The Cloud In The Wilderness

There’s seemingly only a Peripheral Understanding of the Extraordinary Presence in the Cloud that accompanied the Children of Israel as they sojourned thru what we call their “Wilderness Years.” What should we know about this Continuing Phenomenon, and what part did it play in Israel Inheriting the Promise?

Exodus 13:21-22 explains an enormously extra-ordinary phenomenon that facilitated the Exodus from Egypt: “And the LORD went before them by day in a pillar of a cloud, to lead them the way; and by night in a pillar of fire, to give them light; to go by day and night: He took not away the pillar of the cloud by day, nor the pillar of fire by night, from before the people.” It says the LORD led them.

Ongoing Presence

This reveals that the cloud remained an ongoing advancing Presence. Still, it doesn’t indicate just how long it went before them and how long it continued in its capacity as they wandered for four long decades in the wilderness. It does explain that the children of Israel, in the process of leaving Egypt, traveled during both daylight hours and all during the nights. But was that the situation with the Cloud after they’d passed through the Red Sea?

Lest we think that this pillar of fire by night was just a luminescent phenomenon, let’s recall that it stood as a physical barrier holding back Egypt’s Army for an entire night! (Ex.14:19-24). A most curious thing is that this ‘cloud’ exhibited a dual characteristic simultaneously as the Egyptian army approached from the west. Normally, the Cloud provided shade during the heat of the day but turned luminescent at night.

While assembled against the shore on the Delta of Nuweiba, the phenomenon stood behind Israel this time instead of it ‘going before’ them. While giving light to those on the forward side, it presented deep impenetrable obscurity to those behind! As the Israelites moved to cross through the waters of the Red Sea, it moved to remain between them and Pharaoh and his army as they pursued. This is part of the picture that we’re given. Only God could have facilitated such a situation. But it appears that there’s another consideration regarding the Cloud. It becomes apparent when we read the account of the end of the 6th day of travel when the congregation was between the sea and the Egyptian army. We tend to think of the obscure physical barrier that the Cloud itself became to the Egyptians, but Exodus 14:19 reveals another aspect: “And the angel of God, which went before the camp of Israel, removed and went behind them; and the pillar of the cloud went from before their face, and stood behind them:”

Unrealized by the congregation at the time (perhaps Moses knew) was the fact that there was another potent presence leading them. It wasn’t just the Cloud, though that was the most visible manifestation. From the account regarding the approach of Pharaoh’s army, we’re inclined to conclude that the Lord’s Angel was in the cloud. The Angel and the Cloud together placed themselves between the two human forces.

Angelic Guidance

So, there was an Angel that also went before them, though they might not all have been fully aware of Him. More is said about that Angel, though spoken of in a subsequent chapter. In Exodus 23:20-21, we read: “Behold, I send an Angel before thee, to keep thee in the way, and to bring thee into the place which I have prepared. Beware of him, and obey his voice, provoke him not; for he will not pardon your transgressions: for my name is in him.” What does it mean: “My Name is in Him”? This Angel was also an authority figure to be seriously obeyed! We have to wonder how and when the ‘Angel’ spoke, and whose Word did He convey? Obviously, His ‘instructions’ were consistent with what God wanted them to receive.

Now, the Apostle Paul posed an observation as to Who this Angel actually was.
He speaks of it in 1st Corinthians 10:4, though he presents Christ as ‘following them,’ not leading them. It could be that Paul meant that Christ was ‘following’ their progress or remaining fully aware of how things were progressing with them, not that He was actually following along behind. There can be nuances of meaning with some words.

That brings us to the loaded question of exactly WHO was that “Angelic Being”?

Joshua’s First Visible Encounter?

Moving to the other end of the Exodus period, we see Joshua on the morning of the First Day of Unleavened Bread, by himself, over in the vicinity of Jericho. There he encountered a startling figure. “And it came to pass, when Joshua was by Jericho, that he lifted up his eyes and looked, and, behold, there stood a man over against him with his sword drawn in his hand: and Joshua went unto him, and said unto him, Art thou for us, or for our adversaries? And he said, Nay; but as captain of the host of the LORD am I now come. And Joshua fell on his face to the earth, and did worship, and said unto him, What saith my lord unto his servant? And the captain of the LORD’s host said unto Joshua, Loose thy shoe from off thy foot; for the place whereon thou standest is holy. And Joshua did so.” (Joshua 5:13-15 KJV)

Now, we know that Moses had face-to-face direct interactions with the Lord.1 What we don’t know is IF Joshua was party to any of those occasions, and would he have recognized Who he was speaking with if this was actually the Lord Himself?

Message in the Cloud

Several times, the Cloud exhibited a luminescence (what some might call the “Shekinah Glory”)2 as we read in Exodus 16:10. “And it came to pass, as Aaron spake unto the whole congregation of the children of Israel, that they looked toward the wilderness, and, behold, the glory of the LORD appeared in the cloud.” Here we see another way the Cloud functioned. While Aaron was speaking to the people, the Cloud began to glow in a manner not usually present. This was a disciplinary occasion when Moses was about to speak with them. Was it expressing God’s anger?

Obscuring the Mountaintop

Another noteworthy occasion occurred before giving the Ten Commandments to the people; Moses was called up onto the mountain. Seeing the Cloud luminesce, as it had with Aaron, its deep envelopment of the mountaintop would’ve added credibility to Moses’ status and his current mission. “And the LORD said unto Moses, Lo, I come unto thee in a thick cloud, that the people may hear when I speak with thee, and believe thee forever. And Moses told the words of the people unto the LORD.” (Ex.19:9) This occurrence set the stage for the giving of the Ten Commandments. We read what happened three days later:

“And it came to pass on the third day in the morning, that there were thunders and flashes of lightning, and a thick cloud upon the mount, and the voice of the trumpet exceeding loud; so that all the people that was in the camp trembled.” Had the ever-present Cloud moved onto the mountain for this occasion? What should be obvious is that God was present in that Cloud.

On another occasion, there was a similar event involving the mountain: “And Moses went up into the mount, and a cloud covered the mount. And the glory of the LORD abode upon mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it six days: and the seventh day he called unto Moses out of the midst of the cloud.” (Ex.24:15-16) “And Moses went into the midst of the cloud, and gat him up into the mount: and Moses was in the mount forty days and forty nights.” (v.18)

How to Love God

It was from within this Cloud that the great Moral Code was presented to God’s People. “These words the LORD spake unto all your assembly in the mount out of the midst of the fire, of the cloud, and of the thick darkness, with a great voice: and he added no more. And he wrote them in two tables of stone, and delivered them unto me.” (Deut.5:22)
A terrorizing Voice gave God’s Commandments verbally at first, but the people requested that He not speak to them directly. (vs.23-27) “And it came to pass, when ye heard the voice out of the midst of the darkness, (for the mountain did burn with fire,) that ye came near unto me, even all the heads of your tribes, and your elders; And ye said, Behold, the LORD our God hath shewed us his glory and his greatness, and we have heard his voice out of the midst of the fire: we have seen this day that God doth talk with man, and he liveth. Now therefore why should we die? for this great fire will consume us: if we hear the voice of the LORD our God any more, then we shall die. For who is there of all flesh, that hath heard the voice of the living God speaking out of the midst of the fire, as we have, and lived? Go thou near, and hear all that the LORD our God shall say: and speak thou unto us all that the LORD our God shall speak unto thee; and we will hear it, and do it.” They were so fearful that they preferred to know God’s sayings through Moses instead. This was before the Tabernacle was constructed. But the Voice emerged out of the fiery Cloud.

Dwelling in the Tabernacle

After this, once the Tabernacle in the wilderness had been set up, it appears the Cloud took up residence there. Its manifestations made known to the priests and the people when not to enter or when God required their presence. “And it came to pass, as Moses entered into the tabernacle, the cloudy pillar descended, and stood at the door of the tabernacle, and the LORD talked with Moses. And all the people saw the cloudy pillar stand at the tabernacle door: and all the people rose up and worshipped, every man in his tent door. (Exodus 33:9-10)

Surrounding or Filling the “Tent”

It was the presence of the Cloud that made the Tabernacle the center of worship at that time. It no longer stood above them except when further marching was being directed. “Then a cloud covered the tent of the congregation, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle. And Moses was not able to enter into the tent of the congregation, because the cloud abode thereon, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle.
Leaving its place in the Tabernacle, when it was time to continue on their journeys, the Cloud then resumed its original place. “And when the cloud was taken up from over the tabernacle, the children of Israel went onward in all their journeys: But if the cloud were not taken up, then they journeyed not till the day that it was taken up. For the cloud of the LORD was upon the tabernacle by day, and fire was on it by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel, throughout all their journeys. (Ex.40:34-38) This explains that the fiery nighttime manifestation continued, even after their nighttime marchings had ended.

Numbers chapter 9 describes and confirms the situation after the Tabernacle was completed: “And on the day that the tabernacle was reared up the cloud covered the tabernacle, namely, the tent of the testimony: and at even there was upon the tabernacle as it were the appearance of fire, until the morning. So it was always: the cloud covered it by day, and the appearance of fire by night. And when the cloud was taken up from the tabernacle, then after that the children of Israel journeyed: and in the place where the cloud abode, there the children of Israel pitched their tents.

At the commandment of the LORD, the children of Israel journeyed, and at the commandment of the LORD, they pitched: as long as the cloud abode upon the tabernacle they rested in their tents.

And when the cloud tarried long upon the tabernacle many days, then the children of Israel kept the charge of the LORD, and journeyed not. And so it was, when the cloud was a few days upon the tabernacle; according to the commandment of the LORD they abode in their tents, and according to the commandment of the LORD they journeyed. And so it was, when the cloud abode from even unto the morning, and that the cloud was taken up in the morning, then they journeyed: whether it was by day or by night that the cloud was taken up, they journeyed. Or whether it were two days, or a month, or a year, that the cloud tarried upon the tabernacle, remaining thereon, the children of Israel abode in their tents, and journeyed not: but when it was taken up, they journeyed.” (Numbers 9:15-22) We see from this that from this point, the Cloud was now based in the Tabernacle, except when it led them to move on to a new location.

Leaving Sinai

“And it came to pass on the twentieth day of the second month, in the second year, that the cloud was taken up from off the tabernacle of the testimony. And the children of Israel took their journeys out of the wilderness of Sinai; and the cloud rested in the wilderness of Paran.” (Num.10:11-12) “And the cloud of the LORD was upon them by day, when they went out of the camp.” (v.34) So, Israel had remained encamped before Mt. Sinai for a year!

It wasn’t only the children of Israel who were aware of this phenomenon. The nations around the region were also told of it, and perhaps some even saw the cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night from a distance. “And they will tell it to the inhabitants of this land: for they have heard that thou LORD art among this people, that thou LORD art seen face to face, and that thy cloud standeth over them, and that thou goest before them, by day time in a pillar of a cloud, and in a pillar of fire by night.” (Num.14:14) All of these things were known to be involved in the presence of this spectacular Cloud.

Other Phenomena

Not only was there direction and communication, but other Cloud-based events were manifest. The seventy elders became inspired in a dramatic way: “And the LORD came down in a cloud, and spake unto him, and took of the spirit that was upon him, and gave it unto the seventy elders: and it came to pass, that, when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied, and did not cease.” (Num.11:25)

When there was a serious challenge to Moses’ leadership, the Cloud exhibited a knowing response, and it proved to not be good for the challengers: “And it came to pass, when the congregation was gathered against Moses and against Aaron, that they looked toward the tabernacle of the congregation: and, behold, the cloud covered it, and the glory of the LORD appeared. (Num.16:42) In the case of Korah, it resulted in the earth opening up and swallowing them.

On another extraordinary occasion, when Moses had asked to actually SEE the Glorified Person of Yahweh, (the One who later became the Son – the second Person of the Godhead), he was allowed, but was given only a glimpse of His receding form when passing, and not a view of His face!
Moses asked, “Let me see you in your glorified state”. (He had been seeing Him in His unglorified state.) The Lord agreed, but with limitations. We can read of this in Exodus 33. “And he said, I beseech thee, shew me thy glory. And he said, I will make all my goodness pass before thee, and I will proclaim the name of the LORD before thee; and will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will shew mercy on whom I will shew mercy. And he said, Thou canst not see my (glorified) face: for there shall no man see me, and live. And the LORD said, Behold, there is a place by me, and thou shalt stand upon a rock: And it shall come to pass, while my glory passeth by, that I will put thee in a cleft of the rock, and will cover thee with my hand while I pass by: And I will take away mine hand, and thou shalt see my back parts: but my face shall not be seen.” (vs.18-23) Now, this request was to see Him as a Glorified Being, not the form in which He had appeared to Moses to that point.

“And the LORD descended in the cloud, and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the LORD. And the LORD passed by before him, and proclaimed, The LORD, The LORD God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, Keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and that will by no means clear the guilty; visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children’s children, unto the third and to the fourth generation. And Moses made haste, and bowed his head toward the earth, and worshipped.” (Ex.34:5-8) (Notice the two “LORDs”)

Veiled Presence

So, while there was a cloud that accompanied the children of Israel all through their wilderness years, a cloud that became luminescent at times, it was more the Presence within that Cloud that was the Major Factor in it. The Apostle Paul recognized that Presence in 1st Corinthians 10:1-4. “Moreover, brethren, I would not that ye should be ignorant, how that all our fathers were under the cloud, and all passed through the sea; And were all baptized unto Moses in the cloud and in the sea; And did all eat the same spiritual meat; And did all drink the same spiritual drink: for they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them: and that Rock was Christ.”


1 Ex. 33:11; Num.14:14; Deut. 34:10; Ex.24:10-11

2Wikipedia: …the Shekinah Glory is the visible manifestation of the presence of God. It is the majestic presence or manifestation of God in which He descends to dwell among men. Whenever the invisible God becomes visible, and whenever the omnipresence of God is localized, this is the Shekinah Glory.

©Rich Traver

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