This week’s portion is called Phequdhei (Exodus 38:21-40), meaning “the accounts of.” It’s the last in Exodus, recording the final construction and inauguration processes of the Tabernacle. I’ll be writing about one thing in particular, right at the end of the portion:
Then the cloud covered the tabernacle of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. And Moses was not able to enter the tabernacle of meeting, because the cloud rested above it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. Whenever the cloud was taken up from above the tabernacle, the children of Israel would go onward in all their journeys. But if the cloud was not taken up, then they did not journey till the day that it was taken up. For the cloud of the Lord was above the tabernacle by day, and fire was over it by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel, throughout all their journeys. (Exodus 40:34-38)
When I read that, it occurred to me that it might be interesting to do a study on clouds and their theological connections in Scripture.
So as far as I can tell, clouds are a sign of both God’s glory/presence/grace, and His judgement. Which makes it interesting because that means they simultaneously encompass the 2 great poles of the divine character in terms of how He relates to His creation.
Personally, I think this is because of the Fall. On the one hand, clouds are a sign that we are separated from God and cannot see Him or bear His presence because of the corrupted nature of our flesh. In Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed, he writes:
The prophets frequently hint at the existence of a partition between God and us. They say He is concealed from us in vapours, in darkness, in mist, or in a thick cloud: or use similar figures to express that on account of our bodies we are unable to comprehend His essence. This is the meaning of the words, “Clouds and darkness are round about Him” (Ps. 97:2). … His revelation in a thick cloud, did not take place without any purpose, it was intended to indicate that we cannot comprehend Him on account of the dark body that surrounds us. (Part III, Chapter IX)
My impression of Maimonides is that he attributes our inability to comprehend God to our corporeality, our physical limitations (or as he put it, “the grossness of our substance”). For my part, I’d more explicitly name sin as part of the equation, for while it’s true that a finite creature cannot apprehend the uncreated and eternal, it’s also true that we’ve been cut off from the greater revelation of God that would’ve been available to Adam and Eve prior to their fall.
As a result, when God revealed Himself to Israel at Sinai, it was in a thick cloud with smoke (Exodus 19:9, 16-18); when He passed before Moses to proclaim His name and show him His glory, He descended in a cloud (Exodus 34:5-8); when Aaron entered the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement, he had to cover the Mercy Seat of the Ark with a cloud of incense so he wouldn’t die in God’s presence (Leviticus 16:12-13); when the Tabernacle was inaugurated, Moses couldn’t enter because of the cloud, nor the priests at the dedication of Solomon’s Temple (1 Kings 8:10-13) – because creation has been separated from God in a very fundamental way, it’s a plain and simple truth that no flesh can withstand His presence.
But on the other hand, at the same time, clouds are a sign that He still wishes to grace us with the glory of His presence. They are not just a reminder of alienation and separation, but a sign that He extends forgiveness and will ultimately blot out our sins as well. When we read the passages given above over again with a mind to look beyond first impressions, we see that God still longs to fellowship with His children and reveal Himself to them, albeit in a limited and veiled manner. Thus the clouds which surround Him are actually for the protection of His people, enabling Him to draw near to them – the visual dance of vapour and air, light and darkness, visibility and invisibility demonstrating the balance that must take place between His righteousness and His lovingkindness as Spirit seeks to commune with flesh. As Isaiah 44:21-22 says,
Remember these, O Jacob,
And Israel, for you are My servant;
I have formed you, you are My servant;
O Israel, you will not be forgotten by Me!
I have blotted out, like a thick cloud, your transgressions,
And like a cloud, your sins.
Return to Me, for I have redeemed you.
Thus when we read the Scriptures, we see 2 things being chiefly associated with the appearance of clouds: the first is judgement on the sins of men, and the second redemption.
Regarding the first, Psalm 18:11 says that when the Lord comes to deal with His enemies, His canopy will be dark waters and thick clouds of the skies… a sign of the dark fury of His displeasure and His refusal to relent. The prophets elaborate:
You have covered Yourself with anger
And pursued us;
You have slain and not pitied.
You have covered Yourself with a cloud,
That prayer should not pass through. (Lamentations 3:43-44)
Wail, ‘Woe to the day!’
For the day is near,
Even the day of the Lord is near;
It will be a day of clouds, the time of the Gentiles.
The sword shall come upon Egypt…
And her arrogant strength shall cease in her;
As for her, a cloud shall cover her,
And her daughters shall go into captivity. (Ezekiel 30:3-4, 18)
The great day of the Lord is near;
It is near and hastens quickly.
The noise of the day of the Lord is bitter;
There the mighty men shall cry out.
That day is a day of wrath,
A day of trouble and distress,
A day of devastation and desolation,
A day of darkness and gloominess,
A day of clouds and thick darkness,
A day of trumpet and alarm
Against the fortified cities
And against the high towers.
“I will bring distress upon men,
And they shall walk like blind men,
Because they have sinned against the Lord;
Their blood shall be poured out like dust,
And their flesh like refuse.” (Zephaniah 1:14-17)
And incidentally, nowhere is the dual message of the cloud seen more clearly than in the day of the Lord. It’s said to be a day of clouds and thick darkness, but at the same time, God says He will gather His sheep on just that day:
As a shepherd seeks out his flock on the day he is among his scattered sheep, so will I seek out My sheep and deliver them from all the places where they were scattered on a cloudy and dark day. And I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them to their own land; I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, in the valleys and in all the inhabited places of the country. … I will seek what was lost and bring back what was driven away, bind up the broken and strengthen what was sick; but I will destroy the fat and the strong, and feed them in judgment. (Ezekiel 34:12-16)
Thus for the world, it will be a day of terror and woe, but for the saints, a day of comfort and rejoicing – to the one judgement, but to the other glory. Hence Yeshua’s words:
Most assuredly, I say to you that you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice; and you will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will be turned into joy. A woman, when she is in labor, has sorrow because her hour has come; but as soon as she has given birth to the child, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a human being has been born into the world. Therefore you now have sorrow; but I will see you again and your heart will rejoice, and your joy no one will take from you. And in that day you will ask Me nothing. (John 16:20-23)
So maybe this is why clouds are utilised the way they are in Biblical imagery: suspended between heaven and earth as they are, they perfectly illustrate the intermediate state of humanity’s current relationship with God, which is still awaiting consummation.
One other thing I’d like to note is that there’s a bit of a parallel between the pillar of cloud and fire which God used to lead Israel, and the Tabernacle. According to Exodus 30:7-8, incense was offered in the morning, whereas the menorah was only lit at night. This means that when the priest was making a cloud rise up in the Tabernacle in the day, or lighting the lamps as darkness fell, the people would see the divine equivalent taking place over the camp outside: they would see the cloud and fire of God taking shifts, as it were, to cover and guide them.
Even more interestingly, Isaiah 4:5 prophesies that God will recreate this in Israel in future:
The Lord will create above every dwelling place of Mount Zion, and above her assemblies, a cloud and smoke by day and the shining of a flaming fire by night. For over all the glory there will be a covering.
That last sentence, “Over all the glory there will be a covering,” to me, seems to be the key to the connection. In Jeremiah 2:2, God says, “I remember you, the kindness of your youth, the love of your betrothal, when you went after Me in the wilderness.” And Isaiah 62:2-5 says,
You shall be called by a new name,
Which the mouth of the Lord will name.
You shall also be a crown of glory
In the hand of the Lord,
And a royal diadem
In the hand of your God.
You shall no longer be termed Forsaken,
Nor shall your land any more be termed Desolate;
But you shall be called Hephzibah [“My Delight is in Her”] and your land Beulah [“Married”]
For the Lord delights in you,
And your land shall be married.
For as a young man marries a virgin,
So shall your sons marry you;
And as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride,
So shall your God rejoice over you.
Because Israel is repeatedly described as being married to God, I believe the cloud and fire were marks of her betrothal as she went through the wilderness (as they will be again in the millennium, when she is married to God) – this is why, I think, they appeared in the first place, and will do so again: the cloud and fire are a covering for Israel’s glory, as a veil of adornment is given to a bride… and this covering is the very presence of God. The apostle John wrote:
Then I saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from heaven saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people. God Himself will be with them and be their God.” (Revelation 21:2-3)
This, I believe, is the ultimate end to which the cloud and fire point – God wishes to be married to His people, always, and He has witnessed to this desire from the time He first rescued Israel from Egypt, even before she arrived at Sinai. And whenever the priest offered incense and lit the lamps, he enacted and memorialised this truth in the Tabernacle and Temple, the buildings which physicalised God’s dwelling among His people.
God is love, and the prophets tell us that this love is a love of ancient, abiding commitment which He wants nothing more than to express and display to the world again, in billowing, fiery brilliance, in the eyes of all the nations.
Think about that for a minute, and rejoice.
… So this entry concludes our journey through the book of Exodus. It’s been a little bumpy compared to Genesis and I don’t know if it’ll be the same with Leviticus, but hopefully it’ll be less so. Next week, we delve into one of my favourite topics: the sacrificial system.