Moses assembles all the items the people have made into a new tent-sanctuary for God in this week’s Torah portion, Pekudei (“Inventories”), the last reading in the book of Exodus.
And Moses completed the work. And the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the kavod of God filled the Dwelling Place. And Moses was not able to come into the Tent of Meeting because the cloud dwelled in it, and the kavod of God filled the Dwelling Place. (Exodus/Shemot 40:33-35)
kavod (כָּבוֹד) = impressiveness, magnificence; honor. Often translated as “glory”, which also means both magnificence and honor in English. (From the root verb kaveid, כָּבֵד = be heavy, be honored; weigh down.)
The word kavod appears 24 times in the first five books of the bible. The six times when the word kavod is used in reference to humans, it refers to an impressive display of wealth, political power, or religious rank.1 The eighteen times when humans behold the kavod of God, they perceive something magnificent and glorious.2 What does it look like?
Sometimes the Torah is silent about what the people in the bible see (or visualize). In other places, including the passage at the end of Exodus, the kavod of God looks like cloud or fire.3
The divine cloud only fills the tent-sanctuary initially—as if God were settling into God’s new dwelling place. Then when God is ready to issue further instructions, at the beginning of the next biblical book, Leviticus/Vayikra, God calls to Moses. The divine cloud has moved and now hovers above the sanctuary.4 Moses enters the tent, and God speaks to him from the empty space above the ark. (See my post Vayikra: A Voice Calling).
The book of Exodus concludes with the movements of the divine cloud for the next 38 years:
And when the cloud lifted from the Dwelling place, the Israelites pulled out on all their journeys. And if the cloud did not lift, then they did not pull out until the day it did lift. Because the cloud of God was above the Dwelling Place by day, and it became fire by night, in the eyes of the whole house of Israel on all their journeys. (Exodus/Shemot 40:36-38)
Thus all the people have visible evidence that the kavod of God not only dwells in the portable sanctuary they collectively made, but also continues to lead and guide them through the wilderness.
The first time God manifests as cloud and fire is when the Israelites set out from Egypt and head into the wilderness.
And God went in front of them, by day in a pillar of cloud to lead them on the way, and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light for walking by day and by night. The pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night did not cease being in front of the people. (Exodus 13:21-22).
The pillar of cloud and fire leads them all the way to Mt. Sinai. Then cloud, smoke, and fire appear on top of the mountain instead. God speaks from the mountaintop during the revelation of the “Ten Commandments”. Then Moses conducts a ritual for the covenant between God and the Israelites,5 takes the elders halfway up the mountain to see God’s feet,6 and finally climbs alone to the top, where he spends 40 days and 40 nights.
And Moses went up the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. And the kavod of God dwelled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days. Then [God] called to Moses on the seventh day from the midst of the cloud. But the kavod of God appeared as a consuming fire on the head of the mountain in the eyes of the Israelites. (Exodus 24:15-17)
While Moses is walking into the mysterious cloud of God’s glory, the people below think he is walking into the “consuming fire” of God’s glory.
In this week’s Torah portion, the kavod of God appears as cloud and fire hovering above the tent-sanctuary—except when God signals that it is time to travel on. Thus the kavod of God is displayed as cloud and fire: first in a traveling pillar, then on top of Mt. Sinai, and finally above the Tent of Meeting.
The cloudy and fiery kavod of God drops out of the story when the Israelites reach the Jordan River. In the book of Deuteronomy/DevarimMoses mentions it in reference to the revelation at Mt. Sinai,7 but God appears in a pillar of cloud on the east bank of the Jordan only once, when Moses takes his successor, Joshua, into the Tent of Meeting.8
Then we do not see God’s kavod again until the first book of Kings, after King Solomon has finished building the temple in Jerusalem. At the dedication ceremony,
…when the priests went out from the holy place, the cloud filled the house of God. And the priests were not able to stand up to minister in front of the cloud, because the kavod of God filled the house of God. (I Kings 8:10-11)
This echo of the end of Exodus confirms that God will dwell in the temple as God dwelled in the tent-sanctuary.
Cloud, fire, lightning, hail, any violent storm, expressed the magnificence of Ancient Near East weather-gods long before any of the Hebrew Bible was written down. Terrifying storms were inexplicable except as the work of gods. But the particular images of cloud and fire attached to the kavod of the God of Israel may carry additional meanings. Cloud conceals the divine (as in Exodus 24:16 above). Fire from God is usually described as “devouring” (as in Exodus 24:17 above).9 The kavod of God manifests as both mystery and terrible power.
The Israelites in Exodus need to see God’s kavod in order to believe God is still with them. Today most people take religion less literally. I often forget to wonder whether God is with me. Yet once in a while I see beauty that no human hand created, and I am thunderstruck by the mystery and power of the ineffable force I can only call divine.
- Jacob’s wealth in Genesis 31:1, Joseph’s political power in Genesis 45:13, the vestments of the new priests in Exodus 28:2 and 28:40, and the wealth promised Bilam in Numbers 24:11. The poetic prophesy in Genesis 49:6 uses the word kavod for Jacob’s honor or reputation.
- Exodus 16:7, 16:10, 24:11, 24:16, 29:43, 33:18, 33:22, 40:34. 40:35; Leviticus 9:6, 9:23; Numbers 14:10, 14:21, 14:22,16:19, 17:7, 20:6; Deuteronomy 5:21.
- Before God sends manna, the kavod of God appeared in a cloud (Exodus 9:6, 9:23). When the people protest the deaths following Korach’s rebellion, cloud covers the Tent of Meeting and the kavod of God appeared (Numbers 17:7). But when the altar is initiated and the kavod of God appears to all the people, Fire came forth and consumed the offering (Leviticus 9:6, 9:23). When Moses climbs to the top of Mt. Sinai to spend 40 days, he sees a cloud and knows the kavod of God is concealed inside it, but the people below see the kavod of God as a fire (Exodus 24:16-17). The kavod of God also appears as both cloud and fire in Exodus 40:34-35, the conclusion quoted above.
- That is my interpretation, but there are others. For instance, Rashbam (12th-century Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir) wrote that after filling the tent, the cloud diminished and rested on top of the ark, between the poles.
- Exodus 24:3-8. (See my post Mishpatim & Ki Tissa: A Covenant in Writing).
- Exodus 24:9-11. (See my post Mishpatim: After the Vision, Eat Something).
- Deuteronomy1:33, 5:21-22.
- Deuteronomy 31:14-15.
- Also see Leviticus 9:6, 9:24, and 10:1-2; and Deuteronomy 4:23.