When God manifests in this world, what does God look like? In the book of Exodus/Shemot, God looks like either cloud or fire. Moses first encounters God as a voice in a burning bush. As soon as the Israelites leave Egypt, God sends a guide to lead the way: a pillar of cloud by day and fire by night. When God comes down on Mount Sinai to speak to all the people, … there was thunder and lightning and a heavy cloud on the mountain (Exodus/Shemot 19:16) … and all of Mount Sinai smoked with the presence of God that came down upon it in fire…(Exodus 19:18)
At the end of this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim (“Laws”), God summons Moses back up the mountain to receive the stone tablets, the torah (“teaching”) and the mitzvah (“commandment”). As Moses climbs, the Torah describes more cloud and fire. But this time the Israelites below see Moses walking into fire, while Moses sees himself walking into cloud.
Then Moses went up the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. And the kavod of God rested on Mount Sinai; and the cloud covered it/him for six days. Then [God] called to Moses on the seventh day, from the midst of the cloud. But in the eyes of the children of Israel, the mareih of the kavod of God was like a consuming fire on the top of the mountain. (Exodus 24:15-17)
kavod (כָּבוֹד) = weight, impressiveness, magnificence, glory. (The kavod of God = a visible manifestation of God’s splendor.)
mareih (מַרְאֵה) = appearance, vision, apparition, mirror.
Moses is accustomed by now to living in close communication with a highly dangerous and powerful god. God has spoken to him at least 41 times already, and Moses often asks God questions and makes suggestions.
Yet he has not seen God directly. When God manifests in our world, Moses still sees only fire or cloud. The nature of God is always hidden.
This time, Moses sees the cloud. But the people at the foot of the mountain do not see God’s kavod in cloud form. They see only a mareih of God’s kavod, an apparition or mirror image of it—God’s presence as reflected in their own minds. Having lived through the ten miraculous plagues in Egypt, not to mention the parting of the Reed Sea, no wonder they view God as so powerful, dangerous, and threatening that they are afraid God’s glory will eat them up. Their own feelings make the cloud look like a “consuming fire”.
They watch their leader Moses walk right into the fire, a fire nobody could survive. And they despair.
No wonder, after they have waited for 40 long days, they demand a safer manifestation of God—in the form of a golden calf rather than a fire.
Meanwhile, Moses waits inside the cloud on the mountain for six days. He can see nothing in the fog; he does not know what God is, what reality is, or what will happen. But at least he does not see fire; he is not afraid. He waits patiently for what God will give him. And on the seventh day, God calls to him.
And Moses entered into the middle of the cloud and went up the mountain. And Moses was on the mountain forty days and forty nights. (Exodus 24:18)
The Torah has already said that Moses was in the cloud, on top of the mountain. Is this verse a repetition of that information? I think not; I think it means that after Moses hears God call him, he goes even farther into the fog of unknowing, and climbs even higher and farther away from the ordinary world.
Could you leave your “real” life so far behind, for so long? Could you face an unknown and unknowable god of terrible power and remain calm, waiting for instructions?
I doubt I could. I have always been amazed by people who seek out ecstatic mystical experiences, through drugs or through other means. I never know whether to view such people as foolhardy idiots, or advanced wisdom masters.
My own mystical experiences, all mild and momentary, have all come by accident without any mountain-climbing or cloud-entering on my part. And a mild and momentary experience is enough for me. Perhaps where others see fog, I see fire. I do not want to enter the fire, because I am afraid of getting burned. I am content to watch from a distance when seriously religious people walk into the kavod of fire—or cloud.
But unlike the people at the foot of Mount Sinai, I refuse to demand an easier god to worship. In the modern Western world, the most common versions of an easier god to worship are: a) a loving parental god who looks after you personally, or b) a theological paradox (omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent, personal, and yet responsible for evil in the world). Version A is easy to worship because it is safe and feels good—rather like the golden calf to the Israelites at Sinai. Version B is easy to worship because it is an abstraction which does not require emotional engagement.
But what if we know God only as cloud or fire?
I think if the word “God” has any meaning, it must have something to do with that nagging blur at the edge of our vision, that cloud—or fire—we encounter when we move away from the outside world and deep into ourselves.