When the cloud rose from the tabernacle the Israelites would set out; and at the place where the cloud settled, there the Israelites would make camp.
It’s well known that, as the Israelites journeyed through the wilderness, they were guided by a pillar of fire by day and a pillar of fire by night. The pillar stopped when it was time to make camp, moving off when it was time to get going again. When they camped the cloud rested atop the sacred tabernacle. The only time it deviated from this pattern was right at the beginning, at the Red Sea, placing itself between the Israelites and the Egyptians to obscure Pharaoh’s view of his quarry. God looked through it at the Egyptian camp before bringing disaster upon them. (Exodus 14, 24).
That is all know about the pillar of cloud and that of fire. It’s a little surprising, given their miraculous nature. After all, nearly every other miracle wrought for the Israelites in the desert is described in detail. We know what the manna looked like and how it tasted, we know the how the quails arrived, how the Red Sea was divided, and the manner in which the water-gushing rock was split. But, other than the drama at the Red Sea, the pillars of fire and cloud are treated in such a matter of fact way that we almost take them for granted. They are not mentioned in the dayyenu hymn, which lists many of the other miracles that happened to the Israelites. Nor is there significant mention of them anywhere else in the Bible, there are just three passing references in the Book of Psalms.
We don’t know if they were fearsome imposing pillars, stretching from earth heaven, or wisps of vapour and sparks that could hardly be seen. We don’t even know if they were two separate pillars, or one that changed at night from cloud to fire, and back again in the morning.
The pillars seem to have had their own consciousness. They knew which direction to go in, when to stop and when to start and. For a people living at a time when idolatry flourished, it would be easy to imagine them as independent powers, perhaps even gods. Indeed, in the Red Sea narrative the pillar of cloud is described as an angel (Exodus 14, 19). And this may be the reason why the subsequent narrative is less than forthcoming about them.
None of the other miracles in the desert exhibit anything like the same autonomy; they all merely provide physical or spiritual sustenance. But the pillar of cloud, apparently with a mind of its own, had the potential to lead the people astray. There was a danger it might become an object of veneration or even of worship.
The later interpretative tradition treats the pillar of cloud with extreme caution. It invests it with a mystical dimension, describing it as a cloud of kavod, or glory. Glory is an inadequate word that represents the aspect of God which can be sensed. In a well-known phrase Ezekiel declares ‘Blessed is the Glory of God from his place’.
By treating it as a cloud of glory the tradition is able to downgrade the pillar from a seemingly conscious, potentially divine being, to a much more functional object that is evidently subject to heavenly control. One of way it does this is to make it just one of several clouds of glory. The Jerusalem Targum describes how the Israelites were whisked out of Egypt on seven of these clouds – one on each side and one in front. They were flown to the future site of the Jerusalem Temple, where they offered their Passover sacrifice, before being transported back to Egypt to begin their long trudge through the wilderness. In this telling, the pillar of cloud is transformed into little more than a very powerful magic carpet.
Perhaps the most radical reinterpretation of the pillar of cloud is Rabbi Eliezer’s view in the Talmud. According to the Torah the festival of Sukkot commemorates the fact that the Israelites dwelt in huts, or booths, in the wilderness. Since there is no mention of these huts anywhere in the narrative Rabbi Eliezer explains that they were not physical huts. The Israelites in the wilderness, he says, dwelt in clouds of glory (Sukkah 11b).
In Rabbi Eliezer’s interpretation (or in other versions Rabbi Akiva or Rabbi Shimon) the pillar of cloud has been divested of any possibility that it is an independent heavenly being. It has become just another manifestation of God’s protection in the wilderness. The manna provided the Israelites with food, Miriam’s well (in legend) gave them with water while the pillar of cloud afforded them physical shelter.