The Presence in the Pillar

When Pharaoh finally lets the Israelites go, Yahweh leads his people on a round-about journey through the wilderness rather than a shortcut through the land of the Philistines. This is because God knows his people will change their minds if they go directly from captivity into warfare. So, the Lord takes them toward the Red Sea, where they camp at Etham on the edge of the wilderness. 

Exodus 13:21-22 picks up the story:

The LORD went ahead of them in a pillar of cloud to lead them on their way during the day and in a pillar of fire to give them light at night, so that they could travel day or night. The pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night never left its place in front of the people.

Note several key truths in this passage:

First, the Lord goes ahead of the Israelites. He has vowed to lead them to the Promised Land, and he may be taken at his word. 

Second, the Lord is in the pillar. The pillar of cloud and fire is a real phenomenon the Israelites experience with their senses – a theophany in which Yahweh crosses the threshold between the spirit realm and the physical world. 

Third, the pillar is divine provision. The cloud is more than a visible reminder of God’s presence in the daytime. It provides shade from the scorching desert sun. Further, the fire at night offers both light and warmth. 

Fourth, the pillar never leaves its place. Yahweh’s presence is with his people to lead, protect, and provide for them. It reminds us of God’s promise to believers today: “[F]or he himself has said, I will never leave you or abandon you. Therefore, we may boldly say, The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?” (Heb. 13:5-6; cf. Deut. 31:6; Ps. 118:6). 

Finally, the pillar is a warning to those who oppose Yahweh. God is with his people. He fights for them. He provides for them. And his promises to them are as certain as his continuous presence in cloud and fire. 

But in what way is the angel of Lord present in this cloud? Other passages of Scripture fill in the gaps. 

Exodus 14

In this chapter, we learn Pharaoh changes his mind about letting the Israelites go. He summons his warriors and deploys more than six hundred chariots. The Egyptians overtake the Israelites, who are terrified and cry out to Yahweh for help. The Lord instructs Moses to break camp and to stretch out his staff over the sea, whose waters part for the fleeing Israelites. 

Yahweh tells Moses he is further hardening Pharaoh’s heart so the Egyptian leader and his army pursue God’s people across the sea. “The Egyptians will know that I am the LORD when I receive glory through Pharaoh, his chariots, and his horsemen,” God promises (Exod. 14:18).

What happens next is revealing:

Then the angel of God, who was going in front of the Israelite forces, moved and went behind them. The pillar of cloud moved from in front of them and stood behind them. It came between the Egyptian and Israelite forces. There was cloud and darkness, it lit up the night, and neither group came near the other all night long.

Exod. 14:19-20, emphasis added

Yahweh is in the pillar of cloud and fire (Exod. 13:21-22), and so is the angel of God. This harkens back to Exodus 3, when Moses encounters both the Lord and the angel of the Lord in the burning bush. Yahweh and his angel may be distinguished but not separated. What the Lord does, the angel of the Lord does. They are one in essence and purpose. The angel moves with the pillar of cloud and fire from the front of the Israelite forces to the rear, establishing an impassable barrier between the people of God and the Egyptians. 

So, the Israelites escape through the sea on dry ground, with the parted waters on either side of them like a wall (Exod. 14:21-22). The Egyptians set out in pursuit, only to drown as the Lord first throws them into confusion and then tosses them into the sea (Exod. 14:23-28). When the Israelites see the Lord’s great power, they fear the Lord, and they believe in him and in his servant Moses (Exod. 14:31).

Exodus 32

This is a sad chapter in Israelite history. Moses is on Mount Sinai, receiving the Ten Commandments. When his return to camp is delayed, the people press Aaron to make gods for them, saying of Moses, “we don’t know what has happened to him!” (v. 1). Aaron bows to the pressure. He collects the Israelites’ jewelry and fashions a golden calf, to which the people offer sacrifices.

Seeing this, the Lord sends Moses back to his people with these words: “I have seen this people, and they are indeed a stiff-necked people. Now leave me alone, so that my anger can burn against them and I can destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation” (vv. 9-10). Moses pleads on the people’s behalf, appealing to God’s covenant promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The Lord relents. 

But when Moses returns to camp and sees his people delirious with idolatrous celebration, he embraces the Lord’s anger. He smashes the stone tablets on which the Ten Commandments are written. He melts the golden calf, grinds it to powder, mixes it with water and forces the people to drink it. He chastens Aaron for allowing the people to get out of control, making themselves a laughingstock to their enemies. 

Then, Moses rallies the Levites and commands them, in the name of the Lord, to sweep through the camp, killing brother, friend, and neighbor. About three thousand Israelites are slain. The next day, Moses returns to the Lord and pleads for forgiveness on behalf of his people. “Now if you would only forgive their sin,” Moses says. “But if not, please erase me from the book you have written” (v. 32).

The Lord replies to Moses, “Whoever has sinned against me I will erase from my book. Now go, lead the people to the place I told you about; see, my angel will go before you. But on the day I settle accounts, I will hold them accountable for their sin” (vv. 33-34, emphasis added). Then, the Lord inflicts a plague on the people for what they did with the calf Aaron made.

This truly is a low point early in the Israelites’ journey to the Promised Land. Yet, the Lord remains faithful to his promises. And the angel of the Lord continues to be a guiding presence for the people of God.

Exodus 33

After the idolatrous event at the foot of Mount Sinai, the Lord tells Moses to continue his journey toward the Promised Land:

I will send an angel ahead of you and will drive out the Canaanites, Amorites, Hethites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites. Go up to a land flowing with milk and honey. But I will not go up with you because you are a stiff-necked people; otherwise, I might destroy you on the way.

Exod. 33:2-3, emphasis added

How is it that the Lord refuses to go with the people and yet keeps his promise to lead them to Canaan? In a subtle way, this passage illustrates the shared deity yet distinct identities of the Lord and the angel of the Lord. Yahweh pledges both to send an angel and to drive out the idolatrous nations inhabiting the Promised Land. God fulfills his promises directly and indirectly. He delivers the people from Egyptian bondage. He destroys Pharaoh and his armies. He leads the people in a pillar of cloud and fire. And his divine name – that is, his presence – is in the angel of the Lord, who accomplishes these divine tasks. 

That’s not all. We learn more in Exodus 33 through two encounters between Yahweh and Moses. One is in a tent. The other is in the crevice of a rock.

Moses pitches a “tent of meeting” outside the Israelite camp, a place of consultation with the Lord (v. 7).Whenever Moses enters the tent, the pillar of cloud comes down and remains at the entrance to the tent. In that pillar – that cloud shrouding the Lord’s presence – the Lord speaks with Moses “face to face, just as a man speaks with his friend” (v. 11).

We know the Lord’s presence is in the cloud, and we know the divine name is in the angel of the Lord, who also is in the cloud. Since no one can see God in his unveiled glory and live, and since the angel of the Lord often appears as a man, it seems reasonable to understand Moses’ encounters in the tent of meeting as with the angel of the Lord – that is, the preincarnate Christ. 

Next, Moses engages in a highly personal conversation with Yahweh. Moses is troubled that the Lord has announced his refusal to go with the people, lest he kill them in divine anger (vv. 3, 5). So, Moses asks who the Lord is going to send to guide the Israelites on their journey. The Lord replies, “My presence will go with you, and will give you rest” (v. 14, emphasis added). Again, we see the divine presence, like the divine name, in the angel of the Lord, who already is present in the pillar of cloud and fire. 

Finally, Moses makes an audacious request: “Please, let me see your glory” (v. 18). The Lord’s response is both gracious and terrifying:

He [Yahweh] said, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim the name ‘the LORD’ before you. I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.” But he added, “You cannot see my face, for humans cannot see me and live.” The LORD said, “Here is a place near me. You are to stand on the rock, and when my glory passes by, I will put you in the crevice of the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will take my hand away, and you will see my back, but my face will not be seen.”

Exod. 33:19-23

What are we to make of all this? More to the point, how can the Lord speak face to face with Moses, like a man speaks to a friend (v. 11), and then declare that humans cannot see God’s face and live (v. 20)? And does God really have a hand, a face, and a back?

We know from Scripture that God is spirit (John 4:24). By nature, he does not possess physical attributes. So, when Moses speaks “face to face” with God, there are two possible, biblically faithful explanations. The first is a figure of speech called an anthropomorphism, in which human qualities are applied to God. In this case, the idiom face to face may be understood as “intimately.” Later, God’s “goodness” and “glory” are intangibles Moses may experience as he sees the Lord’s back. God’s hand (v. 22) is metaphorical for his divine protection, shielding Moses from fatal exposure to his unvarnished deity.

The other possible explanation is a Christophany, a manifestation of the preincarnate Christ. If the angel of the Lord is in fact Jesus prior to his virgin birth, and if he is present in visible form within the pillar of cloud and fire, as he is in previous manifestations as a man, then Moses may speak face to face with him. 

Later, the preincarnate Christ allows Moses to see more of Yahweh’s goodness and glory from the crevice of the rock, without fully revealing his divine holiness, which would kill a sinful human like Moses. This expanded glimpse into Yahweh’s deity may be similar to what Peter, James, and John experience on the Mount of Transfiguration. And remember, Moses is present with Jesus on that day (Matt. 17:1-7).

As one commentary notes:

When God told Moses, “You cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live (Exod. 33:20),” He was saying that truly seeing God as He is, in the fullness of His glory, is more than mortal man can tolerate (cf. Isa. 6:5). Therefore, to protect Moses, God was only going to reveal that portion of His majesty and power that was humanly possible to absorb. God communicated this plan to Moses in a way we can all understand: “You cannot look Me full in the face [it is impossible for you to know everything about Me], but I will allow you to see my back [I will reveal to you a small portion of My nature so as not to overwhelm you].”

Exodus 34:5-8 

After Moses’ experience in the crevice of the rock, the Lord tells Moses to cut two stones and carry them up Mount Sinai, where the Lord will reproduce the Ten Commandments. The next day, on the mountaintop, Yahweh comes down in a cloud, stands with Moses, and proclaims his name, “the LORD” (Exod. 34:5). Then, the Lord passes in front of Moses and says:

The LORD​— ​the LORD is a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger and abounding in faithful love and truth, maintaining faithful love to a thousand generations, forgiving iniquity, rebellion, and sin. But he will not leave the guilty unpunished, bringing the fathers’ iniquity on the children and grandchildren to the third and fourth generation.

Exod. 34:6-7

Moses immediately kneels on the ground and worships (v. 8). 

It’s clear that Yahweh – the Lord – is in this cloud on Mount Sinai. What’s less certain is whether this is the same pillar of cloud and fire that accompanies the Israelite camp. In either case, we should note that the Lord stands and then passes in front of Moses. This could indicate a Christophany, but we do not want to press the matter too far. Even so, Yahweh’s name and presence – two qualities that are in the angel of the Lord – are detailed here.

Exodus 40:34-38; Numbers 9:15-23

After Moses sets up the tabernacle (see Exod. 35:4 – 40:33), the LORD again manifests his presence. The cloud covers the tent of meeting, and the glory of the LORD fills the tabernacle. So overwhelming is the Lord’s presence, Moses is unable to enter. 

From that day forward, the Israelites break camp whenever the cloud is taken up from the tabernacle. Sometimes the cloud remains only from evening until morning; sometimes, a few days; and sometimes, a month or longer. Regardless of the length of time, the Israelites “camped at the LORD’s command, and they set out at the LORD’s command” (Num. 9:23). 

Moses notes, “For the cloud of the LORD was over the tabernacle by day, and there was a fire inside the cloud by night, visible to the entire house of Israel throughout all the stages of their journey” (Exod. 40:38).

This is the same cloud that first appears on the banks of the Red Sea – a cloud of darkness and fire, manifesting the name and presence of Yahweh. And since the angel of the Lord is in that cloud from the beginning, we should expect him to be present throughout this lengthy theophany.

Numbers 20:16

The Israelites are encamped at Kadesh, on the border of Edom. Moses sends messengers to the king of Edom, asking permission for the people to pass through his country. As the messengers relay the story of their suffering in Egypt, they explain, “When we cried out to the LORD, he heard our plea, and sent an angel, and brought us out of Egypt” (Num. 20:16, emphasis added).

This angel is none other than the angel of the Lord, who is himself Yahweh.

The king of Edom is not impressed, by the way. He turns the Israelites away in one of many episodes of animosity between the Edomites, who are descended from Esau, and the Israelites, who are descendants of Isaac.

1 Corinthians 10:1-11

One mention from the New Testament may prove helpful. Paul leverages Israelite history to warn the church in Corinth of the high price of rebellion against God. He begins 1 Corinthians 10 with this narrative:

Now I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud, all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. They all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and that rock was Christ. Nevertheless God was not pleased with most of them, since they were struck down in the wilderness.

1 Cor. 10:1-5

Paul reminds the Corinthians of the cloud, which manifested God’s presence for all Israelites. Further, he refers to the “spiritual rock” from which the Israelites drank – “and that rock was Christ” (v. 4). This likely is a reference to Numbers 20, when the Lord instructs Moses to speak to a rock that produces abundant water for the thirsty Israelites. Instead of speaking to the rock as instructed, however, Moses strikes the rock twice in anger against his grumbling countrymen – an act of rebellion that forfeits his  entrance into the Promised Land. Even so, the rock gushes with fresh water. 

Paul identifies this rock as Christ, who is present with the Israelites during their wilderness wanderings. If the angel of the Lord is present in the cloud, it is no stretch of his divine power to be present in the life-saving waters as well. Centuries later, Jesus tells a Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well:

Everyone who drinks from this water will get thirsty again. But whoever drinks from the water that I will give him will never get thirsty again. In fact, the water I will give him will become a well of water springing up in him for eternal life. 

John 4:13-14

And on the last day of the Feast of Tabernacles, Jesus stands and declares, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. The one who believes in me, as the Scripture has said, will have streams of living water flow from deep within him” (John 7:37-38).

There are two other recorded instances of God providing water for the Israelites (Exod. 15:25; 17:6). In each instance, “this drink for the body symbolized the spiritual drink from the Spiritual Rock.” In a psalm remembering lessons from Israel’s past, Asaph writes, “They remembered that God was their rock, the Most High God, their Redeemer” (Ps. 78:35).

Paul makes further mention of the preincarnate Christ:

Now these things took place as examples for us, so that we will not desire evil things as they did. Don’t become idolaters as some of them were; as it is written, The people sat down to eat and drink, and got up to party. Let us not commit sexual immorality as some of them did, and in a single day twenty-three thousand people died. Let us not test Christ as some of them did and were destroyed by snakesAnd don’t complain as some of them did, and were killed by the destroyer. These things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our instruction, on whom the ends of the ages have come.

1 Cor. 10:6-11

Note that Paul says the people tested Christ, who is the Lord. The reference to snakes is from Numbers 21:4-9. The Israelites grow impatient and grumble against Moses and the Lord, so the Lord sends poisonous snakes, resulting in the death of many. When the people confess their rebellion, Moses intercedes for them, and the Lord instructs Moses to mount a brass serpent on a pole, so that when anyone is bitten, he or she may look upon the brass serpent and be healed. 

This same Christ, whom the Israelites tested in the desert, presents himself as a prophetic fulfillment of the brass serpent. Anyone smitten with the fatal bite of sin may look upon Jesus, hoisted on a cross, and believe in him for salvation. As Jesus tells Nicodemus, “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life” (John 3:14-16).

The reference to complainers killed by the destroyer links us to those who murmured against Moses after the death of Korah and his company, who challenged the leadership of Moses and Aaron (Num. 16:1-35). The earth swallows Korah and his family, and the Lord destroys Korah’s co-conspirators by fire. But the next day, the Israelites complain about Moses and Aaron. The Lord responds in judgment, sending a plague that kills 14,700 Israelites before Moses is able to make atonement for the people (vv. 41-50). 

There is no specific reference to the angel of the Lord in Numbers 16, but Paul links the destroyer to the plague, which Yahweh sends in judgment. This is similar to the visitation of the destroyer in Egypt on the night of Passover, to the plague that strikes seventy thousand dead in King David’s day, and to the sudden death of 185,000 Assyrians encamped around Jerusalem.

In this short New Testament passage, Paul offers a rich commentary on the work of the preincarnate Christ in provision (the cloud and the rock) and in judgment (the snakes and the destroyer). 

Next: A Promised Deliverer

This post is excerpted from Jesus Before Bethlehem: What Every Christian Should Know About the Angel of the Lord, available from Amazon and other retailers.