A disembodied voice. A fire. A cloud. These are the ways God manifests most often in the Hebrew Bible. When Moses recounts the revelation at Mount Sinai (also called Mount Choreiv) in this week’s Torah portion, Va-etchannan (“And I pleaded”), what he remembers best after 39 years is the fire.
And you drew near, and you stood under the mountain, and the mountain was blazing with the eish up to the heart of the heavens—darkness, cloud, and thick fog. Then God spoke to you from the middle of the eish. You were hearing a sound of words, but you were seeing no shape, nothing but a voice. And [God] told you [God’s] covenant that [God] commanded you to do, the Ten Words. And [God] inscribed them on two stone tablets. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 4:11-13)
eish (אֵשׁ) = fire.
So you must guard yourselves carefully, since you did not see any shape on the day God spoke to you on Choreiv from the middle of the eish, lest you [cause] ruin and you make yourselves a carved image, a shape of any idol … (Deuteronomy 4:15)
Moses continues warning the Israelites never to make any idols. He reminds the Israelites of both the second commandment and the tragedy of the Golden Calf,1 but he also drives home his point that God appears to them as fire and has no shape—and therefore cannot be represented by any idol.
The account of the revelation at Mount Sinai in the book of Exodus/Shemot mentions fire only once.2 But in this week’s Torah portion Moses describes God manifesting in fire fourteen times.3
Furthermore, he describes the fire in terms that inspire fear. God’s manifestation as fire could kill people.
Because God, your god, is an eish okhelah … (Deuteronomy 4:23)
okhelah (אֺכְלָה) = that devours, that consumes, that eats. (From the verb akhal, אָכַל = ate up.)
After recounting the Ten Words, Moses describes the fearful reaction of the Israelites.
And it was, when you heard the voice from the middle of the darkness, and the mountain was blazing with the eish, and you approached me, all your heads of tribes and your elders, and you said: “Here, God, our God, let us see [God’s] glory and greatness, and we heard [God’s] voice from the middle of the eish this day. We have seen that God can speak with humankind and [the human] can survive. But now, why should we die? Because this great eish, tokheleinu if we listen any more to the voice of God, our God, and we will die. Because who of all flesh has heard the voice of the living God speaking from the middle of the eish, as we did, and lived on? You go close and listen … Then you, you speak to us everything that God, our God, speaks to you. And we will listen and we will do it. (Deuteronomy 5:20-24)
tokheleinu (תֺאכְלֵנוּ) = it will devour us, consume us, eat us up. (Also from the verb akhal.)
Here Moses reminds the Israelites that as children, they heard God’s disembodied voice from the middle of the darkness, and they saw the volcanic presence of God in fire, cloud, gloom, and more fire. Even their parents were too frightened to stay near the voice and the fire, so they commissioned Moses to listen to God’s rules for them and report back.
He was the go-between for their parents 39 years before, and now he is passing on God’s words to the new generation.4
When God manifests as fire in the Torah, it is not a natural fire. Often the time of day determines whether people see the manifestation as cloud or fire. God leads the Israelites through the wilderness with an intangible pillar that looks like cloud by day and fire by night, so they can always see it.5 From Mount Sinai on, whenever God wants the Israelites to remain encamped, God stations the cloud by day and fire by night above the Tent of Meeting.6
And on the day the sanctuary was erected, the cloud covered the sanctuary, the Tent of the Reminder, and in the evening it was over the sanctuary like the appearance of eish until morning. Thus it was always: the cloud covered it, and the appearance of eish at night. (Numbers 19:15-16)
A divine manifestation can even look like fire to one person, and cloud to another. Moses climbs to the top of the mountain to spend 40 days and 40 nights learning God’s rules.
And the glory of God settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it six days. Then [God] called to Moses on the seventh day from the middle of the cloud. But the glory of God appeared as an eish of okhelet on top of the mountain to the eyes of the Israelites. (Exodus 24:16-17)
okhelet (אֺכֶלֶת) = devouring, consumption, demolition. (Also from the verb akhal.)
Does God appear as a cloud that conceals, or a fire that devours? It depends on the beholder. Moses thought he was walking into fog to hear God’s words. But the people below concluded he had walked into fire and died, so they made the Golden Calf. (See my post Ki Tissa: Making an Idol out of Fear.)
The manifestation of fire, or something that looks like fire, is also scaled up or down according to God’s motives. When God first speaks to Moses, God wants to know whether Moses is good at paying attention to details. So God manifests as a small fire inside a thorn bush, easy to miss in the glaring sun.
He looked, and hey! The bush was aflame with the eish, yet the bush was not ukal. (Exodus 3:2)
ukal (אֻכָּל) = devoured, consumed, eaten up. (Also from the verb akhal.)
On the other hand, when the Israelites finish making God’s portable sanctuary, the Tent of Meeting, and the new priests lay out the first sacrifice to inaugurate the altar, God makes a more impressive display.
And eish went forth from in front of God, vatokhal the rising-offering and the fat on the altar. And all the people saw, and they shouted and fell on their faces. (Leviticus/Vayikra 9:24)
vatokhal (וַתֺּאכַל) = and it devoured, consumed, ate up. (Yes, another form of the verb akhal.)
How could an idol of a golden calf compare with the sight of a fire rushing out of the sanctuary and devouring the butchered animals on the altar?
Like fire, God has no definite boundaries, is constantly changing, and is impossible to grasp.
Idols, on the other hand, are man-made inanimate objects—solid, tangible, and immobile, the opposite of fire and fog. Other religions in the Ancient Near East viewed idols as forms that gods would temporarily inhabit, rather than as gods themselves. But Moses warns the Israelites against using idols for any religious purpose.
Fire is an unnerving metaphor for God’s manifestation in our world. Yet I have met people who yearn for God’s unmediated presence. They are ready to be devoured. I am more cautious, or perhaps more ego-centered, than that. A momentary experience of divine unity and purpose is plenty for me. And I do not expect to be devoured.
I suspect that only our “right brains”, our irrational, intuitive minds, can be touched by an experience of God. Most of the time, our “left brains”, our rational egos, are built-in mediators that protect us from being consumed by divine fire.
In other words, we have our own inner Moses to translate for us and keep us sane—although we always lose something in translation.
May we all learn that we cannot express the mystery at the heart of existence through tidy, concrete statements and creeds—any more than we can lure God into inhabiting idols.
(An earlier version of this essay was published in July 2010.)
- The Ten Words, first recorded in Exodus 20:1-14, are repeated in Deuteronomy 5:6-18. The second commandment begins: You may not make for yourself a carved image, any shape of what is in the heavens above or what is on the earth below, or in the waters below on the earth … (Deuteronomy 5:8). The Torah first tells the story of the Golden Calf in Exodus 32:1-35, and Moses retells it in Deuteronomy 9:8-21.
- Exodus 19:18.
- Deuteronomy 4:11, 4:12, 4:15, 4:23, 4:33, 4:36 (twice), 5:4, 5:5, 5:19, 5:20, 5:21, 5:22, 5:23.
- Moses’ speech in Deuteronomy has both some omissions (for example, see my post Devarim: In God We Trust?) and some repetitions, such as the insistent recurrence of God’s fire in this week’s portion.
- The pillar of cloud by day and fire by night is first mentioned in Exodus 13:21-22.
- First mentioned in Exodus 40:38.
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