drank.” This amazing experience is left without any explanation or consequence. Since the mention of shining pavement suggests they saw a vision of heaven, this passage would not fit the definition of theophany as an appearance of God on earth; but like the other visions to be discussed, it is important for its suggestion that God might be seen in something like a human form.

Exodus 33.

The golden calf incident (Exod 32) led to a long discussion between God and Moses (Exod 32:7–14; chs. 33–34) over the question of whether there could be any future relationship between God and these people. Divine presence became the subject of a difficult conversation between Moses and God, now located in the tent of meeting, which stood outside the camp. This can be called another theophany. It has a unique form, and it includes many of the terms associated with theophany elsewhere: pānîm (face, presence; Exod 33:11, 14, 15, 20, 23), glory (33:16, 22), pass before (ʾābar; 33:19, 22; 34:6), and see God (33:20, 23; 33:18). The conversation is full of non sequiturs, very likely because the author has taken on the very risky task of claiming to record a closer personal encounter between a human being and God than we can find anywhere else. Once God had assured Moses that he would continue to go with the people (33:12–17), Moses responded, “Show me your glory, I pray” (33:18). God’s glory then passed by (ʾābar) Moses in a completely mysterious way. Since “no one shall see me and live” (33:20), Moses could be permitted to see God’s back but not God’s face. We are not told whether that actually happened (33:21–23 and see the continuation in 34:1, 5, 8–9).

Glory, fire, cloud.

Interpreters have always taken this to be a request for a personal, mystical experience of God, even surpassing his “face-to-face” conversations (Exod 33:11). Moses and all the people had already seen God’s glory, however (16:7, 10; 24:16–17) and would see it again (29:43; 40:34–35). The glory in the cloud had accompanied them through the wilderness this far, and Moses’s request ought to be understood simply as an appeal for the journey to recommence under God’s guidance; and it does (34:9). Glory and fire, often associated with a cloud (Exod 16:10; 24:15–18; 40:34–38; Num 16:42; Deut 5:4), were evidence for the presence of the Lord but hid him from sight. In Exodus 24:17 and 29:3; Deuteronomy 5:24; and Ezekiel 1:27–28, 10:4, and 43:2 glory is a blinding light, associated with the supernatural fire that appears elsewhere in theophanies. That glory is always visible (Lev 9:6, 23–24; Num 14:10, 22; 16:19, 42; 20:6; Deut 5:24; 1 Kgs 8:11; cf. Luke 2:9), so these passages are typical of most theophanies: God appears but is hidden.

Fire represented the presence of the Lord in the unique covenant-making ceremony recorded in Genesis 15. Abraham saw in a vision “a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch” (15:17), surely not to be taken as the form of God in any sense but as a sign of his presence.

Face, presence.

The word pānîm (“face”) in Exodus 33 deserves attention for the ways it is used with reference to the presence of God, for other authors will speak of seeing God’s face. The word is used idiomatically many times, to mean “presence,” not one’s literal face. As a synecdoche, pānîm refers to the whole person, so “face to face” means in close personal contact, not always involving sight (e.g., Gen 32:30; Num 14:14; Deut 5:4; Ezek 20:35). It is pānîm that is translated “presence” in Exodus 33:14, 15, but something more physical seems to be meant by “you cannot see my face” and “my face shall not be seen” (33:20, 25). The use of “back” as the counterpart of “face” may just tell us that there is no vocabulary available to provide an actual description of Moses’s unique relationship with God.

Elijah at Horeb/Sinai.

The contrast between sight and sound reappears in another theophany at what is presumably the same mountain (1 Kgs 19:1–18). When Queen Jezebel threatened Elijah’s life after his victory in the contest with the prophets of Baʿal on Mt. Carmel, he fled to Horeb, the mountain of God, “and behold, the LORD passed by” (19:11; lit.). Then there was wind, earthquake, and fire; but the Lord was not in them. Translating the Hebrew very literally, what followed was “a sound of thin silence” (19:12). Into that numinous silence came the voice of the Lord. All the uproar may perhaps just identify that mountain as the mountain of Moses, for the Lord is known only through his word.

Dreams and Visions.

Dreams and visions do not fit some definitions of theophany since everything is in the mind, not a physical appearance on earth. But they need to be compared with the other texts because of the many parallels between them and because they contribute something to the question of whether and how God may actually make himself known to humans.


Sometimes God spoke in a dream, and nothing is said about sight (Gen 20:3; 1 Kgs 3:5; cf. Num 12:6; Job 33:15–17; Joel 2:28). Jacob, however, saw in his dream a ladder connecting earth with heaven, and we are told that the Lord stood (niṣṣāb) beside or above him (the preposition ʿal can be translated either way) and spoke with him (Gen 28:10–22). Presumably he saw a figure of some sort, but nothing is described. In the book of Job, Eliphaz claimed to have experienced a vision of the night in which a mysterious form appeared and spoke to him (Job 4:12–21). He left unsaid whether he thought that form represented God’s own presence.


Others speak of visions in which they did see God, in human form. Micaiah, son of Imlah, boldly claimed, “I saw the LORD sitting on his throne” (1 Kgs 22:19–23). He added nothing more of what he saw; the rest of his vision was entirely speech. Isaiah’s similar vision (“I saw the LORD sitting on a throne”) includes one not particularly helpful detail: “the hem of his robe filled the temple” (Isa 6:1). Amos introduced a word from God in the briefest way: “I saw the LORD standing beside the altar” (Amos 9:1).

Ezekiel’s vision contained a great deal more detail, although he carefully qualified everything he said. Although he claimed to have seen “something that seemed like a human form” seated above the likeness of a throne, his summary of the vision provided a triple qualification of everything: “This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the LORD” (Ezek 1:28).

Daniel would not say outright that he saw God in his vision, and in fact everything in Daniel 7 is symbolic. The beasts in Daniel 7:3–8 represent the four world empires, the “one like a human being” (lit. “son of man,” 7:13) represents the people of the holy ones of the Most High (7:27); so the ancient one is not God but represents God, and his white clothing and hair are to be interpreted symbolically, not taken as descriptive (7:9). No symbol but a human being could be taken to represent God however.

Seeing God.

Some of the psalms speak of Israelite worshippers seeing God in the Temple, and those remarkable statements have sometimes been explained as the effects of a theophany of some sort that occurred during worship. One of them is a direct statement of something that has happened: “So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary, beholding your power and glory” (Ps 63:2). Another affirms the possibility: “For the LORD is righteous; he loves righteous deeds; the upright shall behold his face” (Ps 11:7). Others speak of it as a hope (Pss 17:15; 27:4, 13; 42:2). The proposal that they speak of life after death has little to support it. The language of each text suggests that the psalmists refer to an experience in worship (esp. Pss 27:4 and 63:2), but they do not contain any of the terms associated with theophanies elsewhere. Since the verbs for seeing do not always refer to something visible but can refer to something understood (Gen 2:19; Hab 2:1; like the English “I see”) or experienced (Ps 89:48, “see death”; Jer 5:12), it seems most likely that the psalmists used the words only to speak of a close personal experience of God’s presence. If so, they contribute to the study of theophany evidence that “see God” could be used rather freely and not literally.

The author of the book of Job wrote of seeing and hearing God in a way that deserves a brief comment. Scholars sometimes refer to God’s response to Job as a theophany since it begins, “Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind” (Job 38:1). What follows is a long speech that calls upon Job to hear and answer, not to see anything; but Job 38 makes a new use of the language describing God’s mastery of the natural world, so it seems likely that the author did intend to remind readers of theophanies—times when God came to save—even though here he mostly challenges Job. If theophany does lie in the background, it helps to account for Job’s reaction: “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you” (42:5).

We have seen that God’s essential manifestation of himself is by word, not by sight; and God has spoken at length here. Job seems to reverse that, making sight superior to sound, but this is not a puzzle if seeing is used as it is in the Psalms, to refer to an intensely powerful experience of the presence of God. The reminder of theophanies in Job 38 would thus lead readers to understand Job’s “seeing” as comparable to the life-changing, numinous experiences recorded in Psalm 18:49, Isaiah 6:5 and 8, Ezekiel 2:1, and Habakkuk 3:16–19.

The New Testament.

Theophanies as they are described in the Old Testament do not occur in the New Testament, but reflections of them appear here and there. God addressed people via angels, not in person (Matt 1:20; 2:13; 28:2; Luke 1:11, 26; 2:9; a young man, Mark 16:5; men, Luke 24:4). The Transfiguration took place on a mountaintop, Jesus’s clothing became dazzling white, a cloud overshadowed them, and a voice came from heaven (Mark 9:2–8 and pars.). Predictions of the coming of the Son of Man contain parallels to Old Testament accounts of the coming of God: “Then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory” (Mark 13:26; cf. Matt 16:27; 25:31; Mark 8:38; 14:62; Luke 9:26; 21:27).

The author of Revelation reported a vision similar to those of the prophets and Daniel. He saw in heaven someone seated on a throne (4:2), surrounded by lightning and thunder (4:5), who is addressed by the elders in heaven as “our Lord and our God” (4:11; cf. 11:16). He looks like jasper and carnelian, another way of introducing brilliance of some sort into any effort to speak of a God who is in some way visible (4:3).

The delicate subject of seeing God does reappear. When Jesus said, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God” (Matt 5:8), this was certainly an eschatological promise. But in the Gospel according to John, Jesus said, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9; cf. 12:45; 14:11), so some scholars speak of Jesus himself as a theophany. What John understood by that quotation is explained, to a considerable extent, in the prologue to his gospel (1:1–18). He claims that the classic (though partial) theophany, God’s manifestation of himself to Moses at Sinai, has now been made perfect with the coming of Jesus. The key words of Exodus 33–34 reappear in John 1:14, 16–18:

  • • “Glory”: John 1:14; Exodus 33:18, 22
  • • “Grace”: John 1:16; Exodus 33:19
  • • “Grace and truth”: John 1:14, 17; Exodus 34:6 (“Faithfulness” is derived from a root that also means “truth”)
  • • “See God”: John 1:18; Exodus 33:20
  • • “Know God”: John 1:18; Exodus 33:13

The insistence of the Old Testament that God can be known by humans through his Word was taken as John’s starting point (1:1–5). He alluded to the theophanies that spoke of divine self-manifestation on earth, claiming something related to them but very new. When the Word became flesh, God became visible in a way that could not have been imagined earlier.

Theophany, Epiphany, and Shekinah in Postbiblical Literature.

The term “theophany” occurs in the liturgy of the Eastern Orthodox Church, essentially meaning “revelation,” for it is the name of the feast celebrated on January 6 in commemoration of the baptism of Jesus. The gospel texts describing his baptism are understood to be the record of the first revelation of God as Trinity: God the Son present on earth in the man Jesus, God the Father speaking from heaven, and God the Holy Spirit manifested visibly as a dove.

On the same date, other churches celebrate the Feast of Epiphany, a term related in meaning to theophany. The word “theophany” does not occur in the New Testament, but “epiphany” does appear in the Pastoral Epistles, denoting Christ’s appearance on earth. Forms of the word epiphaino were widely used in Hellenistic Greek to denote helpful appearances on earth of various deities, and perhaps its association with other gods accounts for its limited use in the New Testament. It is used of the advent of Christ in 2 Timothy 1:10 and of his eventual return, in the last days, in 1 Timothy 6:14, 2 Timothy 4:1 and 8, and Titus 2:13. But the church has made a special use of the term, for the Feast of Epiphany is so called because it celebrates the appearance on earth of God to the Gentiles, viz., the visit of the Magi to the child Jesus in Bethlehem (Matt 2:1–12). The reports of Jesus’s birth and baptism that have led to the use of these two terms in the liturgy do not reflect the language of the theophanies of the Old Testament in any significant way.

If the accounts of the appearances of the risen Christ in the gospels (and Acts 1) were intended to be understood as Thomas did, encounters with “my Lord and my God” (John 20:28), then the Old Testament theme of seeing God has reappeared. The way these accounts are told bears scarcely any relationship to Old Testament theophanies however. For example, although there are hints of it in the empty tomb stories (the earthquake in Matt 28:2), when Jesus appears there is no cosmic upheaval and no sense of danger at being in the presence of God. The account of Christ’s Ascension into heaven (Acts 1:9–11; Luke 24:21) was presumably intended to instruct the church that Christ would not appear on earth again until the eschaton. In spite of that, many reports of Christ’s bodily appearance (distinct from visions) have been offered, from early times to the present. The question of their authenticity need not concern us here. They deserve a brief reference because they represent claims to have seen God, that is, the Son of God, Jesus, here on earth and because they differ significantly from Old Testament theophanies.

Bright light is the most consistent element of continuity. There are various other unexplainable features, but the figure the reporters usually see is a man with long hair, a beard and mustache, wearing a white robe and sandals—remarkably ordinary. References to fear and the sense of danger at being in the presence of God are not prominent, although the figure sometimes is judgmental. Usually he is a loving person who has come to help. That much is parallel to many theophanies, in which God comes to save; but the experience is expressed in very different language. Claims to have seen Jesus are controversial; but a more extreme one, a claim to have seen God in his fullness, is likely to be completely rejected by most Christians, so the cautions expressed in the theophanic language of the Old Testament still prevail.

The rabbis were concerned that passages in the Hebrew Bible that spoke of God appearing to humans might lead to idolatry, so they were careful to protect God’s transcendence while at the same time finding it necessary to affirm his presence with his people. When “seeing God” appeared in the Hebrew text, the Aramaic translations (Targums) supplied “seeing the glory of God”; and when God was said to come to, dwell in, or leave a place, the word shekinah was substituted for “God” or the Tetragrammaton. The word, which means “presence,” does not occur in the Hebrew Bible but was widely used in Judaism. God’s shekinah was present everywhere but appeared with special intensity in the tabernacle and the Temple (e.g., Num Rab. 13.6). It would leave Israel as a result of injustice (Sipra 88d fin; Deut Rab. vi.14) but even accompanied Israel into exile in spite of their sins because of God’s love (Sipre Num 161, f.62b–63a). It was present in the synagogue and with any individual seriously at prayer. “If two sit together and words of the Law [are spoken] between them, the Divine Presence rests between them” (m. ʾAbot 3.2). It was perceived by faith, not by sight, so the rabbis offered a quite negative answer to the question about seeing God.




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Donald E. Gowan