« Pilgrim Pillar of Fire and Cloud Pilot, William »

Pillar of Fire and Cloud

PILLAR OF FIRE AND CLOUD: The traditional supernatural guide and guard of the Hebrews during the desert wanderings. Beginning at Etham (Ex. xiii. 20 sqq.) the Hebrews were accompanied by a pillar of cloud by day and fire by night which went before them to show the way. When the Egyptians pursued, the pillar (Ex. xiv. 19 sqq.) passed behind the people serving as an obstructing bank of cloud toward the enemy and as light toward themselves. According to the adduced passages and other statements of the Bible, it was the Lord himself that went before Israel; theology regards it as "his angel," i.e., the agent of his manifestation (Ex. xxiii. 20 sqq.). This cloud also covered the tabernacle after its erection (Num. ix. 15 sqq.), and filled it (Ex. xl. 34 sqq.) as the habitation of God. On important occasions it descended upon the tabernacle, stood before it (Num. xii. 5) while the people worshiped, and regularly when Moses was to receive revelations (Num. xxxiii. 8–11). The glory of the Lord concealed in the cloud appeared at supreme moments to all the people (Ex. xvi. 10; Num. xiv. 10, xvi. 19, xvii. 7). The ascent of the cloud from the tabernacle meant the breaking of the camp; its resting upon a place the sign of pitching camp (Ex. xl. 36 sqq.; Num. ix. 17–23). There is no doubt that there were not two but one and the same pillar which appeared by night as fire, by day as cloud. It is also clearly stated that this cloud was the covering of God when he descended upon Sinai (Ex. xxiv. 15 sqq.).

As to its physical nature, this mysterious cloud, like wonders in general, attaches itself to natural conditions and phenomena. However, two efforts to materialize that theophany must be rejected. One derives the pillar of cloud from the caravan-fire which was borne before the march. Reference is made to Alexander's march (E. Curtius, Griechische Geschichte, V., ii. 7, Berlin, 1868–74; Eng. translation, History of Greece, London, 1868–73), which shows how great armies made use of fire for guidance, just as caravans do to-day. But this is contradicted by the materials of the narrative noted above, and the divinity of the cloud demands a supernatural phenomenon. Such a cloud lay pregnant with fire on Sinai where God most positively offered his majesty to the gaze of the people. For the same reason, the view of Ewald (followed by Riehm and Dillman) must also be rejected, who supposed that the altar-fire was the kernel of the tradition.

The cloud in the mean time became a subject for theological speculation. The author of the Wisdom of Solomon saw in it the divine wisdom (x. 17; cf. xviii. 3, xix. 7); Philo, the divine Logos (Opera, ed. T. Mangey, 501, London, 1742).


Bibliography: The subject is best discussed in the commentaries on the passages (see under Hexateuch); also in the works on the O. T. cited under Biblical Theology, 71and in those on the history of Israel (see under Ahab; and Israel, History of). Consult further the articles in the Bible dictionaries, e.g., EB, iii. 3775–78; JE, x. 39.

« Pilgrim Pillar of Fire and Cloud Pilot, William »
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