Cloud Of Witnesses, Messengers Of Fire: Parashat Beha’alotekha Reflections

Hebrew Vision News Exclusive

by Miykael Qorbanyahu aka The End Time Scribe

Torah: Numbers 8.1-12.15     Haftarah: Zekaryah 2.14-4.7     Witness: Luke 17.11-18.14

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We might suggest that both cloud and fire are apt symbols of the spiritual. They both seem to have an ethereal quality to them; a spiritual dimension that lies somewhere beyond the physical. Untamed by gravity, seemingly lacking material substance, they float in the air, suspended, somewhere between heaven and earth. We might add something about their function, their nature. Clouds have the life-giving power of rain but also the power to devastate and destroy. Fire too, has this dichotomy. It has life-giving energy, but also the potential to destroy in an indiscriminate and savage manner. Do these symbols take us back to Bereshit with the primal elements of (light) fire and dark? Is the cloud reminiscent of the primordial “mist that rose from the earth and watered the face of the ground?” (Bereshit 2:6)…Light is the symbol of order, rationalism, the comprehendible. Cloud is indicative of mystery, transcendence, that which eludes us…it is this dichotomy that is suggested in the dual symbols of [Elohim]’s presence. On the one hand, [Elohim] can be reached via the intellect. [Elohim] can be perceived, approached, understood. Like light, His presence illuminates. But, there is another dimension to the presence of the Divine. The mystery, the unfathomable, the irrational, the distance; these are all primary aspects of our relationship with the ineffable [Elohim]. We cannot understand [Elohim]. In certain ways, [Elohim] is clouded from us. At times [Elohim] is revealed; at others he is hidden. The dialectic of the cloud and the fire is the dialectic of our relationship with the presence of [Elohim].

Fire and Cloud by Rav Alex Israel

On the day the Tabernacle was set up, the cloud covered the Tabernacle that was a tent for the Testimony, and in the evening there would be upon the Tabernacle like a fiery appearance until morning. So it would always be: the cloud would cover it, and an appearance of fire at night.

Numbers 9.15-16

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Image result for strange cloud formationsEver since humanity has had the ability to experience life, we have always been intrigued and fascinated by the elements. Perhaps more so than the others, the elements of air and fire have most intrigued our minds due to their unique composition, nature, power, symbolism and uses. While clouds are found in the sky and are a part of the air, essentially they are composed of water and are formed through a process called condensation by which single droplets of water vapor, which is a gas, are gathered together and changed into liquid. These droplets then coalesce with aerosols in the process creating various cloud formations. When formed, clouds play an extremely important role in regulating and balancing the Earth’s energy as well as stabilizing the planet’s atmosphere. Without clouds there would be no moisture, no protection from harmful rays and atmospheric conditions would be further destabilized. In the overall construct of creation, clouds play a most significant role while many under-appreciate the significance of their relationship to the maintenance of Earth’s equilibrium due to their lack of understanding their capacities. To the ancients, however, clouds were understood on both scientific and spiritual levels.

As history would have it, this natural phenomena which takes place in the sky, when observed by the ancients, determined many signs for them and suggested either good or bad outcomes depending on what the interpretation of the formations were given by the ancient seers and prognosticators. Of these formations, many cultures in the Levant, and other regions, would practice what is called aeromancy, which is the practice of foretelling the future by observing atmospheric, air or sky phenomena, including that of cloud formations. To the ancients, clouds were ominous as signs of their sky gods which foretold the pleasure or wrath of their patron deity towards them. In fact, many ancient cultures were nephomaniancs and believed that the clouds were direct messages from their gods. Of the many  sky gods of the ancients, like the Canaanite idol Ba’al, the title riders of the clouds were often ascribed to them which suggested their other-worldliness and celestial nature and powers.

Image result for hebrew word for cloud ananTo the Hebrews, however, clouds (anan/עָנָן) were thought of as a gathering of pure potentiality,  and provided a covering for either enlightenment of obfuscation purposes.  Clouds were also conceived of to Hebrews as a collection of thoughts, or individuals, capable of directing and refreshing life in its movement towards the fulfillment of goals. And while many of the notions held by the diverse Levantine cultural milieu were also shared within the cosmological conception of ancient Israel, the Hebrew observation of clouds and their formations did not include the practice of nephomancy, as sorcery  was expressly forbidden for Israelites. Of these matters, the Jewish Encyclopedia informs us that the Rabbinical literature contains extremely insightful information regarding the Israelite observation, conception and perception of clouds

The observation of clouds for the purpose of divination () was one of the forbidden methods of forecasting the future (Lev. xix. 26). Notwithstanding this, the pillar of cloud of the altar was observed for that purpose in the Temple on New-Year’s or Atonement Day (compare Yoma 21b.; B.B. 147a), the direction which the pillar of cloud took being thought to indicate what part of the land would be blessed with plenty during the year (Lev. R. xx.; compare Abraham’s forecasting of the year while observing the stars on New-Year’s eve [Book of Jubilees, xii. 16]). A cloud stationary over the top of Mount Moriah, betraying the presence of the Shekinah, was the means by which Abraham recognized “the place afar off” (Gen. xxii. 4; Gen. R. lvi.; Tan., Wayera, 46; Pirḳe R. El. xxxi.; Targ. Yer. to the passage). A cloud over the entrance to the tent of Sarah also indicated the presence of the Shekinah (Gen. R. lx.).

Of Moses it is narrated that when he was about to ascend to heaven, a cloud came to meet him, and, forming about him, carried him up (Pesiḳ. R. 20; ed. Friedmann, p. 96). [Elohim] wrapped Moses in a cloud to protect him when the angels of heaven, who were jealous of him, wanted to cast him down (Ex. R. xli., xlii.). The cloud of the divine [esteem] also appeared at Aaron’s death on Mount Hor, and gradually covered him until he disappeared from before Moses (Yalḳuṭ, Mas’e, § 787). Moses was sanctified by the cloud so that he could receive the Law from God on Sinai (Ab. R. N. i.). When Moses’ life was drawing to an end, the cloud of [esteem] surrounded his successor, Joshua, at the gate of the tent, and Moses, standing outside, felt that his leadership was transferred to Joshua (Jellinek, “B. H.” i. 116). Josephus (“Ant.” iv. 8, § 48) relates of Moses’ end that after he had dismissed the elders and was still discoursing with Eleazar, the high priest, and Joshua, a cloud suddenly stood over him and he disappeared (compare Samaritan Book of Joshua, vi.).

Image result for mt. sinai on fire with cloudHearkening back to the days of Abraham and Isaac’s vision of the cloud and fire upon Mt. Moriah  and Moses ascending Mt. Sinai to receive the oracles of יהוה, the cloud and fire have been integral components of the establishment and maintenance of order in Israelite society. Representative of the Shekinah presence of יהוה, the cloud and fire are typical manifestations of theophany in Israelite phenomonology. This principle is articulated by the Psalmist when he wrote,

Ascribe strength to Elohim; His excellence is over Yisra’ĕl, and His strength is in the clouds.

Psalm 68.34

It is in light of the information which we’ve just covered that we are able to see the roles that clouds have played in Israel’s relationship with יהוה and their environment. When examining the Scripture, we discover that the pillars were manifested with Israel as

  1. Guide: Exodus 13.21-22, Numbers 14.13, Psalm 78.14
  2. Light: Exodus 13.21, Exodus 40.34, Psalm 84.12
  3. Oracle: Psalm 99.7, Luke 9.35
  4. Shield: Numbers 16.42, Psalm 121.5-7
  5. Shade: Psalm 105.39 & 121.6
  6. Avenger: Exodus 14.24, Leviticus 10.2 & 16.35, Isaiah 19.1

Related imageAs we have already covered the Israelite conception of fire in a previous writing, the pillar of fire, too, was a manifestation of theophany. Fire (אֵשׁ), idiomatically, is understood by our Israelite ancestors as wisdom consummating all it begins by gathering unto itself the perfection of all aspects of being that were let [or] sent out to attain perfect knowing and expression. With this understanding, we are able to come to the conclusion that both the heat and the glow that fire produced were the source of Israel’s ideas that came to be associated with the phenomena of fire. It is crucial to note that for Israel there was a terrestrial fire, as well as a celestial fire. Of these two essences, the terrestrial fire was a necessary element for life and light. The celestial fire, on the other hand, is suggestive of something more, something beyond the natural element of which we are all familiar. The celestial fire was what issued from heaven and was demonstrative of the sovereignty and judgment of יהוה as exemplified by the episode of  Sodom and Gomorrah, the burning bush and Elijah. This was what the the Pillar of Fire was about; a representation of the presence of יהוה. This point is verified by the Jewish Encyclopedia which informs us of heavenly fire,

The phenomenon of lightning may perhaps under-lie such expressions as “fire from heaven” and “fire from before Yhwh” (Lev. x. 2; II Kings i. 10, 12); indeed, fire and hail are associated (Ex. ix. 23; Ps. cv. 32). Fire was regarded as one of the agents of divine will; it is a concomitant of various theophanies (Gen. xv. 17; Ex. iii. 2; Deut. iv. 36; Ps. lxxviii. 14, see Elijah); and divine fire consumes the acceptable offering (Judges vi. 21; I Kings xviii. 38). As a development of this conception, [Elohim] Himself is called a consuming fire (Deut. iv. 24, ix. 3). The appearance of fire on the Tabernacle is significant of the divine presence (comp. Num. iii. 4). Fire is the instrument of [Elohim]’s wrath (Num. xi. 1; Deut. xxxii. 22; Amos i. 4; Isa. lxv. 5), but [Elohim] Himself is not in the fire (see Elijah; I Kings xix. 12).

It is important to note, as relates to both the cloud and the fire, so as described in the last phrase of the above quote, that Israel’s conception of Elohim is not embodied in the elements, rather, the elements serve as representations of Israel’s Elohim and it’s appearance on Earth before men. This concept leads us to the idea of both cloud and fire being related to the role of messengers who also represent the Shekinah of יהוה. We find this idea expressed in the Psalms, which states

Bless יהוה, O my being! O יהוה my Elohim, You have been very great: You have put on excellency and splendour, covering Yourself with light as with a garment, stretching out the heavens like a curtain, who is laying the beams of His upper rooms in the waters, Who is making thick clouds His chariot, Who is walking on the wings of the wind, making His messengers the winds, His servants a flame of fire.

As Psalm 104.1-4

Image result for ezekiel 1 bible artAs the oracle of יהוה in the wilderness which reflected the quality and condition of the relationship between יהוה and Israel. It would be that whenever Israel was in alignment with the will of the Most High, that the cloud would lead them to the next stage of their trek through the wilderness. Conversely, when there was sin in the camp, the cloud would remain situated at the location where the rung of their spiritual consciousness was indicative of their physical stagnation. We see this dynamic prophetically alternatively addressed by the priest Ezekiel with his apocalyptic vision by the river Chebar,

And I looked and saw a whirlwind coming out of the north, a great cloud with fire flashing itself. And brightness was all around it, and out of its midst like glowing metal, out of the midst of the fire, and out of the midst of it came what looked like four living creatures. And this was their appearance: they had the likeness of a man. And each one went straight forward, going wherever the spirit was to go, and they did not turn when they went. And the likeness of the living creatures: their appearance was like burning coals of fire, and like the appearance of torches, moving back and forth among the living creatures. And the fire was bright, and out of the fire went lightning.

Ezekiel 1.4-5, 12-13

Taken from what we have discussed up to this point, the imagery of this vision is one that is connected to the ancestral experiences of Israel in the wilderness, capturing the protective and provisionary role that the cloud and fire played for Israel throughout its sojourn from bondage to freedom. This vision of Ezekiel captures the prophetic movement of Israel coming out of exile to return to the Land of Promise. This allusion is used in other passages of Israel foretelling of the redemption of the captives as a result of their national repentance. Addressed by Isaiah, he speaks of Israel symbolized as a cloud returning to Israel,

Who are these who fly like a cloud, and like doves to their windows? Because the coastlands wait for Me, and the ships of Tarshish first, to bring your sons from afar, their silver and their gold with them, to the Name of יהוה your Elohim, and to the Set-apart One of Yisra’ĕl, because He has adorned you.

Isaiah 60.8-9

We also read of similar visions from the Messianic writings about the two witnesses who are associated with clouds:

And after the three and a half days a spirit of life from Elohim entered into them, and they stood upon their feet, and great fear fell on those who saw them. And they heard a loud voice from the heaven saying to them, “Come up here.” And they went up into the heaven in a cloud, and their enemies saw them.

Revelation 11.12-13

Of the identity of the two witnesses, we are given the revelation of who they are in the Book of Acts which tells us,

And we are His witnesses to these matters, and so also is the Set-apart Spirit whom Elohim has given to those who obey Him.

Acts 5.32

Image result for hebrew word for witnessIn Hebrew, the word for witness is ed (עֵד) which connotes the idea of giving evidence or testimony to the everlasting continuum with objective proof from the jewels of acquisition. We should fully comprehend that the jewels of acquisition are the instructions of the Torah, which are known as the testimonies of יהוה. Combined with the full consideration of the priestly role that Israel is to play as a nation in relation to the other people’s of the Earth, it is clear from the Scriptures and the apocalyptic literary devices used throughout the text in regards to the symbolic representation of various matters, such as the clouds and fire, intimate that Israel is to present to the world the image and likeness of יהוה as the witnesses of the eternal One. It is in this regard that, when in alignment, Israel’s unique position in proximity to the true and living Creator of Heaven, Earth, Sea and all that is in them provides humanity with the most powerful manifestations of theophany that the World has ever known. Given that other cultures have used phenomena to embody the ideas of their patron deities, Israel stands alone in utilizing natural phenomena to exemplify the characteristics and nature of יהוה, while clearly demonstrating that it is the people who are clearly set-apart to serve as the direct representation of the all powerful, supreme energy intelligence whose transcendent consciousness is expressed in the fusion of the Hebrew letters yod, heh, waw, heh.

Image result for column of cloud bible artGiven this information, it is therefore our duty as Israelites, being that we are those who have been given the responsibility to manifest the presence of יהוה on Earth before the nations, to function in the dual capacities as clouds by day, and fire by night. In this role, we will provide balance to the entire economy of humankind, restoring the proper order of this planet by readjusting the atmosphere through our gathering together as individuals into the priestly kingdom that we have been called to be in Torah. It is through this process that each of us will coalesce with the Spirit which will then produce the dew of righteousness to fall on Earth through the demonstration of our lifestyle and the presentation of the Torah’s teachings, providing nourishment to dry places and recycling the life that is poured out from our cloud formation, re-establishing a climate of harmony, peace, justice, truth, love and light. This task is great, requiring a concerted, maximum effort to protect earth from harmful energy projections that seek to throw off and destroy what order exists when there is equilibrium. Let us, therefore, take heed to the words recorded in the letter to the Nazarene community of Hebrews, which exhorts us to remain ever faithful as witnesses of the reality of יהוה with these words,

We too, then, having so great a cloud of witnesses all around us, let us lay aside every weight and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race set before us looking to the Princely Leader and Perfecter of our belief, יהושע, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the stake, having despised the shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of Elohim.

Hebrews 12.1-2

Image result for cloud of witnesses bible

Selah…

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