The cloud as symbol of God’s presence in the Torah

“Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt where they were enslaved.  In preparation to enter the land promised by God, the Israelites remained in the wilderness for forty years, and ‘God guided them with the cloud by day and with light from the fire all night’ (Psalms 78:14). The Bible often uses a cloud as a symbol of God’s calling, His leading, and His presence.”

Xie Rongchang (谢荣昌): Seeing a cloud of witnesses, Racing towards the throne. 布里斯本華人基督教會懷恩堂.见证分享/5419, retrieved on 8 January 2023.

As Xie points out correctly the cloud represents God’s presence, His leading and His calling in many parts of the Bible. As such, the clouds paved the way to Heaven in the thought of Ancient people. For instance, the Ancient Greek people believed in cloud nymphs, most famously the young cloud nymph Νεφέλη. So clouds covered up the endless sky, they were perceived to be in between the earthly and the heavenly. So indeed, clouds are an excellent symbol to point to the divine without giving a certain shape to the Divine: the cloud might be a bit like a veil, the mystery is hidden behind it.

The cloud symbol already appeared very early among the Israelites, even in Genesis: “We find clouds first described immediately after the Flood, where they are linked to the sign of the rainbow and God’s everlasting promise that He will never again flood the earth. […] Of course, we know from many verses that the destruction at the end of this age will involve fire rather than another worldwide flood. But this does not nullify God’s promise” [David C. Grabbe: ‘Behold, He is Coming with Clouds’. Forerunner “Prophecy Watch”, November-December 2017]. The rainbow is the sign of that very promise, but the promise itself is in the cloud. It symbolizes the covenant. And what a surprise, God makes the Law known to man through a cloud, again it is a covenant. God shows to man how he shall live, he entrusted the Creation to us, despite – in a Christian context – man’s sin. The fall of man is not in the foreground in Judaism, it is not seen as the mother of sin in the way Christians do. Interestingly, the notion of the cloud is taken up in the Book of Revelation in the same way as in Genesis, which should not surprise us: “Genesis and Revelation mirror each other in many ways; frequently, when a matter is introduced in Genesis, it is resolved or concluded in some way in Revelation” [ibid.]. However, in Christianity, the cloud is even more important due to the fall of man issue, because as a contrast Jesus is salvation for a Christian, he died for man’s sins, returned to Earth and then ascended through a cloud.

But even in a Non-Christian context, clouds picture a mystery, they cover, they veil – as pointed out above. In Judaism, the Shechina was often depicted either by a cloud or by a pillar of fire; in leading the people out of Egypt even both: at daytime as a cloud, at night as fire paving the way. It represents God’s glory, God is with the people. Shechina literally means “dwelling”, and as such describes the dwelling of the divine presence. This is interesting, because in the Scripture, it is explicitly prohibited to draw an image of God, and through pointing to God and His presence but hiding His appearance, there is no image drawn of Him. Though of course, through visualizing Him in form of a cloud or pillar of fire, we already imagine God, so it is not possible not to make an image about God when we think of Him and His characteristics, but in this way, we make no image of Him – in the sense of making a concrete image to which we pray. The Shechina stands for the Holy Spirit in the trinity in Christianity: it is the depiction of the divine essence.

Anyways, the cloud does not only cover and veil, but also reveals. As pointed out above, it reveals to Noah a sign of covenant that God will not send such a great flood again. And it reveals – also as mentioned above – the covenant with Moses, when he received the Law on Mount Sinai. The Mosaic Covenant – also called Sinaic Covenant – is important because it is not only a covenant between God and Moses, but God with the people of Israel (which reminds us also of the Abrahamic Covenant). When Moses came down from Mount Sinai, he revealed the words of God to the people. The same actually appears in the Noahic Covenant with the difference that it is not made between God and one ethnic group, but between God and all human-beings. An interesting difference however is that in the Mosaic Covenant, God reveals for the first time who He is, though He remains veiled as we only get to know His name as “I am who I am”, and therefore no actual details about Him, but His existence is affirmed with certainty here. So we have a dualism between knowing who He is and not knowing an actual name. Anyways, it is clearly a personal God! Some even see Christianity as a new covenant in which God sacrificed His Son, thus it is a covenant for salvation. The Blood of Christ therefore serves as sign of the covenant. The resurrection again is a sign of certainty, this miracle is a testimony for God’s truth as well as the truth of salvation through Christ in Christian belief. So God reached out His hands towards man who is a sinner and He takes the sins away from every single human-being. But as the original sin, the fall of man, is a purely Christian interpretation of Genesis 3, in Judaism we do not have the need for salvation due to sinning, but rather a salvation in form of a final redemption in the messianic age, and independently from the specific era an individual redemption in which human-beings become aware of a right way of living, turning to God and being awarded for the virtuous deeds.

Timo Schmitz, 15 January 2023


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