Fire and Cloud

 "Joshua passing the River Jordan with the Ark of the Covenant" by Benjamin West

When most people think about the pillar of fire and cloud in the Old Testament, they probably think about how it protects Israel from Pharaoh's army during the flight out of Egypt and the crossing of the Red Sea. This is the first time the fiery cloud appears in Scripture, but it’s definitely not the last! In fact, this mysterious pillar or column, appearing as fire by night and as cloud by day, leads God’s people—that’s us!—through the whole wilderness, guiding and protecting us all the way to the promised land.1

But what exactly is this pillar of fire and cloud? Like so many things in Scripture, it’s an incredibly rich topic, one that we can only begin to delve into here. Scripture gives us two clues for where to begin: 1) the fiery pillar is a concrete sign of God’s presence among his people; 2) it’s a reflection or manifestation of God’s glory.

Let’s take these one by one. First, the pillar appears as a sign of God’s presence or closeness to Israel, as Moses makes clear in the book of Numbers: “the inhabitants of this land […] have heard that you, O Lord, are in the midst of this people; for you, O Lord, are seen face to face and your cloud stands over them and you go before them, in a pillar of cloud by day and in a pillar of fire by night” (Num 14:14). Here the pillar of fire and cloud is described as a sign that God isn’t distant or aloof, but rather is near us, in our midst, even dwelling with us “face to face.”

This language of being “face to face” with God points to something else not too well known about the pillar of fire and cloud: the pillar is actually connected with God’s presence in the tabernacle, the “tent of meeting” where he comes down to speak with Moses face to face: “When Moses entered the tent, the pillar of cloud would descend and stand at the door of the tent, and the Lord would speak with Moses . . . face to face, as a man speaks to his friend” (Ex 33:9-11). We see this again at the end of the book of Exodus:

So Moses finished the work [of building the ark of the covenant]. Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. And Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting, because the cloud abode upon it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. And throughout all their journeys, whenever the cloud was taken up from over the tabernacle, the sons of Israel would go onward; but if the cloud was not taken up, then they did not go onward till the day it was taken up. For throughout all their journeys the cloud of the Lord was upon the tabernacle by day, and the fire was in it by night. (Ex 40:33-38).

The same “glory cloud,” or what the Jewish rabbis would call the shekinah, later descends upon the temple built by Solomon, indicating once again the divine presence dwelling in Israel’s midst.2 But notice the way that Exodus describes this: the glory of the Lord “fills the tabernacle,” such that Moses cannot enter. The divine glory is God’s majesty, his beauty and magnificence, which in truth is far too much for human beings to bear! The Hebrew word for glory, kabod, indicates a weightiness, like the heft of gold: it’s the imposing, infinite weight of absolute goodness and beauty itself.

Okay, so the pillar is a sign of God’s presence and glory, but why fire and cloud? Where do these two elements come from, and what do they mean?

It seems pretty clear that, for the Hebrews, the pillar of fire and cloud is related to God’s appearance or “theophany” on Mount Sinai. This is a really foundational event for the Jewish people: it’s when God establishes his covenant not just with one person (Abraham) but with the whole people. It’s when he gives them the law, which governs their whole way of life, how they eat and dress, their relationships, their worship. What’s more, it’s where he reveals himself to them, descending upon the mountain in fire and cloud, which serve as a visible manifestation of the “awe-fullness” of his glory. Again we find the “too muchness” of the Absolute: when man encounters it, he tends to fall down, as though dead—it’s literally too much for us to stand!

Here’s how the book of Exodus describes the Sinai theophany:

On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning, and a thick cloud upon the mountain, and a very loud trumpet blast, so that all the people who were in the camp trembled. Then Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God, and they took their stand at the foot of the mountain. And Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke, because the Lord descended upon it in fire; and the smoke of it went up like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain quaked greatly. (Ex 19:16-18)

I find it helpful to keep this kind of thing in mind when thinking and speaking about God, and especially when speaking to him in prayer. The God of the Old Testament is not someone different than the God of the New. Yes, God is love, and yet there’s something lordly and “terrible” about this love, something weighty and awe-inducing about God’s infinite beauty and goodness, which far exceeds any easy notions we may have of love as mere niceness.3

This, I think, is part of the reason for the imagery of fire. Fire comforts, bringing light and warmth, but it also blazes and consumes. There’s a reason God warns Moses to make sure that the people don’t come near the mountain, “lest the Lord break out upon them” and they die (Ex 19:22). God’s infinite love and goodness is too much for us: it burns, like sunlight hitting the eyes of someone used to darkness.4 So the Israelites, seeing the glory of God, become afraid and stand far off, saying to Moses: “You speak to us, and we will hear; but let not God speak to us, lest we die” (Ex 20:19). Sin, falsehood, unreality, chosen weakness, a lack of love and goodness: these cannot stand before the infinite blaze of God’s goodness and glory.

But notice: it is the same glory that is a comfort, indeed ultimate happiness, to Moses: “Now the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the sons of Israel. And Moses entered the cloud, and went up on the mountain. And Moses was on the mountain forty days and forty nights” (Ex 24:17-18). Moses abides with God and speaks with him face to face, as to a friend. Following Israel’s infidelity with the golden calf, he begs the Lord to remain with them. It’s a really beautiful, intimate scene, where he lays out his heart to God, while at the same time interceding for Israel.5 And when God at last grants his request, Moses says to him: “I beg you, show me your glory” (Ex 33:18). This is the one thing Moses wants: to be with God, to know him, to see him face to face.

This brings us to the cloud. God appears, he shows himself to Moses, but at the same time he hides. There’s a really interesting contrast, in fact, between the two elements of fire and cloud. As well as signifying the blaze of God’s glory and the burning passion of his love, fire also speaks of light, appearance, revelation, while cloud points in the opposite direction: a certain hiddenness or obscurity, a lack of seeing. At Sinai the cloud is described as “thick,” like smoke. The darkness of the cloud contrasts with the brightness of the fire.

There’s a certain tension here: God makes himself visible and shines forth in his beauty and majesty, and at the same time he remains ungraspable and infinitely beyond us. To be sure, he’s not simply mystery: he makes himself known, he reveals his name, he tells us what he wants and doesn’t want (hello, ten commandments), he concretely leads and guides us on our way. And at the same time, he never lets us forget that he’s not like us, that he’s not just one more finite actor on the world’s stage. He’s wholly different, wholly Other: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor my ways your ways. As high as the heavens are above the earth, so are my ways above your ways and my thoughts above your thoughts” (Is 55:8-9). If this weren’t the case, he wouldn’t be God!

The truly amazing thing is that God himself, infinitely other than creation (“hidden in cloud,” as it were), has truly made himself known to us (“appearing in fire”). He doesn’t just remain hidden, or even just speak to us from out of the darkness—no, he becomes present to mankind, he chooses to descend and dwell among us, speaking to us as a friend, face to face. And he does so without ceasing to be God.

If the pillar of fire and cloud shows God’s concrete presence among his people, his humbling himself to dwell among us, first in the tent of meeting and then in the holy of holies, I would argue that it has its fulfillment and culmination in Christ, in whom “all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” (Col 1:19).6

Jesus Christ is God’s own glory made manifest (Heb 1:3). It’s no coincidence that the New Testament speaks of the Virgin Mary as being “overshadowed” by the Holy Spirit when she conceives the Son of God (Lk 1:35). As Pope Benedict XVI says, this is the fulfillment of the Old Testament “cloud of glory” descending upon the tabernacle.7 Christ himself is God’s definitive “dwelling” among his people in glory, so that he might lead us through the dark wilderness of sin and error into the promised land of life with God.



1 The story of Israel’s flight out of Egypt and her journeying in the desert isn’t simply “past history.” Yes, it is history, and something like this really happened, but it also means so much more. As the Fathers of the Church saw, the words of Scripture have an infinite depth, and beyond the facts there is also layer upon layer of meaning. So the exodus, the journey from the bondage of Egypt to the promised land, is at the same time our journey from death to life, from the slavery of sin to the glorious freedom of the children of God (Rom 8:21). We, the Church, believers in Christ, are the new Israel (Gal 6:16); when we read about God’s chosen people, we read about ourselves.[back to main text]

2 “Thus all the work that king Solomon did on the house of the Lord was finished. … Then the priests brought the ark of the covenant of the Lord to its place, in the inner sanctuary of the house, in the most holy place, underneath the wings of the cherubim. … And when the priests came out of the holy place, a cloud filled the house of the Lord, so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud; for the glory of the Lord filled the house of the Lord” (1 Kg 7:51, 8:6, 8:10-11).[back to main text]

3 There’s an excellent reflection on this in the third chapter of C.S. Lewis’ The Problem of Pain (New York: HarperCollins, 2001). Here are a few passages that make the point, but I strongly suggest you read the whole chapter for yourself!

By the goodness of God we mean nowadays almost exclusively His lovingness; and in this we may be right. And by Love, in this context, most of us mean kindness—the desire to see others than the self happy; not happy in this way or in that, but just happy. What would really satisfy us would be a God who said of anything we happened to like doing, ‘What does it matter so long as they are contented?’ We want, in fact, not so much a Father in Heaven as a grandfather in heaven—a senile benevolence who, as they say, ‘liked to see young people enjoying themselves’, and whose plan for the universe was simply that it might be truly said at the end of each day, ‘a good time was had by all.’ (31)
I might have learned even from the poets that Love is something more stern and splendid than mere kindness: that even the love between the sexes is, as in Dante, ‘a lord of terrible aspect’. There is kindness in Love: but love and kindness are not coterminous, and when kindness (in the sense given above) is separated from the other elements of Love, it involves a certain fundamental indifference to its object, and even something like contempt of it. […] Kindness, merely as such, cares not whether its object becomes good or bad, provided only that it escapes suffering. […] [But] it is for people whom we care nothing about that we demand happiness on any terms: with our friends, our lovers, our children, we are exacting and would rather see them suffer much than be happy in contemptible and estranging modes. If God is Love, He is, by definition, something more than mere kindness. And it appears, from all records, that though He has often rebuked us and condemned us, He has never regarded us with contempt. He has paid us the intolerable compliment of loving us, in the deepest, most tragic, most inexorable sense. (32-33).
When Christianity says that God loves man, it means that God loves man: not that He has some ‘disinterested’, because really indifferent, concern for our welfare, but that, in awful and surprising truth, we are the objects of His love. You asked for a loving God: you have one. The great spirit you so lightly invoked, the ‘lord of terrible aspect’, is present: not a senile benevolence that drowsily wishes you to be happy in your own way, not the cold philanthropy of a conscientious magistrate, nor the care of a host who feels responsible for the comfort of his guests, but the consuming fire Himself, the Love that made the worlds, persistent as the artist’s love for his work […], provident and venerable as a father’s love for a child, jealous, inexorable, exacting as love between the sexes. (39)[back to main text]

4 “And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light” (Jn 3:19). Think of the “glance” of God that comes forth from the pillar of fire and cloud to throw Pharaoh’s army into disarray: “And in the morning watch the Lord in the pillar of fire and of cloud looked down upon the host of the Egyptians, and threw the hosts of Egypt into total confusion, clogging their chariot wheels so that they drove heavily; and the Egyptians said, ‘Let us flee from before Israel; for the Lord fights for them against the Egyptians’” (Ex 14:24-25). Encounter with the face of God magnifies the good in us (see the way Moses’ face shines after speaking with God: Ex 34:29-34), but burns away the evil. “For love is strong as death, jealousy cruel as the grave. Its flashes are flashes of fire, a most vehement flame” (Sg 8:6). This is how Paul understands man’s encounter with God’s purifying love: “Each man’s work will become manifest; for the day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work which any man has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire” (1 Cor 10:13-15).[back to main text]

5 It's marvelous to see how Moses, the mediator between God and his people, through his communion with God comes to take on God’s own likeness more and more, reflecting back to God his own properties of graciousness and mercy. After their infidelity, God acts as though he wants nothing more to do with Israel, but Moses keeps leading him back, much as Abraham interceded for Sodom (Gn 18:16-33). He even offers himself in their stead: “But now, if you will forgive their sin—and if not, blot me, I beg you, out of your book which you have written” (Ex 32:32). It is a wondrous foreshadowing of Christ’s self-offering on the cross for fallen mankind.[back to main text]

6 This is suggested by St. Paul, who speaks to the Corinthians about the events of Exodus always in reference to Christ: “I want you to know, brethren, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same supernatural food [manna from heaven: Ex 16:4] and all drank the same supernatural drink [water from the rock: Ex 17:6]. For they drank from the supernatural Rock which followed them, and the Rock was Christ” (1 Cor 10:1-4). The Rock was Christ. Paul finds the fulfillment of the Old Testament signs and miracles in Christ himself: everything points to and finds its center and ultimate meaning here, in God-made-man. This, as Paul says elsewhere, is “the mystery of God’s will,” his “plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in [Christ], things in heaven and things on earth” (Eph 1:9-10). Christ is the omega point, the culmination, “for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible […] all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Col 1:16-17). [back to main text]

7 See Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives (New York: Random House, 2012), 29: “The language used … belongs to the theology of the Temple and of God’s presence in the sanctuary. The sacred cloud—the shekinah—is the visible sign of God’s presence. It conceals the fact that God is dwelling in his house, yet at the same time points to it. The cloud that casts its shadow over men comes back later in the account of the Lord’s transfiguration (cf. Lk 9:34; Mk 9:7). Again it is a sign of God’s presence, of God’s self-revelation in hiddenness. So [in] the reference to the overshadowing by the Holy Spirit [...] Mary appears as God’s living tent, in which he chooses to dwell among men in a new way.” Christ tells us that he will come again at the end of time “in a cloud with power and great glory” (Lk 21:27). Again we see the connection between Christ and the glory cloud of the Old Testament. And in the last chapter of Revelations, we hear that in heaven, the New Jerusalem, “the dwelling of God is with men” (Rev 21:3). Here there is no temple, no meeting place between God and man, because Christ, God-made-man, is himself the tent of meeting, the place where God’s glory dwells bodily: “And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine upon it, for the glory of God is its light and its lamp is the Lamb” (Rev 21:22-23).[back to main text]

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